George Bradley's hands are working quickly. A jug of milk, cans of tomato juice and apple sauce, toilet paper, bananas and two heads of lettuce are neatly placed into a grocery bag almost as soon as the cashier rings them up and pushes them down the checkout counter.
A couple of counters away, Harold Halpert also is busy bagging groceries. It is Saturday, and Cook's Supermarket in Landover's Capital Plaza is in full swing. But as customers stream by, both 62-year-old men take time to greet or joke with them.
That pleases the supermarket chain's vice president of operations, Al Herring, because the baggers were hired about two months ago with customer relations in mind. They're doing "outstanding jobs" and have proved dependable, Herring noted.
"They take more time to make the customer feel comfortable shopping here," he said. "A young kid might just bag and drop it in the cart and not say anything."
Three other Cook's stores each have one older man baggging groceries, sweeping floors and doing other light chores. Herring said he wants to hire five more.
Cook's part-time hiring of over-60 employes is patterned after a successful program at a Richmond supermarket chain. Herring said he noticed the older workers while vacationing in Richmond, found they were good for customer relations and brought the idea to Cook's.
The jobs let the retirees "pick up a few bucks to help them get squared away. I know how that is. My mother is 77 years old," he said. Although the hiring began as a good-will gesture, he said, it has turned out to be smart business.
"Everybody in this business is competitive. Everybody has practically the same prices," Herring said. As a result, "all you have to offer is service. We're just trying to give our customers an extra little service."
To Bradley of Mitchellville, that extra, polite service is the way it should be: "It's part of the job," he said. "It wasn't called for when they hired me, but you might as well be nice to them. It don't cost anything."
Cook's is his first taste of the grocery business. Bradley served 20 years in the Navy and then worked 12 years as a communications specialist for a federal intelligence agency, retiring in 1973.
Dealing with customers is nothing new to Halpert of Langley Park, who retired in 1980 after 30 years as a window clerk at the Hyattsville Post Office. He previously worked 10 years at a Bladensburg general store.
But he's found many customers have other things on their minds than their groceries while at the checkout counter. Sometimes when he hands them their stuffed grocery bags, he said, he tells them jokingly, " 'Eggs are on the bottom.' Most just nod or say, 'Okay, thank you.' " Few respond with quizzical looks.
Sporting bow ties and name tags, both said they took the three-day-a-week job primarily for the activity rather than the $3.40-an-hour pay -- a nickel more than the federal minimum wage.
"I play tennis outdoors in the summer, and in the winter there's not much to do," Halpert said. "You just can't stay home and watch TV."
But Bradley noted that the extra income helps finance his twice-weekly bowling habit.
The job also allows Bradley to stay in touch with friends. "I meet all my old friends from the neighborhood in here," he said. "I jaw with them. I renew old acquaintances."