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Ghetto Grocer #4
Food Handling Horror Stories
© 2013 James LaFond
“All men are pigs. I never let them handle exposed food.” -Miss Betty S., 1981
“I love this crap.” -late night food market customer, 2013
If only the customer above knew how close he was to the descriptive truth. There is a general medical myth common in the U.S. that there are a plethora of ‘stomach viruses’ out there that you catch like a cold and that give you loose bowels. What is usually happening when you find yourself running for the toilet is that something got into your food that should have been flushed down the toilet to begin with.
The Right Hand of Illness
This article is not about overall store cleanliness, which deserves a piece all its own. What we are discussing is the personal cleanliness of the people handling your food, and how your food might be contaminated, especially if the highly-educated and well-compensated employee does not then put on clean gloves. But even if they do put on these gloves, if they tug a glove on with a feces-covered finger, and then use that gloved hand to mix your potato salad—throne of misery here you come. This has a lot to do with washing hands, and how food prep areas and bathrooms used by employees are maintained. Hence you see all of those hand washing signs in restaurant restrooms, reminding the employees to wash their hands.
As a grocery store manager I have been charged with enforcing cleanliness, hairnet use, and training janitors. Most store managers are not good at this end of the job because they have never been janitors, and did not come up working in food prep for long periods, but got funneled into their position through the two largest departments: the front end and center store [dry grocery]. What I found out immediately upon becoming a manger was that, all of a sudden, when I used the bathroom, everyone was washing their hands! It was my time as a lowly clerk that had taught me the reality. And being a writer, I’m the kind that takes notes just for curiosity’s sake. According to my notes taken over the past 20 years, I can inform you of the following:
  • 9 in 10 janitors and bakers wash their hands after using the bathroom or the trash compactor
  • 7 in 10 dry grocery clerks wash their hands after using the bathroom or trash compactor
  • 5 in 10 meat cutters, seafood clerks and produce clerks wash their hands after using the bathroom or trash compactor
  • 3 in 10 deli clerks wash their hands after using the bathroom or the trash compactor
  • Only 5 in 10 of those employees who wash their hands do it properly
I have only been able to survey male employees, as I have always been a male. However, my janitors and female coworkers have forever complained that female restrooms are the filthiest, just by virtue of the fact that blood is added to the other bodily excretions smeared on the walls.
Bucky
Bucky was a mentally handicapped janitor who practiced great diligence cleaning Store #33. Not only did Bucky scrub the restrooms, mop and buff the floors, and sweep and hose the storefront, he made the morning coffee as well. What a swell guy Bucky was, always with a smile for his coworkers, particularly Mister Tony, who loved his morning coffee, always the first to get a cup. One morning, at 6:15 a.m., on a Saturday, Bucky was behind making the coffee, cleaning up after the understaffed night crew as he was.
Mister Tony went looking for Bucky, who was probably cleaning the men’s room, just as Eddie, the receiver, was using the urinal. ‘Where was the commercial coffee pot?’ Mister Tony wanted to know. He would make the coffee himself since Bucky was behind. It just so happened, that Bucky was multitasking in the men’s room when Mister Tony found him. As Eddie stepped away from the urinal and turned to the sink, Bucky beat him to it, with the scrub brush he had just used to scrub out the toilets in one hand, and the coffee pot in the other. Bucky ran the brush under running water for a moment, and then stood and scrubbed the pot out with it. As Tony opened the door he saw the method by which Bucky had always prepped the morning coffee pot, and ‘Went ape-shit!’
Eddie had to restrain Mister Tony from strangling Bucky, as Bucky shed tears and cried that he always rinsed the toilet brush off before using it to scrub out the coffee pot! Eddie eventually corrected Bucky’s notion of the purifying effects of running water. Mister Tony could not get over it though, and took over the coffee pot duties, as soon as he purchased a new pot.
Brown-back
This small, hairy, hunch-backed night clerk stunk so badly that I could not get anyone to work with him. We thought it was because of his rotten teeth, until he bent over and his shirt slid up his back and we saw the matted fecal matter on his back hair and the brown stained skin beneath. ‘Big’ Earl ‘Bro Train’ Johnson said, “What, does this dude shit his self and sleep in it?”
This finding added new horror to the dimension of this clerk’s scratching of his back with his darkened finger nails. I reassigned him to work paper and detergent products, as in any given food aisle, there are food products that are consumed directly from the container or packaging without first being cooked at temperatures necessary to kill e-coli bacteria.
Pops
Pops was an old functional alcoholic, who was drunk for the entire two years I worked with him. I thought he was a 70 year old man with a tan. I was disabused of this notion by Big Nate, one day when it was raining, and Pops was afraid to walk out from underneath the storefront canopy. I thought his reluctance to walk was from old age, but Nate assured me that ‘Pops’ was only fifty years old. He then said, “Look” and pointed as Pops staggered out into the rain, and his face began to streak. Nate declared scornfully, “That dirty mutherfucker only takes a bath in June, when he gets his hair cut! And you know he never washes his hands. I can’t believe they have him working the baby food.”
Jorra
Jorra was an old dairy clerk with chronic sinus infections who wore the same dirty gloves every day of the week, every week of the year, until we would find them laying on the sink in the bathroom. The only time he removed his gloves was when he sat in the stall. He also used the backs of these gloves to wipe his nose as he worked. We made it our duty to occasionally follow him into the bathroom and throw the filthy things in the trash compactor.
Scabby Abby
Scabby Abby was a bakery clerk who cut cake, sliced bread, bagged bread and rolls, and boxed doughnuts, éclairs, and cookies. She had long hair and took off her hairnet anytime the manager was not around, which was most of the time as she worked the overnight shift. Abby refused to wear gloves, as she claimed they irritated her chaffed, cracked and sore-covered hands. You see Abby was a heroin addict who had open sores, which she picked at as junkies are want to do. When she would slice the bread I would look over my shoulder in disgust wondering how many of the flakes clinging to the slices were crumbs and how many skin flakes and scabs.
Abby also had false teeth. She would take out her false teeth and scrub them with her toothbrush on the food prep table behind the bakery counter, and use the sanitary sink to brush her teeth, rinse out her mouth, and apply her Fixodent.
According to female staff, Abby, who never wore sanitary gloves, also never washed her hands in the women’s room, and sometimes had ‘accidents’ which necessitated her throwing her fouled underwear in the open trashcan, adding to the floral ambiance of the facility.
Abby was also a diabetic, who tested herself on the table used for bagging rolls and boxing doughnuts. Her coworkers repeatedly told me about her smearing blood on the table when she pricked herself with her testing pin. When working at this same table bagging and boxing confections she was prone to licking her fingers in order to clean the icing off of them in between boxes.
Scabby Abby was eventually fired after more than a year of service, not for mishandling food, but for eating stolen food.
Bon Appétit!
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Adam Swinder     Aug 2, 2013

AHHHHH, GROSS!
James     Aug 3, 2013

Sounds like the voice of janitorial experience!
Charles M     Aug 6, 2013

... And you know these people are probably working the same job somewhere else .... Scabby Abby's out there .....
James     Aug 6, 2013

A former mutual coworker to I and Scabby Abby just informed me that our Poor Hygiene Heroine recently slipped away from a bus stop and used a residential front yard on a primary road as a solid waste latrine. As she hitched her pants back up she admitted to having done this on a sidewalk on Monument Street in East Baltimore, in broad daylight, while waiting for the methadone clinic to open. She may soon be working at a fast food joint near you!
Jeremy Benthem     Aug 10, 2013

Omigosh! It makes one wonder how filthy things must have been back before people understood the germ theory of disease. Our basic public sanitation rules were first instituted in the early 20th Century. Back then the two biggest killer diseases were pneumonia and diarrhea, rather than cancer and heart disease as they are now. The difference between then and now is that nowadays more people are living long enough to develop cancer and heart disease in their old age rather than dying young from infections. This is thanks to generally improved sanitation and to antibiotics. Nevertheless, this revelation makes me look forward to the day when all fast food preparers will be replaced with robots.
James     Aug 10, 2013

Amen Brother!

Next up is janitorial nightmares!
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