EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: Zen and the art of sacking | SierraSun.com

EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: Zen and the art of sacking

I used to be pretty good in the sack.

I was what you call a “courtesy clerk” – corporate-ese for a grocery sacker – for two consecutive summers at a Kroger supermarket in Memphis. It was my first years in college, the years when you find yourself working the kind of job utterly opposite to the kind of job you’re in college trying to qualify yourself for.

It’s a good motivator to hurry up and get that degree.

At the end of my freshman year at Ole Miss, my dad gave me two things: a battered ’84 Volkswagen Rabbit and an ultimatum. Get a summer job, or go to summer school.

I opted for the summer job. I’d spent my freshman year in a near-monastic state of poverty, having blown the $1,200 I’d saved up over my last year of high school in less than two months. Having the funds to be able to eat more than Top Ramen six nights a week when I returned to Ole Miss that fall would be nice.

So I ended up working at Kroger; it was the last open summer job I could find, and it seemed to demand a minimum of skills. As the fella who trained me, Thomas, put it, “Ya ask if they want paper or plastic, ya stick the things in the bags and ya never put the eggs on the bottom.”

Cool, I thought. Piece of cake job.

I will tell you now that during those two summers I worked as a “courtesy clerk” I learned more respect for the humble sacker than I’d ever thought possible.

Courtesy clerking is more than just hurling soup cans in a sack – it is a state of mind, a sort of zen. You are more than a gatherer of groceries – you are a sort of custodian for the entire supermarket experience, if you will.

You cannot just indiscriminately stuff a sack until it bursts. You have to carefully weigh in the volume, the shape and the breakability of whatever you’re dealing with; you have to maximize your space and neither under- or over-load a bag. And you have about 72 seconds to do this in.

A lot of the guys working the sack gig were just high school kids more concerned with their Friday night dates and smuggled beers than with the tao of courtesy clerking, of course – their sacks were lumpy, crude constructions, the sort of bags that rip open on you when you’re getting out of the car at home and cause you to silently curse the sacker and all he stands for.

But I was a lofty college student on sabbatical; already legal and with a steady girl at the time, I had little to keep my mind from learning the intricacies of sacking.

There was the old courtesy clerk Pete, an autistic fellow with a bristly mustache, at 34 a veritable Yoda in the checkout lanes – this man could fill five bags of groceries in a minute flat, leaving not an atom of space unaccounted for. These were bags you could juggle over your head in the parking lot and still not have the contents fly out, so firmly were they packaged.

I envied Pete, and his mastery of the sack.

I watched him and attempted to follow his path. But while I was able to sack quickly and eventually with even a grudging slight grace, I could never approach Pete’s ballet of grocery-hurling wizardry.

Other duties awaited the courtesy clerk, too. Every few hours, “the lot” had to be cleared of shopping carts. You’ve seen the guys that do this job – lining up the carts in a clanking, rattling train of 10 or 12, trying carefully to navigate them back in the store.

This, too, requires a trained hand. Every rookie sacker has his stomach-churning first attempt at guiding a cart train across the lot and through the oh-so-narrow automatic doors of Kroger. Many tries end up in disaster – a cart train overturned, blocking half the road; accidentally wedging yourself between the doors and the train while attempting to guide it; or, worst of all, losing a cart and helplessly watching it hurtle across the lot and into a parked car.

You civilians out there must understand: honestly, we clerks never tried to ram your parked car – it was just a casualty in the line of duty.

When you watch a cart slide from your grip and begin rolling through the lot, the world tends to slip into a slow-motion fugue; time blurs and you race to stop the errant cart before it gets your check docked but good.

Occasionally a sacker would hot-dog it, making a game out of how many carts he could jam onto a train – my limit was a dozen, as many as I could span with my arms – but some goofballs would actually try to get 20 carts in a row through the doors. One poor guy tried a gasp-inducing line of 37 shopping carts one summer day and ended up with a pileup that made Hiroshima look tidy. Carts were splayed in the lobby, jammed into the doors as I approached the scene of disaster, I saw one even sat upside-down forlornly in the middle of the lot, wheels spinning futilely in the late-summer breeze.

Needless to say, that poor fool got the sack.

Sierra Sun editor Nik Dirga

grew up in Nevada County.

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