Sunday, February 16, 2003

L'A'S T'P W'R C'T:

5. Sticking it to the Man (if by "it" you mean an old butter knife, "the Man" a relatively benign corporation that actually treats its employees fairly well, and "sticking" waving it half-heartedly and surreptitiously while its back is momentarily turned). I never imagined I'd find myself, at this age, working retail - not after years of working a series of rather cool, interesting jobs that were the seeming antithesis of the service industry (though in every case, I still had to deal with the banalities and frustrations of repetitive human interaction on a regular basis, the kind of enervating to-and-fro brought on by the inability to make yourself properly understood to just about anyone [and vice-versa] that can lead a person to grab the nearest tourist by the neck and fling them sadistically about, apache-dancer style - but in those days, at least, I rarely had to wear a nametag). But, thanks to an unbelievable chain of events which transpired during annus horribilis 2001, I found myself unemployed, displaced (w/ wife and child) from our fair-sized, reasonably-priced apartment to my mother-in-law's house, and repeatedly informed that the skills I had worked so hard to obtain and hone over the previous few years were, thanks to the dot-com implosion and the post-9/11 economic environment, no longer in the slightest demand. Even the local temp agencies were utterly unsympathetic to my plight (though, to be fair, my proclivity for opening every conversation with them by bawling, "Where's my jizz-ob, bitch?" may have wound up working against me in the long run).

I don't want to make too much of this - a lot of people out there have had a much worse run of things for a much longer time than I've had - but it might provide a little context for the sense of discombobulation I felt when I finally found new employment at the local branch of a large book/music/coffee chain (so as not to defame them unduly, let's call it, umm, "Boundaries"), thanks to the largesse of an old friend, and realized that, in the space of six months, I had gone from pulling down nearly 40K at a web company in Cambridge to selling calendars in the middle of a suburban mall for $6.75 an hour. It was a brief sojourn in the land of the month-bearing wall-hanging floggers, but it was sufficiently humiliating. Not so much the work itself (I'm the sort of person that can take idiotic satisfaction in giving a customer 41 cents change - look, one quarter, one dime, one nickel, one penny! Thank God I never wound up giving anyone $36.41 back; my delight would surely have led to hospitalization), but the mere circumstances of it. I was Boundaries' bastard son, not part of the store proper but a lonely satellite thereof, cast out in the most vulnerable place possible, shifting awkwardly on a hard-backed high chair right in the line of consumer pedestrian fire, set adrift like a Captain Bligh that hadn't even gotten the chance to be a proper tyrant or wear the cool hat. I was "the kiosk guy," and don't think I didn't catch the undertone of condescension in the voices of my "fellow" employees when they said that phrase. Of course, once I saw the folks that worked the annum-hawking shifts opposite mine (the near-mute high school girl who responded to my friendly entreaties with a dry-mouthed expression somewhere between shyness and paralysis, the fortyish space cadet who always seemed to be reading the same dog-eared and much abused fantasy novel and responded to my friendly entreaties by telling me more about her personal life [insofar as people who read fantasy novels have personal lives] than I would have dared/cared to know about some members of my own family, the sweet-natured fiftyish matron who responded to my friendly entreaties in no way that I can recall, and thus should be given a pass from appearing in this parenthetical aside) and it was quite clear why. This was, even for retail, the dregs. The detail no footsoldier in the bookselling platoon in their right mind or possessing a functioning left brain wanted. For the kiosk guy was out in the open, vulnerable to the visible behind-the-hand chuckles of the girls from the photography place directly across from him, vulnerable to the smirks on the faces of his former work colleagues and high school alumni as they silently appraised ol' big hair's apparent position in life, vulnerable to the relentless Christmas music being piped over the mall PA system until mid-January (did Leonard Cohen really do a Yuletide album or was there something wrong with the mall stereo's pitch control that day?), vulnerable to the repeated patronage of some patcholi-scented layabout and trying really hard not to roll his eyes as he explains to him, No, we don't have the new High Times calendar. We sold our last two copies last week. To you. Please don't cry, you're getting THC on the register. By the end of my tour of duty, just after we'd sold the last of our marked-down-to-a-dollar stock, I was stiff-necked, aching-backed consumer-servitudinal indignity incarnate.

But the powers that be in charge of human relations at Boundaries store #447 (not its real number) evidently saw something they liked in their faithful/faceless servant, as they extended their hand and welcomed me aboard the main vessel (whereas all of my fellow Kioskians were long gone by then), where, in exchange for my silence, they plied me with food, drink and merchandise at one-third off retail. Over time, I was even allowed passage into the inner sanctum, that shadowy realm where deals that affect others' shifts are decided, where cash reconciliation is carried out daily under cover of fluorescents, where receipts are neatly filed in an arcane and mysterious manner known only to the office manager. I had well and truly become one of the elite, having clawed my way mercilessly to rest on the Kilimanjaran perch of Multimedia Supervisor. And yet... and yet I couldn't forget the shame, the debasement, the paper cuts administered to me in my previous life. My will may have been bruised and scarred, but by God, it was not yet broken. Thus began my acts of rebellion, the details of which would later become legendary, that is if anybody had noticed them and they weren't so obviously the work of an inveterate pussy.

Oh sure, I'd like to say that I took my stand against my corporate overlords at Boundaries by slipping gelignite into the smoothie machines, picking off customers with semi-automatics the moment they set off the gate alarm whether they're leaving or entering the store when it happens, by putting the Tom of Finland anthology in with the childrens' board books and misfiling the G.G. Allin discs under "Easy Listening." But no, my blows against the chain-bookstore empire are nothing if not limp-wristed. Slipping a Belle and Sebastian CD into the overhead CD player even though it's not on our "Required Overhead Play" list? Check. Opening new-release CDs a full week before their street dates just so I can listen to them while I count drawer money? Right on. Re-writing the display blurbs in the CD waterfalls under the assumption that no one ever reads the damn things to begin with? (Actual example: "Twice as good as Matchbox Ten, almost three times as good as Matchbox Seven, Matchbox Twenty once again defends its title as the best band in America with that particular name.") Putting Shut Up You Fucking Baby! and the Caligula DVD on prominent display near the front of the store? Oh, wait, I was supposed to do that - some of my corporate overlords seem to have a more perverse sense of humor than I do sometimes...

My latest misdemeanor-level offense? Why, quietly sabotaging the semi-annual Non-Returnables Sale to my own ends. Recalling, perhaps, the Every-Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?-2001-Calendar-Must-Go! desperation-fest that gripped us the first week of February the previous year, the regular unloading of the compact discs that even our warehouse won't take back to smash with a hammer filled me with a particular excitement. Bear in mind that, as someone carrying a lifelong cash deficiency along with a particularly male packrat/collector vibe, getting as much as possible for as little as possible was always a constant goal (and one that, as far as music goes, I've been able to sustain despite all my reversals of or simple lack of fortune - the drying up of the promo stream that coincided with my departure from the staff of a cheapjack rock fanzine dovetailed nicely with the rise of Napster, and the downfall of that and other file-sharing services happened to sync up with my snagging a job that allowed for a decent stream of promotional discs, the bonus CDs that come with copies of your better British rock mags once they go off sale, and first crack at the inventory of clearance sales like this one. Sometimes I wonder if I squandered the one wish that I'm allowed in life just so I can own an inexpensive second-hand copy of Blodwyn Pig's Greatest Hits and suchlike. Usually I know better than to wonder about such things). But there was no way I was going to save a little when I could save a lot, so I, in flagrant violation of some minor statute in the Employee Handbook, grabbed half a dozen discs from the stack to be stickered "50% Off" and hid them behind a stack of unsorted paperwork in the multimedia cage (sloppiness pays off once again!) and waited, patiently waited, while all their brethren on the wire speedtable - those unloved local acts, that raft of comedic klezmer albums, the first or second of Vanilla Ice's two or three unsuccessful comeback attempts, that fucking Barry Williams CD - saw their loveless isolation increase as their prices fell. For my part, I felt the occasional spike of adrenaline every time I looked up at that corner where those discs were hidden - that curious admixture of low-level pangs of guilt and something resembling a scaled-down version of a sense of adventure. If discovered... well... my manager might wag his finger slightly at me and the GM might tut-tut a little. Okay, it wasn't "The Tell-Tale Heart" - you take what you can get. Even so, you should have seen the cat-like stealth with which I finally retrieved the purloined CDs on the day when the price tags for the Non-Returnables finally went from "75% Off" to that big, welcoming "$1" sticker. The way I artfully hid the stack from my manager's sight when I arrived on the sales floor and found that, for reasons unknown other than the universe's innate sense of dramatic tension, he decided he wanted to chat with me about nothing in particular. The transcendent (to a height of about four inches) sense of accomplishment I felt when I finally eluded his scrutiny and plucked the discs from an empty space in the Self-Help section, watched over by the visage of that Hank Kingsley-looking motherfucker who used to show up on Oprah a lot. And that I found a few more titles worth salvaging on the wire speedtable that afternoon - well, friends, that was just an extra curlicue atop the icing on that particular cake.

And the CDs I liberated from oblivion that day for the price of one George and a little silver Jackson a piece? Look upon this list, ye mighty, and despair, or at least make a mild, impressed snort:

John Cale, Sabotage (live)
Flare, Circa
Gigolo Aunts, Where I Find My Heaven: The Singles Album
Motörhead, The Chase Is Better Than The Catch: The Singles, A&B's (2 discs)
Joe Pernice, Big Tobacco
Pulp, Countdown - 1992-1983 (2 discs)
The Sea and Cake, Two Gentlemen EP
Shriekback, The Y Records Years (2 discs)
T. Rex, Electric Warrior (remastered with eight bonus tracks)
Teenage Fanclub, A Catholic Education
Texas is the Reason, Do You Know Who You Are?

Total original combined sticker price (incl. 5% Massachusetts sales tax): $186.79
Total cost to me (ditto): $11.55
Savings: $175.24

Which is pretty much all I ever intended to tell you in the first place. Just to gloat slightly about a bunch of above-average rock and/or roll CDs I snagged at a ridiculously low price. That I felt the need to pump it up into a completely disproportional tale of entirely exaggerated intrigue gives you some idea of the life I live. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to wait to hear if I need to drive through the worst snowstorm in seven years on a damned federal holiday to go to my place of employ, where I'm sure to be so bored waiting for a run of customers that never arrives that I'll spend the better part of the afternoon in the R&B section, sorting the Luther Vandross CDs by girth.

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