By Jose Romero
That guy in the photo? It’s me, decked out in cart crew fashion. I was determined to look as Zoot Suit as possible in my khaki wide brim hat.
It was April, and there were four of us outside in the Phoenix heat. We wore our bright reflective vests as we criss-crossed the east Phoenix Costco parking lot gathering shopping carts.
Three of us came together for a quick dissemination of duties. I was told to straighten the corrals. Alex, who likes to play pickup hoops in his spare time and was in search of a car to buy, announced he would take the electric cart pusher. Giancarlo, whom I labeled Giancarlo Stanton because, who else? was done for the day. Brendan would stay near the entrance of the store, disinfecting carts.
I’m a sports writer. I watch games and get paid to write about them. I’ve done it since the late 1990s. So I just did what came natural.
“All right fellas. Hands in the middle, ‘Cart Crew on three,” I said, in my best Michael Jordan pregame huddle voice. “Ready? 1, 2, 3, Cart Crew!”
I think one of my co-workers said it. The other one was probably wondering about my sanity.
When sports stopped in March, I was deep into spring training, making good money writing daily baseball stories for the Associated Press. I had a list of stories I wanted to get to and a plan on where and when to go get them. But COVID-19 hit, and suddenly it was all over.
I hoped it would only last a month, and we’d be back to work. But in my heart, I feared the worst — no sports for a considerable amount of time, and hence no income. I had NBA and NHL games on my schedule to cover, and those were canceled, too.
When it became clear that sports wouldn’t be back for a while, I knew I needed to find something to do. The life of a freelancer is a difficult one, hustling and being as available as possible on short notice to go to work and get paid, and it’s the only life I have known for more than 10 years.
Everything was shutting down. Two companies weren’t — Amazon and Costco.
I quickly ruled out Amazon and went online to apply for a temp job on Costco’s website. I filed my application early one evening, and five minutes later my phone buzzed.
It was a manager at the Costco store where I would eventually be employed. Two days later, I reported for my first day of work.
In Seattle, another lifetime ago as a newspaper reporter, I had heard about a TV producer who got laid off. I was later told he was working at a local Costco. I remember telling myself that wouldn’t happen to me.
I was wrong.
I needed a job to feel whole, to make my kids understand that Dad isn’t lazy, that he will go out there and work hard to help provide, wherever it may be. And Costco, with its extra $2 an hour of “hazard” pay for working in a grocery store amid the coronavirus, gave me a job.
My pride was certainly wounded. I was a former sports writer at a major newspaper covering an NFL team. I’ve done a lot in this business, and I wondered how in the hell I had gotten to this point in life.
But when income is needed in a family of five, you gotta check the pride at the door. So the guy who sat in press boxes or courtside at Suns games for a living was now constantly on his feet, hustling from whatever duty was asked of me to another. It was a physical and mental shock to my system.
Boxing groceries. Wrangling carts. Re-stocking aisles. Disinfecting. Sweeping. Mopping. Helping members find things in the store. Sweating. Leaving with sore feet and, in the first few days, a sore body.
Costco is no joke. As an employee you are constantly on the move. You walk thousands of steps in each shift. And on cart crew, you’re pushing stacks of carts around the parking lot (often by hand in 100-plus degree heat), picking up trash and sometimes helping members load groceries into their cars.
I hadn’t worked this hard since I was in high school during the summer. It was good to be a part of something, to truly earn your keep.
The store did a good job with safety precautions. We were given masks every day and could change gloves whenever we wanted to. For me that was several times a day. We were at risk of catching COVID, but we had all of the gloves and sanitizer we wanted at our disposal. The store even created another indoor break area with socially-distanced tables that I used often.
The exercise did me good. I lost weight, and worked 20-40 hours a week leaving me time with my kids. I got a cap, heavy-duty gloves, a cooling towel for the heat, free food once a week (at least until June) and the opportunity to shop after store hours.
I worked on my birthday, and people actually wished me a happy birthday. I made a lot of new friends, met many new people, something I would never have done if not for the job. I peppered a co-worker from Hawaii with questions about island life (“Shoots, cuz!!!”), and she was totally OK with it. I discussed helping to promote a co-worker’s burgeoning soccer career, which I still hope to do. I worked with a college student who could sing the first King George III song from “Hamilton” in the same vocal pitch, and spoke Spanish every day to members and co-workers.
After my first 30 days, I was given a performance review, and it was very positive. My supervisors liked me, spoke well of my work ethic, and gave me feedback on how to improve.
I learned so much on the fly. I hadn’t worked in retail since a summer job in college at a place that no longer exists, Mervyn’s. How to use a pallet jack. How to operate a cart pusher. How to grab as many boxes as possible from the produce guys when they brought them to the front end of the store amid a rush of customers and long lines.
Sometime around Memorial Day, my left foot began to hurt. I attributed it to soreness from the constant pounding of work, and my wife bought me super comfy hardcore running shoes with custom insoles.
A few days of rest calmed the pain. But in June it flared up again, and after a stretch of eight straight days of work, I resolved to go see a foot doctor.
An X-ray revealed a stress fracture. An MRI confirmed it. I was ordered to wear a giant boot and hobble around in it.
By the end of the month, I’d stopped going to work, told that the demands of my job were too great to allow me to report with my foot booted up. By July 16, my status as a seasonal employee expired, and I was let go.
It was so … sudden.
The work was hard, the corona risk fairly high with thousands of people coming in and out of the store daily while I was at work, and I “played through the pain” on many days. But the people I worked with made it all worth while.
I looked out for my cart crew guys, and I hope they will remember me for that. I was without a doubt the oldest guy out there during the late afternoon-night shift, and I tried to be a leader. I made sure to call my co-workers heroes, because indeed that is what they are in these times.
A diverse collection of folks. A chance to work with people of my ethnic background, which I cherished. An opportunity to learn more about places I had questions about, like Jamaica, Hawaii and western Canada. To talk politics, Black Lives Matter and coping with the virus and to listen to stories about my co-workers’ backgrounds and lives, and how different or similar they were to my own.
I may never work at Costco again. But I’m sure grateful I did.
So do my former co-workers a few favors if you all could:
1. Mask up for yours and others safety, and don’t complain about it. Follow store policy.
2. Return your cart to a corral, don’t just leave it near where you parked your car. If you can walk a thousand steps to shop, you can walk 50 more to leave your cart in the proper place. And if you could, turn it the same direction as others are facing.
3. Don’t toss your Costco card at the cashier. Hold it up to be scanned.
4. Please don’t leave trash — used masks, gloves, hot dog and pizza foil wrappers, etc. in your cart for employees to clean.
5. Don’t expect to be able to take home a couch or big TV in a small vehicle. Come with a pickup truck!