True Tales of Horror from the Grocery Store

I wouldn’t want to be a grocery checker right now.  They’re the infantry, the poor sods that the generals send in first to get mowed down by gunfire.  I hole up at home watching Netflix and eating too much cheese.

However, I do know a Vons checker.  His name is Miguel, and he has some tales to tell from the front lines.

20200408_055238Miguel remembers quite clearly the day the COVID panic hit.  It was Friday the 13th of March.

“All of the sudden, a flood of people came in and we were overwhelmed,” Miguel said.  “We were running all of the checkstands, plus all of the new self-checkout stands.  We started running out of things, but whenever we brought out a new palette, people were just grabbing things off it before it could even get to the right aisle.  It was unlike anything I had ever seen before.  We usually close at 1 am, but that night, we decided to close at 10.  We just ran out of supplies.

“On Saturdays, we usually opened at 5 am, but it soon became obvious that that wasn’t enough time to get all the products restocked, so we waited until 7.  When we opened the door, it was even crazier than the day before.  People were in a state of buy buy buy.  It turned out being a record sales day.”


That was over a month ago, of course, which seems like a lifetime ago.  In general, people have been calm and polite to each other, says Miguel, even more now than before the pandemic.  However, there have been exceptions.

“My manager tried to enforce the limits on toilet paper on this one customer, and he threatened to beat him up,” Miguel said.  “On another occasion, he received a death threat.  Those people haven’t been back to the store.”

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Every morning at 5 am, there’s a line waiting outside the store, because that’s when the store is fully stocked.  Generally, it’s about 10 people deep, usually maintaining a 6-foot distance from each other.  By 7, they begin their 2-hour window for seniors, pregnant women, and the disabled.

One day, a guy appeared in that line who obviously didn’t fit into the required categories, and the manager questioned him about it.

“Well listen, my kids gotta eat, too!” the man said in a belligerent manner.

The manager let him in.  They’re grocery clerks, after all, not paramilitary forces.

A few days ago, I talked with Miguel again.  He hadn’t seen his girlfriend in five weeks.  He was working long hours.  The anxiety was getting to him.  Fortunately, the crowds have slowed down considerably.  In addition, corporate is treating them extremely well.  However, there are still incidents.

One day, a female clerk was standing at the front door making sure that people were wearing masks, and a man objected.

“This is not a prison!” he yelled.  “We have rights!”

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Another customer who was stopped for not wearing a mask yelled: “I fought in Vietnam!  I can do whatever I want!”

Did I mention that most customers have been extremely kind and polite?

Every time I go to the grocery store, I take all the precautions.  I put on my face mask.  I seal it up on the edges with medical tape.  I put a playing card in the pocket to physically block the virus.  I don’t even take a shopping cart; I just hold my bags.  I rush through the store, picking up products quickly one after another, trying not to pass through anybody else’s exhaust, so to speak, avoiding close contact.  But Miguel has to work in that environment eight hours a day, five days a week.

I mentioned to him that to many, food workers are heroes.


But Miguel would have none of it.  He launched into a monologue about heroes, that nobody at Vons is patting themselves on the back for being a hero, that when you see it in the newspapers, it’s all just hype from the unions, that the employees have all the gloves they want, all the masks they want, extra hand sanitizer, and blah blah blah.  Finally, I just interrupted him.

“Look, that’s what heroes say,” I said.  “Somebody rescues a little kid from a burning house, and they say that say they’re not a hero, that they just did what anybody else would have done.  Some soldier saves 15 buddies who are pinned down by enemy fire, and guess what, he says he’s not a hero, too, that his 5 other buddies who died are the heroes.  Dude, that’s what all heroes say!  Accept it!  You are a kind of hero!”

That shut him up.

[Miguel is a food clerk at a Vons in the north San Fernando Valley.]

It Doesn’t Get Any Worse Than This

A couple years ago, a woman I’d never met asked if I could perform a motivational magic show for her university.

“Of course,” I said.

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“We’re having a holiday party for 300 of our employees,” Lori said.  “But we need it to have motivational content for it to be funded.”

“No problem.”

They were proposing to pay me an ungodly amount of money for a 30-minute show.  I mean, it was a huge amount that actually made my month go from subpar to phenomenal, and just thinking about the amount, I starting buying things in my head.  By the end of the day, the check was half spent.

If you think about it logically, doing this kind of show is no big deal.  If you have a magic show that works for you, as I do, an act that you’ve done several thousand times, as I have, and you know where the jokes are and how to tell them, and where the volume rises and where to hit the high notes, and how to choreograph it like some sleight-of-hand ballet, then it can be argued that the show runs on autopilot.  The motivational part was going to be a little more of a challenge, but hey, I used to be an international journalist with over 500 published articles on four continents, so how hard was that going to be?  I could tell a story.

The motivational story that I chose was my mother’s, which I have blogged about here.  It’s become quite popular on WordPress.  I poured a lot of passion into writing the motivational story, and then rehearsing it, and then fitting it seamlessly into the context of the magic show.

Sally (R) at school with another Mexican-American friend

Sally (R) around the time when she faced the biggest challenge of her life.

As the performance date drew near, however, a part of me began to feel a little nervous.  The apprehensiveness wasn’t based on logic, but instead, on how much money was riding on it.  It was like the money was sitting on top of me.  The more I thought about it, the more pressure I felt.

I began to think about all the things that could go wrong.


Insomnia was one of those things.  For many years, insomnia had been my worst enemy, and like a bum knee, it still sometimes flared up.  As a magician, you keep late hours and that can screw up your circadian rhythms.  Not only that, but my call time was 9 am, meaning I’d have to get up at 6 am, an ungodly hour for an insomniac.  That meant I would have to hurry in the morning.  I don’t like to hurry.  I don’t like to worry.  I like to relax before a show.  It makes me more nervous, which in turn makes me more nervous, which in turn makes me more nervous, and so on.

And then there was the problem of traffic.  The show was taking place in my own Southern California, and the morning commute from my house to that university is, to put it mildly, an extreme sport.

No problem.  I’d book a hotel room down the street from the theatre.

But that made me nervous, too.  It occurred to me that people don’t always sleep well in new surroundings.  Insomnia could flare up simply because I wasn’t comfortable.  So I rented the room for two nights, just to make doubly sure.


What were you thinking?

There’s a built-in problem in answering this simple question.  It’s hard to tell people what you were thinking at any particular time, because so many thoughts run through your head at any particular moment.  There were confident thoughts, insecure thoughts, bombastic thoughts, sexual thoughts, renegade thoughts.  The mind is like a radio constantly being tuned to different channels.  Sometimes, it seems that there are so many people inside of us–Spock, Id, Loki, Genghis, Milquetoast, and so many others–each fighting to say his own truth.  The same was true of me before this big show, but in thinking back and writing about what happened here, I must confess that I’m focusing mostly on my scared and anxious self.

I took steps to control my anxiety.

Two nights before the event, I checked into the hotel.  Then, the day before the performance, I started taking precautions to make sure I’d get a good night’s sleep.  Good eating, good exercise, no caffeine.  That night, I climbed into bed and switched off the light.  Closed my eyes.

The art of getting to sleep, as everyone knows, is in not trying.  You lie down and let your body do what comes naturally.  You sink into oblivion.  You just let it happen.

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No need to panic, I told myself.

I had taken precautions.  On the nightstand was a Chinese herbal sleeping formula called Suan Zao Ren that I had often found helpful.  I took a couple capsules.  I took a few deep breaths, then laid down and tried to not try to get to sleep again.

After an hour, still nothing.

No need to panic, I told myself.

I reached onto the nightstand and took a second dose of Suan Zao Ren.  I believe in Chinese medicine.  It heals the body in a natural way rather than in a brutal pharmaceutical way.  There are fewer side effects.  I laid back and waited for the medicine to take effect.

Still nothing.

It occurred to me that there must be an underlying layer of anxiety that was keeping me awake.

I tried not to think about what time it was, although it was inevitable that I would.  I judged midnight as Doom Hour, because if I got to sleep after midnight, I would be getting less than six hours of sleep.  Normally, six hours is the least amount of sleep I can get and still feel optimal.  Anything less than that and I feel like I’m on some sort of drug that makes me feel punchy and impaired.

So I took a couple more Suan Zao Ren and took another stab at sleep.  By this time, I was trying hard not to try hard.  My anxiety was rising against all my best efforts.  I kept my eyes closed and tried to sink into the bed, the pillow, the clean white sheets.

Still nothing, and the nothing went on for a long time.

Finally, I looked at the clock.  It was 1 am and it seemed like I had passed the fateful window of opportunity for going to sleep.  I took a deep breath.  It seemed that I was in uncharted territory, like the forbidden Romulan zone or walking into the forest outside the gates of Jamestown in 1605.  I counted the hours till 6 am and dreaded doing a show on only five hours sleep.  I imagined oversleeping.  I imagined slurring my words.  I imagined forgetting things.  I imagined the worst.  I took two more Suan Zao Ren and started taking a liquid I’d bought called SLP that was supposed to make you sleepy.

By 2 am, the lights were out and I had my eyes closed, but the anxiety was still there.  I took another couple doses of Suan Zao Ren and SLP and wondered what constituted an overdose.  I imagined the headlines: MAGICIAN SUICIDE: OVERDOSES ON CHINESE MEDICINE BEFORE SHOW.  NO SUICIDE NOTE.  I wiped those thoughts from my mind and took a few deep breaths.  I watched a bit of television, hoping that television lull me into the netherworld.  Finally, I turned off the lights and closed my eyes once again.

You can do this, I said to myself, my eyes closed.  Remember, you can do anything.  You’ve proven that to yourself before.

By 4 am, my mind was roiling with apocalypse.  Oh God, I couldn’t stay awake all night.  I hadn’t done that since college.  Something terrible would surely happen.  I tried and tried and tried and tried and tried and tried to will myself to sleep, but of course, that’s not how sleep works, it must simply land upon you like falling snowflakes on endless Kansas wheatfields.

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I tried a different tack.

Well, the very worst thing has happened, I said to myself.  You can relax now.  It doesn’t get any worse than this, and you’re not dead.  So calm down.

But still I didn’t.

By 6 am, the alarm clock rang.  I dragged myself out of bed, feeling an overwhelming fatigue in my bones.  I hadn’t caught a wink of sleep all night.  I took a deep breath and winced at the bright sunlight.

You can do this, I thought to myself.  You can do anything.

I arrived at the venue, which was a huge, lovely theatre on campus, and by 9 am, I was all set up and waiting for my cue behind the curtain. Before I went on, Lori came up to me.

“The president of the university is in the audience,” she said.

“Oh, nice,” I said.

I closed my eyes.

It keeps getting worse and worse!

The pressure was at a fever pitch.  On the other side of the curtain, 300 people plus one bigwig were waiting expectantly in their seats.  Above myself, it seemed that Loki was hovering, bemused, arms crossed, eager to see what strange and horrific things might happen.  And I waited there, breathing deeply, saying over and over again, It’s all right.  Everything will be fine.  Just do it.

The sound man hit my music and I made my entrance, but when I reached centerstage, I stopped cold.  I just stood there.  It was a very long moment.

“I’m just waiting for the lights,” I finally said into my microphone.

The sound man, a young man with bedhead who, when I’d met him at 7:10 am, had seemed even sleepier than I was, probably because he’d done the sound engineering at some techno club the night before and had then done ecstasy in some skank’s crash pad till 6 am, had forgotten to turn on the damned spotlights.  As a result, anything I did in front of these 300 people would not be seen.  If you can’t see it, remember, it’s not magic.  I said what I said in a kind of CYA moment, trying to make it clear to Lori that this damned screwup wasn’t my fault!  Thinking back, it was a moment of incredible clarity and quick thinking, and boded well for the rest of the show.

Finally, after a few long moments, the lights went on and I started my show.  This is what the show looked like.

When the final applause came and I pulled my magic table behind the curtain, I felt an incredible sense of relief.  I wasn’t dead.  I hadn’t passed out onstage.  I hadn’t forgotten my entire script.  It seemed like I had snatched victory from the jaws of Satan–but still, you can never be sure.  There had been little disappointments, as there are in every performance.  I had slurred my words during certain bits.  I had delivered a joke twice.  I didn’t know if people could detect the telltale dark circles under my eyes.  So I stood backstage and waited patiently until Lori swept backstage.  It seemed like she had a cloud of energy around her.

Great job!” she enthused.

And then she was gone.

I tried to find a few moments to shut my eyes, but there was so much to deal with.  I had to deal with props, mainly, and there was no place to lay down.  They had also contracted for me to perform an hour of walkaround at noon, and I swear, that took 250% of the energy I thought I had left in me.  My voice was getting hoarse and had nearly become useless, but nearly is not the same as completely, and I was able to fake it and croak out an hour’s worth of magic and humor.  By 2 pm, I was ready to drive home.

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That night, I went to bed and slept for 12 hours.  And the next morning, I realized three things:

  1. Missing a night’s sleep will not kill me.
  2. What I thought was a 100% effort is quite far from the effort I can actually put forth.
  3. There’s no need to worry about anything, really, and I mean anything, because whatever challenge is placed before me, dammit, I can deal with it.  So shut up and just do it.