Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

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 863 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 told them I was selling their house to the Viet Cong.

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.

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.