Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Coworkers: Part 46 - The Donut Bear

   The chain was swallowed whole by Blockbuster. Complete takeover. Stores were notified to anticipate visitors. Very Important Visitors. New Bromeroids, though that phrase had lost its cachet. All locations, including ours, would be inspected. Evaluated. Prepped before the conversion to the Blockbuster way of business.
   Resistance was futile.
   And the new Masters arrived. Actually, one.
   Big Bear.
   Greeted staff with an unsmiling, "You're fired."
   This was addressed to Dan. Big Bear, as he termed himself, was the Loss Prevention agent. He had chosen The Boss's day off to conduct his preliminary inspection. Classic retail behavior.
   "Ha ha, right," Dan couldn't tell if this guy was joking or was serious. He smiled, but it was a sickly grin.
   "Giving you fair warning," he stated flatly. "I have total authority to terminate anyone in the chain. Field level up to Regional."
   "I'll keep that in mind,"
Dan said.
   "Do that." He surveyed the Backroom, where I was working. Didn't look at either of us. "Clear your things ... you're fired."
   Dan and I looked at each other.
   "Just kidding." Big Bear walked towards the empty corner, past the dead shrink wrap unit.
   I already hated this man, I wanted to saunter away but couldn't. I'd be on his suspect list forever.
   "What are all these CD's?" he demanded.
   "Everything is organized," Dan answered cheerfully. "Defectives. Pulls and Recalls. Promos."
   "Why are they not secured?"
   "Secured?"
   "Locked up somewhere,"
specified Bear.
   "Customers never come back here," Dan laughed.
   "I'm not talking about customer theft. I'm talking about securing them from employees. Surely you don't trust your coworkers?"
   That was our initial encounter with the Blockbuster crime unit. Within a month we would realize this gent was not interested in protecting us from professional thieves, resolve banking errors, track hijacked shipments. Blockbuster only recognized one type of theft. Internal. Turned out they had a long and very troubled history of hiring boatloads of disgruntled employees who stole and stole and stole. Or, that was how Blockbuster perceived their valued associates.
   In five years at Sound Warehouse, I didn't even know if the chain had a Loss Prevention agent. We had our share of internal theft. Managers were expected to detect, identify, and fire sticky fingers. If not, if the shrink was too high, managers were released. Our store shrink was less than 1%, The Boss strived for .5%.
   Big Bear became a regular visitor. The dangerous intruder. Anytime someone went to the restroom, he pulled out his wristwatch. I gave him a skeptical side glance and he fired off, "You think this isn't my job? Well it is. If some goldbrick is stealing time."
   This was the same guy who suggested we install cameras in the bathroom. You couldn't pay me enough for that surveillance duty.
   While he was Blockbuster to the bone, he had no desire to office out of Dallas, let alone Garland. His residence was in Cowtown, so he wanted his office to be in Cowtown. Our little location suited his purposes, and had bonus points. Females Missy and Trina, he took a shine to. They were too pretty to be fired. Why, he even offered to share his donuts with those two.
   Oh, yes, donuts. Every time he strolled in, he cradled two dozen donuts. Then he devoured those two dozen donuts.
   Two boxes. Sticky flour, deep fried in oil, drenched with sugar. Twenty four. The ex-cop's breakfast special.
   I don't think I properly described Big Bear, now referred to as Donut Bear. Maybe I don't need to.
   Most of all, he desperately coveted the Stash Room, where employees locked their purses, jackets, and stashes of CD's and toys they planned to buy ... eventually. The room where Returns were stored and sorted.
   Employees didn't need that room, he argued. Employees ought to keep their purses and lunches in their cars. Returns should be stored in the office, or hallway. Stash Room would be Loss Prevention Command Base, complete with mini fridge he would requisite. It was an honor.
   I think that's what he said. Hard to understand a man who spoke with his mouth full of pastries. While your eye followed half chewed food bits that spilled past his jaw while he issued orders. When you watched wet food plop the carpet, knowing we had a rodent problem. Then he reeled you back, demanding, "Am I right? Am I right? Of course I'm right."
   There seemed no way to reason with the Donut Bear. Even the DM was subdued near him, knowing full well Bear would take full delight in firing. Bear loved firing, he reassured everyone. Every single visit, which had increased, he told someone, "You're fired." He no longer said he was joking. Sooner or later, he would mean it.
   Hopefully, everyone has dreams and plans in this world. Even bears have their dreams.
   Donut Bear's dreams of that Stash Room becoming his sexy Bear Cave crumbled a few weeks later. He'd forgotten our store was receiving a full remodel. Everything would be gutted. The Stash Room was not in the blueprint. Indeed, there were no rooms in the blueprint, only a tiny Backroom / Office.
   Bear fixed his eye on another store. Berry Street. Rob's store, lucky him.
   There was a Dunkin' Donuts right across the street from Berry.
   Anyway, Donut Bear was the first impression we had of the folks who now presided over us.
   More impressions were enroute.
.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Coworkers: Part 47 - Crew Shift

   Four people got hired during the transition. Kristi, Mandy, Mikey, and The Professor. I was directly responsible for two of them.
   During the last weeks of Sound Warehouse, I was in the Booth, working up a Classical order when this girl approached me. Typical Texas blonde, reminded me of Stephanie or Carey.
   "Are ya'll hiring?"
   I didn't hire, and The Boss was across the way in Cassettes. I could weed applicants quickly, however.
   "What do you listen to?" I asked.
   "I listen to all kinds of music," she replied.
   "Does that include Rap, Jazz, Classical, Techno?" I challenged.
   "Ha ha," she laughed, "no, I listen to Rock, but mostly Country."
   "Country?" She had my full attention.
   "Yeah. Most of my car presets are kinda/sorta on country stations. New stuff and oldies."
   "You walk over to that man," I pointed out The Boss. "You tell him you just spoke with me, you're looking for work, and ya'll listen to Country."
   The Boss spoke with her for less than five minutes. Kristi was hired on the spot. In our store, she was the final Sound Warehouse hire.
*

   After I returned from a trip, the store was bisected with black plastic. Demolition in the back was total. Backroom, Office, Money Room, Stash Room, bathrooms, all rubble. Many coworkers were stressed. The usual suspects, and most of the females. Whereas Stacey was indifferent, Pat, Trina and Missy vented on new girls Kristi and Mandy.
   This was beyond the usual territory cattiness. Sound Warehouse reeked of music snobbery, of which I was equally culpable. If you weren't knowledgeable you were shoved out the door. Kristi went to clubs ... Billy Bob's and country bars. Newer girl, Mandy, the first official Blockbuster hire, didn't club at all. In fact, Mandy knew shit about music. Her minuscule music quotient came from her boyfriend, and his was FM based knowledge. Six months behind the curve.
   The new girls weren't "cool" enough. Maneuverings and politics began. I immediately countered arguments and checked comments. Kristi and Mandy were accused of being too straight, ignorant of cutting edge, and wearing lame clothes. The latter was my favorite reason they were uncool since every employee now wore Blockbuster's blue and khaki attire. Whatever. The Bobsey Twins worked like freight trains. I loved these girls, and insisted they work Truck Day. I'd failed with Angela, but I was determined to shield this pair.
*

   "What do you think about this guy?" The Boss thrust a filled application form into my hands.
   I scanned it briefly. Looked to be written by a convict, using with his fingers.
   "For the Classical Room?" I asked.
   "Correct."
   "I could continue running the Back Room and Classical like before."
   "That'd work for me. Unfortunately, Blockbuster wants someone in that room constantly during business hours. I need you running inventory."
   "Alright," I sighed. "I know this guy. He is an expert on Classical music. Knows more than I do, plus the two Classical Mikes combined."
   "Personality. Will he fit in? Over the years he's applied about five times, and five times I gave the job to someone else."
   "He will never fit in. If this was Sound Warehouse, employees would carve him up. Slowly. In his swank Mozart room he should be isolated, though being in there may lend the impression "special." That room, in my opinion, smacks of elitism."
   "My friend, that's not our call. Will he get along?" The Boss focused on answers.
   I shrugged. "He will annoy everyone, but he will work hard and he'll try to get along."
   "Good enough. On your recommendation, I'm hiring him as Classical manager."
   There. Guilty. I'm the one. Any colleague or customer who would ever have difficulties with The Professor could look at me, shake their head, and say, "Thanks, idiot."
   Worse, that night I had to inform Zelda I was no longer section chief. She was crushed. For five years, anytime someone asked what I did for a living I answered, "I'm in the music industry." If Zelda was within earshot, she'd immediately bolt over, grab my arm and add, "He's head of Classical," unweaving the fabrication.
*

   Since Kristi was Sound Warehouse, she dodged the mandatory drug test. Mandy, The Professor and Mikey passed easily, lowering in-house esteem even further.
   Mikey on the other hand ...
   Mikey's head was shaved.
   He provided hair samples, nevertheless.
   Pubic.
   Everyone took note.
.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Customers: Part 12 - Poopdeck


  "Hey, you!"
  "What?" Oh, fuck me, I thought.
  Poopdeck.
  I hadn't been paying attention. I was writing groups for D Catalogue bin cards. Blockbuster gave us thousands of nice, new bin cards, but we carried so many obscure and local groups that we had to print hundreds more. Usually Mandy, Kristi, or Sarah did these, but it was Saturday and I could either work on bin cards or help Krause in Classical.
  Bin cards.
  So I was engrossed. Didn't see Poopdeck totter into the store. I didn't have a sense of smell, so there went that early warning system. I wasn't deaf, though, I should have heard him.
  "You!"
  Poopdeck was ten feet and closing.
  "What do you need?" I asked, coldly.
  "What? I bought an album of pirate songs here awhile ago."
  "No. You bought an Errol Flynn soundtrack. Sea Hawks, I think. It wasn't a recording of authentic 17th Century pirates."
  "What? Where do you keep your sailor songs and sea shanties?"
  "We don't stock crap like that!"
  Poopdeck always demanded shit like this. Pirate music, sea man tunes. That's half the reason Dan and Rob nicknamed him Poopdeck. Why couldn't he just reenlist in the Navy? Fall overboard.
  "Well, how do you know if you don't bother looking?"
  "Because I check everything in. Yes, everything." I swept my hand in a broad arc across the store. "Every single item that comes into the store, checked in, priced, entered into the database. Me. I'm the one accountable for inventory. And ... I ain't checked in no pirate ballads, no Marine Corps hymns, no lusty mermaid songs. Or do you want Octopus's Garden?"
  "Then ... who do I see about ordering what I want?"
  "Do you want to talk to Dan?"
  Swear to God, Dan, on the other side of the store, heard his name, looked over, recognized Poopdeck, hurried out the store.
  Typical. Lucky bastard.
  Poopdeck and I were getting louder with every exchange. He was hearing impaired. Working those below deck boilers, or cleaning his ears out with a screwdriver. Customers glanced our way, curious about the ruckus. Once they took in the full glory of Poopdeck in his bespattered raiment, they shielded their eyes. Then wondered why I abused such an individual.


  Years earlier, when I saw Pepe attack Gnarly, I figured she was the meanest, most insensitive person.
  I worked one register, Sweeney the other. There were two lines. Friday night.
  "Excuse me! Can I get to the front? I have a cab."
  Big guy, really big guy, hulking. By his wailing tone, I knew he had been shortchanged in brain cells. I motioned for him to cut line.
  "Oh, no, you don't. Gnarly, you don't ever cut in line like this," Pepe loudly chastised him. "Do you understand me?"
  "But I have a cab!" he wailed.
  "You have no such thing!"
  How rude. Here was a guy, clearly with some mental challenges, and she was publicly scolding him.
  "I'm in a really big hurry."
  "Then you can just hurry yourself right out the door. But you're not cutting in front of all these people."
  "What if my cab leaves without me?" he insisted.
  "Then I'll take you home myself," Pepe answered. "Or ... " she pointed to Video, "your parents can take you."
  Parents?
  Later, I realized Gnarly exaggerated his deficiency to interrupt conversations, jump lines, give incorrect change. What were once special indulgences, he now accepted as permanent advantages. Plus, he used his intimidating size. I learned. Pepe had been completely justified.


  So, I'm dealing with this half deaf, nautically obsessed, old fart weirdo. Poopdeck shouted loudly. The other half of that Poopdeck moniker? He always wore a sailors cap. Not a U S Navy cap. No, a British tar's cap. Aarrr. And it was actually Poopdeck Pappy, though most of us abbreviated it. That day, he wore bib overalls, with the remnants of some shirt underneath. Everything from chin to zipper was terribly, permanently soiled. Grease, pizza, paint, mustard, unidentifiable discharges. He now stood six inches from me. Barking. Still deaf.
  Of course, no rescue posse was forthcoming. Somewhere, a cluster of coworkers were laughing. Wisely hidden.
" ... I mean, I've seen these. You know, at the base."
  Christ. Why don't you shop at the base that stocks pirate music?
  Maybe I should dump him onto The Professor?
  Ahh, that would be cruel.
  Suddenly ...
  "Hey! Follow me."
  Led Poopdeck into the Rock stacks. Procal Harum. Flipped through titles. There it was. Placed A Salty Dog in his grubby hands.
  "Well, now you're talking." He glanced at the track listings, but kept returning to that cover of a happy British tar inside a life preserver.
 "Is this good?" he asked.
  "Considered a classic," I replied truthfully.
  Poopdeck paid and departed. Maybe next time he'd ambush someone else.
  There was always that next time.
.
.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Coworkers: Part 48 - The Concept

   Suppose you threw a party, and nobody attended.
   You held an election, and nobody voted.
   Or you built yourself a national record chain, and nobody bought.
   Blockbuster had purchased a half dozen music store chains including Turtles, Record Bar, Tracks, Music Plus, Super Club, and us. They did not completely understand the music business model. Blockbuster was accustomed to patrons walking in, shopping, departing with arms full. Clients entered to rent something, anything. They'd rent 3-4 films, buy overpriced candy, microwave popcorn, and leave. Rental customers did not exit empty handed.
   Music stores were different.
   A sizable percentage of customers came to shop. Not buy, shop. Browse. Loiter. Money did not always change hands. Patrons chatted with staff, perused inventory, tweaked mental wish lists for their collections. Many suffered the proverbial "champagne taste - beer budget" syndrome. Most of us were patient, understanding. Like them, we were poor, too.
   Our new owners suffered a hissy fit. What was wrong with these customers? Visitors were supposed to spend money! They marched in, thank you very much, marched out an hour later. Nothing! Used up store air conditioning, wasted payroll man-hours in non profitable jabber, tracked dust on fixtures (Blockbuster may have known damned little about music, but one thing they did know was dust. Every single visit, every BB flunky zeroed in on dust.).
   "There must be a solution," a red headed minion stressed. "We need to force people to buy. Well, not force, convince. They are here to spend their money. We're not a social agency. Music stores were acquired to boost profits."
   She babbled on and on to The Boss or any handy assistant. Many of us had been in takeover situations before. New masters were always arrogant know-it-alls. Our new bullies, no matter how friendly, were cast to type.
   "Make sure all listening posts are working. If people hear it, they'll buy it. Remember your new slogan, The Power To Hear It All. You should post that phrase everywhere so employees don't forget. If clients don't know what they want, simply tell them what they want. Put something in their hands, suggest chart toppers, walk them to the registers so they feel compelled to buy."
   Hard sell.
   Customers hated this shit. We quickly discovered customers also hated Blockbuster. The video chain was a controlling monopoly, engaged in movie censorship, and practiced predatory pricing. Worst of all, Blockbuster had deliberately killed our own rental section. Maybe they had, maybe they hadn't. Yet customers were convinced.
   There was the strong suspicion we had been acquired originally because we were kicking their rental ass. Sound Warehouse rentals had been 99¢ and 49¢ per night. Business was dynamite. Two registers ran full bore from 5:00 on. Friday or Saturday, three registers. Video was a crowded, happy madhouse.
   After the takeover, rental prices were improved to $3.99 nightly. Our location lost over 90% of our rental customer base within one week. Movies with questionable ratings were purged. Oddball titles, not in their database, were eliminated. As prices exploded skywards, Video became funeral parlor sleepy.
   Faithful customers departed in droves. Even Henry and Martha, in their 80's, who had been with us for over a decade, discovered the grocery store next to us. Rentals there, $1.00 per night.
   Blockbuster never intended to keep rental at the music locations.
   "That is not in the overall concept. When people want movies, you're supposed to send them to the video locations. If they want music, we send them to you. Synergy. This will be profitable for everyone."
   Our store was remodeled. Sans video section. Rental stock was liquidated. I phoned friends at the public library, they filled several shopping carts with our old titles. The library, by the way, charged nothing for renting videos.
   Blockbuster's great concept. Synergy? Video locations began stocking compact discs. "We gotcha covered, teammate."
   Oh ... yes ... almost forgot about that second prong of their great concept.
   The master plan.
   Downloading.
   The mighty powers at Blockbuster planned to establish download stations in music stores. Customers could download albums or singles from a remote database and make copies in-store. Artwork and booklets would either be printed separately or mailed to them. That aspect remained murky.
   An intriguing concept.
   Blockbuster assumed, however, all the music labels would be agreeable to this. They assumed music labels would fall into line and kowtow to all powerful Blockbuster, just as movie studios had.
   All assumptions, even Boardroom assumptions, contain the same first three letters.
   The designers assumed wrongly.
   Record labels categorically refused, threatened legal proceedings if Blockbuster tried to launch their plan. Their grand presumption, on which they begun their music retail buying binge, came to nothing. They would have to compete in the marketplace on equal footing with competitors. They would have to entice disgruntled customers back into stores and convince them to buy, if they were to recover the millions invested.
   Grand schemes by suits, carried out by scattered trench rats.
   Folly.
   For myself, that was the first time I heard the word downloading.
   Pandora's box.
.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Coworkers: Part 49 - GUEST

   Blockbuster honchos began devising new stunts to lure reluctant shoppers back into their music division. Bosses were genuinely startled by the eroding foot traffic. In the video realm, they had enjoyed a de facto monopoly. Music retail, on the other hand, was fiercely competitive. As our store knew, all too well, even booksellers had entered a crowded market. There were many mall chains, mom 'n pop shops, big box stores like ours, mail order clubs, and Wal Mart.
   Many long time Regulars quit shopping because they simply disliked Blockbuster. Their corporate arrogance coupled with their routine censorship alienated many. Blockbuster launched a predictable strategy to get folks, and their wallets, back into their stores.
   Stage One: Advertise. Catch phrase, The Power To Hear It All. Every week, there were glossy TV commercials of happy listeners previewing any CD they wanted at those newfangled Listening Centers at their nearby Blockbuster Music. This was partially successful. We did enjoy new customers. Only they didn't stay. Nine times out of ten, they asked to hear a CD then either didn't like it, or had to think about it. Meaning, they went elsewhere to buy. Tellingly enough, the commercials were all video based. There was nothing created for the radio market. Which was where music was broadcast.
   Stage Two: Bribery. Bonus Boxes. With any purchase, customers received a bonus box with goodies inside. Three fun sized candy bars, pack of microwave popcorn, and a stuffed doll. There was an ongoing fad for Beanie Baby dolls. I personally knew -- I had friends, actual friends, who based their retirement strategy on building a Beanie Baby collection. Future was mapped out brighter than the sun. A couple of thousand dollars invested in "highly collectible" dolls, would steeply increase in value until the lucky owners could buy Manhattan.
   I confided to my friends, that for the price of a CD single, they could get a bonus box with dollie.
   Then I was dismissively told, ours were not genuine Beanie Babies. Ours were Coca Cola dollies. How fussy. Still, we gave away thousands of bonus boxes, several missing the microwave popcorn that mysteriously exploded in our Backroom. How many of those new visitors who walked out with bonus boxes became steady Regulars?
   How many fingers do you have on one hand?
   Subtract four.
   Stage Three: Indoctrination. Also known as employee motivation. Or simply, GUEST.
   The GUEST system had been used in restaurants for years. This was customer service shorthand. Greet (the client) - Understand (what they want) - Explain or Explore (what they want instead) - Suggest (additional purchases) - Thank them.
   Blockbuster sent us peppy, snazzy videos to watch.
   "Hello, madam, how are you today?" asked a perky male employee.
   "Thank you so much for asking!" replied the 30'ish lady customer.
   "How can I help you today?"
   "I came in to buy a Barney video for my youngest,"
she said.
   "We have a full line of Barney," explained the employee. "This one is my favorite," and he placed the video in the customer's hand.
   "Oh, you're so helpful. I love shopping here," gushed satisfied client.
   "While you're here, if you have other children, you might want to get something for them as well. Preempt arguments," suggested the clerk.
   "You're right! I better get some videos for the boys as well."
   "How about these two action films,"
clerk placed two more videos in customer's hands. "Very popular. With plots that offer lifelong lessons."
   "Whatever would I do without you?"
customer beamed.
   "Well, what about something for yourself? You look like you'd enjoy a good exercise video." He loaded a workout video onto her stack.
   "I guess I could lose a little weight. And this looks so fun! Oh! I forgot my husband! What would he like?"
   "Just the thing."
Male employee gently slid a Playboy on top of the pile. "This guarantees smiles all week. The art direction is exceptional."
   "All this came to only $143.00? Ooh, candy bar! No wonder this is my favorite store. Thank you so much."
   "No ... please ... I thank you."

   There wasn't a single music item in the story, but the concept was the same. Greet - Understand - Explain - Suggest - Thank. Customers were like steel ducks in a shooting gallery. All we had to do was greet 'em, pile product in their hands, thank 'em before the exit door whacked their backside.
   "Any questions?" The Boss asked a disgruntled squad of us, after ejecting the video.
   "It never works like that," Kristi argued.
   The Boss sighed. "That's how the Corporate people want it to operate."
   "I place stuff in folks' hands, they place it right back on the shelf."
   "We need to try this, alright?"
   "It's only music. Not like we're peddling skin, you know?"
   "What?"
   "Then GUEST would mean Get Undressed - Excite - Satisfy - Take their money."
   "I'd shop here!"
John added.
   The Backroom went silent. All of us filed out to the Floor.
   The GUEST program never really delivered as promised. We were tested on what the GUEST letters stood for all the time.
   Kristi's version was the one most employees recited.
.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Coworkers: Part 50 - Listening Center

   The Listening Center blew. Time - money - patience. My God, it was popular, though. And it brought in customers.
   Fresh faces plopped their asses daily and shoved a stack of CD's toward the hapless employee assigned to that post. There had to have been secret guidelines attached for Store Managers only, or The Boss displayed genius, because only the more agreeable, friendly employees were scheduled to work that area. He rarely worked it, neither did Stacey or myself. Others groused, but they were stuck. João, in particular, took personal offense.
   Everyone could relate.
   Blockbuster's slick television commercial showed happy, smiling customers bobbing their heads, grooving to the latest, greatest tunes. Energetic clerks bounced around on mini trampolines. The slogan was, The Power To Hear It All, which the marketing herd assumed translated as, You Hear It Here, You Gonna Buy It Here.
   Reality check.
   Folks sat down, dropped a CD onto the counter in front of the clerk. No word, no smile. Hey, monkey, serve me. Correction, if you were helping another customer, then Ole Stoneface would start rapping the CD on the counter. Louder and louder till the case cracked. We'd walk down to them ...
   "I don't like it. Only one good song." Then they clammed up and plunked another CD down, that they would never, ever purchase.
   The Power To Hear It All translated into Thank God, I Heard This Suckfest Before I Bought It. We were encouraged (ahem, ordered) to place discs in people's hands. Most shoppers redeposited them on the counter and moseyed away. Sometimes they lied, "I'll be back later." Think, next century. Usually, they hurried to a cheaper competitor. Or they simply consigned that "one rockin' tune" album to the "don't buy" garbage can.
   All the redesigned Sound Warehouse locations shared similar stories.
   Managers noted increased foot traffic, lots of foot traffic, only the new customers weren't buying.
   This was hour after hour, day after day, money losing, blood drain. We began to label Regulars who came in weekly, listened to the same CD, and never bought. It was their lunch break. Or they had a tough day behind their desk. Or their wife wouldn't let him buy music anymore. Waaaa.
   Maybe Blockbuster understood those Listening Centers would be Loss Centers. We doubted it. Visiting Block-Heads (Did I say that? How terrible.) corporate flunkies all scrolled dollar signs in their eyes. Their studies were solid, Loss Centers ... er ... Listening Centers would generate big time profits ... eventually.
   Why would any store level associates want to work the LC area? Two main reasons.
   One: A lot of coworkers despised cash register. They got bored, they feared they'd get shortchanged and get fired, they worried some thief was gonna shoot 'em dead. Whatever. They just didn't like it. Pat - Mandy, in particular, both would sooner set their hair on fire.
   Two: Playstack. Whoever was closest to the CD player got to reload a new disc when one finished. Previously, it was whoever was nearby or whoever was quickest. Lately, it seemed to be Mandy. Her taste in music was nursery school level. Mandy was a workhorse with product, yet she simply didn't know the underground, club raves, cool oldies, cult bands. She knew "radio." Stale radio, overplayed hits. Worst of all, she loaded the carousel unit with six discs and punched SPIRAL.
   SPIRAL meant Track 01 of CD One, Track 01 of CD Two, Track 01 of CD Three, etc ... SPIRAL was lazy, they wouldn't get sniped on for airing lame tunes. No one got the feel for an album. Customers made comments, employees complained. Half the crew wanted her fired. Inside a week, SPIRAL was banned.
   Except one stubborn employee didn't get the message. Again. A week of accidents and "sorry" went by. Then The Boss warned officially. SPIRAL meant losing work hours for the offender.
   Then and there, the practice was snuffed out permanently at our location. Praise the Lord.

   About this time, Ken and Tim hired on. No, this wasn't the glorious return of "The Tim."
   Ken was an old friend of The Boss. Hard core music collector, freelance music critic, jammed around in garage bands. Blockbuster was a night job for extra money. He worked days for a cheapskate company, and the Reserves. Ken slotted into the crew nicely. Quality moment one night when the store grabbed a shoplifter, Ken automatically launched Queen's Another One Bites The Dust.
   Tim was also a musician, more dedicated. Tim was busy chasing the music dream. His previous band, Cream Of Mushroom, had recently folded, and he still hadn't formed Grand Street Cryers. We were a pit stop.
   Onstage, Tim was a passionate, inspired, front man. In the store, however, whether he meant to or not, he swerved out of his way to piss off the girls. Maybe he was going through relationship difficulties.
   When a customer requested a title, he'd shove past Kristi or Missy with, "I'll get it for you, I know where it is." Which the girls interpreted as "You helpless, little women could go back to knitting and diaper ironing."
   To his annoyance, them womenfolk would play Cream Of Mushroom, then cut it off mid-song. They'd place dark metal in rotation, he'd follow that with Carpenters or madman William Shatner.
   Tim was a guy after my own heart. Yet I didn't have a lot of dealings with him. In many ways, he was another version of Todd. Hell, both guys were similar to me. Like peering into a slightly distorted mirror. Skinny, cynical, self absorbed, hard surfaced. I was older, I was worse; maybe they would mature beyond where I was.
   So we're debating in the Listening Center. Mocking vintage heavy metal bands. What constituted the lowest common denominator. We honed in on popularity combined with buffoonery. Tim was well versed in all the cliches.
   "Uriah Heep," he suggested.
   I began singing Stealin', then bridged into Easy Livin'. "I had friends who loved those guys. Band never knew who they were. Prog, heavy metal, or dragon bait," I joked. "Grand Funk. From Flint, Michigan. Lead singer always affected a fake peckerwood drawl like he oozed up from the Mississippi swamp."
   "Good one. How about Bachman-Turner Overdrive?"
   "Ha ha ha. Fattest band of all time." I thought a second. "Autograph," I replied quietly.
   "Oh, God," he laughed. "That band had the ugliest members on the planet." He paused. "Rainbow."
   "Hell, yeah," I laughed. "Man On The Silver Mountain. Sounded like a howling rat on fire."
   "One of the stupidest songs ever!"
   "Hey!"
An older man interrupted us. "You fellers too busy to help an old timer like myself?"
   "Hello, Chuck,"
Tim smiled. "You want to hear the usual?"
   "If you don't object."

   The man was old, wrinkled and overweight. I'd seen him from time to time. Never knew his name was Chuck. Never cared. It was enough that I knew he was delusional.
   Tim accepted his CD, opened it, popped it in the unit. Handed the case and booklet back, "There you go, Chuck."
   Mister Chuck was in an exclusive group of crazy Regulars. He swore on a stack of Bibles he'd been lead singer in the Sons Of The Pioneers, Country 'N Western vocalists popular from the 30's - 50's.
   There were always weirdos like this.
   "I was lead singer in Bloodrock, you know?"
   "Let me tell you what it like drumming in Three Dog Night."
   "I was with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Mick Jagger."
(That came from a female.)
   Every big music store had characters who reminded you they once were, and still were, big shots.
   It was especially enjoyable when the artist they impersonated was long dead.
   Like claiming to be Napoleon.
   Sons Of The Pioneers was founded in 1933 by Roy Rogers. Nineteen thirty-three. Original members had gone over the mountain long ago.
   Our customer finished his listening siesta, and returned the case to Tim. Tim never bothered to ask him if he wanted to buy the CD. Why would he? The man, as an original member, surely had all the recordings. He just didn't have a set of headphones.
   "Any word on a new album, Chuck?" Tim prodded.
   "Roy's still in talks with the record moguls," the man frowned. "Timing is crucial, you understand. Charts and airplay."
   "How about any upcoming tours?"
Tim persisted.
   "Opportunities seem inclined to favorable," Mister Chuck mused. "Looks like we might tour with this George Strait cowboy, that Jones guy, and Hank Williams."
   "Hank? Junior or senior?" I asked.
   "Oh, senior, of course. Boy of his is too wild. Be like being in a circus rodeo. None of us wants that."
   Tim nodded sympathetically.
   "Well, guess I better roll on," Chuck stood up. "See if my little woman is done at that drug store."
   "See you, Mister Wagon,"
Tim waved.
   "Adios, pardners," and he wobbled away.
   God keep me safe. Don't let me get crazier than I am.
   I was about to resume our discussion by referencing Quiet Riot -- then -- Wagon?
   I turned to Tim.
   "Chuck ... Wagon?" I shot him a look.
   "I thought you'd notice that."
   Then both of us broke down laughing.
.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Coworkers: Part 51 - Lifeguard

   Tawnya hired on at the end of the school year. She might have been a better fit back in the Sound Warehouse era. Camp Bowie was her third employer. Not history, but current. Tawnya juggled three jobs, and she was a poor scheduler.
   Three days a week, she worked down the street for a Mexican restaurant chain. Three minute drive. Our store would have been the perfect second job. Instead, we followed the swimming pool job. Wet 'N Wild water park, thirty five miles east. Tawnya was a lifeguard. She was always late, she was always wet, and she generally clocked in still wearing her swimsuit.
   Girls hated her, guys got distracted.
   Tawnya also did modeling work. She was tall, and easy on the eyes.
   Like students everywhere, she had an insatiable need for money. She paid her own freight for college tuition. Dan and I had earned degrees on our own dime. We understood, and defended Tawnya. Our coworkers were less sympathetic, less tolerant. They knew she would flip flop in fifteen minutes late, chat with four or five male customers who swarmed her way, then change clothes. This was greater than a criminal felony. Tawnya was impacting lunch breaks.
   Employees noticed her customer assistance was blatantly preferential. Older people, middle class women, white people. When confronted, she pleaded that she didn't know anything about Rap music, or R'n B, or Punk, or Country.
   "Tawnya, neither does most of the crew," Dan advised her. "We still walk them to the section. Show them the artist they requested."
   "But what if they start asking questions?" she wailed.
   "Be honest. Tell them you don't know. If a particular album is popular, tell them that."
   Dan tried hard to protect Tawnya. Store suspicion was that he wanted to illustrate her. Did I mention modeling work? Tawnya was already featured in national restaurant commercials. Did I mention swimsuit? Wet swimsuit?
   From that period on, Tawnya and Dan shared a bond. No idea what kind of bond, but Dan was her go-to colleague.
   Tawnya had already received strike one from The Boss's for chronic tardiness. Not helping all customers became strike two.
   Strike three fell after a Duran Duran concert, where she and other Texas bombshells managed to hook up with the band. She wasn't late, she went missing. Two days. Neglected to phone the store.
   When Tawnya finally did appear for work, The Boss terminated her.
   Next day, in a rather remarkable moment, The Boss listened as Dan and I argued Tawnya's case. Even more remarkably, he reinstated her. On store probation. With the proviso that Dan and I would bear a degree of responsibility for her.
   For awhile, we were not exactly flavor of the month.
   Then, one afternoon, John walked in with a tape of TV's American Journal. Episode featured Tawnya. She actually was on probation. Technically, not probation, but "free on her own recognizance." Pending a trial.
   Tawnya faced 25 years to life. Court date, upcoming.
   No one had known.
   Our coworkers only knew Dan and I had let her back in the store.
.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Coworkers: Part 52 - Stubble

   Kristi and Pat decided to throw the "surprise" bridal bash for Mandy. Natural site would have been Pat's Shack, but Pat firmly refused. Murmured something about females, champagne and cake. Then again, the memory of the Blur Party, not to mention the Swimming Pool Incident, were fresh in her mind. Eventually, Trina agreed to stage the bonanza at her house, small place she shared with Dan and John. The home where the air conditioner was just about kaput.
   Several girls signed on to bring snacks, one offered to buy a cake. Others put down champagne, beer, white zinfandel. No names were mentioned, but two would smuggle weed and accessories. Sugar, reefer, alcohol, and a hot room of giddy females. Pat's intuition served her well.
   Trina contacted Mandy's fiancé. Trina made fiancé part of the conspiracy so he could persuade her to venture forth.
   He also provided warning.
   Mandy was more liberal than she used to be, but that fundamentalist upbringing was still pervasive. Vice was contagious. If she suspected booze or pot, more likely than not, she would feel uncomfortable, she might bail.
   Champagne, reefer, wine, all shelved.
   Cake and soda. Lots of sugar. Attendees would be four years old again.
   Then there was entertainment. For generations, females have deplored, despised, and participated in the same games and stunts that would have been familiar to Betsy Ross, Nell Gwynn or Cleopatra. Most were silly, juvenile and mindless. Women were naturally uncomfortable behaving like buffoons. That's why they kept guys. Man pets could launch stupidity without thinking. Prime viewing followed, "Hey, watch this." It's what we did.
   How about bonus entertainment?
   Trina phoned the boyfriend back. Dropped the suggestion.
   He thought the idea hysterical.
   The ladies began hunting for a stripper.

*

   A few years earlier, there had been a memorable disaster with a stripper and departing employee. That particular coworker never spoke with anyone again, and her husband was incensed.
   Hiring a stripper was like perusing a mail order catalog. There were more choices than the girls anticipated. Once they narrowed down categories of age and R-rated versus XXX, they began arguing over profiles. Fireman. Cowboy. Law Enforcement. Surgeon. The Colonel. Teacher. Three Piece Suit. Rock Star. Plumber.
   There were glossy photos of guys in "before" outfits. Listings of musical selections.
   Missy and Trina lobbied for the Hard Hat or Motorcycle Cop.
   Gents with tools or nightsticks
   They were overruled.
   The rest of the girls, Kristi, Pat, Pepe, Stacey, Amster, Tawnya, all voted Western.
   Bodybuilder. Guaranteed Billy Ray Cyrus lookalike.
   The Country Stud.

*

   The air conditioner was dead. Desperate souls might broil chickens in that matchbox house. Cake icing melted everywhere. The guest list had been slapped together without consideration, either. Several of the girls had poached boyfriends from each other. Hollywood's Cathouse Bloodbath began with such a plot.
   Several unmentioned ladies staggered in stoned. Well, pot had been banned from the party, not before the party.
   Half the bachelorettes knew the unspoken history of Tawnya, others did not. As at the music store, the unknowing ate first.

   The party was dead air, grinding gears, awkward babble when Country Stud swaggered in.
   "Hello, girlfriends!"
   Mandy about died.
   Introductions, invites to sample his muscle tone, suggestive flirting, rolled out the old tape deck ... and then ...
   " ... don't tell my heart, my achy breaky heart. I just don't think it'd understand ... "
   Not!
   Hell, it wasn't even Country music. Retro metal, courtesy Firehouse.
   In no time flat, Mr. Stud done stripped down to the dayglo package enveloping the seed pod.
   Plus white boots. No self respecting redneck would be caught dead in white boots after age three. What was he thinking? Also sported "party hair," the long mullet. He only knew one dance routine, a dandified, dancing march in place. Punctuated with frequent pauses. Glided her hands across his Adonis flanks. Made small talk. Like asking her how old she was. When she answered, he replied, "Isn't that kinda old to be getting married for your first time? I mean -- " The room screamed at him.
   The tiny living room was a sweltering hotbox. Sweat streamed off the gyrating gizmo. He strutted up to Mandy, quick stepped a 180, grabbed her reluctant hands and slapped them right onto them achy breaky cheeks.
   He had been shaving his behind. Repeatedly, it seemed. Because hair kept growing back. Thicker.
   Stubble.
   The magic ass was, she later confided, very sweaty.
   Sweaty forest of stubble.
   "Come on girlfriends, squeeze these Country Cheeks!"
   None shared in the horror though it was an offer seemingly impossible to refuse. After fifteen minutes, he started tugging his clothes back on. In front of everyone. Stuck out his hand, and took a wad of cash from Kristi. Counted it in front of everyone.
   Speaking for men everywhere, "Sorry, ladies."
   Country Stud, inflated to maximum, sought fulfillment at the next femme enclave.
   Afterward, one of the girls cried forlornly, "Sorry, Mandy."
   Weeks later, someone would comment, "Stubble," and someone else would blush, wither, or bust out laughing.
   Despite it all, the boyfriend still married Mandy. He was a class act.
   We sent them a Billy Ray Cyrus CD to relive those happy moments.


.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Shoplifting: Case #05 - Granny

   Thursday morning, just Pat and myself. Kristi was struggling to arrive, Mandy had phoned in sick. If nothing else, Stacey would arrive at noon, Pat and I could manage. Besides, there was no one in the store except for a little old lady browsing in videos.
   Pat and I killed time up front, waiting for the shipment truck. Gabbed about coworkers, concerts, lunch ... who remembers? Granny was leaving empty handed, we'd have the store to ourselves.
   Only Granny had just triggered the security alarm. Pat and I stared at each other, stunned. The woman was nicely dressed, white blouse and black slacks, 70 if she was a day, and moved with surprisingly speed; she had turned and was halfway to the rear of the shop.
   Pat hurried after her while I searched the video shelves for a gap. What could she have swiped? Maybe she'd just stepped on a security tag.. I craned my neck, scanning for the women. They had squared off back in ROCK, near the Local section. The senior sprinter was pointing at the racks and shaking her head vigorously. Pat's hands were on her hips and she delivered a skeptical look.
   I walked back. This smelled like a catfight.
   "I am not a thief!" Granny argued loudly.
   "So how did this SLAYER video suddenly appear on these CDs?" Pat demanded.
   Slayer? A fellow metal head! I gazed at Granny with new respect.
   "I am not a thief!" she declared, power walking out the store.
   Pat rode on her heels, badgering, "Well, you sure run like a thief."
   "I am not a thief!"
Granny had the vocabulary of a Mafia parrot.
  At the door I held Pat's shoulders. Given any excuse she could have kicked her AARP ass. Pat was boiling. "I'm alright. I just hate --- Look! She's getting into a Cadillac!"
   Sure enough. Wide, white Caddie with a massive chrome grill that could have used for Air Force radar.
   We never phoned the police. She'd probably been a klepto for years. I found it oddly reassuring to know we're popular even with geriatric shoplifters.
.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Coworkers: Part 53 - The Pact

   An informal pow wow was held in the Backroom. Subject - Tawnya. After John discovered Tawnya faced an upcoming criminal trial, we argued about what our involvement should be. We, as in the Sound Warehouse crew. We shut all recent hires completely out of the loop. Most were still unknown factors.
   Telling The Professor was out of the question. He talked to himself. Loudly. Mandy harbored a temper, and disliked Tawnya. If she possessed a drop of information, her mouth would trigger. Kristi was Mandy's best friend, they shared secrets. Cymon was new, but already trailed after Mandy like the lovestruck. Mikey was unpredictable and twisted, he might ask Tawnya out, initiate spawning to implant jail larva.
   From what we had learned (newspaper columnists could be useful), it seemed foregone that Tawnya would serve time. She was temporarily out on probation, enjoying dwindling freedom.
   How did she get hired? Because our application only asked if one had been "convicted." Not if one faced conviction. Tawnya had wisely kept mum on that aspect.
   Plus, she passed the drug test!
   Employees were in 90% agreement on how we dealt with Tawnya. Treat her normally. Feign ignorance. Never - never - mention the incident, or the upcoming trial. That differing 10%, however, was Dan. Typically enough, Dan wanted to know. What had happened? Why did it happen? Did she feel guilty? Anxious?
   The rest of us strongly disagreed. Missy and Trina thought the whole mess was bad mojo. John and I argued that if one of us entered into any discussion, as in confidence, we could be summoned for a lengthy court date. We'd be questioned, we'd be cross examined, we'd lose work.
   Pat sided with Dan, she desperately wanted to know. Tawnya was better than watching a car wreck. "This is fun!" she insisted. Yet she reluctantly followed the other females.

   The situation was deliciously awkward. Tawnya carried a terrible secret. Most of us knew that secret, which we couldn't divulge. Did Tawnya suspect? I wondered. Right away, Kristi's intuition sensed something amiss and she pressed me, but I wouldn't confide in her.
   Persistently, Dan poked around or needled.
   Truck day, lunch break, whenever there was a small gang in the back, Dan might voice, "So like family here. Where we share and help each other." or "I don't know, I've done some bad things. What about you?" or "Ha ha, like you could ever hurt anyone."
   We wanted to clobber him. Afterward, we'd just scream, "Dan!" He'd laugh lightly and stroll away with his coffee.
   Tawnya was comfortable with Dan. Too comfortable. If he made an inappropriate comment she punched him. Hard. Once, she drove her fist into his stomach and he bent over in pain. "Oh, Dan, quit being such a pussy," she giggled.
   My favorite alarm moment came when she brought in a batch of fresh cookies she'd baked herself. Nervous would be understating how her coworkers viewed that plate. A few were flat terrified. Yet, since not all employees were in the loop, others suffered no fear. The Professor ate a couple ... and lived. Cymon ate a couple more ... no problem. Then everyone feasted.
   End of August, Tawnya gave notice and returned to college. In addition to her television commercials and modeling, she was a straight A student in a hard science major. Her university experience was ending, however.
   The court date, moving inexorably, arrived.
   The trial unfolded as our columnist insider predicted.
   Tawnya changed clothes. Her college dreams, her life, were placed on hold.
.

Sunday, November 5, 2006

Coworkers: Part 54 - Management Training‏

   As always, Blockbuster knew everything - - knew nothing.
   Within a few months of buying those half dozen music chains, then rebranding the conglomeration Blockbuster Music, lofty minds in the towering palisade decided to show us lowly music minions just how petty and easy our miserable work environment was. Every time there was a "Manager" vacancy at any music outlet, masterminds shifted in an eager Assistant from the video division.
   No real work experience, no music aptitude. The workload daunted them immediately.
   Without exception, video division transfers flamed out.
   Phase Two. The Marines. The Top Dogs. Video Managers.
   Expectations were higher. They were, after all, managers.
   One week, they oversaw their happy store, checked in twenty new titles, replenished snacks, and churned rentals. Thinking was unnecessary. Video rental was so simple, a simpleton could manage a store. Next week, after the transfer, these same happy managers were bouncing mindlessly inside their new music store. Over a hundred new titles landed weekly. Sale lists fluctuated, and all titles had to be priced. That wasn't difficult, it was detail oriented. Orders had deadlines. The manager had to forecast NR, A, and AA Charts. If back catalog, D-Chart, wasn't delegated, the newbie could lose their mind. Inventory was gigantic, yet there were budget constraints. Most of those transfers knew nothing about music other than what aired on the radio. Staffs quickly realized their new managers were an idiot.
   Sank without a whimper.
   A few begged to return to Video stores. Blockbuster, eyes opened to mediocrity, declined.
   Thereafter, transfer requests to the music division ceased.
   Phase Three: The Manager Training Program.
   Outsiders.

   Woody was the first applicant transferred to our store. He looked around 40, so he was older than everyone else. Years ago, he had worked for a mall based, record chain. Music retail experience was a plus. His music knowledge was stale, but he could ramp up to speed within a few months. After a week of cashiering, Listening Center, and stocking, he was sent to me for Receiving 101.
   At his previous record store gig, employees opened boxes, stocked them directly. At Camp Bowie, the Boss wanted one agent to hold accountable. A bad Backroom guy could kill a store. The Boss demanded all product be verified against invoice, then manually entered into the database. He was deeply suspicious about vendors and the Distribution Center. His misgivings were justified. DC errors were rampant, large labels like WEA or Sony were usually accurate, local distributors like Big State were a crap shoot. In addition, once a week Pat or John justified my numbers. He trusted me, but he liked checks.
   Woody grasped the realities of inventory control. He was not fast, and he never would be, but he only needed to know the basics and what troubles to watch for.
   Pat and John trained him on all the office nonsense. Payroll, invoices, bank deposits, boring paperwork crap.
   The Boss worked with him on orders, scheduling, dealing with a store full of lunatics, navigating witless Blockbuster decrees.
   Woody worked our store for two months, then transferred to the tiny Six Flags store for a month, then to North Richland Hills, finally back to us. Blockbuster wanted applicants exposed to a variety of manager styles.
   After four months, Woodster was "good to go" and headed off. That was the fine print. Upon completion of the training period, newly minted managers would be relocated where needed. They had no say in destinations. Woody was sent to San Diego.

   Leroy had no retail experience, had never worked in a music store. For 20 years, he'd been military police. Army cop. Big, imposing man with a friendly front. Listened to current music, but his knowledge was neither deep nor broad. The Manager Training Program was a new opportunity. Most of his colleagues had opted for a US Postal stint, which he equated with zombie work.
   Leroy mastered the usual store elements. With coworkers, he strained. He was accustomed to dealing with bad puppies by tossing them in the cooler. Retail didn't have that option. The ingrained cop was built for apprehending bad guys, not compromise, leniency, clemency. People screwed up in this world, made mistakes, or behaved like idiots. The Boss typically yelled, but usually tried to straighten them or help them. Outside of stealing, he rarely fired people unless they were complete morons.
   And people did make mistakes.
   Leroy discovered a cashier error while training. Told Kristi who was training him and she summoned the pez-head to the back.
   "Worthy, your drawer is $15.00 short."
   "No way."
   "Think you might've / could've given a customer a twenty instead of a five for change?"
   "No way."
   "Worthy ... "
   I usually worked register and processed inventory at the same time. I was one of the fastest cashiers. That said, most managers would probably agree that I wasn't as good a cashier as I blithely assumed I was.
   "OK, OK," she waved me off. "I'll .. fix this ... somehow."
   "Thanks. I owe you."
   "I know. Don't worry, I won't forget."
   Kristi bailed me out, like so many others had over the years. Mister Clueless. Leroy observed our exchange without comment. I felt he would prove a stern manager, but he also had instincts to sift cupidity from stupidity.
   An unannounced job opening was suddenly posted in the Region that Leroy would have been perfect for.
   Loss Prevention.
   Donut Bear was being assigned a partner. Likely, the working partner.
   Leroy had passed the manager training program. He was ex military police. He was big, black, and behind that grin, waited a no nonsense hard-ass.
   Employee-thieves would be completely intimidated by him.
   Leroy would have been perfect. He did not land the position, however. We suspected Donut Bear had a problem with one of his attributes. Or that Leroy was possessed better qualification than the Bear. Instead, the LP post went to Danny, who'd worked at Camp Bowie years earlier. Danny quit the LP job after four months, bored beyond belief, and returned to North Richland Hills.
   Leroy was transferred to Carolina.

   Leroy was the last good manager applicant. Those who filed through afterward had no business aptitude, or weren't intelligent enough, or suffered incompetent people skills. Some were flat out dishonest. The chain could have used Leroy in those situations. None of them successfully completed the training. The final trainee shepherded through the process was Jinxed. That character proved to be memorable.
   After Jinxed, Blockbuster intellectuals discontinued the outside manager training program. Thereafter, the majority of managers rose through the ranks.
.

Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Coworkers: Part 55 - Cymon

   Picture a horseshoe. Upside down, out of luck. Place a round ball bearing on the top of the horseshoe. Drench the tips of the horseshoe in midnight black ink. Draw a puzzled face on that ball bearing head. Finally, a name.
   Cymon.
   Cymon was a quintessential gym-rat. Lot of the crew had gym memberships. All drank, clubbed, or partied instead. One could get healthy later in life. Cymon, however, worked out nightly. Wasn't musclebound, but he kept his arms flexed in that horseshoe. Even when walking, those arms didn't swing. Instead, his torso swiveled from side to side. Cymon's look. Flair. For whatever reason, when Cymon swaggered by, I thought of Popeye.
   Like all new hires, Cymon was assigned register duty. He immediately killed the check stamp pads.
   Customer handed over a check. Clerk turned it over and stamped the backside with the bank deposit routing info. Any two year old could master this. Cymon could not. We'd walk up, his hands were stained in black ink. Which he transferred to the counter, the cash register, his clothes, face, all the bags (nice surprise for the next cashier).
   "What the hell are you doing?"
   "It's the ink! It won't stay in the pad. It does seem to migrate, doesn't it?"
   He'd then hurry off to the bathroom.
   That nice, brand new, white bathroom.
   Permanent black ink.
   The Boss lost his mind.
   After a week, only managers were permitted to touch the stamp pad. Managers loved trotting up to the front every five minutes.
   Next, Cymon wrecked the doors. Manual doors, not automatic. Cymon shoved manfully. Door jumped off its hinges. Three different times. We managed to fix one accident ourselves. Other two times, locksmith.
   "Terribly faulty, aren't they?"
   Then, Cymon harassed the girls, or rather, Mandy. He became blotto obsessed with her, and trailed behind like a lovesick puppy, cooing in his lilting Commonwealth accent, "Oh, Mandy. Whatever shall we do about us?"
   There was no us. Mandy lived with her boyfriend, they planned to get married. Cymon was told that. Repeatedly. Mandy snapped at him endlessly, but her boy bashing technique was amateurish. Missy or Trina would have cut him with a few single syllables.
   Store infatuations were common. James for Pat, Trina for Todd, Pat for John, were only a few. Cymon merely upheld the tradition. Even shot down in flames, he remained undiscouraged and stood next to her, like a creepy bodyguard. Accomplishing nothing. No store assignments, no Mandy leg. The Boss eventually modified the schedule so they wouldn't work together. Then he reconsidered, and fired Cymon.
   Cymon refused to die. He hired on at another Sound Warehouse location in the mid-cities, and became their Import expert.
   After that, I don't know.
.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Customers: Part 13 - Speakee Spanish

   Sonja cornered Greg. Sonja only spoke Spanish. Greg couldn't speak a damn word of Spanish other than what was listed on the Mexican drive thru menu. No matter. Sonja persisted, requesting all sorts of Latin dance music, mariachi music, cumbias. Usually, when Sonja walked through the doors everyone fled.
   Everyone.
   Sonja then hunted employees down, asking, "Speakee Spanish? Speakee Spanish?"
   John and João, completely fluent, ducked into corners. Yet Sonja was exceptional in tracking down the help she wanted.
   The two she preferred were Greg and João. Both guys continually pushed the other towards Sonja. Both were unnerved by her. Maybe they were a little phobic.
   Explanation.
   Once upon a time, Sonja had been a guy. Still had a male voice, though she used a breathy falsetto. Haircut styled into a casual black pageboy. Usually wore jeans and a t-shirt. Tight t-shirt. She had a nice rack, hefty. Budget had definitely been allocated there. Unsure about other regions, which was what Greg or João tried to convince the other to investigate.
   Along the way, something must have happened. Something bad. Financial problems, perhaps.
   Sonja began to revert.
   Still had those big boobs. Also had a big, bushy mustache. And she / he still wanted Latin music. Wanted Greg or João. Or anyone who could, "Speakee Spanish."

   And you know how some girls stand really close to guys?
   And accidentally brush them?
.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Coworkers: Part 56 - Dash Of Blue

   The first time I noticed the incident, I wasn't paying much attention. I was running backup register, checking in a large D shipment, smacking the computer monitor. This dense blue cloud swept past. When I looked up, I didn't see anything aside from a couple of girls who had entered and surveyed the floor.
   "Doing all right?" I asked.
   "We're fine," one turned and smiled. "Just getting started. Thanks."
   Both sauntered to the back. Seconds later, The Professor powered off the vacuum cleaner.
   A week passed. Mandy and I chatted up front, when I noticed, again, that blue blur. We both turned. It was The Professor, bolting from the Classical Room like he'd heard, "Free cigarettes!" Raced to the Listening Center and began dusting.
   "Glad someone's excited about housecleaning," Mandy commented.
   We returned to our conversation.
   I still didn't get it.
   After the third time, watching The Professor bound from his sanctum, hurrying to sort Easy Listening, I mentioned this to Missy.
   "Did some pretty girl walk in the store?" she asked.
   "Uhhh ... " I thought.
   "One or two girls, maybe? Wearing short dresses or tight jeans?" she continued.
   "Mmmm ... "
   "You're in your own little world up there, aren't you?" she teased me.
   "Lot of things to do, not a lot of time," I gestured.
   "Look, anytime an attractive female enters the store, The Professor sprints out of his room, then stations himself on the floor. Pretends to be cleaning or tidying, then jumps in their way and offers his services."
   "Gentleman services?"
   "Ha ha. In his dreams."
   Missy was correct. In fact, the female staff had already noticed this and often made quick guesses on the rejection button.
   "She'll say no with a smile."
   "Talks with her hands. She'll wave dismissal."
   "Bored, in a hurry, and blonde. Buzz off, loser."
   "Score! She's trapped."

   Civilization offered many refinements to enhance our lives. Watching clowns flame out was popular with proles.

   "Hey, Dude, you should have invited that woman to lunch." I spoke with The Professor.
   "Ahhhh, she wasn't my type," he answered.
   "She was attractive," I argued. "Late thirties, professional, business suit. Clearly interested in you."
   "I have standards," he snapped, testily.
   I rolled my eyes. "You're allergic to successful women, with money, who might get moist for you?"
   "SSShe was too old, and -- and her body wasn't in the best shape."
   "What? You think some nineteen year old coed will give you three seconds? You ever stood in front of the mirror, Big Boy? Stone naked, critique the conglomerated package?"
   I couldn't believe I'd said that. The Professor, unclothed. Before a looking glass. Two of him. Suddenly, I felt queasy.
   "Well -- Well, I can't help the fact that I possess elevated standards, whereas you are, undoubtedly, more tolerant of mediocrity." Then he marched outside to light up.
   Nicotine breath only enhanced the presentation.
   For awhile, employees considered chipping in and submitting a "personals ad" for The Professor.

Mid forties, overweight, chain smoking, retail wage earning, classical music expert seeks fashion model, built like a snake. Mediocrities need not apply.

   Like so many great notions, this came to nothing. Besides, Mediocrities sounded like a Greek hero.
   I never offered him bounce advice again. Worse, I mimicked everyone else in the store. Observed The Professor hurl himself upon Beauty's indifferent facade, only to be cast forth upon the rocks of rejection.
   Apologies for the puffery.
   After awhile I got fairly sharp at predicting the spurning method generally used.
   Pity.
.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Coworkers: Part 57 - Puppies‏

   First Foster, then Winston. Stacey attracted puppies.
   Foster had known Stacey from high school, but they ran in different cliques. He'd been a jock, she'd been in the rebel alliance. For many athletes, high school meant the apex of fame, followed by the end of dreams. After graduation, there were no college scholarships, no professional careers, no All-Star games, no Wheaties cereal box covers.
   Foster was one of many. He hadn't been big enough, strong enough, or fast enough for major university squads. Parents shuffled him to junior college. One semester, then done. An uncle got him a cushy messenger job for a defense contractor. Drove from office to factory to field. Shuttled plans or paperwork, now and then electronic gear. The rest of the time, he tended his shadowy flock.
   There was a parade of obliging females. Office receptionist, girl in the far apartment, stranger in the grocery parking lot. Foster was big, handsome, with a killer smile. Possessed an athlete's grace, and self effacing charm. When they didn't chase, women were inclined to recline. There was one tiny complication.
   The wife.
   Foster had already been busted. Before and after the wedding. Multiple times. His wife was forgiving, patient, blind, a doormat. Take your pick. Tolerance was running out, however. If she caught him bird doggin' one more time, she was done. Divorce papers were at the attorneys. Waiting for her signature. Waiting for that last straw.
   So Foster got himself a part time job at the music store, where half the crew were attractive females. Spring was heating into Texas Summer. Female customers entered in tight shorts, Daisy Mae tops, sundresses, high heels. Foster didn't stray ... well ... he didn't get caught.
   He adopted a beard. Stacey.

   For his wife, Foster could declare, "Look, this is my gay girlfriend. We're going out while you work all that overtime. Luv ya."
   The missus also recalled Stacey and could relax. Stacey wasn't a threat. Finally, her skirt chasing man wasn't sniffing her best friend's leg.
   Within three weeks, Foster's frat boy world tilted sideways. Stacey was the quarterback of the duo, and she steered him towards the sweaty back hairs of Life. They slammed punk clubs and mosh pits, midnight go kart races, industrial and primal concerts. Roller derby was a blast, roaring down roads that had been closed, even better.
   Instead of beer kegs, Foster tumbled into a vat of hallucinogens, smoke, and mind fucks. Darkened alley doors yielded a high risk treasure trove.
   Foster was comfortable around Stacey, being with her was often better than being with the guys. She wasn't aging into middle class conservatism, like so many of his male buddies. Foster was too young for a mid life crisis, too young for middle age, period. Stacey attacked life with blazing recklessness. She was not one of those people who held back. She never held back.
   For months, they partied and tore through the local club scene. High times. If Foster disappeared with other females for a few evenings, Stacey didn't care. Not like they were steady, or even an item.
   Stacey might not have cared, but ... After several months, Foster grew increasingly obsessive. Stacey wasn't remotely exclusive, but he started thinking about her. He'd phone the store on his day off, checking on her. If she went out with girlfriends, he sulked. Whether he admitted it or not, Foster's middle class roots were showing. He suffered a one sided bromance. He'd grown possessive.
   Jealously sapped the fun out of the friendship. Stacey was annoyed, then impatient. Foster had been amusing; it had been entertaining to revisit steaming pig holes and watch his innocent reaction. The last thing she wanted, however, was one more suspicious, over protective, insecure individual in her life.
   After dodging his calls for a few days, she finally confessed she had been seeing someone. That relieved him, he could relate. Until she lied and told him it was a guy.
   That info messed up Foster's head, big time. She was fooling around ... on him? He gave notice, quit the store.
   Word was, he blundered one more time with his wife.
   That time, she had no patience.

   Winston was a new hire.
   From experience, I knew to avoid new kids for about six weeks. Probation adjustment period. Otherwise, I'd forever view them as boat paddles. Stacey and I both shared an initial low opinion of this dude. He tried too hard, striving to mesh with the staff too quickly. Interrupting conversations, offering unrelated opinions.
   Winston was a horror film enthusiast and wannabe filmmaker. He hadn't actually filmed anything, but he loudly detailed genius story-lines. All derivative. I didn't need to hear about his crappy junior high influences. Stacey and I independently waived the six week rule and began hating Winston immediately.
   Funny thing happened, though. The guy was genuinely enthusiastic about music. He wasn't the most knowledgeable, but he was diligent and energetic. He weathered the scorn from Stacey and myself without whining. Completed the grunt work The Boss assigned him. John and Pat were already forbearing types, and the rest of the crew grew tolerant.
   After a few months, I chatted with Stacey, "I don't feel like hounding him out the store anymore. I think he'll be OK."
   "Yeah, I'm the same way. I'm not going to pick on him. Once I started listening to him, he was pretty funny."
   Sympathy and understanding. Blah blah blah.
   I opened Winston's gaze to a higher strata of bad flicks by loaning him some Asian films, as well as classics such as Meet The Feebles and Dancing Outlaw. By this point, he was taking film courses at the local college, and creating experimental, unwatchable short films.
   Soon, he began following Stacey like a stray Beagle. Everyone mocked him. It was Foster Part II, another buddy puppy rerun.
   Only Winston was a lost innocent.
   We didn't recognize it at the time.
   When he ventured off the main path, he wasn't equipped for the crooked difficulties.
   Not all souls were able to imbibe the drug cocktail and shrug off the effects. Winston was a drinker. Beer, some hootch. He was ten years younger than Foster had been. The effects of reefer, then pills, was immediate and startling. Like a switch had been flicked, his enthusiasm snuffed out. He affected cynicism, boredom, lethargy. At the store, he was less motivated. Work was drudgery. Worse for his ambitions, he lost interest in all those film projects. He wanted to create something, he still voiced dreams, but his energy had flagged. Winston could no longer start projects, let alone finish anything.
   His world revolved around Stacey. Clubs, drugs, partying, trying to play catch up with someone a decade older. Stacey hadn't meant to, but she had become a bad influence on him. She led the life she had for years. She wasn't a babysitter, she wasn't a guiding force.
   Yet, she was the guide. Stacey couldn't or wouldn't grasp this. She was an older influence, something between role model - mentor - example.
   There was only one Stacey.
   Winston tried to copy her lifestyle. He wrecked himself trying.
   The descent began here.
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Sunday, October 15, 2006

Coworkers: Part 58 - Housekeeping Mishap

   I never witnessed this. Stacey related the incident after the fact, and Kristi verified it.
   I never saw it because I was distracted by Armstrong.
   Armstrong was a Regular, nutty as a rancid peanut ranch. Halted and interrupted himself like a stuttering duck. Shortchanged upstairs, he had the IQ and social skills of a marshmallow. Minutes earlier, I had sold him two cassettes, Phil Collins and Bread. Now, he stood frozen in the parking lot, midway between our front doors and his elderly mother's waiting car. Thinking. Pondering those two cassettes with that Swiss cheese mind of his. Damn.
   Armstrong was notorious for changing his mind after the purchase. He already owned it, he no longer liked the group, didn't like the cover. Who knew? He'd hurry back in, switch items off the shelf, hurry back out. Throw inventory off. Worse, he'd often switch a budget $3.99 tape for a $9.99 New Release. If he remembered to pay in the first place. Wasn't dishonest, just air upstairs.
   The first time I ever saw Armstrong was when Dan stop checked him at the front entrance. Dan asked if he remembered to bring money, then demanded he crack open his billfold to prove it. Oh, if only we could do that with everyone.
   Sound Warehouse - Customer service, first and foremost.
   Back to today. Soon as Armstrong reentered, I barked at him to fork over his sack and bring any exchange to my register. Now he stood in line, sharing his lunatic world.
   Armstrong was convinced he had cavities. He was complaining loudly to other customers in line about his dental hygiene. Trouble was, he didn't have a tooth in his skull. Dentures. Better, he had yanked out those gooey chompers and thrust them inches from onlookers. No idea what he ate for lunch, but I'm sure they enjoyed a full view. This was why folks shopped at Sound Warehouse. Free freak show. Where else could one peer at holes in gummy pink & white plastic?

   Anyway, my attention was preoccupied with Armstrong, his cassettes, those damned false teeth, and how many customers he would permanently scare away. Consequently, I wasn't paying attention to Professor, vacuuming the Listening Center, and his brain.
   As usual, Professor was in a nervous flurry. His mad craving for a cigarette rush agitated his jittery nerves. That Hoover was jerked back and forth with the same furious intensity used to clear foam from the happy twinkie.
   Of course, he wasn't paying attention.
   The vacuum rolled across the dangling end of a roll of security tags. The machine immediately began to gobble the strip. The box flipped sideways on the counter. Feasting accelerated.
   The intellect of the classical expert was a tightly strung web of minutiae, misplaced memories, interruptions. His brain seized. He lunged towards the disappearing tags, then back towards the "Off" switch. The Sensormatic box tumbled from the counter, and the Hoover slurping increased in tempo. Like a preacher caught in a brothel, Professor jerked back and forth, torn between rescuing those hapless security tags and stifling that naughty machine, now screaming its mind out.
   All the while, Professor uttered, "Ahh, ahh, ahh," in that monotone, robot voice of his.
   Kristi stood there, dumbfounded, then covered her mouth to giggle. Stacey laughed so hard tears streamed down her face.
   Eventually, between the twitching, hopping, thrusting, the power cord unplugged from the wall. Excitement ground to a painful halt.
   Professor rapidly explained to Stacey he was completely unsettled by the "piece of junk" equipment, then raced outside for the soothing comfort of burning nicotine.
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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Coworkers: Part 59 - Why Can't You Look?‏

   "Because we don't have a THE section. The Rolling Stones are in the R's. OK?"
   With that, Mandy wheeled around returned to her shopping cart stuffed with CD's to stock.
   A customer had interrupted her (mistake number one), asked if she might help him (mistake number two), then explained he'd looked all over the T section, but couldn't find The Rolling Stones (mistake number three).
   I witnessed the exchange from a distance and positioned myself so I'd be the first available employee the customer could vent at. He did. I smiled, nodded sympathetically, and told the mollified client I would deal with her. Walked up to Mandy afterward and said simply, "Hand."
   Mandy stuck out her arm. I slapped her wrist lightly. Walked off. She and I often used a shorthand. That way, I hadn't involved The Boss, other managers, or District meddlers.
   After her first week, the store realized Mandy possessed terrible customer service skills. She wasn't rude, she simply had poor people skills. Customers complained periodically, but it wasn't like she slighted any group or individual. Mandy was an equal opportunity offender. Curt and brusque to one and all. In the store, Mandy was never flavor of the month. One of the other girls had "favorites." Mandy never made her list. She was one of those invisible people who faded into the background. Yet, I saw her. She had a magnificent work ethic, and was extremely task focused. Conflicts arose when customers interrupted completion of those tasks.
   Bad as it was, once Mandy got pregnant, her customer service went to hell.

   For eight and a half months, she toiled on. Extended breaks and lightning trips to the restroom were tolerated by coworkers. As she got heavier, she got slower. For many projects, she found it easier to sit on the floor. Once there, she was a beached sea turtle, on vacation.
   "Excuse me, are you busy?" a customer asked.
   "What do you need?" replied vacation turtle.
   "Uh, George Strait."
   "He's in Country."
   "Uh ... yes ... but where's Country?"
   "Just down that way,"
she pointed in the vague direction of Neptune.
   "I'm sorry. Which way?"
   "Why can't you look?"
she snapped.
   At that moment John overheard the exchange and hurried to assist the frustrated customer. These were not isolated incidents, but occurred weekly.
   Normally, I would have slapped her wrist, and she'd answer, "I know, sorry." But, she was pregnant. Bloated, uncomfortable, nauseous. And Mandy, when she had been manager, had bailed me out of several lunatic mistakes. She covered for me, and didn't advise The Boss, Pat, John. I owed her.
   Stacey and Derek, a mismatched pair if ever there was one, concocted a more devious punishment than my wrist slap.
   They assigned The Professor to watch over Mandy. Station himself near that helpless, little woman. She was terribly pregnant, after all. Lift her up from the floor, see if she needed anything. Water, cookie, celery. Whatever he thought she required.
   Even when she told him to leave, he wouldn't. Lost her temper, got ugly, he treated her like an irrational, dysfunctional two year old.
   After two weeks of solicitous attention, she about lost her sanity. Especially after it was suggested she christen the baby with The Professor's name.
   Luckily, she lolled on the floor, and there was nothing deadlier than CD keepers to hurl.
   Besides, we were quicker. We could dodge.
   Too bad The Professor had been looking elsewhere.
   Maybe it was just a lucky shot.
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