There was a time when I felt sorry for the middle-aged women who worked the deli counter at my local grocer. I used to create scenarios of their personal histories in my head to pass time, while I watched them slice my honey ham, oven roasted turkey and low salt swiss. I wondered how they “ended” up there, never imagined our roles could change, that I might find myself in their shoes, filling orders from well-heeled housewives and stay at home Mom’s. Divorce turned the tables. I am now one of them.
I work toward the back of Whole Foods Market on South Street in Philadelphia. On any given day, chances are, if you walk through the front door, hang a left past the bakery, you will see me, standing behind the prepared foods case, at the ready to serve. I expected to be a restaurant owner at this stage, never pictured myself here. I am oddly surprised by how I feel about
it, a midlife twist of fate. Strange mix of happiness, definitely, and dare I say, contentment? I enjoy what I do.
A deli worker’s position does not come with culinary bells and whistles, accolades from fellow chefs, nor rave reviews in a local paper. My skill set is certainly beyond simple cooking tasks that I perform on a daily basis. The hourly wage I earn barely pays the bills. Yet, for the first time in my life, I do not feel restless. I am no longer searching for something to make me happier. I am okay where I am and with what I am doing. Life does not always play by our rules or follow our set in mind patterns. The path I’m on now, however ordinary, is one I have grown to love. I am known as The Deli Queen, and damn proud of this hard-earned title.
My work day begins at 7:00 am. I punch my ID number into a time clock outside the employee break-room. I don a chef’s coat, cover my wet pony tail with a baseball cap, and walk down a flight of stairs into a 24/7 operation, a kitchen that never sleeps. I am greeted by a sea of white jacket clad cooks, a lively, multigenerational cast of characters, a remarkably mixed bag of cultures, and personalities. Muzak, via Whole Foods “exclusive” music station, fills our ears. Shared air slowly thickens with the aroma of Rotisserie chicken.
I lay claim to a space for myself on a prep table, collect my mise en place and begin to prepare 50 sandwiches that will hopefully last through lunch hour rush. Between 7:45 and 7:50 our store leader Jessie’s voice can be heard over the intercom. He thanks us for showing up, states the daily business forecast, and wishes us a great day. I take my place behind platters laden with rare roast beef, house-roasted turkey, and countless dishes of vegetables. A cashier unlocks the front doors. It is 8:00am when the retail games begin.
We have a good number of regulars, those who order the same things each time they visit. I know them by name. We chit-chat and joke with one another as I fill container after container with mashed potatoes, crisp green beans, and our most popular dish, General Tsao’s vegan chicken. For the record, it may be vegan, but it’s deep-fried, not healthy.
Customers, my fellow employees consider too difficult to wait on present a challenge I willingly embrace. Despite their condescension, and lack of manners, I know how to tame these shrews. Small subtle doses of my trademark sarcasm they seem oblivious to, go a long way, and keeps them at bay. In fact, these difficult “cases” seem to really like me, and request me name. I welcome thorny customer interactions, and know when to put on my kid gloves.
We have no number system in place to bridle Jo Public. We learned in training that paper chits are not the “Whole Foods Way”. Our guests can and will determine who is first in line. Ninety nine percent of the time, this approach to crowd control works out well. When a jerk does butt to the front of the line we rest easy, and go about our work, deaf to the poor soul’s demands. We know that our loyal and patient customers amid the herd will not hesitate to put any line crashers in their proper place. From my vantage point, it is delightful to observe these true-blue, Philadelphia style, public displays of affection. “Yo! Buddy! We was here first! Yous need to wait your turn!” The chastisement of wayward fools is music to my ears, and makes deli work, sans paper chits, a veritable breeze.
My years as a homemaker made me forget how much I enjoy working with the public. I could not ask for more than the endless parade of human entertainment my job provides me; formerly fit men in short-shorts, grungy too cool for school hipsters, and Mommies who demand fried chicken nibblers, because that’s all they can get their little darlings to eat. Of all these people, I adore seniors most. Older folks who tote their granny carts, smile sweetly as they order five slices of white American cheese, and quietly reveal their time-worn, oft confused states of mind.
My hands down, favorite among this group is Winifred, who prefers to be called Winnie. She stands out from the crowd in her neatly pressed blouses, and finely knit, timeless blazers. Her silk scarves and matching hats never fail to draw attention. She is the Grandmother we all wish we had. She is sharp as a tack on the surface. One would never guess her to be eighty-nine years of age. About two weeks ago I had the pleasure to wait on her.
We dished for twenty minutes; I her food, and she tidbits of daily dirt in the local news. As an older person, her knowledge and grasp of current affairs amazes me. As we finished up, I walked out from behind the counter to place the containers in her cart. She thanked me, leaned in close to give me a hug and peck me on the cheek.
“Can I ask you a question?” She whispered.
“Of course, Winnie! What is it?” I inquired.
“I know the year, and who’s president. I can tell you what I ate for dinner last night, but for the life of me I can’t remember the simple things. Can you please tell me what day of the week it is dear?”
I am humbled, and honored to be of help to this sweet woman. I know that it is Tuesday, but for her sake, I feign ignorance. “You know what? I’m not sure. You’re not alone Winnie, I lose track of days too. Gimme a minute, I’ll go ask someone in the kitchen. Then we’ll both be sure.” Her eyes light up and she smiles. My day is complete.
I walked through the doors of Whole Foods Market almost a year ago. For the first six months, I felt sorry for myself. I was bitter and miserable. My head was not in the game. I looked for every reason to quit. I showed up late, and called out sick on more than one occasion, unconsciously hoped to get fired. For months, when friends or family asked me how I was feeling about going back to work, I answered with a pat, “Great! I love it!” I lied. I laid awake each night in my half filled bed. I pined for my former existence, an intact marriage, and the ease and comfort of financial stability I knew then. I longed to be the woman in front of the deli counter again, not behind it working my ass off.
Try as I may, I cannot pinpoint exactly when the paradigm shift occurred in my brain. In all reality it makes no difference when it happened. What is important is the fact that my attitude changed, and for this, I am thankful. I no longer lay awake at night feeling sorry for myself. Interactions like the one I had with Winnie make it easy for me to resist hitting my alarm clock a second time in the morning. I look forward to getting up out of bed and off to work.
Slicing deli meat is not glamorous. Regardless of its low rung on the culinary career ladder, I can truthfully state, I enjoy my job. It does not define who I am, nor what I am capable of as I so foolishly believed for a while. I was out of the workforce for twenty years. I no longer beat myself up over where I’ve landed. I now stand on my own two feet. My career may not be moving at the speed I once had in mind, but at this juncture, I’m okay with its humbled pace. At peace with my past and current choices, I live my life one moment, one day, or as we say in the deli, one slice of De Parma prosciutto at a time.