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Colorado Edition: A conversation with 'Life on the Grocery Line' author Adam Kaat

Author Adam Kaat stands in front of a brick wall. He is a white man wearing a black hat and a black zippered hoodie.
Adam Kaat
Adam Kaat, author of "Life on the Grocery Line: A Frontline Experience in a Global Pandemic"

According to an analysis from the Bell Policy Center, around 20% of Colorado’s workforce are considered essential workers, in fields ranging from healthcare to transportation to stocking the shelves of grocery stores. And while many people were able to work remotely during the pandemic, these essential workers still had to show up to their jobs in person, in the midst of the uncertainty and fear created by the coronavirus.

One thing the pandemic laid bare was how undervalued many essential workers are, something that Denver-based writer and blogger Adam Kaat observed first-hand from his vantage point as a cashier in a busy grocery store. Kaat had taken the job to make ends meet while working on a novel – but he pivoted from his initial idea to write a fictionalized accounting of his time as an essential worker. Kaat joins Colorado Edition to discuss that experience and his new book, Life on the Grocery Line: A Frontline Experience in a Global Pandemic.

Interview Highlights

These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Erin O’Toole: You took what you thought would a pretty easy job to focus on your writing. But not long after the first COVID cases were officially confirmed in Colorado on March 5th, things started to just close down a few weeks later. What did you observe from your vantage point as a grocery store cashier?

Adam Kaat: There were a lot of people coming in, worried about what was going on with the virus and everything, but it really sped up that mid-March. Restaurants and bars closed, and the lines got instantly gigantic. The shelves seemed stripped bare overnight -- and it was like all the stuff they put on the shelf would be gone the next day. The employees were put under a different protocol, seemingly all the time. I had to wipe down the register between each customer for a while, which was exhausting. I mean, when you're talking about hundreds, maybe even a thousand people going through your line in a super busy store like that. My arm got sore from doing it so much. Any time you went in and out, you had to get your temperature checked. And it honestly was not accurate at all. The communal areas like the café closed. It was eerie. And I guess ‘dystopian’ is a good way to say it. It felt weird, like a zombie apocalypse or something.

That must have had such a phenomenal impact on you and your coworkers.

You know, I went from a cashier to a therapist almost overnight. I was the only person that, you know, many of the customers could talk to in real life; like everyone else was on the phone, or just their family that they live with. And their fear was palpable. The things they would talk about, you know, like (being) worried about their kids and their safety and you'd hear rumors. Everything was rumors, Twitter doomscrolling, people just getting over sensationalized. And there's a lot of lot of extra pressure instantly for me and my coworkers, being called essential or being call being called heroes. It was stressful, and it was remarkable and very strange.

Cover of Adam Kaat's book "Life on the Grocery Line: A Frontline Experience in a Global Pandemic". It features a graphic of a medical-grade mask with a toy shopping cart sitting on it.
Courtesy of Adam Kaat

You had already finished a rough draft of what was going to be your first book before taking this job at the grocery store. Was there a certain point that you decided you needed to switch gears and write about this experience instead?

I started writing about it out of necessity. I felt like the only way I could really process what I was going through and how crazy everything became was to share what I was going through. And so I started a blog called Life on the Grocery Line and just I wanted to put it out in the universe. I knew that I was in a unique position where I was seeing something that a lot of people maybe wouldn't understand, and I could shed light on what cashiers were going through. The blog grew and grew; I'd write multiple posts per week and people would share stories with me. And I knew that this was an important story to tell.

And this became a project that was much bigger than me. It was about a community and about a group of people that are forgotten by society at large. We take for granted that there's someone going in, putting oranges out and doing the work to, like, make sure that you're fed, and that you have the food for your families. And I like I think by August of 2020, I was full-bore writing the novel; and I chose fiction because it's the best way to convey all the things we were going through, like the isolation, the fact that time seemed to just scrunch together. You know, that whole summer of 2020 seems like a blurry week, like a fever dream. And it was the best way to explain that, through fiction.

Do you consider yourself an advocate for essential workers now?

Yeah, I've tried to use this book to kind of speak up, and, you know, to remind people to treat grocery store employees like they're people. I know that you go through the line and it just doesn't feel like it matters. It's just some other thing you’ve got to do -- get your groceries or your items and leave. But if you give eye contact, you know, remember someone's name; smile -- now that we can see smiles again, right? Like that, it means so much for you to do that. And if I can make an impact in that way at all, I think that'd be amazing. I’d be really proud of that.

Colorado Edition is hosted by Erin O'Toole (@ErinOtoole1) and edited by Henry Zimmerman (@kombuchacowboy). Our production team includes Tess Novotny (@tess_novotny). Web was edited by digital operations manager Ashley Jefcoat.

The mission of Colorado Edition is to deepen understanding of life in Northern Colorado through authentic conversation and storytelling. It's available as a podcast on iTunesSpotifyGoogle PlayStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

You can hear the show on KUNC, Monday through Friday at 2:30 and at 6:30 p.m.   Colorado Edition is made possible with support from our KUNC members. Thank you!

Our theme music was composed by Colorado musicians Briana Harris and Johnny Burroughs. Other music in the show by Blue Dot Sessions.

As the host of KUNC’s new program and podcast In the NoCo, I work closely with our producers and reporters to bring context and diverse perspectives to the important issues of the day. Northern Colorado is such a diverse and growing region, brimming with history, culture, music, education, civic engagement, and amazing outdoor recreation. I love finding the stories and voices that reflect what makes NoCo such an extraordinary place to live.