Wurk in the Time of Covids Pt.II: Purple Pudding for Xmas

After the six-hour (shortest job tenure ever. Win!) DeliverME Fiasco, I was about a month from being out of my home, and without a job. It was MidNovember 2020, and places were sporadically starting to reopen from the two-week* national-pandemic-business shutdown that happened eight months before.

Covid was still as well-understood as cooties, and there were unnecessarily contentious attitudes about masks, distances and vaccines. Fortunately, everybody understands the science better now, and common courtesy has prevailed.

Ha

So, as Frontline Service Sector Employees were being called for, with the same kind of Patriotic Zeal that’s usually reserved to send teens to war, I went to work in Grocery. If I had to do it, I had to go with the Most Expensive Most Precious Gourmet Grocery in the region: Purple Market, a boutique grocery owned by a Michigan family; to be precise, owned by the kids of Ed Ronne, who founded one of the very first Upscale Chain UberMarkets around the burbs of Detroit, out to Ann Arbor.

The chain of 6 stores was called As You Drink It. Way back when I used to manage Basket2Kasket Kouriers, As You Drink It would call us to deliver their absurdly overpriced Gourmet Gift Baskets of Foo-Foo Foods. I have no idea if the six stores themselves were ever profitable. What was profitable was that Pure Fields, a National Boutique UberMarket, bought all the As You Drink It stores in 1998 and moved right into them as entry to Michigan, obliterating the smaller chain to slip their natural/organic feet into the Luxurious Footprint that had been established.

Having sold As You Drink It, the sons of Ed Ronne went on to a brilliant new entrepreneurial idea: Another Upscale Chain UberMarket in Ann Arbor and around other burbs of Detroit, but this time, they called it Purple Market.

Purple Market had 2 locations in Ann Arbor, and I was familiar with both, having been recently employed as Food Rescue Ranger, working for the local nonprofit Table Scrappers. I’d been in charge of the Corporate Food Rescue Program and spent time at every grocery store in the county, trying to persuade them to donate food instead of throwing it away.

OK, it was a store that had Gourmet Foodstuffs and Alcohols. The Beef was Kobe, or Wagyu or etc. The fish was flown in by helicopter every three hours. The cheese case had seven hundred thousand dollars worth of imported cheese, the baked goods were crafted by local charismatic cult Xingerman’s or other highfalutin’ bakeries, they sold caviar by the fistful, and vintage wines by the bucket, there were nine kinds of mandarin oranges and seventeen varieties of microgreens. It was a Roman Spectacle of Consumer Excess. They were also weirdly lousy at donating to the food rescue program. They threw out tons of expensive meat and produce for no good reason, compared to more plebian and less Virtue-Signaling chains, like Krogar or PhoodCo.

As Food Rescue Ranger for Table Scrappers, I’d had multiple conversations with Purple Market store managers, and with the heads of the meat and produce departments (meat and produce were the things most needed, because mostly we got Sugar Frosted Crap). Mostly from Purple Market I was seeing just baked goods and practically expired deli sandwiches: no meat, dairy or produce to speak of. I got the usual story that I’d get from groceries that didn’t donate certain categories of food: (loudly) 1. We Are So Good at Purchasing that There’s Nothing Left to Donate (sotto voice) 2. the company doesn’t really track the tremendous amount of garbage that’s produced when you have giant piles of quickly-expiring luxury foodstuffs on display, but the corporate shrink managers sure do freak out at the documented numbers on the tax receipt from the Nonprofit.
I never really based my conclusions about corporate policy on the conversations I had with staff, just so you know. The best way to tell whether a store was throwing out edible inventories was was to go look in their dumpster. So, yes, I’d already managed to look inside their locked dumpster several times. It was chock-full of Bronzino, kiwis, organic turkey, Swiss chard and heirloom tomatoes. Before I worked for Purple Market, I’d figured probably the staff were also allowed to take some expiring stuff home, which would also suppress the Food Rescue numbers, but actually, it turned out they had no staff reclamation program, either. Staff just got 15% off on an inventory that was generally priced 23% higher than at Krogar, down the street.

The job I applied for was to Manage Purple Market’s “Bakery.” All the baked goods were made by Xingerman’s or other offsite wholesalers, and the only thing made in-store were squeeze-tube cookies that were cooked in the commercial equivalent of an Easy Bake Oven. So the Bakery Manager merchandised those premade baked goods, kept inventories, was pleasant to customers while handing them cake, scheduled other “Bakery” staff to stand behind the baked goods… Purple Market’s staff were all properly masked, and there was even a person stationed at the door enforcing and offering masks, and plastic gloves, and holding back customers when the State-Ordained limit on people allowed at one time in the store was reached, under pandemic conditions. It was pretty best-practice contagion control, while other chain grocery stores had few such measures despite, you know, deaths.

Jason, a Purple Market manager, said he wanted to hire me, but he said corporate decided to give the Bakery Manager job to another applicant. He recommended that I take a lower-paying job, because he didn’t think the guy they hired would last as Bakery Manager, he said. Once I was an internal candidate, he said, I’d be a shoo-in for the position when it, or another department manager position opened back up. I was suspicious, because it was right before the holidays. Maybe he was just desperate for staff, and would say anything. But the money.

At Management level at Purple Market, I would be only just below the income level I’d need to buy my divorcing spouse out of my home, instead of selling it. Maybe I could get a second job, or rent a room, and keep my big house, and all the marks on the wall that I’d made as my kids grew bigger.

So I took that Front-Door job of enforcing masks, offering gloves, and limiting volume of customers, to maintain safe distances. Along with that, the team at the front of the store fulfilled online grocery orders for the brand-new curbside service, made regular logged surface-sanitation circuits of the store, and fetched back and sanitized thousands of metal grocery carts from the snowswept parking lot every day. The jackets Purple Market gave employees were unlined windbreakers.

It was pleasant, fast-paced, physical, low-stress work, compared to managing people, and most of my coworkers were college kids, half or a third my age. Only one assistant-managing twit was annoyingly officious, and I planned eventually to put him in the cardboard baler when no-one was looking. I liked sending the Anti-Maskers away, as a comfort to the terrified little old rich people who shopped there. The ones who ventured into the store wore masks over masks and gloves over gloves, and plus plastic visors, and were sometimes visibly trembling. One guy literally wore a scuba apparatus. They were just doing their essential shopping: for ptarmigan and fifty kinds of mustard.

And in fulfilling orders for curbside pickup, in this desperate time of national privations, I was just so terribly amused by the wounded consternation and dismay that the entitled customers evinced when the store dared to run out of arugula or Wensleydale. Like, You Dare To Suggest That I Replace My Valencia Oranges with Mere Cara Caras?!?!?! Between tasks, or at the end of the day when there was little to do, I drew pictures of naked women on liquor bags. But I continued to apply for the slightly more challenging higher-level managing positions at the Ann Arbor stores, in expectation of quick advancement, and hopes of almost-adequate pay.

In Mid-December things started to work out. Onerously, I went through the entire application process again. Purple Market reposted the job because, as predicted, the Bakery Manager they’d hired a month earlier, instead of me, had quit.

I was remarkably overqualified to stand behind a bunch of cakes. I had extensive staff-administration, purchasing, customer-service and food prep & safety knowledge. I personally knew the wholesalers from whom Purple Market purchased baked goods, and I knew the wholesalers‘ ingredient suppliers, and recipes. I’d handled inventories hundreds of times larger and more complex than the baguettes and scones on offer. Plus, I’m really good-looking. All fifteen people I interviewed with from store and corporate management seemed to adore me. So I was happy, but a little unsurprised to be finally told that the job was mine. They sent the official job offer, and Jason, the store manager, called me to congratulate me several days before Christmas. Everyone in the store congratulated me on the promotion, that week.

I wouldn’t take over in the Bakery for a week or so, though. I was still on Covid Security and Online Order Fulfillment. It was crazy busy, for the first Covid Christmas. Bales of truffles, exotic flower bouquets, standing pate roasts and cases of Champagne were desperately needed by holiday-frenzied customers, who sometimes tipped a few bucks as you deposited two thousand dollars worth of groceries in their Flexus 3000L.

Me, I was very tired. It was probably going to be my last holiday with my partner of more than 30 years, for some reason, even if I could keep my home. I’d only have my kids half the time. I was pretty broken hearted, and working extra. But I had that little beam of sunshine, in this literal and figurative winter: A Better Job. I don’t know to whom I wrote the poem below. Maybe to the dream of someone I thought I had, and loved, maybe to the wish for a dream that I hadn’t found yet.

Baker’s Prayer

I will offer you my Bismarcks and a chocolate mousse for two
As I offer only sweetness and my love is always true
I will bake ten million cookies and each one will hold my wish
That your lips will be delighted and reward me with a kiss
And every time I hear the bell I’ll hope that you are there
To taste the velvet cake of love I want so much to share
I’ll nourish you with daily loaves of challah and of rye,
I’ll find the finest orchards for the fruit to make your pies,
I’ll grind the grain and churn the milk and make it all with care,
And every time I hear the bell I’ll hope that you are there.

Nice, right? Cute.

On the Retail Armageddon of Christmas Eve, as I hustled through Purple Market, making people cover their noses and filling bags with fromages and clarets, I was hit with a series of emails from the Divorce Mediator, who was in conversation that day with my divorcing spouse about division of assets. I was really impressed that the Mediator had the diligence to be doing that on Christmas Eve. My stress level was unprecedented. Then I was called to the Company Phone at the checkout counter for a call from Corporate.

“There’s been a mistake. We have to retract that Bakery Manager Job Offer temporarily,” said some high-level doof I’d never heard of before, “Matt wanted to be involved in the hiring for that position, so I have to set up a Zoom interview with you and him. It’s just a formality. You’re certainly qualified.”

I don’t know, man. That didn’t sound good. Matt Ronne was the Owner and CEO of Purple Market, and I hadn’t ever seen him in the store, myself. What fucked-up thing had the store management done with the Bakery that made Matt Ronne want to be involved in the hiring for the cake-handler? They set the interview up for the day after Christmas, assuring an even more emotionally fraught holiday than I was already anticipating. I’d told my whole family I had the job, of course, when I was given the job. I didn’t mention this new development to them, the next morning, as the kids and my soonexwife opened their presents. I don’t mean to be pathetic, but there was literally nothing under the tree for me, and I had this sinking feeling that was to be figuratively the situation too.

For reference, here’s a Totally Real Actual Picture of Matt Ronne, pretending to work at his store:

I didn’t get to see Matt Ronne on the Zoom call that he was half an hour late for, the following day. He called me from his car, driving somewhere, and didn’t engage the video. I wished him a happy holiday. He didn’t return that-

“Have you ever run a bakery before?” He immediately asked, like he even had a real bakery. I quickly and pleasantly iterated my exquisite relevant career experiences, rendering his question absurd. I also pointed out that I’d had his Bakery operation under daily observation for a month, and knew it inside out. The products, the POS system, his regular customers.

I was speaking to a black screen and it felt like a blank wall. I didn’t know if he was watching me on the Zoom Call or not, of course, which was a little unsettling. He sounded preoccupied, if someone who isn’t thinking about something that he doesn’t care about could be said to be preoccupied. He told me he was getting rid of the Bakery’s cappuccino machine, so the experience I had as a barista wouldn’t be helpful. I told him that barista wasn’t any part of my extensive resume, as it was now evident he hadn’t looked at my resume.

“This is a very important position,” he said, which it wasn’t, but he didn’t know I felt like that, “and I was supposed to be involved in choosing the Manager for the Bakery,” he petulated. Boy, I’d almost foxed him there.

I kept talking, all smooth and full of positivity and persuasive storytelling and data, but I swear that jerk never heard a word I said through the whole 2.5 minute interview. He was obviously pissed at somebody not me, because he wasn’t interested in me, and it was clear that I was about to be disregarded collateral damage as he pulled rank.

“You DON’T have the job.” Matt said, curtly. I was pretty numb with horror but I sure don’t remember anything like an apology for misunderstandings or anything. He just said goodbye and went to strangle a puppy or something. Two days later, I got a one-line emailed confirmation of the job retraction from Jason, the store manager, in the kind of abbreviated phrasing that you use when you’re being hung by your thumbs or something.

I’d been protecting Purple Market’s customers and staff, and helping this nimrod Matt sell his stupid artisan-tortured veal and mediocre hemp milk. According to the the step-counter in my phone, I’d walked 300 miles of aisles in his store in the short time I was there- I sure wish I’d walked to Toronto instead. My fingers had marks where they’d frozen to the shopping carts that I shoved through eddies of snow past the Porsches and Lincoln Navigators in the lot, clad in cheap company garb that did nothing to stop the cold and wet. I’d made friends with the other perfectly nice, intelligent, poor shleps hat worked for him, but none of that was part of his equation. I don’t think it bothered him for one second to jerk a promotion back, on the day after Christmas, from some guy he’d never met.

I felt all Bob Crachity, if Scrooge had been Bob’s remote boss whie driving around Birmingham. never having to meet Bob. Merry Fucking Xmas, Fucking Matt Ronne. I don’t mean to take it personally, and I don’t, because it’s typical asshole CEO behavior that he got personally affronted all over me for no reason.

Hear my Roar of Righteous Indignation, O Corporate Tools

Anyway, I told my family that I couldn’t afford the house without the spouse, made my arrangements to move out of my home, prepared to list it for sale, and started sending out resumes. I guess I would have left Purple Market anyway, because Matt Ronne removed the Covid-Security Controls at the store, about a week later, leaving me in a job that was just order fulfillment and shopping-cart retrieval, with new free virus exposure.

I suppose Matt felt like the safety controls were suppressing business, because it was suppressing business, as recommended for safety: The day after the assistant-mgr twit took away my counter at the front door, I did an unauthorized manual head count of customers and we had about 17 more people in the store than was allowed under State mandate. I told the store manager, so I could watch him uncomfortably do nothing. It’d still be four months before vaccines were available. But the Money.

I stayed at Purple Market for a few weeks more, so I wouldn’t leave my coworkers more short-handed than they already were. During that time, here’s how the story might have gone, if I’d been vindictive:
Every order I packed might have been incorrect and have to be refunded or refilled. Alone, alone, depressed after this unfulfilling work, desolate in my short-lease apartment, I might have had the small consolation of dozens of fresh oysters, steaming pots of lobsters and king crab legs, jarfuls of caviar poured over carelessly fried Kobe steaks, heirloom broccolinis, radicchios and truffles, glistening cakes bursting with fresh cream and butter, and quarts of dragonfruit sorbet, hoisted surreptitiously by the bag, coat and crateful from Purple Market through every illegitimate point of egress.
Further, had I (honestly venturing vulnerably forth to be injured, by entry to this sphere of callous indifference, of this CEO (who inherited some grocery stores)) allowed myself to stray from my delicate wagon of drinklessness (made already unstable by a rough and unknown diversion from the only road I knew) I might have washed all that down with Finest Pinot Noirs, Champagnes, Cognacs, and expensive Bourbons by the stolen garbagebagful, and would generally in those last weeks have returned to work only once freshly drunk, the following morning.
Even now, two years later, I might be writing this very narrative by the light of ten organic beeswax candles, of the sort stocked in Purple Market’s gift boutique, and nibbling on tinned Spanish wild sardines, spoonfuls of lingonberry jam and Moroccan gherkins.

Yes, it’s a good thing for everybody that I’m not vindictive or vulnerable in any way, because that might have happened, as I tell you that I have witnessed such retribution exacted previously by aggrieved and disrespected workers, in my exhaustive experience of the 21st-century American workplace.

And so, also, sure, as an unsurprising postscript, absent the safety controls, there was, in fact, a large Covid outbreak among my pals in the frontline staff at that Purple Market store just two weeks after I quit & got a different job. Nobody died, the workers just lost their paychecks until they could get back to work peddling arugulas and alcohols to wealthy people in a wealthy town, so I guess all that was fine.

*It was longer than two weeks

2 comments

  1. I’m laughing; I’m crying…your writings are exquisitely cut-throat, as any pirate’s should be. I shall never cross the threshold of the aforementioned Purple Market…not that it was something I did often before. Truly, though, as sorry as I am to hear of your sorrow and woes, I know yours is a tale of many. Many who cannot express themselves with humor. We all need more humor, so I thank ye, Captain.

  2. There are endlessly worse tales from the plague years: I’ve heard millions of similar not funny stories from all my frontline coworkers in the 17 jobs I’ve held in that time. The CEOs, the Boards of Directors, Upper Management all went weirdly missing, bunkered down in ignorant comfort.
    I bought some stilton there the other day, actually. It’s just another grocery store, not exceptionally bad, and it’s not unusual that the lights seem to get dimmer up around the top of the corporate ladder. It is exceptional in it’s top-of-the-line pricing model. Even before food prices went up, a fistful of okra was like $19

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