Retail therapy


One of my first retail jobs was at Howard Johnson’s working the ice cream counter when I was like fourteen. My mom was a hostess. My Aunt Polly was a waitress and my older brother Tom was a short order cook. My aunt got her job first, and then she got the rest of us in. The owner was an old man, a one-eyed Serbian named Louie. He sat by the cash register all night long. I thought he was staring off into space, but the restaurant had all these big windows in front, and Louie was actually monitoring the place by staring into the reflection of the glass. It was a bad job for me, because I never knew what to do with myself, and I have never thought much of the concept of trying to looking busy. I remember my mom racing over to me, whispering out the side of her mouth, “Louie is watching, Louie is watching.”

One time a cute girl came in with her family and I scooped her an ice cream and she took it from my hand, whispered something to her dad, and then he told the assistant manager that I may have licked his daughter’s cone. It was such a horrible, qeeby-inducing thing to be accused of, and the best I could do was screw my face into an indignant pose (I may have licked my wrist, but I swear my tongue never touched that girl’s cone). The assistant manager that night totally knew what to do. He snapped into action, tossing out her cone, scooping her a new one, and all the while just making all this jovial banter with her and her family, smoothing things over for me with her dad. As soon as they left, he turned to me and totally dropped the jovial small talk act.

Never lick your hand when you’re scooping ice cream.

I got kicked out of high school so I went to the Harrisburg East Mall and interviewed for a dishwasher job at Hot Shoppes. I had worked before, but it was my first interview. She was a thin woman about 40 or 50 and she wanted me to tell her about high school. I don’t remember what I said to her, but it was probably something negative about the school, particularly its policy around athletics, or maybe about the athletes who were all so venerated. I expected her to say something like, “Well, you’re a really smart guy, and you should just knuckle down and deal with your attitude” because that’s how those kinds of conversations had always gone in the past. Instead she reached into her purse, shook out a Pall Mall and lit up. It was the late 70s and everyone was smoking everywhere, but it still seemed like an odd thing for her to do in an interview. She offered me a smoke and I probably took it. She blew a cloud of smoke over her shoulder and said that in her opinion the whole education system was just in an absolute sad mess and when did I think I could start. I just looked at her. I had my heart on my sleeve and it was not the direction that I thought the conversation would go. I felt pretty stupid and defeated, but that lady handed it well. I don’t think I lasted more than a few days at Hot Shoppes. The dishes that came out of the machine were super scalding hot.

In the 80s, I financed a heroin habit partly by stealing designer jeans from department stores at the same mall. Not really a lot of planning. You just put on as many pairs of pants as you could wear out of the store, and then you brought them all back inside in a bag from the store and went right to the returns department. My partner was a guy named Vince and his strategy was to look for an older woman, someone with a little grey, who didn’t have a lot of investment in the store. Cash returns without a receipt are judgement calls, so the clerk always asked for a reason. Vince’s thing was to say something vaguely sexual or embarrassing like, “Too tight in the crotch” and then, because these were nice little old ladies, they would just immediately ring you out to get you out of the store and away from their face. If we had a good day and we could score, we would always debrief in the car, and he’d present his old lady return strategy. It’s not okay to steal or mess with elderly retail clerks, but those were some of the best times.

One time I remember a stealing a boom box and a store guard saw me and followed me out of the store. He yelled stop, so I ran and he followed me. He was a big beefy guy. I hadn’t run in a long time and was surprised at how out of shape I was. I realized I was going to have to stop because I was out of breath, collapsing on the hood of some car in the parking lot and looking over my shoulder. He was stopped too, with his hands on his knees sucking air. It was really hard to sell a boom box for any money and I had just grabbed it on impulse. You couldn’t even return electronics like you could pants, so I just hurled the thing in his general direction (it was still in the box) and then limped off to my car. I drove past him and he had the boom box under his arm, his uniform shirt all untucked from his pants, gasping for breath. I waved to get his attention as I passed him. He flipped me off. I flipped him off back.

I worked night shift at a mini mart gas station in Steelton, the small town where I grew up. The guy who ran the franchise was a beefy ex-biker named Joel with tattoos all up his forearms. He knew my family but I didn’t really know him, so we were trying to get to know one another, but doing that little dance you do to let another shady person know where you’re coming from, but also to keep the boss employee boundary in place. He gave me a test he said every employee had to take. It was this crazy test that had questions like “if your mother came into the store and she hadn’t gotten her disability check, but she was sure to get it tomorrow, and she needed milk tonight what would you do?” So it’s multiple choice and like four answers seem like reasonable solutions (give her a half pint and start a tab, pay for it from your salary, etc.) and then one answer is all, like, fuck your Mom, tell her no. I read a few of the questions and they were all like that, so I wasn’t really sure what to do. I asked Joel and he gave me this look. What do you think you should say? he asked. He told me he couldn’t hire me unless I filled it out correctly.

I laughed.

I picked all the “fuck mom” answers, and he hired me on the spot.

I was at the mini mart gas station at the start of my shift. This was the 80s and scratch lottery was a new thing. I had a stack of scratch tickets as thick as a textbook at the register. A guy bought one, scratched it off and hit for $50. Boom. He told me I had to take it out of the register and pay him. I looked into it and he was right. Something about him earning a cool $50 that way just intrigued me in a way that wasn’t healthy. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. He scratched and boom–he was ahead 50 bones. So I had like 5 bucks. The early part of the night wasn’t so busy so I scratched five tickets. Five losers. Now I was broke. But I still had the fever. So I scratched five more. Then five more. And five after that. Now I was in the hole and it dawned on my (too late) that there might not have been another fifty dollar pay out ticket in the whole stack. But I was committed. I earned a few small wins. Maybe a few two dollar winners. Maybe a five. I was keeping track in my head. The stack of scratch tickets was getting smaller. The cops came into the store and wandered around. They did this most every night. It was a small town and they knew I was an addict, so it was all very cordial and cool. They got coffee and sipped. Their radios were going off. They always parked their car out of sight behind the store. Some guy came in to prepay for gas. He saw the cops and gave me a big bill and went to pump his gas. I wanted to get back to my scratch tickets, but it wouldn’t have been cool to scratch five tickets at a time in front of the cops. I was thinking I should just go to the automotive aisle and drink a gallon of antifreeze. Finally the cops left. The dude who had prepaid for gas also took off without getting his change, probably because the cops were in the store, and maybe because he was a little drunk, but it was a nice little chunk of change. I adjusted the tally in my head, but I was still way off.

What could I do? Keep scratching. It was like 4:30. Joel came in at 6 am. I had an hour and a half to work a miracle. At about 5:30 I scratched off another $50 winner. I almost wet myself. It sounds terrible, but it felt pretty good. I will never win another scratch lottery and feel that good. I don’t even play them anymore.

So I was within 8 or 10 of my goal. So close.

Fat Tommy Defrank came in the store and asked for all the hot dogs rolling on the grill, like three or four. You can just pocket all the hot dog money and pretend that you had thrown them all away because they’d been rolling on the grill all night. Joel hated hearing that, because he knew Tommy liked burnt hot dogs, but you could make a convincing stand based on principle. But it would only work on one condition. If and only if, Tommy could eat all of those fucking hot dogs before Joel arrived at the store. I raced back to the refrigerated drinks and grabbed two little chocolate milks, so Tommy could wash all those nasty hot dogs down. I gave them to him, on the house, but no, he wanted to pay. I used the raw power of my mind to will him to stuff those buggers in his mouth and chew chew chew. Finally they were all gone.

I was actually a dollar over and had to pull that dollar out of the till and put it into my pocket to allay suspicion. Joel came in at 6 and I tried to act cool, but my heart was pounding. He noticed the stack of scratch tickets was as slim as comic book. He tapped the stack. I grinned, Yeah, there was a run on those things last night.

He said something like you’re drawer better work out. The morning shift dude came in and I rang out my drawer. It did work out. To the penny.

Now when I get all fucked up with fear and anxiety and can’t see how I will make it to the other side, I think:

Keep scratching.

Don’t drink anything from the automotive aisle.

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