I wrote this eight years ago. It’s pretty good. I’m not sure why I haven’t posted it before. The introduction was taken from some of my notes I recently stumbled across.
It started in the Winter. It ended in the Spring. It was sixteen months of graveyard at Plaid Pantry, and it ended, finally, in the Spring. It was sixteen months of tweakers, and hot pockets, and counting change, and sweeping, and mopping, and that cold motherfucking freezer. Sixteen months of my boss’s incessant complaining. Sixteen months of my own complaining. Sixteen months, and now it’s over. But you’re never really done with Plaid Pantry. Plaid will be with me, always.
You meet a lot of people working in customer service. Plaid Pantry is no different. You meet people from every walk of life. The businessman coming in for Gatorade after going to the gym. The old couple out for their morning constitutional. The compulsive gambler in to play another game of Keno. And another. And Another. And another. The amphetamine addict who comes in to talk to you for two hours. And I mean talk for two straight hours, without letting you get in more than a dozen words. The Mexican landscapers, who come in to buy their coffee and Sabritones. I’ve seen them all, right there in front of the counter, interacting with me, with each other, just for a few moments, then back to their lives of working and fretting and selling and buying and doing whatever it is the fuck that people do.
You see, nothing changes for the Plaid clerk. People come and go like the tide, and it doesn’t signify any change. It’s just another day.
Reflections in Plaid
Shelly was a tweaker like no other. I never got the straight story, but as far as I could gather she had a prescription for some sort of amphetamine, but she regularly seemed more jacked up than a single prescription would account for. She dated a meth addict at one point, so I always assumed she was supplementing her legal prescription with a little illegal stimulant on the side. I was fully aware of all of Shelly’s boyfriends, in fact. Boyfriends, suitors, ex-husbands, friends, parents, etc. I knew the ins and outs of every relationship Shelly ever had because she would stay in the store for hours and talk to me incessantly about them. In-fucking-cessantly.
Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, Shelly would be there, in my store, always ready to talk my ear off. I didn’t mind so much when she’d show up at 3:30 in the morning, when I had nothing to do. If I had finished up my sweeping and mopping, and the cooler was fully stocked, I would let her talk on and on – often until the sun came up. She never held down a job, never had any money, and she was always trying to bargain with me on the prices of fruit snacks and gummi worms and grape juice. Even cigarettes. She would try and talk me down on the price of Camel Ultra Lights, “Dan, for that price I should be getting less tar per cigarette! And I smoke them so fast! I literally, literally Dan, literally, go through those cigarettes faster than any other cigarette. You can’t give me a discount for that?”
For all her bizarre eccentricities, and for all the times she would hold up a line of customers, in the end I really took a liking to Shelly. Perhaps it was because she was such a sad figure – a woman awake all night long, lonely enough to lay any man who showed her attention, financially dependent upon the state and upon a verbally abusive mother. She had my sympathy. And maybe I saw a bit of myself in her. I mean, for as much as I could ask the question, “Why are you here, Shelly?” I could ask that same question of myself. Why was I working at Plaid Pantry?
The sound that a half-rack of beer makes when it hits the floor after falling from a drunkard’s arms is unmistakable. The pop-crack of the bottles exploding, the fizz-whoosh of the beer cascading out of every seam in the cardboard box, the embarrassed silence of the guilty party. It is cacophonous and it is depressing. And it is unmatched- except by the lingering smell. No matter how much you mop; No matter how deadly the cocktail of chemicals you use to clean it up; No matter how foul you curse after the store is empty; It does not matter. The smell of the stale beer lasts for days. It permeates your nostrils, makes your eyes water, and it only gets worse as times goes on. Customers comment on it, and your thoughts cannot escape it. You are a prisoner, trapped in a cloud of alcohol left by a buffoon with two left hands. When, finally, the smell has acquiesced to the various other stenches that customers bring in and out of the store, and an equilibrium of odors has occurred, like clock-work, the process begins again. Another late night of drinking by some local yokels. Another, “Hey bra, we’re totally out of Coors Light!” Another goddamn 2 a.m. cleanup.
When I first met my girlfriend I told her I worked graveyard at Plaid. She laughed and asked me where I really worked. I reiterated. She gave me a long, serious look, and assured me that I did speak English fluently, and that I wasn’t mentally handicapped. She could not fathom why I would be working at what many Portlanders consider to be the shittiest of shit jobs. So, why was I working at Plaid?
Certainly it couldn’t have been for the money. I started out in November of 2007 making eight bucks an hour. At the time, that was a nickel more than minimum wage. I was living alone, and that was enough for me to pay the bills. In fact, that salary afforded me many new contrivances that I had not yet experienced in life. I bought my first cell phone, got a gym membership, insured my car; Still, it wasn’t a lot of money. I was able to survive on my own and afford what most Americans take for granted. I was able to eat without food stamps, get drunk when I wanted, and enjoy a roof over my head without resorting to begging my mother for rent money. It wasn’t glamorous, but it got me by.
Over the course of sixteen months, eight bucks turned into nine twenty five, and a very prestigious Assistant Manager’s title was bestowed upon me. I had no education, no ambition, and no real complaints. It wasn’t too bad. Still, I once worked as a janitor and made more money than that. So what was it? What kept me going into that place night after night after night? What made it okay in my mind to work in a place where I was abused by drunkards, belittled by an ignorant boss, harassed by juvenile delinquents, and subjected to endless questions such as: “Man, do you ever go home?”
Eighteen degrees below zero. Eighteen degrees below zero and my boss wanted me to go into that god awful freezer and count all the burritos we had in back stock. There has to be a law against that sort of thing. My breath would freeze in my beard, my fingers would turn white, and my skin would burn with cold all over my body. I would count the burritos or sandwiches or Banquet Microwaveable Meals or whatever poisonous, processed “food” we had back there, and then I would b-line it for warmer territory. Stepping into the beer cooler, kept at a chilly thirty-eight degrees itself, felt like stepping off a plane in Havana next to the frigid cold of that damn walk-in freezer. When finished, I’d walk out onto the sales floor to her smirking face. Did she actually enjoy seeing me freeze my ass off? “Oh, Dan, I forgot. You need to go count the bags of ice, too.”
Maybe it was a form of atonement. I never graduated High School. I never went to college. I never did any of the things that my family and friends expected of me. Maybe I thought that by working hard at something I hated, even something that I knew was beneath me, I could somehow gain their approval. Maybe I could be worth something to society, to my family, to myself. Maybe. Then again, maybe it was just that in the autumn of 2007 I was broke and I needed a job.
I had been employed in various other trades prior to my hiring at Plaid. Everything from construction worker, to security guard, to telephone surveyor. I figured why not give the convenience store thing a try before I faded off to couch surfing and eventual ruin. It wasn’t hard to get the job. My initial interview was little more than, “Do you steal? No? Okay, you’re hired.” And there it was.
How could I have known? How could I have known just a week later I would agree to an all-graveyard work schedule? How could I have known that when you work graveyard everything turns to a dismal gray? You lose touch with reality when you never see the daylight. Sleeping becomes an impossible task, accomplished only in two or three hour increments. Eating becomes either frighteningly infrequent, or disgustingly too frequent. Bowel movements become irregular, vision blurs and fails, illnesses plague you by the score, and, eventually, you fade from the thoughts of those who once loved you. Life becomes a form of purgatory. You are neither here nor there. Unable to interact with society, yet chained to a job and therefore unable to enjoy the freedoms of the common hobo.
“You know, there isn’t a lot we can do.” I knew it. “I mean, we have to deal with murderers and rapists, so, for a couple of kids who stole beer…there just aren’t enough resources.” I told the cop I was sorry, and that I was required to call the police on every beer run. “You should really lock up that beer.” Thanks. “These damn kids…” Yeah, these damn kids. It wasn’t that I hated the kids. I got to know most of them. They were, for the most part, good kids. When they made more work for me, though, that’s what I hated. We’d try banning certain trouble makers from the store for a while, or limiting the number of minors that could be in the store at any one time. It never helped. The shoplifting went on, the beer runs went on, and every time the cops would come they’d say the same thing, “There’s really no chance we’re gonna catch these kids.”
I’m done with Plaid, now. I quit on a whim, over the phone. I suppose in the end there is no reason, no spectacular “why.” Working at Plaid was a job, and sometimes it’s easier to keep a crummy job than to look for a new one. And sometimes, it’s just as easy to quit at the slightest provocation.
I don’t feel a great relief, nor a great regret. I do think about the job often, though. I think about how they are getting on now that I am gone. I think about the beer, and if it’s is properly stacked in the cooler. I think about my customers. I think about the old man who came in every morning for a cup of coffee and to buy any silver dollars I had in my drawer. I think about the contractor who bought two packs of cigarettes a day, and whose business was always on the brink of bankruptcy. I think about Shelly.