Thursday, May 25, 2006

Coworkers: Part 76 - Free Steaks!

   Who knows? Maybe Pat was just lonely. Desired an unending crowd.
   The party cranked non stop, and guests flocked, maggots to meat.
   Unlike clubs, however, Pat didn't have a bouncer. Or security. The guest list was not set to "exclusive." Consequently, the guests were not, either.
   How did that happen?
   Pat's place, Pat's shack, Pat's house was always the preferred place for parties. She never groaned about cleanup, complained about damages, or urged revelers to keep noise down for neighbors. Nope. Full blast. P-A-R-T-Y ! ! Back in the day, they were frequent and loud. Some were infamous.
   During the Blockbuster period, Pat bought the small home. Mortgage, car payments, credit cards, bills were crippling. She took a part time job with a major package delivery outfit to supplement income. Second job was 2:00 AM until 10:00 AM ... sometimes a bit longer. Still kept her music store duties.
   How'd she sleep? Catnaps.
   Parties stopped completely. There was no free time, other than sleep time.
   All changed when she bought the pool table.
   After that time, the little house exploded, and she lost the evening cat nap.
   Guys showed up in packs and stayed for hours. They waited outside until she clocked out of the music store and had to be pushed out the door before her 2:00 AM job. Guys, their girlfriends, their kids. Pat's Shack was the number one place.
   Billiards and free food.
   Princess Pat was the Cowtown hostess.
   When her parties began in the Sound Warehouse era, everyone pitched in. Brought chips, bread, beer, salsa, fajitas, cookies, soft drinks, whatever was needed. By mid Blockbuster, those times were gone. So were those employees. So were most coworkers. Guys who appeared now were friends of friends. Moochers and leeches. Brought nothing. Never even considered bringing anything. Food was free at the Shack! Plus, they were entitled.
   They were also loud, argumentative, destructive, and confrontational.
   The Shack became a pool hall for sullen losers who raided her refrigerator, crashed in front of her television, borrowed CDs. Most of movies were on the unstealable Laserdisc format, or those would have been borrowed as well. Plenty of old friends visited, only to leave because of the ugly vibe. Stacey complained the boasting was all "My Plans - My Balls." Both eclipsed reality.
   Of her music coworkers, only Stacey, Joe and Winston were regulars. By now, Winston's descent was pronounced. He also arrived with friends, whose eyes darted across everything in the room like kids in a candy store.
   More and more, visitors arrived simply to eat. On Pat's day off, they dropped by at 5:00. Hot dogs, hamburgers. Of course, girlfriends were delighted to meet her. Especially if Pat fed her, and the three kids. Which Pat did. She had somehow wandered into a trap. The Shack was food kitchen and halfway house. Every time groceries were bought, they were consumed within a day or two.
   More moochers arrived. Pat couldn't say, "Enough already! Go home." She didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings. She wanted everyone to like her. This scene had not happened overnight, but she couldn't find her way out. Financially, she was going broke.
   One of the diners sat down at 7:45, brought woman and kids. Flagged down Waitress Pat and told her he wanted dinner. Pat was about to explain that it was late, most of the food was gone. Devoured by ten other tables. The kids interrupted her, acting like kids. He threatened them. When their mother protested, he shoved her out of her chair, onto the floor. Told his current girlfriend and her two brats to shut the fuck up. Pat searched her fridge.
   "What the hell is this?" he demanded fifteen minutes later.
   "Hamburgers," Pat said. "Potato sticks. Pop Tarts. All I have. That was my dinner, and my breakfast for tomorrow. I don't have any more food in the house."
   The girlfriend and kids wolfed their meals hungrily.
   The guy ate one bite, dropped the hamburger onto the floor.
   "Do I look like a piece of shit to you?"
   "That's all -- "
   "Don't interrupt me,"
he waved a fork casually in the air. "I came in here, sat down, and I expected steak."
   Pat opened her mouth, said nothing. Six or seven other moochers stood quietly in her kitchen, tantalized by the prospect of free steaks. These were her friends.
   "I'm not eating this shit." He stood up and stepped on the burger. "Next time I'm here, you better serve steak. If I bring friends, there better be steaks for them, too."
   He walked out slow, girlfriend and children in tow.
   Across the kitchen, eyes glittered. The menu would now feature steak every night. Free steaks!
   Pat was living a nightmare. She hated going to her own home. And she was frightened.
   Joe delivered a fix to her agony. Wasn't the best fix, but it worked short term.
   Introduced her to boyfriend number ... dunno.
   Joe had an ex, the ex had a brother. Brother was fairly large, stocky, strong. He and Pat ...
   Within two months, he chased off all the leeches.
   Lot of my coworkers didn't like this guy. He had a pile of problems: financial, emotional, substance. Kind of a one man trainwreck.
   Yet, the food kitchen was closed. Pat had time for her real friends again.
   The bad boy would hurt her, but he wouldn't last.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Customers: Part 16 - Elite Tier

   Our store was in a peculiar location. Down the boulevard was one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, across the street, one of the richest. Heading west were strip clubs, pool halls, and Neiman Marcus. Farther down, construction sites, then prairie. The rural beyond. Customers came in all types, soccer moms and dancers, cow punchers and CPA's, oil riggers, gangstas, doctors, students, hustlers. These people were great and they were difficult, in similar ways, and in different ways.
   Rich folk were dicier.
   If they threatened, "I could have your job," one's first thought was, "Yay, let's trade!"
   If they wailed to Corporate, however, one braced for impact.
   Generally, we knew our Customers. For some, we jumped. Others, we dodged. Or tried to.

   "This is Suzette. I need to place an order."
   Mandy forwarded the call to me. The caller, and everything she represented, unsettled Mandy.
   "Hi, Suzette, what do you need?"
   Suzette requested fifteen different titles. I wrote quickly. Suzette, as usual, needed six copies of each. One copy for each residence.
   For Suzette, I dropped everything. She was one of my Regulars, a leftover client from my Classical Manager stint. Suzette worked for the absolute richest family in the city. They owned downtown. Also six residences scattered across the planet. Our town owed much to their beneficence. The Professor was completely intimidated by the family.
   Suzette usually placed massive orders. One Christmas, she ordered 300 CDs for employee gifts. She only dealt with The Boss or myself. We checked availability and notified her if an album was deleted. Otherwise, we alerted her when the order was assembled. Then a suit arrived, flashed the credit card, drove away.
   Now and then, Suzette paid in advance.
   Like this day. Suzette read off the credit card numbers.
   I read back the account, then joked, "You guys are awful trusting. I could go buy myself a new, red Mercedes with these numbers."
   She laughed. "Oh, you wouldn't do that."
   "I could be a complete conman."
   "Ha ha. One, Mercedes don't come in red. Two, we vetted you. Background check. You and your boss. That's why we only deal with you two."
   "You're very secretive, by the way. But you already know that."
   I caught the comic tone in her voice. I let it go.
   Placed the order. Phoned the downtown tower two weeks later. Everyone connected with the family, the office workers, the young men in suits, were always patient, tolerant, and realistic.
   Class acts.

   Before hiring on at Camp Bowie, I worked two seasons for the Symphony. Manned the Subscription and Donation Tables during performances by The Symphony, The Pops, Keyboard Recitals, and The Ballet. Bonus perk = free seats.
   I was hardly a shaker in the Arts scene. My trophy bride and I subscribed to this and that, gave money. We stood near the periphery, avoided the intrigues.
   We knew the scuttle, though.
   Cowtown hosted The Keyboard Competition every four years. For three weeks, pianists from across the globe pounded the ivories. Advancing contestants would perform with a string quartet. Finalists squared off with the symphony orchestra backing them.
   Winners received hefty cash prizes, record deals, and world tours. Past medalists included Radu Lupu and Cristina Ortiz. Some non winners, such as Barry Douglas, found glory elsewhere. Douglas placed third one tournament, went on to win the Tchaikovsky Competition gold. Still others, like Youri Egorov, became cult figures.
   The Keyboard Competition was fiercely independent. Our chain, our store, had never been involved beyond taping their posters in the alcove and in the Classical Room. We stocked up on the RCA catalog. Also past medalist's catalog (reference names above), and select judge's catalog if available. That was the extent of our involvement.
   This year, Keyboard reps contacted Corporate.
   Would we like to participate?
   What did they mean? Participate?
   The Boss and I exchanged comments. I had observed a few events, he had dealt with them when one of the Mikes was Classical Manager.
   District bosses overruled misgivings, they were full throttle affirmative. Prestige and jingling cash registers sparkled in their eyes.
   We were the ones, however, driving that little red wagon.

   The initial Keyboard liaison was a nice lady. Older widow, retired. Had never worked Retail. Never sold anything, not even lemonade. We offered to order the catalog of the hometown hero. 30 copies each of everything, and 200 of the Tchaikovsky. Phoned Katia at RCA, she readied the orders. Advised we order CDs of previous medalists, as well as the judges. Also suggested adding a section of artists for the upcoming season.
   Well and good. We would place orders, phone Keyboard Competition when all units had arrived.
   Storage? The Boss offered one of the new bins, capable of holding several hundred CDs.
   "Great. Thank you."
   Finally, we would transport the bin and discs. Set everything up.
   "Thank you so much."
   Whatever was sold, we would split the profit 50/50.
   "That sounds -- Wait a minute -- The people back at -- Uhh -- Mmm ... "
   Sharing ... wha ...
   Parents and preschool teachers understood the importance of transitioning children from the Mine attitude to Share.
   As we grew older, all of us recognized those who never embraced the concept. Always Me and Mine.
   The Keyboard Clique wanted the bin, wanted us to order and price the CDs, wanted us to ferry everything to the competition site.
   Also wanted all profits.
   At this point, I was no longer involved. Neither was the friendly liaison lady.
   The Boss - Corporate - Keyboard Officers swapped calls.
   Two of our guys drove the CD bin to the arena.
   We placed the order. When it arrived, The Boss instructed me NOT to open or price anything.
   Shrewd move.
   CDs were ordered behind our backs. Direct from vendor. Discs were priced two dollars higher than our normal prices.
   We opened boxes on an as needed basis. When the Competition ended, we returned all unopened cartons.
   Two of the guys went to retrieve our CD bin. It had somehow been painted. We could never use it again on the Floor.
   Six months on, we're waiting to hear that hearty thank you.
   Don't hold your breath, Pilgrim.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Coworkers: Part 77 - Examination‏

   Winston was late again. The whole store could feel it, once good employee turning into crap. Drugs and bad influences.
   No, one couldn't really blame either. For one thing, Winston had chosen his own drugs. They didn't ambush him and leap into his mouth while he staggered around Deep Ellum. He also hadn't opted for reefer, but popped speed to help him cope with two jobs, and his dreams of filming videos. The amphetamine diet was difficult to purge. I knew from experience. I used to drive from Appalachia to Los Angeles. Nonstop, less than two days fueled by a handful of dexies. Better than coffee, yet longer lasting.
   Winston had downgraded from speed to meth. Addiction of choice for buddies at his other job.
   That was the second thing. Buddies were straight out of Trailer Hell VI. Filthy clothes, greasy baseball caps, guys who hadn't bathed since 6th grade. Sonya once told me it was a blessing I couldn't smell because every sweaty activity, every beverage accident, every upchucked meal, wafted wherever they went. Winston's new friends. Every two weeks, when he entered for his paycheck, a chum accompanied him.
   One could make quality friends, one could cultivate shitty friends. Same amount of effort. Individuals could enhance your world, other souls would drain the life out of you. When you were younger, mistakes were common. Winston wasn't a teenager.
   The Boss had twice cut his hours. Everyone still liked him, but he'd lost our trust. Mandy, Pat, Sarah, Joe, and a few others prayed Winston could climb out from his gutter. The more seasoned crew watched warily.
   Anyway, he was late ... again ... for his only workday of the week. His phone was long disconnected. An hour late, he wasn't going to show. I wanted to rearrange the schedule. Bounce the idea off Pat or Stacey. Only they weren't around.
   Crews today were primarily Chick Shift. Mandy, Sonya, Sharon, Pat and Stacey. Everyone was here, except Winston. A guy earlier had asked me about a right wing, flag waving country artist I hated. Looked around for Sharon or Pat ... no. Another customer inquired about a neo-Goth outfit. Stacey, Mandy? Nope, absent.
   Ten browsers wandered the premises, with no staff anywhere. What?
   What? What? What?
   They had to be in the office.
   I gauged the floor. Clients were in Rock. No one up front, in Classical or DVD's. I could get to the back in fifteen seconds. Of course, I could have buzzed the office, but brainless here didn't think of that. I simply took off.
   Opened the office door. All the girls were inside. They jumped, then one of them said, "Oh, it's only Worthy."
   Sharon was sitting down with her white pants pulled down. The other females formed a semi circle around her. Studying - - examining - - absolutely no idea. They were oblivious to my presence. I was 5% intrigued, 95% weirded out. I wanted to get the hell out of there. I darted to the racks facing the water cooler, grabbed something, anything, and trotted away immediately.
   I could run the store on my own, damnit! The ladies could do whatever they were doing. OK by me.
   Four customers waited in line. Typical, any time you left the register, stampede to the front.
   I processed the shoppers quickly. Then I recalled something ...
   "Oh, it's only Worthy."
   What'd they mean by that?
   What was I?
   Puppy dog?

Thursday, May 4, 2006

Coworkers: Part 78 - Lilli

   Lilli was a fey spirit. Slim build, spiky hair, a wisp in the store. Soft voiced. Stacey and Lilli bonded swiftly. Both had lived years in New Orleans. Stacey took time to navigate her world and understand her. To everyone else, she was eccentric, not twisted, merely a strange waif.
   Lilli finished tasks well enough. She was a drifty, floaty sort of employee. Certainly wasn't a focused as Mandy, or precise like Sarah. Worse, she liked gabbing with customers. Usually weird old people. The sort that, " ...I cain't afferd this, I ain't got no money." Think loss leaders, then simply, Loss. Poor planners who purchased blowout cassettes for 25¢. Clients I generally scorned.
   Lilli was, to her credit, more welcoming.
   Derek, of all people in the store, supposedly loathed Lilli. Personality clash.
   He spoke under his breath to her, and made horrifying comments. At least, that's what she told Stacey. Only that never went beyond Stacey. No one else in management knew. If Lilli was being bullied, threatened, intimidated by Derek (and Derek had never behaved like that to anyone), then she was receiving zero support from management, from her coworkers.
   Real or misunderstood, Lilli began flippin' out.

   The afternoon had been hectic. Time was past 6:00, I needed to go home, but one customer after another demanded attention. Lilli lingered, also. I thought someone mentioned she'd lost her purse. Maybe she thought it had been hidden, or stolen. Bad Derek. Or everyone else in the store who hated her. No telling how paranoid her rattled head was.
   In any event, I didn't ask first, I simply opened my flap. "Hey, Lilli, you find your purse?"
   "What!"    She froze stock still. Color drained from her face as she clenched her fists. Then she flushed, "How dare you say that to me?"
   Christ, what had I said? Hey-Lilli-Did-You-Find-Your-Purse. She'd gone insane. Yet, instead of asking her what was troubling her, I shrugged and said, "Well, maybe it will find you." Then left, hurried home. Nuts. Crazy. Women. No idea.
   I didn't know it, but I had just replaced Derek on her shit list. Because ... she thought I asked if she found her curse yet. That I hoped maybe the curse would find her.
   Lilli, New Orleans denizen, weird French name. Made her own clothes, cut her own hair, stepped between the edges of our world and another. Lilli, New Age follower, believed in Voodoo, spells, runes. She completely over reacted when she imagined I put a curse on her.
   She hurried home that night, and concocted a counter curse.

   Lilli marched around the store for a week, curse clenched in hand. Waiting for me to say one word to her. Then she'd open her palm, display her scrap of paper that read - Die Worthy.
   Launch the curse.
   Except a week went by and I still hadn't babbled one word.
   I thought our work relationship was greatly improved. Shy, moody employee was now industrious and energized. When I looked her way, she had this gleam in her eye. I thought she was really into inventory pulls, or sale stickers, or dusting. Guys were like that. Womenfolk all quiet, simmering volcano about to erupt, while the guy thinks, "Females quiet, things going good. Dum de dum de dum da dum."
   This proved too much for Lilli. She had a breakdown and quit. At this point, everyone knew about the  Die Worthy  rag, now damp, grimy, and tattered sheer. Except me. I was like, "Oh? Why? What's with her? Dum de dum."
   Stacey coaxed Lilli back into the store for a three-person conference. She and I sorted out the purse curse mix-up. I think we were friends again. Sorta.
   Yet, she never returned to the music store.
   Derek disappeared two weeks later.
   Moved to Austin.