The coolest part-time job in the world
Highway 49 South
August 19, 1988
I’d been back in Hattiesburg a little over two months now.
Cheap Trick’s “The Flame” was burning up the local air waves and Tracy Chapman’s “You got a fast car” was following close behind but what I’d actually started to seriously listen to was The Call and their 1986 album “Reconciled”, especially the song “Everywhere I go.” Somehow I’d missed this group mainly because no one was playing them locally on the air waves except maybe the university late at night on the college station.
My first classes at Jones County Junior College, the start of the fall ’88 semester, would be starting later this month and I’d taken the summer off just to switch gears from Hinds and Debby Lee and just trying to realize that college was going to take a little bit more of my effort than high school ever did. Cody and I had promised to keep in touch but I hadn’t talked to him since I’d moved back and he hadn’t made the effort to pick up the phone either.
As far as a somewhat steady source of income, my old job at County Market was pretty much waiting on me when I got back, all I had to do was to ask for it, and even though I’d been gone a little over two years very little seemed to have changed other than the faces. It was like walking into a house that you’d grown up in only to find out that all the pictures on the walls were of strangers rather than other family members.
Pam was long gone … she had moved somewhere out west with Ingo after he graduated USM. She had given birth to their first born child; a little girl seemed to be the consensus of the few current employees who even remembered her working here when they first started but details were few and far between and often conflicted so I just went with what I could gather. No one could remember if she and Ingo got married or not, just that they had a child and had left together. Pam had been gone for over a year when I came back to County Market and I couldn’t say that I thought about her much after finding out when and where she had gone. If she had been gone over a year then that meant that she had been gone out of my life a little over two and a half years. You can do a lot of forgetting about someone in two and a half years, especially if that someone wasn’t really worth remembering to begin with.
Jeanne was gone as well, for almost as long as Pam had been. I guess she had graduated from USM … people seemed to remember her more fondly though details were just as scarce. As far as it went, just about every cashier and employee that I’d known when I used to work here was missing in action as well. There were a few people left over in the various departments that I recognized from my time before but not many. That’s what working for a big grocery store in a college town would do for you … high turnover and short term memories. Some of the older cashiers had gone over to the various Sunflower grocery stores (there were three) in Hattiesburg. As it was, Sunflower was the little brother of County Market, smaller, more a community grocery store rather than a giant supermarket like County Market was. Sunflower was smaller, less hectic, and often did less volume so it was attractive to some people who got burned out by all the 24 hour business hours at County Market.
I liked the pace that County Market offered. I liked the hectic rush, the constant business and around holidays, homecoming at USM, home football games and the occasional hurricane out in the Gulf of Mexico … man! When any of those occurred, County Market became a mad house and I became one of the favorite inmates of that place.
One of the changes at County Market that I did not like was the fact that in my absence County Market had switched from piping in the local classic rock station, WHSY Rock 104.5 to having to pipe in Musak. I was told there was some kind of regulations or something that we were violating if we played the radio for our customers to listen to. Musak just seemed like a greedy bunch of groin flutes to go around and be telling people that they had to pay in order to pipe the local radio in through the speakers. On one hand, I understand it. On the other hand, I think it’s just silly and greedy but suddenly we couldn’t play WHSY Rock 104.5 FM over the store speakers and the next thing I knew was that we had to listen to Culture Club and Spandau Ballet because that was the kind of music that made women shoppers all moist and thus encouraged them to spend more money.
I became really, really sick of "Karma Chamelion" and "True" in the fall of 1988 ... so much so that three decades later I'd still change channels on the radio if I ever heard either of those two songs being played. I think that the first week I was back at County Market I heard Spandau Ballet’s “True” twenty-five times and I only worked eighteen hours total that first week. I really hated Spandau Ballet because it was the kind of pop culture crap that made you actually pray for temporary deafness.
The coolest manager
The managerial staff had also taken a shaking out and only two of the original five managers that I’d known when I first started working were still working at County Market … James Hicks, the big manager in charge of the whole store and one of the floor managers; Jeff Sundeen. I’d known Jeff Sundeen since the summer of 1984 when I had turned fifteen years old and had first started working at County Market. Jeff had quickly became one of my favorite managers because he acted more like an employee than a manager. Jeff defied stereotyping … he was six foot tall, dark jet-black hair with matching equally dark eyebrows and skinny for someone as tall and as old as he was. Jeff was clean shaven all the time and he never had any shaving cuts or nicks or stubble. It was almost as if he didn’t have to shave and he had this childish, pre-pubescent look to him, like a 10 year old kid’s head stuck on a 40 year old body. His haircut was semi-mullet, short on top, long on back but not long enough to actually be a mullet. Again, it was difficult to stereotype him. His eyes were light blue and almost glowing from within. His smile, and he smiled often, was nothing short of maniacal complete with bared teeth giving his grin an eerie look … not quite human and that is what made me come to believe that Jeff might just be an alien being in human guise or, at the very least he was just trying to hide from his destiny and doing a very good job of it.
Jeff Sundeen was probably one of if not the smartest person at County Market that I had the pleasure to work with during the eight some odd years that I was employed there. Jeff was the kind of manager who would get right in there with you to build a display and if you weren’t careful he’d do most of the work. Jeff ran no slack, he powered through his tasks and went looking for more leaving you in his jet wash trying to keep up. I’d say that he was bucking for his own store to manage but I never heard him talk of any plans like that. Jeff was the type of hands-on manager that seemed to like doing floor and display work more than standing around and managing and I never had any trouble with him or from him. In fact, when we were working together, he’d often pick me out to be part of his team for the evening and we’d fly through our assigned work tasks often getting finished quicker than anyone else and then we’d go around and take charge of other people’s work projects and help them finish their work. Because Jeff and I worked together so well, we often could slack off some while we were working and still be able to finish our assigned tasks before the other workers did. As such, we had plenty of time to talk about everything from Steven King to the Super String Theory. Jeff was an avid reader of Scientific American and a lot of other similar magazines and if a hot topic came up in the scientific community I knew it wouldn’t be long before Jeff and I would be discussing it in great detail.
I think I remember Jeff Sundeen the most for his introducing me to Stephen King’s short story “The Mist.” Jeff even lent me his copy of Skeleton Crew and I remember that “The Mist” took up a good part of that book, well over a hundred pages. Basically, “The Mist” was about a bunch of people getting trapped in a grocery store and having to defend their selves against monsters. Suffice to say that I wasn’t a big Stephen King fan. I thought King’s stuff was interesting but geared more towards the lowest common denominator in horror reading. However, once I started reading “The Mist” I couldn’t put it down … not since discovering Dean R. Koontz as a horror writer in early 1987 had I read a story with such delicious page turning anticipation. Two days later, when Jeff and I worked together again, he asked me if I had read “The Mist” and when I told him that I had his eyes lit up and he produced one of those maniacal, teeth barred grins.
“What did you think of it? Creepy, huh?” he asked.
“Yeah. I guess it hit closer to home because of working here, you know.”
“That’s what I thought when I read it the first time.” Jeff said, nodding his head and smiling like the Cheshire Cat.
We spent the next few minutes discussing the basics of the story, about military particle beams being shot wildly into the atmosphere, of dimensional cracks being ripped opened and very bad things coming through from the other side … all this while we made out the Front Wall display list for the night. On our way back down Middle Aisle, Jeff stopped to straighten an end-cap display of dog food, stacked in fifty pound bags.
“You know … We’ve got six pallets of this in the back.” He mused, looking at the dog food. “We could move that in front of the doors up front and secure them that way.”
I looked at him funny because I wasn’t sure where he was going with this.
“If anything like “The Mist” ever happened.” He said. “We could secure the store pretty quick, don’t you think? Blocking off the main entrances …”
“Those big front windows would be a problem. We’d probably have to barricade the front entrance on each side of the ice machine and just write off the front windows.”
Jeff nodded in agreement and I smiled because the night had just gotten a whole lot more interesting.
Jeff and I then went around the store and started figuring out how not only to secure the store and barricade ourselves in should we find ourselves in a situation like that in “The Mist” but what kind of weapons we could make from just the stuff that we had on the shelves and in the back room. Our thoughts went to a very “Mad Max: The Road Warrior” type arsenal mentality. The kitchen cutlery selection we had included some pretty big and long meat cutting knives that we sold to the public. Match those with some duct-tape and the more than solid broom handles that we sold in the house wares aisle and we had all the makings for a couple of pretty good halberds or spears. We had plenty of flashlights, batteries, food and water to last us for a long siege. We had an entire aisle worth of medical supplies, two aisles worth of medicines. We could make splints out of smashed up pallets or use them as firewood. Lighter fluid, starter fluid, and a host of other flammable products gave us incendiary options and we quickly had agreed how, in the space of about an hour, that just the two of us could turn County Market from a family oriented grocery store into a survival fortress that would outlast zombies or creatures from another dimension or whatever hell might throw out way if the world went to crap in a hurry.
More sharp objects of destruction were to be found in the meat department and we took a quick inventory of our cutlery as we passed through from the main store to the store room in back. There, we paused as we were about to grab a forklift, a pallet and start pulling inventory to restock the display for the Front Wall. Jeff lit a cigarette, took a long puff, blew out the smoke and looked up at the open framework and girders which composed the structural skeleton of the store room roof. He gave another maniacal smile and turned to look at me.
“Come on.” Jeff said as he took off at a fast trot.
I followed him around to the back of the meat department and watched as he hit a welded metal ladder located there, a ladder I’d maybe climbed once or twice before to bring down some Styrofoam containers for the deli up front because in the loft above the meat department was where we kept stuff like cups and cartons for the deli and the meat department.
I followed him up the ladder, past the Styrofoam products storage spot and into an area of the store that I’d never really gotten familiar with; it was the main interchange for the climate control systems. Huge metal pipes ran in tandem with each other amid a whole grouping of smaller diameter pipes and the noise was almost deafening. The huge climate control systems throbbed loud enough to drown out anything but a direct shout and pulsed at a level that vibrated your bones to the point of making them ache. There, amid the spider web of pipes was a small alcove and yet another ladder leading up into a square shaped tunnel in the ceiling. Jeff climbed the second ladder, taking the steps two at a time, hit two locking levers and pushed a hatch above him open before climbing on out and vanishing over the lip of the hatch.
I looked up the dark square tunnel to see night sky and stars beyond then Jeff’s head poked over the lip of the hatch and he motioned for me to climb on up. Climbing up the access hatch was like trying to climb a ladder that had been shoved into a torpedo tube. I wasn’t claustrophobic by nature but having to work in someplace like this all the time would be incentive to become one. I climbed the ladder, cleared the hatch and stepped foot onto the roof of County Market, itself a black desert the temperature of which surprised me.
And there we stood, Jeff and I, on top of the roof of the store. Amid all the climate control equipment that you might expect to find on top of a supermarket the size of County Market there was a surprising amount of open space and that open space was covered in black tar that was still radiating the heat that it had soaked up from the daylight sun beating down on it. The air was humid, the heat from the roof sweat inducing. I moved around the roof, following Jeff over to the edge near Highway 49 and we watched people cruise around Cloverleaf Mall from our vantage point. Jeff lit another cigarette.
“It would be pretty easy to defend the store from up here, too.” He mused, enjoying his cigarette with one leg propped on the ledge of the roof.
“Are there any other ladders up here?” I asked.
“Maybe one at the back of the store but we could unbolt that and haul it up on the roof.”
“I’d worry about someone climbing on the compactor … that would be easy to scale and then hop up on the roof.”
“We’d use the forklifts to pull it away from the building when we could. It unbolts and rolls for servicing. That leaves the tunnel to the ram open but we can padlock the safety door shut.”
I walked over to the front side of the roof and looked out over the parking lot.
“It’s big enough and wide enough that we could play football up here or play volley ball and have a beach party if we put down some sand.” I said, looking at all the free space available.
“We’ve thrown a few balls around up here late at night.” Jeff said.
“Just have to be careful not to spike the ball after a touchdown …” I mused, looking down twenty or more feet to the ground. “That would be a hell of a last step there.”
Jeff laughed, visualizing what I had described, the idea of someone catching a long bomb on a jump and then vanishing with a very surprised look on their face as they fell over the edge of the roof.
We stood up there for another two cigarettes, talking about Stephen King, “The Mist” and how to defend County Market and ourselves if the world went to hell and we were working a shift together when it did. Hattiesburg looked so different from up here, especially at night. The people cruising the mall across the highway, the late night traffic going north and south on Highway 49, the people pulling into Wendy’s there at the edge of the parking lot, customers pushing their buggies to their cars in our parking lot. We must have stayed up there at least twenty minutes just talking and coming up with ideas.
Somehow, despite all the talk of adventure and make-shift weapons and defending ourselves against creatures from the likes of King and Lovecraft Jeff and I still managed to get the Front Wall displays done before the other guys got the Middle Aisle and Produce and Dairy displays finished so we helped pick up the slack so we could all go home on time. Jeff even came out and helped us round up all the shopping carts and he and I stood there in the parking lot, long after everyone else had left, discussing Stephen King stories.
That was my fondest memory of Jeff Sundeen though most of the nights that we worked together were like that. Besides Stephen King’s “The Mist”, Jeff shared the majority of the Brian Lumley “Necroscope” series with me as well as Robert McCammon’s rather good book “Stinger” late that year. Each time that Jeff found another intellectually stimulating book or series of books he’d share them with me and that would invariably lead to long discussions throughout our work shift on the various aspects of those books. When Jeff and I worked together, we would talk about anything and everything; girls, alcohol, quantum physics, computer engineering, nuclear science, firearms, motorcycles, engines, muscle cars, religion, politics, robotics, movies, horror stories, whatever was interesting … Often times, Jeff and I would get on intellectual tangents that would leave the one or two others we were working with in the dust but that was just how Jeff was … you had to keep up with him all the time and that was both while you were working and while you were thinking.
Jeff had one other interesting habit … he drew cartoon caricatures of me. Whenever we worked together on the Front Wall or Middle Aisle, Jeff would take count of the products that we needed to refill and he’d invariably draw some caricature of me on the chart. At the time I had a fear of spiders and the displays behind Front Wall were filled with lots of those long legged brown spiders and their webs because no one ever cleaned behind the displays. Jeff took great delight in making me climb behind the displays to take count of product or rebuild the display from the back to front, knowing that I was scared of spiders and that some of the biggest spiders known to man lived back there in the darkness.
I always wondered why Jeff was content to be “just” a grocery store / supermarket manager since he evidently had the brains to be a college professor or better but that was just Jeff. He was happy right where he was and he was happy to find a kindred spirit to discuss the deeper subjects of life with and I guess that’s where I caught up to him there in the summer of 1988.
When it came to working minimum wage, part-time employment, Jeff Sundeen was probably the coolest manager in the world to work for and we had a lot of good times there at County Market because when he and I worked together it wasn’t just work or physical labor but also an intellectual adventure.
The Incinerator from Hell
One of the things that I missed the most when I came back to work at County Market was the Incinerator from Hell. From 1984 to 1986 (and into the early part of 1987 after I left), we used to break down our cardboard boxes and throw them into an incinerator that was built into the rear wall of the back room, just to the side of the loading and receiving dock. The incinerator was in a small bricked off room that I used to think of as a big oven without a door itself, just big enough for two or three employees to crowd around in with a shopping cart full of torn up and cut up cardboard boxes. You could tell the new guys from the veterans when they pulled trash. The new guys pulled empty cardboard from the displays, took out their box cutters and neatly cut the boxes on each side so that the sides would lay flat in the shopping cart. Really new guys then took the box cutters and cut the sides off the boxes thus reducing one box into five different pieces. Some new guys took two or three minutes per cardboard box to deconstruct it and they’d barely finish an entire aisle in the hour that they were given to do the entire store. Regular guys who had been there for a few months or longer just grabbed the boxes off the shelves and used their brute strength to rip the boxes along each corner and side thus accomplishing the same outcome as the new guys but without having to use a box cutter to do it. Veteran employees, like me, who had been there for years, simply grabbed up the boxes, smashed them down into the shopping cart and in a few minutes had enough of a load that they could rush the cart back to the Incinerator from Hell because really, pulling cardboard from the displays and aisles wasn’t anything but an excuse to play with the incinerator and to burn stuff and burning stuff in the incinerator was fun as hell, no pun intended.
Let me explain how the incinerator worked.
I’m not sure how the incinerator was ignited but it was always lit which led us to believe that it was both unholy and possessed. There was some hardware outside the incinerator, far smaller than what I would have expected, that looked kind of like either a coiled and ribbed heavy duty electrical conduit or perhaps a gas line. It fed down into something that looked like a combination of turbocharger and lawnmower engine but it was so rusty that I don’t think that the incinerator even worked the way it was supposed to have. We relied on the old principle of heat retention, that is, we kept the incinerator fed with cardboard, paper, and sometimes food products (stale produce from the produce department, etc.). The rule was if it wasn’t metal it could go into the incinerator and trust me, we put a lot of non-cardboard in that incinerator … if you’ve never seen a five pound bag of sugar turn to syrup and boil away … then you never had an incinerator to play with. That incinerator was one part business trash disposal, one part science experiment and one part hooligan time waster.
The design of the incinerator was basically like a chimney only it was fully contained and there were only three points of access to it; the chain operated heavy loading doors, the cleaning doors, and the flute / scrubber on top. To use the incinerator you stood in front of the twin loading doors, lifted your foot to about knee height, placed it on a pedal / track / chain on the wall and stepped on the pedal. As your weight forced the pedal down, the twin loading doors would open; one door sliding vertically up into a recess and one door sliding vertically down into a recess. As the two doors opened, the view of Hell itself lay beyond … a barren, hot wind-blown landscape of dunes constructed from white and gray ash and winking embers. Embers flew through the air with the sudden addition of the cold air from outside the incinerator and a blast wave of super hot air always rolled out towards the user. Veteran employees knew to stand slightly to the side when pressing down the loading door lever. Veteran employees never told new employees this … we had all learned this fact the hard way, it was tradition, and the first time that a new guy got his eyebrows singed made it all worth it.
We began to refer to the thermal disposal unit as the Incinerator from Hell when strange shapes and designs began to appear in the soot on the back of the interior of the incinerator. It was almost as if damned souls were scrawling graffiti on the inside of the incinerator but in a language what was long ago lost to the mists of time. Strange shapes began to form in the soot … demonic faces, impossible caricatures of evil and suffering. The incinerator began to spook some of the employees, even some of the veteran employees.
We figured that hell wanted cardboard … and anything else that we could offer as sacrifice so we redoubled our efforts and packed that incinerator as full as we could each and every time that we could. We got the incinerator so hot on at least two occasions that the loading doors themselves glowed cherry red from the amount of cardboard that we had stuffed into the incinerator. A small project involving four stock boys, five carts overflowing with cut, torn cardboard and a marathon session of throwing cardboard into the incinerator while trying not to get roasted alive actually resulted in the incinerator getting so hot that the bricks in the incinerator began to crack, to fall from their mortar, and to land in the ash. It sounded like the drums of hell thumping.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
It wasn’t quite the drum ensemble heard at the beginning of ZZTop’s “Velcro Fly” but it was close. Maybe the incinerator was a gateway to hell and if we could get it hot enough we could drop all the insulating bricks in the incinerator down on top of that fiery pit and seal it off forever. Our efforts were renewed. We threw all the cardboard that we could into the incinerator. The temperature inside the incinerator must have been several hundred degrees because now the brick lining of the incinerator had almost completely fallen into the ash and when we went outside to look at the exterior of the incinerator it was glowing a faint cherry red in the darkness of the night. It was an awesome spectacle to see and we all felt that we had accomplished something far grander than just the wanton destruction of business property.
We had achieved science and it had been fun which meant that we were, in fact, nothing more than hooligans because science that is fun can only be categorized as hooliganistic in nature.
However, the incinerator from hell had its own personality … a not altogether pleasant one as can be expected. During one of our marathon feeding frenzies, a new guy brought his meager load back to the incinerator and, not being part of our larger plan, had no way of knowing that we had just crammed five shopping carts full of stacked and torn cardboard into the incinerator thus creating, beyond the loading doors, what amounted to a superhot firestorm. He picked up his first bit of cardboard from his shopping cart, stood on the door pedal, cranked the doors open and was just quick enough to jump back out of the way as a huge tongue of solid flame licked out from between the open loading doors. In fact, the fire in the incinerator had become so hot that the entire interior of the incinerator was basically one big swirling column of fire, a firenado, if you will, roaring amid the rapidly consumed cardboard that we had fed it with. Lured by the difference between the superhot air inside the incinerator and the cold air outside, a good bit of the firenado rushed out and up, licking the suspended ceiling in the small incinerator room. As the suspended ceiling was actually just loose roof tiles in a metal frame laid across the top of two walls of cinderblocks, the only damage was the new guy’s eyebrows (which were pretty much gone), some ceiling tiles on fire and maybe the cleanliness of his underwear. Luckily a floor manager was walking by just about the time that this happened and the manager had the good sense to grab a fire extinguisher from the meat department and put the flames out before the fire could spread and any serious damage was done.
The damage remained for all of us to see for a few days … along with a rather terse memo from the front office which stated that the incinerator (pit of hell) should not be overloaded but allowed sufficient time to burn (consume) it’s trash (sacrifice) before more trash (sacrifices) should be placed in (offered up to) the incinerator (pit of hell).
The words in parenthesis were added to the memo in blue ink by me but I didn’t admit it at the time. The note lasted about three days before I added to it and then it vanished two days later from the area around the time clock.
And speaking of (white) trash (sacrifices) …
The Order of the White Trash Maidens of the Flame
I remember having a conversation with Rick one night about offering some of the cashiers up to the incinerator from hell as sacrifices … bedecking them in white dresses and head wreaths of spring flowers before we marched them to their fiery doom and our good fortune. When he asked why we would be sacrificing cashiers to the pits of hell I told him it would be like that old scary movie I saw as a child called “The Lottery.”
Now if you haven’t seen “The Lottery” then your mind hasn’t been properly screwed with. “The Lottery” was a short story by Shirley Jackson and it was controversial even when it was first written and published in the early 1950’s. I watched it on PBS or something like that as an Encyclopedia Brittania short film after Saturday morning cartoons and I had been like six or something when I saw it … they shouldn’t put stuff like that on after Scooby Doo and Superfriends … they just shouldn’t. Seeing an entire small, modern age American rural town draw lots to see who was going to get stoned to death so that the town would have a good year of crops … that crap messes up a child for life, especially if you see the part where the woman hands a child a stone to throw at his own mom. When I explained this to Rick he remembered seeing the show when he was young as well and we got into a discussion about how truly screwed up that was to show something like that to little kids who weren’t expecting something like that following Saturday morning cartoons.
“So we offer a cashier as a sacrifice to the flames for … what? So that the crops that we get in the produce section will be plentiful?”
“No. No. No. You’re thinking too small, Rick.” I said. “I’m talking about offering a sacrifice so that we’ll have a really profitable year … store wide. Maybe a year so good that we even get raises!”
“I like it and there are a few cashiers that I think we could do without and not even miss.”
“I can think of a few as well but we only need one a year … oh, and they have to be a virgin.”
“Who says that?” Rick asked.
“Uh, I think it’s like tradition for sacrifice … I mean, look at all the game shows on TV. When you win a car it’s a brand new car, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Rick said.
“Ever see a game show give away a used car …?”
“Pame principle. Hell don’t want no harlots … women only get that way when the go to hell and then somehow escape back up here to wreck men’s lives every chance they get.”
“And you know this how?” Rick asked.
“I dated Pam, remember?”
“Well, the only real problem with your idea is that the ideal sacrifice has to be a virgin.” Rick said.
“Yeah, which pretty much rules me out so I’m safe.” I said.
“Rules me out, too.” He said.
“Self-denial isn’t a valid defense.” I said. “You’re still fair game for the sacrifice, Big Boy.”
“I thought that you said we were only going to offer cashiers as sacrifices?”
“I meant to say useless people which includes cashiers, some in the front office and some others that work here at the store as well.”
“Go to hell!”
“You first. Door’s right over there. Be my guest, Big Boy.” I said, motioning behind me with my thumb.
Rick flipped me off playfully as he thought about my plan.
“I say let’s offer some bitchy cashiers as sacrifices … like that bitch Shelly. Damn … She’s ugly. Is that going to be a problem?” Rick said.
“Sacrifices don’t have to be pretty. Might even make her a saint in hell … or at least a middle manager.” I said. “And ugly pretty much guarantees that she’s a virgin.”
“Oh, yeah. That part again. Shelly’s not going to work out because she’s married to some guy in the National Guard down at Shelby.”
“So? She’s still ugly. I’m betting she’s a virgin.”
Rick shook his head.
“She’s been married five years. She can’t be a virgin.”
“With a droopy, acne covered face like that … I’m pretty sure that her husband’s abstinence continued even after marriage especially since she’d be a three bagger for sure.” I said.
“What the hell is a three bagger?” He asked, laughing.
“That’s when you put a bag on her head, a bag on your head and a bag over the light before you do it.” I said.
Rick leaned up against the outside wall of the incinerator room he was laughing so hard.
“Hey! What about Kate? She’s ugly and she doesn’t have a boyfriend. That’s not a coincidence either.” I offered.
Rick continued to laugh, trying to shake his head.
“And she’s fat, too! Way fat!” Rick admitted.
“Yeah, forgot about that. That’s a real problem there.” I said. “I don’t think her double-wide sized ass would fit through the doors here so unless she gets on the Figurines and Slim-Fast she’s safe. Besides … I’m betting that even hell has load limits if not standards.”
The incinerator lived up to its name but it tended to leave behind a fine layer of ash in the bottom of the unit. This layer eventually built up and up and up until it needed to be cleaned out and that was a bitch of a job that fell to some unlucky son of a bitch early on a Saturday morning. I remember doing it twice from 1984 to 1986 and it was not fun. You showed up in any clothes that you wanted to but they better be clothes that you didn’t mind getting dirty or ruining. Then, with the incinerator off and allowed to cool for two days (which really did nothing for the temperature of the ash in the brick containment vessel), you went to the meat department and helped yourself to meat boxes which were these large, glazed cardboard boxes that raw meat had been shipped in. Often times they smelled rank and still had cow blood pooling in the bottom or corners of the boxes. I wondered what pouring all the cow blood into the incinerator would do.
Summon a demon?
There comes a time in every hooligan’s life when you know not to push the edge of the envelope lest seriously bad things happen so I just used the hose to wash the cow blood out of the boxes and then started my chore.
Once you had ten to fifteen of these boxes stacked up outside, you got a shovel, opened the rear access hatch (like most home chimneys have) and you shoveled out the still hot enough to give you a third degree burn ash and put it in the glazed cardboard meat boxes (which sometimes caught fire from the still way hot ash). You got to use a hose as well, to hose down the hot ash (which often made a very satisfying VOOOSH sound when the spray of water hit it, producing all sorts of hot steam). The glazed cardboard boxes also had holes in the sides of them, as part of their design … I’m not sure why since I didn’t work in the meat department or design glazed cardboard boxes for the shipping and transport of raw meat but it always struck me as an odd design that seemed perfect for letting the wet ash run out the one inch wide holes and puddle around the boxes you were shoveling ash into thus making for a really big mess.
We stacked the boxes full of ash on a wooden pallet and then some employee, usually another veteran, would run the forklift out the back of the store, lift the pallet of wet, smoking ash in bulging, crumpling, sometimes smoldering glazed cardboard meat boxes and go dump the pallet and boxes full of ash into a big industrial dumpster that would later be emptied by a large commercial garbage truck. What happened to the ash after that I don’t know and never cared enough to ask.
Getting to clean out the incinerator was an easy six to eight hour job in and of itself and there was nothing to do but set up a jam box out back, stock up on some cold drinks, grab some gloves, get your shovel and get to work. Six hours later, with blisters on your hands, coated from head to foot in fine ash, you’d punch out on the time clock and go home and take a shower. As the black and gray water ran off of your body, you could pretty much imagine what working in a coal mine all day must be like.
Everyone had to pull an incinerator cleaning tour, there was no escaping it. The point was to act like you kind of liked it but were mostly indifferent to if you pulled that chore or not … that seemed to be the pivot point in not getting your name on the list too many times for repeat performances. If you complained a whole lot about doing it, you tended to end up doing it more often. If you said you liked doing it, you tended to end up doing it more often. If you treated it just as any other job at County Market, that cup of ash passed over you a lot more often. As it was, I pulled incinerator cleaning duty twice in two years, between 1984 and 1986, and as it was I had enough of doing that those two times to understand fully that this wasn’t a job that I wanted to do more often than I absolutely had to do and that this wasn’t a job that I wanted to make a career out of.
But the incinerator wasn’t there when I came back in the summer of ’88. The bricked off room that had once held the incinerator loading doors had been torn down. The incinerator doors were still there but the heavy chain was slipped off its track and lay slack on the floor. The pedal used to open the doors was also flat against the floor. Old stains, soot, and burn marks still covered the loading doors and door frame but that was just residue from a fire that had gone out a long, long time ago. Later that day, when I got to go out back to the loading dock to bring in some pallets I got to see what was left of the old incinerator … just the flute and the base. Most of the hardware had been stripped away and I guess sold for scrap.
No more cleaning ash out of the incinerator on an otherwise perfectly good Saturday morning but then no more hooligan fun. No more singed eyebrows and raging firenados. No more cultic symbols or evil designs being drawn in the soot stained walls of the incinerator.
I looked over at the big, squat orange painted trash compactor that had been added since I had last worked here. It reminded me of some kind of deep water research station. Metal legs anchored into the cement, ribbed reinforcements, bright orange color. It was impressive but it wasn’t an incinerator. I had heard that air pollution regulations had ultimately doomed County Market’s incinerator and that we now sold the cardboard that we compacted to recycling services.
Damn hippies were always ruining the fun of everyone else.
I grabbed some pallets from a stack using a hand pallet jack and brought them inside. Then I went outside, found the saddest looking pallet in the stack, a real beaten up pallet, hefted it over my head and walked back into the store. I closed the loading ramp door, locked it, and returned the key to the manager. I hefted the worn out pallet again over my head and marched back to the store room where we kept the tissue, paper towels and sugar. There, set into the back wall of the store was the disposal tunnel for the giant trash compactor that I had seen anchored out back.
“Let’s see what you can do.” I said hefting the old pallet and tossing it all the way back down the disposal tunnel.
It clattered heavily, slid the last few inches and vanished over the lip of the disposal tunnel … falling right into the path of the three foot square compression ram. I turned to look behind me as Rick walked in and stood beside me.
“What the hell are you doing? Did you just throw a pallet into the trash compactor?” he asked, laughing.
“Yeah.” I said. “I want to see what this big ass thing can do.”
I flipped the safety off and stabbed the start button with my thumb. A noticeable jolt carried through the floor as the huge hydraulic driven compactor ram whined and started moving forward. You couldn’t really see over the lip of the disposal tunnel and down into the path of the ram but you could see the top of the ram as it filled the tunnel, sealing it almost completely. The tunnel itself was big enough that I could have crawled up into it, duck walked down the tunnel and looked over into the path of the ram but then I wouldn’t have been able to activate the ram from where I squatted and I really didn’t trust anyone else to do it for me.
The hydraulics whined loudly as the compactor ram moved forward slowly down the tunnel. I heard the old pallet start to slide across the metal floor of the disposal tunnel and then there was a second when the ram seemed to stop.
“Hmmm. Not even strong enough to break a pallet up …” I muttered.
The hydraulics never stopped whining. It was a contest now between hydraulics and wood … and with a sharp sound of wood splintering the hydraulics won. Rick and I stood there, watching broken pieces of the old pallet occasionally rise into view over the lip of the disposal tunnel and then be smashed further down as the ram compacted the remains of the old pallet into the garbage dumpster to the right of the tunnel.
The hydraulics whined. The pallet splintered, broke, and splintered again. After what seemed a long time the sound of wood breaking and splintering finally stopped. The hydraulic whine stopped and then the compactor ram retracted with an air of triumphant resolve.
“That. Was. Awesome.” I said, instantly starting to come up with a lot of hooligan ideas on how to use the trash compactor for fun and mischief.
“I guess it can smash a pallet up pretty good.” Rick said.
“The more things change, the more they remain the same.” I said, realizing that if the compactor had the power to reduce a wooden pallet to sticks and splinters that I might not miss the old incinerator as much as I thought I was going to.
“Satisfied?” Rick asked.
“I will be after I find something bigger to put in there.” I said.
“Like what?” Rick asked, laughing. He didn’t have to ask me if I was serious because he knew that I was.
“I don’t know. Maybe a piano. A Ford Pinto. All the band members of Spandau Ballet.”
“It’s been boring around here. I’m glad you’re back.” He said.
“Yeah, me too. I really missed this place.”
And I had … I really had.
An odd request
The local university had a lot of foreign students enrolled and as County Market wasn’t far from the university we often had a lot of foreign students shop at our store. I was talking to Barry, one of the veteran meat department employees who had been at County Market way longer than I had. Barry had a ’72 Camaro with a 396 big block under the hood and we were talking about cars one night, there at the meat counter, when a dark skinned foreign student walked up to us.
“Excuse me, sir.” The student said in a heavy accent.
“Yes, sir? What can I do for you?” Barry asked him.
“Do you have a whole hog that I might buy?”
Barry looked at me then at the foreign student.
“No, sir.” Barry said. “I don’t have a whole hog back here but I’ve got all the pieces. I can make you one.”
The humor was obviously lost on the foreign student.
And that was my introduction to the really weird stuff that we sold at County Market, not all of it on the international food aisle either. We had the traditional chitterlings in a bucket (that’s pig intestines for those who don’t now and it’s often pronounced “chit-lins”). We had pickled pigs feet in jars, sheep eyes in jars, we sold cow tongue in the meat department but my favorite had to be the little metal cans of scrambled pork brains that we sold on the same shelf as Vienna sausages and potted meat product. Very few people believed me when I told them that we sold scrambled pork brains until I took them back to Isle seven and showed them. Every now and then I’d find a can or two of that product gone but in all the time that I worked there I doubt that we ever sold more than a handful of that stuff.
I couldn’t even begin to imagine the market niche that product catered to.
Little Boy and Fat Man: the first dry ice Coke bombs
It was two things that probably shouldn’t ever go together but then again, given the hooligan nature of working at County Market, it was a combination that probably was long overdue. Working in a grocery store you get access to all sorts of neat stuff and one of those things was dry ice which is itself one of the most fun things you can ever create mischief with.
Just about every 18 wheeler that we got in at night had an ice cream bin on board. Ice cream had to be kept frozen, way frozen, beyond frozen, and one of the ways that you transported ice cream in large quantities along with other non-frozen food was if you put the ice cream in a big insulated tub (think five foot by five foot insulated cube with a lid on top) and you packed the ice cream with pinky finger sized pellets of dry ice which is itself just frozen carbon dioxide (C02).
We found many fun things to do with dry ice. For instance, if you put a pellet of dry ice on the shelf of your metal stock cart that pellet would start singing … or rather screaming. The temperature of the pellet sitting on top of the metal shelf made the metal cry out, for want of a better description, and the pellet would slowly writhe in place while it was in contact with the metal. The noise that the pellet on metal contact made sounded like the metal was being tortured or slowly twisted apart, like someone was dragging a knife blade across a chalk board and doing so with all their strength. Since the handles of the big, red six wheeled stock carts were actually just hollow metal tubes with ladder like support struts welded to them, we used to like to drop dry ice pellets down the tubes and leave them for a while. New guys always went for the red stock carts first and after a few times of grabbing hold of those ice cold handles they quickly stopped doing that.
Sometime in the late spring of 1989, Rick and I thought it would be cool to drop a pellet or two of dry ice into a two liter plastic bottle of Coke that we found abandoned in the employee break room. Well, we watched that two liter bubble and froth and brown colored fog roll out the top but we didn’t think much more about it other than it was a neat time waster.
A few nights later, Rick and I improved upon the design considerably. We found the two liter of Coke still in the employee break room while we were cleaning out bathrooms and break room (an often nasty and horrible hour worth of work, especially the women’s bathroom but more on that soon). There, over by the frozen foods cooler was the huge, gray, insulated ice cream storage and transport tub. Rick went over to it and pulled the huge lid off, looking down inside at all the dry ice pellets that still hadn’t evaporated. A smile came to his face as he used his work smock to get about two handfuls of the pellets out and brought them back to the break room where he dumped the pellets out on the table and again used his work smock to insert the pellets into the neck and down into the bottom of the two liter of Coke. Once he had about five pellets of dry ice rattling around in the empty two liter of Coke, he went to the water fountain between the bathrooms and added about a cup of water. Thick white fog started flowing out of the neck of the two liter, rolling out with enough force to create about a four inch geyser at the top and you could hear the dry ice bubbling in the water down inside.
“I wonder what would happen if you screwed the top back on while all that gas was building up?” I asked, holding up the top.
“It wouldn’t have anywhere to vent. I’d say it would have to pop sooner or later.”
“Or explode.” I said.
Rick and I got the same look in our eyes at the same time. I went back to the break room and found the metal screw on top for the two liter bottle. Rick rapidly pressed down the top and screwed it on then shook it. You could hear the dry ice pellets rattling around inside and immediately the bottle became “tight” in that it felt like it was slam full of liquid. The plastic two liter bottle slowly, visibly bulged in Rick’s hand as he gripped it like a football.
His look went from amusement to abject concern.
“You probably need to get rid of that.” I said. “Soon.”
“Yeah.” Rick said, nervously. “I’m thinking this thing is kind of like a grenade right now because the plastic is getting stretched tight.”
And it was.
The two liter looked like it was about the size of a two and a half liter bottle now and the sound of plastic slowly deforming from a cylinder into a sphere wasn’t a comforting sound at all. We both looked around the back room and I had an idea. Ever since we had gotten rid of the incinerator we had replaced it with two trash compactors … one just for cardboard and one for everything else. The everything-else compactor was located in the store room for the paper towels and sugar, the farthest, most remote part of the store at the very back of County Market.
“Throw it in the garbage compactor!” I shouted as Rick took off in a trot, fully aware that we had just created what amounted to a ticking time bomb.
Rick, the high school football player, reached the threshold of the tissue and sugar storage room, cocked his arm and hand back and launched that homemade C02 bomb in a perfect throw and he was lucky it didn’t explode right as he brought it back past his right ear. The taut, bulging, C02 filled two liter Coke bottle sailed through the air with a nice twist, went into the ten foot deep disposal chute like Skywalker’s shot on the Death Star and rattled around inside the crusher well.
Rick stared after his shot then walked up to the large metal entrance to the disposal chute … big enough for even him to crawl into, leading back about ten feet until it dropped off into the slot where the hydraulic ram pushed garbage to the right into a locked down horizontal dumpster. Somewhere, over the lip of the drop off, was our homemade two liter Coke bomb and inside it, two or more liters of pissed off C02 gas. I walked up to Rick and I stood beside him.
“Maybe it will just pop a leak and vent all that gas kind of slow …” Rick said.
I didn’t get a chance to reply to him because right then something that sounded like the loudest clap of thunder I’d ever heard rolled out of the garbage disposal chute, amplified like a cheerleader’s megaphone in the funnel-like space. I winced as an unnaturally cold breeze blew over us, carrying with it the smell of compressed garbage.
Old, compressed garbage.
I wasn’t quite sure how it had all happened because the bottle was out of our direct view but the two liter bottle had finally reached its structural integrity limit and exploded. The gas inside had obeyed all the laws of physics and forced its way out with violent results. Pieces of jagged two liter bottle had blown out like fragments from a grenade but were fortunately contained by the deep pit of the garbage compacter. Besides the occasional waft of C02 from the pit, the only evidence of our volatile experiment was the torn off red, white and silver Coke wrapper that had been around the two liter (now laying within reach of us in the disposal chute tunnel) and a piece of jagged, twisted plastic from the bottle (sitting just on the lip of the drop off).
Then Rick laughed.
Then Rick roared with laughter.
“That was fucking NEAT!” Rick exclaimed.
“Goodbye, Little Boy.” I said.
“Little Boy?” Rick asked.
“Yeah, like the two atomic bombs? That was Little Boy. We need to build Fat Man now … out of a three liter.”
“You’re nuts.” Rick said.
I shrugged my shoulders and pressed the activation button on the garbage compactor. In a few seconds a power hydraulic ram had gotten rid of any evidence of our mischief, having added it to the rest of the compacted garbage in the attached disposal bin.
“Now aren’t you glad you threw that thing when you did?”
“Hell, yes!” Rick agreed.
The realization that our “fun” was also pretty dangerous seemed to sink in just deep enough to make us understand that we’d have to be more careful next time and that next time better come pretty damn soon.
“We’ve got to do that again!” Rick said. “Like you said, let’s get a three liter this time!”
I agreed and later that night, after telling a few, very select other trusted souls about the success of our compressed gas expansion project we even got Jeff in on the sequel. One of us bought a three liter bottle of Coke and with six large cups from the deli up front and ice from the produce section we managed to empty the three liter bottle pretty quickly among us as we talked and planned out the project that we were about to embark upon.
I held up the empty three liter Coke bottle.
“Project: Fat Man begins.” I said and was followed by the others as I walked around to the employee break room.
We took six dry ice pellets, dropped them in the wide mouth neck of the three liter bottle, added a Styrofoam cup full of water and had one guy twist the metal top on the three liter as the rest of us sought safety behind cover. He laughed and said a lot of profanity as he tried to get the cap on the neck of the bottle amid the pressure that was trying to build up inside the three liter plastic bottle but after a few tries he managed to get the cap started on its thread and finally screwed on tight. He set the already bulging three liter bottle down gently in the middle of the tiled floor and ran as fast as he could to join us behind stock and product stacked at the rear of the meat department.
“How long does it take?” he asked, peeking around the corner of a scaffold style storage rack.
“Not long. Look at the size of it now!” I said.
The three liter was starting to really bulge and reminded me somewhat of the shape of a butane tank found on gas cooking grilles. Cautious peeks from around pallets full of fifty pound bags of dog food and Faygo colas met with responsive smiles and quick thumbs-up signs from those gathered. We heard what sounded like plastic expanding and protesting and then nothing. It was like time stood still.
“Was a three liter bottle too big?” someone asked.
“Maybe you didn’t put enough water in it before we closed the cap.”
“Man. I was expecting it to blow up by now.”
“It can’t stretch any bigger.” The guy next to me muttered.
“That’s what she said.” I said in response to him and everyone laughed.
And then it happened.
There was a white flash that seemed to fill the entire center section of the rear storage room followed instantly by an ear hurting thunderclap as the built-up gas pressure finally tore the three liter plastic bottle to jagged pieces. Several of the others jumped and cursed at the unexpected though expected outcome and I was happy to note that this project’s results were even greater than the two liter explosion that Rick and I had engineered earlier.
Fat Man had lived up to its name as both a project and as an explosive device.
Rick and Jeff and I were the first to come out of our protective cover and approach the site of the gas expansion explosion. Jeff pulled out a cigarette and lit up; looking around the store room as the rest of the group slowly joined us.
“Damn that was loud!” Jeff said.
“A lot louder than the two liter one we made earlier!” Rick said.
“I bet they heard that out in the parking lot.” I muttered, still with a ringing in my ears.
As if to punctuate my comment, Sanderson, the other night manager, called out over the two line intercom.
“Christopher, red line. Christopher, red line, please.”
The intercom only had two lines, two buttons, the red line and the green line. When one line was in use, the color of that line glowed under the button. There was an intercom set just a few feet away. Jeff threw up his hands to the heavens and grinned maniacally again.
“You see? You show me something neat and we all get in trouble for it.”
“I’ll get it.” I said, stepping over towards the intercom.
I picked up the handset, hit the red button and answered.
“Shields.” I said flatly.
“Shields. Sanderson. What was that loud noise in the back of the store?”
Thinking quickly, I just popped the first thought off the top of my head.
“Sorry. Mark wasn’t paying attention to where he was going and when Jeff tried to avoid him on the forklift he clipped a stack of pallets and knocked them over.”
By this time the others were standing around me, listening to what I was saying.
“Well, get it cleaned up, bucko.”
Heavy emphasis on the word "bucko" like it was a term of endearment.
Ed Sanderson was our other night manager and he was cool. I didn’t want to give him the details on what we’d done since anyone else could pick up a handset and listen in but I knew that Rick, Jeff and I would be inviting Bob to our next amateur Coke product demolition challenge. Bob was a practical jokester himself and he’d love it.
I’m also pretty sure that he knew that I was bullshitting him about the stack of pallets falling over in the back. Bob wasn’t anyone’s fool but he went along with it because he liked to play as much as the rest of us.
I hung up the handset and we all went back to the store room to clean up our experiment and look for any debris.
“There’s the Coke wrapper!” someone said, pointing up.
We all looked up at the ceiling of the store room and there, embedded in a suspended ceiling tile, was a jagged piece of torn plastic with most of the Coke wrapper still attached to it, dangling down like some kind of pennant.
“Oh my God!” one of the others exclaimed and started laughing as he pointed up to a three pallet high stack of toilet tissue at the back of the store room.
We all followed the direction he was looking and pointing and there, on top of two full pallets and one half stacked pallet of cases of Charmin toilet tissue was a rather obvious hole near the front left corner of the cardboard case. Something sharp and odd shaped was sticking out of the hole it had made. One of the others quickly scrambled up the sugar bags then made a heroic leap over to the toilet tissue stack, edging along the outside of a column of tissue to get near enough to be able to grab hold of whatever it was that was sticking out of the case of toilet tissue.
He held it up for all of us to see.
It was the twist on cap, the neck and a quarter of the top of the three liter bottle. The metal cap was still in place, still twisted on the screw-on neck. He tossed the piece of Coke related shrapnel down to Jeff who caught it. We all crowded around Jeff while the other guy jumped down from the toilet tissue pallet. Jeff held up the piece of debris from the three liter bottle … it had clearly been blown off the bottle, ripped by the explosion of the built-up gasses. He reached up and unscrewed the top then screwed it back on.
“That was awesome!” someone said and the others joined in with similar compliments.
Rick and I nodded our heads in agreement.
“Where did the rest of the bottle go?”
Jeff looked around, his maniacal grin on his face. We all fanned out and searched high and low for pieces of the three liter but all we could find is one part of a ceiling tile which seemed to have a fist sized hole in it and no one could remember the hole being there before. We assumed that some piece of shrapnel from the exploding three liter had gone through the panel, ripping the hole there but no one had the urge to really investigate it much further than that. We never did find any other pieces besides the wrapper and the neck of the three liter bottle.
After all the others went back to work again, Rick and I began to wonder what other uses dry ice could be put to.
The forklift follies
County Market was big enough and did enough business each day that it had a forklift not only to stack product on and off the floor but also to unload all the 18 wheelers that we got in on a nightly basis. In fact, County Market was big enough that it had two forklifts; a natural gas powered model and an electric battery powered model.
The gas powered model was faster than the electric powered model but we still raced them on occasion and every now and then, depending on who was driving, the results were surprising. I hated changing out the natural gas cylinder (located just behind the seat) on the gas powered model … that stuff stank and you usually vented a little taking the old tank off and putting a new tank on. When we were bored, we would often hop on a forklift and do daredevil stunts with them. One time we hooked a heavy duty chain to the tow pin of the battery powered forklift and the gas powered forklift and had County Market’s first ever Forklift Drag-A-Thon. All that really happened was that the forklifts stayed in place and spun their almost bald tires. We had expected the gas powered forklift to drag the battery powered forklift from one end of the backroom to the other. The results of the first ever County Market Forklift Drag-A-Thon were less than spectacular thus insuring that there would not be a second ever County Market Forklift Drag-A-Thon to take place.
We also had an electric pallet jack. This was a curious piece of equipment, painted green, super heavy, with hydraulic action. It was, quite simply, a self-propelled, self-powered pallet jack and we used it to move really heavy pallets. Because it wasn’t the most graceful thing in the world, we tended to move only pallets that had sturdy stuff on them. Moving the pallet for aisle six, juices and beverages, was an exercise in futile masochism. The electric pallet jack was simple enough to operate. It had a control handle / steering arm on it which also acted as a braking system. Normally, the control and steering arm was pointed straight up (which also activated the brakes) and you lowered the arm to control where the electric pallet jack steered. A simple left right ambidextrous butterfly switch controlled if the electric pallet jack went forward or in reverse. Depending on how much pressure you applied to the butterfly switch controlled how fast the electric pallet jack went. The fresher the charge on the battery, the faster the electric pallet jack was. Besides the butterfly switch there were three buttons on the control arm; up, down and horn. Why the electric pallet jack had a horn is beyond me.
Two fun things that we learned about the electric pallet jack; you could break pallets with it and you could drive it if you sat on it. As for breaking pallets with the electric pallet jack, if you slid the electric pallet jack under a heavily loaded pallet and held down the lift button, the electric pallet jack would whine, the forks of the pallet jack would lift and the bottom boards of the pallet would eventually be ripped right off the bottom of the pallet especially since the electric pallet jack could lift up to eight inches off the ground and most pallets had about a four inch limit. The sound of splintering wood being torn apart was often pleasing and stress relieving, especially on troublesome pallets. That electric pallet jack was the closest thing that we ever had to a real life “pallet stretcher” as sometimes a pallet was so old and warped that a regular pallet jack would fit under it so we used the electric pallet jack to force a jack into the warped pallet then broke it with the electric pallet jack, pulled the electric pallet jack out and then we could use the regular pallet jack to lift and carry the pallet.
Did I mention that you could sit on the electric pallet jack and drive it around? Oh, that used to really piss the managers off because they thought it was dangerous and to a certain degree it was. Here’s how you did it; you sat on the battery of the electric pallet jack, stuck your legs forward with the control arm between your legs like a joystick, you leaned the control arm slightly out and away from you, held on with both hands, and depressed the butterfly switch in the opposite direction that you normally would (since you were “driving” the electric pallet jack “backwards” now). Depending on how far away you leaned the control arm was how much speed you could get up. The problem was stopping the electric pallet jack while you were riding it around the back room as the braking system involved the degree of inclination of the control arm. Straight up was full brake (as was straight down but that tended to set the electric pallet jack up like a jousting knight in an emergency and you were just as likely to ram the control arm into whatever you were trying to avoid rather than stop the electric pallet jack.
Riding around on the electric pallet jack was sedate and daredevil at the same time because it wasn’t very good at handling. Unloaded with only a driver at the controls (and maybe someone riding on the forks behind) the electric pallet jack was about as fast as either of the forklifts. Again, it was harder to steer (until you got used to it) and braking took some extra thought (unless you just let the control arm fall straight back up at which point you came to an instant and total stop and you were just as likely to do a high side off the front of the electric pallet jack as you were to be flung forward and wrap your groin around the metal bar of the control arm. Neither was something to look forward to.
Yes, you could ride the electric pallet jack but you never, ever rode it out onto the floor where the customers could see you, just like you never, ever took the forklifts out onto the sales floor unless it was an emergency, you had two escorts and preferably it was late at night when maybe only a couple of customers were in the store.
And you know what came next … electric pallet jack vs. electric forklift vs. gas forklift drag races and endurance races. I can remember at least five times when all three machines were lined up in the back room, drivers were chosen, a red work smock was dropped and all three machines went roaring and whining off as fast as they could go. Whoever made it to a predetermined spot in the backroom was the winner. Sometimes the race was to see who could be the first to go from one end of the back room to the other end, turn around, and come back.
Mark became the undisputed master rider / operator of the electric pallet jack and could often embarrass whoever operated the electric forklift but if the gas powered forklift ever got out in front of the electric pallet jack it was pretty much over as a race because while the electric pallet jack had a great take off it had a far lower top speed than the gas powered forklift which itself had a pretty lousy take off.
The key was to get out in front quickly and not let the other two operators get around you. This involved a fair amount of weaving, jinking and sometimes machine to machine contact with a suitable sound of metal against metal.
It must be noted that the electric pallet jack had enough torque on take-off to really throw the operator backwards which caused the unwary to either roll backwards off the electric pallet jack or to grab hold of the control arm thus bringing it instantly into the upright position. The first was a pretty bad thing to have happen to you (and pretty funny) but the second thing was even worse because once the control arm came to rest at its natural straight up position, that activated the brakes to full lock which resulted in the operator either being thrown off the electric pallet jack in a forward direction (high side) or letting them suddenly wrap their groin around the metal shaft of the control arm but I think I’ve covered that once before. Still, it was a natural fact of operation that many would-be contestants forgot about, much to their chagrin and the amusement of the bystanders.
Overall, it was just another example of the kind of hooliganism that we, for the most part, got away with; forklift and pallet jack races. There was a small amount of betting that went on during these races, emphasis on small amount … wagers were generally paid off in food or drinks or beer after work, sometimes money, small bills and what-not.
There is an old saying that states “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt” and Mark and I almost learned that lesson the hard way one afternoon. You see, Mark and I were mopping down the back room; something that we did about twice a year.
I had the bare concrete floor covered in hot, wet, soapy water and foam and Mark was moving pallets out of the way for me so that I could spread the water down in a wider area and use a broom to sweep the water back and forth, scrubbing away six months to a year’s worth of foot, pallet jack and forklift traffic.
Well, there I was standing in the middle of the large open area near the cardboard compactor, the concrete floor is covered in soapy, foamy water and Mark comes cruising along in the gas powered forklift. He stops the forklift right in front of me, puts the forklift into neutral, revs the motor several times, puts his foot to the floor, throws the gear selector into forward and I’m amazed as the gas powered forklift sits there and just spins out in the hot, soapy layer of water that I’ve managed to put down.
Mark lets off the gas and the spinning tires of the forklift slow to a stop.
“Pretty cool, huh? Didn’t think that this thing could peel out.”
“On wet pavement, maybe.” I said.
Mark seemed to get an idea in his head because he stared off into space for a moment then smiled. He put the forklift into gear and slowly drove off, leaving four sets of tire tracks out of the wet, soapy water and on into the farther reaches of the back room.
I went back to scrubbing the concrete with the broom. As soon as Mark got through playing on the forklift maybe he would grab a broom and help me and we could get through with this crap job. I heard the forklift coming back my way and it seemed to be going pretty fast from the sound of the exhaust.
“Watch this, Shields!” I heard Mark shout and I turned to look up just in time to see him slam on the brakes of the forklift, cut the wheel hard and do a neat 180 turn, coming to rest only after he slid the forklift completely backwards about five feet in the soapy water.
That had been pretty damn cool.
“Cool! Let me try!” I shouted, leaning the broom up against the I-beam structural support.
Mark got down off the forklift as I climbed up into the cab. I took the forklift back by the milk cooler, carefully angled the forklift in the right direction to have the largest amount of space to build up speed in then gunned it. The exhaust from the forklift bellowed nicely and I figured I was doing about ten to twelve miles an hour when I hit the soapy water. From inside the cab, I felt like I was doing a hundred miles an hour. I stomped the brakes and cut the wheel hard, spinning the forklift around nearly a full three sixty and almost threatening to topple it on its side. I ended the spin with the forklift going backwards a good ten feet, sliding on the slick, soapy concrete. I shoved the gear selector into neutral, got down, gave a ta-dah expression and went back to scrubbing the floor.
“Not bad except you almost lost it there at the end.”
“Yeah. That was kind of scary for about half a second until she righted herself.”
“It would have been real hard to explain to Sanderson how we managed to put a forklift over on its side.”
“That would definitely have been a bitch for sure.” I agreed. “But we would have just gone over, gotten the electric fork lift and used it to pick up this one. Slide the forks under the lip of the roll cage there and lift.”
“Might work.” Mark said as he thought about it. “Except if you didn’t notice, the electric forklift is missing. I think it’s in the shop getting serviced.”
I looked over to where we normally kept the electric forklift plugged in and it wasn’t there.
“Damn.” I said. “I didn’t notice it was gone.”
“Yep.” Mark said, started climbing back up into the forklift.
“Careful of the seat there.” I said. “I think I pinched up some material when she almost went over.”
Mark laughed and pretended to smooth out the contours of the seat with both hands.
“I’m going to really have to get some speed to beat your three-sixty, bitch.”
“You can’t top that so don’t even try.” I said matter of factly as I started scrubbing the concrete floor with the broom, using the bristles to get into an expansion joint and some gunk there.
Mark drove the forklift off out of sight and I went back to cleaning the floor thinking that he wasn’t really going to try to top what I had just done … but I was wrong. A few seconds later, I heard the forklift coming my way, full throttle and I realized that Mark was serious about trying to top my three-sixty on the soapy water. I looked up at the growling, speeding forklift just in time to realize that Mark was going way too damn fast.
Holy mother of God!
Mark hit the soapy water, slammed on the brakes and cut the steering wheel hard and it was evident from right then that Mark had overestimated his own ability to drive the forklift in a hooliganistic manner. The roaring forklift started to slide around on the soapy water covered concrete and it was quickly apparent that Mark had not only fucked up but that he had really fucked up.
“Shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!” Mark screamed as he lost complete control of the forklift and held onto the roll cage for his life.
In hindsight, he was in a much better, much safer position than I was. He had a metal roll cage round him … I had nothing but air and a wildly careening forklift spinning towards me … a very heavy, out of control forklift spinning on a wet surface towards me.
The forklift rose up on its side on just two wheels, teetered there precariously and threatened to tip over. I jumped out of the way as the forklift came rapidly sliding towards me, putting the steel I-beam structural support girder between me and the forklift for cover.
The forklift slid out and hit the steel I-beam structural support girder on its right rear quarter, doing nothing more than scraping some yellow paint off the already scratched up forklift and almost throwing Mark out of the driver’s seat. The sound the forklift made when the steel I-beam brought its wild spin to an instant halt rang out like I was standing inside a giant church bell. It was metal on metal and hard enough to put a minor but somewhat noticeable dent in the I-beam itself.
I stood there, catching my breath and Mark did the same sitting there in the seat of the now stopped forklift. I was about to get pissed at him almost crushing me to death between the forklift and the I-beam support girder then he got this boyish look on his face and started laughing. It must have been contagious because I did the same. It was the kind of laugh where you cheat death and get to laugh about it afterwards.
“Top that, bitch!” he said, using two “gun” hands to point fingers at me and acting like he had meant for the forklift to do exactly what it had done.
Mark hopped down off the forklift and did his twin gun fingers again.
“Top that, bitch, if you can!” Mark said louder this time.
“I’m not sure I want to try.” I said, shaking my head. “I’d have to roll that thing or lay it on its side to match what you just did.”
And then it happened.
“Christopher, pick up on the red line, please. Red line, Christopher.” Sanderson’s way too calm voice sounded over the intercom.
I looked up at the intercom speaker there on the wall as if Sanderson could somehow see us through the speaker? Great. I went over to the intercom unit by the receiving desk at the rear loading dock, picked up the handset and pressed the red button.
“Shields.” I said flatly.
“Do you mind telling me what the HELL that noise back there was?” Sanderson asked, his voice a whisper except for a slight rise in pitch when he said the word “hell”.
I could tell he was in the front office because I heard all the computers and adding machines working behind him in the background. The fact that he was whispering meant that he wasn’t as mad as he was … concerned … and that he wanted to know before anyone else found out.
“Mark knocked over an entire stack of pallets with the forklift. You know he drives like a girl. We’re restacking them now.” I said, lying through my teeth.
“Drives like a girl, eh? I like that. That’s funny. You just tell him to try to be more careful with that forklift.”
“Oh, and Shields …”
“There aren’t any stacks of pallets in the back room. I know because I moved the last stack outside to the loading dock this morning before you ever punched in so don’t try to blow any smoke up my ass, son and try not to tear up my store before the day is over, okay?”
Sanderson laughed his characteristic laugh and hung up the intercom. I hung up the handset and smiled. Sanderson knew Mark and I were dicking around back here but because we did our work, because we were good at our job, and because we had seniority we could get away with absolute murder while on the clock.
“Knocking over a stack of pallets” became our catch-phrase for anytime we did anything that was loud enough to hear outside the back room and even up to the front office which, through the summer of ’89 was pretty often, much to the chagrin of the managers and front office staff let alone the customers in the store.
Women are just nasty
As I mentioned before, if you saw “bathroom / brk room” on your time block in your work schedule it meant you had to clean up the two employee / customer bathrooms and the employee break room and it was often a nasty affair, especially the women’s bathroom.
The bathrooms looked way too old to be part of the store. The porcelain urinal and commode were faded to an almost yellow with age. The stall walls were wooden and repainted so many times that they had lost their texture. The cinderblock walls of the bathroom were likewise now smooth under layer after layer of paint. Graffiti, especially gay and racial oriented graffiti often appeared in the bathroom and one of us would have to go back there with some type of spray cleaner and something to scrub it off. The toilets were always nasty, the trash cans overflowing with used paper towels, toilet paper on the floor and the sink would inevitably be covered in pump soap residue.
At least that’s how the bathrooms were when I had to do them.
Between the bathrooms was an old beat up water fountain that produced lukewarm water at a pressure level that meant that you almost had to French kiss the nozzle to get your tongue wet. I never drank out of the fountain, after seeing some other less hygienic oriented customers do so and wrap their mouths and lips around the water fountain nozzle.
The break room was an oddity in and of itself. Located in a triangular shaped area between the tissue / sugar storage room and the bathrooms, the break room looked like a triangle with the top sharp point cropped off. That was the door leading to the break room and it was a massive door, seemingly ten feet tall and with a large glass window in it. The break room opened up into the wider part of the triangle shape and had simple wooden picnic benches and tables set up inside for employees to eat their food at or sit and socialize. Our head cashier, Tracy, kept her modified shopping cart back here, a shopping cart which held a printout of every product that the store carried, its information, sales tags, markers, big sales tags, and a host of other assorted items that she used to add or delete or change the price of an item on the store shelf. The markers that she used were a kind that had a metal base and were dipped in a liquid can the size of a paint can. The smell of the black ink was powerful enough to give you a headache and that smell rapidly filled up the enclosed break room on most occasions.
Old food, drinks, drink cans, drink cups, you name it and no one seemed to have been taught to clean up after their selves. Magazines and novels (some just “borrowed” from the front display for the duration of the lunch break) were often scattered across the eating surfaces along with current and old newspaper sections.
The men’s room and the break room weren’t that bad … it was the women’s room that was the worst.
Many times when I went into the women’s room to clean it up I was forced to realize that women, by and large, are just really nasty creatures.
I would knock loudly on the women’s room door to announce my presence then I would open the door and call out to see if anyone was inside. If no one was, I’d prop the door open and start at the back stall to work my way forward towards the door.
The smell(s) coming from this enclosed space were always enough to make you breathe through your mouth. The third time that I had to clean the women’s bathroom, another employee told me to go to the office and get some Vick’s Vapor-Rub cream, which we kept there for some reason on top of the medicine chest. He told me to dip my finger in the cream and when I got ready to clean the bathroom to smear some of the Vapor-Rub on my upper lip, just under my nose.
It worked wonders to kill the smell and I didn’t have to work with my mouth open.
The back stall was always the worst.
Many times I opened the door to the back stall to find the floor and walls covered in piss and shit. Opened boxes of tampons, sanitary pads, open wrappers from tampons and the peel off parts of sanitary pads were found on the floor of the stall. Once I found a used tampon on the floor. Another time I found a used tampon crushed between the lid and the seat. Another time I found a used tampon on top of a huge pile of shit that hadn’t been flushed.
One time I found a used pregnancy test sitting on the tank of the commode. It was positive. I doubted that the user had paid for it before using it, merely helped their selves to it off the store shelf, brought it back here, ran the test and left the store after finding out. The second pregnancy test that I found was simply on the bottom of the toilet bowl and the third one I found was sitting to the side of the sink at the entrance to the bathroom.
There were magazines on the floor which ranged from Southern Living to Teen-Beat. I doubted that those had been paid for either. Some were able to be picked up and put back on the display shelf. Others were urine soaked or stamped and crumpled underfoot.
I wore rubber gloves whenever I cleaned the women’s bathroom and it was always a task which made me wonder at the kind of human trash who could be so un-hygienic as to leave the mess that I had to clean up.
And then there was this retarded woman who came shopping with her family on a semi-regular occasion. We knew her well because apparently the most comfortable place for her to take a crap was the women’s bathroom and she made a mess when she did. Sometimes her mother went with her and it was a double disaster. I don’t think that these people understood the concept of indoor plumbing.
One day, getting ready for my task of cleaning the bathrooms and break room, I spied the retarded woman entering the store. Knowing it wouldn’t be long before she headed back to the bathroom to destroy it I had an evil idea. I hurried back to the ice cream cooler to see if we had gotten in an ice cream shipper last night.
I popped the heavy lid off and gazed at the remaining dry ice pellets. I got a pair of drinking cups from the break room, ran back to the ice cream shipper and scooped out two huge cups full of dry ice pellets. I ran to the women’s bathroom, knocked, opened the door, called out and found it deserted.
I ran into the last stall and dumped an entire cup of dry ice into the toilet. The sound of bubbling liquid was second only to the amount of white vapor that was rising out of the toilet and flowing over the edges onto the floor. It looked like Halloween in there!
Then I did the exact same thing for the second stall, waited until the vapor had risen enough in the bowl to start to fall over the sides and I got out of there.
I hadn’t closed the door to the women’s bathroom and taken six steps away towards the break room when the retarded woman came meandering back towards the bathroom area. I stood there, pretending to be straightening up some stock, and watched her. She stopped at the water fountain, put her mouth all over the water fountain nozzle, drank for a long time then mumbled something and went into the bathroom.
Wait for it.
Five seconds later she came stumbling out, running for the exit to the back room as fast as her stunted little legs would carry her. She was letting out a long deep moan as she ran and her face looked like it was full of fear. I waited until she had run back out into the main part of the store before I hurriedly walked back over to the women’s room, opened the door and used my foot to flush each of the toilets in the stall thus getting rid of any of the evidence. I walked back out, thinking what that must have looked like to someone who had probably never seen dry ice before, especially a toilet with white vapor flowing out of it and onto the floor all around it.
“Scary potty.” I said in a dark, evil voice.
Smiling, I walked back over to the break room and was just about to finish cleaning that up when I heard Sanderson’s voice over the intercom speaker.
“Christopher. Red line, please. Christopher. Red. Line. Please.”
I walked slowly over to the intercom, picked up the handset, and pushed the red button.
“Shields.” I said.
I heard the sound of commotion in the background, it sounded like someone was talking angrily and someone was crying.
“Do you have bathrooms and break room this hour?”
I took a deep breath. It was time to pay up for the prank, I guess.
“Yes, sir. I’m on them now.”
“Well, Mrs. Thompson is up here at the front office with her daughter and her daughter is very upset. She ran down the entire center aisle of the store screaming for her mother and her mother says that her daughter told her that the toilets have ghosts living in them? Do you know anything about that?”
I had to stifle a laugh.
I was mostly successful but the thought of that retarded woman running screaming and crying down the Middle Aisle, trying to find her mommy and tell her that there were ghosts living in the toilets was seriously funny.
“I just finished the break room and was about to get on the bathrooms. I can go check the women’s room for any ghosts, if you like.”
“Would you?” Sanderson asked and the wailing and loud voices in the back continued.
“Hang on.” I said as I put the handset down on a case of Del Monte ketchup and walked back over to the women’s bathroom.
I opened the door, checked the stalls already knowing what I would find, and left. I walked back over to the intercom, picked up the headset and gave Sanderson my report.
“Bathroom looks clean, sir. I didn’t see any ghosts.”
"No ghosts?" Sanderson asked.
"No, sir. No haunted potties."
Sanderson stiffled a laugh, badly.
“Okay. We may be back there in a few minutes but go ahead and keep on working.”
“Yes, sir.” I said hanging up the intercom only after Sanderson had hung up his handset.
I immediately leaned up against the nearest wall and let out the laugh that I’d been holding back. After I had caught my breath, I went back to cleaning the break room and bathrooms and a few minutes later Sanderson strolled back into the back room with Mrs. Thompson and her retarded daughter woman-child in two. He had a spring in his step and a smile on his face but it was only a smile that I could see. He winked at me as I stepped back, mop and bucket in hand.
Sanderson then knocked politely on the women’s bathroom door, called out and went in. He checked the stalls and came out to report to Mrs. Thompson that there was no burning toilets, no fire in the women’s bathroom, no ghosts in the toilet bowl and no haunted potties. He invited the young retarded woman to use the bathroom but she cried out and began to walk away from the bathroom. Her mother tried to comfort her but to no avail. The retarded girl ran out of the back room again and out into the store with her mother shouting at her, trying to catch her.
And then it was just Sanderson and me. Sanderson did a little two step up next to me and smiled like a used car salesman.
“Did you put dry ice in the toilets?” he asked, knowingly and already in on the last two of our C02 bombs which just kept getting bigger and louder.
“Why would I do a thing like that?” I asked.
“Why, it’s fairly simple, son. You did that to keep that little retard from shitting all over the place.” Sanderson whispered.
“Well, if I did do something like that and it did keep her from shitting all over the toilet seat, floor and walls, would I get in trouble for doing something like that?” I asked.
“Not from me.” Sanderson whispered. “Why, you would be my hero.”
“Haunted potty guy, that’s me.” I said.
Sanderson stood tall then, beaming with pride and smiling.
“Put her there, pal.” Sanderson said, extending his hand. “Put her there!”
I shook his hand as he patted me on the back like a favorite son.
“So … tell me. Was it funny?” he asked.
“When she came running out of the bathroom that first time. Was it funny?”
“Probably not half as funny as it was seeing her run down Middle Aisle screaming about toilets that had ghosts living in them.”
“Well, those ghosts scared the absolute crap out of that little girl, let me tell you that.”
“I bet they did!” I said.
“No. You don’t understand. She shit her pants. That’s what her mom was so mad about. Something in the bathroom scared the shit out of her, literally, and that was what her mom was so mad about.”
I couldn’t help it then, I just busted out laughing and Sanderson joined me, laughing out loud as well. He leaned in close to me, put his arm around me and pulled me in tight like he was about to tell me the biggest secret in the world.
“Son, I thought I was going to die up there in the front office! That girl kept screaming about ghosts living in the toilets and her mother was trying to calm her down … Buddy, I was about to die up there. You hear me? I was about to die up there I was laughing so hard and I couldn’t let them see me laughing so I had to stay in the top part of the office and hide in the computer room until I could get control of myself.”
“You know that she’s the one that goes in there and shits all over the place. Every damn time she and her mom come shopping here they go in there and destroy that bathroom. It’s like a family of inbred shit smearing Neanderthals.” I whispered.
“I know. I know.” Sanderson said, agreeing softly with me. “But I think you put the fear of God in that girl today. In fact, they might not be back to shop here again from what her mom told us.”
“And that would be a bad thing in what way?” I asked.
Sanderson patted me on the back one more time and turned to leave.
“I am going to buy you a Coke later.” He said over his shoulder.
“Make it a two liter and you’ve got a deal.” I said because we still had some dry ice left in the ice cream transport container.
Sanderson pivoted on his heels and pretended to shoot me with his gun finger before turning and walking on around the corner of the back room.
“Smoke on the waaaaater.” Sanderson started to sing out loud as he walked on out of the back room headed for the front office.
And that was the last time that Mrs. Thompson and her retarded daughter ever destroyed our bathroom again, at least that I knew about it or had to clean up after them for doing so. In fact, I never saw them in our store ever again as long as I worked there and that wasn’t really a bad thing.
Ernie the giant inflatable Keebler Elf
As I have said already, working in a grocery store you see some pretty strange things from time to time. One day when I pulled into the parking lot I saw that there was a giant, two story tall inflatable Ernie figure tied to the roof of County Market right over the entrance. It was a little weird to show up for work and find a giant, inflatable cookie making, tree-living elf standing tall over my cherished place of employment.
As I got closer, I noticed that Mark, Jeff and someone else was up on the roof working to secure the giant inflatable cartoon character. Mark looked down at the parking lot, saw me standing there looking up at him and he immediately wrapped his arms as far as he could around Ernie’s left leg and started dry humping the elf’s leg. The look on Mark’s face was funny as hell and I busted out laughing. Mark started laughing and let go of poor Ernie’s leg. I shook my head, walked on into the store and punched in for my shift.
It’s not every day that you see someone dry hump the leg of a two story tall inflatable Keebler elf.
But it got better.
Later that night we had to take the giant inflatable elf down, roll him up and get him ready for transport to the next store scheduled to receive him and we only had about thirty minutes to do it. As we started to deflate the giant elf we noticed that we were going to have to pull it back away from the edge of the roof and lower the inflatable elf down to the surface of the roof otherwise when the air started going out of him he would drape over the edge of the roof and across all manner of sharp projections which could slice or puncture the giant inflatable elf.
We unhooked the anchor lines and four of us slowly moved Ernie around and then lowered him face first to the surface of the roof. Once we started letting the air out of the inflatable elf but Mark had a different idea.
“He’s mine, guys! All mine!” Mark said as he gave a long battle cry, ran towards the slowly deflating elf and jumped up on the back of the elf’s ass.
The air left in the inflatable elf was just enough to cushion Mark and support him for a while. Mark reached out his arms to get as much of the elf’s ass as he could then proceeded to dry hump the slowly deflating elf in place. We all busted out laughing as Ernie really began to rapidly deflate under the combined efforts of the vents built into his design and Mark dry humping the inflatable elf all the while making exaggerated sex noises. A minute later it was pretty much over. Mark lay there humping in place to a bunched up, wrinkled up Ernie and it was time to put Ernie away.
“That was great! Biggest inflatable sex doll you’ve ever seen! You guys should have gotten in on some of that hot Keebler elf action! Looked to me like there was plenty to go around for all of us.” Mark said, standing up and brushing himself off as we all laughed.
Yeah, it had been a pretty strange day. I’d come to work with a two story tall Keebler elf looking down at me from the center roof top of the store. I’d seen Mark hump Ernie’s leg and later take Ernie doggy-style. It was a long time after that before I could see a Keebler logo or the image of Ernie and not crack a smile at the memory of that day.
One day I showed up for work and found a promotion for several brands of Kellogg’s cereals going on, mainly Frosted Flakes but several other types as well. There was someone in a full size, very well made Tony the Tiger full body costume walking around, swinging his tail, waving to the kids, posing for photo opportunities and picking up the random child for a hug.
The kids were loving it.
About an hour later, Rick, Sanderson and I were in the backroom standing next to a pallet stacked two cases high with Frosted Flakes while we discussed the plan for changing out several of the Front Wall displays tonight to meet the requirements of the new Kellogg’s marketing plan. Changing over to the new display setup would require that new product be taken to the front and set into the Front Wall while the old product was taken out, the shelf filled and the surplus brought back here to the backroom where it would be stored until it could be rotated out into the existing stock.
About that time Tony the Tiger and his guide walked into the backroom.
“Wearareurbadrooms?” Tony said through the mask and I realized that it was a woman wearing the costume.
“Bathrooms?” Sanderson asked and Tony nodded his … sorry, her head quickly.
“Right over here, ma’am.” Sanderson said as he marched sharply over to the bathrooms, did an exaggerated bow and pointed towards the women’s room.
Tony the Tiger took two steps towards the women’s room, stopped and looked at us.
“Igoddootakethisthangovv.” The woman said and her guide helped her take off the giant Tony the Tiger head piece.
I won’t say that she was beautiful but the young woman wearing the Tony the Tiger suit sure wasn’t bad looking and she was obviously sweaty. Her hair looked damp, pasted to her head and she looked tired. It probably wasn’t the most glamorous job to have in your career.
“Can we sit this thing right there?” the guide asked, pointing with the Tony the Tiger head towards the pallet of Frosted Flakes that we were standing by.
“Sure!” Sanderson said taking the huge head from the woman as the two of them headed off towards the bathroom together.
“Bob. Ed Sanderson. Big game hunter.” Sanderson said in a mock English accent, leaning over on the Tony the Tiger head like he had just brought him down on some private game reserve.
“What do you say, boys? Would you do Tony the Tigress?” he asked, motioning back towards where the two women had gone into the bathroom.
“She’s cute.” I said. “She’d have to wear the costume to bed though.”
“And this?” he asked, indicating the Tony the Tiger mask there on the pallet next to him.
“Naw. I just think the tiger body suit is a turn-on. That orange and black tail makes her ass look greeaaaaaat!” I said, imitating Tony the Tiger’s classic saying.
“You ain’t right, son.” Sanderson told me, shaking his head and laughing. “You ain’t right.”
I picked up the Tony the Tiger head and held it. It was pretty light but cumbersome and it didn’t look either comfortable or well ventilated. About that time a mother, her son and her young daughter came walking around the corner.
“Can you tell me where the public bathroom is?” the woman asked.
“Yes, ma’am! It’s right over …”
And that’s when the little girl noticed that I was standing there with Tony the Tiger’s head in my hands. She screamed out loud and started pointing to the Tony the Tiger head that I was holding.
“Aw, gross! They cut Tony’s head off!” the little boy shouted out loud, pointing right at me.
“Mommy! They killed Tony the Tiger!” the little girl screamed, pointing at Tony’s supposedly severed head.
I stood there in complete silence as I suddenly realized not only the situation that we had inadvertently put ourselves into when we had offered to watch the head of the costume while its wearer went to the bathroom but what it must look like to someone who might be at most five years old. There we were; a twenty year old, a twenty-two year old, and a man in his late forties … the three of us standing around and there I was holding Tony the Tiger’s head in my hands. Just Tony’s head, lifeless, no body, and no way to explain it without doing even more damage than was already done.
All I could do was hang my head in shame.
After Sanderson did some quick explaining and an angry mom had led her two crying children out of the backroom and presumably out of the store, Rick chuckled.
“Well, those kids will be going to therapy for a while now.” I muttered.
“You killed Tony the Tiger.” He said, pointing a finger at me accusingly. “You’re going to get the chair for that!”
“Yeah, but it will only be the kiddy electric chair.” I answered. “And if I’m lucky it’ll just be a booster electric seat.”
Herding shopping carts
One of the hourly chores while working at a high traffic business like County Market was getting in the shopping carts from the parking lot and back up to the front of the store to use. Normally this doesn’t sound very hard but if you figure on the amount of shopping carts going into the store was almost equal to the amount coming out of the store at any given time and you can see where herding shopping carts was a never-ending job. It wasn’t so bad in the winter but come summer the heat and humidity were killer. I think that County Market had upwards of three to four hundred shopping carts, normally arranged in three rows of about a hundred carts each, at the front entrance of the store. About half a row was left over that we parked on the sidewalk next to the fire lane but it was rare, if ever, that all three rows were filled to capacity and only on the few special days each year that we were closed were all the buggies in place at once.
I loved getting in the shopping carts, even in the summer months because that was better exercise than anything else I’d ever been part of. Imagine pushing thirty shopping carts up a gradual incline, imagine pushing these carts over and over again, for an entire hour. Imagine walking over acres of hot parking lot, sweating, grabbing up shopping carts, forming them into long silver snaking trains of clacking and stuck wheels and doing that over and over and over again.
I loved it!
For a while we could listen to our Sony Walkmans if we had them but later it was deemed that stock clerks who were out herding shopping carts would also have to answer to price checks and customer assistance requests from the cashiers which made perfect sense if you think about it. Sometimes, I really questioned the intelligence of those who worked in the front office at County Market because it seemed that some of the people up there had never actually worked out on the floor before and as such, they didn’t have the first clue how things worked in a grocery store.
County Market had a really big parking lot.
It would have made a lot more sense to put the names of a pair of stock clerks who were working inside the store on the customer service board for the cashiers to use than it would have been to put the name of some guy who was probably an acre or two away on the asphalt gathering up buggies and probably too far away to hear his name being paged anyway.
But that was just me.
So, since the guy outside pulling in shopping carts had to do customer that meant that he had to be able to hear his name being paged over the intercom system and that meant no Walkman. Oh, well … it was nice while it lasted.
As I’ve already said, herding shopping carts was a lot of hard work, especially in the summer months and one of the ways that we used to cool down was to take a break every fifteen or twenty minutes. I would work with my shirt unbuttoned on the top two buttons and I’d walk back into the store, grab some paper towels from under one of the registers where the cashiers were, wipe the sweat off of myself as I walked down the dairy aisle then I’d go and stand in the milk cooler which was kept in the low 50’s temp range. A few minutes standing there, with the huge wall mounted cooler fan blowing the smell of old, stale milk across you and you were ready to go back out for another round of herding shopping carts in often times triple digit temperatures.
When the temperatures got even hotter, breaks would go from standing in the dairy cooler to standing in the frozen foods cooler which was next to it. I remember Rick and I doing this and others catching on to the fact that you could stand in the frozen foods cooler (which looked like a blizzard had decimated the interior of a bank vault) and you could cool down a lot quicker than just standing in the dairy cooler.
And then we discovered that on really hot days you could stand in the ice cream cooler. The ice cream cooler was kept at 30 degrees, all the time. It was half the size of the frozen food cooler and felt more like you were walking into a small closet than a controlled environment for any type of perishable food product. The ice cream cooler was probably ten feet wide and fifteen feet long. The door was heavily insulated, over an inch and a half thick, and had this rubber seal running around it that made it look like some type of quarantine seal from an epidemic movie. Standing in the ice cream cooler for more than two minutes was a real endurance test and a display of masochism. Rick and I loved it, others couldn’t stand it. After a while, only Rick and I were known to use the ice cream cooler to cool off while we were herding shopping carts. The other stock clerks had wussed out claiming it was too cold to stand in there just to cool off.
I remember one really hot day in early August of ’89 that I walked into the ice cream cooler to cool off after being outside herding shopping carts for more than twenty-five minutes in the combined heat and humidity. As I stood there amid the roar of the fan whipped ice specks and frost flurries swirling around me I looked over and saw that Rick had left me a note on the metal ice and frost covered shelf just inside the door. I knew it was from Rick because of what it said and because we were the only two who not only used the ice cream cooler but also had the same sense of humor. I laughed out loud at what the note said, feeling the sweat on my body starting to rapidly cool. There, stuck in the frost and ice, propped up against a frost crystal and ice shard covered tub of store brand chocolate ice cream was one of our six inch by ten inch green tag price alert cards that we used throughout the store on the display shelves to bring customer attention to specials or changes in price.
There, written on the green card in big black letters were just three words …
“Welcome to Hoth.”
A few days later I brought some of my old “Star Wars” action figures, the Hoth outfit Luke Skywalker, the Hoth outfit Han Solo and the open belly Taun Taun and I’d put them over in the far back corner of the cooler, hidden, where only Rick and I knew about them. It became a little “Star Wars” shrine that we visited when we wanted to cool off. There was Luke Skywalker, arms up, stuck half inside the open belly of the Taun Taun lying on its side and Han Solo standing next to the dead Taun Taun. I took some blue and green food coloring from a torn open damaged pack and squirted it over the ice and frost near the Taun Taun for graphic effect. I took a toothpick, colored the wood light blue with a marker, then made a handle for the lightsaber out of paper and glued the colored toothpick into Han Solo’s right hand using some Elmers white school glue. This gave the diorama the look of Han Solo holding Luke’s ignited lightsaber after cutting the Taun Taun’s belly open.
The diorama lasted another three weeks before I dismantled it and took my action figures back home but strangely enough that little area never had anything put into it and remained vacant. Every now and then I’d go back into the cooler to cool off and I’d look at the little ex-shrine area there in the back corner. The food coloring shaded ice and as well as the outlines of where the action figures had been stayed there, slowly losing their shape and color as frost built up on the area. The little ex-shrine area, with its food coloring shaded frost and vague outlines of where the action figures had once been was still there when I quit in May of 1992 and after that … who knows.
The Legend of “Marshal” Mixon
Mixon was a young hot head and an asshole. There was just no other way to put it than that. This was an unfortunate circumstance since he was also one of our bosses at County Market.
Mixon was a shallow, unimaginative, pseudo-jock, egotistical asshole that we all loved to hate and make fun of; the problem was that he was one of our floor managers from 1985 to 1986. Mixon was younger than the other managers but older than we were … mid to late twenties if I had to guess. He had straight, dirty blonde hair shaped like the head of a penis and that helped him little when we referred to him as a dickhead. He was also ambitious, unfriendly and even though he tried to be a strong, stern manager he got all of the manager ideals wrong. What he couldn’t get by asking he tried to get by coercing and he used general assholery to try to get the job done.
The reason we called him “Marshal” was because Mixon went to a New Year’s Eve store party one night, one that I missed or chose not to attend, and he got into a little bit of trouble. Drinks were consumed and one of the older cashiers, Roseland, a very shapely older cashier, asked Mixon to drive her home … to her home. Nothing else. She needed a ride home because she had a little too much to drink. Mixon agreed and the two of them left the party in his white ’83 Chevy Camaro Berlinetta. Somewhere along the way, and details are sketchy, the cashier’s estranged husband saw them driving along in Mixon’ sporty car and the estranged husband went into a fit of jealous rage. The estranged husband turned his Chevy pickup truck around in the middle of the road, rapidly caught up to them and tried to run them off the road. His intent was that if he couldn’t have Roseland then no one could have Roseland. After some high speed bits of white knuckle excitement, Mixon managed to get away from the estranged husband (something we all thought was amazing since Mixon’ Camaro was powered by a 2.5 liter four banger and Roseland’s estranged husband’s truck had a 350 small block Chevy under the hood). Mixon let Roseland out near her house and the next day her husband drove up to County Market and threatened Mixon with great bodily harm. I think that later the husband came back up to the store and trashed Mixon’ Berlinetta there in the parking lot.
For a few days it was like County Market had its own little soap opera going on.
Mixon became concerned for his well being and purchased a small, cheap .32 caliber snub nose revolver. He bought a .32 caliber revolver because I don’t think he could afford anything better and he probably didn’t know much about guns anyway so he probably bought the first thing that the guy behind the counter of whatever pawn shop he bought the revolver from wanted to sell him. Mixon knew nothing about guns so if he had walked into any place that sold guns, the word “sucker” would have been easy to see on his forehead when he walked in the door. Word of the party, the trip home with Roseland, the high speed chase with her husband trying to run them off the road, the threats made against Mixon, the trashing of his Berlinetta and finally his purchasing the snub nose revolver all earned him the nickname of “Marshal” as in “There’s a new marshal in town.” Marshal Mixon was now a gun-toting bad ass, or so he thought. We all just thought he was a gun-toting ass.
I remember Mixon sitting up there in the office, cleaning his brand new snub nose revolver in plain view of both customers and employees alike … not the smartest career move if you thought about it. I asked him if he had fired the little revolver yet and wasn’t very surprised when he said that he hadn’t. I walked away, wondering why he was bothering with cleaning a gun that he had just taken out of the box, a gun that had never been fired and that’s when I realized that Mixon was probably more of a danger to himself with the snub nose than he was to anyone else, especially since the cashier’s estranged husband just happened to be an ex-Army Ranger and an ex-Vietnam vet.
Nothing more came of the incident with Roseland and her estranged crazy ex-Vietnam vet husband but we never let Mixon live down his reputation as a wannabe gunslinger and as long as I worked there, as long as Mixon worked there, he was always known as “The Marshal” or “Marshal Mixon”, if just behind his back and when he wasn’t around.
Months later, I remember that Mixon really wanted a store of his own to manage and he thought he was on the fast track to getting just that if by fast track to a store of his own I really meant that Mixon had just doubled his output of assholery while thinking that was somehow an acceptable substitute for managerial capability. The only problem was that he was single and company policy at that time was that the head store manager needed to be a married man, at least married, preferably a family man with children.
Married … at the very least.
This meant that Marshal Mixon had to get himself a wife which was kind of a problem since Mixon’ personality wasn’t exactly overflowing with charisma or machismo. So … what does one vapidly shallow person do when they’re looking for a mate and they need a mate soon? Why, they look for another vapidly shallow person and Mixon found that vapidly shallow person in Christy, a vacuum skulled cheerleader for William Carey College.
Christy wasn’t hard on the eyes; she was petite, had long legs, long brunette hair, dark eyes and a nice set of T&A on her but that’s about all she had going for her. She couldn’t cook. Her intellect was almost non-existent. Her skull was full of tumbleweeds and sawdust and when she spoke there were five year olds who would be able to carry on a more intelligent and meaningful conversation than she could. We all failed to see how Christy had ever managed to figure out how to dress herself yet there she was, a college student and a cheerleader. Christy was, without a doubt, beauty with no brains and that meant that she was the perfect wife for Mixon
Mixon really didn’t have many options at this point so he settled on the best that he could get and before I knew it, Mixon and Christy were married in the spring of 1986. When I returned to County Market in the summer of 1988 neither Roseland nor Mixon worked at the store anymore and very few people remembered her or him. No one knew if Mixon had gotten his own store or not. Needless to say, only Rick and I could recall the story of Marshal Mixon but that, too, was a store legend that faded into obscurity over time.
Party until you drop!
Party until you drop!
Marie showed up sometime in the winter of 1985 and lasted as a cashier until the mid-spring of 1986. Let me describe Marie for you … she was six feet tall, thin, almost gaunt, built like a starving Barbie doll. She was twenty-six years old and she had long, straight dirty blonde hair that hung down halfway to her ass. Everything about Marie was perfect … except her face which wasn’t exactly as pretty as the rest of her body. Don’t get me wrong, Marie was a good looking young woman it’s just that she had a much better body than she had a face to match. That meant that she was on about a 50/50 ratio with the stock clerks who either thought she was hot or not.
I wouldn't have fucked her with a rented dick but about half the stock crew were either thinking about it or trying to get it.
The older guys knew that Marie had a lot of miles on her and if you had any experience at all with fast women then one look could tell you that Marie had been rode hard and put away wet more times that you would care to count. The younger guys were drawn to her experience and thought they might get lucky because she seemed to have an aura about her, a subliminal sexual aura that had a get lucky feel to it but never offered any chance of a payout. Marie had a small following at County Market, mostly younger guys who thought they had a chance but didn’t and just weren’t smart enough to realize that or to understand that they were just embarrassing their selves in the process.
Marie wore tight jeans and lots of odd shades of makeup. We couldn’t decide if she was punk slowly going metal or metal slowly going punk as she was lost in some point in between. Denim jeans, denim jacket and she always had some rough looking guy hanging out with her … almost a new guy each week. Marie liked to show up to work with a hangover or buzzed. Once she got to work, she had to ramp up to speed which took about an hour to an hour and a half. During that time Marie would seem to be out of it, she would speak slowly, express herself in mutters or whispers and generally drag around like she was in a deep fugue. After about an hour or two, she would start to thaw out, her voice would become louder and you could carry on a simple conversation with her. Towards the end of the night, a transformation had occurred and Marie would act both bubbly and nearly human. I guess she was a good cashier because besides a few obvious comments from the managers about her manner nothing was ever done about it.
Marie drove an old 1978 Datsun 240Z, a white one that had seen better days yet somehow the little Z car fit her perfectly. One night I saw her pull up in a shiny new black 1986 Chevy Camaro IROC-Z. The Camaro was a tough looking car, black paint, silver decals, black interior, T-tops and the Tuned Port Injected 5.0 liter engine but I wondered where her little white 240Z car was?
An hour later, I was pushing a dust broom around the store and saw Marie putting back restock items from a shopping cart. She was moving with a deliberate slowness which was strange to watch since all of her movements seemed exaggerated. Curious as to if she had sold her white Datsun 240Z car or not and when as well as where she had gotten the black IROC-Z, I asked her about the Camaro I’d seen her pull up in an hour ago.
“I like your IROC. When did you get that?” I asked her.
Marie looked up at me, slowly, and used a finger to move one of her long bangs out from in front of her face. Her eyes looked like she was dead and she had trouble focusing on me. It was almost like she didn’t recognize me at all.
“Don’t. Have. An. IROC. Got. A. Dahzsun.” She said, each word its own sentence and slurring the word “Datsun.”
“No. The other car, the black Camaro you pulled up in tonight. When did you get that?”
Marie looked at me again then leaned back against a display of bananas and cut her eyes at me.
“Don’t. Have. A. Black. Car. Got. A. White. Car.” She slowly droned out, looking at me from head to toe and back again.
“Okay.” I muttered and went back to sweeping the store thinking that Marie was more of a crazy bitch than I had realized.
Twenty minutes later, the produce manager and an elderly customer found Marie sprawled out on the produce area floor, unconscious and unresponsive. An ambulance came and she was rushed to Forrest General hospital just down the highway. The fact that I was in the back room shooting the bull with Rick is the reason why I missed all of the excitement but I heard about it for the rest of the night from just about everyone and when I told them about my strange conversation with her it was generally agreed that Marie had overdosed on something. When I got the shopping carts in at the end of my shift, her white Datsun 240Z was back where she always parked it and the black ’86 IROC-Z was gone.
Two weeks later, Marie was admitted to Pine Grove, a local drug recovery and rehab center with a reputation for having success on the really hardcore cases. I remember hearing all of this second hand from other employees and cashiers. One night, after work, Jeanne, Rick and I drove by Pine Grove in my ’78 Camaro. Jeanne and Rick were drinking Bartyles and Jaymes wine coolers and feeling no pain. Rick leaned out the passenger side window and shouted as loud as he could “Hey, Marie!” as we passed the recovery center.
Jeanne didn’t think that was very nice of us to do that but she laughed beside herself. Rick and I thought it was hilarious and we laughed out loud as we drove past Pine Grove and out into the undeveloped lake view subdivision there in Lamar County to enjoy our wine coolers.
We never saw Marie again or worked with her after that. Someone later told me that she had gotten kicked out of Pine Grove when they caught her in a utility closet trading sex for drugs with an orderly.
It wouldn’t have surprised me at all.
Marie always partied hard, at least as long as we knew her and that wasn’t all that long if you think about it.
The Legend of Stormbringer
The first day that you started work at County Market you were given four items; a name tag with your name on it (and the CM logo), a red clip-on bowtie, a red work smock, and a razor blade box cutter. I “lost” my work smock the first week (it looked stupid) and I never wore my bowtie other than half clipped and dangling from my work shirt collar (itself two buttons loose at the top to show my manly chest when I was working). The box cutter, though, was my favorite thing of all at County Market.
I called my box cutter “Stormbringer” after the famous sword in the Michael Moorcock “Elric” series of books, a demon possessed weapon famous for drinking the souls of its victims. I even took a Magnum 44 wide permanent marker and colored the safety cover of my box cutter solid black to give my box cutter a personality.
Little did I know that I was tempting fate and testing my fortune.
The box cutter was a utility knife intended to, well, open cardboard boxes and slice other materials with ease. It’s not the kind of knife, if it can even be considered to be a knife, that you would use to whittle wood with or do any other mundane chore that a knife would be used for. No, a box cutter was to grocery work what a scalpel was to a medical practice; single purposed and incredibly sharp. The box cutter itself was a simple three piece affair, nothing fancy; a metal blade holder slid into a protective white paint coated cover and a single razor blade rode in the holder, exposing half of its blade at the time to shear through cardboard or anything else that got in the way. When the blade got dull, you slid the protective cover off, pulled out the razor blade, flipped it around, seated it in the holder then slid the cover back on. There was a notch at the end of the box cutter where you could swap the blade out to turn the box cutter into a paint scraper, using the full length of the blade and I hated jobs that had me scraping the floor with my box cutter. Old built up wax, gum, etc. Those jobs ate up a razor blade quick. Sometimes we broke razor blades but you still had the opposite side once you swapped sides of the blade. Razor blades, for all their sharpness, tended to get dull pretty quick.
We went through a lot of razor blades at County Market. Every time I went to the office to get a new blade I’d grab four or five and stick them in my pocket. It was like grabbing extra ammunition even though one blade would probably last me a week more or less. Each shift I always managed to take home a handful of spare blades and soon a desk drawer at my house held a small cup that was overflowing with spare blades. For all the blades that I wound up taking home with me, I don’t think I ever took any back to work with me. That’s just how it went.
“Stormbringer” ate holes in my jeans. I kid you not, I’d keep the thing in my back pocket with me everywhere I went (never know when you’re going to need a hand held razor blade …) and as I walked, sat, drove my car, etc. “Stormbringer” would let out the corner of its razor blade, almost like a demon letting out the tip of its long tongue to … taste … what it could. Soon all of my jeans had a small hole in the back left pocket, down at the corner, where “Stormbringer” had slipped its razor sharp tongue out and slowly, slowly, eaten a hole in the denim.
My mom couldn’t understand how all of my pairs of jeans had the same little hole in them in the same pocket in almost the same spot.
“Stormbringer” had a personality.
When the permanent marker ink finally began to wear off the safety cover I took some flat black rattle can spray paint and spray painted the blade cover. That looked bad ass! The blade holder also had a hole drilled through it, for what I’m not sure … maybe some people carried these things on lanyards around their neck or they needed a safety lanyard around their wrist when they were working with them. I don’t guess I ever figured out why the hole was there unless it was part of the stamping process that held the two pieces of the blade holder together, like some kind of rivet. In any case, there was a hole in the blade holder of my box cutter, near the back slide where the blade was inserted for scraping and one Saturday in October I got the idea to add a piece of leather through that hole and start braiding it with these little decorative plastic skulls that the local craft store had just gotten in stock for Halloween. Suddenly I had a box cutter with a flat black safety cover, a leather cord hanging from it and five small, white plastic skulls hung along the leather cord. I took some black water color paint and stained the skulls so that they looked old, let the stain run down in the cracks in the teeth and let it pool and dry in the empty eye sockets. The effect was amazing and other guys at County Market soon knew my box cutter.
“Stormbringer” now looked the part of its namesake.
We were told early that you had to pay attention when using a box cutter otherwise it would bite you; bite you deep and bite you hard. I’d been a Boy Scout so I took that warning with some amount of disdain. I was an Eagle Scout, after all … I’d been playing with sharp objects since I was a Cub Scout … knives, saws, hatchets, machetes, my dad’s old Japanese Pamurai sword (a real one), even a Vietnam War era special forces Tomahawk.
This little box cutter wasn’t a threat to me.
I loved my box cutter.
You could slip it out, flick it open, and decimate a box in seconds.
Cardboard box autopsy.
I could build a display just as quick or I could slip the box cutter apart, slide the razor blade into the back of the holder, put the safety slide back on and use it like a paint scraper to get up gum, gunk or whatever else had dried on what I was working on. I usually kept four or five spare razor blades in the fifth pocket of my jeans, that little pocket there just above the front right pocket on a pair of Levi’s. Sometimes I forgot to take these out when I washed my jeans and the paper wrap on the spare blades would come off and the blades would tumble around in the washer or dryer. Hilarity would not ensue.
I loved that box cutter but it had a personality and sometimes it tried to taste my blood. Several times I almost cut myself deep. Once I sliced my fingernail so deep it left a ridge in my fingernail that took a long time to grow out. Another time I nicked the end of my finger. Small wounds, scratches, scrapes, were all just teases and taunts of “Stormbringer” but I always thought of myself as being the master of “Stormbringer” and that the wicked blade would never taste of my blood.
I was a fool for thinking like that.
I remember the first and only time that “Stormbringer” ever turned on me and that night it tasted deeply of my flesh and blood. For two years Stormbringer and I were best friends until that evil blade turned on me.
It was late January of 1986 and I was working on the Front Wall with Rick, building a new display of Tide detergent. I had just started to bring my box cutter along the top of the box when a pretty college student walked in. She caught my eye, I caught hers, she smiled, the box cutter slipped out of the track on the box I was slicing, bounced and instead sliced across the right side edge of the index finger of my left hand, front fingertip to beyond the first joint.
“Stormbringer” had betrayed me and bit deep while doing so.
When it happened there was no pain, really. There was just the realization that I’d cut myself deep, really deep. In that instant two quotes from literature chased each other across my mind.
“The vorpal blade did go snicker-snack.”, in reference to Lewis Carrol’s story of how the terrible Jabberwocky met its fate and of course the final words of “Stormbringer” to Elric when it killed him and abandoned him …
“I was a thousand times more evil than thou.”
The funny thing is that the razor blade itself was so sharp, almost surgical scalpel sharp, that I’d opened up about an inch and a half of my finger, realized what I had done, dropped the box cutter, grabbed my index finger in my right hand and closed my right hand tightly around the index finger. I’d done all of that so quickly that it was a few seconds before the pain even started and when the pain started it was a burning bolt of electricity through my hand and arm.
Yeah, this was a deep cut.
I stood there, held my finger tight, smiled at the pretty college student and nodded as I closed my eyes and held my index finger as tight as I could. It still wasn’t enough and I felt the warm, sticky blood start to spread out slowly in the palm of my right hand. Blood started to trickle out of my pressure hold, started to patter on the floor like slow, red rain drops.
“Did you …?” Rick asked.
“Yeah.” I said, sighing as my finger started to really throb. “It’s a good, deep cut. I’m going to get stitches. Be back when I can.”
Using both hands, I managed to get my box cutter off the top of the box, closed, and back into my pocket then I went looking for the floor manager. Just my luck, it was Mixon that was working that night. Personal injuries and asshole bosses never mix so I’d advise you to avoid that situation in life if ever you can. I caught him on Middle Aisle heading towards the back of the store, stopped him and told him what I’d done. He was immediately skeptical that I needed to go to Urgent Care, the local quick reaction trauma center, to get stitches.
“Stitches? Is it really that bad?” he asked in his typical asshole like manner.
I didn’t even reply to him other than to open my right palm and show him. Free of the pressure hold I was keeping on it, my left index finger popped open along the side in slow motion like one of those nature films where you see the flowers bud open in spring. There was red meat exposed. Blood immediately started to flow out of the deep cut and drip from between my fingers to patter on the floor there on Middle Aisle. Mixon turned white, just like the color of his white work shirt.
“Go on.” He said, angrily. “You know I’ll have to fill out paper work on this.”
My bad, I thought. Sorry to ruin your night of doing your job, dickbag.
“Can Rick drive me up to Urgent Care?” I asked.
“Can’t you drive yourself?” Mixon asked flatly, annoyed then he turned and walked away.
I held up my right hand clasped tightly around my left index finger. How the hell was I going to drive myself to Urgent Care if I had to use my right hand to hold my left index finger closed? I had intended showing him that his answer was “no” but he took that as a yes and walked off.
He didn’t see me extend my middle finger on my left hand to his back.
Mixon turned then and took a few steps back towards me.
“Be sure to get back as soon as you can. We’ve got work to do.” Mixon added then turned back around and walked away.
Right then I didn’t think that I could have lost any more respect for him than I already had.
I gripped my sliced finger tight again and walked out the front of the store. Thanks for caring, asshole, I thought. I hated Mixon because it was general policy when an employee had been hurt or injured that another employee drove them to Urgent Care and stayed with them until they were released. Apparently, I was going to have to drive myself but looking down at how I was holding my finger closed, I began to doubt how I was going to do that.
I didn’t bother punching out. If I hurt myself on the job then they were going to pay me for the time I spent getting sewn up. I grabbed some paper towels from the bathroom dispenser, wrapped my finger as best as I could to try to stop the bleeding then headed out of the store.
I went out to the parking lot, managed to get my keys to my Camaro out of my pocket, unlock my door, get into the Camaro, put my seat belt on, put the keys in the ignition, turn the keys in the ignition, crank the car, put the automatic transmission down into drive and then drive myself up to Urgent Care across from Forrest General hospital. I did all this while using my right hand to grip and hold closed my left index finger and I never relaxed my grip, not once, until the doctor came into the trauma room and asked me to let him look at my wound.
Twelve stitches later and with the finger dressed in a sterile gauze bandage I was back at County Market finishing the last of Front Wall and building displays with Rick. Mixon wasn’t happy that he had to step in and work on Front Wall with Rick in my absence but I didn’t mind. Hell that was probably the most work that he’d done in the last month. From start to finish it took me about an hour and a half to slice my finger, get stitches, and get back to work.
That was just another time that I was reminded of just what a dick whistle Mixon really could be. Two weeks later, I got my stitches out but it would be years before the nerve endings in that finger settled down to where anything other than a slight bump at the wrong angle didn’t bring sharp blinding pain and a grimace to my face.
“Stormbringer” never bit me after that, not to say that I didn’t watch it twice as hard as I’d watched it before, and the little blade remained in my collection of favorite things years after I quit County Market and long after County Market itself was no more … a reminder of some really happy times in my life.