Former Cubicle Jockey Makes His Mark in Mt. Airy’s Tight Aisles

Eric Richter, for the Shuttle
Photo by Ashley Hammock

After 13 years of working in a cubicle, I was hired to work in produce and on the floor at Weavers Way Mt. Airy last November. I used to get in trouble for being everywhere at once, but that now makes me perfect for this job.

Antsy From the Get-Go

My difficulty with sitting still started in childhood. School was a serious challenge — all those desks and seats in straight rows, with the expectation I would stay in mine. I was given “Curious George” books, which were no help. George was curious; so was I. George could act on his curiosity; I could not. This led to phone calls to my parents:

Teacher: “Mrs. Richter, Eric has a problem staying in his seat; he seems to prefer wandering the halls.”

My mother: [Sigh] “I’ll talk with him. All he needs is another Curious George book.”

I somehow endured school and went out into the world doing active jobs, from working as a pipefitter’s apprentice at the Tampa Shipyard to onboard services for Amtrak. For 11 years, I owned an antique store. I thrived in these environments. At the height of the recession in 2009, I found myself working for the Pennsylvania Department of Labor as a claims examiner. Oddly, it was like school all over again — all those cubicles in straight rows.

Supervisor: “Why are you away from your desk? What were you doing over there?”

Me: “I’m taking this document over to the Monetary department.”

Supervisor: “Email it to them. Now, get back to your seat or I’ll write you up.”

I actually did enjoy the work; helping my fellow humans in need of unemployment funds was both psychologically and emotionally rewarding. It’s a good thing it wasn’t exactly like school. I can only imagine the supervisor picking up the phone:

Supervisor: “Mrs. Richter, Eric’s away from his desk again.”

My mother: [Sigh] “I tried; I really did. Why don’t you give him a Curious George book?”

The physical attributes of cubicle life aren’t good. In fact, it causes a literal pain in the neck. No matter how adjustable my office chair, the ratio of chair height to screen height never seemed to jibe, resulting in scrunched neck vertebrae. A few years later, I was promoted to director of the Incredible Agony of Slipped Discs and Sciatica department. I found it ironic that this sedentary job gave me the most health coverage benefits, yet it was the main reason I needed the coverage. I also realized you can spend years telling yourself you’re semi-content, when in fact you’re actually quite unhappy.

I was living in Lancaster and visiting my brother in Philly last year when we stopped at the Chestnut Hill store. I was immediately impressed with this community-owned, fair trade, local and sustainable market. I had been wanting to move closer to my family. I also wanted to be a part of something progressive, working a job I could feel good about.

Tricks of the Trade

This job is pure hustle, and you have to be fast and accurate. Every day, the delivery truck lands pallets of produce to be carried in, stored and sold. There’s easily a ton of produce to move daily.

Stocking the floor is a complex dance in this tight environment, with shoppers also vying for the same space. You not only have to see the next stocking move, but five moves after that. I can manage that, and I also feel great. In the two months I’ve been here, I went from 175 pounds to a lean, trim 160. Like old friends, I found abs I haven’t seen in 20 years. I’ve punched not one, but a second new hole in my belt.

So I’m down to fighting weight, but there’s no adversary. Well, there is one; celery. Many of our items come in 50-pound boxes, but 50 pounds of celery is heavier than 50 pounds of anything else. I’ve never cared for celery, but like any worthy adversary, I have respect for it. It seems to have its own density that defies physical laws.

Co-worker 1: “Where’s Richter?”

Co-worker 2: “Did you see that blur that just went by?”

Co-worker 1: “Yeah.”

Co-worker 2: “That’s him, he’s just had some coffee and he’s stocking potatoes.”

Co-worker 1: “Wait, now I can see him clearly. He’s slowed down.”

Co-worker 2: “Oh, now he’s stocking celery. That’s his kryptonite.”

So lay out the leafy greens and pile high the potatoes! This is like school recess; this is fun.

(Just don’t tell my boss.)