Work was a physical relief. Outside the heat felt supernatural, through the floor-to-ceiling windows the car park baked; shimmering waves around each brightly reflecting car, the tarmac soft underfoot and wheel.
Inside you were grateful to have a reason to sit in the air-conditioning, on the hottest days it almost felt that to have an excuse to sit in the cool air was payment enough. Almost.
Sitting behind a till and repeating the same conversation for eight hours with two hundred different people is a particular kind of mind numbing. You look forward to having to explain someone’s mistaken inclusion of an illegible item in a three-for-two offer just for something different to say. You can’t daydream, but you never learn anything more satisfying than the prevailing opinion on the weather, “Not right.”, and how many days are left until parents can re-incarcerate their children in school.
I could never decide if the eight hour shift went more easily when you scanned fast and kept yourself so busy you couldn’t think, or took it steady and tried to save your energy. You became older either way, but you could choose if you wanted to feel it happening.
There were rumours they tracked your scanning speed. The ladies who’d worked the tills for years claimed if you totalled the amount by hand it stopped the clock, then your speed record wasn’t damaged by waiting for someone to pack. The consequences of scanning too slowly were never made clear, left to the imagination they were more fearsome than whatever mediocrity would have been doled out.
After two weeks you didn’t have to use the sheet of fruit and vegetable till codes they gave you anymore. The codes lived on a rotating plastic drum built in under the keypad. 8665 for red peppers. 8666 for orange peppers. You became deaf to the beep of the scanner.
On Thursdays the shop would open late until ten in the evening, but no-one seemed to have told the customers. Apart from a wild haired lady with a shopping trolly full of cat food reading the magazines in the news section the shop was deserted. The biggest surprise about the cat lady was that she actually existed and wasn’t just a lazy myth.
An empty supermarket is a strange place, like a nightclub with the houselights on. Rows of empty checkouts. Aisles deserted. In the distance there’d be the occasional clatter of the night shift starting to refill the shelves.
The in-shop radio was five hours of classic hits with the occasional recent song mixed in to make sure your shopping experience didn’t feel like one long flashback. There wasn’t a set order you could use to measure time passing, but at some point in the fifth hour your ears would suffer from the sister feeling of déjà vu. All of the songs were completely forgettable, with one exception.
In the quiet evening, under the sterile white light reflecting on a smooth reconstituted stone floor, between shelves of repeated, packed and stacked food a snare drum would strike sharply and synths create a low melody, somewhere there are guitars jangling at the most urgent lyrics.
I get up in the evening,
and I ain’t got nothing to say,
I come home in the morning,
I go to bed feeling the same way.
It was the only half-decent song on the supermarket radio, and it spoke straight to the frustration of wanting to do something ‘more’. He is singing about writing a book, but it could be anything, just the need to be doing something ‘more’; more fulfilling than moving a stream of food from left to right, more personal than an easily replaceable job, more rewarding than the fastest scan speed.
If you know what ‘more’ is then you’re lucky, but as Springsteen sings “You can’t start a fire without a spark”. If you don’t know what that ‘more’ is, you can’t work at it, but it still eats at you, the frustration more potent because it’s undirected.
I’ve been very lucky to have much more interesting and rewarding jobs since, but sometimes moments of self doubt send me back to that moment and feeling. I guess that’s something universal; or put another way, I can’t imagine other people not feeling the same way at least occasionally, regardless of the job you’re doing.
‘Dancing in the Dark’ was written as a lead single for the album ‘Born in the USA’, a big radio friendly stadium number. That feels inappropriate, it would seem strange played in front of thousands of people, all dancing and clapping. To me it’s too melancholy and introspective for a stadium sing-along, it fits best as a haunting melody in the empty and anonymous aisles of a late night supermarket.
After the late shift I’d walk back through the alcohol section, as instructed to discourage shop lifting, a habit pointlessly maintained in an empty shop, and through the ’staff only’ door. After collecting my things from the locker and changing out of the standard issue, elf green, shirt I’d help to round up the stray trollies abandoned in far flung corners of the car park. The final job was always to wrangle the giant snake of trollies back to their park, a sweaty job in the humidity, fighting with the camber of the lanes and the drain covers.
Once released from the tedium my mind seems happy to ignore the important question of what ‘more’ I could be doing. Perhaps that’s the sign you need, when you’re doing the right thing; what else you could be doing doesn’t even cross your mind. All you need is a hot summer night to walk into.