Originally posted Saturday, July 17, 2004
I'd had a terrible year. 1993.
It might have made a great country song if I had changed a few of the details. My girlfriend completed a rather drawn-out breaking up process, my roommate went home to South Africa, I lost a great job, and my Datsun's transmission failed on the way home from Tucson (where the now-ex-girlfriend had given me the boot). I ended up moving back into my parents' house, which seemed to have shrunk a bit in the 9 months since I had moved out. And, most telling of all, walking the five miles to work at the Wards department store in the mall was the best prospect I had going.
Things dragged on, and steadily drifted downward over the course of that summer. I had a brief affair with a girl I didn't like, which alienated my best friend because he DID like her. My parents anxiously brooded off-stage, hoping I would pull my head out and grow up. I took small comfort from the small friends - one of the Southern variety, the other of the Philip Morris variety - which I pretended not to have, and my parents pretended not to notice. School started, and for the first time since I was five years old, I wasn't going.
Basically, I could do nothing right, and wasn't sure how to turn it all around.
I still had my dignity, though. Well, maybe not. But, as the song says, Ob-la-di Ob-la-da... and something about a bra. I mustered what professionalism I had, and tried to figure out how I was going to pay for the next semester of school while working in housewares. The job itself wasn't bad. It was a step and a half up from the bottom-feeding drudgery of telemarketing, or the series of grocery stores I had been working at for seven of the eight preceding summers.
With a little effort, I was able to deal with people cheerfully day after day. After a while, I became the "problem" guy; which didn't mean that I was the one causing trouble, for a change. Any customer that one of my co-workers couldn't handle would be thrust my way as though I had some imaginary authority. If I may brag a little, I was good at it.
One lady, for example, was a regular problem; she would bring in all of the junk mail she had collected every two weeks like clockwork. Because she had a store card, a large portion of that mail was from Wards, and she seemed to think that we were personally stuffing all of the envelopes there in our housewares department and sending them to her as some kind of personal attack.
She was wheelchair bound, immensely fat, and also a victim of throat cancer - which had left her with one of those voice boxes that generates a horrible mockery of human speech in lieu of an actual voice. Her husband acted the part of the tall, gaunt, and silent valet who propelled her wherever she wanted to go under a fusillade of unintelligible, computer-generated barks from the voice box. Whoever was at the counter when she arrived would be met with his blank, fishy stare and her robotic tirade compounded by the added assault of stacks of unopened fliers, circulars, coupon books, pre-approved applications, and full-color advertisements being hurled at the counter top. Invariably, they sent for me, because I could understand her.
One afternoon, while helping two flamboyantly homosexual men in matching ruffled leisure suits select throw pillows for their couch, I heard the bi-weekly cyber-attack starting up on Michelle, our newest employee. "Chintz!" I said, tossing an armful of pillows at the indecisive couple, and whirled to Michelle's rescue, leaving them to argue in lisping Spanish over the relative merits of magenta versus burgundy.
"NGET UZ OVF YERR GODDAMNG NGAILING LISZT!" I heard, followed by the soft thump of mail on formica.
"Let me help you, Mrs. Foster," I said, smoothly. She wouldn't be happy until I "called corporate" and set them straight. I dialled Gary, the owner of the tobacco shop next door, and told him in no uncertain terms that if he didn't remove Mrs. Foster from our mailing list, I would testify in court that he wore women's undergarments and abused zoo animals. Or something like that. Mr. Foster nodded solemnly and eyed a pile of toaster ovens.
Meanwhile, a man had wandered over from the lighting department with a set of almost-matching lamp shades. I tried to ignore the brewing storm as Michelle began to argue with him about the price that came up on the register. I had my hands full appeasing the Robot Queen.
"You got the cyber-twins over there?" Gary was asking on the phone.
"Yes, sir," I replied in my sternest tone, "And if you don't stop sending them our fliers, we will lose their business forever!" (They had never bought a single thing from us that I was aware of.)
"Hee hee, thanks for the warning!" Gary said. "I'll take my break before they get here! Even I don't feel right selling her all those cigarettes!"
"But the sign says '20% off', and it's sitting there with these shades," the other man was insisting to Michelle.
"Well, it's ringing up at $10 each, that must be the sale price," Michelle said. She was casting me anguished looks, begging to be bailed out.
I hung up the phone, and turned back to the Fosters. "If you get any more mail from them, you let ME know," I told them, and sympathetically dumped their letters into the trash bin. They rolled away, satisfied... until the next mail delivery.
"Help me get rid of this guy," Michelle whispered at me behind her hand.
"Why don't you just give him the discount?" I asked. "It's only two bucks."
She paled at the suggestion. "Not on MY account! Won't they fire me for that?"
Not wanting to argue in front of him, I turned to the man with the shades. "Where was the sign, sir?" He showed me; it wasn't supposed to be there. It wasn't even one of our signs; some joker had brought it over from another store. This guy didn't care about that, though. He by-God wanted those lampshades, and he by-God wanted a deal! I just wanted him to go away.
So, I logged in on a register, rang him up - with the discount - and took his money. "You have a nice day, sir," I said, as sincerely as I ever say it. Just between us, whenever I say the word "sir", it has a special meaning in my mind; an acronym suggesting a profane act combined with criticism of the mental capacity of the one being "sirred." Unless, of course, I respect you.
The man smiled, and cocked his head to one side. "You know," he said, "that showed a great deal of professionalism and leadership. Have you ever considered a career in the military?" I demurred, without laughing. He handed me a business card. "I'm an Air Force recruiter down at the Processing station in downtown Phoenix. Give me a call sometime, and we can talk about getting you out of retail." I politely tucked the card into my breast pocket.
Dad picked me up from work that night, and asked how my day went. I was dying for a cigarette, but didn't want him to know I had ever so much as seen one lit. I reflexively brushed the breast pocket of my shirt, where my smokes had formerly resided, and remembered the card.
"I was offered a job in the Air Force," I said, laughing.
Dad didn't laugh.
Next Week: Saying Goodbye