From “Withholding.” (Bookarama.)

Bookarama–2003-2004–6 months–Full-Time/Temporary Assistant Manager. Seasonal business.

When a new book fails to sell the bookstore ships it back to the publisher, usually for a discount. The book’s price is marked down, and the book is sometimes defaced, often with a dot or slash from a marker on the top or bottom edge of the pages. Then the “remaindered” book is sold to another bookstore. If a remaindered book doesn’t sell, it’s either thrown away or recycled for pulp.

A company named Bookarama used to deal strictly in remainders. They’d come to a new town, rent a cheap retail space, and sell down the stock over a periods of months, before shutting down and moving to another city. When Bookarama prepared to open a store in Northwest Austin, I was hired to be Assistant Manager.

This was my first full-time job in two years. I’d become convinced that no one would hire me for a full-time ever again, so landing it was a minor boost to my self-esteem. I say “minor” because it was only a temporary job. I still wasn’t sure I could get anything permanent.

We had a small staff. The manager was a young Goth chick named Jennifer, who had long, straight black hair that went down to her ass. She always dressed in black, with knee-high lace-up boots. A few times I took calls from her friends, who always asked to speak to “Wednesday.” I guess that was her name in Goth circles.

Jean was a single woman in late middle age. I think the only thing she devoted her life to was smoking. She always reeked of stale cigarettes, and had grey teeth. The edges of her gums, where they met her teeth, were black. She pretty much kept to herself, waiting for her smoke breaks. She could devote hours just to straightening out one table of books. I never figured out how she was able to drag it out that long.

Leslie was a short young woman. She had the same name, look, and basic biography as the Leslie I worked with at Discount Book City. She also had the same lousy taste in men. She had a boyfriend who was so shockingly ugly it made people laugh out loud. Even she referred to him as “Freak Boy.” Her bottom-feeding philosophy was that an attractive man will treat a woman badly, but an ugly man is grateful for any woman that’ll give him the time of day, and as a result he treats her like a queen. In fact, Freak Boy’s mom was so happy that Leslie was dating her son, she bought Leslie a brand new sewing machine for Christmas that year.

Our regional manager, Jeff, was one of the kindest, sweetest people with whom I’ve worked. He had a twinkle in his eye and was quick with a joke. When he was showing me and Jennifer how to do the accounting paperwork, he told Jennifer to add this, this, and this, then total it up, and write down the figure, followed by the letters “CM.” As a Southern boy, I knew where this was going, but Jennifer was clueless and asked what “CM” represented, and seemed truly baffled when he said “Cash Money.”

Now to complicate matters, Jeff had a boss who was also named Jeff. Jeff #1 we called “Good Jeff” or “Nice Jeff.” And since Jeff #2 was nasty and unpleasant, the others called him “Bad Jeff” or “Mean Jeff.” I was more blunt. I called him “Jeff the Asshole,” or if I was in a more poetic mood, “Jeff the Douchebag.”

Good Jeff stuck around for several weeks to make sure we got opened okay and learned how everything worked. After a few days he decided we needed one more employee. A tall, fat Hispanic kid with  closely-cropped hair came in for an interview. I sized him up and could tell immediately he was the sort of employee that worked okay for a couple days, then turned into a lazy, goldbricking slouch. Sadly, I was proved right. I had no say in the hiring process and Jeff didn’t ask my opinion, and hired this kid, Jonathan, after only a short conversation.

There was something about this punk’s face that made me want to slap him. He was always sneering. His upper lip was perpetually curled up over his upper front teeth, as if he was smelling something that disagreed with him. He gave off the vibe of someone who thought he was smarter than everybody else and was getting away with something. He also had a large, yellow pimple the size of an English pea on the tip of his nose. I worked with this asshole for six months, and every day I looked to see if he’d popped that thing, but he never did.

Jonathan also tried to build up a mystery about his sexual orientation, sometimes claiming he was gay, sometimes straight, sometimes bi-sexual. What he didn’t understand was that when a person slacks off on the job and places unnecessary burdens on his co-workers, they’re not going to be interested enough in him to start speculating about his oh-so-fascinating life.

Jonathan also claimed that I tossed my long hair around like I was Farrah Fawcett. That annoyed me a bit, but not quite as much as I pretended it did.

Jeff the Asshole was very tall–easily over 6′ 5.” His face was badly scarred with acne pocks which he tried to hide with one of those meticulously-maintained and ridiculous-looking George Michael three-day beards that were briefly in vogue in the mid-1980s.

I’ve known a lot of managers like Jeff the Asshole. He thought no one in the company knew how to do the job properly except for him. He believed all employees were goofing off unless he was physically present in a store. He treated us with a rudeness, aggressiveness, and antagonism usually reserved by managers for permanent employees who are locked in for a long sentence. It never seemed to occur to him that we were temps and had little to no dedication to the company.

Jeff the Asshole had a rumbly voice that sounded like a garbage-filled kitchen sink getting unclogged. Like many people in business nowadays, he was addicted to using silly, pretentious, and incomprehensible business jargon. Instead of referring to the front counter or cash register he’d call it the “cash wrap.” During one of his unannounced visits (he usually appeared about once a month) he was taking me around the stock room, barking instructions about “distro” this and “distro” that. Finally, after about ten minutes of this, he asked,

–So, do you have any questions?

–Yes. Just one. What’s “distro”?

(It turns out that distro was prime merchandise, the really good stuff the warehouse shipped to the top-selling stores, in addition to the low-selling or non-selling crap they shipped to everybody.)

Another time he was walking me through the front room, carrying on about “recovery.”

–RECOVERY IS ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS YOU PEOPLE SHOULD BE DOING! IF YOU’RE NOT AT THE CASH WRAP OR WAITING ON CUSTOMERS, YOU SHOULD BE OUT HERE DOING RECOVERY! RECOVERY IS KEY TO THE STORE RUNNING WELL! HAVE ALL OF YOU BEEN DOING RECOVERY THESE PAST FEW WEEKS?!

–I’m not sure.

–HOW CAN YOU NOT BE SURE?! THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING YOU CAN BE DOING OTHER THAN WAITING ON CUSTOMERS!

–Well, I don’t know what the word “recovery” means. If you would tell me what you mean by that term, I could tell you whether we do it.

–STRAIGHTENING UP BOOKS! KEEPING EVERYTHING NEAT AND TIDY AND SQUARED AWAY!

–Well, of course, we’ve been doing that. We do it all the time—me especially. Why didn’t you say that? Why didn’t you just say “straightening books”?

Our store stayed open way too fucking late. Any time I had to close I was at risk of getting stuck up in North Austin with no ride home.

After our first day open to the public Good Jeff kept me and Jennifer late to show us the evening accounting procedure, as I mentioned earlier. He was living at an extended-stay hotel behind the store at the time. When he finished with the bookkeeping lesson, he drove us over to the late night deposit window of a nearby bank, then took me to my bus stop. Fortunately, there was a bus idling on the spot, though according to my watch, the last bus should’ve left some time before.

I got out of Jeff’s car, Jeff drove off, I boarded the bus, and paid my fare. Only then did the driver explain that the bus was out of service.

Then why the fuck was he still he parked there?

I explained my situation. He said he was heading directly from that spot to the bus garage, but would make a detour and drop me off at the North Lamar Transit Center. Once I got there I looked at the master schedule posted on a billboard and learned all the buses all over town had stopped running for the night.

I started walking, walked under a freeway bridge, and south down Lamar. I came upon a late night taco truck parked outside a Tejano dance club, and lined up with all the other workers and bought one hot, steaming taco. Then I walked. All the way down to 51st Street, by which point my feet were blistered and I could hardly move. I had just enough money to call a cab which could take me down to my home on 32nd Street.

The next day I called in sick. I told Jeff my elaborate story, but lied and said the taco had given me diarrhea. In fact, I was just sore from walking and tired from inadequate sleep and wasn’t up for a whole day of standing on a hard concrete floor and breaking my goddamn back.

After my stranding incident, Jeff started giving me rides home if he kept me too late, and after he left I’d get rides from co-workers.

Being Assistant Manager had its advantages, one of which was I wasn’t chained to the fucking register all day long. I did get caught in a few hectic sieges, where I had to ring up a long row of customers—the same scenario that used to stress me out so much at Discount Book City, but whenever possible I’d have the underlings work the register while hid from them and the public back in the Stock Room, receiving shipments, unpacking them, sorting them, putting them out on the table in the front room, and keeping them straight and orderly.

One day, about a week or two after we’d opened, Good Jeff and I were standing up at the register, staring out at the freeway, at the two fly-overs that ran side-by-side for a distance. We wondered if they were close enough that a man could jump from one to the other.

A tall, bearded man in a flannel shirt, with a smug look on his face approached the register. He had a large stack of books under his arm. It was clear to me that he had a prepared speech he was dying to deliver.

–You know, initially I had been a fan of your store,  and liked to spend money here, but I’ve noticed now that it’s taken a change for the worse. You stock homosexual books and other leftist, anti-Christian garbage. You seem determined to indoctrinate the public with this filth. And I just want to say that as long as you continue to stock filthy, pornographic books that promote a homosexual, anti-American, anti-Christian agenda, that you’ll no longer have any of my business.

Jeff began to sputter

–If anything, this company promotes just the opposite. But anyway, we don’t have an agenda. We just put out what they send us.

But the smug man dumped his stack of books on the counter, flashed us a prissy sneer, and walked out of the store.

About the same time I started at Bookarama my doctor diagnosed me with depression. I was aware I’d had depression at least twenty years, but during all that time I thought I could manage the problem on my own through a sheer act of will. I think it was also this time I was diagnosed as having a hypothyroid disorder, which possibly accounted for some of the depression, as well as my difficulty in losing weight and keeping it off….

The doctor put me on Lexapro and I immediately felt better. I thought that at last I was feeling the way normal people felt. Then the side-effects kicked in.

I discovered that my medication made me abnormally sleepy. Pretty much any time I sat down I nodded off, especially when I was riding the bus to and from work.

One day I was scheduled to open. Halfway through the fifteen minute walk from my bus stop to the store I became so sleepy that I didn’t think I could go any further. I came up to a road that divided two strip centers. In the middle of the road was a grassy median with a big decorative boulder on it.

I thought if I could just sit down on that boulder and grab a fifteen minute nap, everything would be okay. But then I realized what would probably happen was that I’d oversleep and be roused by a cop. Since I’d almost certainly seem disoriented and out of it thanks to my medications, and wasn’t carrying any identification, I’d be arrested and booked as a transient.

I somehow managed to make it to the store, but almost fell asleep while I was sitting down doing the morning count of the money for the register drawers.

Not many days later Jeff the Asshole showed up, called me into the office, and threatened to fire me. He said all the staff, including Jennifer, was scared of me, that I’d been barking, snapping, and yelling at everybody, and seemed angry all the time. (Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!) I mouthed some empty words about how I’d try to improve, but I didn’t have the slightest fucking idea what he was talking about.

I did some asking around and figured out these manifestations of bad temper were indeed happening and were a side-effect of my medications. The strange thing is I wasn’t aware they were even taking place. I thought I was acting in a friendly, pleasant manner. I got my doctor to switch me over to a new medication, and everyone said they noticed the change immediately, and my co-workers ceased to be scared by me.

One day a black woman approached Jennifer and asked if we carried modern African-American fiction. She said she didn’t know, but that she was sure I would. She made the puzzling comment,

–If anyone’s our expert on African-American fiction, it’s James.

Now I don’t make a habit of reading modern African-American fiction, but I had put most out most of the books we had on display. Nothing was arranged by title or author—we just had tables for fiction, cooking, religion, and so forth. But I had noticed quite a few novels that featured black people caught in romantic embraces on the cover. And I remembered where I’d put each one of these books.

The customer was delighted, and bought everything I showed her. It turns out she was a member of an African-American ladies book club, and within a few days, all her friends started showing up in the store, wanting more novels. I had dug around in the Stock Room, in our fiction boxes, specifically looking for African-American titles. And I learned the names of some of the major writers in that genre.

This got to be such a  big thing that I got permission from Good Jeff to gather up all the African-American novels in the store and build a display table specifically for them, in the center of the store. It was a huge success.

Despite the ever-present threat of Jeff the Asshole showing up unexpectedly and making everyone’s life miserable, my co-workers and I did have a few laughs at the store. One day I was walking from the bus stop to the store when I got caught in a torrential rain and sought shelter at a Whole Foods store. It was so heavy that had I stepped out in it for thirty seconds I’d have been soaked to the skin and would’ve had to wear sopping wet clothes the rest of the day at work.

I called the store and Jennifer and Jean said they’d drive over and pick me up. But even a quick dash from the Whole Foods front door to a waiting car would’ve gotten me wet, so I started covering myself with plastic bags. The women drove up and I ran to the car, but by the time I got there the only plastic bag that had stayed on was hanging by the handles from my shoulders, down over the chest, like a flimsy, plastic bra.

Another time Leslie walked by me and sang a few bars of a catchy, but annoying tune, knowing it would stick in my head and drive me nuts. As far as I was concerned, this meant war, so for the next two days I sidled up to Leslie every couple hours, implanting a new annoying song into her head, until she screamed, gave up, and declared me both the winner and a master of torture.

Most of the time I worked the morning shift and did the opening procedures by myself. I’d go into the office, unlock the safe, take out the money, then count out a certain amount for each register drawer. Then I’d go into the Men’s Room, spread some paper on the seat, take a long, leisurely morning dump while reading the paper, then get up and unlock the front door and let the other staffers inside. If it was a really cold morning and I was opening with Jonathan I’d hide in back as long as I could so he would freeze.

About six hours later I’d take my mid-afternoon dump.

So this one day I went in to take my afternoon dump, unhitched my belt, pulled down my pants, and discovered that I’d had a one-and-a-half foot long toilet paper tail hanging out of the back of my pants all day long. I later went up to the register and asked my co-workers if they’d noticed this and of course they had. No one laughed harder about it than me.

A new edict was handed down. I learned that Bookarama, like Discount Books before it, had this silly, arbitrary rule that employees had to purchase the books they’d put on hold within a very short time frame. Naturally I had a huge amount of books set aside, and because I wasn’t being paid much, it was taking me awhile to buy them all.

Since Jeff the Asshole had a nasty habit of showing up unannounced, and spending an entire day in the store, looking for things we doing wrong and yelling at us, and since this seemed like just the sort of trivial bullshit he’d go ballistic over, I had to find a place to hide my books.

Originally I kept my holds where everyone else kept theirs—on top of the counter in the break room.  Then I boxed the books up and hid them in the empty cabinets under the break room counter. But that seemed too obvious.

The previous occupant of our retail space had a coffee bar or tea shop in the far back corner of the front room.  This little kitchenette was now abandoned and filled with boxes and crap. For a time I stored my boxes of books there, but even that seemed like something Jeff the Asshole might poke his pocked nose into.

Our front window displays consisted of stacks of empty boxes, covered with plastic tablecloths, with the books stacked up on top.  Out of desperation I finally took these displays apart, replaced the empty boxes with my boxes full of books, covered them with tablecloths, and rebuilt the displays. I could keep an eye on my treasures any time I was up at the register and Jeff the Asshole would never be any the wiser.

We had a Babies R Us store next door, and as a result, a lot of young parents with babies and small children. For the first time in my life, I found myself charmed and enchanted by some of these kids, and often at the register I made faces at the babies. At the time I was reading a lot of books about adoption, trying to figure out if that was something I wanted to do one day when I had a steady income.

This did not mean that I had suddenly become a fan of all children everywhere. We had plenty of suburban entitlement parents who came in with their little screaming monsters, letting them run amuck and tear up the store. These people made no attempt to control their kids or clean up after them, because they arrogantly assumed that was what the minimum wage store clerks were there to do….

Jonathan was becoming more and more brazen in his laziness. One night I came out of the Stock Room and found him sitting on a shelf behind the register with his legs propped up. I said,

–You know, I know you don’t give a shit, but could you at least pretend that you do?

And he just gave me that “I-smell-a-Bad-odor” lip curl of his.

I came in one afternoon to find policemen milling about. It turns out the store had been robbed the night before. There was no sign of forced entry. Apparently the thief or thieves had just hidden somewhere in the store a few minutes before closing, and the staff—me included!–had gone through our usual closing procedures, then locked the thief inside the store and left. The thief then had the rest of the night to break in to the office, pry open the piece of shit safe with a crowbar, grab the $200 or so we had left in the safe to put in the register drawers the next day, then snip the alarm wire on the back door and walk out.

I was thoroughly creeped out at the idea of someone hiding in the store as I was making my evening rounds. What would’ve happened had I found someone lurking in one of the nooks and crannies? It seemed like all my childhood boogie man fears realized.

We learned that we were lucky. A week before, the Borders bookstore a few blocks away had been robbed on a Saturday night—two Saturdays before Christmas—one of the most profitable sales days of the year. Apparently the thief knew that the Borders managers never made a bank deposit on Saturday nights—they just left the day’s cash in the safe overnight. The thief made off with between $20,000 and $50,000.

One night after closing Jennifer worked on the day’s accounting and discovered a major discrepancy and short-fall. She called the home office and with the assistance of Leslie they eventually traced their way through the day’s transactions and figured out that Leslie had been the unwitting victim of a very good short-change artist.

When I came in to work the next day Leslie’s eyes were swollen and her face was red, because she’d just gotten off the phone with Jeff the Asshole. He’d chewed her out so badly and threatened her with firing that she’d started crying. It was totally uncalled-for.

It was a shame this was only a temporary job. I really would’ve loved having the leisure to figure out ways of getting retribution from Jeff the Asshole.

One day I was straightening books in the Self-Help section when I got hit with a stabbing, sharp pain in my chest and my left armpit. This is it, I thought. The fatal heart attack  you’ve expected all your adult life. I staggered and wobbled on my feet, caught hold of a column with my left hand and the unsteady edge of the table with my right. And I prayed,

–Oh God! I don’t mind you killing me, but please—not here! Somewhere else…home…out in the street…but not in this awful place!

And the pain passed….

Right after Christmas the store’s sales dropped dramatically, which was no surprise. We had been one of the most profitable stores in the country for the chain, but now we were limping along. The warehouse stopped sending us “distro”–now all we got was crap that had been pawed over again and again and ignored. We were told we’d close in February, after a six month run.

We got the word that Jeff the Asshole had quit the company for a new job someplace else. This felt like a hollow triumph. I never got the chance to settle scores with that prick.

We had a ton of empty boxes in the Stock Room. My book collection at home was getting out of hand, and I was told I could take as many boxes as I wanted. So one evening Calvert and Lloyd from the Barry Brookman campaign backed up a truck to our loading dock and I grabbed a few hundred flattened boxes.

Shipments had stopped. Everything that we didn’t sell or give away in our final days was to be boxed up and sent on to the next city.

Oddly enough, I wasn’t scheduled to work the last two or three days the store was open. After the last day Jennifer called to tell me how everything had wrapped up. Not surprisingly, Jonathan had just stopped showing up, leaving the store short-handed and forcing everyone else to do a lot of extra work.

For a month after the store closed I stayed in my apartment and packed up many of my books into my new boxes. It seemed like a good idea at the time….

Around 9:30pm on March 31st, 2004, I took a shower. My plans after that were to job hunt online for about an hour, then watch a movie. But I had just dried off and put on socks, underwear, a T-shirt, and my ratty bathrobe when I heard sirens, and they were getting louder and louder.

Now I was fairly used to hearing sirens. There were three hospitals within walking distance of my apartment, and it always seemed one of the elderly residents was having a spell and calling an ambulance. Indeed, that had happened about two nights before.

I tied the belt of my bathroom and went outside to investigate. I saw LOTS of fire trucks pulling up and parking, and firemen running towards me. I walked down to the end of the porch and looked around the corner and saw the roof of the south-eastern wing of the building engulfed in flames. The information didn’t process properly. I assumed someone had burnt their dinner, had a minor kitchen fire, and the fireman would spray it out in a few minutes.

I went back inside, put my dog Fred on a leash, and failing to grab my wallet, keys, or any of my valuables, walked out and stood across the street to see how this played out.

The crowd got larger and more fire trucks and firemen arrived. We found out later that the City had the water pressure turned down in our part of town, so it took about forty-five minutes for the pressure in the hydrants to build up to a level that was high enough to fight what was now a five-alarm fire.

The fire whipped through the open attic and shot out the gable on the north end of the roof—my end. A team of firemen ran into the ground floor, north-south breezeway, then about five to seven minutes later ran back out again. When firemen run away from something you know there’s reason to worry.

I stood there in shock, terrified I’d lose all my belongings, holding Fred’s leash with one hand and running the other through my hair as I muttered,

–Oh my God! Oh my God! This is not happening! This is not happening!

Eventually the residents were all escorted to a nearby parking lot. We were questioned. A few news crews interviewed me and others. A City bus pulled up to take anyone who had no other place to stay to a shelter. I wandered among milling crowds.

I was wavering towards a man who was looking at me, not immediately aware that he was talking. Then I got my sense of hearing back. Then I realized he was not only talking, he was yelling. Then I realized he was yelling my name. Then I realized he was my friend Tim.

He’d seen a live report on the fire on TV and had come to get me and Fred. We walked along the west side of the building. The fire was still going on, but it seemed like it was finally, after several hours, under control. From what I could see my apartment unit was okay. Just as we approached Tim’s car Fred got upset and started jumping and squirming. He’d been fine throughout the whole ordeal, right up to that moment.

We went to Tim’s house in South Austin and dropped off Fred. Then, at around 1am, we went to a 24-hour Wal-Mart so Tim could buy me a pair of pants. I walked in wearing my bathrobe and slippers and no one gave me a second look. Then he drove me to the G&S Lounge and bought me a much-needed drink….

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