Price Breaks and Heartaches
a journal of retail and failed romance
Welcome To Hell, Here's Your Smock
(The stories you are about to read might be somewhat true. The names have been changed to protect the people I love and because I have a god complex.)
Sixteen years of my life were devoted to working in retail. Sixteen years, just think about that for a minute. People have done less time for murder.
This is the story of my first encounter with that harsh, competence-starved environment.
My first job was at a local supermarket chain, to avoid lawsuits we'll call the place Nice Shopper. I was seventeen years old and my stepfather felt it was time for me to 'straighten up' and get a job. I wasn't too happy about, after all I had a lot on my plate at the time- puberty, Dungeons & Dragons, the Super Mario Brothers video game and of course the new season of Doctor Who on PBS.
Anyway, he had a connection at the Nice Shopper and he got me a job as a stockboy without any kind of interview. I just came in one day and they handed me a smock and a broom and told me to get sweeping. A lot of my jobs have started out that way. I think when I get to Hell they're going to give me a broom and a smock and tell me to start sweeping.
So there I was, pushing a broom for money for the first time. Over the next few weeks I did my best to learn the ropes but retail training in those days was a slapdash affair at best. One of the managers would yell at you to do something and if you did it wrong they'd yell at you again. Still though, I learned; I learned that when packing groceries, the potatoes do not go on top of the eggs, I learned that floors should be mopped with circular motions and that anything else was a violation of corporate policy and I learned that customers could be as unforgiving as a pissed off dominatrix with saddle rash.
And I would learn to hate recycling.
It's those little 5 cent deposits that are on every bottle and can, the government's little way to get you to not clutter the environment with plastic, glass and tin.
I stood behind the counter that surrounded the bottle returns register, the sickly-sweet odor of old soda and the sour tang of spilled beer filled the air; it was a smell that would haunt your nostrils for days afterwards. The line was four cartfuls and three customers deep. The customer glaring across the counter from me was old with a face that was set into a perpetual scowl. A stream of curses was constantly percolating under his breath – he cursed the wait, the store and of course me. He was one of our best customers.
There were buttons on the register, one for each brand and company, I don’t know why Nice Shopper felt we had to track the incoming bottles when all we were going to do was just crush and mangle them a heartbeat later. The thing was though, if the bottle wasn’t on the keypad we weren’t taking it back. That was the rules, environment be damned.
“I'm sorry sir,” I explained. “I can’t take this bottle back. You see this is a brand specific to one of our competitors and also there are bloody fingerprints all over it.”
There is no sight more disturbing that seeing a grizzled customer bristle but that’s what happened, “Oh, you'll take it back you little pissant. I didn't loose my femur bone fighting the Nazies so some little pimply butterball could cheat me outta five cents.”
I tried to stay calm, “Sir, this comes from the Stop and Shop. It's right across the street.”
The grizzled customer’s voice began to raise, “Just give me my five cents!”
With no other recourse I signaled for our afternoon front end manager, “Excuse me? Mr. Streicher?”
Mr. Streicher looked up from his clipboard, “Bruno! Why aren’t you getting carts?”
Cart gathering was a singular obsession of Mr. Streicher’s. “This customer has an off brand bottle,” I explained, “He wants us to take it anyway.”
“Oh you’re going to take it!” The grizzled customer said, “If I have to get the newspapers and radio down here to tell them how Nice Shopper tried to cheat a man out of his taxes I’ll do it.”
“You know sir they’ve got this new thing called a Tee Vee…”
Mr. Streicher drew closer to me, his knuckles whitening on his clipboard, “You need to work faster Bruno, get this wrapped up so you can get those carts.”
By now customers and Nice Shopper employees alike were watching this exchange, “Look, I’m doing the best that I can but there are four… no wait, five people in line behind this gentleman.”
“You need,” the afternoon front end manager repeated, “to work faster.”
With that Mr. Streicher strode away, I just stared after him stunned and angry. Of course it was at that moment that the grizzled customer spat on me, “PTOOIE!”
Thankfully there was a roll of paper towels nearby, “Sir please don't do that. I'll cash your other bottles in but there isn't-”
I turned away to from the next volley of phlegm and denture cream to see Ms Bardiz, our prissy head cashier, striding up to the bottle returns register. I was sure she would help me. I wondered if the police would soon be escorting this customer from the building. “What on Earth is going on?” she asked.
“Thank goodness you’re here.” I dabbed at my face with a paper towel.
Ms. Bardiz poked me with a blunt, unpainted fingernail, “Look Albert, you're being paid to work. Not socialize with the customers. There are cashiers in desperate need of baggers and I find you here lolly-gagging about.”
“I'm am not-”
The grizzled customer took that as queue to start spitting again, “PTOOIE!”
I tried to explain again, “Ms. Bardiz, there are five… six other people in line for me here and I need to go and get carts too. Maybe I shouldn't be the only stockboy on duty at this time.”
Ms. Bardiz just shook her head, “I think you need to put some effort into budgeting your time more effectively.”
She turned to go, the mob of customers and garbage pickers loomed closer, “Please don't leave me-”
Then the store’s public address system hissed to life, “Albert cleanup in Aisle 7. Albert cleanup in Aisle 7. This means you.”
My jaw dropped, “Lord....”
“PTOOIE! Oooo got him right the mouth that time!”