Saturday, January 26, 2008

Coworkers: Part 43 - Gimme A Hug

   Camp Bowie could be a vicious environment.
   Weekly, we were indifferent, cold, or brutal with coworkers. From new hires to seasoned veterans. Blameless innocents, brainless morons, or fuckers who deserved it.
   Everyone got slashed.
   Sometimes it was ugly.

   The Boss had asked me to select someone to train for receiving. Most of the crew realized Todd's Sound Warehouse days were numbered. He and The Toadies were on the road constantly. They had inked a deal with indie label Grass, but the majors were seriously interested. Big contract and national release was a matter of time. Todd rarely worked Truck Day and I couldn't process a half dozen skids of CD's and accessories on my own.
   Dane had been hired specifically to learn the Back Room. To paraphrase a bygone colleague, he proved to be a suppository bomb. Dane was a quintessential blonde and fancied himself a bassist in some cheese metal group. Long, very long, yellow hair. When he spoke, he tilted his head sideways so his hair would drape like Rapunzel. The girls disdained him because he tossed his locks and gazed off in the sunset during conversation. He was forever posing for his imaginary Vogue photographer. Dane wasted more time preening in front of the mirror than the entire crew combined.
   For receiving, Dane was hopeless. I could not train him. Every fourth CD he selected was a revelation; he'd have to ponder song titles, cover art, band photos. Wanted to open every CD and give it a listen.
   "Dude, we got Truck! I'm barely keeping ahead of the Floor. I've hit A-Chart, and New Releases. I gave you C-Chart because there was nothing Sale Priced. You've only done half a box."
   "Check this out, Flying Burrito Brothers. Name like that has to be great. Let's open it."
   "No. Look, Dan's been back here five times already. Missy and Trina, too. Everyone's counting on us."
   "Yeah, man, those girls are cute and obviously interested. I'm so available," he shook his tresses and envisioned the threesome.
   I complained. The Boss assumed I was being paranoid and territorial. He scheduled himself to work Back Room the following Truck.
   "Dane, what is your problem?"
   "Aswad, isn't this awesome?"
   "Sure, whatever. It's English Reggae, OK? Let's go."
   "I mean, ass and wad, get it? Ass wad."

   The Boss's eyes rolled into his skull. I pounded down another box. I hadn't said two words, and I didn't intend to.
   "Whoa! Big Black, I never heard of this group. Songs About Fucking. This sounds awesome!"
   "Have you been listening to me?"
   "We have to open this."

   The Boss was now quivering.
   "I'm going to visit Derotha at Eckerd's," I announced. "Anyone want anything?"
   "Songs ... about ... fucking. Hello, love life."
   I waltzed back ten minutes later, Dane was toast.
   The Boss told me to pick whomever I wanted. I requested Layla.

   Layla caught on immediately. Stayed focused, didn't get distracted. Could work alone or work with jerks. The only problem she had was with one of the assistants. There was tension between the two, but I didn't ask. Most souls spilled their stories. Layla did not.
   Friday evening, we were still processing a huge shipment. Truck had arrived late Thursday. We were behind and business was massive. Stacked behind Truck were several catalog drops. A huge PolyGram classical shipment I'd ordered. Three monsters James had placed. All D-Chart:: UNI, CEMA, and Big State. James and his orders. Big State and CEMA were both maddening.
   James, moreover, had wrecked havoc in the fabric of the crew. He was one of the mildest humans I knew, but he could be impulsive and reckless. His temporary obsession with Pat was mindlessly self destructive. Gifts and dinners were lavished on someone who never reciprocated. James was not wealthy, he was quite poor. He had no money to waste. Half the crew mocked him, others felt badly. Most of us swung both ways. Sympathetic bastards. Mind you, Pat never made promises, never led him on. Never put her foot down, either. Flowers and gifts were, after all, flowers and gifts. Married or single, sharp dressed or scuzz, she offered all males her coy smile, soft laugh, innocent denial.
   The situation was excruciating for Big Jim. Pat dated other guys in the store, while fresh boyfriends came and went. She never gave James the time of day, which killed him. Store affairs and infatuations were common and messy. "We've all slept with each other over and over," an unnamed female muttered once. The Boss hadn't, I hadn't. Still, The Boss had married an earlier coworker, and my friendships with Angela, and then later Sheri, had drawn barbed comments. I digress.
   James lost his temper one evening with one of the oldest hold-ons at Camp Bowie. She had worked with crews long forgotten. For years, she had declared, "Ireland, here I come." once she had $300K saved up. Such resources were beyond the entire store combined. There was no reason for her to share her financial situation, especially when half the crew bought Ramen noodles by the case. She was not popular.
   One evening per week, she clocked in and worked one shift.
   Why was she still holding this record shop job? To keep her hand in music business? Because Rob made the tastiest coffee on the planet? (She did drain half a pot every time she worked, doubtless wired awake for days afterward.) For that 20% employee discount? Or ... because she still nursed the flame for James? In whose life, she meddled.
   James vented all his frustration out on her. Told her nobody enjoyed working with her, the entire crew begrudged her presence. Her musical knowledge was outdated and out of the loop. There was more, a lot more. This was cruel behavior, more associated with Rob or myself. This was an exceptional moment for James.
   She confronted other employees, demanding feedback. Reassurance was subdued.
   She gave notice on the spot. That evening would be her last shift. I suppose ... someone ... could have persuaded her to change her mind. No one made the effort. Maybe it was the wrong shift that night. Jerk shift.
   Layla and I finished Truck and shifted to catalog. D-Chart. I gave her the confusion of Big State which vexed her mightily. Layla frowned, sighed, but plugged away.
   Miss I Quit marched into the Back Room. Told us she was leaving, went on and on about how wonderful the job was, how she loved everybody, but it was just time. Layla and I replied, but kept our backs to her. Shipment, you know. Miss I Quit edged closer, repeated her comments. We maintained our positions.
   Eventually, Miss I Quit marched out of the room.
   "What was that about?" Layla whispered.
   "I had the feeling she was fishing for a goodbye hug."
   "I had the same feeling," Layla shook, as if someone stepped on her grave. "No!"
   No, indeed. No hug from anyone that night.
   What'd I say? Cruel.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Customers: Part 11 - I Used To Work Here

   "I defy you. I defy you!"
   One of my earlier memories working the Floor. The Boss listened patiently, a polite smile plastered on his face, while the newspaper reporter noisily declared. "Name one! Name a single double album set that wasn't padded with filler."
   Even though I was heading towards the Booth, I mentally swept down to my music collection and began scanning spines.
   "The White Album, easily lose one or two sides. Tusk, completely overrated. Anything by Chicago. Frampton Comes Alive, come on. I love London Calling ... but. And Allman Brothers' Eat A Peach or Live At Fillmore? Hello, I was asleep at Fillmore!"
   I thought up Electric Ladyland, then The Wall. I was new, however, I kept walking.
   A portion of the job involved listening. A fair amount of customers needed to talk. Usually, male customers. Sometimes they were interesting or entertaining, they might have insight worth hearing. More often than not, bombast ruled.
   "Sign O The Times AND Graffiti Bridge. Woodstock, my God! Wheels Of Fire, Springsteen's The River, A Show Of Hands - - I can show them a finger. And Yes. Who keeps letting Yes release those marathon snooze fests?"
   You perched in the crow's nest and pointed starboard, "Thar she blows!"

   "I just fail -- completely fail to see the connecting dots."
   "They progressed, man."
   "How was it, they could make that leap from Hard Day's Night to Sergeant Pepper? It's impossible!"
   "Rubber Soul, then Revolver. They experimented, they grew. Plus, it was the 60's, Hoss."
   Shooting the breeze. This guy wasn't going to buy any Beatles albums, he probably owned the complete collection on vinyl and CD. He was my age. Short hair, trimmed beard, glasses. Looked like an office drone. Paper pusher. He was an a Regular (subset: Annoying Regular).
   Wrong. He was worse than an irritating Regular. He was a wannabee.
   " ... I used to work here, you know ... "
   He'd drop that phrase into every single conversation. I wanted to answer, "I used to shop here."
   I went up the ladder. Greg, John, finally asked Dan, who'd been at Camp Bowie a decade, about this man.
   "Why would he spout shit like that? Besides, I'm new, why's he not talking with his old coworkers?"
   "Because senior employees avoid him. He's told me the same thing, only he never worked with me. I don't know what his game is."
   Eventually I asked The Boss, who'd been manager since the Peaches era. He knew the character. He had never, ever hired him.
   "Sure, he's told me the same crap. 'I used to work here.' Bull. Maybe he worked one week while I was on vacation."
   So, I tried to tune him out.
   "The collective consciousness of 70's, after the drug induced genesis of the 60's ...    After Gabriel left, who would ever imagine ...    Lennon specifically said imagine, he asked listeners to ...    How dare he call himself the King Of Pop, I mean ...    Big deal, he played guitar with a violin bow ...    She can't sing, she can't dance, she's not even blonde ... "
   I discovered, if I clammed up, he got stymied. He wanted the good argument. If I didn't respond, he searched out another sounding board.
   Or towed in his own audience.
   For a while, he came in with the wife. I assumed it was the wife. Female, same age. Bored.
   Then ... the girls.
   Young girls.
   Fifteen, sixteen. Usually shopped around 3:30 - 4:00. When school let out.
   I realized he was a teacher. Our store had become a special, one on one, extra credit assignment.
   " ... I used to work here ... "
   They must have been students.
   They were always female. Young, fresh, pretty.
   He'd tour from artist to artist, sharing priceless, opinionated wisdom. The girls were wide eyed, eager. He was an expert.
   " ... I used to work here ... "
   Female staffers, Layla, Pepe, Trina, Amy, were completely creeped out. The scenario smelled of mandatory dating. Like he was using his authority position to ... to what?
   I didn't know what to think. I never talked with him anymore. No one did. Didn't matter, he coerced his own entourage. Every two weeks, different girl. Never once saw a boy.
   Then again, maybe he taught at a girl's only school.
   Yeah, that had to be the explanation.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Coworkers: Part 44 - The Brain Trust

  After Bromo, the chain was acquired by Disney. Not Mickey Mouse, but Shamrock holdings, the investment firm run by nephew Roy Junior and his Brain Trust. Confident suits who assumed music retail would be easier to boss than the cartoon animators and amusement ride specialists from magic kingdom.
  Gestapo of the Brain Trust was Gull. Even a rumor that he was within a hundred miles of the store launched a hurricane of dusting, general housekeeping convulsions, and mopping. Charles flipped into tizzy land. Gestapo Brain never appeared to actually "do" anything. Making subordinates afraid was probably enough.
  Overblown concerns that the Brainiacs would command us to don dish sized mouse ears never materialized. There were, however, strange orders for immediate changes from time to time from the Mansion.
  Best known was the cassette shift.
  Cassettes could no longer be placed horizontally. Vertical was the new look. Easier to tell what potential clients were regarding if they had to twist their heads sideways. That was my guess. No actual reason was ever given, but one does not question the gods. Besides, they were the Brain Trust.
  The chain was simply an afterthought.
  These geniuses held the chain three years, maybe more, maybe less. Accomplished nothing on our level. Maybe we were simply a cash cow for those handsome salaries. Did they improve the chain, increase market share, make an impact in the music industry? No. They did jack. Until they sold off the chain, and then they did something horrible.
  They sold the entire wad, from stores to DCs to offices, to another group that knew jack -- absolutely nothing -- about music.
  Blockbuster Video
  Then the Brain Trust had one less distraction, for the magic kingdom was in trouble.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Shoplifting: Case #04 - Seventy-Five Bucks

   The thieves arrived together. Family unit. Father, Mother, Auntie, two young boys, one girl. Walked in, split off towards CD's, cassettes, videos. Derek and Todd profiled them quickly and warned the crew. All employees recognized them, even Stephanie, chewing gum and busily tying her hair with a plastic, yellow Sound Warehouse bag.
   These shoplifters were almost a stereotype. Now and then, they clustered, conferring in quiet voices. Then they splintered off again. Six human balls in a pinball machine.
   Thieves often behaved abnormally. Too organized, too efficient, yet haphazard and wary. Organized, anal types were classic grab 'n go shoppers. Browsers tended to slowly sweep the store. Regulars checked new releases, talked to employees, asked questions or annoyed the hell out of us.
   The dawdling, the mini conferences, these guys were up to no good. After thirty minutes, and a final huddle, family members waltzed through the exit doors. Except for Auntie and girl. Auntie bought a 99¢ blank tape. The girl waited behind, bored, clutching a bulky sweatshirt across her chest.
   The girl was the mule.
   Stephanie ran register. Charles pretended to be busy at backup. Layla and Dan tended front displays.
   Purchase made, change given, Auntie and cohort walked. Triggered the alarms.
   We closed the trap. Auntie launched the excuse.
   "Oh, that must be me," she laughed and waved the blank tape and receipt. "But I already paid. See you!"
   This excuse might have sailed elsewhere, not our store. Charles appropriated the bag, and walked it back through the gate as a "special courtesy" for them. Sound Warehouse - because we care.
   Alarm triggered again. Girl apprehended. No resistance, no protesting, no drama. Auntie simply said, while she walked ...
   "You'll know what to say. We'll wait in the car."
   The girl looked twelve or fourteen. Hair pulled back. Pants, blue windbreaker over a t-shirt. Plus, a sweatshirt full of swiped items. She gazed slowly across the store, hadn't a care in the world.
   A police substation was staffed one block from us. Cops always responded when we called, and responded pronto when the culprit was a young offender. Police always wanted to deter criminal tendencies early on, and they were masters of friendly scare tactics.
   No sooner had the cops arrived, and begun the intimidating authority message, than the girl launched Stage 2.
   "Seventy five bucks. I'm underage."
   "Excuse me?"
   "I'm a minor. I'm under eighteen. I took less than $75 in stuff. You can't do nothing to me."

   All those huddled family pow wows made sense now. Doing their arithmetic. Sweatshirt contained four cassettes, three compact discs, a close out movie, five candy bars. Before taxes, totaled $73.92.
   Son of a bitch.
   "Seventy five bucks. I got less than $75. I'm a minor," she repeated, louder.
   From a legal standpoint, she was, damnit, correct. At worst, the theft was a misdemeanor. More likely, an infraction. As a minor, however, an amount under $75 was ... nothing.
   Not only a family of thieves, but educated thieves.
   "I'm under 18. And you can't do nothing."
   The two cops, both large males, had entered with broad smiles before shifting into impassive enforcement figures. They remained stone eyed, but one could sense bottled fury every time the girl jeered at them. If the perp was male, and this was 1947, there would be slapping.
   Two more cops cruised in. Male and female. Within minutes, they scowled and muttered in frustration. The law was what it was, their hands were tied. Li'l Criminal was going to swing out the door. Reinforcing the lesson that she'd beaten the law.
   "Actually ... " Charles spoke up, " ... most of the items she took were on sale."
   Cops, Coworkers, Culprit, everyone's attention flashed back to third grade math class.
   "Cassettes are marked off $3.00 each as part of a midline sale. Two CD's are New Release priced. The third is also part of that midline sale."
   "Seventy five bucks. I'm a minor,"
the girl protested. Yet she wasn't so loud or cocky now. She leaned sideways and looked for that waiting car in the parking lot. No cavalry from that quarter.
   "To be technical, the law specifies $75 - - Retail," the policewoman smiled like a tiger. "Retail, the baseline price, not the Sale price."
   The Retail price totaled $97.92, three bucks shy of a felony charge. As it was, misdemeanor, and a free ride downtown in the back of a police car. And a lot of crying.
   The family vehicle followed at a discreet distance.
   For the store, and four cops, a tasty victory.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Coworkers: Part 45 - Not Fade Away

   The change seemed to happen overnight.
   The change was the culmination of departures and transfers. The change was the end of one era, the onset of another. Goodbyes, disappearances, new faces. Coincidences simply fell into place. Life may have been temporary, but change was, more often than not, permanent.
   Sound Warehouse began slipping away.
   The chain had been snatched up by video behemoth, and arch rival, Blockbuster, on a music store buying binge, diversifying their retail outlet line.
   We had heard rumors for months. The facts still seemed inconceivable.
   Long timers departed. Diana, Matt, and family packed off for the Northwest. Layla moved away to college or simply another city. Not really sure. Justin, the Orb, followed the Dead for two months, returned for a bit, disappeared for good. Pepe had been working one afternoon, laughing at the top of her lungs, gone a week later.
   Other employees were conflicted all to hell. Then, by sheer chance (or Fate), an alternative surfaced.
   A chain bookseller was opening a branch in Cowtown.
   James gave notice immediately, citing for "exit" reasons: Blockbuster. He was one of the bookstore's first hires.
   Larry, who had been Pat's right hand in Video, gave notice as well, and transferred loyalties.
   The bookstore seemed to target employees from our chain. Hulen and Berry likewise suffered losses.
   Rob went next. He was assigned his own store. Berry Street, the notorious disaster. Very difficult, very troubled store. High shrink, most of the employees were terrible, neighborhood in decline. Rob said goodbye to Todd and me in the Backroom, during shipment. Rob said he planned to phone us often with shipment, receiving, or paperwork questions. We reassured him he could call anytime. Todd advised him to, "Fire the Berry crew, all of them." We laughed, it was a quality moment.
   Finally, Todd gave notice. The big contract hit. This is what he and the Toadies struggled for. The label deal, the tour, the road. Fame beckoned, and the wonderful feeling of sharing their music. The band packed into a white van and pushed off on the quest.
   The change seemed to happen overnight.
   It had been months in the making.
   Familiar faces you had worked with for years. Daily presences became ghosts.
   James, Larry, Diana, Matt, Layla, Justin, Rob, Todd, Pepe.
   Leaves falling with the Autumn frost.
   Almost overnight, over a third of the crew was gone.

   Contractors became steady visitors. The store, which had been one of the lingering Peaches holdovers, was to be gutted. That whole natural wood motif, ripped down and replaced with soothing Blockbuster blue paint. Blue carpet, dozens of listening stations, a massive influx of product. Improvements had their price. Retirement plan and health insurance came with a dress code.
   And drug tests.
   The iconic Sound Warehouse question - - Has alcohol use or substance use ever interfered with your employment performance? - - was swept away with the destroyed wood paneling and lingering 70's aura.
   Current employees would not be drug tested, which was for the best. Most of us would fail a drug or alcohol test utterly.
   The Boss, Beserkeley survivor, became in-house drug administrator. The irony escaped no one. For a decade, since the Peaches era, The Boss had operated the store as his private fiefdom. Now he might have to conform into the Blockbuster empire. Truth was, none of us knew anything for sure.
   Our years of service would be grandfathered into Blockbuster, which was a decent gesture on their part.
   Friends who'd jumped to the chain bookstore urged us to follow, the grass was much greener over there.
   The book place was merely another national chain. Plus, this was only a book store, it damn sure wasn't a record store. Their prime customers were upper middle class Boomers. White bread white folks with a taste for oldies, aging artists, pleasant music. Soccer moms. Our friends were happy with their new home, but they were in wheelchairs and walkers. Overnight, they'd gotten old.
   The rest of us stayed behind. Braced ourselves, shrugged, worried, waited. Dan, Missy, João, Greg, Trina, Derek, Pat, John, Kathy, Stacey, and a stack of fresh replacements.
   Then ... Sound Warehouse was gone.