Now more than ever, Trader Joe’s comforts my soul. And recently, it has also shown me how to be a more empathetic leader, to remember the humanity around us.

But first, some history.

On the House

For the past dozen years — as I’ve taught middle school, steeped myself in faculty administration, and mothered two boys — Trader Joe’s has been there for me, a cozy and predictable harbor.

Our nearest store used to be scrunched into a narrow parking lot, its spaces cross-eyed. If you pulled into one driveway, you were liable to nip a car coming out. Even so, my neighbors and I piled in on weekend mornings, weekday evenings, and everything in between.

When my family first moved close to that Trader Joe’s, at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles, my two sons were four years and seven months old. I had returned from maternity leave two months before to launch our school’s every-six-year accreditation process, learning on the fly about previously unfamiliar departments.

Each weekend, with new facts about development and admissions still clattering in my brain, I would pull the turquoise seat cover over the top of the narrow cart and plop my baby into it. His fat legs wiggled, wanting to move, and I plied him with round multigrain crackers opened before we paid for them. We always ended our rounds at the sample corner, grabbing a bite of blueberry muffin or a sip of cranberry juice.  

Just two years after our family’s move — the accreditation visit done the spring before, my administrative responsibilities increasing — my mom, an English teacher and department chair herself, died of brain cancer on a Sunday in August, a young 64.

The following Friday night, hoping to cobble normalcy from jugs of milk and tubs of hummus, I drove down the hill, this time alone after both boys were asleep. I picked up pita bread, string cheese, applesauce, chocolate cat cookies, the trappings of life with little kids.

On the way out, a friendly clerk (they’re all friendly) asked me how my week had been. I didn’t expect to tell her anything but couldn’t help saying that my mom had died five days before, and I started crying in the checkout line.

The checker said she’d be right back, grabbed a mixed bouquet of flowers, and thrust them at me. “These are for you, on the house.” I kept crying, made it to my car, and told the story 10 times that week of how a checkout clerk from Trader Joe’s had helped me through grief I’d been pushing aside for days. The encounter reminded me how much even a passing kindness can touch the kids in our classroom, or the colleagues who visit with us day by day over lunch in the faculty room.

Assuaging a Different Kind of Grief

I hadn’t thought of that story in a while because, well, it seems like a long time ago. My mom has been gone now for almost a decade. My babies are now 15 and 12. And that Trader Joe’s fled down the hill years ago, to a bigger parking lot where the stripes run parallel, a flagship store with airy ceilings and standard-sized carts.

But recently the memory of my mom’s flowers came back, unbidden, as we all mourn the loss of so much in the wake of this novel coronavirus.

My family now lives close enough to this newer Trader Joe’s that we can walk, two blocks as the crow flies, three on foot. In normal times I take one driving trip there each Saturday morning or afternoon, depending on the soccer games, music performances, or school gatherings on the calendar.

The rest of the week I pop in, stop in, on a whim. I grab strawberries, green grapes, orange peppers — for salad, for breakfast, for a snack. Goat cheese, manchego, parmesan, to pair with scrambled eggs, raisin crisps, chicken tenders. Mini chocolate ice cream cones, triangular veggie samosas, spicy chicken tikka from the frozen section. So much food.

Often my 12-year-old son, far from sitting in the shopping cart, walks with me after dinner if he’s finished his homework. We stop for a sample, tell the person preparing it how delicious the toasted ciabatta or soy chorizo is, grab a cup of Joe’s Breakfast Blend to swish it down.

We say hello to employees we recognize, ask how business is this week, listen to the new credit card songs for the holidays. Sometimes I find myself acting like the teacher I am (and the teacher my mom was) by asking how long one checker has left until he finishes his associate degree, how another’s art history trip to Amsterdam went last month. The crew members’ energy always makes me wish I could work with them, reminds me to bring my full game to school the next day.

On the way to the store and back, my son and I look at the clouds or the moon or the sunset, gray or pearly or pink. We catch up on what his sixth-grade teachers said that day, who told which joke. We see who’s walking out of the animal hospital next door and remember when our cat got stitches. We smell Thai food from a block away and are hungry all over again, even though we just ate. Just weeks ago I saw people pressed up against the windows of our local library across the street, waiting to cast their vote as Super Tuesday wound down.

Trader Joe’s is our town square, my comfort food, all in one.

Leading by Example

So far during this national crisis, I haven’t seen any of the crew members hand out flowers. But this weekend, I saw what so many of us have experienced in recent days: crowds of people trying to line their cabinets with food to feed their families.

Two nights ago, just as people began flooding grocery stores, my husband and I walked to Trader Joe’s to get some staples, and we found entire sections wiped out — no meat, no beans, no milk, no eggs. To me it felt like devastation, my haven overwhelmed.

The next day, after being closed for hours in the morning waiting for inventory — and then shutting its sliding doors again to restock — our store reopened in the late afternoon.

On my walk by around 5, I noticed a relatively short line outside and realized that the employees were letting in small numbers of people at a time and limiting purchases, a strategy they’ve used regularly since then. I figured I’d try the line and take a few things home if I could.

After 10 minutes, I walked into the uncrowded store, marveling at the relative abundance compared to the night before. Green bananas full on their circular pedestal. Cheeses, all kinds. Apples: Gala and Envy and Jazz and Granny Smith.

The apples were what got me.

I looked at them and started tearing up, because it seemed unbelievable to have piles of apples for the taking after days of grocery scarcity. Trader Joe’s had made this cornucopia possible by stepping into the breach, by committing to a leadership decision that calmed customers bit by bit.

Keeping Human Connection

Beyond the two bags of groceries I took home, my arms weighted down as I walked, I was grateful for the people, for the Trader Joe’s crew members monitoring the line.

At one point while I was waiting, a customer coming from the sidewalk hadn’t realized that a line had formed back toward the parking lot, and he tried to go directly inside.

One of the employees at the door gestured past the cart return and said, “The line’s around the other side, my friend.” And he meant it.

To say “my friend” in a time of fracture — to offer a genuine human connection, however brief, lifting spirits — this is the ultimate lesson I will carry back to school when all of this is over.

After we’ve forgotten what it’s like to dread empty shelves, once we return to being always off to the next thing, I hope this one sticks.