Two Guys from Garfield
On May 30, 1980, I took up work at Two Guys retail store in Garfield.
Two Guys was a retail institution born in my grandfather's time, part of the Vornado Corporation which eventually made its fortune by closing down the stores and moving into real estate speculation.
The first Two Guys, built in Newark and originally known as Two Guys from Harrison before it moved to Kearny, became the subject of great wrath from the Christian community when the company took the issue of Blue Laws to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978 and began the roll back of sale restrictions on Sundays that had plagued most the country.
Yet for many years, the store in Garfield had seemed out of touch with the modern world, much in the way many of the local stores did, part of some bubble in time that had trapped itself, selling goods and services that had none of the glitz of popular culture.
Although a handful of the stores were within easy reach of me during my childhood, two of these marked the boundaries of my early life. This one in Garfield and another in Totowa. When we felt adventurous, my friends and I would take the trek to the Totowa store, and indeed, that store figured prominently in at least, one 1968 adventure with my then best friend, Frank.
The Garfield store had a different lure, though I came here much less frequently, I felt more attracted to this neighborhood, even before I moved across the bridge into Passaic. This was holy ground as far as my family was concerned, the land upon which they had walked as children. In fact, when I brought my mother north for Christmas, she pointed out placed that no longer existed there, or places that had changed function, such as the parking lot where the family's hardware store once stood, or the Ritz movie theater which was now a warehouse, the bank, now an auto supply store. Only the church which the family attended was as it looked in my mother's time, though a whole new ethnic population now attended its services.
More than once since moving to Passaic for the last time in 1978, I thought how convenient it would be for me to work at the Two Guys store in Garfield. I was still fascinated with the concept of walking to work and living a life that allowed me to access all those things I needed without extensive travel. But I didn't act on the inclination until late spring, 1980, at a point when the store was clearly in decline, and management -- with Ronald Reagan looming as the next president of the United States -- took on a typical 1980s attitude towards the working poor.
To be fair, the workers at Two Guys -- as in many other institutions of its kind -- had grown fat and lazy, much in the way government bureaucrats had, believing the store so entrenched and their jobs so secure that they could act as they pleased, carrying attitudes that customers often found offensive. Few realized how close to doom their livelihood was, and how within a few years, the way of life they had come to rely on would vanish.
Cable TV shopping networks, posh shopping malls and other new innovations would make this stand-alone kind of store obsolete. Two Guys would begin to close its stores within two years, following previous institutions like Korvettes and many similar stores.
Most of those working at Two Guys when I arrived, however, saw no dark cloud hanging over their hears, going on as they always had, hanging out with the same social cliques, presuming as clerks they would eventually rise in rank to department managers, and perhaps even into upper management ranks of the store -- and if really, really lucky, move on into the body of Vornado Corporation itself.
I felt the decay the minute I walked through the door to ask for a job, the smell of old grease and dust mingling with the scent of rotting plaster board walls no one had bothered to paint in years. To admit it, this was not the front door I had come in. The front door was somewhat north of the employee entrance and had double glass doors as opposed to the single green metal door through which employees generally came and went. Both doors faced out into the parking lot along western, long side of the building. A concrete walkway connected the two doors, although because the land gradually descended -- most of both this and the other building below built on land that had been cut out of a hill -- a set of metal stairs was needed to reach the green door, where none was needed for the metal entrance. A faded brass-colored sign with worn black letters said: "employees only."
It was the remarkable layout of the Garfield store that made it seem so unique from the various other Two Guys stores I had visited over the years. Unlike the stores in Totowa and Harrison, the Garfield Store had failed to contain its entire inventory of merchandise in a single building, a model that seemed to have been derived from a model established locally by the former "Great Eastern Mills," a pre-outlet discount store popular in the 1940s and 1950s, a destination spot for the Sunday shopper similar to the function malls would later serve.
The Garfield store had plenty of room, buy because of the slant of the land leading down towards the junction of the Passaic and Saddle rivers a few blocks away, only a shortened version built -- despite blasting out half the hill to build even that.
To accommodate the full line of goods, a second building was constructed on a lower section of land where wetlands and woods were levelled to make room, for the building and lower parking lot. The result was an L-shaped piece of property on a slant of land that would have done well as a sled run with the property at the higher elevation making up the long arm of the L, while the property below the short arm and a steep incline connecting the two.
Although Lincoln Street ran along the curved inner side of that L, management -- under pressure from the Garfield zoning board who were concerned with the reaction of local residents to the increased traffic -- constructed its own access ramps, one from Passaic Avenue along the top that ran down into the upper parking lot, and then, with an even steeper decline down into the second lot. Along side both of these was a concrete walkway with elongated stairs and a rail to which many of the elderly clung climbing up and down.
The two buildings, both rectangular, and both standing long ways along the long arm but on different levels, provided two different kinds of goods. The upper store sold everything from sports wear to pets, part of the now antiquated shopping philosophy that predated shopping malls where everything needed to be contained within one store. The mall concept of separate but equal stores, a kind of protection racket that allowed the building owners to get a percentage of individual store owner's sales, would destroy the Two Guys concept -- whose original aim was to serve the public.
Down below, the second building offered auto parts and auto service, doing repairs as well as selling all the accessories of a traditional auto parts store. The second section also sold traditional white goods, such as refrigerators and stoves, as well as hardware in what would be today a combination Pet Boys, Sears and Home Depot.
I arrived at Two Guys after nearly two years of jogging so that I was in the best shape of my life. The minute I walked in Management saw me as a good prospect for sales in the sports department. I hated the idea, but needed the job. My journal entry for that day, May 30, 1980, seemed to reflect how well I fit in with the store.
God knows what they were thinking hiring me as a salesman in the sports department at Two Guys in Garfield, me so trim after nearly two years unemployed, an unintentional hunger strike protesting the wage slavery of the 1970s. I must have looked tough to management who thought from the look of me I might could see jump rope to an elephant or a pair of weight to a whippet, fat and skinny men seeing something they wanted in me.
My supervisor, Charlie, carries so many spare tires under his belt, he could service an 18-wheeler, one of the long-time staff people who had come with the store, shuffling here, shuffling there, never managing to get much done, a regular hick of a man who hickuped convulsively any time anyone mentioned the word: work.
He is so much stupid, as aggravatingly slow, scratching at the back of his head each time the office called, asking who the boss meant to do what, I did everything Charlie wouldn't, which meant I did everything, especially when it came to lifting anything heavy.
Charlie has a back like a well-trained dog, on my first day, he gripped it with one hand pointing to a dented metal shelf full of weights, saying: "I'd like to help you, boy, but the pain won't let me."
Well, you all know the rest.
No one else will work with him, asking how I could, though no one had a bad word to say about the old timer, even if he was the biggest son of a bitch they ever knew, expressing his view on college men the moment I was hired, eyeing me and my notebooks like I wanted his job.
"What'ja writing in those dern books of yours, boy?" he asked,
never taking my shake of head for an answer, insisting I read something, anything, that might enlighten him, glowering for the whole of lunch even when I did.
While he and I are trapped in the same cage for the summer, only I have a key to get out, and he knows I do, growling after me after work: "He don't have to do this like the rest of us, He's a damned college boy."
The rather incapable Charlie was a life-long worker for Two Guys, a man who had started out as a clerk and risen to his level of incompetence as management continued to promote him simply to justify his increasing salary.
They might have fired him except that Charlie never did anything so terrible as to justify dismissal. In fact, he tended to be one of the more loyal employees, offering to do anything the boss wanted, and once assigned, attempting to the best of his ability to complete it.
Charlie never actually meant ill when things turned out all wrong. For some reason, everything he touched fouled up. If he was told to move a box, Charlie tended to take it to the wrong location. If asked to price some item, he tended to price it far lower than was intended.
By hiring me, Management hoped to undo some of the ill-effects Charlie caused, but Charlie took it as a sign of his final rising in the ranks to the role of boss. The power went straight to his head and worse, he couldn't just assign me jobs, he had to stand over me to make sure I did them to his satisfaction, a micro-management that had him breathing down my neck on everything from moving a shelf to making a sale. In each case, he directed me to do the job in the very way he would have done it himself, thus making me screw it up as well.
As indicated by my journal entry from that time, other people simply refused to work with him. Being new, I had little choice but to endure his inconsistencies, each of which wore harder on me because I had lived through similar scenes as a kid when forced to work for various members of my family. He had no objective clue to right or wrong. Right was whatever Charlie said it was, or until he changed his mind. He would often assign a task, forget he had assigned it, then ask why I had performed it, refusing to accept that he himself had ordered me to do it. He would sometimes forget important parts of an assignment such as which shelf on which he told me to put an item, then would yell at me for putting it on the wrong shelf. On one occasion, he asked me to move cartons of weights from the bottom shelf to the top. When I pointed out that the heavy metal -- which had already dented the bottom of the metal display -- might likely pose a danger if moved higher, he yelled at me for arguing with him. When I finished moving the weights, the top shelf sagged so badly I thought the whole display would tumble over. Charlie then yelled at me for breaking the shelf.
This tour of duty lasted for about two weeks, and I was just about ready to quit when a vacancy opened in the Shipping and Receiving Department. I was asked to fill in there, an assignment that lasted until I left the following September.
In many ways, this brought me back to a situation I had left before seeking out college, when I had worked nearly four years in a Fairfield cosmetic warehouse. Even the sweet scent of perfume was the same, one of the many items shipped into the store for sale. But unlike the trapped feeling I'd had at the previous job, this situation was temporary, and I knew it.
Both the sport department and the receiving department were located in the upper or main building, nearest to Passaic Avenue. So were the business offices and the offices for the manager and staff. Going in through the double glass doors from the parking lot, you would come to a string of check out counters, beyond which chest high shelves made up a maze of aisles, which were divided somehow into departments, of cosmetics, clothing, toys and other items. If you turned sharply left, passed the hotdog grill, soda fountain and large glass bubble full of popcorn, you would pass through several departments on the way to the door at the end of that building marked "office." Most immediately in front of this door was the sports department, to the left of it (if you faced the door) was the pet department. Immediately to the left of that door and just before the pet department was the door to the lunch room.
At first, I tried to read and write during lunch, but found myself assaulted with stares ore questions about what I was doing, many of the people puzzled as to why I bothered wasting my time with either when I could be talking to them. In my journal at the time I wrote:
You can't expect the masses to love William James, or dig Faulkner, or even Dylan Thomas. Yet I never thought they would hate me for reading at all.
Even Ellen, the married girl in the pet department, stares across the lunch table at me like a puzzled dog, asking why I waste my time reading my way through lunch, when I could be talking to her.
Only I don't think James meant her when he blasted man for preying on his own kind.
How could I explain my hungers to her, my inferiority pressing me into pages I don't understand, me refusing to waste my life as a wage slave, trapped in jobs like hers, each boss waiting behind the time clock with whip in hand?
Should I quote James to her about living afraid, belief making for fact, when I don't yet believe it myself?
No, I just read on, hoping she will get the hint and leave me alone.
Ellen, a mousey girl from the Pet Department, took an interest in me almost from the first day, someone who had settled in with the pets because she had less trouble relating to her charges there than she had to the rest of the human race. She was pretty in that old fashioned sort of way, which made her the perfect type for the macho men around the place who sought to have a girl friend like her, who they could turn to on those nights when all the really "hot babes" turned them down. But she seemed on the hunt as well, looking for a man she could turn into a husband. In my journal, I wrote:
Ellen's the serious type.
At least that's the rumor around this place. Hot-shot sex maniacs from the office grumbling over the ring she wears, saying she isn't married. It's all a matter of wanting to be, they say. She's out to hook someone good. The store psychologist says its more her looking for a father figure. She strikes me as a nice girl. Pretty and clean. A little sexy, too, in that Ivory-girl kind of way, wearing tight pull-over sweaters and soft-colored lip stick.
But there aren't a lot of men worth snaring in this place if that is what she's up to. Maybe she figures on Prince Charming coming in to buy a hamster or snake, seeing her and sweeping out of this slave house.
Regardless of motivation, she's found a good gimmick for keeping the flies out of her hair. None of the fast-talkers will look at her twice. They don't want to wind up husbands. For that matter, neither do I. But hell, she's still nice to be around.
But if I had thought Ellen normal in that All American way, I soon learned differently, as we began to talk, and she began to tell me things about her home life that surprised me. Her talk made me realize that the drive towards a "typical" or "predictable" America had diverted, and that even simple people, the kind Ellen seemed to people with her small town mentality, had became twisted by a new sensibility, trading away that backwoods religious revival stuff of the old south for new venues upon which to base new faiths.
I'm only now beginning to see how strange things are becoming. Around me, the old religious roles and patterns are falling away, giving birth to new and different religions.
At work yesterday, Ellen said she and her father belonged to a temple which believed and practiced in astro-projection. While me and Jimmy often talked of such things, I never really believed I would find a formal organization in downtown Paterson. I half expected to find poor Ellen and her father in the news next week, victims to some Jonestown fiasco. It hard to think of innocent Ellen in any other role but that of traditional faith.
But most of us are struggling with our ability to believe within modern society. The barriers are rising both economically and emotionally-- the poor on one side, the rich on the other. Neither seem to have equality in this life or the next.
Perhaps Ellen and her father are desperate to believe in something and reach out looking for meaning which is not defined in the typical rhetoric of religion. Some famous philosopher whose name escapes me said: "You make your own."
Life doesn't come with meaning built in, each person places his or her own pattern on the picture-- like the weather people who drawn their own symbols upon a map. Others may use that same map, only their outlines are different. Some might see a map of the United States in roads and bridges, mountains and plains, cities and states.
Religion takes groups of these beliefs and organizes them into a more formal organization. They shape and sharpen views which already have meaning.
Now with the old religions failing to solve new problems, we find ourselves with new religions which can.
The cast of character expanded greatly after I moved to the shipping and receiving department, because everything that eventually reached the various other departments had to come through ours first.
About a half dozen people worked here, unpacking cartons that had been shipped to the store from everywhere in the world. We checked them in, priced them, then moved the items out into the wider store, delivering them to the appropriate departments.
As with my role as supply clerk years earlier at Paterson General Hospital, we had significant power as a result of our position, determining who got their goods and when, thus making our department manager a political entity to be reckoned with, and she was not beyond wielding her power to get even with other department heads who might have slighted her. In my journal at the time, I saw Melissa as a working woman.
She's worked herself up through the ranks, a tough lady of 24 with blond hair tied back and jaw jutting, challenging me or any body to make something of it. Maybe it's the grim crack she uses as a smile which keeps people from saying anything.
"Yeah," she says with a melancholiac air. "I've worked my butt off for this place and what's it gotten me?"
With hands on hips she surveys the loading dock as if she owned it, trucks jerking their way into the angled door, gears grinding, brakes squealing.
She mumbles something about it being a rough business as her men dump a fifteen foot length of roller up into the mouth of the trailer. She says something about nothing working out right, about needing people to make things work, about how the place has gone to pot over the last few years-- this being the Summer of 1980, election news boiling out of her office radio like sports scores: Ronald Reagan leading the Republican pack, waiting to challenge Jimmy Carter in November. She's convinced no one's going to help her or business, then scolds the driver for dropping a box marked fragile. The tingle of broken glass rings as it finally makes it way down the rollers.
The drivers are the biggest problem. They never take her serious and think she's an easy meal, her greasy hair and smudged face, more tom-boy than supervisor. She has to fend them off, refusing offers for lunch and beer (and other things at the local motel), always taking down the pin-up girls they paste to her office door.
"I'm not like that, really," she tells them.
They don't listen.
She's got two kids at home already, from two different fathers, neither of which ever claimed her in a marriage ceremony, neither of which she'd take back if they asked. Here, her help has learned to fear her-- though respect comes hard, and she's brow beaten them with insults long enough for them to hate her, too.
"The dike," they whisper behind her back-- though she hears it, ignores it. There's only so much fighting a girl can do day in and day out. She saves her strength for the bosses, who want more with less help and hold her responsible.
"What's a lover?" she asks, answering my stupid question with a question.
There isn't ever time for one of them.
Although I was not aware of it at the time, Melissa's position gave her good opportunity to enrich herself. She had made an agreement with the only black on the entire store staff, the man to which the unloading of trucks chore was permanently assigned. She arranged for him to divert some of the more expensive items which they would resale elsewhere and split the profit. Management, aware of the theft, but not the means, had security policing the whole store, except for our department, which made me later suspect they might have been getting a piece of the action, too.
Indeed, I had an early confrontation with security over my book bag, a rather ratty brown thing of cracked leather and a broken zipper that found its way into a friend of mine's poems about a year later, something that seemed to symbolize my life at the time, bulging with books and notebooks.
Because of the thievery, management had increased the number of security officers and promised a $100 reward for each theft they uncovered. This staff, as I remember, had three super-vigilant members and though I can't recall any of their names, I remember what they looked like and how they acted.
One was very tall and very skinny, with curly black hair and thick black glasses over which he seemed unduly embarrassed, as if he had taken significant ribbing as a kid over them, and was now determined to make sure no one ever ribbed him again, about anything. While he was not the leader of this little crew, he took his job so seriously most of the workers refused to talk to him, even to say hello, as he prowled the store's departments and secret passages.
These passages seemed to have been installed with the original construction and led to a series of blinds from behind which security could spy on people in the shopping area. Some of these blinds were mere peepholes, some where platforms behind large mirrors high up along the walls, needing rickety wooden stairs to access. Security and the blinds were initially employed to prevent shoplifting but garnered more use in the observation of workers, who were believed to be the chief culprits of most crimes.
To my knowledge, the only member of the staff these avenging angels ever caught was a counter clerk, who was fired when she attempted to take a packet of gum. Melissa and Ed (the black man from the loading dock) seemed to escape security's attention altogether, as if the watchful angels had orders to avoid them. Ironically, six months after I left, the newspaper reported the firing, arrest and conviction of the entire security staff for an on-going campaign of theft.
The second of the two security men was a man slightly shorter than I was with long blond hair straight out of the 1960s. He looked and acted exactly like someone I had known from my days in California, and he seemed to take to me as a friend -- except that he was not allowed to associate with the staff, even after hours. I would see him pop in and out of areas where I worked in pursuit of some real or imagined criminal. Each time, he would give me a wave as he passed. He seemed intrigued by my books and notebooks and my spending each break reaching or writing when everyone else engaged in gossip.
In another time and place, we might even have become friends, and in fact, I felt some strange connection to him that our short time together did not justify, as if perhaps -- as my best friend Pauly might imply -- we had met before but could not recall, even in some previous life. While I grew close to others at the store, the feeling was one of mutual enduring, the way slaves feel a common bond when struggling against their master. But with this security man, we were friends and not friends at the same time as he struggled to straddle his world of power with mine of ideas.
He was particularly pressed by the third man, someone with the dubious honor of being "head of security," and a man whose whole life centered around the need to display his colors as a truly macho man. He judged everyone, especially his two underlings, by this standard of toughness. He particularly disliked me because I did not fit in with his pre-conceptions, where I was neither a tough guy or a victim, but some other alien entity that defied his simple definition, thus disrupting his otherwise extremely orderly world. He disliked me immensely for this, and took a particular interest in trying to prove I was a thief so as to be rid of me before I gave the rest of the staff any foolish ideas.
This man was the epitome of every bully I had ever encountered, resulting in the expected clash such characters caused in the past, me refusing to allow such characters to have their own way, challenging him the way I had countless others of his kind from there back to high school. I found myself unable to resist the temptation to test the limits of his power, challenging his authority whenever an opportunity presented itself. Because I would not allow him to turn the whole store into his private police state, I enraged him even more, making myself target to even greater suspicions.
I ribbed him mercilessly, making sure to remind him about how little power he actually had, telling him that he was little more than a glorified version of what we were, slaves to the greater system, one that bound us all together and used us, and fired us when we ceased to serve its purposes.
He wanted to be a cop so bad he had taken up acting like one -- a bad one, one of those characters that winds up in the news beating people like Rodney King or Abner Louima, only this guy couldn't pass the psychological tests. I would meet his kind later as mall guards, haunting the hallways of their respected institutions waiting for that one test they might pass as if by accident that will give them license to become legal bullies.
This man ordered his two companions to watch me and harass me. The taller of his two stooges had no problem following these orders, but the shorter man did, and apologized more than once about having to bother me. In one confrontation, documented in detail in a somewhat fictionalize version I later wrote, he apologized profusely as I tried to leave the store:
His grim face paraded across the sales floor like a marine’s, though the pained look in his eyes contradicted his stride, as if when it finally came to confronting the enemy, he just didn't want to pull the trigger on a friend.
Not that we had much of a friendship, he and I, passing each other in the dressing room or in the lunch room, or by the door leading out to the parking lot. I always nodded and wished him a good day, which had surprised him the first time, then made him suspicious on repeated occurrences.
“What the hell do you want from me?” he asked when I slid once into a seat across from him in the lunch room.
“Want?” I asked, putting my lunch tray down. No one else sat at his table, though the rest of the room was packed. “I want to eat lunch.”
“I don’t see why not? This seat is vacant, isn't it?”
“Of course it’s vacant,” he snapped, and later, I learned no one had dared sit at his table before, nor had anyone wanted to -- except for the occasion flirting sales girl who thought they might protect themselves from his vigilance by coming on a little.
This never worked; some suggested he might be gay. But if he was, he certainly show any more attraction to me or welcome my arrival than he did the sales girls’ earlier.
“So do you mind my sitting here or not?” I asked, still unaware of the prohibition against it.
“Do what you want,” he snarled and waved his hand at me. “Just don’t expect any favors later.”
I didn't know what he meant until Sylvia told me, and then I got annoyed, and when I thought about how he must feel, I forgot about being annoyed, and made a point of sitting at his table every day, and wishing him good morning when I came in. Only gradually, did his suspicions wain, and then, he actually held up his side of a conversation. I found out he didn't like his job very much, but kept it because he had to get himself through college in order to become a cop later on.
“Without that degree, I might as well forget a job on any police force,” he told me. “And I need to be a cop.”
He didn't explain this either, but I caught word from around the store that John’s father had been a cop, and his grandfather, and perhaps his grandfather’s father, too, as was John’s brother, and uncle and brother-in-law, a family tradition he was expected to keep up and pass on the way the rest of his relations did. He just have the flair for it, the others did, no wish to wear the uniform, no desire to carry the gun. He didn't particularly like the discipline, though I could see how well it suited him, how his life ran better when he followed a rule. He liked knowing what the bosses wanted, and disliked having to choose between options, like making moral choices where neither side was right or wrong.
And it was that anguish I saw in his eyes when he came towards me, a man struggling to make up his mind about something and hating himself for being unable to do it. I stopped and waited near the front door, sunlight streaking over my shoulder as the day died and the cars of the other workers stirred to life outside -- the smell of their exhaust fumes giving the air a metal tang.
``What's up, John?'' I asked when the man had come close enough, pausing at the mouth of the deodorant aisle.
“Look, man,” he said, approaching me slowly. “I don’t want you to take this personal or anything. It isn't my idea.”
He glanced over his shoulder, studying the large mirrors hung at intervals along the walls, anti-theft mirrors which just happened to also have a series of passages behind them, and places for men like John to stare out and watch for shoplifters -- and employees stealing things. Two cashiers had been ushered out earlier this week on evidence gathered from such observations and I could see from his stare that someone was watching us now from one above
"What isn't your idea?" I asked, again sensing something strange about him, an oddly uncomfortable shift in personality. He didn't seem the straight-forward bulldog people whispered about behind his back, but a bulldog that had caught a Hamlet complex. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"It's my boss," John said, hooking his thumb over his shoulder to indicate some larger-than-life figure I couldn't see. "He wants me to check your bag."
The bag -- as he called it -- was a tattered leather shoulder satchel that I had stuffed with note books for so long that it had lost its shape, sagging out at the sides with cracks in the original fine leather. The corners of the books and pens poked at its surface giving it a pathetically tortured look.
"Why?" I asked, glancing back up at John's guilty face.
``You know why,'' John said.
He had a flat face that fully reflected his mind. He would do poor a poker, and no cop would ever need to do a lie-detector test on him. A thousand little puzzled lines spread out from the ends of his eyes the moment he even contemplated a deception.
"You think I'm stealing something?" I asked, watching him squirm, and glance over his shoulder towards one of the wall mirrors, behind which he imagined he boss to be standing.
"No, not now you aren't," John said. "You're just coming into work."
"By which you mean to imply I might be taking something when I leave?" I asked, wondering why he hadn't waited until the end of my shift to do this search, if he believed a morning search pointless.
"I'm not saying you're stealing anything then either," he said. "I just have to start checking on you. That's all."
"If you don't think I'm stealing, why do you have to check."
"It's the rules."
"But why start enforcing them now, if I'm not under suspicion."
"I said I didn't think you took anything," John said. "I can't say the same thing for my boss."
"He thinks I'm stealing something?"
"Somebody is, and he wants me to find out who."
"Which means I can expect you to search me everyday like this?"
"Coming in and going out," John said. "As long as you carry that bag."
So that was the game. Old Brillo-head had eyed my bag from the first day I came to work here, and was especially disturbed when I pulled out notebooks at break times and lunch times and after work and began to write. He would stare at me across the room, frowning at first, then later, with annoyance. He once even walked up to me and demanded to know what I was doing.
"What does it look like?" I asked, disliking him as much as the others -- maybe more. I'd run into his kind before, when I was trapped in dead end jobs. Now, with this serving me for my summer employment between semesters at college, I didn't need to be afraid of him or his kind, and showing my distaste of his petty tyranny with my attitude. "I'm writing," I said.
"I know you're writing, but what is it?"
"That's none of your business," I said.
"Look, McDonald," Brillo-head said, leaning towards me, his overly powerful cologne making it difficult for me to breathe. "Everything that goes on in this place is my business."
"Not when I do it on my break," I said.
"What are you some kind of spy?" he asked. "You a union man trying to make trouble for us?"
"I'm a writer," I said. "Or at least I want to be. Now leave me alone."
The manager's eyes flashed with the same contempt I'd seen before in the eyes of truck drivers, house contractors, and men down by the pier, the resentful look of the last great generation of laborers towards the up and coming college crowd. Vietnam hadn't divided America nearly so much as our generation's rejection of manual labor. We were brought up to believe ourselves as something special, people who were the best and brightest beyond the sweat and toil of the work place.
At college, I'd actually heard two boys trying to talk a third out of taking up a career as a roofer.
"What do you want to do that for when you can come to New York with us and make a killing on Wall Street," they said. "Don't you know its only the suckers who actually work for a living."
And that from Brillo-head enlightened me. I had come here to earn my living for the summer before going back to school, a working man who had lucked out by going back to college after a decade of dead end jobs. But Brillo-head didn't see my working class background. He saw me as one of those spoiled kids who made him feel like shit, driving up to the front door in BMWs and Volvos, acting out the role of some superior class who mere working people should bow down before.
"Writer, my ass," Brillo-head said. "While you're under this roof, you'll do as I say."
"Then I won't write under your roof," I said, then took up having my lunches out front of the store, where I could write in peace.
I tried to explain that I wasn't what he thought, but he wouldn't listen. But John saw the difference; John saw the day to day working habits during his spying, he knew who helped who, and who hid in the stock room, and perhaps that's why he liked me, because he recognized how hard I worked, and saw the desperation in my eyes not to remain in a job like this, working for a boss like ours, for the rest of my life.
"So do you think I'm stealing something?" I asked John.
"No. But I've got to satisfy the boss."
"And if you tell old Brillo-head to fuck off?"
"Then, I'll get fired along with you."
"And what if you tell him I wouldn't let you search my bag?"
John squirmed, his face clearly revealing his discomfort.
"Damn it, Kenny," he said in a lowered voice. "Why can't you make it easier on both of us. Let me peep in your bag once or twice a day. Even if you were stealing something, I wouldn't tell that bastard. But I have to look and if you don't let me, then I have to let him fire you."
"But I'm not stealing anything."
"I know, I know."
"Then you don't have to look," I said, and made to move around John, but he grabbed my arm and stared into my face.
"I got to look or you can't come in."
"Why can't you get old Brillo-head to come look?"
"Because this is my job, not his. This is why he pays me."
"Well, then, I'm refusing. Do you want me to leave?"
John's face went crimson. I had forced him to take a side, and he hated me for it, though even that was conflicted, as if somewhere deep inside himself, he admired me, too, and would have been disappointed in me if I had answered him in any other way.
"No, don't go," he said. "But I got to bring you to the boss. He'll need to hear this straight from you."
I agreed and let him lead me through the store, passed the perfume counter and the sports wear racks, passed the staring sales people just coming on for the morning shift, people who frowned, then shook their heads, people issuing me pity with their gazes. Brillo-head Wilson kept his office in back, hidden away from the main offices near the southend door. He didn't like associating with all those secretaries, he said, though in truth, he didn't like anybody watching what he did all day. John knocked stiffly on a door marked private, then waited for the reply before turning the handle and motioning me in.
Brillo-head nearly smiled when he saw me as if he had predicted the sequence of events leading to my arrival, predicted and depended upon my refusal to be searched.
“So you won’t cooperate, eh?” he said, rising from his chair to make his way around the desk where he might stand over me better. “Do you have something to hide?”
“It’s a matter of principle,” I said. “You either trust me, or you don’t. And if I’m not trusted, you shouldn't have me working here.”
“Trust is bullshit,” Brillo head said. “We don’t operate on trust, we’re in business here. You want trust, go talk to your priest. Here, it temptation strikes, we lose money. And that bag of yours is big enough to lose us a lot of money, especially if you fill it up every day.”
“So you would treat me like a criminal even if I haven’t stolen anything?”
“It’s not a matter of treating you like anything,” Brillo-head said, glaring at me, his eyes shimmering with joy, as if he had looked forward to this moment for a long, long time, finally able to put one of us in our place -- college boys who lord over him in the business world without one tenth of his experience, college boys who graduate to jobs that took him ten years to get. “We have rules here, and one of those rules involves bringing in bags. No one’s stopping you from carrying your precious books, as long as we make sure books is all you've got in that bag.”
“Who made the rules?” I asked.
Brillo head blinked. He didn't mean to, but he clearly hadn't expected the question.
“What difference does that make?” he asked.
“I want to talk to him, I want to tell him how unamerican it is for him to accuse people of stealing without proof.”
“Nobody’s accusing you of stealing, damn it.”
“Well, it feels like you are. If I’m not stealing, then you have no reason to search me when I come and go. If I am, then fire me.”
“I'll fire you anyway for your attitude.”
“Okay,” I said. “Fire me.”
I had said such things before, knowing I had little to lose. But my attitude had infected other people around the warehouse and store, working people who’d labored here this summer and every Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall, and those people needed this job, and those people had started questioning Brillo-head’s logic, too, and this thought flashed in his eyes when he glared at me, and this thought put the proper words to his thin lips, though he hesitated to make the pronouncement.
Firing me wouldn't break me, or set an example for the others. I would walk out of here a hero, and that was the last thing he wanted, especially if -- God forbid -- I actually came back someday as his boss.
“No,” he said. “I won’t fire you. Not yet anyway. Get out.”
I knew that wasn't the end of it, so did John.
“You shouldn't have done that,” he told me as we walked back towards the breakroom, where I had my locker.
“Pushed him to the wall like that.”
“I didn't push him anywhere, he went there all by himself.”
“That’s not how I saw it, and that’s not how he sees it, and he'll get even.”
“I don’t know how, I only know he will.”
“We'll see,” I said and laughed, and glowed in my small victory, a glow which lasted only until the afternoon, when I tired to get my bag from my locker to leave.
John and Brillo-headed waited in front of it, so was the maintenance man, holding a master key.
“Do you want to open the locker?” Brillo-head asked. “Or shall we?”
“Why should I?” I asked, glancing at John, but John wouldn't meet my gaze, staring down at his hands instead, and I knew then, I wasn't going to like the next few minutes, knew that someone -- perhaps John -- had already looked inside my locker and bag, and had made sure when Brillo-head came to search this time, he found something.
“You won’t open it?” Brillo-head asked, looking only a little disappointed, as if he’d wanted to see the look on my face when I did, and would have to accept a lesser reaction when he opened the door for me and showed the stash of goods there.
“You’re running this show,” I said, waving for the maintenance man to unlock the door. And he did. And out tumbled my bag, but instead of books, it contained batteries, and a radio and assorted other items of relative value, though nothing that would have normally tempted me.
Brillo-head’s smug expression said everything, that triumphant expression I’d seen on the faces of David’s bringing down Goliaths,. Only I was no Goliath, and he had cheated to bring me down.
“I think, John, you should call the police,” he said. “Your friend here has a bit of explaining to do before we fire him.”
“Me?” I said, “What about you?”
Again Brillo-head blinked, and frowned, and asked: “What do you mean?”
“I came in with a bundle of books this morning? Aren't the police going ask where they went?”
Brillo head stared at the locker, then at the bag on the floor. None of my usual notebooks were evident in either place. His face reddened as he glared at John, but John didn't meet his gaze either.
“Get out!” Brillo-head told me.
“You’re firing me?” I asked. “For what?”
“For insubordination. Just out of my sight before I really lose my temper.”
“No,” I said.
His glare turned ballistic. “What do you mean, no?”
“I mean I want my notebooks back, otherwise, I'll be the one calling the police.”
Brillo head, as I called him at the time, later sent word before I could actually leave the store, telling me to get back to work.
But that was not the end of my disputes with management, as my battle seemed to predict the battles that would plague Ronald Reagan in Washington over the next few years.
Mr. Proudy and Mr. Joseph believed in a top-down style of management. They needed to have control over every element of the store, from Merlin, the escape artist hamster whose adventures claim close to getting Ellen, the pet department manager, fired to the signing in and out of breaks for the rest of us. These two instituted rule after rule to chain us more firmly to their whims, and I resisted each one, actively protesting how unfair the rules were.
My opinion at the time was shaped by school and a form of socialism that George Orwell had once mocked, though unlike many of the students I went to school with, I had a practical experience with which to temper by political views. Unfortunately, my journals were filled with the same furious rhetoric I had heard during the 1960s, somewhat irresponsible, somewhat naive:
Some people just can't be convinced. They live and die by the rules of the system, and are not particularly interested in its abuses. My uncle is that way, a small business man from Toms River who defends business on every level, refusing to concede their excesses. Big companies fire employees who give two week notice. He says small companies should do the same "Can't let the business go into the red over a few petty details," he says. Like fairness? Like a guaranteed means to make a living?
Business doesn't seem to care that people need to live their lives with some measure of security, not bounding up and down with the economic free-wheeling insanity of an open market, 5 to 7 percent unemployment acceptable in a system such as ours.
Acceptable to whom?
My uncle has no answer to such questions. He's never been unemployed, inheriting his father's business back in the sixties and riding its fortunes unimpaired. Some people would kill for a quarter more an hour, while efficiency consultants pull in fat salaries to recommend lay offs and firings.
My own manager says it's a free country. If you don't like one employer, you vote with your feet and move on. But how long can you do that before it starts looking bad on your application? How long before you come to realize each place is the same, a tiny bit of tyranny housed in a democratic container. Each boss a new Mussolini making the trains run on time.
Real freedom is for those who can afford it, the ones who have enough already and use it to make themselves more, riding the back of those who work hard, whispering lies about hard work getting people ahead in this world.
The poor are poor, and the rich are rich. The difference is the rick like keeping things the way they are, with business devouring poor people, then spitting them out.
For another example:
I wonder how we're supposed to feel?
People around me each expect a specific response. The boss at work expects me to shiver in my boots whenever he stares. As the newest boss on the block, Mr. Proudy has something to prove. After all, he's got bosses leaning on him, too. Yet how can we respect a man who came in here under false pretenses? When management introduced him to the workers they said he was ``a management trainee.''
When I first saw him I thought him a little too simple for the job, another piece of dead wood at the top of his corporate tree for the workers along the roots to feed. He has a mean spirit, one that hides behind a mask of shyness, and one I would not have picked as store manager. Yet, I'm constantly surprise by who gets power, and just how that power twists people. One day as boss and Proudy's taken on airs. I heard him whisper to the warehouse manager: ``These people are goofing off.''
He lacked courage to say it out loud, picturing us dragging him off to the guillotine. It takes balls to face down workers. Had he, I might have felt some respect for him.
``They get away with a lot back here,'' he mumbled.
Yes, we do, almost as much as they do in the board room or the office of the manager, where security and the department heads gather for their two hour lunches. Agenda item for this Wednesday: How to keep the workers in line. If he can control us, he might just get another promotion to the national office. Lucky him. We're just rungs on his personal ladder: he builds his career with us, and doesn't even get his hands dirty.
``You're goofing off,'' he whispers with a dark look at me.
How are we supposed to feel?
Or even this:
"We have to have control," Mr. Joseph said as he sat me down in his office. "We can't have people wandering around the store at will."
I found myself nodding, not because I agreed with him as I knew they weren't listening to what I had to say.
I tried again: "If you think some workers are stealing from you, catch them, punish them, don't punish all of us for the crimes of a few."
For a short time, both bosses stayed so silent I thought they were asleep with their eyes open. But the silence ended and it was clear from their rush of words that they had failed to register this basic concept, insisting upon operating on preventative punitive regulation rather than simply punishing those at fault.
I had already studied such attitudes at school with my study of Machavelli, who professed it better for a follower to fear you rather than love.
"Policy is policy," Mr. Joseph said. "We are making our policy for the whole store, not just the Receiving Department. We need to have control. We cannot tolerate people taking advantage of the company."
It was my turn to stay silent.
I was struck by the unfairness of the situation, how the company could take advantage of its employees by underpaying them, by setting up inflexible rules, but not allowing the employees a few extra minutes a day to come and go from the break room.
The people in the receiving department had to walk the length of the store to get to the break room and then back, with their cup of coffee and cake sandwiched inbetween, a ten-minute break half of which was spent traveling.
To make sure we came and went on time, Mr. Joseph and Mr. Proudy had set up a register and required us to sign when we left and sign when we came back. I refused to sign coming or going.
"Why don't you quit if you don't like it here?" Mr. Proudy asked me.
"I wouldn't give you the satisfaction," I said. "If you want me gone, you're going to have to fire me."
It something they were reluctant to do, and had called me into the office looking for some way to convince me to obey their rules, as if by breaking me, they would settle down the outrage in the other workers, both bosses believing me the instigator of the whole thing -- which I was.
But they were unreasonable, and I'd be damned before I'd give in to them on these terms. They were not interested in making the company better or making their employees more productive, they were interested only in maintaining their power, and keeping us afraid of them.
"Why can't you work within the system," Mr. Joseph said. "Do you think you're better than everybody else?"
"I think we're all better than you think we are," I said. "We deserve respect, even from you."
"You can't do this," Mr. Proudy said. "One person can't ignore the system?"
"Why not? One man I remember started his own church, and that's a pretty strong thing now-a-days."
""Jesus Christ!" Mr. Proudy growled, and threw up his hands in frustration.
"Exactly," I said.
For all my arguing, I soon discovered I could afford to battle management when the rest of the staff could not. Unlike jobs I had held in the past -- where I still did battle of the same sort -- I was only a Summer employee this time, while all the others had their livelihood on the line. It was an immunity I maintained in some fashion or another -- usually maintaining more than one job -- until a decade later when I mistakenly took up a single job and got fired for my outrageous behavior.
My resistance at Two Guys, unfortunately, became symbolic for the others, who wanted to do what I was doing, cheered me on, and often -- to my horror -- followed me in my exploits, even though they had much more to lose than I did.
Joseph and Proudy put up with me for some reason, as if they knew something I didn't know, waiting, perhaps for their chance to catch me doing something for which they could fire me or perhaps even press charges with the police. They knew I was not the typical sheep they herded in and out with the time clock, and more than once they regretted hiring me in the first place.
Sheep is how they thought of the workers, as did many of the managers of the national economy that came to power with Ronald Reagan. If not sheep, then we were the moving, operating parts to the vast economic machine, parts replaced or shifted around to fit the pleasure of our masters. Such managers did not understand the desperation in which these workers lived, how this and other apparently insignificant jobs barely kept each worker from ruin -- their lives one paycheck away from catastrophe
In standing up to the bosses, I became a kind of foolish folk hero, someone who gave these people false hope where no hope had existed previously. At the time, I thought myself right, and acted so righteous as to later view myself with sickening destain. I still believe I was right in principle, but unlike so many radicals for whom I have lost much respect, I came to understand that movements which shook the world also hurt many of the people these movements were designed to help. With leadership, I discovered comes responsibility, a kind of feudal lordship which maintains that a rebel must consider the consequences of his or her actions, and whether or not, those led will benefit from the revolution. By this standard, the American Revolution could be measured as a success, where the French and Russian revolutions, as failures.
When challenging Joseph and Proudy over one of many issues, I actually laughed in their faces, saying they could not hurt me -- to which both agreed, then asked me about the others, whether they had anything to lose, and in that moment, the entire failing of the 1960s flashed before my eyes, and explained to me why people had abandoned that mentality so quickly afterwards in favor of greed. The Revolution we had sought to cause had not involved the deepest interests of American culture, but rather the interests of its fringe element, those like me immune to the dictates of the bosses. Those protest movement had revolved around manipulating the masses into action, not allowing them an honest voice. Which ever side could get the most people chanting their slogans or wearing their buttons won, and when the gullible young of my age group grew older and more fearful for their futures, the other side manipulated them into chanting for their causes and wearing their buttons. In the end both sides abused those they professed to help.
Grin and bear it.
People used to hand me that tell me this all the time.
When I fell out the kitchen window when I was a kid, and fell straight down into the basement, hitting my head on stone, my uncles leaned close as the ambulance rushed me to the hospital and said: "Try to grin and bear it."
This despite my wails of pain that outblasted the siren, and the fact that some idiot had left the cellar door open so my head hit stone instead of wood.
Grin and bear it! Grin and bear it!
What about the concept of justice, and vengeance, and getting even for ills caused me by society? Am I supposed to walk around accepting every indignity, just in order to keep peace?
Well, I'm in pain again, and again someone is telling me to "grin and bear it."
Management told us to move some white goods from the store to the warehouse yesterday, giving us a few pallets and a hand truck, but nothing to the goods with, or enough people to manhandle these refrigerators, stoves and air-conditioners onto the pallets. So each grabbed a piece and did our best to fling them up. As a result, I pulled a muscle in my chest. I thought I was having a heart attack, and rushed to the hospital. A few muscle relaxers, pain-killers and a short night's sleep later, I was back in the labor pool waiting my next assignment.
All this is nothing new. I broke a toe earlier from having a pallet of oil fall on it, because management was too cheap to buy a ramp for the truck that wasn't warped. In other, less dramatic instances, I hurt my back, lifting boxes of sporting goods we should have repackaged. All this, I've suffered over a few sparse months.
Others here, have suffered much worse and for longer. Like Barbara, who claims she gets hurt every time she comes into the store, and from the evidence I've seen, she's right. She cut her finger on a box staple she tried to undo with a scissor, when management refused to purchase the appropriate tool. Her visit to the hospital's emergency room resulted in 12 stitches, and light duty for a week -- light meaning she wouldn't have to open any more boxes, but still had to maintain the quota for checking things in. More than once, she had to use the women's room to stop her hand from bleeding.
Donna, a veteran at 21, shuffles around the store with more wounds than she can count, moaning over some new affliction too minor to send her to the hospital, but painful enough for her to purchase a tin of aspirin a day. She does not eat breakfast. She does not eat lunch. She just pops pills and keeps on working, cringing to managements complaints about how slow she moves.
Even Ed, who is the most loyal man in the store, gets shot down from time to time, management complaining about how long it takes him to get from one part of the store to the other, his limp so noticeable that we've joked about buying him a wheel chair, or building him one from container scraps. He secretly hates management, but would never think to complain, hobbling on, day after day, until he's forced to take a day off, for which he gets docked.
"We don't have sick days here," management tell us.
Of course, Tex mumbles from his corner of the loading dock, never so loud as to draw the wrath of management, but with a nearly non-stop rap that forms the backdrop of our existence here. He complains about the lack of cooperation we get from management, the lack of vision, and, of course, the lack of pay. Then, he had his car accident, and came back after many weeks, looking so pale and weak we thought management would let him go. Now, he takes off as many days as Ed does, and is docked so much, he can't save up enough to fix his car.
Melissa is management's spokes person on the receiving doc, bearing a title and an a little extra in her pay envelop. She complains constantly about our complaining, and constantly clutches her stomach as she walks, telling us that we're killing her. She eats rolaids as much as Donna takes aspirin, but never escapes the pain, cringing and shaking whenever someone from the main office calls on the telephone, turning pale when management asks her to come up to the office for a talk.
And over and over, the catch phrase echoes from management's lips, as if they hoped by saying it enough we might come to believe it: grin and bear it, grin and bear it, grin and bear it, and strangely, we do.
Those few workers who managed to advance under this system of wage slavery, often did so through devious means, and then guarded their wealth and position furiously, if not yet managers, then acting as if they were, lording over those with whom they formerly worked. This kind boasted of his or her accomplishment and of his or her closeness to the person above them on this working class line of evolution. Deep down perhaps they understood how badly they had sold their souls to management.
Mr. Proudy gives more and more jobs to those of us that are working hard while the toads who kiss up to him do nothing.
It makes me mad. I've quit two other jobs over this very issue of fairness in the work place. I know Proudy wants to look good for the corporate bosses whose office windows look out on our work area. Proudy has come in a dozen time screaming for us to work after phone calls told him some of us stood outside smoking cigarettes. But why does Proudy need to push us, when so many others in the company do nothing? Wouldn't he look that much better if we all pitched in?
Perhaps he simply knows that other breed of worker too well to depend upon them for anything as important as this? They are a lazy lot by anybody's definition. Even Melissa, the loading dock manager calls them good for nothing slobs, souls hired to fill in the ranks of our depleted staff. Many of them will quit or get fired over some trivial matter, and to push them takes more effort than they're worth. Even when they do the work assigned, they do it wrong: putting sports wear in with women's undergarments and hair products in with the pets.
But foul ups or not, they should be made to take some of the burden. But Proudy only dumps more on us, rushing in to tell us we have to have this order out by this afternoon, or a new shipment of shoes, unpacked, checked in and put away before the sale starts in the morning. If he were to order the others to do it, nothing would be ready to load for the order or out on display for the sale. And Proudy knows it.
He knows we're the responsible fools, the ones who will grumble and complain about his orders, but will carry them out just the same, because we can't leave things untended like that. We need to know we've done good work, even if it is for an asshole like Proudy. He tells us to do something. We complain, then set out to do it, and -- unlike with the others who lounge around the store pretending to look busy when Proudy pops up -- we throw our hearts into the task until it is finished.
If it wasn't for those louts, I think we would eventually cease to complain. But Proudy seems to have two sets of rules: one for us, who labor diligently despite our doubts, one for those louts who get paid just as much as we do and do thing. Watching them, with the sweat dripping down into our eyes, only makes our labor seem that much more difficult and unfair. Box by box, pallet by pallet, we grow more and more disturbed, grunting and cursing beneath our breath as one of the toads comes or goes from the warehouse.
``Mr. Proudy says we should bring out the shower curtains,'' one might tell us, his tone and stare so mocking we want to wrap him in a shower curtain and float him down the river with the rest of the trash.
Perhaps we had already reached our limit on patience when Proudy came back and caught us smoking outside the door. We were on break and just too lazy to make the long walk across the store to the break room where we were supposed to do our smoking. We figured to get the smoking done here, then sit for the time we would otherwise have spent walking. Mr. Proudy didn't see it that way, and began screaming the moment he saw us.
``What the hell are you delinquents doing out here?'' he yelled, casting a nervous glance towards the towering wall of the corporate office with a questioning look in his eyes, asking some invisible third party if he was doing this correctly.
``We're on break,'' I said, rising from the old crate we used as a seat.
``Here? How many times have I told you not to smoke here?''
``On duty,'' I said. ``You said we shouldn't stop for a smoke while we're working. But I told you, we're on break.''
Melissa came out of her office to see what the shouting was about, saw Mr. Proudy and heard enough of what he had to say, for her to turn around again and creep back into her shell of an office. She never stood up for us. I don't know why. I think she believed herself above her head in job as supervisor and didn't want anyone else to discover the fact and fire her.
``Put them out!'' Proudy shouted. ``You're both on report.''
``For what?'' I screamed, counting off the other instances that were already marked up in his book, vaguely recalling the penalty of one day's suspension for three times on report in a month. This would be my third.
``For disobeying orders,'' he said.
``Fuck that!'' I said.
He stared, his eyes bulging a little as if unable to believe the words, glancing painfully at the windows to see if he could spot a face there frowning, too.
``What was that?'' he asked, slowly getting control of himself as not to yell back.
``You've picked on us once too often,'' I said. ``Your toads smoke out front where the customers can see them all the time and you don't say anything to them. I'm sick of it, Proudy. I'm smoking my cigarettes here. If you don't like it, you can drop dead.''
And then, I sat, drawing stares at first from my co-workers, and then, gradually, like the slap of water flowing faster and faster out of a breaking dam, they applauded.
Proudy glared at me, and then at them, his mouth opening to say something, but no words came out. He knew there were too many of us. He knew he couldn't fire me on the spot without every walking out, leaving the order undone and corporate management in a tither about how badly he handled the situation. After another sputter or two, he threw up his hands and retreated back into the warehouse, scowling at his toads as he ran to answer the telephone which was sure to be ringing just then in his office.
One of the unfortunate things for these poor toads is that many of them have a legitimate motive for selling out, seeking -- as almost everyone does -- to better themselves, often to make the lives of their children better.
Their children, however, hardly realize the sacrifice their parents made, often moving onto college where they learn to become the new Mr. Proudys and Mr. Josephs on their quest for more legitimate power as managers, looking down their noses at the whole concept of work.
But then, many of us in the trenches felt largely the same way about work, and wished we had as easy a way to escape at they did.
The working life sucks. It is the great lie by which Americans swear their loyalty while cursing their ill-luck, boss, and lack of appreciation. Old jokes about being a wage slave aren't as far fetched as people think, though we go to war defending this life so the boss' boss can drive up twice a week in his limousine and make us feel small. I suppose we envy him and dream of the day we can do the same to peons of our own choosing, little realizing we'll never get big enough to make up for today's humiliation.
I swear breaking my back for such bastards will be the death of my art. I'm too tired to come home and write after work, or think about anything but the psychotic trash on TV. Who could dredge up great truths when ever muscle hurts.
Nor am I alone. I work beside a guy named Tex who plays weekends in a country & western band. He says he's been to Nashville, which may only be part of his fantasy world. Sometimes I see him walking around the loading dock during our lunch break like a caged animal seeking escape, mumbling curses under his breath as to how he got suckered into believing anything good about this kind of life. He's perpetually peeved, saying hard work doesn't get a man anything more than tired.
And he's right -- at least about this kind of work. America is based on cheap labor, using ignorant people to make its money. Christopher Columbus pondered the potential of Indians as slaves, but it started with debtors from Europe, packed up and sent west rather than going to jail for their debt. But the system failed when these wage slaves ran away and the authorities had no way to distinguish them in the crowd. Blacks were perfect for the role, but a civil war ended that practice. Since then, immigrants have served in a temporary fashion, sliding in and out of such jobs as these until a new wave shuffles in. Unions pissed the rich off royally. There is nothing more disheartening for a millionaire than a democratic work force. That's why the wealthy spent the greater part of the 1940s, 50s and 60s corrupting union officials and installing the illusion in us that hard work makes a man get ahead. Nothing better for the slave master than to have his slaves fight for their own enslavement. With the way the Republican candidate, Ronald Reagan is talking, their may not be any unions left if he gets to be president.
Besides, Tex's talk about crashing out is all wrong. The system doesn't coddle rebels, it destroys them. One must graduate places like this, taking from it what one needs before moving on. Better still would be for it to spit you out, letting the system think it's punishing you with its rejection. You can make it happen, but can't do it all yourself. And I spend these days in this clam shell trying to figure out how to irritate it just enough to hand me a pearl. But its hard when you have to think about survival, too, when you're smart enough to know they are using you, and there's very little you can do about it right now.
During the Summer of 1980, I found myself leading a small rag-tag army on a protest only I could win, committing them and their lives to a principle rather than a practice, and in the end they would find themselves no better off, and I would be gone, prancing off, one more snotty college graduate who had made his point.
In many ways, the kind of people with whom I worked at Two Guys made up the last of a dying species, the kind which George Orwell so vividly described in his non-fiction about the working class of pre-World War Two England, the last batch of old Garfield trailer trash white workers before the new invasion of immigrants took their place on the tread mill. The 1970s had marked the heyday of American working class, a brief moment when wages allowed them to live with relative security. The price of this, of course, was the mad inflation the country suffered in the late 1970s and early 1980s as the rich tightened their grip on real wealth, eventually helping bring in Ronald Reagan to pump back value into their investments by degrading the salaries and working conditions enjoyed by workers like these.
My working companions that Summer did not know it, but they and the company they worked for were doomed. Instead, each clung to the noble institution of common labor even as it became a dinosaur in a nation with a rising service industry. The reign of a white work force was over. If a white man was not a manager, he was a bum. After this Summer jobs -- many of which had already moved south to avoid labor unions -- moved even farther south to Mexico or off-shore to Taiwan or the Philippines. Although we no longer called it Colonialism, the way people did in the 1800s when England held sway -- brown and yellow men did our bidding while rich, white people here lived high, leaving no room for those white faces like these in this arrogant society.
The people I worked with may have been ignorant of their fading role in the world, but they were not stupid, and a journal entry from that Summer caught a fleeting glimpse of what our work day was like:
Labor has become a flow of near-endless conversation in which art, politics and religion play a part. We chatter while we work, and I discover I am learning things about myself, putting together images and knowledge which were lying dormant in me.
Modern art is condemned and I defend it. Rock & roll is attacked and I resist. Religion is support and I bring it down. Suddenly my arguments have become persuasive, as I understand what it is I am saying. I can feel facts tumbling into place inside my head, like pieces to a jigsaw puzzle finding their proper slot.
The day passes. It is suddenly 11:30 a.m. Break time! And I curl into the corner to write, newspaper filled with articles of faith, arts and literature mingling in my life as if by fate. New Jersey even has its own ballet!
God! And the characters that surround me! Each wears a story on his cuff. If only someone could listen to them and write them down. Their pain boiling up in their eyes as they speak, their secret desires coming out-- even without knowing. And me, jotting, jotting, to catch it all before it vanishes again, into the thin air!
The people I worked with there were real and mostly white. Later, as I continued to associate with what modern management called "unskilled labor," those who worked hardest with their hands tended to be non-white or well-educated. White or not, those forced into taking on such labors, found themselves with less options than the children who moved on to greater expectations. People like Meryl, Tex, Black Ed, Melissa and others, had plenty of dreams, but no hope, and their lot in life was often determined by who ever was hired as their boss. They needed their jobs, and so, acted like sheep to avoid finding themselves on unemployment, welfare or worse. The bosses often made use of their dreams and their fears, telling such people that others would do their jobs if they didn't. This was part of the old dodge of the previous decade where workers were set against welfare clients while the wealthy picked both their pockets.
We're all scared. All a little nervous about tomorrow, even in the good times. I've seen it here in this sweat shop at the bills pile up at home, big red letters saying: final notice.
Poverty is a condition which robs you of pride, taking from you the very thing needed as its cure. Like Meryl at work who aims her guns at welfare people, blaming them for her being stuck in a nowhere job. She doesn't see the cause, blinded by the dream which rich people put out saying: "Sure, you can be rich, too. Just work hard."
A statement which has no fact. Things like luck have more to do with success than working. But then, too, it's Meryl's class which strikes out, condemning the nearest target. Sweating-faced workers like us can't see the rich and their excess, only the struggling slim beneath us into which we could fall.
It's the fear of falling that makes us hate them so much.
And working class people struggle madly in their tight little corners just to keep ahead of those bills. And rats are particularly nasty when they're trapped.
"It's time for a revolution!" one guy from the toy department says, slamming down his box as he walks out.
"No, it's time to make the SOB's earn their keep," Merril says, as she takes another box from the edge of the truck and starts to unpack it.
The anger broods and breeds inside all of us, waiting for its chance to blow. Sooner or later, doomed to hurt someone. Sure, we'll get those welfare people jobs. But where do they come from? And where do we go when they take ours? People in the auto industry already complain about jobs moving to mexico. Half my Ford Pinto was built south of the boarder. Are those Detroit people on welfare now?
And maybe we're just trading one set of slaves for another, making the welfare class work, and the working class starve. That hardly sounds like a cure.
Maybe it's the dream that's wrong, the wants of the people inspired by what they see on TV. We search for power, wealth and prestige. Are any of them worth it? Where is the word "happiness" in that holy trinity? Where is the sense of justice and good faith?
Nowhere it seems.
Yet this rag-tag army of mine was merely one of thousands or millions, all of whom seemed to ache for real leadership, someone who could commit himself to their cause. Each member of my group was full of unrealized dreams, who hoped to win some of kind of lottery of life that fate or the system decreed they could or would not win. Tex wanted to be a country and western singer, driving a huge car with special license plates. He wore boots and a cowboy belt buckle and a cowboy hat. But he often arrived at work hung over from a night of drinking, dour from spending his week's pay check on booze.
Meryl didn't even want to work. She dreamed of being an ordinary house wife, but because her husband also had a dead end job, she took up a job at Two Guys. She complained constantly about how wild her kids were growing cause of the inattention, and how much it hurt each time a police officer brought one of them home. She kept hoping her husband would get a better job so she could go back to her kitchen. At the same time, she knew it would never happen.
Barbara was just pretty enough to draw the attention of men, but never the caliber of man she wanted. She kept dreaming that some successful man would see her and want her and elevate her to some greater plain of living, stealing her away from a drunk father and a nagging mother. Yet Barbara also knew no such man would look at her twice, seeing right through her. The men that wanted her were just like her father, men who would use her until forced to make an honest woman over here, condemning her to the same miserable life sentence that had made her mother bitter.
After months of drought, rain comes, a trickle of water from a pale grey sky. We all expect more, staring out from the dusty side of the warehouse door, shocked and dismayed at the wet's paultry relief. Barbara, with her hair trimmed to a half inch, steps out, holding up her palms as if to catch a drink, the pellets of the brief shower striking at her face and eyes as she grinned. Around her, distant thunder moans in answer the quick blue flashes of lightning.
She is gallant gal, but lonely, an 18-year old growing up in a generation of lonely people, good naturedly teasing Martha from the clothing department with the resigned grace of a wall flower at a dance -- Martha perpetually prodding her to talk more openly to boys.
``I love the rain,'' Barbara says and stares back in at me, curling her forefinger as invitation for me to join her. I shake my head. I am not afraid of getting wet, or what the boss will say if he catches the three of us dancing in the rain instead of working. I am afraid of Barbara and her teenage crush on me. Why do all girls her age find older men like me attractive? I do not advertise myself or push myself on her. She seeks me out, while a frustrated security guard named Rich glares. His vicious crush on Barbara scares me. While I'm afraid to hurt her in rejecting her; I fear more the rebound that will send her into his arms instead.
Like many men entrusted with a ounce of power, he's grown warped. He likes to push people around, especially the clerks, reminding them that he can get them fired if he wants. He's made noise from time to time about becoming a cop, though he strikes me as too stupid to pass the entrance exam.
Barbara, silver dots of rain clinging to her hair, steps back into the warehouse, clutching her side as she sits down on one of the packing crates.
``I'm all right,'' she says waving me and Martha off. ``This happens all the time. It's just stitches.''
But Barbara has a habit of getting hurt. If she doesn't report some form of injury twice a week, the warehouse manager starts to worry, saying Barbara is due for a whopper. Sometimes, the manager will send Barbara home. In the year since starting work, she had broken two fingers, sprained three ankles, pulled out her back five times and come back in the morning with more bruises than anyone cares to record.
Rich worries her, too. She's often hidden from him after work to avoid his ritual attempt at seduction. When she is less careful, he screeches up in his chevy, leans out the window, and offers to drive her home. Only once did she ever take him up on the offer. Once was too much. She says he pulled the car over to the side of the road half way to her house.
``I thought he wanted to rape me when he reached across,'' she says. ``But all he did was pull a gun out of his glove compartment. A big silver gun that he sort of petted a lot, blowing on it when his fingers left marks on the barrel.
`` `I only keep it in case someone gives me trouble,' he says to me.'' she says.
But we all know Rich and know who trouble always seems to find him, and how he roves through the store in the afternoon, his gaze searching out the faces of employees he doesn't like. I'm a particular target. The company raised the bounty on thieves. Last week, he got a clerk fired for taking a packet of gum. He would love to get me fired. I tell him off routinely just to watch his face grow red. He's even stopped me at the door, demanding to search my bag. He's always disappointment when the only thing the bag contains is books -- books with titles he's too stupid to recognize.
I guess Rich is lonely, too. But he's not the wallflower kind. He doesn't celebrate a sprinkle of rain, and I see him in the shadows staring outside, scowling at the clouds, his gaze saying he'll likely have to rewash his car. He seems to hate the rain as much as he hates the rest of us. But the rain's safe. What's he going to shoot at? The sky? And what good will that do? It certainly won't make Barbara go out with him.
Black Ed, who couldn't even brag of family ties as noble as those with whom he worked, didn't know his father and wished he hadn't known his mother. Ed brought a bottle to work with him just so he could get through the day. He believed that the only way a man -- black or white -- could get ahead in this world was to steal, and keep on stealing until he had become so important that he didn't need to steal any more. Yet no matter how much he stole, it was never enough, and never would be, because stealing for him was just another treadmill, one which would never allow him to catch up from the truly wealthy people who stole wholesale, using the system to make their theft seem like a virtue, and his, a crime.
Ed's been fighting them lately, and he will lose, and he does have something to lose, unlike me. He also fights with rage, not logic, like an enraged bull thrusting his horns this way and that, striking out at anything that gets within range. When he came back from lunch 15 minutes late, three bosses came to have a talk with him, a display of power showing just how seriously they take this revolution of ours.
"They told me if they smelled any liquor on my breath they would give me another warning letter," Ed told me. "I told them they could give me that fucking letter right now if they wanted."
Then Ed stormed off to the truck and to the high low he used to unload the pallets.
I never saw him actually hit the heater (hanging from he ceiling), I only heard the sound of metal striking metal, then the creaking of the heater hanging by a few unloosened bolts, the whole thing swing back and forth as if to fall.
"No, I didn't do nothing for spite!" Ed yelled after the bosses had pulled him aside again, casting his curses back behind him as he exited the office.
Ed is a big, black man capable of beating up the toughest in security, yet looked ragged now, with the muscles in his neck so tight they looked like rubber bands ready to break.
"They're getting to me," Ed said. "They don't want me to give a shit about nothing."
Make him not care, and they could fire him with cause, as they could each of us, working on us, wearing us out, so that we give up the fight.
Ed is a logical target; but we all felt the same way.
The bosses fear me and my ability to walk across the lot to the corporate offices behind the store and start ranting before my boss' boss. My boss knows I know enough about his own failings to make a good case, the kind of mismanagement that goes on within these two buildings that apparently goes unnoticed in the annual reports. But I have already come to the conclusion that it is the wrong fight for me, and that my standing up to the bosses only inspired a reckless rebellion by others like Ed. I had already given noticed and told them the store could fall down for all I cared.
Ed, on the other hand, cursed and stomped and ranted his way around the warehouse section for hours, trying to generate us all to action, and failed in his effort.
Now, I go back to work again, wondering if Ed will be there, or if any of us can expect to have a job. Sometimes management transfers troublesome workers to far away stores they know the worker can't reach.
It is one of many powers we cannot overcome, and though the bosses cannot break me, they can break Ed and the others who need to work to keep their families fed, and that is the real threat and the bosses' real power. We might win for a day, but they can starve our families.
Ed's teaming up with the white woman manager, Melissa, didn't help, because she had no more a key to success than he did. As a woman, she had already reached her level of success, dreaming instead of being "a rich bitch" who could pick and choose her men, as well as with method and circumstance ion which they could make lover to her. She saw herself as living in a posh apartment, driving a posh car, eating and drinking the poshest of food and alcohol in the poshest of establishment. Yet she lacked the sense to steal now and live that life later, at a point when she had accumulated enough to make that life possible. Instead, she celebrated as she went along, using up whatever she got as fast as she got it, spoiling herself for those times when she didn't get anything at all.
All of them talked about getting famous somehow, as hinted at in this journal entry from the time:
They'd like to see their names in print-- a bit of fame beyond the ritual of birthday greetings and obituaries. They'd like to see the story of their lives transposed into some other medium but sweat. An article in the local weekly, a special on public TV.
Only their bosses seemed to know their name now, shouting it from the warehouse as if they owned it, too.
The problem is no one bothers to document such people. They come and go, wearing out their welcome like cogs to a machine, replaced at the convenience of the management.
A bit of print would give them pride-- which is maybe something the bosses wouldn't want. Life in America is no longer built on pride. It functions on fear; fear of being different; fear of being fires; fear of waking up one day to find the roof gone from over their heads.
Politicians talk about equality of taxes, of making things easier for the Rich. But the real tax is sweat, not money, and the rich pay nearly nothing in that. They rarely get their hands dirty, or backs bent, or toes stubbed. They brag about their investments and say they risk a lot. But not their physical beings. Even in failure they go, driving their big cars to some new factory after this one is worn.
And it's their names which get recorded. Their names in the history books. And that's the problem.
Even management was not above feeling trapped, looking for a way to escape the corporate madness that dictated lives, as related in this journal entry:
The poor fool area manager found out I'm trying to write and has yanked me aside telling me his life story with the company, from his lowly beginnings loading trucks to his recent position of the corporate ladder. Actually, he's been telling me the history of the company and where he fits in it; he's far too young to have been here for its roots. And while he handles my immediate supervisor with the skill of a talent agent, smoothing the man's ruffled feathers almost on a daily basis, he's really just another working slob, deluding himself with the dream of corporate success. I want to shake him awake sometimes, I wonder why? What's there to wake him up to? He's only trying to find importance in a world where individuals are little more than cogs in various machines, and as long as he believes in himself this part of the machine continues to roll on. I'm sure someday he'll wake up and find out the facts for himself-- that he's wasted twenty or thirty years as the slave master's boy, cooed over and muscled into doing the slave master's dirty work. So what if he thinks he's important now, at least later, he'll have that to look back on, when he isn't feeling very important at all.
These people looked to me to solve the fundamental problems in their lives, to lead them to a place where life was fair and they could find justice, when on one could create such a world out of the materials life had given us.
Life wasn't fair, and a man many times stronger than I was could have dug up justice anywhere except by accident. Each person had to make his or her own justice, through a life-time of effort, and those who depended upon others -- even upon me -- to make it for them were condemned to a life-time of injustice.
By calling me into their office to sign a paper, Joseph and Proud had put me on the line, intending to make or break my resolve as the company's Christ. They knew that if I refused to sign, everyone else in my group would also refuse, and the two bosses made it perfectly clear that if the others refused each would be without a job.
At that moment, I abstained from the 1960s concept of mass movements. I would never again lead others to a doom that I did not also risk, and then, would encourage no one to follow my example. Each person would stand or fall by their own conscience, as I would by mine. Each person would lead their own rebelling, serving as leader and follower with no one other than themselves to blame for the consequences.
In the end, I signed that sheet, ending that rebellion, abdicating my role as leader. I would not and did not try to explain why I had caved-in on the issue. I'm not sure any of my fellow workers would have understood. They were deeply disappointed in me and fell back into their sheepish behavior once I ceased my open rebellion. Without someone to stir them up and excite their anger over perceived injustice, they suffered, most preferring to live with it -- to grin and bear it -- seeing that as an easier task than taking on responsibility for their own lives.
Later, by accident, I would inherit further immunity, as if fate had thrown me a bone, guaranteeing me full employment until I was ready to leave. As described here in a journal entry from the time, when the bosses called me into the office later, I thought they intended to fire me:
It's what I get for stealing, I guess-- though a few hours in a hospital seems stretching justice a bit. For what? A lens filter? Somehow when I was unpacking boxes at work it wound up in my pocket. The boss looked suspicious, pushing through the packing material as if he might find it there. I wondered how to get ride of it. Getting caught would mean my job. And though he moved back to the corner near his desk, I knew he was checking the purchase order to see again how many came in. The camera turned its untrusting eye towards me, winking its red light almost in jest.
I excused myself and went to the men's room where I stuffed the thing in my sock. Not that they wouldn't find it, but it made me feel better without its lump in my pocket.
"Mr. Sullivan," the boss said later. "Pick up your things and come with me."
Defeated, I followed, my head bent, knowing my job was lost. But he passed right by the security office and led me down to the other end of the building, where he informed me of his plans.
"I need someone I can trust," he said. "You're a good worker and can unload this truck without the usual bull I get from my people."
Two hours later, as I pulled on a pallet jack, removing pallets load with cases of motor oil, disaster struck. The first pallet came down the warped mental plate from the truck, but with the second my foot slipped and two tons rolled over it, trapping my toes in the bed.
"Get it off!" I yelled. The pain wasn't terribly great. But I heard the crack of toes breaking and the shattering of the lens filter in my sock.
"Where did you get these scratches from?" the doctor asked at the hospital, after taping up my broken toes.
"I scraped it on the dock," I said, though by his frown I could see he didn't believe me.
Conveniently for me, inspectors from the corporate offices had come in a few weeks earlier and had specifically ordered Joseph to replace that plate, citing it was a potential insurance risk. It was such an insignificant injury that I was walking on it the next day and back to work after a weekend's rest.
By then however, I was already making plans to move on, and I was thinking of the people I was leaving behind.
When I was unemployed last year, I thought college would rescue me, and yet as I leave Two Guys, I can't help believe I have leaving something equally important behind, and the faces of those I have worked with will haunt me the rest of my life, Tex, Meryl, Bill and Barbara -- and Ed wherever he has gone. I know, too, I leave a strong impression on their lives as well, none of them able to think about his or herself in the same way as before I came, finding a sudden importance in what they do and say that management and life had denied them previously.
Maybe they each have a little bit more of self-worth, and for the first time know other people like me think of them and support their efforts to make a descent living. Maybe after I am gone, each will carry on the good fight in my memory, having had the fire stoked inside of them.
I fear, however, that each has much more to lose than I ever did, and may not see the gain as worth it.
But Proudy and his thugs see the fire, too, and have come to fear the wrath of the ordinary people, and if that is all I accomplished, it was worth my time at Two Guys. The workers will press for their rights, even if only on small issues, and the power of the bosses here is less than it was. Meryl and Tex have both grown outspoken when an issue infringes on their rights. When they see something wrong, or being taken away from them, both speak up in protest. Neither seems satisfied with the lies Proudy and Joseph have used in the past to pacify them.
While the workers here still might not see the mechanism behind the social machine that grinds down their dignity each day, they are aware of some aspects of it, the shadows and the effects, and have become wary to such trickery.
Meanwhile, in leaving them, I leave a role I played for the summer, stepping out of the working class and back into the class room. It seems cheap, and less than honest, similar to the 1960s college students who snuck off campus to help in the ghetto, knowing the whole time their own stay there would be temporary.
But Christ's stay on Earth was temporary, and though I know I'm no Christ, I could certainly have gotten myself crucified here, one more victim to the working class machine. In some ways, I fell like Plato, coming out of his cave for the second time, returning to the real light and the real images after a summer once more engulfed in shadows. How I made my original escape remains a mystery, but one that I am eternally grateful for.
And indeed, as the time closed in on my going, I began to grow painfully aware of the separation. I did not know it at the time, but it was a change of culture for me, a stepping out of one life and into another. For more than a decade, I had been a working class hero, just like these people, and my leaving that Summer job spelled the end of that part of my life and a beginning a new life as another entity. I could not help but look back at that Summer, at my past life, without some pangs of regret.
The sentence is nearly over and I wait here now with the morning light crashing in on my head for the moment when I must rise.
Spotty clouds dot the sky outside my window. I'm scared to get up and dress, knowing this is my final day at Two Guys.
While I won't miss management, I'll miss my co-workers.
Where will I be without Meryl's tales of life, her talk of woe, fairness and the quiet respectability hidden behind her stained apron and honest smile?
Or without Tex's angry growling, his great ability to twist the work place into one, long sarcastic joke, a perpetually spewing volcano of sharped edge mirth that keeps us all from going crazy? Management is wary of him. They know he's as likely to give them the finger and walk away as to stand for their crap,, leaving them to pickup the production themselves.
Or accident-prone Barbara, who is in love with the idea of being loved, yet hasn't found the right man to make her an offer, needing to be touched, needing to touch someone, yet made bitter by her failed attempts, mumbling and grumbling about the men she's known? If she gets married, her husband, I'm sure, will beat her.
Or Ed, the silent, lone black man who does most of the truly heavy labor, his brow bubbling thick with sweat as he shoves boxes off the truck for us to unpack, price and put on the sales floor. Inside him, a righteous anger roars, a potential explosion I'm glad I won't be around to witness, half drunk all the time, completely drunk when set free after work.
Or Bill, the boy inside a shell, slowly drying from his inability to trust anyone, eyeing every new face as if it might betray him? He grew to trust me after a while, giving me his quiet friendship even as I betray it by leaving -- he and I both knowing the whole time I would be heading back to college come September.
Or the dozens of others just like Bill, like the housewares's manager who congratulated me yesterday for making up my mind to go back to school, or Jimmy from electronics who once was a priest and suffers his penance out in this place for some sin he's too guilty to admit?
I could name they all, people with whom I have shared this hell over the last three months, some of whom I didn't even like, but who have come to life me, many of them as scared of me as scared of management, fearing what unreversable damage my mouth could cause, sensing the even greater anger I have inside towards a way of life that I have grown beyond.
Donna once told me my mouth would get me into deep trouble, but I believe I could be in no more deeper trouble than her apathy has produced. She was once a department manager here, but has been demoted into the back room with the rest of us, working out her sentence in Central Receiving, though lacks knowledge as to the nature of her crime.
Perhaps she suffers more than the rest of us, having stood on the other side of the management barrier, now condemned to the distrust of both sides, both management and workers thinking she will betray them, her whole life lost for one mistake, she, seeing me move on, while she cannot.
On the last day, I was so confused, I even thought of calling the whole college thing off, and might have had I not made such a fuss about how I wouldn't miss the place. It took every bit of courage for me to punch out for the last time and head towards the door.
They watched me leave
Some seemed sad; others happy. But none were unaffected.
Melissa was the most glad to see me go, dismissing me with her air of indignant officiality when I tried once last time to make peace: "Fine! Good-bye!"
She spoke for a whole management team that included Mr. Proudy, Mr. Joseph and most of Security, all standing to one side as I paraded out, all looking equally relieved.
But Tex, big tall, willowy Tex, grabbed my hand, shaking it so vigorously I nearly fell down, telling me with his gaze what he could never say in words, as if we had always been friends, as if we would also be friends, no matter where we were or what we were doing or even if we ever saw each other again: "Be good, and be careful," was all he would say.
Meryl, an hour earlier, in a more private farewell, had said pretty much the same thing, as if she believed my future was full of peril and turmoil, her voice quivering with dread at my wandering out, unprotected into the real world.
"Don't worry," I told her. "I'll be back to visit."
And yet, even as I said it I knew it wasn't true, or if I did return it would come after a long delay, and not as a conquering MacArthur, but as a sly, spy, easing in, and then out, undetected.
I would not return until my anger eased, and I could feel like a human being, greeting the Proudys and the Josephs of the world on equal terms, as equals.
Yet even as I walked across the sales floor towards the front doors of the store, my shoulders had already begun to rise, as the weight of wage labor was lifted from them.
Bill pulled me aside for one last time, the area manager with whom we had worked most closely, and one of the few people on that side who had given me respect.
"I just wanted to wish you luck," he said. "You should have walked out of here a month ago."
We smiled, we shook hands, but he held onto my hand and shoulder as if he still had something more to say.
"What is it, Bill?" I asked. "Is there something wrong?"
"Yes, well, no, not exactly," he said, glancing over his shoulder towards the brain trust of management that glared at me and anyone who made a move towards me in my departure. "A bunch of us around here wouldn't mind if you dropped a letter or something to the corporate bosses to tell them what's been going on in here. Maybe you can get it all straightened out."
I wanted to tell him it would do no good, that the fundamental flaws with Two Guys were the same flaws that infected every store and every business, part of some greater problem of which the corporation was apart, and that it would take an act of God or Mother Nature to undo what humanity had done in the name of progress.
I also wanted to tell him this part of the problem wasn't mine to handle any more, that I had shown them the way to confront the bosses and that unless he and the others took action for themselves, they would always be victims.
But I had packed my bag and shed myself already of all the store's controversies.
"Sure, Bill," I lied, then walked out, free to do what I wanted now, free to think of life on my own terms.
I was going back to college.