Shauna M Ahern used to make her living by writing a food blog. But when times got tough, she realised keeping up appearances can make you lose sight of lifes meaning
I arrive at six in the morning, two hours before the store opens. Awaiting me is an aisle of boxes, stacked up. One last sip of my coffee, then I put on my gloves and take a big breath. Time to go in.
I lug boxes, slash open tops with my cutter, put new packages of wholegrain seeded bread, naan and seasonal sugar cookies on the shelves, and then haul the overstock to the back freezer. It takes me nearly an hour to stack all the boxes in the right places, label them and leave the freezer clean. Then I walk to the bakery department and make sure the doughnuts are glazed and set in the case, waiting.
By eight oclock, when the store opens, I have made an inviting space for the first customers. At 10, during my lunch break, I meet my husband at the sports bar down the street for a plate of hash browns, sausages and eggs over easy. I am hungry. I have worked hard.
I am a James Beard awardwinning glutenfree cookbook author. And for nine months, I worked in our local grocery store for $15 an hour.
It is the best job I have ever worked.
Online, no one knows you are poor. No one is posting photos of the basket of bills overflowing, some of the envelopes with urgent stamped on them. Very few people write about the choices they make out of fear of going bankrupt, like selling expensive camera lenses that feel less important than rent. And few of us want to admit that we are struggling with money, even though we live in a culture where the rich have grown astronomically rich and the rest of us have grown anxious about health insurance. As my friend Ashley Ford wrote online one day: Im trying to choose an insurance plan, but Im pretty sure the only good insurance is wealth.
I never shared online the time that my husband Danny and I looked at our bank account and saw $85 left for the last week of the month. We didnt have a savings account. We didnt have a 401(k) to drain for emergency funds. I had already done that eight years before. Our credit score was shot by the medical bills we couldnt pay after my daughter Lucys terrifying time and the hospital stay for my ministroke.
We had only $85 and no way to charge anything on a credit card. Luckily, we were expecting a $6,000 check from a freelance gig, but it had been delayed. Still, we were like most Americans living paycheck to paycheck (almost eight out of 10 Americans, according to reputable studies) and unable to pay for an unexpected bill of more than $500 (nearly six out of 10 Americans). We were struggling. And we were terrified. I realized that the mindset of worrying that we might go broke was damaging us.
I was no longer interested in following my bliss. I wanted to pay my bills.
Several artist friends recommended I find a manual labor job, one that would require none of my mind. I had never worked a job that merely asked me to show up. I found out that working parttime at the grocery store three days a week would give me health insurance for the entire family. And maybe putting premade pies on a display table would give me some time to think. So the next time I took a case of our glutenfree flour mix into our grocery store, I delivered an invoice and a job application. They hired me that week.
They put me in the bakery. Since I have celiac, I cant eat even a bit of gluten. But the bakery section in the grocery store is almost all packages, and Im not allergic to plastic. It was a bit of a shock, at first, not being able to stop what I was doing to work on an essay or take photographs. Or check Twitter. After years of being a freelancer, I couldnt believe how wild my mind was when asked to do a task and then check back with my supervisor (a former student of mine) to ask what task she wanted me to complete next. I noticed that my mind balked. I kept working. And after a few weeks of shelving bags of croutons and cleaning out the cake case, I started to enjoy the wildness of my mind. At the store, I had to show up on time, do my work, then leave it all behind. I didnt know work could be that easy.
Friends came into the store and we would talk in threeminute bursts as I stocked frozen pizzas. Customers asked me questions about where we kept that one brand of wholewheat bread, since it was the only one their kids would eat. I answered dozens of little questions a day. I realized that I liked feeling useful.
And all day long, I saw people, in tiny bantering interactions and questions. I developed a daily routine with fellow employees: a checkin at the cheese counter, a quick conversation about politics in produce. I would never have met any of these people I came to like, any other way. I started to feel like part of the community of my town.
On my lunch hours, I sat at the front of the store, taking notes. On the backs of papers that read Grainfree flatbread, $6.49 each, I started writing lists. I look back at them now and realize I was clearing my mind of how I had lived. I wrote lists of what I wanted to accomplish in our house, our medical appointments, our taxes. I jotted down ideas for how to let go of my blog, GlutenFree Girl. And I started taking notes on what I noticed about customers who had less money than most.
I noticed that the people who lived on the dayold breads looked around furtively to make sure no one saw when they reached into the discount bin. I led one woman to the back of the store to find the package of dayold rolls I had put in there, the gravy packets on sale, and some croutons for stuffing. Thank you! she said before she put her arms around me. Im going to have Thanksgiving because of you.
I found out that 22% of all students in our communitys schools qualified for free or reduced lunches. That didnt account for the 10% of families who were above the official poverty line but still scrambling, or the single people or couples who did not have enough. That meant that nearly one out of three people who came into the store struggled to make ends meet.
Each day, at about two, I walked to the back freezer with a laminated list and a tall cart. I pulled boxes down from the top of the back freezer. Methodically, with plastic gloves on, I pulled the doughnuts raspberry-filled, Bavarian cream, chocolate glazed and put them on black trays in a specified pattern. I was in the freezer by myself, pulling the doughnuts, humming a little. And then I wheeled the cart to the cooler, ready for the morning crew to bake them the next day.
Years before, I would have disdained these doughnuts: full of sugar, premade months before in a factory.
In the second year of my blog, I wrote a silly little piece about how Danny and I stood in line at the store and wondered at the crap in other peoples carts. I received emails telling me I was being a food snob. At first defensive come on, America eats lousy food! I came to understand how wrong I had been. A woman shared with me how little she makes on her teaching salary in Oklahoma, how she visits the food bank to make it, and how a trip to the grocery store for cheap cake is an experience only reserved for once in a while when she cant stand the shame any more. I was chastened and changed. And now I try to do better. How do I know that the woman buying the 99cent doughnuts at our store isnt giving her two kids the only treat she can afford that week? And who am I to say that they shouldnt eat those doughnuts?
One day, I had a long conversation with the stores owner. At 89 years old, he had owned the store for 53 years. His grandson had taken over managing the store, but the owner still clocked in 20 hours a week. Mostly, he spent that time in the city, at a store in a lowincome neighborhood. He consulted a list of the 20 topselling foods at our store. If the price in the city was lower, he called his grandson and told him to lower the price on ours. I stopped him one day to thank him for all that he did for our community. He told me: It befuddles me that people put their focus on what is happening across the country and the world. There is enough to do here.
A few months after I started working there, I switched away from the bakery to bagging groceries. I loved the rhythm of fitting in food like a Jenga game. I have a lot of friends on the island. People who recognized me from my website came through my line. It took me a while to stop talking so much and focus on my work instead. (The assistant manager had to reprimand me in his office for that. I learned fast.) So I had the chance to do what I have always loved most: observe people when theyre not watching me.
I learned that very few people make the highly styled dishes offered on Instagram. Oh sure, about every two weeks someone would come through with a bag full of vegetables, determined to juice for 30 days to lose weight. A few people bought jojo potatoes from the deli and an energy drink. But both of these were the outliers. Instead, most people bought meats, cheeses, some fruits and vegetables, three to five packaged crunchy foods, cat litter, toilet paper, beverages, butter, pads and some kind of sweet thing or two. Maybe three people a day were buying ingredients for a specific recipe. Over and over, I saw that what my fellow recipe developers and I hashed out to make ourselves relevant Vegan treats for the whole family! How to use hempseed! was not being made in most homes. It humbled me.
I started paying attention to the people who shopped for the entire week with a plan. I took note of their food as I bagged it and how much it cost. I compared it to the people like my husband and me who shopped at the last moment. We were spending too much money on food. I started buying our meat from the discount bin and giving ourselves a limit on how much money we could spend each day. Our grocery bill started to grow smaller. Shopping was no longer a decadent pleasure for us but a mindset for being able to cook and eat without stress.
I left the job, eventually, because another opportunity worth more money walked into my path. And then, when that fell through, the next step arrived. Danny is the one working three days a week now, expediting in a restaurant, mostly for the connection with our community. I no longer earn any money online.
When I go back to the store, every Sunday, my daughter skipping next to the cart, I hug my friends who work there. As I pass the front counter on my way out, I remember the urgency of those lunchhour breaks writing notes on the backs of recycled sale signs, where I first imagined the idea, then created the structure, and jotted down some of the first sentences for this book.
2019 By Shauna M. Ahern. All rights reserved. Excerpted from Enough: Notes From a Woman Who Has Finally Found It by permission of Sasquatch Books