The second job I ever had was at a department store called Ames.
Ames was like most department store chains, with a rank of checkouts in the front, a sales floor segmented by carefully choreographed departments, and all within an expansive, box-shaped building usually anchoring one end of a strip mall.
I was hired, at 19, as a stock boy, forever running in and out of the back room to fetch this or that; or assembling bicycles and grills; or checking the price of something. All the while working to keep the shelves filled with merchandise. I even had one of those price guns on my hip that spit out little price tags.
My manager was a guy named Dave who chain-smoked, kept a pile of new, unwrapped dress shirts in a tall filing cabinet in his office, and who was reputed to have slept with just about every cashier there, except for Gloria, the women's undergarment associate who was 64 and, ironically, never wore the right sized bra. I never understood why they called her the Muffin Top Lady until one of the other stock boys explained it to me.
Dave was the one who hired me, in late June, while sitting in his office. I had just finished filling out the application at the front desk when, passing by, Dave stopped in his tracks and took the application right out of my hands. Ink still wet.
"Ever stocked merchandise?"
"Um...I bagged groceries at..."
"Good. Follow me."
And then Dave was off. Not walking. Not running. He was just there and then he was suddenly somewhere else. The only other man able to do this was my father, usually materializing a split second after I've said the would "fuck" or "shit".
Dave could be in Toiletries in the northeast corner of the store one minute, and then in Fabrics at the opposite corner the next.
The fucker was fast, man. And short. And intense.
He pointed to a chair across the desk from him in a 10x10 office that had a one-way mirror in the wall the size of a bay window. We were perched above the entire store and from this vantage point I could see a couple of 13-year-olds drawing pairs of women's panties over their heads and laughing.
"Get the little shits out of my store," Dave barked into a phone. "Aisle 17. Row 12." I hadn't even seen him pick up the phone. Down below, a man in plain clothes snuck up on the two boys, who scattered in different directions. The ensuing chase was like watching a mouse in a maze. I expected the piped-in Muzac to suddenly switch to the Benny Hill theme song. A grown man chasing two little boys with panties on their heads.
"Loss prevention," David grumbled. I looked at him. He had changed out of his shirt and was buttoning up the top button of his new one. I hadn't even seen him fetch it from the cabinet behind me.
"So," he said, sitting now and pondering my application.
"Don't be afraid of me, Drew. I'm not the cops."
Drew? Who the fuck was Drew?
"Had him as a teacher," he grumbled.
The truth is, I didn't even want this job. We were on Summer's doorstep. Outside, it was in the upper 70s. It was sunny. I was 19. I wanted to be where all the other 19 year olds were. At the arcade playing Galaga.
Down below us, through the one-way mirror, I watched the teens being collared by the loss prevention guy and escorted roughly through the doors.
I looked at Dave. He was halfway through a cigarette. I hadn't even seen him light up. Jesus Christ, this guy was wigging me out. And he had a tie on now. What the hell.
"Can. You. Start. Tomorrow?" he asked, like he was asking a 2-year-old if he wanted to go poo in the potty.
And then Dave was gone. I looked and he was down in Hardware already, talking to Suzie, one of the newer cashiers. She was blond. She had nice legs and was graduating from high school in a week.
So, I told you all of that to tell you this: for the longest time I used to lie on my job applications. I feared complete truthfulness would keep me out of work, and as a teen, I wanted what every teen wanted: my own spending money. You know. To beat the high score on Galaga.
So, when it came to the line on the application that read "Are there any physical limitations that might hinder your performance as an Ames Associate?" I didn't put down that I was colorblind. I always figured that my inability to see any color whatsoever (except black, white and a narrow band of grays) couldn't possibly hinder me from, you know, checking the price of a pair of socks or assembling the newest Coleman.
I. Was. Wrong.
A three-word phrase I have said more in my lifetime than any other, beating out I Love You, I Need Money, and even Let's Have Sex.
That first day. That very first day at Ames Department Store, Dave pulled me aside 15 minutes into my shift and just fresh from being shown the rounds by Greg, who would roll a joint after work every night the size of a cigar and grin like Jack Nicholson in The Shining and say "It's show time!" before hopping behind the wheel of his Gremlin and squealing away.
"Got an end display I need you to facilitate," Dave said.
"Weren't you just wearing a tie?"
An end display is the space at the very end of an aisle of merchandise used as a marketing tool for those walking along the wide corridors between departments. In Ladies Apparel, for example, mannequins wore sexy lingerie, one plastic hand on hip, the other turned up in a creepily seductive way; in hardware, a collage of tools; in Seasonal, child mannequins wore beach clothes amid sand pails and beach balls and towels.
We were standing in Stationery in front of an empty end display.
"New plastic stacking crates," Dave said, pointing to boxes of opened milk crates used as shelving units for college kids.
"I want to snag the back-to-schoolers," he said.
"It's June," I informed him. He gave me the same look my father used to give me when he wanted me to stop being a dope.
Who was I to argue with Dave, Ames Manager of the Year for three straight years? And, let's face it, I was in no position to try and understand the mysteries of department store merchandising and retail marketing. I shrugged at him.
"Anyway," he said. He was halfway through a cigarette already. It was pinched between his lips as he spoke.
"I want you to facilitate this. Show me what you got. You're 19, you're probably in college, right? Make it collegiate. I'd ask Greg but look at him, he's stoned."
I looked at Greg two aisles away. He was licking a ball peen hammer.
I turned back but Dave was gone.
I spent an hour rearranging these plastic milk crates that came in three sizes: large square, rectangle, small square. You could mix and match them, stack them in any array of combination to give the appearance of a filing system. A tower of cubbies. I had fun with it, creating three tall towers on the end display platform.
I raided the stationery and filled the cubbies with notebooks, pens, pencils. I took some magazines from the front magazine-and-book racks. I folded up jeans and t-shirts from Misses. I found a couple of pennants from last year's back-to-school special and pinned those up.
I stood back and admired my first end display. A veritable marketing triumph. No kid between the ages of 18 and 23 would pass this by and not want to buy everything there. In fact, high school kids undecided on college would most certainly choose a post-secondary education after seeing my display.
An hour later, while helping the Muffin Top Lady take down outdated signage for a 3-for-1 gurdle special, Dave's voice cracked the P.A. system, interrupting Barry Manilow.
From my perch atop the ladder in Ladies' I could see, across the entire store, my handsome display. And Dave was already there. Smoking.
I rushed to him.
"Is this your way of being funny?"
I stared at him. Then at my display. Then back at him. He was on his second cigarette already. I didn't even seen him dispose of the last butt. I think he ate them.
He looked at the display, then at me, then at the display. The way a man looks at a pile of dog shit, the dog, and then the pile again, tapping a rolled up newspaper.
"Are you stoned then?"
I had never smoked or ingested any form of contraband in my life.
"Why do you think that's attractive?"
That's a parent's kind of no-win question. The kind that you feel you must answer, but know that you can't and therefore sound like a short-bus passenger.
"I guess ... that ... the stacks, being stacked, would appeal ... um ... to collegiate types. With, you know ... here you have ... I used pom-poms here. Thought that would catch their eye. I mean eyes...because a lot of eyes go past here. A lot."
Dave shook his head.
"You think purple and green, mixed together like this, is attractive? And why would you put the lime greens and yellows together over here. I mean, there isn't even any pattern. Like a checkerboard. I mean, that I could understand, maybe, but ..."
He trailed off, speechless. A crowd of shoppers had stopped to see who had gotten hit by the train.
Did he mention purple, green, yellow?
Back in his office he had my job application in front of him and he was wearing a new shirt. Come to find out he had a chronic underarm sweating problem. The pile of used shirts in the corner had telltale rings.
"Colorblind?" he scowled. I had tried, meekly, quietly, to explain while still standing in front of the display, that I was colorblind. It sounded like I was trying to make an excuse for farting in church.
In his office he scowled at my application, then lifted it up for me to see. His eyebrows raised.
"I just didn't think it would ever, you know, come up," I offered.
He put the application back down and looked out the one-way mirror. A crowd of people were throwing up in front of my display. Apparently the particular combination of colors and patterns I had chosen induced vomiting and migraines. Sales were down that week by 28 percent.
"No color? At all? Like a dog?"
I nodded. I had already removed my associate's badge and placed it on his desk, like a shamed deputy sheriff who had just been accused of shooting an innocent civilian.
And then he started laughing. His head thrown back, his nicotine-stained teeth flashing. He slapped his hands on the desk.
And then he was gone. I looked down and he was talking to Misty, the newest cashier. She was a brunette and Miss Oxford County Fair for 1981 and 1982. No one has ever won it twice since.
I didn't lose my job. I worked there all summer until I got a better offer in a GTE/Sylvania plant making parts for phones that didn't involve color.
But that summer, Dave found it amusing to call over the P.A. system every so often.
"Drew! I need a color check ..."
And then laughter.
I never lied on my application again. About being colorblind, I mean.