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.
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.