In walks Lenny, a big hulk of a man in his forties, I think, but it’s hard for me to tell. He’s from overseas—Europe or Russia—he’s never said where, exactly, like it’s some big secret he’s keeping, like anyone cares. Lenny’s wearing a white short sleeve button down that has seen better days. You can see the frays on his shirt by his neck because he’s got a crew cut like he’s in the army or something. But he’s not. He’s just the manager of the second shift.
A few minutes before 2 p.m., when the shift starts, Lenny walks over to the front right corner of the store without so much as a grunt as he passes us and the punch clock and the little shelf with the punch cards with our names on them. As manager, he doesn’t have to clock in. Lenny climbs the three steps to his “office,” which consists of a metal folding chair and a small desk, three file cabinets and two adding machines. They’re all situated on a wooden platform, so he can watch over the whole store and handle any “situations” that might arise.
We’re in the A&P. 1975. There are no scanners. Cashiers actually have to find the prices on cans of Campbell’s Soup and boxes of Saltines, enter those numbers on the register by hand, and make their own change. I am one of those cashiers. As soon as I turned fourteen, the ink on my working papers barely dry, I came to see if there were any openings. Lenny looked me up and down and then pointed me in the direction of Cheryl, a busty redhead who chewed Juicy Fruit all day, the only real woman working in the store. She showed me the ropes. It’s a small store, this A&P, with just four rows of registers, but it’s got all the staples you need and then some. It sits on the corner of 72nd and Queens Boulevard, a busy five-lane street.
“You’re stupid!” Lenny barks like an angry Doberman, as he looks down at me from his broad six-foot-three frame, his voice loud enough for the other cashiers, all of them, except Cheryl, young teens like myself, to hear. It’s my first week on the job, and while Lenny’s come down on some of the other girls over the past few days, and though I knew it was just a matter of time, I’m still not quite ready for my turn. No way.
“Stupid girl,” he says again, his accent thick and hard, like the day-old bread we mark down in red pens. I have no idea where Lenny’s from, but I know it’s a place where consonants are harsher than they have to be—or it could just be him.
My parents have accents. My father’s is heavy and unmistakably German; my mom’s is Israeli. Hers has a much softer sound, but don’t be fooled. Words spill quickly from her mouth, like accidents. Glasses full of hot liquid, they’ll burn you if she knocks them over in haste.
This is the first time I have been called stupid by an adult. Stupid’s a curious word, and it makes me freeze in place, fixing my feet to the uneven linoleum floor. The woman I’m in the middle of ringing up just wants out; she’d like to pay for her gallon of milk, her not-yet ripe bananas, and be done. But she’s stuck here too, and while I know she’s feeling my pain—she’s actually blushing for me—she does nothing to help a girl out.
My father, he doesn’t mind his accent. My mother, though, she hates hers. When Mom was a young girl, growing up in an orphanage in Jerusalem, she used to scrub her skin raw, desperate to get rid of the freckles all over her bony arms. Mom just wanted to fit in, to slip in, right into the uneven cracks; she wanted to go unnoticed among the poor, unwanted girls. No wonder the difference in her voice still makes her feel ashamed.
It seems an earlier customer, a cranky woman with a deep brown growth on her pale left cheek (I think I saw hairs growing out of it), the woman with squinty eyes and purple scowl, who watched closely as my fingers tapped the register keys—it seems that she came back to tell Lenny that I had short-changed her fifty-six cents.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Like bells in my ears. It’s the “p” that sticks, the ugly pursing of his lips, his spit. That horrible sound that the middle-aged boss holds over his young employee, the grown man over the teen-aged girl. It’s the rush he savors when he squashes someone small.
“Stand up for yourself,” my father would have said.
“Don’t make a scene,” from my mother. Mixed messages. The only constant in my home.
Most days, I will be loyal to my mother, swallow other people’s words and invite them into my cells. I, too, will scrub my skin raw. And my own spots, spots only I can see, will remain. No. I can’t say I will often follow my father’s advice. But this day I will.
Later, Lenny will count the money in my drawer. He may find out that the lady with the big brown growth was right. I will never know, though, because after that last “stupid,” I split from the A&P, right there, right then. I walk away from my station, abandon the milk and bananas on the conveyor belt, and make my way towards the front of the store. The electronic door opens to let me out, a parting of the sea, and I cross Queens Blvd. I never go back—not even to pick up my check.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Neal Wellons