By Robert Wolf
Decorah, IA, USA
(Background: In the fall of 1970 I was out of work in Santa Fe and searching for a job, any job. What I found as a stock boy in a big box store gave me another big chunk of my education.)
My situation was desperate. I had been living off paychecks from a teaching job I had quit six months earlier. The Vietnam War was still grinding on and I was past draft age. I had passed draft age more than a year before and I would have quit teaching sooner had I known it. But now my pay was spent and I was living in a roach infested apartment off a one-way street in a backwater of Santa Fe. I was twenty-six-years-old.
Thanksgiving was approaching and I was searching for work. One day, looking for "Help Wanted" signs as I drove around the city, I spotted one as I drove by a shopping center I had passed many times. A large sign was displayed prominently in a window, belonging to Skanks Drug Store. Skanks was announcing a Grand Opening. "What kind of name is Skanks?" I bellowed. Later, after thinking how humiliating it would be to work as a clerk, I drove over.
The store was huge. Gleaming empty metal shelves stretched on and on. The floor was tiled with brand new squeaking linoleum. The walls were pristine white.
Plenty of other failures had the same idea as me. About a dozen, most younger than I, stood around the front of the store, filling out applications and eyeing one another.
A girl at the checkout counter handed me a form and said, "When you've filled out the form, bring it back and someone will talk to you."
I put down that I had a degree from Columbia University and had taught seventh grade math for two years. I handed the form to the girl and sat back down.
A minute later she called, "Wolf!"
I stood and tried to squeeze out a grin, hoping to look amiable. Next to the checkout girl was a tall, beefy man. She handed him my application.
He looked at it and said, "Hi, I'm John Stark. Why don't you come over here and have a seat."
Mr. Stark asked me why I had left teaching. I said it was not my cup of tea and was looking for something new. He said there was a lot of potential in working for Skanks. Skanks, he said, was a chain of stores and a young man with ambition and drive could go places in it. I nodded eagerly and said I hoped so. He said I should return next Tuesday for another interview.
At the next interview Mr. Garcia, the store manager, was with Mr. Stark. Mr. Garcia was a dark, stout, little Mexican with a big voice. He asked me if I had ambition and I told him I did. He reiterated what Mr. Stark had said, that anyone who was determined to make something of himself could go far in the company. He himself, he said, had begun as a stock boy for Skanks in Las Cruces. I nodded approval. I was beginning to think that I had the job sewed up.
I did not give a damn about amounting to anything in Skanks, or any other drug store. I did not want to be a cashier, an assistant manager, a manager or the president of Skanks. All I wanted was enough money every week to pay the rent and bring in the little food I needed to live on. But Mr. Garcia obviously thought I had what it took to make it big, because he told me I had the job.
"We're going to try you out as a stock boy, Bob. You work hard, do a good job and we'll make it worth your while. For now you'll start at $2.25 an hour."
Two dollars and twenty-five cents an hour was ten cents an hour above minimum wage. But it was better than nothing, which was what I had. I was determined to work hard and get the raise Mr. Garcia made clear was the reward of all loyal Skanks' employees.
The next morning I reported for work and was given an ill-fitting red jacket and a nametag, which said, "Bob." I was led to a group of other new stock boys and stock girls, all eager to make good.
We listened to a lecture from Mr. Stark, who explained that we were allowed twenty minutes for lunch and two ten-minute breaks, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. We were to be at work promptly. Three tardies and we were out, no excuses.
Then he got down to specifics. "Your job is to keep the shelves stocked. Merchandise is kept back of those doors. You will each be given a marker so you can stamp the price on the item before putting it on the shelf." Then he took us back to show us where various items were kept.
Each of us was given a different section of the store. I was assigned dog food, cat food, baby food, diapers, feeding bottles, infant formula, pickles, mustard, ketchup and car accessories.
I felt like a jerk in my red jacket with my nametag. I dreaded the day that acquaintances would come to the store. I had told no one about my new career. My friends had respectable, well-paying jobs or else were self-supporting artists. Here I was a struggling writer from a well-to-do East coast community, a graduate of an Ivy League university about to cart dog food around a drug store.
We were each given a dolly and a razor blade and told to begin carting items out and stacking the shelves. We were a marvel of efficiency. Shelves began filling and stampers clicking. Boxes rose in stacks, cans formed tiers.
I was going to show them I was a model employee. I worked fast, efficiently cutting open the boxes with my razor blade, adjusting the numbers on the stamper, marking the prices and placing the cans onto shelves in neat, straight rows. Dog food, then cat food, then baby food, then pickles. And on and on.
By the end of the second day everything was shipshape and ready for the first customer. Opening day we stood by. Business was slow. I got a few chances to talk to my fellow employees, those I cared to.
A couple of heavily made-up chicks ran the cosmetic counter. Garcia had definite ideas on what types of females could sell cosmetics. One was a Mexican girl with eye shadow, mascara, rouge, red lipstick, long red nails, a bouffant hairdo, black net stockings, big tits, a tight dress and a beauty mark on one cheek. And a red Skanks jacket with a nametag. The other was her double, but Anglo and blonde. Garcia was hedging his bets.
My beat was near cosmetics. I could identify all the employees by sight, like the chicks that ran the liquor department, but did not know them. The people I knew were on my side of the store. My side had a tall blonde kid, a couple of nondescript looking females, a short dyke with mean eyes, a tall dark-haired female named Paula, and a hefty Cherokee named Phil.
As stock boys and stock girls we did not have much opportunity to talk with anyone else; we were not supposed to, unless it was to answer customer inquiries or to ask Mr. Garcia or Mr. Stark a question. We did not chat among ourselves, except on breaks. We talked only to exchange important business information. We socialized among ourselves as we stood around a hot water pot with instant coffee and sucking in cigarette smoke for ten minutes. We definitely never chatted with the chicks that ran cosmetics or liquors. If by some misfortune they had ever passed through the stockroom when we were there, no doubt they would not have said more than hello. We were, we realized, Skanks' lowest caste. The chicks at cosmetics and liquors joked and laughed with the managers who joked and laughed back. After two months at work they were definitely already on the inside track, while we still had months, possibly years, to put in before we could ever get there, if indeed we ever would.
After the first week I realized that at least two of the original workers on my side of the store were gone. I mentioned this casually to Phil and he said, yes, he had noticed it too. By that time, thank God, I had not seen any of my acquaintances. No doubt they had better things to do than to buy at Skanks.
My check was barely keeping me alive. I could not afford a phone, a TV set, a record player, or radio. In fact, I did not want them. I did not even think of wanting them. My mind was focused on more basic items, like how to procure decent food instead of the constant diet of beans, hot dogs, pancakes and sausage I was eating. I ate pancakes and sausage for breakfast, beans and hotdogs for dinner. I could not afford to buy the better brands of hot dogs. Instead, I bought huge packages of hot dogs that were dyed red. Buying my meager food supply, paying rent and buying gas for my car exhausted my earnings. I could not afford to buy a candy bar or anything, no matter how humble, to amuse myself. If, for example, I had wanted to buy an inexpensive board game or puzzle to while away the hours, that would have been beyond my grasp.
By the second week I was called into the office shared by Mr. Garcia and Mr. Stark. I was unloading the dog food when Mr. Stark approached me. "Bob," he said in his southern accent, "Mr. Garcia wants to see you upstairs."
I froze. What exactly had I done wrong?
"All right," I said, and followed Mr. Stark through the swinging doors and up the stairs to the office, which overlooked the store. Skanks, it was clear, understood that the best way for managers to keep a firm grip on the company was not only to position them in offices above the workers, but to install large one-way windows in those offices from which workers could be watched. I knew they had been watching me.
Santa Fe Depot
Mr. Garcia sat behind his desk.
"Have a seat, Wolf," he offered.
He made no move or gesture that would give me a clue as to what was about to happen. I sat down across the desk from him, near the window.
"We've been watching you," he began.
My God, I knew it. Here it comes.
"You're management material," he continued.
My eyes started. I was not going to be sacked after all.
"You're a good worker. You've done a good job, Wolf. This company rewards hard workers. Every manager in this company started out in the lower ranks, where you are. That's because it teaches them the nuts and bolts of the business."
He paused to look out the window. He pointed.
"There goes Eddie Rodriguez."
I looked. I saw a young kid in a red jacket walking towards our side of the store.
"Six months ago Eddie was a stock boy like you. Now he's an assistant manager."
Big deal, I thought. If Eddie Rodriguez imagined that working for Skanks for sixty years was a plum, I felt sorry for him. I knew Eddie Garcia probably lived his entire life in a ramshackle adobe house surrounded by a dirt yard. Now he wanted his piece of the American pie. He wanted a new car and a two-bedroom home with a wife and kids. He wanted polyester suits and ties. He wanted to stand tall next to his friends who were selling cars and insurance.
Garcia continued. "Eddie doesn't have a college education."
I figured Garcia did not have one either, and probably disliked college graduates. He was going to tell me what my college education was worth.
"He's made it the hard way, with hard work. If you decide you want to succeed in life, you can do it with this company. Just keep working hard."
"It's a good company, Wolf," Mr. Stark added.
"All right?" Garcia said, ending the interview.
"Okay," I said, and smiled weakly.
"Now give it hell down there, buddy!" he shot at me.
"Right," I said, and waved as I left.
I began thinking. I had no intention of staying, of course, but as long as I had to work there, I thought, why not be an assistant manager? It never dawned on me that they already had two.
A few days later, as I was drinking coffee with Phil and Paula in the back room, Phil said, "Guess what?"
There was a tone of assurance in his voice, something I had not heard before.
"Garcia and Stark," he said, "called me up for a talk the other day."
Why did I know what he was going to say?
"They think I'm management material."
"Shit!" I said.
"They what?" Paula said. "They think you're management material? You? You've got to be kidding."
"Yeah," Phil said, jabbing a thumb onto his chest. "Me. You're jealous 'cause you'd never make it in this company."
"Who would want to," Paula said.
"Sure, Acid Mouth," Phil said.
We called Paula Acid Mouth. She was more cynical than either Phil or I.
"Phil," I said, "I hate to destroy your illusions, pal, but they just told me that too."
I put down my coffee and bent over the table, laughing.
"No!" Phil roared. "Those bastards!"
Paula laughed. "Management material!"
In the weeks that followed the three of us developed a bond: it was we against Skanks. Against Garcia, in particular. Stark, Phil informed us, was just a good-old Kentucky boy who had grown up poor and was happy to have his job. Phil learned this one evening after work when he and Stark had had a few beers together at the bowling alley across the street.
About that time we began noticing that more and more of the faces we had seen with us at Thanksgiving were gone. We never heard about a firing. No one ever came into the stockroom downcast and poured out his troubles and said he had two weeks to find another job. No. We began to realize that Skanks did not bother with two-week notices. The Skanks' philosophy of management was summed up in two commandments: First, hold out a carrot to the employees to get them trotting; second, fire them steadily to fill them with the fear of God. We knew that eventually we would have to be fired.
I began to hate the job. I was so grossly underpaid that when the head office in Salt Lake City made a mistake on my paycheck and shortchanged me, I had to borrow money from Mr. Stark. Garcia had flatly denied that the company had goofed. "This company doesn't make mistakes," Garcia barked at me.
I accused the company of being a bunch of thieves.
"No one calls me a thief," Mr. Stark said and I nodded.
When repayment did come through, it was not for the full amount and Garcia would not hear any more of it.
By this time it was almost Christmas. Working at Skanks made me feel terrible. It represented everything that was vulgar in American life. Its merchandise was tawdry. Still, I used to gaze lovingly at the shelves of candy—the oversized bags of Hershey's kisses, hard candy, gumdrops, candy bars, licorice sticks. Like Eddie Rodriguez, I wanted my share of the American pie. I used to rearrange the boxes of games like Monopoly and Spy and Tiny Tim's Game of Wonderful Things, and wish that I could have the money to buy even one of them. I would occasionally open the Tiny Tim game to look at the cards and the board. It only cost $4.95, but even that was out of my range.
I was definitely on the outside of American life, and Skanks began to represent the American machine. Guys like Garcia were taking over the country. In revenge I began hanging around the stockroom when no one was watching and rip open big Hershey chocolate bars, break off hunks and eat them greedily. I would stash what was left and return for more delicious mouthfuls after putzing around the aisles. I began spending more time in the stock room.
I was also getting revenge by informing customers if items were defective. Once a woman asked to see a Bozo the Clown doll. She was unable to reach it on the top shelf. To take one down would have meant sending ten of them crashing to the floor. I took particular delight in climbing for it, stepping on the second shelf and hoisting myself up to where I could reach for one.
"How does it work?" she asked.
I read the instructions. According to the manufacturer you pulled a cord and Bozo spoke. This one did not. The string broke.
"It's a wretched little item," I said.
She agreed and left.
I was constantly demonstrating items to people whenever they asked how something worked. That was good business, but I also knew that a good deal of Skanks' merchandise was, for one reason or another, defective. It was essential to my strategy of wrecking Skanks that I demonstrate as many items as possible. I succeeded in killing numerous sales. Furthermore, if a customer seemed intent on buying an item which was chipped or cracked, but otherwise worked, I would tell him to demand a discount.
Eventually enough people were asking for discounts and demonstrations that Garcia called a staff meeting before work one day and told us in no uncertain terms that we were not to demonstrate goods or advise people to ask for price reductions. I was sure he had seen me demonstrating items. Did he know I was suggesting discounts? I felt that my time was coming.
Phil and Paula were as bitter as I. They, too, were taking long coffee breaks and taking more time loading their dollies, stamping cans and boxes, and shelving them. They were spending more time talking with customers. The three of us were going out for beers after work. We talked about what we would do.
I decided to return to teaching, but I would have to take math and education courses to obtain a state teaching certificate. I had already taught for two years on an emergency certificate and two years was the limit for an emergency certificate. Paula said she would go back to school for psychology. Phil wanted to do theater.
Then it happened. One day Phil came into the back room where Paula and I were drinking coffee. He told us bitterly that he had been fired and had to leave at once. A week later Paula was canned.
I barely knew any of the other employees and did not care to know them. Shortly after Paula left I was accepted by a local college. I needed Skanks' paychecks until classes began in January, but it was not in the cards. One day, as I dawdled at hauling the dog food on the trolley, Stark came by and said that Mr. Garcia wanted to see me at once. I knew what that meant.
Garcia was seated behind his desk scribbling on forms and looked up when I came in behind Stark. He threw his pencil on the desk.
"Wolf," he said, "when you came here I thought you were a hard worker. You've disappointed us. You don't care about your work and you don't do much of it. I'm firing you. You'll be sent a check in the mail that'll pay you up till today."
I nodded. I now had joined Phil and Paula on the outside. We still hung out, and we learned six months later that Garcia and Eddie Rodriguez had both been fired. It was obvious why Garcia had been fired, but we were not so sure about Eddie. Stark soon afterwards got disgusted with the company and the Southwest, and returned to Kentucky.
It was strange, but Phil, Paula and I had further adventures ahead of us in Santa Fe. I saw Phil until the day he left for New York to act in an all-Indian theater troupe run by La Mama, Ellen Stewart. Paula and I took classes together at the College of Santa Fe, then went our separate ways until a few years later when, surprisingly, I ran into her on the University of Chicago campus. We were both graduate students. Neither of us was wearing a red jacket with a nametag. Paula, in fact, was elegantly dressed in a fur coat and leading a Borzoi.