There Will Be no Happy Ending. We Stay, Anyway.
On Trauma and Trader Joe's.
“That was good, Hugo – but you missed a few bottles of New Zealand whites.”
It’s almost 9 on a Sunday night. Carlos is giving me feedback about how well I’ve “faced” the wine section. (In retail, to “face” means to get the product pulled forward in neat rows, without spaces, ready to entice the customer.) I “face” various sections every shift. I’ve been doing it since I was hired at Trader Joe’s in October 2017.
I suspect I will be facing wine, pasta jars, cereal boxes, and so forth for the rest of my working life. I have no retirement savings to speak of; I will be working until my body gives out.
Carlos has been a “mate” (a supervisor, in TJ’s speak) for three years, since he was 22. He’ll turn 26 next month. He graduated from high school a few weeks after I taught my last class at Pasadena City College. Carlos is younger than the youngest students I taught in my final year of teaching.
He is kind, funny, and immensely hard-working. He is a good boss.
I’m a good employee. For the most part, I do well on our semi-annual crew reviews. I get little raises; I started at $15, and now bring in $18.95 an hour. It’s good money for unskilled retail labor, if you don’t count the cost of living in Los Angeles with two young kids. It’s good money, if you work very hard to forget it is considerably less than what I made when I was first hired at PCC, two years before Carlos was born.
People in my position are reminded of the fruitlessness of living in the past. We are told by the well-meaning and the fed-up (those are often overlapping categories) to focus on the present and the future, and let bygones be bygones. For their own sakes as well as mine, my loved ones want me to stop tormenting myself with memories of the career I had, and the career I lost.
Some days, I can get through an entire shift without comparing my Now to my Then. More often, every small correction – like Carlos’ reminder about “facing wine” – triggers instant shame. Shame’s twin sister is resentment, and that wells up too. One literal meaning of resentment is to “feel old injuries,” and on Sunday night, after Carlos’ most gentle rebuke, I stepped into our walk-in freezer and let the hot tears turn cold before they reached my lower lip. The injuries were right there. They happened a long time ago, but they are not old.
It’s not fair, I say, repeating the tired old lines from a script that everyone else wants me to forget. I was a teacher, and I made magic in the classroom. I fucking changed lives. Now, I can’t even get the wine bottles straight.
It always starts with self-pity. That’s the shattered protagonist talking. The Greek chorus in my head lets him finish, then begins its sneering rebuke. You’re here because you fucked up. You have only yourself to blame. You did the crime, you confessed the crime, you blew up your life and your children’s lives, and it’s all on you, you pathetic wretch. How dare you feel sorry for yourself?
The protagonist admits he did destroy his own life, but pleads that perhaps the punishment did not fit the crime. Was it right that I fall this far, and so irrevocably? Couldn’t there have been something… temporary?
The chorus is stern. This is fair. No one will trust you in a classroom again as long as you live. Be grateful you’re not homeless or in prison. Most people never get paid to do what they were born to do. You had 20 years. Now, wipe your face, blow your nose, and get back to work.
I work five days a week at TJs, and this inner dialogue, replete with tears, happens on an average of three of those days. Some months it’s worse, others, it abates – but for the most part, the self-pity/resentment/shame/resignation cycle plays out with numbing repetition. It is ritual, and I mean that in the traditional sense – this self-scourging is part of my daily office, a rite of penitence and coping.
There must be something you can do to accept your situation; the loved ones say. Therapy helps, and I’ve had thousands of hours of it. Medication helps. Most things I tried help only a little or not at all: I tried EMDR over and over, following a moving pencil with my eyes in a desperate and bootless effort to reprogram my raging brain; I tried Vipassana meditation, but the more I emptied my mind of ego, the louder the Chorus grew; I tried formal hypnosis; Kabbalah, Chabad, and Jesus; I fasted and prayed and journaled and ran, and at best all I got was a temporary analgesic before the pain surged back, steady and reliable and agonizing.
There is no shame in working in a grocery store. It is valuable, vital, honest work. My co-workers are kind, warm, interesting and deeply good human beings. I do not feel I am too good for Trader Joe’s. I do not think I am too good to be admonished by bosses less than half my age. I’m lucky, frankly, to have this job – I am not a man of many talents. My math skills are poor; I’m clumsy with my hands; I am in my mid-50s and look it; I have a criminal record and an embarrassing backstory I cannot hide or escape. TJs took a chance on me, and they deserve and receive my gratitude and my loyalty.
I am only marginally competent, but I work hard, and I get along with customers and co-workers. It has been made clear to me I am not “management material,” so there is no chance of promotion – but for the time being, they say, I am not on thin ice. “Your job is safe here,” another mate said to me in my last review. I smiled. Dude, I had tenure. You know how hard it is supposed to be to get rid of a tenured professor? I had the most secure job in the world, and I managed to lose that. The ice is always wafer-thin. I am one second of an overheated brain from losing this, too, and I never forget that.
A few years ago, there was a well-known actor who worked at Trader Joe’s when he found himself unemployed. You might remember the story. Someone took a photo of him working the register, and he ended up doing television interviews – and getting acting jobs again. TJ’s turned out to be a temporary gig for him, and he was welcomed back into his old world. Lots of actors do work at TJs; the cycles of boom and bust, success and failure, are built into the artist’s path. Life in the grocery business may not be temporary for all actors, but it is for most – they have constant reason to hope their luck will turn. I know mine will not. Despite the dreams I have two or three times a month, I know Pasadena City College will never call to invite me home.
I am not on hiatus; I am in permanent exile. There is a difference. I am not a temporarily embarrassed scoundrel; I am serving a life sentence.
I tell my children that I am proud to work at Trader Joe’s. I tell them there is no shame in working in a grocery store, and making a living with one’s hands. I say it because I believe it. All honest work is worthy of celebration. I would not be disappointed if either of my children ended up working alongside me. I wish, though, they could have seen me teach. I wish they could have come to my office door, and knocked upon it, and I could have introduced them to my students and mentees, and walked them through my campus. (I do often bring them to my store; they have met all my crew and my mates, toured the backrooms, been greeted with affection.)
I wish they could have seen me do something I was born to do. I wish they could have seen me masterfully competent, as I was in the classroom. I am, like many dads, a neurotic bumbler, and that is how Heloise and David know me. That is how my co-workers know me. I am lovable, approachable, and – when not too lost in my own pain – quite kind. I am a jack of many trades, but a master of none. There was another me a long time ago, and he was a master, and I wish my bunnies could have seen him in his true element, perhaps just once.
I need to say this: it is very, very, very hard to stay. I stay because I do not have permission to leave, and a gentleman does not lighten his load by adding immeasurably to the burden that others carry. (Thinking of myself as a gentleman is not a snobby affectation – for a godless man, manners are the foundation on which I can build what remains of my life.) I am safe, and I will live as long as my body allows. I eat my greens, exercise, stay sober – who knows how long I might yet have? The deal I made when my children were born is that I surrendered any hope of leaving this life on my own terms, at an hour of my choosing. I had to stay, and not only stay, but make the best of it.
There are some injuries, self-inflicted or otherwise, from which we do not recover. And yet, even if the pain of what was haunts us all our days, real joy and real connection can still happen. Trauma and happiness are not antonyms. I will marry Victoria this fall, and Heloise will be maid of honor and David my best man; I will love my bride with a fierceness I did not have with anyone before, because that fierceness is one of the best things I have left.
I’ve spent eight years trying to get over the loss of my career. I’ve spent eight years trying to forgive myself for the pain I caused to so many. Crying in the freezer Sunday night, I gave myself (again) permission to never get over any of this. I am tired of shaming myself for not having healed, tired of continuing to believe that my life is a TV show of the sort where are our flawed protagonist gets his epiphany at the end. I spent years fantasizing that I would write a brilliant screenplay that would get produced (I wrote several), or that someone would read my Substack and say, “You know, we need to restore this Hugo fellow.” I dreamed of the comeback of the kind that always happens in the movies. I would be the once-banished exile called home; the prisoner set free after decades, blinking in the unfamiliar sunlight; the thorn-blind prince healed at last by Rapunzel’s tears.
Ain’t gonna happen.
That’s not the story. The story is simply: he didn’t quit. And when every fiber of your being wishes you could quit, staying is a very real triumph. It is the one thing at which I am succeeding, and the thing of which I am proudest.
I am proud, too, of the work I do even as I am ashamed every day of the man who does that work.
That’s a contradiction, sure, but as the poets remind us, there can be a facsimile of peace in contradiction.
And one last thing: I would rather lose all my readers and my Substack income then pretend I am other than what I am. I will always do my best to write about things that interest you, and that get me out of myself – but I cannot escape this story for long and I am tired of promising otherwise.
Robert Pearsall deserves to be better known than he is. One of the finest composers for choir of the 19th century, he left behind many masterpieces.
Spotify tells me I have played Pearsall’s “Lay a Garland” on repeat more than any other track in recent years. Here’s a favorite version – a couple of transcendent minutes.