HolidayJewels, Part 3

My bowl of butter and I attempted an air of mystery on our walk. The deli counter guys gave us a stare as they wrapped up for the day. Cellophane wrap flashed between their hands. The taller of the three men undid four buttons on his butcher’s coat and it flapped open on a diagonal. It didn’t seem to help with ventilation or comfort, but it did expose a maroon t-shirt with a picture of a tongue. 

“You boys better cool it with that wrap before Brad sees yous,” said a voice directly behind my right shoulder. I glanced carefully to see a small woman stocking limes in the produce bin across from the deli counter. Her words scolded, but she giggled and reddened at the top of her cheeks, straight into her hairline, back into her ponytail pulled tight at the middle-back of her head. Her bronzed skin spoke of years past mine, but likely we were about the same age. In another life we might have met in a high school hallway, but we were there now anyway.

The taller deli guy winked at me. I raised my butter bowl as some kind of response and quickly tapped my way to the bakery pen. Awkward suits me better than mystery. 

The butter swirled into something else, and all the elses swelled into something mores. We powdered them, primped them, plated them. I washed our dishes as Paige re-packed the baking tools back into the box. The power washer in the industrial sink made washing a lot faster than at home, but it also splashed me with an uncomfortable amount of spray. If only my terrible roommate could get soaked while doing chores as well. Per the typed chore chart on the refrigerator, it was my turn to clean the unused guest bathroom for the second week in a row and I had already plotted how to get out of it. 

The roommates, sisters, hadn’t yet shown just how terrible they would get. There would be the fallout from all my chore revolts. There would be the time I would forget to drop off the rent at the appointed hour and would wake up to a screaming phone call. There would also, separately, be my financial downfall of teaching yoga full time. Three months later, I would be living on CVS brand, sale-price, trail mix, taking three buses to pick up my car from the impound lot. But this was October and it wasn’t quite bleak yet.  

We had a packed house of 17 people squirming in their metal folding chairs. Brad had secured an amp and a microphone for me, and now stood at the end of our folding table poking at the display products. 

“So, how long have you been doing these,” Brad asked. He meant it to me, but he spoke to the plastic bottle of ground cinnamon. 

“Uh, I think this is my eighth,” I said, smoothing the white tablecloth over the opposite end. I feigned uncertainty, as if by being sure I would be found out of my financial status. I knew exactly how many we had done because I knew exactly when and how much I should be paid. 

“Oh, so you’re a pro now, huh,” Brad chuckled. He set the cinnamon down on top of the nutmeg, built a tower. 

“Oh, something like that,” I said. I re-tied my white apron over my white, sleeved, cotton top and black tailored pants that I had almost definitely pulled off of the floor that morning. There was nothing left to set up or do before we began, but I found it hard to stay still with Brad hovering in our performance space. My job, in all seriousness, was to connect with the people sitting in the metal chairs. This wasn’t an uppity cooking show, this was a demonstration of how to take products most suburban moms would buy for the holidays anyway, and turn it into something the neighborhood families would talk about. 

“Did you try those cookies with the piped frosting? Can you believe Sheryl has three kids under five and she whipped that up?” 

To get Sheryl to believe she could do this, and to get her to believe I didn’t think it was totally disgusting to spray frosting out of a can like Easy Cheese, I had to suspend my actual self. I could have been Sheryl. I was headed for Sheryl. And then I had freaked out and I had run away for a different life. The life of hiding in my room from my terrible roommates, where I picked out a city to move to on a map and budgeted how many Zone bars I could eat that week. Not only did I have to gain Sheryl’s trust while also not wanting her life, but I so badly didn’t want it that I had become a human wrecking ball to bust up any path that led there. 

And it was difficult to be all those things while standing next to Brad and his spice tower. 

“Alright, well Paige and…” Brad paused. “Katie? I’ll let you get to it.” 

I sighed. Baby steps. 

“How are you all doing tonight, are you ready for the holidays?” I asked. Out of the amp echoed a singsong that belonged to an adult I had heard once.

Holiday Jewels, Part 2

“Is there somewhere we can put our things,” I asked. 

“Yeah, you can put your purses over against the wall,” Rhonda said, waving in a general direction as she coughed and walked away. “Hillary, I’m off at five, so I’m out.” 

Hillary stopped the power washer in the sink and turned to face both us and Rhonda. She was the youngest of the three by far, with only faint faint creases in her face. Her warm, blonde hair tufted away from her cheeks in waves. 

“OK, Rhonda. You have a good night. Yeah, you two can put your bags over there in the corner,” Hillary said to us. “A couple of my girlfriends came to that holiday demo last year and said it was real fun. They made some par-fit kind of thing for Christmas and it was a big hit.”

“Oh, yeah?” I said. I was out of steam. We had exactly one hour to make all of the recipes and I had eaten exactly one protein bar and a coffee for the day. 

“It’s perfect for parties,” said Paige. “The recipes are really crowd-pleasers.” Thank goodness for Paige and her positive attitude. I had lied for one sentence and gave up. 

Paige and I left our things in the safety of the bakery and wandered the aisles of the full grocery store, shopping for all the ingredients we would need for the demo. Some for actual cooking, and some for the display. The experience was sponsored by a big-name food company as a way to plug their products for the holidays. Everyone knew to buy the trusted brand of sugar or the big-name spices, but did you know that you could combine these products to make a huge lump of sugared, spice bread and call it something weird? Neither did I. 

By the time we returned to our home base at the bakery section. Hillary had left for the day. We stole as many tall racks as we could find to house our materials and finished products. The demo went in order of the recipes. For each one, I would chat up the crowd with small facts and anecdotes as Chef Paige whisked and mixed and prepped. Then we would take finished products from the racks and hand them out as samples. 

It had been a month since Paige had called me and asked me to help emcee this project. She had already been hired as a chef to tour around suburban Chicago grocery stores. I called her after she put out a Facebook message asking for people with entertainment backgrounds to apply for a new gig. Entertainment was a stretch - I was an independent contractor teaching mostly art-based workshops to students and teachers through a museum. Though, I had a background in theater circa high school and college, and I wasn’t afraid of talking in front of large groups of humans. 

I don’t have a “how yoga saved my life” story. I’ve been doing yoga since I was a very strange 12-year old and I’ve never had an issue with substance abuse. In the fall of 2010, when I started yoga teacher training, I was also living with terribly mean people, having just abruptly ended a serious relationship. I had taken this job as the host of a grocery store cooking demo because, while it was sort of acting, it was definitely paying me enough to eat just more than one protein bar and a cup of coffee per day. 

So, yoga didn’t save my life. And it made me pretty broke. And the fact that I was the most sad just before and during teacher training would be what you would call “circumstantial.” If you want a “how yoga saved my life” story, you will have to read a different story. But, before I was a yoga teacher, I had one million weird jobs. And this was one of them. 

“Does the rack have enough room for the rest of these buckeyes,” asked Paige. 

“Um, I think? I’ll check,” I said. I walked into the walk-in freezer adjacent to the wash pit in the bakery. The bakery, as evidenced by our sprawling co-option, was the hub of the Jewel. The fridge, the wash pit, the counter space, the massive oven, all cordoned off with a sweet little swinging door behind the cake display. The bakery women, called girls, were the envy of the store, and it was obvious we didn’t deserve to play in their space. 

“Yeah, we can fit like four more trays,” I called from the walk-in. I swung around the rack taller than me to face the chilled shelves. Piles of paper sacks labeled “cookies,” “oatmeal cookies,” “chocolate chunk cookies,” all stared back at me in their miserably disheveled state. The bakery deal was a scam - none of these baked goods started from scratch. They were all portioned out and pre-packaged. They were the frozen tater tots of desserts, passing off as a real operation due to their surroundings. 

I shuffled out of the walk-in with my careful, metal taps. I had just discovered Santa wasn’t real, and his stand-in had bought toys at a wholesale, discount retailer. But we had a show to do, and no one but me was surprised that the Jewel bakery did not measure sugar by hand. 

For all of its false old-world charm, the bakery also did not have a microwave. In order to melt the butter, I had to take a bowl to the break room, up the stairs and around the corner. The stairs were lined with cardboard stars, reminding employees to smile, help out the customers, and most importantly, shine. 

Every microwave is a little different, but they all smell vaguely like soup. I’m not sure if I learned this from the script or from Paige, but to accurately melt butter and/or chocolate, you use 10 second intervals and stir it between rounds. 

“Employee of the Month” Erica stared at me from above the microwave as I waited. There were no criteria listed, so I had to assume that regardless of her mugshot, Erica must really “shine like a Jewel” as the stairs instructed. 

No one seemed concerned with me or my bowl of butter on my way back down to the bakery. Although judging by the strong scent of soup, employees seemingly walked around with mysterious bowls all the time

Holiday Jewels, Part 1

There was supposed to be someone to greet us, but there never was. Paige held the box of equipment, carefully packaged to fit in one trip from the car. I leaned my heavy shoulder bag against the customer service counter and pedaled my feet. We had done eight of these so far; we were contracted for ten. The balded heels of my shoes gave no support, but they did tap a soothing metallic sound against the grocery store tile. 

“You’re here to do what?” Lynnette said from behind an inordinately tall, wooden wall. 

“We’re here for the holiday demo,” I said, craning my neck to look up at Lynnette on her customer service throne. She could seemingly survey the entire Jewel store from her perch, but still could not find Brad, the store manager. 

“Paging Mr. McCarver to customer service. Brad McCarver, you are needed at the front,” Lynnette said into a hidden microphone, in a tone much different than she used with us. 

“I don’t know where he’s got to, but he’s the only one who knows where to put you,” Lynnette said. Back in her regular voice, the kind parents use with bored children. She gave us a wave to move to the side, and furrowed her brow under her nicotine-yellow, ramen curls. 

I took out the scripts to review while we waited. It was an hour presentation and we had done it enough times to go off book, but it was a security blanket and I always felt like we missed something. Plus it kept my brain from wandering to my dangerously low bank account. 

“Hello girls,” Brad McCarver said, loudly, as he walked toward us. He had a stunted gait for someone so tall, and a voice that bellowed lower than his thin frame could likely support for long periods of time. “How’re we doing today?”

“Good, thanks,” we said. I wanted to say, “well,” like a good grammarian, but I couldn’t get it to come out. 

“I’m Brad,” said Brad. He smoothed his white button-down with his hands, flipped his Bears tie up at the end. His hair, if he were a woman, would be described as “mousy,” but since he was a man, he paired it with a signature mustache. “It’s Kate, and…?”

“Paige,” said Paige. 

“Great,” said Brad with too much enthusiasm for only learning two people’s first names. “So, what do we need to get started?”

I began to worry that Brad wanted to do the demo with us since he kept saying, “we.” I pictured trying to talk him through how to cook the braided cherry dessert and making jokes at his expense to the audience. He would get cherry sauce on his tie and we’d all laugh at how bad Jay Cutler was.

“We need to use the bakery, so if you can help us set up there,” Paige said. 

“And we have a list of things to get - do you have a card for us to use, or how should we buy them,” I asked. 

“Of course, of course,” Brad said. “Let me get you over to the girls in the bakery, and then you can get started.”

We walked through produce section. Workers stocking the vegetables gave head nods to Brad, stared at us. 

“Girls! How’re we doing today? Smells good in here,” Brad said. 

The “girls” in the bakery were three women with an average age of 58. The bakery section smelled mostly the same at the rest of the store, with a cloud cover of chocolate cookies. The three women blushed at Brad’s presence. They glared at us. 

“This is Kate, and…” 


“Kate and Paige. They are here to do the holiday cooking demo for the store. So can we show them around, let them set up? How’s the baking today?”

“Oh, Brad, you know how it goes on a Monday,” the woman washing dishes against the wall said. 

“Yeah, and Rhonda’s been gone all weekend so she don’t know where an’thing is no more,” the second woman said from behind a rack of rolls. 

“Psshh, this place,” the third woman, presumably Rhonda, said as she pulled two trays of cookies out of an oven the size of a futon. 

“Haha, alright ladies,” Brad said. He stuck his hands in his pockets like he just realized he had pockets and should put them to use. “Well, I’ll let you get started, you let me know if you need anything.” 

Brad backed out of the bakery pen and disappeared past the dairy case.  

“So, you girls professional bakers?” Rhonda asked as she peered into the box of equipment Paige had set on the steel counter. 

“She is,” I said, pointing to Paige. “I’m here to talk to people.” 

“Hmph,” Rhonda said. “What kind of recipes you got?” I handed her the small, magazine-paper booklet we were to hand out to the audience. 

“They’re pretty good,” I said. They were not. I feared her reproach as a professional baker herself - us, using processed cans of crap to make recipes that tasted fine but not interesting on any level other than you could make them and keep four children alive at the same time. An underrated selling point, sure, but not what one could call “fancy.”