Life during COVID has been fraught with any number of changes and adaptations, as some of us got used to staying home, kitchen haircuts and Zoom calls. But many Americans deemed essential workers still had to wear something other than sweatpants and go to work every day so that the rest of us could feed ourselves and our families. Adam Kaat was one of those front-line workers.
Kaat is also a Denver writer who took a job stocking shelves to support himself while writing and then found himself in the middle of the pandemic. So he put his writerly brain to work, recording his experiences during this historic era and fictionalizing them for a novel. The result is his new book, Life on the Grocery Line.
We caught up with Kaat over email about his book, the pandemic, and what it was like to experience it all at a Denver supermarket.
Westword: Your new book is subtitled "A Frontline Experience in a Global Pandemic." Ripped from the headlines, right? Tell us what it's been like as an essential worker in 2020.
Adam Jonathan Kaat: For me, being an essential worker in 2020 was a test of endurance on the human spirit consisting of uncertainty, anxiety and revelation. Essential workers were burdened with the idea of being “essential” without their permission. None of the grocery store employees I know wanted to be separated from the crowd or put on a pedestal. But that’s the hand we were dealt. And my co-workers took the situation in stride despite the empty shelves and angry customers who took their frustrations out on us. Grocery store workers just want to be treated like humans and make a living wage. It’s simple, really: Be kind, and get on with your day.
You haven't worked in grocery retail for all that long, yeah? What does your work history look like, and why did you get into supermarkets?
Yes, I’m relatively new to grocery retail, but my first job was in a grocery store as a courtesy clerk at King Soopers, and I've spent most of my working life in customer-service roles. I enjoy working with people. It’s where I get to see humanity — or the lack thereof — in its raw and most interesting form. It’s less curated and incredibly fascinating.
In August of 2019, I quit my stable job at a big corporation because it was a bad situation for me, and I felt trapped in a cycle without time for my creative endeavors. I did so without having another job. I needed some time to recalibrate my life. It was the opportune time to finally sit down and write a different novel that I had been thinking about for ten years or so.
By the end of the year, I had a rough draft of the novel, but I was out of money. I needed a job that would allow the mental energy for editing and working on the book. The pay for the cashier job was not enough to keep me completely afloat, but it catered to my love of joking around with people. In a way, I got into supermarkets as a way to escape the vanilla existence I found myself in, and it worked in more ways than I could imagine.
Where did you work during the pandemic?
Whole Foods in Cherry Creek. I chose it because it was close to where I live, and it seemed like a lively place to work. Every time I was there, it was very busy. Also, I don’t own a car, so being within walking distance was important to me.
How did your store handle the pandemic?
The store seemed to manage it okay. I don’t know if any company could handle such an unexpected event, especially to the scale that it affects a company. But there are a few things I wish they had handled better. Like we received a raise for a few months, but I think that should’ve been extended out longer or just made permanent for those employees that stayed on.
What did you learn about the average Coloradan's response to fear?
It definitely varied. Most people I met were nice enough, and even concerned at the very beginning about the health and wellness of employees at the store. Everyone responds differently, but I think that most people adjust according to their own personal situation. Some folks seemed to think we were their enemy. My co-workers and I didn’t have a choice to go in to work, and for me, it changed the way I looked at the virus. I felt like it was less of a direct threat as opposed to a war of attrition.
How would you classify this book? Historical fiction?
I’d say once we are through the woods on the pandemic, it will be historical fiction or autobiographical fiction. But it’s written in present tense, because I want the reader to experience it in real time and as less of an abstraction.
Why fictionalize it at all? Why not just write directly from your own experience?
Writing the book as fiction allowed me to bend reality into a more true picture of how it felt to be an essential worker during the beginning of the pandemic. When I started assembling my stories and the experiences of my co-workers' stories into a book, I realized the line between fact and fiction was blurred more than ever in those first few months. Time was irrelevant. Every day was something new, from plexiglass dividers to wearing masks to wiping down the entire register between every customer to the point where my arm hurt. The interactions with a wide array of customers varied from calm and measured to paranoid narcissism. Some would wipe down all their groceries and stand as far back from the register as possible. Others would lecture me about one thing or another concerning the pandemic with their mask half down their face.
Talk a little about getting this book published. How did you find Inspired Press?
A writer friend of mine named Victoria McCune worked with Michelle at Inspired Forever Publishing for her memoir. She suggested I reach out to her and see if she would be interested in my project. I talked with Michelle a few times, and she loved the writing, concept and timeliness of the book. We talked over the options, and I decided to go with a print-on-demand style, considering my large audience on Facebook, and it expedited the time frame for publishing. With the help of my friend Sam from ShortChop Productions, I did a crowdfunding campaign on IndieGoGo to raise the initial funds and got nearly half of what I needed. The rest I put up from the last of my money. It was a challenge to manage this all, but it was incredibly rewarding to see people get their autographed copies and love the writing.
What's your writing background?
I mostly wrote just for myself until I started a brewery and distillery review blog with a friend called The Denver Hopper. It was a fun adventure where I met a bunch of super passionate and interesting people in the beer world. It ran for more than two years, and we reviewed something like fifty establishments. It was a great primer for starting lifeonthegroceryline.com.
Any upcoming projects?
More of a straightforward novel that continues Daniel’s story after Life on the Grocery Line. I want to follow Daniel's journey in the grocery world that leads to lower-middle management and the culture of retail. A grocery store is a fascinating place given the importance to community, the revolving door of different employees and the direct contact with the public.
What's the best part of being a writer in the Denver area?
I enjoy the people. The people I have met in the city are largely composed of transplants and go-getters. It’s a city of action where I see the mix of Midwest nice and coastal ambition that I find invigorating. I love this city. It’s caught at the nexus of innovation and good beer and legal weed. Oh, and those Bronco Orange sunsets make it a great place to lay my head.
Kaat’s novel Life on the Grocery Line is available now; for more information, check out his website.
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