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Meet Marty, My Toughest Interview

by on May 15, 2019 5:00 AM


She’s tall, like Uma Thurman, and taciturn, like Greta Garbo.

She has large, round eyes, like Bette Davis, a unibrow, like Frida Kahlo, and an enigmatic smile, like Mona Lisa.

Despite these comparisons to famous women, her appearance, like her name – Marty — on her employee badge, is sexually ambiguous. But her coworkers at the Giant supermarket on North Atherton Street refer to her as a female and when I finally heard her voice for the first time, I understood why.

It took me a while to coax speech out of Marty when I tried to interview her on Tuesday morning. At first I thought she was being a hyper-diligent employee, entirely focused on patrolling the aisles for spills, refusing to be distracted by a nosy reporter.

But even during her 10-minute break, instead of schmoozing with coworkers in the coffee room or enjoying a smoke out back, she stood alone in her own red square next to the water fountains and the bathrooms in the back of the store, and when I went up to her, she looked right through me.

Up close, I decided her eyes (and body) are more Gumby than Bette and the smile is more asymmetric Amazon smirk than Mona Lisa. As for the unibrow, it’s like a mood ring, turning from blue when she’s calm to yellow when she’s concerned to red when she’s upset.

Marty does not get upset easily, even when she detects a hazard, which is her primary responsibility. At my request, a coworker in the produce department tossed a sprig of parsley in her path. She did not react.

I followed her around the store for an hour, perversely hoping for a spectacular accident like a dropped egg carton or a shattered jar of pizza sauce so I could see what she would do. When none occurred, I resisted the urge to wreak my own havoc and instead asked another store employee to stage a demo.

My accomplice dropped her pen in the produce aisle where Marty was patrolling. She ignored it.

She dropped her pen directly in Marty’s path. She rolled right over it.

These nonreactions could be read in two ways. One: Marty is completely useless. Two: Marty knew she was being played. When her coworker dropped her pen a third time it was as if Marty was saying, wearily, “OK, I know this is isn’t a real hazard, but you obviously want me to respond as if it were, so I’ll play along.”

Her unibrow turned from blue to yellow. And at last, she spoke. “Caution: hazard detected,” she said. She repeated it in Spanish. When her coworker did not immediately remove the “hazard,” her unibrow turned red. Her coworker picked up her pen and pressed a reset button in Marty’s side, which turned the unibrow back to blue and allowed her to resume beeping around the store.

Marty’s refusal to deal with the hazards she finds irritates some of her coworkers. “It would be nice if it was a Roomba and cleaned its own messes up,” one of them told me.

Sorry, but Marty is not that kind of robot.

Reactions to the kind of robot she is were decidedly mixed. Shopper Nancy Silvis of Port Matilda was two thumbs up.

“I love it,” she said. “I love its face. I love the eyes. It’s great entertainment for any child going to the grocery store.”

A mom of a 5-year-old begged to differ.

“My son is terrified of that thing,” she told me. “He won’t come into the store.”

A 4-year-old name Elliot waved to Marty when he and his mom entered the produce section. Marty, armless and handless (and legless and footless), did not wave back. Elliot told me he was afraid of Marty the first time he saw her, but not anymore.

As for the adults, several did not believe Giant’s protestations that Marty is neither spying on them nor putting a human out of a job. (There are Martys in or coming to all 500 stores owned by Giant’s parent company.)

A carrot bin browser thinks the detector of hazards is herself a hazard.

“Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should,” she said. “I guess I find it annoying.”

Over by the dairy case, a white-bearded chap in a newsboy’s cap raised one eye as Marty rolled by. “Progress?” he asked.

An employee complained that “it’s always in the way.” I saw what he meant. Though Marty moves slowly, she changes direction suddenly. At one point, she seemed headed down the cereal aisle, abruptly changed her mind and doubled back past a ketchup display into the natural and organic section. I saw several shoppers change their routes to avoid hers.

“It’s following me around,” one said, mildly alarmed. “He likes me.”

I told him he was a she.



A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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