In “A&P,” nineteen-year-old Sammy works as cashier at a grocery store. Seemingly indifferent about and bored with his job, he puts up with cranky customers and straitlaced coworkers. His display of ennui and use of condescending metaphoric language to describe other people illustrates an aloof, lightly disdainful attitude toward his job.
Although irritated by stereotypically angry customers, Sammy competently executes his assigned tasks. When he forgets if he rang up an item, one woman gives him
hell. She's one of these cash-register-watchers, a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows, and I know it made her day to trip me up. She'd been watching cash registers forty years and probably never seen a mistake before.
After finally appeasing her (“got her feathers smoothed and her goodies into a bag”), he again compares her to a witch: “If she'd been born at the right time they would have burned her over in Salem.”
Sammy looks down on all of the regular customers, portraying them as simple-minded and oblivious:
I bet you could set off dynamite in an A & P and the people would by and large keep reaching and checking oatmeal off their lists and muttering "Let me see, there was a third thing, began with A, asparagus, no, ah, yes, applesauce!" or whatever it is they do mutter.
He describes female customers as frumpy housewives (“house-slaves in pin curlers”) or other unattractive specimens of their gender as
women with six children and varicose veins mapping their legs and nobody, including them, could care less.
His job affords him the position to observe people whom he views as animals; he compares customers to “sheep” and “scared pigs in a chute.”
Sammy’s condescending language extends to ridiculing his coworkers who take their jobs in the grocery story more seriously than he does. One colleague named Stokesie is
the responsible married man finding his voice. I forgot to say he thinks he's going to be manager some sunny day, maybe in 1990 when it's called the Great Alexandrov and Petrooshki Tea Company or something.
Sammy uses hyperbole to exaggerate how stupidly grandiose (yet banal) Stokesie’s plans are: the sap will not become manager for almost another thirty years (“A&P” was written in 1961), when the grocery store becomes a ridiculously pretentious establishment.
Sammy also makes fun of the elderly butcher named McMahon, who gawks at the swimsuit-wearing teenage girls after giving them directions:
The girls had reached the meat counter and were asking McMahon something. He pointed, they pointed, and they shuffled out of sight behind a pyramid of Diet Delight peaches. All that was left for us to see was old McMahon patting his mouth and looking after them sizing up their joints.
Although disgusted by most people around him, Sammy acknowledges that his job does offer a perk: a chance to spot attractive girls. When a group enters, he cannot help but watch them. When the prettiest one—whom he designates the “Queen”—turns around slowly, her action “made [his] stomach rub the inside of [his] apron.” Sammy uses his job’s tedium as an excuse to observe the girls and to portray metaphorically the store as a flashy toy, with the girls as playthings:
The store's pretty empty, it being Thursday afternoon, so there was nothing much to do except lean on the register and wait for the girls to show up again. The whole store was like a pinball machine and I didn't know which tunnel they'd come out of.
When the manager Lengel enters, the fun and diversion are over (“everybody's luck begins to run out”). Sammy looks upon Lengel as a killjoy and a straight-and-narrow company man:
Lengel's pretty dreary, teaches Sunday school and the rest, but he doesn't miss that much. He comes over and says, “Girls, this isn't the beach.”
Sammy realizes that Lengel’s “by the books” authority and admonishment of the girls’ wardrobe embarrass them, especially Queenie, who blushes.
“Girls, I don't want to argue with you. After this come in here with your shoulders covered. It's our policy.” He turns his back. That's policy for you. Policy is what the kingpins want.
Right then and there, Sammy decides to quit this job in order to display solidarity with the girls. He does not hate the job but shows a take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward it. He actually may want to keep his job a bit, but he feels he needs to leave out of principle. Lengel tells him that he doesn't “want to do this” to his mom and dad.
It's true, I don't. But it seems to me that once you begin a gesture it's fatal not to go through with it.
So Sammy takes off his work uniform with a flourish and saunters out of the store, only to notice that the girls do not even see him quit. He realizes that life continues, and people go on about their business despite his absence. Leaving a job that he does not take seriously makes Sammy recognize that he is easily replaceable and that taking a stand on principle may not make a difference to anyone but himself.