Whitney reads the poem he is quoted in
[0:20 – 1:03]
THE ART OF BAGGING
“It’s an art,” customer says,
“what you do.”
Self-conscious of whatever
she thinks I am.
“Very aesthetic,” I say. Words
mean each thought
inside them. I’ll
admit, it is aesthetically
to a classic distribution
of light piled on heavy.
“Customer doesn’t know
what art is,” I complain
by the wine. I don’t know
what I’m trying to carry.
“Maybe it is art,”
Whitney says, “if it mystifies
someone for no reason.”
[Whitney, you work in a grocery store?]
1:10—Among many other things.
[You’re an actor.]
[Are you acting right now?]
To a degree. I’ve noticed I’ve changed my voice. I chose a certain pitch to make sure it will carry. I chose a certain cadence for what I wanted in the piece. So, yeah, but no more than I think we generally do every day.
[You act in the store?]
Yes, every day.
[Your wife is also a customer. And she also acts, and would come into the store and claim
that you were pretending to be husband and wife. Would you consider her a regular?]
A regular customer [yeah—], or a regular wife? Yes, definitely a regular. She’s done a new bit now where she pretends that I’m harassing her whenever we’re shopping together.
[Can you talk a little bit about acting and truth?]
Acting and truth. My wife says that acting is living realistically in unrealistic circumstances. And I think acting and theater and art looks to find truth by sometimes putting together things that don’t necessarily belong together. I think at the heart of acting there is truth. And I think at the end of the day, when it reaches the audience, it strikes a truth in them. And you can find that by being however fantastical you want.
I write that Whitney is an actor, then a working actor, as if that makes a difference. He stocks shelves and orders wine to provide himself with health insurance, a nice boss, a steady gig, the flexibility for opening nights and auditions.
I thought about Whitney when I first heard about the shaming of Geoffrey Owens, who played Elvin Thibodeaux on The Cosby Show for five seasons. A picture of Owens working at a New Jersey Trader Joe’s was published in The Daily Mail in 2018 under the headline, “From learning lines to serving the long line!” Replies came in celebrating the dead-end jobs artists took to keep their ambitions alive. Michael Schulman wrote in The New Yorker, “The performers I know have been office managers, S.A.T. tutors, dog-walkers, P.R. assistants, financial advisers, and, of course, waiters. One actor friend is learning calligraphy so she can start her own business.” Friends I made in the break room had whole lives that were side hustles: nutritionists, lawyers, limo drivers; I wasn’t even the only poet at my Trader Joe’s.
Living realistically in unrealistic circumstances speaks to our precarious economic ecosystem, as a grocery store rarely remains a transitional space where you work when you are 16 or retired. There’s some of that too, but 16 is now 22, and retired often means forced out: severanced state workers, academy exiles, senior employees who unknowingly trained their inexpensive, inexperienced replacements. When the economy was last ‘normal,’ two-fifths of college grads were working jobs that didn’t require a college degree. They earned less than our parents as supply outstripped demand. Work viewed by some as disposable remains work.
Within our disorienting, indefinite pandemic, the lonesome invisibility of retail workers has become ironized by their initial hyper-visibility. Grocery store workers were talked about on the news and on Twitter, but rarely seen as individuals with a rich variety of interests. Instead they were subsumed into paradigms of heroism or victimhood, coopted by arguments about our country’s values or the many aspects and manifestations of the word ‘essential’: The hyper-cheerful manager whose rainbow bandana matches her shirt; the cashier working weekends to pay off debt; the woman who sharpies “I’m smiling” on her mask.
[I don’t know if you remember a customer once asked— I believe asked you to blush on
command when you told her you were an actor—]
[It was either that or she said, “crying is easy,” about acting.]
I remember, I don’t remember that particular instance. But I do— I remember sort of a couple archetypes of customers. One customer who thinks ‘Oh, well, when you’re an actor you can do X, Y, and Z, so do X, Y, and Z right now. And the other who always thinks I’m hiding something. And it’s— it’s funny that if you let someone know you’re an actor, then they either expect you to do something right then for them, or they think you’re running from something.
[Whitney, you won an award for teaching acting? I assume you act when you teach? Is there ever a time you’re not acting when you’re teaching?]
One of the principles that I base a lot of my work on is a Stanislavski principle called Given Circumstances. And Given Circumstances just very generally speaking are— conditions, or situations, that change how you see the world and how the world sees you. And so when I am in the classroom there are a number of given circumstances at work. One is that I am the instructor, and they are my students, and so that gives me a certain amount of power. It gives me certain liberties to say, “Okay, for the next five minutes— we’re all going to walk in a circle, and only turn left, and that’s what we’re going to do.” And they have to do that, because of the given circumstance of our location. And our relationship. I— can’t do that at the store. If— but then, on the other hand, if I’m in the store— or if I’m in the classroom and I say, “Give me 19 cents for that banana,” my students don’t have to listen to me, because of the given circumstances have changed. So when you are in the classroom you’re always— not always acting, but I don’t think you’re acting any more than you are in your day-to-day life, when you think about your given circumstances, when you think about what image or what sound you want to put out there. About what impression you want to make on someone else. And to that effect, I’m not acting any more than anyone else, at any job.
[Are there any customers that you think, if you did ask them to walk in a circle, they would?]
Definitely. Definitely. Sometimes—sometimes you can sort of apply these ideas of hypnosis, that people won’t do things unless they really want to. And I can think of probably two or three people that if when they came into the store I said, “Hey, just walk in a circle for a second, they’d be game for it.”
There was a time I consumed everything I could about my job, from our own Fearless Flyers to an episode of This American Life that ends in the reporter’s surprise and disappointment that yet another promising student would be stuck behind a cash register while slowly working towards finishing her degree. (I should add that the cashier was disappointed as well.)
Many have that easy fantasy where we can will any metamorphosis — lose weight, read the unopened books taunting us, stop being addicted to our phones — and that would be that. Transformations promise us past selves neither fraudulent nor representative, only hidden or disguised. I always thought being a poet was simply living life with a discipline like Whitney’s: an ongoing practice, an integrity of attention and purpose and linguistic currency. I should have guessed the same sense of limitlessness linking and unlinking us is true for all artists. How we are seen or unseen are necessarily incompatible. Whitney and Owens, actors with similar philosophies — flexible hours, health care, time off when they need it — likely share wildly different dreams. Schulman points out how artists are never so much seen as career-building as chasing “a ticket to dreamland.” But dreaminess is exactly what we wish for people stuck behind counters or registers: the teenager in the John Updike story “A&P” who quits his job because of a beautiful stranger; my favorite New York Knick, John Starks, a bagger before he got called up to hit streaky threes; the opera singer who could not be persuaded to sing in our store on her last day. She left to be a manager at her hometown store.
I worked at a store in my hometown after undergrad and signed up again after my MFA when my wife Lauren moved us to Wisconsin. Lauren jokes after I finish my PhD they’ll put me in the box here in Houston, throwing milk. When I started this essay I taught undergraduates composition and rhetoric, edited nonfiction for a literary magazine, lead poetry workshops for kids, collaborated on a white paper for a post-Harvey think tank on the side, and even more on the side maintained a weekends-only back-desk receptionist position at an art museum, providing coverage for vacations and sick-days whenever they were stretched thin. Our four-year-old son Owen told Lauren about a character he played across a suite of video games, who in various guises is a doctor and a chef and a fireman and a postal delivery driver. “Dr. Panda is a poet. He does so many things!” The next weekend Owen asked me to call out sick.
When Schulman wrote, “A comedian I know used to wait tables at a restaurant uptown, but she wouldn’t tell her friends which one it was, for fear of being caught in the act of working,” I thought of The Hobbit Cafe, where Lauren used to wait tables during my MFA. After we moved back to Houston, Raymond offered her the Sunday shift if she wanted it. We laughed off a six-day work week, as if the money wouldn’t hurt. When people ask what I’m going to do after the PhD, Lauren makes a show of folding her hands under her chin, tilting her head, and staring at me.
Now she lets me know they’re hiring at our Trader Joe’s.
What we find unique in ourselves often feels beautiful, even as we struggle with maintaining a relationship with our interior lives. Whitney’s store is solid enough: its casually nautical-themed presence fitting in on a street corner with optometrists and apothecaries, restaurants and flower shops, up the hill from the college football stadium, just off the bike path that intersects the Capitol, Lake Wingra down the other side. In Houston the Trader Joe’s is built in a former movie theater, but beyond the unusual acoustics and dad-joke art — “Planet of the Grapes,” “A Fistful of Trek Mix” — the store’s design has the same familiar nostalgia of any link in the chain. The employees include actresses and singers, lifers and writers, though no poets I am aware of.
When I worked at Trader Joe’s, people used to ask me what I’d write about the grocery store. I’d share my exchanges with Whitney by the wine, one of dozens of daily interactions, and I wondered what kind of art my life was. Now I watch the ‘helmsman,’ once tasked with one hour of walking around wearing a wine-cork lei, intimating the store’s pleasant inner monologue — fixing signs, passing out samples, answering shoppers’ questions but required to assume they have none —carrying his sign with the studied nonchalance of a mystic, reminding us to keep our distance.
[Whitney what kind of an actor are you?]
4:12—Good— That’s one of the reasons that brought me to Wisconsin. Because I used to be very pigeonholed as— as the best friend. The person that you like but you—you were never in love with. And so I’ve really worked to expand what I can bring to the table. So— I’m an actor who does comedy and drama and classical work and contemporary and American realism and movement-based work and stage combat— so I am, I’m an actor who— I’m an actor who works.
[And male lead?]
Male lead. Definitely male lead.
JOSHUA GOTTLIEB-MILLER recently received his PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Houston, where he was Digital Nonfiction Editor for Gulf Coast. His writing can be found most recently in Talking Writing, Brooklyn Rail, Berru Poetry Series, Grist and elsewhere. Currently Joshua tutors for Houston Community College, is a weekend desk attendant for the Menil Collection, and teaches a senior memoir workshop for Inprint. Joshua lives in Houston with his wife, Lauren, and son, Owen.