God knows why, but I thought that getting fired from this job was practically the end of any possible future employment. Actually, it was just a sign of things to come.
My first real job was at a catalog retailer called U.S. Merchandise. Well, actually I did caddy at private golf course called The Country Club, which was notable mostly for being really similar to the plantation in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. All of the club pros had southern accents and Jews and Blacks were expressly prohibited from joining. The course had a strict policy against tipping, and most of the bags I carried were bigger than me.
So in reality, my second real job was at a catalog retailer called U.S. Merchandise. The store sold jewelry, cameras, toaster ovens, knickknacks, all the good stuff. The store had display items for all of its merchandise and the customers would copy down the identification numbers of whatever they wanted onto a clipboard with a golf pencil. The clipboard orders would then be taken into the warehouse where a stock boy would fetch the products and bring them out to the check stand. I was a stock boy.
My next door neighbor, Mark Roussey, worked there and recommended me for the job. I remember turning in my application at the same time as a black kid and thinking there was no way I would get hired. It was around 1982 and it seemed to me to be an affirmative action sort of time. What I didn’t know was that U.S. merchandise was almost as racially biased as The Country Club, and the kid didn’t have a chance in hell. One of the managers was fond of taking goods off the defective shelf and putting them out onto a clearance table proudly noting that, “some Black person would buy them.”
To get my job as a stock boy I was required by the store to pass a lie detector test, which had me quaking in my boots. My friends and I had been huge pretzel and cheese popcorn bandits in second and third grade and I was sure my past was bound to catch up with me. I remember nervously sitting in the polygraphists’ office filling out some necessary information or other when the man in charge’s voice boomed out in disapproval at some poor long haired guy who was dressed like an auto mechanic or more likely a prospective auto mechanic. The polygraphist was furious that the boy hadn’t completely filled out his informational application. Oddly enough I had had some trouble filling out my pamphlet, but I was clean cut and neatly dressed and the man in charge treated me like a long lost relative. Visual bias.
If you’ve never been hooked up to lie detector, it’s a terrifying experience. My heart immediately started to race and if I had been asked I’m sure I would have copped to just about anything South of the Lindbergh kidnapping. Fortunately the lie detector operator couldn’t care less about my second grade shenanigans and I passed. Hopefully the auto mechanic survived the experience, but I wouldn’t feel very confident betting on it.
U.S. Merchandise was essentially run by three people Irv, who was more than likely the basis for the character of Shylock in A Tale of Two Cities (please don’t turn me in to the Anti-Defamation League, I’m Jewish too), Milt, who was lucky if he could remember his name, the date, and how to get himself home at night, and a younger guy named Paul. Paul was in charge of the warehouse and the one with which I had the most personal interaction.
Paul was one of those really intelligent guys who had somehow burned out on the real world and taken a job that was way below him. He liked to hire bright kids so he would have someone to talk to, which was in some ways a good strategy because it minimized silly mistakes, but the sight of my emaciated little frame hauling around heavy boxes had to give Irv pause and worry on numerous occasions.
Workers at U.S. merchandise ranged from the incredibly conscientious, Mark Roussey for one, to the lazy, myself and most of my buddies, to the future felons. I once saw a guy, whose life’s ambition was to be a truck driver, pull a glass item off the defective shelf. Not finding anything wrong with the item, he dropped it on the floor and wrote shattered on the defective item form.
At U.S. merchandise I learned how to do cool things like how to properly break down a cardboard box, how to fling a clipboard into a bin from thirty to forty feet away, and the joys of compacting trash by frolicking in a dumpster, all for the low, low price of $3.35 an hour, which was minimum wage at the time. I think after six months I got something like a ten cent raise, but that was where I topped out.
I think that Pro-Quarterback Elvis Grbac’s sister had a crush on me there, but I was way too shy to follow up on it.
The head part time stock boy at the time was a wonderfully daffy guy named Tim Serizen, who went to the same school as I did. Tim was twice as competent as anybody else there, but prone to goofing off. He liked to think of himself as a good break dancer, and hell for a white guy he might have been. He and his friends used to do wacky anti-social things like run into every McDonald’s in town, steal the hot wheels toy displays, and quickly leap into a nearby getaway car. He once got arrested for stealing a canoe, but he somehow had that expunged from his record.
Paul loved me immediately; I was bright, initially hard working and almost always quiet as a door mouse. He figured I was the perfect person to team up with Tim, thinking my silence would equal increased productivity from the two of us. I tend to be shy and quiet for quite a while when I enter a new situation. What Paul didn’t know was that Tim and I were well acquainted with each other from school, and that in truth I was almost as much of a screw-up as he was.
Tim and I were mostly in charge of bringing down goods from overstock and restocking the shelves in the back room. This meant that we were essentially unsupervised for long periods of time. Because we worked twice as fast as everyone else we therefore felt entitled to screwing around for at least half of the time. On rare occasions transistor radios were tossed at other clerks, who stopped in to fill their orders, but the greatest fun came from these soft camera bags the store sold.
The camera bags were perfect projectiles for intense war-like battles in the radio room. We would fling these things at each other from behind doorways, on top of shelves, or from self constructed shipping box forts. Extra points were awarded if you target was obliviously carrying something heavy at the time. This sort of fun was a relatively harmless pursuit until the day I reared back to heave one of the bags at Tim, who was straddling himself up at the top of two shelves. He suddenly yelled “Wait I wouldn’t do that!” as he reached for a huge two hundred dollar telescope to retaliate with. Like that gunfighter in Shane who is out drawn by Jack Palance I yielded and dropped my camera bag. Continuing with the Jack Palance motif Tim hurled it at me anyway. I managed to somehow elude the rectangular projectile, which landed with a mighty crash and was put back on the shelf.
The head guy on the day shift, which I worked in the summertime was a guy named Don. Don was responsible for my biggest dilemma at U.S. Merchandise. I had promised to tape record the fabulous Eddie and the Cruisers soundtrack for him. Unfortunately for me the tape he provided me with was one off of the stores shelf, leaving me to actually transport the thing out of the premises. This was a pretty big dilemma for a seventeen year old. If I took this thing out of the store would I be the thief or was Don the thief? I took the cassette home and taped the record for him, but I didn’t feel good about it, and from time to time I wondered about the likelihood of passing future polygraph tests.
The only thing I and my friends truly and openly stole was boxes of gum balls. The store sold these cheap gum ball machines and we also sold boxes of re-fills which contained upwards of 500 balls of cheap gum. The gum ball boxes happened to be all the in the back of the warehouse, and from time to time someone would take an entire box, open it, and hide it in the drop ceiling. Whenever a clerk would find himself near the gum balls he would climb up onto one of the shelves and grab himself a treat. This was all fine and well until it rained one day and the ceiling leaked right over the box of purloined gum. I was more than a little stressed when I saw a fountain of blue green liquid spurting out of the ceiling tiles. Luckily Don hurried to the back of the warehouse with a mob before anyone important noticed.
During the day at least two of the managers were likely to be working the store. The idea was to be relatively serious around Paul and to completely avoid the combustible Irv. At night the other manager was in charge. If you were truly, truly lucky you would get to work on a Milt night. God bless Milt because he was a really nice guy, but we were teenagers and he could barely tie his own shoes without someone’s help. What he mostly did was wander around the store and make sure no one was setting the place on fire. Once a couple of the guys opened up an Atari unit and a television set and set up an arcade in the camera room. When Milt walked in and discovered this crime in progress, he raised his eyebrows and said, “wow I didn’t know you guys could do that”, and left the room without another thought or concern.
After I had been there a while I was in charge of closing the store, which entailed flashing the lights to get the customers out of the store, turning off the lights when everyone was out and setting all of the burglar alarms. On Milt nights I liked to see how early I could close the store without causing any alarm from our pleasant but lost manager. I think my record was fifteen minutes. When Milt saw those lights flashing he instinctively and immediately locked the front doors. Who knows maybe he was as anxious to get out of there as we were.
My demise came about believe it or not on my nineteenth birthday. I was home on my first winter break from Northwestern, and it being the Christmas season the store was desperate for extra workers. Unfortunately for me, I was unfamiliar with a lot of the other incoming college workers. On the day in question, I had grabbed one of those cigarette lighters that are made to look like a pistol, and was wandering around the store with it while I filled my orders. I had a request for a camera, and when I entered the appropriate back room I saw a guy working, who I had never met before. Being the sport that I was I introduced myself to him, and had what I thought was a short innocent conversation. In the course of our talk I burned the end of my golf pencil (burn is a generous term as those things melted) and made a small black mark on one of the metal shelves. As it turned out my new acquaintance was a born again Christian, a creative story teller, and a tattletale. About an hour later, Paul came at me and blew a gasket. I had never seen him so mad. Something about irresponsibility and the risk of burning down the store. He excoriated me for about five minutes and sent me home.
Later that night, Paul called me at home and told me that he couldn’t do anything to help me and that Irv had ordered him to let me go. To his credit, I know that Paul really liked me and it killed him to let me go. It wasn’t a great moment for me either. I felt like someone had reached down my throat and pulled my stomach up into my esophagus. I couldn’t believe I had been fired for such a silly little thing. Hell, my friend Laird and I had spent an entire Sunday chatting away up on a shelved mattress downing Doritos, while Don had watched the store. I had certainly done much worse in the past.
I was crushed for over a year about the firing. For some reason I thought that the incident would have to be somehow explained for the rest of my life, and that I would have to put it onto my resume in emboldened red letters. My dad tried to share a story with me about getting fired from IBM for asking the company to advise the army to use him as an electrician, but it didn’t seem to help.
A few days later, I went in to pick up my last check. I singled out Irv, one of the coldest bastards I have ever met and tossed him a dollar. “Here this ought to cover the damage I did to your shelf”, I said. About a week later I received a twenty dollar bill in the mail from Irv. I thought about mailing back a fifty to see how far this thing could escalate, but I was a college student, and I wasn’t going to be getting the money I expected from working the Christmas holiday, so I pocketed the twenty and went on my way.
About a year later, I went back into the store to say hello to Paul. He seemed very cordial and glad to see me. I tried to broach the topic of my firing, because the whole thing had gone down so quickly that I had never asked exactly what I had been fired for, and my friends had led me to believe that the born again had likely embellished his account, but Paul clearly didn’t want to talk about it. Eventually they let go most of my friends for one reason or another. From what I heard the new guys robbed the store blind, making our gum ball pilfering seem somehow innocent and sweet.