As an artist, I cannot remember a time when working a side job (or two) was not an option. In 1998/99 I had been married for the better part of two years, and, while focusing my energies on a nascent music career, I worked at Ramer's Market, a mom & pop grocery store in Baton Rouge. During the slow hours behind the cash register, typically between 9:00 and 11:00 a.m., interrupted only by the occasional customer and my own paranoia to appear busy, I passed much of the time writing songs, jotting lyrics down on whatever paper was within arms-length, usually brown grocery bags. I also did crossword puzzles, read the newspaper, and committed to memory Reader’s Digest’s crummy jokes: “Did you hear about the astrologer who was in a car wreck? She had an auto-body experience.”
Being a natural early bird, I was one of the few people willing to take the early stock shift. On Wednesday mornings I’d show up, pour a cup of coffee — an opaque chicory — help unload the semi, cross-check the store’s order with what we actually received, then help stock and “front” the shelves while customers began straggling in. You are missing out if you’ve never fronted shelves (arrange and order items so they line up from the front). To this day, my OCD tendencies compel me to work pro bono in reorganizing a grocery store’s shelf of canned tomatoes or Fruit Loops. For inexplicable reasons, I find great pleasure in this needless act of tidying up. I am a grocer’s dream customer.
Ramer’s occupied a long cinder block building on the corner of Jefferson and Oliphant Road. Next door was a barbershop, its telltale peppermint pole spinning outside, and at the far end was a salon. Every so often its female clients appeared in the store, their skulls embroiled in a chaos of curlers, dyes, and aluminum foil. They came to purchase a soda and a snack — something, I suppose, to kill the time while their scalps metamorphosed. The boss of Ramer’s, Mrs. Helen, an old family friend, epitomized the joie de vivre for which south Louisianans are known. She was jolly, laid back, snarky, and sarcastic. We got along just fine. Her parents, the grocery’s namesake, opened the business in 1962. Sadly, Ramer’s shut its doors permanently in 2001.
With its crumbling laminate floor tiles, low asbestos ceiling, and curious IOU system, Ramer’s was a holdout from a bygone era. There was a time in America when stores allowed their familiar, regular clientele to keep a running tab of grocery receipts to be paid at the end of each month. Businesses trusted their clientele, and, with very few exceptions, customers were good for it. It was a rudimentary system, this wad of receipts stapled several times over. In my brief stint at Ramer’s, very few tabs went unpaid, and when it did happen, Mrs. Helen merely shrugged it off, not with litigious threats, but in disgust and laissez-faire. C’est la vie.
Most folks who came through the store were friendly, but a few were grumps — you learned quickly who they were — who wanted only to acquire their weekly carton of Basic menthols and fifth of Absolut vodka with as few social pleasantries as possible. On the opposite extreme were folks who bothered asking my name, who dared being amiable, like the machinery mechanic who bought his lunch there nearly every day. His typical purchase: two chili dogs, a bag of chips, a 20 oz. soft drink, and a soft pack of Marlboros. I always looked forward to seeing folks like him who were never so busy, bitter, or malcontent as to remember they were not the only soul on earth.
At Ramer’s you were given the option of paper or plastic bags. Looking back, it seems to have been a major technological advance in that its cash registers were digital, not 1000 lb., hand-cranked antique brass Nationals. Every person who worked here — my two siblings and I each served time at Ramer’s — eventually dabbled in all of the mundane tasks of small business: ring up the bill, bag groceries, sweep and mop floors, take out the trash, prepare sandwiches in the deli (to this day the best ground beef BBQ PoBoy I’ve ever had), price inventory, stock and front shelves, and more or less get to know the customers by name, at least the ones who wanted to be known.
Though I filled in wherever needed as best I could, it was a rare moment of brilliant clarity the day I stood my ground, steadfastly refusing to work in the butchery. The very thought of standing all day on a bloody floor, wielding sharp cutlery, slicing pork butts, T-bones, livers, gizzards, and other unappealing mildly edible organs held no appeal for me. I absolutely could not have been paid enough in her majesty’s gold ingots to work as a boucher during hunting season when Cajun men and women alike lugged in huge ice chests full of recently slain deer, entrusting their friendly butcher to yield X number of steaks, loins, back strap medallions, ground meat cocktails of X% pork (for fat) and X% venison sausage.
It wasn’t that I was opposed to hunting, to the shed blood of an animal or to the consumption of its meat. No, the reason is that I was, and still am, afraid of screwing up, of failing. No part of me cherishes the thought of ruining anything, much less someone’s precious, hard-earned prize. One day there was a miscommunication in a customer’s order, and when this particular hunter arrived to pick up his slabs of venison steaks, he instead received white butcher paper packages full of ground Bambi. He wasn’t thrilled, and according to him, his quarry had now been rendered “useless.”
Even though I was offered a butcher position several times (along with its accompanying wage increase), I wisely opted to constrain myself to the relatively blood-free arena of the cash register where customers could instead gripe at me, a veritable junior Alan Greenspan of the food commodities market, over the price of a can of string beans, or the rising cost of cigarettes at the then astronomical price of $1.50 per pack (this was around the time the tobacco industry was being heavily fined for conveniently hiding from the public its decades-long knowledge that nicotine was not only addictive, but carcinogenic). My youthful appearance and naïveté were a successful ruse since customers clearly believed I, a baby-faced government agent working undercover as Joe Shmoe cashier in a tiny local grocery in south Louisiana, held immense influence and political sway over the price of goods and services in these United States of America. Thus, at me did customers grumble. I’ve since sworn off working retail.
That said, I have never known a time when working a full- or part-time side job in order to make ends meet wasn’t necessary. Wise or no, music is my vocation, but I’ve continually wrestled with having no choice but to be bi-vocational. For twenty years I’ve persisted, struggled, remained dogged in a stubborn belief that what I have to offer is not worthless, not entirely self-seeking or trite, but genuinely believing that I am a little over halfway decent at writing artful and soulful songs. But like so many nooks in my hypersensitive soul, I’ve discovered, even manufactured, ways to be ashamed of the fact that I am not good enough as an artist (I’m taking a mighty big liberty in assuming this title). This work — the songs, albums, shows, paintings, folk art sculptures — to which I have dedicated my adult life has never been enough to provide for my family. As a middle-aged man, I admit I am ashamed of this. Shame. There’s that word, that awful devil of a beast of a word.
A self-saboteur, I lug humiliation around with me as if in one of those brown paper grocery sacks. Some days the bag is dry, solid and stout, and I’m able to keep shame contained, recognizing its stirring and vicious clawing to free itself. Most days, however, that bag may as well be soaking, flimsy wet the way shame so easily escapes, runs amok, and tears into me with all the venom and vitriol it has to give. And that’s just it: shame gives nothing, it only takes. As with those early song lyrics on grocery bags, my hope is that the words written, uttered, and sung were, and still are, ways of confiscating the debilitating shame and guilt I carry around like a dead, needless burden.
And just maybe, in the exercise of naming, shame’s power over me is further diffused. Rare is the day I can hold my head high, genuinely pleased with God’s way in my life, or mine in His, content with a day of mowing lawns, landscaping flower beds, pulling weeds, spreading mulch, bagging groceries, sweeping floors, or fronting shelves (whether voluntary or in paid employ), believing that the Lord of hearts actually likes me for who I am, that He finds pleasure in my very existence, that He has a plan, that He hasn’t hidden Himself away in the Garden for good. Like committing crummy jokes to memory, remembering is intentional, the discovery of great gain in contentment. Where the debris of spilled baggage reaches its angle of repose, the place where physical objects come to rest along an incline (to borrow from Wallace Stegner), there is rest from the near-constant onslaught of shame, of striving to be enough, to make ourselves worthy, to, in effect, make gods of ourselves. And maybe not being enough is a healthy place to be, a place where God is good and is enough, all the time.
I am my father’s son
By name, blood, by birth
The flesh, though deceptive
Must surely rest first.
—“Angle of Repose” (Eric Peters, circa 1998)
Eric has been writing and performing songs for listening humans since 1993, and is currently recording his 10th studio album, Far Side of the Sea (releasing early 2016). He has a heart for folks who struggle with anxiety, depression, and who are seeking recovery. Eric also paints canvases and creates sculptures out of found objects (The Daily Piece), and buys and resells used books (The Book Mole). Eric originally hails from south Louisiana, and now lives in Nashville, TN, with his wife and two children. He can be visited at www.ericpeters.net.