I was at Meijer (a large Midwestern grocery chain) tonight, and in the checkout line I overheard the following conversation. I’m going to just describe it because I don’t remember what was said word for word.

The situation was, I was going through a checkout lane with a fair amount of downtime, because the people in front of me had to get some things price-checked, so the cashier was chatting with the guy working the next lane over. It sounded to me like they were roommates. First of all they talked a little about how tired they were–I got the impression it had been a pretty long shift. They were both about to get off work, so they started discussing what they might eat once they got home. The guy one lane over said he would probably just make some sandwiches. The guy on my lane said he was really hungry and wouldn’t it be great if they could make some burgers. The guy one lane over looked skeptical and said he was broke–why didn’t they wait until tomorrow, when the new stamps came in (I think that’s what he said), and then they could buy some ground beef and make tacos or burgers. For tonight, he suggested just having some grilled cheese.

Neither guy, not that this is really either here or there, acted rushed or surly or really anything other than totally cheerful and pleasant throughout this conversation and throughout my transaction, even though “my” guy got the go-ahead to turn his light off and go home partway through my order. He also made a note of the fact that I was buying some cereal that was on sale for $2.00 a box and implied that he would have to pick some up, leading me to believe that here was a person who either had to or chose to keep a pretty close eye on food prices (he was maybe in his late teens or early 20’s, not in my experience an age group that is always super-frugal, so the comment stuck out to me more than it would have if it had been made by, say, a mom my age with 3 kids in tow. Or maybe I’m just being sexist and assuming that young men can’t be bothered to keep track of food prices. I’m not sure).

I could have totally misunderstood the conversation, but (again, inferring a bunch of crap here that may or may not be true, especially the food stamps part, which I am not 100% positive I heard correctly), it sounded to me like I was listening to a couple of guys who worked long hours, shared housing, and still couldn’t really stretch their paychecks and food stamps to cover nourishing food for the whole month.

I mean, it’s not like I didn’t know with my brain that this situation–assuming I read it correctly–exists for lots and lots of hardworking people, but this conversation put a personal face on how inadequate minimum-wage or low-paying service jobs usually are to provide any kind of decent standard of living. Putting on my Captain Obvious uniform to tell you something you already know, there is an especially stark contrast here in Michigan between the good union jobs people without college degrees used to be able to get and the shitty service-sector jobs that are supposed to somehow “make up for” the loss of those jobs. Basically any expense related to treating employees like human beings these days appears to be considered expendable by shareholders, and it sucks.

Disclaimers: My husband and I are fortunate enough to both have access to job classifications that offer good salaries, retirement plans, and health benefits (at least for the time being). In fact, as I’ve said before, we are currently living just off my husband’s salary and are still perfectly comfortable financially. So I am viewing this anecdote from a lofty position of privilege. Also, I’m not indicting Meijer in particular; I really don’t know the first thing about their pay or benefit structure. But I suspect it can’t be great since they need to compete with Wal-Mart Supercenters and the like, and Meijer is where I happened to hear this conversation.