I’m lying to you when I’m out shopping. Not about anything major; I’m not carrying some dark secret in my basket. But if you were to approach me and try to say something, I would point to my AirPods and make a series of vague gestures with my hands to signal that sorry, I can’t hear you. Got these AirPods in. The banal truth is, I just don’t like to talk to people when I’m out of the house. I’m not actually listening to anything in my headphones. I’m just listening to the in-store radio. Straining my ears to catch aural glimpses of what particular Top 40 stations the drugstore is playing, or what this high-end vegan fast casual shop considers the ideal sonic backdrop to my retail experience. This is a ghost of my past that I carry with me, a specter of a life long forgotten when I once worked in a grocery store.
From 1996 to early 1999, I was a grocery clerk in a mom-and-pop grocery store in Whitehorse, Yukon. Child-labor laws notwithstanding, I was just shy of 14 when I started my career, fresh-faced and new to the fast-paced world of grocering. My taste wasn’t formed yet; I didn’t know what I liked, I just knew what I had. If you had asked me during my job interview what my favorite band was, I would have said Bryan Adams or maybe the Barenaked Ladies. Like good olive oil, I was unrefined.
Growing up in the Yukon, my exposure to outside influences was limited. We didn’t have a mall to hang out at, and my parents refused to get cable television. I lived in a content desert. I could catch glimpses of cooler stuff on the radio here and there, but AM radio in a small and isolated northern town was about as limited as you’d expect. There’s a throughline from my love of Bryan Adams to the lack of compelling alternatives.
I didn’t really know myself when I started the job. I was unaware of who I was, what I liked, or even what I hated and why. Everything in my life was a byproduct of limited exposure.
It’s easy to lose track of the finer details when you’re new to a job. Everything is a flurry of movement and an onslaught of information your brain needs to onboard—here’s where the carts go, here’s the break room, this is the garbage compactor that jams up twice a day. (And here’s where you clean yourself off after climbing inside the garbage compactor to get it unstuck.) The radio was off in the distance while I was taking this all in, somewhere above me in a speaker cut into the drop ceiling, playing the greatest hits of 1996, in between commercials for used car dealerships and restaurants.
It only took a few days until I was trained enough to fly solo and I was set off into the field on my own. The reality of the job sets in pretty quickly when you’re on the floor on your own, walking up and down aisles and taking notes in a little Hilroy notebook as to what was missing: creamed corn low in aisle 1, we’re out of Honey Nut Cheerios. Sometimes I was approached in a hurry with a dire question about the whereabouts of a food I had never heard of. “Aisle 13, bottom shelf,” I would tell them, with no idea whether that was true or not. I would watch them set off, staring at the signs hanging from the ceiling with numbers on them and brief descriptions of the aisles before ducking into the back room to hide. Our store only had 12 aisles.
The job was endlessly dull with ample space for distraction. I started to pay attention to the radio as I sat on an overturned milk crate, rotating our stock of basmati rice sometime in the wild hours of the after-school afternoon. The background noise I had been taking for granted came into a new form of clarity, as I caught myself humming along to songs I didn’t know the name of, or who was even singing it.
“Sitting around the house, something something shadows on the floor” I caught myself singing along under my breath, unaware of who Better Than Ezra even was.
The radio was part of our collective respite from the day to day grocery store drudgery. The joy in being there wasn’t in the job; it was in the company of the people I worked with. Come for the endless hauling of new Cheerios stock, stay for laughing under your breath when the cashier said “Code 27” over the PA, the code for when male customers would position themselves on the grocery carousel so their dick was resting right on top.
The better you knew a song that seemed to only live on the radio at the grocery store, the longer it meant you had been there. When a customer would catch me for my aisle 13 prank and scream at me for not knowing where gnocchi was, I knew I could retreat to the back room to brush it off and sing “If It Makes You Happy” along with the radio, my fellow employees joining in dramatically for the “Then why the hell does it make you so sad” part.
I started to love these songs as they burrowed into my head, Gin Blossoms and Sheryl Crow and “Everything You Done Wrong” by Sloan became intertwined with the time spent growing up in the aisles, discovering my own taste in music by listening to endless hours of someone else definition of Top 40. The songs started to mean more to me. They weren’t simply distractions but companions; they were the driving force of a long day. Sometimes the only shining moment I had was when the song I loved came on the radio.
The radio in the grocery store was my soundtrack to escape. It was there when I was riding a pallet jack around in the loading bay, screaming along to “One Headlight” by The Wallflowers to avoid hearing the desperate call for someone to come help bag groceries. It was there with “Fly” by Sugar Ray (feat. Super Cat) when I begrudgingly showed up for work on the one hot sunny day of the summer. I learned to appreciate all of these songs as earnest pieces of work, and not toss them aside as too commercial, too poppy. These were my friends, and you will show Mark McGrath some goddamn respect.
It’s been decades since I hung up my smock and moved on from the grocery store. But even when I would go back to that same shop, mindlessly scanning the aisles, looking for gnocchi, the radio was like an old friend, there when I needed it, supporting me when I knew I couldn’t ask whatever minimum-wage earning youth was working the aisle that day. They’d probably lie to me, unaware that I know aisle 13 isn’t real, that I invented aisle 13.
I abide by the soundtrack of the store because it’s part of the experience. However unintentional the songs on the radio are, it’s the mood of the store. It’s part of the lives of the people stocking the shelves, cleaning up spills, and hiding in the back from assholes like me. But it’s also part of our lives. The songs that play on the radio become integral to the stories of our days. Giving you a story to take home, you can tell your partner that you heard the Sonic Youth cover of “Superstar” today when you were out buying toilet paper. The grocery store radio is our collective respite from the drudgery of the day to day.
When I’m out shopping, I’m not just avoiding you because I don’t want to talk to you; that’s only part of it. I want to live in those moments, take in the full experience of the store and walk away with memories that have a soundtrack I didn’t choose. I want to know what is getting people through their days as I make my way through my own. Grocery store radio is the last reminder of a time when I was truly free and ready to discover the world ahead of me. Sometimes it’s nice to stay haunted by old friends.