Angie Elsbury wears a blood-smeared apron and, in her words, “like, five layers of clothes” underneath. She laughs with her mouth wide open, lifting the apron to prove she’s not exaggerating.
“I have knee-highs, two pairs of cotton [long johns], and these jeans.” She leans over to show me the various waistbands. Then there’s the black-and-gray striped sweatshirt, the long-sleeved white button-down (with polka-dot tie), a T-shirt, and an undershirt.
It’s a Monday afternoon, and we’re standing in front of the meat case at Vons on Regents Road. Elsbury has finished showing me the territories for which she is responsible as the meat-department manager. The job has her in and out of “the cooler,” a cold room kept at a temperature just above freezing, as well as the seafood and meat cases, parts of the frozen-food aisle, and the bulk of aisle five, the refrigerated section where lunch meats and hot dogs are kept. In other words, Elsbury claims responsibility for “pretty much the whole back part of the store.”
“Hi, you finding everything all right?” she says as people pass by or browse the meat case.
“Yeah, thanks for asking!” a young man responds, mirroring her cheerful tone.
A college-age woman in Ugg boots, leggings, and a flannel shirt approaches gingerly and asks what would be a good substitute for beef brisket. Elsbury walks the woman closer to the meat case and asks what she’s trying to make. The woman’s voice is so small I can’t hear her answer, but Elsbury suggests the beef chuck pot roast. She recommends adding carrots and potatoes to the slow-cooker.
She pulls two plastic-wrapped packages of meat from the refrigerated case. Either one, she says, would be about right.
“And they’re on sale,” she adds.
“Does it, like, shred?” the woman asks.
When Elsbury answers in the affirmative, the woman thanks her and drops one of the two packages into her basket.
“The second part of this job,” Elsbury tells me as the woman walks away, “is knowing how to cook.”
Again, there’s that wide-open-mouthed laugh. Elsbury crinkles her eyes and nose. The face she makes reminds me of Joan Cusack, though Elsbury has less meat on her bones than the actress. A lanky five feet, ten-and-a-half inches, her frame appears slight — even with all the clothing she wears to keep warm.
Two weeks ago, Elsbury transferred to this store from the Vons at Girard and Torrey Pines. This is the seventh Vons she’s worked at since she started at 30th and Howard in North Park as a bagger in 2007.
“They call it a ‘courtesy clerk,’” she explains. “I was 36 and didn’t really want to bag groceries. But I’d just gotten out of prison, and I was so happy to work.”
Although we’re still standing among the shoppers, she speaks without lowering her voice. More self-conscious on her behalf than she is, I look around for surprised faces.
Elsbury reaches down into the meat case, retrieves a package that needs to be rewrapped, and leads me back behind the counter.
“If it offends someone, I’m sorry,” she says of speaking frankly about her past. More often, she says, people will pull her aside and ask for advice on what to do for loved ones who need help.
By the time she was hired at Vons, Elsbury had spent a total of six and a half years incarcerated for possession of a controlled substance. Heroin was her drug of choice. She says she was born addicted to heroin because her mother is an addict, too. After trying alcohol and speed as a young girl, she discovered heroin as a sophomore in high school.
“I instantly knew that’s what I was looking for,” she says.
For 21 years, her life revolved around getting high, until one day, during her last stint in prison, she received a message that led to her recovery.
“God spoke to me. It was plain as day. I was in my cell and He said, ‘You don’t have to be a junkie anymore.’”
After she left the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla in 2007, she went into treatment at Casa de Milagros, a women’s rehabilitation center. Three months into the six-month program, she was allowed to enroll in the job-readiness training program at Second Chance on Imperial Avenue. There she learned how to shake hands, make eye contact, and explain her situation in job interviews.
“In interviews, when they asked about my convictions, I told them my past revolved around drug use, and [then I said], ‘This is what I can do for your company today. I’m a hard worker, I’m motivated, and I’m friendly.’”
The courtesy-clerk job at Vons lasted a whole three days — until the meat-department manager of that store requested her presence in his department. He promoted her to meat-and-seafood personnel (“MSP,” she calls it).
“He saw me working hard,” she says.
The new job paid ten cents more per hour, with 24 hours of work each week, in contrast to the 16 allowed to a courtesy clerk. The position included customer service, stocking, and cleaning areas overseen by the meat-department manager.
Behind the meat counter, the black rubber flooring is splattered with blood and chunks of meat. Elsbury has just pulled two 20-pound slabs of strip loin from the “cooler” and placed them on a cutting table flanked by two large garbage cans. On her left hand she wears what she calls a “shark glove” that is made of metal mesh. Grabbing a ten-inch Forschner steak knife (for which she paid approximately $40) from a knife-block at the corner of the table, she demonstrates how well the glove works by sliding the blade across her hand before I have time to squeeze my eyes shut or turn away. Elsbury laughs at my squeamishness.
“Tomorrow, I have Five Dollar Friday, and it’s boneless New Yorks.” She cuts first one and then the other of the slabs of strip loin into smaller pieces — these are New York steaks. “That’s down from $10.99 a pound,” she says.
For more on this article, read author Elizabeth Salaam's Backstory