During high school I had the good fortune to work at Trader Joe’s. In terms of a high school vocation it was quite stellar. I was able to wear the coveted jeans/t-shirt combo, got paid $8.50 an hour with a raise every 3 months (decent wage for 1996), and was allowed to participate in the monthly wine tasting sessions. In retrospect, the company,which is privately owned by a German family, was perhaps the best run organization I have ever worked for. Everybody worked hard, seemed to enjoy each other’s company, and were presented with opportunities for advancement while being empowered with some semblance of autonomy. (Just like the Von Trapp family!) I just referenced “The Sound of Music” thus I have reached the official low point of my existence. Best of all was the 10% discount on all goods and the copious amounts of chocolates and other confections in the break room that were free to devour.
Approximately every 10 days or so I make an excursion to Trader Joe’s. On a recent trip it struck me that the staff and ambiance at the Corona Del Mar location beared little or no resemblance to my beloved store #72 Scottsdale. The Trader Joe’s of a decade ago was much more chaotic and undisciplined, yet infinitely more charming and interesting. This new incarnation of a Trader Joe’s was like a Nickelback to my store’s Wilco. This new vessel may be sleeker and more popular but it has lost its spirit and innocence. The aisles were too clean and produce was stacked far too evenly. Granted, Corona Del Mar is a sleepy, affluent town where one is prone to see Kobe Bryant overcompensating for his unpopularity in the rest of the country by being overly nice to his neighbors. (And you wonder why he does not have street cred?) However, these Trader Joe’s employees had no glint in their eye and could be best described as the worst adjective of all…normal. Where had the handwritten odes to jumping cow ale and flying toad lager disappeared?
Anyway, I digress. During a substantial portion of my 3 year career I was the sole teenage employee (until Fenimore came aboard), however, I felt right in my element with this merry band of weirdos, misfits and contrarians.. Many of my co-workers remain some of the most, quirky, memorable humans I have ever encountered. The following are some of the employees I remember most fondly: ( Note: These characters names have been changed…, nobody reads this blog but my girlfriend anyways)
* Marlene – She was the head honcho. She resembled Reba McIntyre sans the annoying voice affectation. You know the Jodi Foster, Sean Connery sshhh sound on the end of words. Also the little red headed kid “Sam” they try to add on to Different Strokes had that annoying little quirk to the voice as well. “No problem Mr.D”. Her most striking feature was her bright red hair that could have passed for one of Britney Spears wigs. Over my 3 year tenure, it seemed Marlene was always pregnant. She always maintained the air of being in charge however.
* Dave – He looked like the dude that played Superman on TV in the 50’s. I believe George Reeves.Dave was not the sharpest tool in the shed but was sure damn funny though. I spent a lot of time at the store listening to his wacky perspectives on life. He would always regale me with tales of drinking $2 dollar longnecks and subsequent one night stands with a neverending cadre of divorced women. Dave had what one might describe as a somewhat questionable obsession with Jean Claude Van Damme and often stole memorabilia from movie theatres. His most prized possession was a huge display from that classic “Time Cop”) One day Dave entered the store and Van Damme was his hero no more. I can’t remember why he stopped liking the Belgian action star but I think it had to do something with the fact that he realized Steven Seagal could take Van Damme in real life. Dave had a softer side though as he cared for his mother and brother who I believe were abandoned by his abusive father.
* Daryl – He was Dave’s best friend and gave me my first fake id which he found at the river. The remarkable part was the ID worked like a charm for a solid 3 years. Sean Albert Chee was my alter ego and it stated I was 27. Daryl looked like a tan version of He-Man and Jim J. Bullock, aka Mornroe from Too Close to Comfort and one of the gay Hollywood squares, except if He Man wore jean shorts all the time. Daryl and Dave would often have competitions to see who could punch boxes louder. Daryl was especially adept at organzing the freezer in the back and probably had the best disposition at the register.
* Jodi attended Harvard and fell off the tracks when she became addicted to heroin. She had a very dark, sarcastic sense of humor and would always read books that looked they required a formidable amount of introspection on her lunch breaks. Her other distinctive features were her disheveled short dark hair, and consistently “drunks” socks. She was pretty much unflappable and always maintained an even disposition.
* Wayne was by far the most earnest employee. He was always in a good mood and looked like he knew how to cook a squirrel fifteen different ways. His wife and him were one of those couple that look like a brother and sister. Wayne was the type of guy who would race out to the parking lot to help and old lady fix a flat tire. He had a huge temper however and often butted heads with Richard. Wanye alway wore huge hiking boots in the store
* Richard could be described as a know it all and was sort of was like a combination of Richard Dreyfuss during the Jaws era and Robert Downey Jr. He wore ridiculously tiny shorts and was fond of ankle socks. He meant well however, and seemed to a very dedicated single father. He did have an annoying habit of playing the Crash Test Dummies before the store opened. One could only allow so much frozen food to that noise. Inevitably somebody would turn it off in favor of the equally bad, Gin Blossoms.
*Chris – He was the assistant manager and a real workhouse. He would eventually helm his own store. Chris was the type of guy who was very resourceful, somebody you would want with you if you got lost in the woods. Unloading palettes with him was always a workout because he would hurl boxes at you in an Uzi type fashion. He sweats like Patrick Ewing in a sauna. I would put a substantial amount of money down that he is a softball league today.
*Jody – Looked like a cross between Kermit and James Worthy and alway had a pencil tucked behind his ear. I often had to work a 6:00 am shift at least one day on the weekend. Every few months I would stay out too late at a desert party the night before and be unable to make it in. I swear every time I flaked Jody would be the manager to answer the phone, and I would give my lame stomach ache excuse. Obviously, Jody knew I was bsing but he never gave me a hard time about it.
* Don aka “dong” – He was the type of guy who loved his wife and kids but would go have lunch at Cheetahs Strip Club at the drop of the hat. He and Dave developed a complex system to alert others whenever a good looking women entered the store. If I had to picture Don right now, he is probably on a wave runner with his kids and a six pack of Coors banquet on ice.
I guess a good metaphor for the evolution of TJ’s is the fact they now have the use of scanners and SKUs. Back in my day, we had to remember everything by memory and did not have this “crutch”. Mustard flavored pretzels…$3.49, Halibut 8.99, Bittersweet chocolate 1lb bar…4.99….allright, I’ll be honest I did not know how to end this post and it probably went way too long so I will end it now….