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On The Front Line At La Tienda


By Michael BromkaLa Tienda Thriftway Super Market on 1301 S. Canal St. is smack dab next to the deep ravine of Dark Canyon. A stalwart bridge traverses that habitual dry wash. But during weeks of sustained rainfall, the canyon becomes a river. La Tienda serves and supplies its public in all seasons. Eldest yet homiest of local grocers, La Tienda specializes in multiethnic cheer. “We’re not big so we try harder,” says Store Manager John Whittington. Headquartered in Roswell, the company runs three stores there, Dodge City in Kansas, Lamar, Colorado, and one each in Artesia, Carlsbad, Capitan, Pecos, Portales, La Mesa, and Midland --a dozen. “We nurture a family feeling here, and strive to keep our family safe and healthy. It’s a challenge here in-store and of course across the U.S.A. ”Luz María Soto the Front End Manager works ten-hour days five days per week. She had initial mixed feelings about the mask mandate. When dealing with people and hubbub, she wears her cloth mask. Back in the office, it’s a plexiglass face shield .“The mask makes you less likely to catch a bug. We work all day with people coming and going in a sweaty hurry, at times breathing hard, sneezing, coughing. From all over and outta town --you can’t know where. So the mask is a good preventative. “I’m scared when I stop to contemplate. Work keeps worry outta my mind --you mustn’t dwell on the dark possibilities. I wash my hands often, especially if I touch a public surface. “Then there’s the task of counting money accurately all day to cash in, cash out, and make change. What’s on the money? I use a lot of hand sanitizer often. “We all ward off Coronavirus. We’d breathe easier if only everyone looked out for everyone else. By wearing a mask till the contagion passes over. How big a sacrifice would that be to save lives?” “My duties? With a mask of course at the front desk, I like to solve people’s concerns and questions. I love all the people who work here. I wouldn’t go anywhere else. I love the store and our customers. “There are gonna be a few rude people at times, of course. If someone’s really being harsh, a secret part of you wants to dish it back. That dog you gotta keep leashed and muzzled! “Best you can do is stay positive, hope your mood will cross over. Really mean it when you say --Have a great day, Ma’am! Share my smile to brighten their day. Feel happy myself and send it forward to other folks. “There are always great customers who help lift your mood and help to recover from the rare sour apple. Be agreeable to keep the mood up. A happy day goes quickly. “Why are some folks grumpy? Lots of stress for everyone now. Life, the virus, money worries, family, your car –who doesn’t have worries? Too much trouble to cope with and too few ways to do it. ”Jesse Rojas manages the noisy tortilla department, making about 4000 flour tortillas per day. “We roll dough into little round balls. A machine takes those balls and presses before baking which becomes tortillas in stacks of 36 or 10. “We also mix masa for corn tortillas, then feed the machine which makes a tortilla-sized cut. Always the same goal, but different machines for different dough. Then into the oven. “Six months ago? No sir, no masks then. But now with an approaching Coronavirus pandemic we all gotta take precautions. Keep from catching or spreading it. Masks are part of our health and safety protocol, how to do things right. “Even if there is the other sort of person coming in. We still set an example. And we hope to be that bit safer from the careless potential carriers, disease spreaders. Start by protecting each other. “Maybe the other kind of person will catch on. If they don’t catch the plague themselves and handle it that way. “Less likely to spread it once you’re tubed up in the ICU, or in a funeral parlor waiting for your final ride away from the rest of us. “Some years back I might have been careless myself. But now I’ve got a little grandson, so I do right by myself to do right by him. Keep the whole family safe, live another year, decade, generation. Hope to see him with his own kids in time if we do the right thing. “At work with the gloves, sanitizer, antibacterial goop more of that this month than ever my whole prior life. Mask of course. Jesse, when you yourself are a customer entering other places in town --do you wear a mask then? “Yes sir! There’s one crowded store I know, most of the customers milling around without masks. For once in their life can’t they act like a grownup, responsibly? To me it’s not a joke.”

For more than a quarter century Martha Gonzalez has worked for La Tienda. Twenty years she spent in front end management. Now petite yet mighty Martha serves as grocery manager. Excepting produce, meat, deli, and bakery, she stocks the store. “All cold and room-temp shelved items are my responsibility. Keep those shelves stocked with what the customers are seeking. “Shortages? Lemme tell you! When the pandemic panic arrived I was on vacation. I got back and looked at my shelves with astonishment. All that empty space! What the heck happened here? In twenty years I had never seen the like –crazy! “Toilet paper and cleaning products. Disinfectant, Lysol, Clorox wipes. Kleenex and baby wipes --gone! On cleaning items we had to post signs –Limit 2 per Customer. We set up this cooperative ration to manage covering everybody’s need. When will we catch up? Shortages start at the supply end. We place orders but get way less than what we asked for --or nothing at all. They ration goods too. Where is TP manufactured? “Grand Rapids Minnesota --town the size of Artesia. They probably are keeping up with America’s usage. It’s the suppliers or shippers somewhere putting on the squeeze. “We still have a shortage of brand name TP. We have the generic. But I can’t order only a case. Gotta order an entire pallet. “Early on, pasta, soups, and noodles got blitzed .”For a photo in late April, Martha posed tiny down the long end of an empty shelf that usually held rice, pasta, instant, and canned soups. When a customer asked for brown rice, she found just one bag. On a more recent visit, stocks had been somewhat replenished. There are still shortages of soups in packages and cans. “I’m sure that panic cleared out lots of items. But suppliers don’t send enough. It’s not from greed in our customers. Rather, rationing by our suppliers. I could order ten cases of something. I’ll be lucky to receive one. “For instance, the big 28 oz can of Cream of Chicken soup, family size. I’ll order 6-8 cases, but receive just one case. Trucks arrive three times per week. Every other truck you order lots of what you need. No joy. “Cleaning products are still being rationed by suppliers. Order plenty, receive few. Lysol, Clorox, wipes. We still gotta limit one or two per customer because of shortages. Share the shortage, please don’t hoard. “Everything sells out fast. The mood of customers is getting better. At first folks were stressed out and liable toward anger. Panicked. If rare ones are rude, you just do your best to make them comfortable, help find that item they want. Tempers run hot from customers of all ages. Some get rowdy at times. “We’ve even had customers trying to raid our ‘Employees Only’ backroom storage. We might be up front stocking shelves. A raider would skulk back there to seek TP we hadn’t yet brought forward. Really dude? It’s getting better. Most customers understand that we’re trying our best. {Below, April initial interview}Diana Baeza is technically a cashier. In recent months she presides over La Tienda’s Customer Self-Check-Out. She’s worked here going on three years. Once she was an Assistant Manager at McDonalds. That was an equal challenge. “You gotta have strength to serve customers well. Each one is valuable and cherished. So treat them all very well. “Dealing can be a challenge, mostly a pleasure. I’m here to help others, do my part. Self-checkout is a good gig. Some customers crave eye-contact with a cashier, while others wanna bag their own. Everybody’s different. “Oh yeah, some individuals try to sneak items into a bag without scanning. I watch those like a hawk. I’m the gentle Honesty Cop on my beat. It’s a stakeout. “It takes diplomacy --Goodness me, it looks like we didn’t get to scan that item! We’d better do that, okay? Let’s verify this on the screen!” Diana looks rueful. “The scale has already flagged ‘Unexpected item in the bagging area.’ So I go check things out, help ‘em make it straight. “There was one guy who tried not scanning all his meat. Cart to bag, bypassing scanner. I said --Sir, these items need to be scanned and paid for. He’s like OK. Quite a poker face. I stood by while he scanned. “Some folks try to pay for little avocados but sneak the big ones. Oops! They set it straight while I watch. Just be nice as pie! They’re relieved not to be scolded. “Even if they set out to break rules, when I’m gracious they’re cool with abiding by what’s right. Spoonful of honey. “Of course, the bagging scale catches the smallest infraction. I don’t need to be a psychic. And sneaky individuals don’t need a whack on the knuckles. Just to be reminded that --Yeah, rules of fairness and honesty apply even when you’re scanning stuff your own self.

“Even green onions which come in two different prices --bigger with bulb and smaller with tiny roots. Bulb costs 10 cents extra. Those are easy for me to notice because I love onions. “Facemasks? Nobody needs to ask me to wear one. My sister in law is an elder with special needs. My husband has a transplanted kidney. So our family is dedicated to health and medical safety. Love and caution feather our nest. “A facemask can be breathy and sweaty at times. To me it’s the price of love and protection. They call us essential workers. Okay. And for me, safety at work is the top essential. “It would be cool if everyone at all times wore a mask in these crowded essential places. But a sense of community pride and responsibility, many people have it. Other folks --who knows? “So we keep safe in one direction, us-to-others. And from others we hope for the best. Many folks bring their best. And some individuals show up with what they got or don’t on clear display. We make do.{Three months later, a follow-up visit revealed Diana Baeza with an additional duty.}“Now I offer a free mask to entering customers who don’t have. We don’t refuse entry or service here. A mask is not yet mandatory --just a friendly freebie offer. If they say no, it’s a no, you know? Nothing more we can do. “We’re just trying better to protect and serve all our customers, extend protection to everyone. In a shift I go through at least ten ten-packs of free masks from the boss. No idea of the cost. The boss supplies them and I spend all day offering. “When we first got news at home of the pandemic and deaths, my husband and I locked eyes and said “Masks!” I’ve been wearing a mask longer than anyone else here. And now I’m the Free-Mask fairy godmother. “About 80% say --Yes thank you. One in five refuse, even for free. Some ask --Do we have to? Is this mandatory? No it’s not. Of course (says Diana on the sly) neither are health and life mandatory. Optional according to individual choices! “We don’t enforce common sense. All we do is ask and offer. If they don’t believe in it –that’s on them. But do people really wanna lose their lives for nothing? “I take COVID-19 seriously, to protect my family. I was first at work to wear a mask. I cut back on my work hours myself. Rebalance my time to keep home tidy and disinfected, focus on family, protect and enjoy this central richness of love we have at home. Mind you, work is also a family –bigger and diverse. And I love it here, too.

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