There Is No Human Resources Department at the Candy Cooperative
The bubbly letters were both a direction and a justification for the lines of people who shelled out $37.50 for a forty-five-minute “experience” at “the sweetest place on earth.”
In the entrance to The Candy Cooperative, there was a mural that said “TREAT YOURSELF.” The bubbly letters were both a direction and a justification for the lines of people who shelled out $37.50 for a forty-five-minute “experience” at “the sweetest place on earth.” Almost two thousand people came through the Candy Cooperative every day for samples that were actually just bulk orders of stale Halloween candy, giant plastic lollipops they could spin around for a good Boomerang video, gummy bear chairs they could recline on for the two seconds they had available for a photo opportunity, and a “gumball” pit that was perpetually crowded.
“And the higher-ups would like to remind everyone to watch for people stealing or tracking out plastic Nerds from the Talk Nerdy 2 Me exhibit.”
She grimaced. There were many things in the Cooperative that made Alicia cringe, but the Talk Nerdy 2 Me exhibit took the cake. Streams of people took pictures against a fake brick wall decorated with faux graffiti that said “embrace your inner (w)rapper,” throwing fistfuls of purple and pink plastic that were shaped like the pebbly Nerds candy in the air for an action shot while top 40s hip-hop blared out of a nearby speaker.
“We’ve been hounded by environmental activists and city officials since our West Coast run and can’t afford another citation.”
The Cooperative had initially boasted on their website how often they cycled through hundreds of thousands of the tiny plastic lumps for the exhibit, hoping that the sheer number would convey their commitment to their customers. In San Francisco, there had been frequent protests outside of the Candy Cooperative, saying the small size of the plastic was harmful for biolife and would pollute the waterways. People who lived in the neighborhood took to Nextdoor to post their grievances. Businesses in Los Angeles adjacent to the pop-up complained about people tracking in inexplicable piles of bumpy plastic all over their stores, the purple and pink instantly recognizable from the proliferation of Instagram posts geotagged at the Cooperative featuring those exact colors.
“Alright, that just about covers it. Let’s get out there! And remember, stay sweet!”
Alicia had thirty minutes until her shift was over. Thirty minutes until she could go home and catch up on sleep. Today, Tic Tac Joe assigned her to oversee the Runts Room, which was the kids’ zone. She just had to pass out Wet Wipes and little cups of candy. Kids were less annoying to be around. They just wanted to get hyped up on sugar and whack each other with giant foam Twizzlers. The parents were either happy for the break or hellbent on getting their kids to sit still and pose for pictures. Either way, it meant less interaction on her part.
Just as Alicia was ready to leave, she walked past a group of women near the gumball pool. They looked to be her age, dressed up in ruffled Aritzia blouses and straight tailored Everlane pants, she noticed with a tinge of envy. She’d seen those same outfits advertised to her on Instagram.
One of the women suddenly looked up at her. Her yellow jumpsuit and bright red lipstick reminded Alicia of mustard and ketchup.
“Oh! Excuse me, ma’am! Do you mind taking a Boomerang for us?” she shoved an iPhone into Alicia’s hand. Alicia was technically off-duty, but she caught Tic Tac Joe’s eye. He gestured for her to smile.
“What should we do?” her short friend asked, smoothing down her high-waisted linen pants. “Try to juggle the gumballs?”
“As if you know how to juggle!” the mustard woman elbowed her. She took a step back from the group, assessing the scene like a director. “Let’s just throw them in the air.”
“Everyone does that. I want ours to be original!” her other friend hollered over her shoulder. She was kneeling by the gumball pool, fishing around for ones that were the same soft pink of her ruffled silk camisole.
Alicia bit her tongue. For all the creative ways people found to make a mess in the Cooperative, there was shockingly little variation in people’s poses for social media. People used the gumballs to make Mickey Mouse ears. Large groups played dodgeball with them. The lewder visitors pretended they were boobs and honked them. Juggling them was the second most common thing people did after tossing them up in the air and looking up with their heads thrown back. They always looked vaguely possessed.
“It’ll still look super cute,” the woman insisted. “No one’s going to be able to tell the difference.”
“Fine, let’s all try to juggle then.”
“You’re really not supposed to take those out of the ball pit,” Alicia said.
“It’ll just be super quick, I promise!” the woman pleaded, fussing with her hair.
Alicia held down the Boomerang button as the women all failed spectacularly at juggling. They didn’t even kick any of the balls they dropped back into the ball pit when they were done. Her left eye twitched at the cluster of them at the edge of the pool.
The mustard woman sucked air in through her teeth as she reviewed the Boomerang, “Can you try taking a photo instead? With the lifeguard chair in the background?”
She changed the camera setting, handed the phone to Alicia, and scurried back to her friends, throwing her perfectly Drybar’ed curls over her shoulder with practiced ease. Alicia snapped a few portrait and landscape photos, smirking at Hari’s peace sign and pout in the background.
“Are these okay?” she asked.
“Yeees,” the woman said slowly, pasting a smile on her face. “These are…good, thanks!”
Alicia grimaced and went to retrieve her bag. As she continued her walk to the exit, she overheard the mustard woman speaking to her friends.
“It’s backlit as fuck,” she muttered, her voice dropping an octave. “There’s no way I can even edit this in VSCO. Let’s just ask someone else. How does she even have a job here?”
“So true,” her short friend said. “I hope we still have time to look at the gift shop.”
“I hear they have CBD Starbursts and jade facial rollers that look like Jolly Ranchers!” the one with the pink blouse squealed.
“I don’t need another facial roller,” she pouted.
“Hey, self-love is never selfish!” the two friends crowded around the mustard woman.
“You’re right. I should treat myself!”
“You work hard, you deserve this!” the woman in pink said, clapping her hands to emphasize each word.
Alicia rolled her eyes. She should’ve left that used condom at the bottom of the gumball pit so they’d step on it.
As she fought against the continuous wave of people filing in, she spied an unattended bucket of plastic Nerds. Tic Tac Joe would lose his shit if he saw it. She picked it up and moved towards the Talk Nerdy 2 Me exhibit, but was assaulted by sharp elbows and selfie sticks. She felt someone’s hands on her waist, skating under the bottom of her shirt. She recoiled at the unwanted contact, bumping into a couple in matching Mickey Mouse ears as she jerked away.
“Hey, I’m just trying to help you!” he said, leering at her.
“Get your fucking hands off me,” Alicia hissed.
“Hey, that’s not very sweet of you.”
He was blocking her way back into the museum. She scanned the crowd for Tic Tac Joe out of habit, though she doubted he would do anything even if he saw Goodbar’s groping firsthand. She clenched the bucket handle and kept pushing her way towards the exit instead. Once she was outside, she looked back to see if Goodbar had followed her out. He hadn’t.
Alicia took a deep breath and walked down the street. The line to the Cooperative still ran around the corner. Once she was a few blocks away, she ducked into a coffee shop. The kind with raw wood counters and black barstools, exposed lightbulbs that somehow didn’t make the room look harsh, and exposed brick that boasted art that no one would ever buy. As she slowly got her bearings, she looked down at her hands. Her eyes widened. She’d been so disoriented she hadn’t realized she was still clutching the industrial-sized tub of fake candy from the Cooperative.
As she stepped up to the register, she felt something under her shoe. A pile of pink and purple plastic. Had she tracked those in? Tic Tac Joe’s morning reminder about the citations was still fresh, so her first thought was to scoop them up. To do what she was told. To act the part of Tootsie Roll. She checked the lid of the tub, wondering what would happen if it were to spill all over the coffee shop floor, on the train platform, on the sidewalk where neighborhood dogs strolled. She imagined scrolling through angry tweets directed at the Cooperative, how satisfying it would be to see social media, the very thing the Cooperative had built itself on, turned against it. What if, for once, the Candy Cooperative had to take complaints seriously?
She didn’t know how long she stared at them until the barista cleared his throat, “Ma’am, are you ready to order?”
She thought of the woman at the Cooperative who had called her “ma’am,” the one who thought self-care was never selfish even as she made Alicia’s life harder. What had that woman’s friend told her? You deserve this. It reminded Alicia of her mother’s words on their FaceTime call. You deserve better than that. At the time, she thought it had been her mother guilt-tripping her, that her parents couldn’t understand why she chose an industry where it was expected she work multiple jobs and work her way up from the bottom. But now she wondered if she had too readily lowered her standards and accepted the reality that came with it.
Alicia ordered a $6 oat milk latte.
On her way out the door, she took care to crush the Nerds with the heel of her worn Adidas, imagining she was crushing Goodbar’s face into a fine powder or Tic Tac Joe’s excuses into dust.As she made her way to the subway, sipping her drink, she dipped her hand into the bucket and scattered more plastic Nerds. In trees and bushes. You deserve this. On an apartment stoop. You deserve this. At an intersection. You deserve this. In the gutters. You deserve this.
Nicole Zhu is a writer and developer based in New York. She works on Chorus, Vox Media's publishing platform, and co-hosts Sweet and Sour, a podcast about the intersections of Asian American identity with culture, work, and lifestyle. Find her on Twitter @nicolelzhu.