Putting your face through a sheet of glass, reading mommy blogs

I wanted to keep the whole Montgomery Ward old job thing going today, but I’m in pretty bad shape, and don’t think I can work on it right now. I had another session at the dentist today, and it was damn brutal. First, they did some kind of advanced, deep cleaning which required Novocaine first, and then involved horrible scraping with implements of torture and an ultrasonic probe. About halfway through the cleaning, I was ready to confess to any war crimes which with they wanted to accuse me of committing. They only did the upper half, but after that was done, it looked like my mouth went through a plate-glass window. The gums were pushed back and bleeding like hell. I then went from that to another room where they drilled out one of my upper teeth and did a root canal. That honestly didn’t feel anywhere near as bad. The real pain is that it cost $200, and my insurance is now out for the year. I will go back next month for a post insertion and $250 out of my own pocket, and then I get a crown fitted after the new year, when the insurance slate is cleaned.

No pain meds, of course. And when I was walking home, I passed one of those meat on a stick and sausage carts, the kind that spray their exhaust smoke of burning meat all over the place, to attract customers or scare away vegans or whatever. And the foul, burning flesh smell was EXACTLY what it smelled like when the DDS drilled through the tooth and into the infected pulp. This smell is why I can never eat Salisbury steak again.

I think I’m sick of the BlogExplosion thing already, although I might mess with it more when I’m bored. Part of the problem is that I cannot read another god damned mommy blog again, and they make up about 83% of the blogs on there. (The other 17% are boring political threads.) A lot of people accuse me of being “jealous” when I start to fill with vitriol over the whole mommy-machine thing.

And I’ll be honest, I am jealous. I mean, I don’t want to have a kid, but it must be nice to have something in your life that was so easy to conceive that is held in such high regard by most of the population. I mean, I spend my free time working on these damn books that only six people will ever read and most people will never understand, yet if you walk into a room with an infant, it’s like you’re the first caveman discovering fire, and everyone praises you. And I know that it’s hard being a parent, and there’s so much fear that you’ll do the wrong thing or your kid won’t turn out right or will get hurt or whatever. I take for granted things like dangerous chemicals or frayed wiring or busy streets or internet porn or whatever else, and I know parents need to be on alert all the time for their kids. (Some parents aren’t, but that’s a topic for another rant another time.) Anyway, I sit around the house on a Saturday night wondering why do I even write, and why should I start another book that nobody will read, and how will I ever stop this antisocial cycle and get on with my life – or will I ever – and I think it must be wonderful to have worries like coming up with Halloween costumes for your kids or something. It’s the same kind of contempt I have for musicians or painters or sculptors, because they can make something that people can see and touch and say “I get it”. Musicians get laid. Painters are respected. Everyone who got through the third grade thinks they can write because they can put words together, and that makes putting 250,000 words together just a matter of repetition that anyone could do if they didn’t have important things to do, like having kids and going to the gym.

And I guess a lot of this is the between-book “is anybody out there” sort of depression I always fall into, the kind where I wonder if I should just give it all up and go to a sports bar and find out what team I should cheer on and drink some lite beer and buy some fucking dockers and just get it over with. But I know I couldn’t do that either, and I know I will always have trouble with people, and that’s what makes me write. If I was a shiny, happy person, I’d have no need to write. So I feel stuck writing. And my teeth hurt, and these potato chips probably aren’t helping.

I think that’s all for now. I need to try eating this Subway sandwich and then listen to some death metal to calm down.

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Blogs, explosions, mixing paint

I’ve had a lot of fun lately playing with BlogExplosion, reading other peoples’ sites and coming up with thoughts about my own. If you have a blog or journal, click that link to sign up and check it out. If you’re new to me and you came to this journal through BlogExplosion, you’re probably wondering where all of my gizmos, doodads, sidebars, java applets, and commentary about George Bush has gone. Well, I keep things simple here, and instead of blogging, I just write, the old fashioned way. That’s why the page looks so bare and there are so many words. Anyway, if you like what you see, please leave a comment and check out the rest of the site or my books. I’d love to hear from you.

Okay, I had fun rambling on yesterday about my old job at Montgomery Ward, and it was a good warm-up exercise for writing, so I thought I’d do it again for a bit. Here goes.

I don’t know how I lucked into the job at Ward’s, but it came at the best time possible. Before that, I worked at an Italian restaurant hellhole as a dishwasher, busting my ass for $3.35 an hour and taking the abuse of the old-school Italian owners. After about six weeks of breaking my back on a sink hung about six inches too low for me, I walked out on a Saturday night during the dinner rush and planned to never come back. The owner called on Monday, cursing in Italian, and said if I didn’t finish out the next week, he wouldn’t pay me. I came back and worked at half-speed, putting greasy plates on the clean rack, never changing the water, and giving them every excuse to tell me to leave. On my last night, I had to clean the cheese grinder, this huge, cast-iron piece that weighed a good twenty pounds, with big screw-threads inside that filled with raw mozzarella cheese. You were supposed to spend a ton of time carefully scraping the extruded cheese out of each thread, scrubbing the insides until sterile. I said, “fuck this”, and gave it a quick once-over on the exterior before putting it away, leaving the cheese to dry into cement inside. The next week, I filled out applications, and basically fell into an interview and callback for Wards, and had the job.

The paint department had two older women and two teen-aged guys. There was me, and another guy named Joe, a year older. He looked like the actor Eddie Kay Thomas from American Pie, except much more sickly and emaciated, and he was even more of a slacker than I was. He perfected the ability to sleep while slumped against the paint counter, so at a distance it looked like he was actually waiting for the next customer. He wanted to go to film school, and his stepdad was one of the top microphone designers in the country. He worked for Crown, designing mics, and wrote articles for many top-end audio magazines. What that meant for us is that he had tons of audio and video equipment lying around the house. Joe got me hooked on punk bands like Black Flag and also on old Troma films like Surf Nazis Must Die and Bad Taste, so we were continually trying to get a band together and/or shoot a movie with no talent, no money, and whatever equipment we found in his basement. Luckily, only a few copies of our attempts actually survived over the years, and I keep tight control over them to avoid shame and embarrassment.

As for the two women, there was Bev, who worked the regular day shift and was our somewhat-manager. She set the schedule and did other managerial tasks, but she wasn’t a salaried manager, and that was a big point of contention for her. Bev was this middle-aged woman that took the job a bit too seriously, and always wanted to claw up a level on the Wards corporate ladder, but would always be back in paints. She helped out the housewifes with their wallpaper samples and worked slowly yet diligently. When there was a shift change at five, she babied us “kids” a bit, and that got old after a while; after all, we were teenagers and knew everything in the fucking world. Joe and I talked behind her back all the time and went on and on with long, mocking dramatic parodies of her and Pearl, but she kept things going during the day, so that worked for us.

Then there was Pearl. Pearl was a crotchety old woman with white curly hair and a constant look of fear and confusion on her face. I felt sorry for her, because she actually worked some other job and needed Wards to make ends meet. I didn’t know her social situation, but I imagined her to be the hermitted old maid, the lady in the neighborhood that all the kids said was a witch, with no family to help her, and this big, scary Reagan-spun world of evil ready to collapse on her at any moment. Pearl was very highly strung, and tended to lose her shit at a moment’s notice. Put her in front of a cash register with a transaction that’s anywhere near abnormal, or have her mix more than four cans of paint, and she would freak the fuck out. She often put cans of paint in the orbital mixer without closing their lids all the way, causing an explosion of pigment everywhere. That and the fact that she was creepy made it difficult to work with her, although maybe it was slightly better than a shift’s worth of Bev’s momming you around.

Me and Joe never worked the same shift during the week; sometimes we’d team up on weekends, but most school nights, it was one or the other of us watching the fort. One of the games we played was repainting stuff in the department. We’d get a lot of damaged, mismixed, or extra paint, and since we’d only get like one or two customers a night sometimes, we’d use the extra supplies to refinish equipment. Joe started the trend by completely disassembling the pigment dispenser one night, and spraypainting the base and turntable with some nice beige spraypaint, the hard-metal finish crap you use on filing cabinets. Compared to the previous million-color splatter, it looked showroom-new. I took apart the paint can closer, that press-thing that seals can lids, and did it up in two different colors. Joe then resprayed our orbital mixer, although shortly after his new paintjob, we got a new one that didn’t shudder and shake like an out-of-balance washing machine during each can of paint.

We did another collaborative art project, which was a book of modern art we created from found objects in the paint department. We only had one or two colors of marker, plus ball-point pens, but we also worked in paint samples, weekly circulars, security tape, wallpaper pieces, and anything else we could find. Once Joe found a cockroach and taped it to the page. We kept the book (really just a legal pad) hidden in the back, and worked on the modern art masterpieces during slow time. I still have the book and often threaten Joe that I will scan the pages and make some kind of web-based interface for it. Just for posterity, here’s a page I scanned in for my glossary; the top piece (“Sunset From Hell”) is Joe’s, when he was in his blue security tape and wallpaper-as apocalypse period, and the bottom piece (“The Analog Kid”) is my deconstruction of the Sunday sales circular into mosaic, representing the complexities of a post-Freudian individual in the new world Reagan era of digital change. Or something.

Any idle time was spent making fun of Pearl and Bev, or devising complex games or diversions. First, both of us would imitate Pearl, and sometimes pretend she led a secret life as a deranged serial killer, mostly because she resembled Norman Bates’ mom’s corpse from Psycho. When that got old, we’d do stuff like put metal can openers in the orbital mixer and hit start to see the thing shoot around; it sounded like dropping a wrench in a large printing press. I manufactured a blood pack from plastic bags and pigment; Joe started a game of seeing who could steal the most can openers a night. We did all of the regular work: dusting off cans, putting away stock, tending to customers, facing shelves, and all of the other usual retail labor. But sometimes, in those non-holiday months, you had nothing to do but listen to Muzak for four hours, and you had to pass the time.

Shortly before I came aboard, our store switched to Nixdorf Point-of-Sale terminals, replacing the old cash registers. These things looked like a slick (at the time) grey PC, with a full keyboard, a tape and form dot-matrix printer, a small greyscale CRT screen on a swing-arm, a magnetic card swipe reader, and a disembodied CPU unit hidden in the counter below, and connected to a main computer, the offices in Chicago, the credit companies, and who knows what else. They gave me a couple of days of training on the machine, but it really took about seven minutes to master them. If you could order food at McDonald’s, you could understand the intricacies of this machine. That meant, of course, that Bev and Pearl were constantly at war with the little grey box. Something as simple as a return and exchange for a different amount would send them into a fit, and I would be asked to step in because I “knew computers”. One of my biggest pet peeves is when someone finds out I’m “into computers” and then asks me to debug something like a garage door opener or a VCR timer. I didn’t learn how to fix a damn toaster in my compilers class, people.

Anyway, I spent a lot of time going through all of the menus on the register, trying to find secret screens or undocumented easter eggs. After hitting all 101 keys in every combination on every screen, I found a way to change the idle screen on the monitor. Normally when you leave the register, you flip around the monitor and it says “Montgomery Ward – Register Closed” with a bunch of asterisks around the text, in an ASCII-art box. Well I found out you can add your own line of text below this, maybe to say “Go to Housewares” or something. Instead, Joe and I found great pleasure from changing it to “Go fuck yourself”, or “Pearl, this is Jesus, you’re going to die.” We had several close calls where we forgot to change a register back and had a manager wondering how the hell the idle screen said “Holiday in Cambodia” or whatever punk anthem we were into that week.

Another time, we were playing with the igniter from a gas grille. It was a push-button assembly with a wire coming off of it, and when you put the wire’s tip near a piece of metal and pressed the button, it would click and shoot a spark across the gap. We had a lot of fun one afternoon shocking each other with the thing, playing games of paper-rock-scissors-electric shock or whatever. Then Joe was ringing up someone’s paint at a register and I found that when you shocked the glass CRT screen, the system FREAKED THE FUCK OUT. The screen would completely blank, even more than when the register was turned off, and all of the peripherals acted like the thing was in the middle of a cardiac arrest, the print heads moving back and forth, spitting out and pulling back in paper. Right when we were ready to fess up and call someone from the front office, we found out that cycling the register to another screen woke it up again and everything was well.

After a few months there, I could take apart the entire Nixdorf terminal with no tools and no keys, in my sleep with the lights turned off, in probably ten seconds. I knew how the printer worked, and was shocked to find out they were paying some doofus 50 bucks an hour to change ribbons and clean printers, when I could do it for nothing. I even had fun taking off the keys and rearranging them, so nobody could type in addresses unless they were a touch typist. Word got out that I could “fix computers”, and I got called to do stuff like unjam printers, pull out shards of documents that were fed wrong, and re-thread ribbons that were totally fucked by people trying to print on cardboard or something.

Wards wasn’t a “real” job, I mean, compared to stuff after college, but it didn’t involve food or wearing a headset and saying “would you like a drink with that?” so it was a big step up for me. There was a dress code, and I had to look reasonably like an adult: dress shoes, no jeans, collared shirt, a tie, and unfortunately, a maroon smock-jacket for the paint department, where I worked. We did have nametags, and “Master Paint Specialist” badges, which Joe and I would use white-out and marker to change to “Master Pain Specialist” or “Master of Puppets” or whatever. Most jobs a sixteen-year-old can get are places that employ “kids”, like fast food or other places in the mall, and everyone worked with other kids their age. But I mostly worked with other adults, and to a certain extent, was given the same respect as one. I mean, Bev still babied us and kept us in our place, but all of our customers were adults who asked us for advice, and I went from being a 16-year-old punk building model airplanes in his basement with Iron Maiden on the stereo to someone who could have a conversation with other adults in a pretty short time.

There were some people my age in other departments, and most of them were female. The fashion department had a constant turnover of beautiful females, and they were all actually nice to me, a change from my hellhole school, where girls wouldn’t talk to you if you didn’t have a Mustang GT. The girls in fashion seemed a bit too “fast” for me, and the turnover there was so high, I could barely start talking someone up before they left for another job. The clothing departments were also way in the front of the huge store, and we were three “worlds” away, way the hell in the back by Automotive. But next to us was the den of eden, Housewares.

I always wondered if the manager of Housewares planned it, or if it just happened by coincidence, but every woman that worked there that was my age was pure beauty. AND nice. Some of Bev’s peers worked in draperies and linens during the day, but at night, all of the help was straight out of my dreams. And they talked to me! And I didn’t own a Mustang GT! When I wasn’t working on my modern art interests, I spent a lot of time walking past the lamp department and flirting with the ladies when they weren’t with customers.

It’s no secret I wanted to get laid. I mean, I was sixteen; I was biologically wired to require masturbation at least four times a day, and aside from contraband Penthouse issues, I had no idea what to expect from the complicated dance of love and/or sex. But I spent a lot of time around Jodi and Michelle, and they both make me wish I had the common sense I have now back in 1987, so I could have lured them back in a stock closet and extricated their undergarments with some sort of Jedi mind trick.

Jodi was a bleach-blonde bombshell, a fraternal twin with a setup much like the current Bush twins. Her sister Jill was the Barbara of the pair; the stunning beauty, the cosmopolitan attitude and better grades, but with a closeted side far worse of the two. Jodi was the Jenna, the party girl who hopped from guy to guy and who everyone presumed was the dumb slut of the pair, although she was genuinely a very sweet girl and smarter than she looked. Jodi was by far the most beautiful girl I’d ever said more than ten words to in my life, and when I was around her, I never felt uncomfortable or fearful that I needed to act larger than my puny life appeared. She always took great interest in my crappy garage band projects and busted-up car, and we hung out after work sometimes, grabbing a bite to eat or just giving her a ride home. I never had a chance with Jodi, but she later tried to foist me on her younger sister Kelly, which was a disaster and is probably a story on its own.

Michelle was older than me, almost ten years older and going to college at IUSB, the regional commuter college. She had long, long hair almost down to her waist and very cute, Scandinavian looks to her. I think she was a psych major, and I wondered if she just listened to my stories because she thought I was crazy, but I could always make her laugh, which much later in my dating career I realized was a Good Thing. In my senior year, I actually hung out with Michelle a bit more, not really “going out”, but hanging out, going to Bob Evans late at night or whatever. I guess she went out with another guy in my department before, but I still enjoyed flirting. I didn’t know at this point the whole office flirting game, the harmless back and forth that happens in every workplace around the world. Half the time, I thought that I was actually gaining ground on someone in the dating arena, only to find out that it was just a little way to pass time when the job got boring, which it always did.

There were, of course, the women that came in to buy paint. This was still the 80s, when women were in the kitchen making babies, at least out in Indiana. The housewives got their revenge by coming in and ordering a thousand bucks of paint and supplies and putting it on their husband’s card. Anyway, I am pretty sure the term MILF had not been invented back then, but we sure knew it back in the paint department. At least once a week, we’d get a real looker back in Four Seasons, and I daydreamed that it would be a Penthouse Forum letter in the making, with her asking me to come over to her house to look at color samples, and maybe see if the carpet matched the drapes. One term that Joe and I did invent was the “over/under”, which was when a woman and her daughter came in, and the woman was just a little too old for our purposes, and the daughter was just a little too young. (Hey, don’t call me a pedo – I was 16, it would have been legal!) Anyway, I had a “regular”, this woman who was about as decent as Jennifer Coolidge, and when I got close enough, she always reeked of alcohol. She didn’t act drunk, but was one of those continually-lit-yet-functional sort of alcoholics. Now, mind you, I’m not saying the top of my sexual fantasy list is Ms. Coolidge, but if I was 16 and she wanted to take me into the back room for some extracurricular paint mixing, I would have been there in a second (and been done in two.)

I have been rambling – this is about like a book chapter, and I haven’t even started. Okay, I’ll get back to this later. Let me know if you enjoyed it.

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Nintendo tapes

I wish I would have kept a journal when I went to high school. Okay, it would have taken more time to carve out the daily entries from the stone tablets way back then, but there are times I wish I had greater memory of day-to-day activities, even if it’s just so I can write another crappy book that’s based on part of my life.

I’ve been thinking back to the past in order to recycle some crap in my head into a new book, and I’ve also been reading threads on SomethingAwful that are absolutely drop-dead hilarious, and I wish I could do something similar. One of the recent threads was about experiences in working at grocery stores, and it contained some of the most hilarious stories about irate customers and general mischief, the sort of thing that is so damn funny because you know there’s no way you could make that stuff up.

And thinking back, I have a lot of funny stories from my days of working at Montgomery Ward back in high school. I worked in the paint department, mixing paint and unloading pallets of boxes of cans, each weighing about ten pounds each. Over the years, I managed to work in almost every department of the store, filling in to get extra hours and unloading trucks at 6AM during the summer for the extra money. I didn’t socialize much during high school because most of my classmates were dicks, so I spent most of my time back in the paint department, huffing mineral spirits and carving wooden paint stirrers into punji sticks and potential ninja weapons.

The general idea of working in a retail store puts you at risk for many encounters with the criminally insane. I don’t know who is responsible for it, but long ago, someone came up with a saying called “the customer is always right”, and that bit of mistruth will make any job behind a cash register sheer hell. There are people who cannot remember how to add two and two who can somehow instantly recite that bit of propaganda. I mean, I would think the small amount of brain matter it would take to store that phrase would also be enough to comprehend why it is impossible to put a lawn tractor on the roof of a Chevette and drive it home, but I’ve seen that one happen.

Monkey Ward was a step up from Target or K-Mart and akin to Sears in their paint offerings. They had their own brand of paint (which was actually superior to almost all other paints, because Wards owned a chemical company from back when it was part of Mobil Oil, and they made an incredible paint for a steal of a price) and we custom mixed it to one of 768 or 932 colors on a chart. We also sold all the fixins’ as far as brushes and drop cloths were concerned, and there were a few bins of wallpaper. But we were peons and jerk-offs, not trained interior decorators. I don’t know how you’re supposed to tell, as there is no accreditation program or professional degree for decorators. You can’t just go, “oh, he has a PhD from Rutgers in wall coverings, he knows his shit.” So I guess price is the only real gauge, and when you’re paying ten bucks a gallon, you aren’t getting shit in the way of design help. Most of the time, people came to me and said “four gallons of #221 in semigloss” or whatever, and I slung that shit out like I was making chocolate shakes in McDonald’s. I’d take their money, tape a can opener to the lid of the shit, and tell them to come back soon. If they got really crotchety about it, I carried the paint to their car, mostly because it gave me a chance to check out the ladies of Housewares on the way back in. But then I quickly forgot the home project in question and went back to seeing what I could break by putting it in the paint mixer.

About once a week though, I’d get one of Them. They would come in with a piece of tile, a scrap of carpet, some wood off of a door frame, a few slips of paper, a magazine cover, and who knows what else. They would then slap all of the shit down on the counter and say “what looks good with this?” I would refrain from saying, “my dick would look good on it, you wanna see?” and tell them that I was, despite my professional appearance as a 16-year-old jagoff who could barely tie his tie plus an ugly maroon paint smock that had more paint explosions than cloth visible, not a professional decorator. My car was six different shades of bondo; I couldn’t match my ties to my shirts, so I bought all white shirts and all grey ties; the biggest thing I’d ever painted in my life were the Led Zeppelin runes in four-foot high letters on public property. And when I told them that they were up shit creek and I would not hold their hand while they compared each of the 863 colors twenty two times to all of their samples, they looked as if I told them I’d just had an anal sexual encounter with their six-year-old daughter. That was always fun.

The paint department lived in Four Seasons, which held a mix of different merchandise, depending on the time of the year. In the summer, the lawnmowers, tractors, and weedeater paraphernalia rounded out the area, with kiddie pools and lawn furniture and the barbeque grills. When fall came around, they moved to snowblowers, plows, and tire chains. And as the season started (usually after July or August), the Christmas trees and lights and toys made our department the default playground, as shoppers dumped their cold virus-saturated bumdles of doom in our aisles the terrorize the shelves and convince us all that breeding was a bad, bad, idea. As the defacto toy department of the store, we also had to field the calls and inquiries about the Big Thing of the year. Cabbage Patch dolls made a comeback one year, and we got exactly four of them from the Franklin Park warehouse. In a strange bit of irony, we got all black Cabbage Patch dolls. Even though these insane screaming mother robots were willing to crack someone in the fucking head for one of these dolls, they would dodge into our store, look at the four remaining items in stock, mentally think “I’m not givin’ mah kid a black doll” and then rush back out to look for a “REAL” cabbage patch. This was Indiana, after all, and a decade before Save the Last Dance came out.

The Nintendo was the sure kick in our collective balls, and that one happened twice in a row. The first time, we got two shipments of four; one in October, and the other on December 24th. We got approximately 427 million phone calls about it for three months straight. I started answering the phone “Montgomery Ward, we have no Nintendos, this is Jon, how may I help you?” 50% of the time, the people would still ask us if we had Nintendos. That remaining four that came in on the 24th was probably a mistake, but when they showed up, I had the front desk page over the intercom that we had them for sale, and they were gone in 20 minutes. Of course, the next year, you’d think they would order 200 dozen of them per store and make up half the company’s profits on game consoles, so they gave us exactly six of them. And twice as many phone calls. And every person that called would ask me, “Do you have any of the TAPES left?” “Do you have any Intendo TAPES?” “TAPES? TAPES?” THEY ARE NOT FUCKING TAPES! THEY ARE CARTRIDGES! THEY CONTAIN A ROM CHIP! NO MOVING PARTS! NO TAPE! NO MAGNETIC MEDIA! IT IS NOT A GOD DAMNED 8-TRACK! “Um, so you got them Mintendo Tapes or not?”

Christmas music was on a loop. It played about 5 hours or so, because there were many times I heard the tape three times. We opened early, we stayed open late, we had extra hours and mad dash sales events and special sales and I usually got a couple of 40-hour weeks, even with school. Our only escape during the day was to go to a boarded-up, cigarette-infested, paneled back room that was our break area, or go out in the mall and fight every fucking degenerate to get a spot in line at the pretzel stand for a lunch of corn dogs and soggy fries. It’s almost sad that I now miss the food at that place, especially considering the number of years it took off my life.

I should talk about this more, because I haven’t even started to discuss the people I worked with. As an aside, this isn’t the stuff I’m researching for a book – I have found a great new idea and I’m working on it, but this is just a way to get the cobwebs out of my head. Anyway, ER is on in 15, so I better get situated.

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