Discount Book City–1995-98–3 1/2 years–Full-Time Sales Clerk and Book Appraiser.
[I had planned to move to my parents’s house in the country outside of Bellville, Texas for the summer of 1994 in order to help my parents out, since my father was gravely ill and my mother had to both nurse him and look after a sixty-acre property. But when my father died in May my mission changed to providing my mother with company during the early months of her grief. This arrangement didn’t work out and eventually I was asked to leave.]
…I finished my degree requirements. My mother said there was no need to order a cap and gown, since after twelve years there was nobody to go see me graduate. [My father was dead, my grandfather was in a nursing home, and none of my friends still lived in Huntsville.] She told me to have my diploma mailed to me.
I went to Austin to job-hunt. But I was so fucked-up with grief that I just wanted to get back to Bellville. I talked myself into believing I hated Austin.
I went to visit friends in Bryan/College Station. I learned that Texas A&M University had build a branch library on the far side of its campus, and that over thirty people would be transferred from the Main Library over there. This seemed like a great opportunity to get a library job.
I met with Carrie Powell, Head of Library Personnel, explained my situation, and said I was trying to decided if I wanted to go to library school. I didn’t have library experience, but always wanted to work in a college library, and had excellent library and research skills and knew a great deal about books. Powell was encouraging, and told me they had a program for employees who were going to library school, as well as a scholarship. They even had a carpool that took student employees to class at the UT Library School three times a week. She said she thought a job at the Sterling C. Evans Library would be excellent training for me. The last thing she said as she escorted me to the door was,
–Don’t worry—we’ll find you something.
I went back to Bellville. As per Powell’s instructions, every couple weeks I’d call her for the latest library job postings, then mail in an application for the ones that sounded like a good fit….
I’d given up on Austin. Bryan/College Station looked like a good place to ride out the next few years. I found an apartment in a friend’s apartment complex. I signed a one-year lease. But when I got into the car and my mother started driving us back to Bellville I got a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach, and a realization that I’d made a huge mistake….
I [did not have]…fun in Aggieland. I kept applying for library jobs, but nothing was happening. Bryan/College Station was spread out, and had almost no buses, and the taxis were few and over-priced. I bought a bike and learned how to ride it.
I started hanging out at a coffee house near my apartment. It tried very hard to give off an Austin vibe, but failed. I tried to make friends the way I had in Austin—by striking up conversations with the Texas A&M students sitting over at the next table or couch. But I learned that despite their superficial good manners, the Aggies are very cliquish. If they don’t already know you, they probably never will. In fact, the only people who would talk with me readily were the ones that made my coffee….
Aggies are obsessed with the notion that their campus descended, perfectly formed by God’s Own Hand, from heaven. Going to A&M is the central experience in life, and Aggies are seen as a Chosen People.
Now as for me, I’ve never understood school spirit. It’s like an even sillier and more illogical form of nationalism. One university is more or less like another. The buildings and location may differ. It may be hard or easy to get admitted. The tuition may be expensive or modest. The school may have certain academic or athletic strengths. But overall, the college experience is going to be mostly the same, and because of that, I’ve never seen why some schools make such a big fuss over trivialities, especially such nonsense as athletic rivalries.
Aggies are obsessed with what they call “traditions.” Even local print and broadcast advertisements refer to certain businesses as “A proud Aggie tradition since 1967.” Indeed, I often joked that if I wandered into the middle of College Avenue in Bryan/College Station every day at noon, dropped my pants and took a shit on the pavement, after a week my behavior would be hailed as “a proud Aggie tradition.”
Most of the traditions were connected to either initiation of freshmen, football games, graduation, or the commemoration of the dead. (The campus has so many monuments to dead Aggies it looks looks like a fucking cemetery.) Most of these rituals are of the sort that largely died out on American college campuses after the end of World War II—because your average returning GI, after having bayonetted 26 Japs before his 19th birthday, did not have the patience to listen when an Upper Classman several years his junior tried to insist that he wear a beanie, swallow a school of goldfish, and carry five Bing cherries in his asshole for fifty yards as part of Freshman hazing.
But nonsense of a similar spirit persisted at A&M.
I’ll give one example: The Elephant Walk.
This is conducted shortly before graduation. Aggie Seniors gather, and start walking in the manner of a dying elephant, with one arm dangling limp like a trunk, and one leg dragging behind them. They walk pass all the familiar sites on campus, all the places where they took classes or had fun with their friends. They walk, full-clothed, through the “Fish Pond,” the fountain where Freshman are dunked, before finding a quiet place somewhere on campus to crumple up and “die.” It’s like a secular version of the Stations of the Cross, but for retards.
For years, right before A&M played their arch-rival the University of Texas in football, the Aggies would build a giant bonfire, then set it alight to symbolize their “burning desire to beat the hell outta TU.” (Aggie humor is so puerile that Aggies consider inverting the letter UT to be a great and hilarious insult.)
The Aggies would expend a great deal of time, sweat, and engineering expertise each year to construct this stack of wood, and many students regarded their time working on the bonfire as an important rite of passage (albeit one of the dozens of such rites that are liberally distributed throughout an Aggie’s academic life).
About a year after I left Aggieland there was a major accident during the construction of the bonfire. Several students were killed and many were injured. Some of the parents of the dead made the ignorant statement that now, more than ever, it was important for the school to continue with the bonfire tradition (although I think several parents changed their minds and eventually sued the school). But as soon as word of the tragedy hit Austin, UT students and staffers, including many football players, rushed over to College Station to help in the rescue efforts, while other donated blood.
The behavior of the people from UT took the Aggies totally by surprise. One was quoted as saying he was going to have to completely re-evaluate the way he thought about the Texas Longhorns, that maybe they were people like him after all.
That statement summed up the Aggie mentality for me. Texas Longhorns have always considered their football rivalry with the A&M Aggies as just that—a sports rivalry, whereas the Aggies consider the rivalry a Miltonian conflict between the forces of good and evil.
I continued to apply for jobs with the A&M Library. I was called in to interview for two of them. I’d always been taught to follow up when job-hunting, to let your potential employers know you’re interested, so I went to the Library to say hello to the heads of the various divisions to which I was applying. Generally, these people reacted as if I’d walked in on them taking a shower.
Carrie Powell called me. She said these division heads had called her to complain about me, and said I was not to make any contact with these people, that everything would be handled through the Office of Library Personnel. Face-to-face contact was a no-no at the Library.
Time passed. I kept applying. Nothing happened. I kept calling Carrie Powell and asking what was going wrong. But she never gave me a straight answer.
Finally, early in 1995, my bank balance dipped below $1,000. I had to do something quickly. I called Carrie Powell and asked where why no one in the Library was interested in me. Did I have a stink on me? Had I written something wrong on my application? Was there something in my past work history that was holding me back? She sighed and said,
–Well, J___, if it’s anything, it’s that you have no library experience.
I see. What about your comment that working at the Library would provide me with that experience? What about your promise that you’d find me something?
But I didn’t have time to argue with that bitch or point out how she’d lied. I had to find a job.
I had trouble finding something. I wasn’t an Aggie alum. I wasn’t part of the Good Old Boy network. Aggies do favors for Aggies and to fuck with the rest of the world.
I interviewed with Gordon Tilden, manager of Discount Book City. I played up my book knowledge and my long years as a customer of the store in Houston and Austin. Gordon sensed I was adrift after getting my degree, casting around, trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life.
I said that ideally I wanted to move back to Austin. Could I work for his store and transfer to Austin later?
He made an offer: work at the Bryan store for a year, and then he’d look into transferring me to Austin after that.
It was my first official full-time job.
It was to be the worst job I ever had.
Gordon Tilden was the first of the three managers I dealt with at the store. He was a tall, chubby, sci fi/fantasy geek who liked to express his annoyance by using silly, archaic terms such as “Drat!” or “Blast!” Amazingly enough, he was married.
He was lackadaisical about my training, and tended to procrastinate. By the time I met him he’d been with the company for three years and was clearly sick of everything about it. On days when the weather was nice, he often came down with mysterious stomach complaints right after lunch, and would take the rest of the day off sick. But then he’d be spotted in Hastings later checking out the latest video games.
Staffer Bert got ambitious, and any time Gordon did something wrong, he’d wait for Gordon to go home, then sneak back into the office and call the Regional Manager, Rita, and tattle. Eventually Rita fired Gordon the day he got back from a vacation, and replaced him with her lickspittle, Bert. Six months to a year later, Gordon’s mother called the store looking for him, and was shocked when I told her he didn’t work there anymore.
Bert Edmunds was of medium height, stocky, with a short black beard. He resembled the comic actor Jack Black, which may explain why I’ve never been able to abide Black.
Bert was a college drop-out with mild pseudo-intellectual pretensions. He did read, but he knew he had limits. He couldn’t spell worth a shit, and because of this, he never wrote memos.
He dipped wintergreen-flavored Skoal, but instead of spitting the leavings into a tiny can or cup, he swallowed them. When he perspired, which was often, the chemicals and flavoring from the Skoal would come out in his sweat and stink.
There was a fast food restaurant in town that was known for its burritos. For lunch, Bert would get the special—a huge burrito that was as big around as my arm. And for the rest of the day the whole store would stink of Bert’s farts.
Bert had a history of sexually-transmitted diseases. He had mental problems. He complained to his co-workers that his depression medications made his dick go limp.
Bert liked to flirt with his female co-workers. Generally, they were creeped out.
Bert didn’t know how to manage his time. He started several projects a day, but seldom finished anything. The more he left unfinished, the more stressed out he got. Several times I suggested to him,
–Look, I know I’m gonna be here eight hours. One hour is lunch. I’ll probably be on the register two hours and not be able to get away, and on the Buy Counter for two or three hours. So I just try to figure out what I can get done that one day in the time that’s left. I know there will be plenty left for me to do the day after that.
But he said,
–I’m sorry J____. I have too much to do to try it that way.
Bert sneaked around and gossiped and tattled and got his boss fired, then took over his job. It became obvious to him as well as the rest of us that he’d bitten off much more than he could chew. But rather than resigning or taking a demotion, his pride, stubbornness, and dogged ignorance made him press forward, even as his behavior threatened to bring the whole business crashing down around our heads.
Andy Hoover was slim, with long, stringy hair, a perverted sense of humor, and an excellent taste in movies, music, and books. He was generous about lending me selections from his movie library, and was one of the three serious book collectors on our staff.
Andy’s chief job in the store was to process certain books when they arrived from the warehouse, track their progress, and re-order those that sold well. Later on, he became the third manager under whom I worked at that store.
Andy was rumored to be the most talented musician in town. Over the years, he repeatedly invited me to come to his band’s concerts, but I never took him up on it. I never meant to insult him or hurt his feeling, but I was just too depressed. I never felt like going out.
Andy had led a colorful life. When he went record shopping at the College Station Hastings one afternoon, he looked up to discover the Ramones standing opposite him. No one else in the store recognized them. He introduced himself. They said they were in town to play a concert at the University, and were staying in the Holiday Inn nearby. They asked if he could drive them to an adult bookstore where they could find some porno mags.
One of Andy’s friends was responsible from bringing distinguished speakers to come lecture at the University. One year they brought in Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg’s opening line at the lecture made half the room recoil and the other half roll in the aisles:
–Well, I see you people here at Texas A&M University are still letting the American military-industrial complex fuck you up the ass!
After the lecture Andy was invited to a private party at the organizer’s house. Ginsberg was reciting his poems and playing the bongos. A big jug of wine was circulating through the room. Andy ran out to his car to get his acoustic guitar so he could play accompaniment.
Later on, the organizer asked Andy if he’d drive Ginsberg to his hotel, since it was on Andy’s way home. Andy helped Ginsberg with his luggage. At the door to his hotel room, Andy told Ginsberg it had been an honor meeting him. Ginsberg asked,
–Well, how about it?
–How about what?
–Well, they say once you’ve had your cock sucked by an old Jewish poet, you’ll never go back.
–Oh…wow. Man…I’m…I’m very sorry, Mr. Ginsberg, and I’m very flattered, but I am very, very straight.
Ginsberg smiled, shrugged, and unlocked his door.
Ginsberg hung around Bryan/College Station for several days, for some fucking reason. The day after the lecture he did a book signing at Discount Book City. (This was before Andy started working there.) The line stretched out the door. Ginsberg craned his neck, saw Andy standing back there with a stack of books he wanted autographed, and called out,
–Hey, boy! How’s your asshole feeling today?
An embarrassed Andy said,
–Intact! No thanks to you!
A few days later the lecture organizer asked Andy if he’d drive Ginsberg to the local airport. He helped Ginsburg with his luggage, shook hands, and again said that meeting him had been an honor. Ginsberg took his bags, walked off about ten feet, turned around, ran back, and planted a big, wet kiss square on Andy’s lips. He giggled, and as Andy stood there stunned, ran off to catch his plane.
Allen Ginsberg died while I was working at DBC. Naturally, I teased Andy about this:
–You blew your chance, man. You could’ve been an art widow. You’d be worth millions today, if you’d only played the game.
Preston Archer had been with the store longer than anyone else—five years—and was the Assistant Manager in fact, if not name. The bosses were all in awe of him, because he seemed to be able to remember every book that had come in or out of the store over those five years. He could remember an A&M professor taught a certain class that required a certain book, that he taught it every two years, and that it was now time for him to teach that class again. He worked heard and almost never took time off, so the bosses thought him a godsend. They let him do anything he wanted.
Preston was a work martyr. He came to work early and stayed late. He came to work on his days off. Sometimes he skipped lunch. If he did take lunch, he took it away from the store, because he didn’t like to be seen sitting down. As is the case with all work martyrs, none of his co-workers knew who he was doing all this for. No one knew who he was trying to impress.
Preston was an ascetic. He was close-mouthed about his private life. Supposedly he shared an apartment with a female friend. He slept in a tiny space on the floor of a bedroom furnished only with boxes. He had a small wardrobe—a handful of short-sleeved and long-sleeved shirt, a pair of black jeans, a pair of grey jeans, one pair of black shoes, a light grey coat for winter. His clothing was plain, bland, and clean. His hair was cropped closely to his scalp. He walked everywhere.
Preston did collect books and some music. He was occasionally capable of making or appreciating dry observations.
Preston was the most tightly-wound person I’ve ever known. He seemed to carry around a great deal of resentment, though he didn’t really express it. He clearly thought himself the only person in the store who knew how to do his job properly. He spoke to, ordered around, and generally treated the regular staffers with a level of rudeness I’d never before seen in a workplace. He barked at me, humiliated me in front of customers, and made my life miserable.
He told one of my co-workers that he saw it as part of his job to run off employees—at least those who couldn’t measure up to certain standards. In many ways he was like a drill instructor in a military boot camp.
Autumn was tall and skinny, with long, blonde hair. She was a gardening expert and had an abnormal fondness for Birkenstock sandals. She’s get very excited whenever she saw a customer wearing a pair, as if they were an indication of membership in some secret society.
Like many people at the store, Autumn was usually in a bad mood. She burst in on me once while I was sitting on the toilet in the employee restroom, and had the gall to get angry at me. I told her she wouldn’t have had to see me like that had she only had the common decency to knock.
Melissa was short, with short black hair, and a short temper. She was always annoyed about something. She was one of the two girls that ran the Children’s Room before both got sick of it, announced they were not going to work in there anymore, and I took over.
Melissa had recently toured Europe. The highlight of the whole trip was that she and a friend stopped into a crowded pub in Prague and had to share a table with a man. He seemed miffed that they didn’t recognize him. They looked at him and finally concluded,
–Oh, you’re…that guy.
He finally had to introduce himself as Richard E. Grant.
Melissa gave me her hamster. Why she was getting rid of her I have no idea. I named her “Henrietta Miller B____,” after Henry Miller. She lived about a year, and after she died I buried her in a glass jar in the woods beside my apartment complex.
Melissa was dating a guy named Daniel, who was a Jewish, South African veterinary student. I told them how Fred seemed distressed, and kept exuding this vile smelling goo out of his rectum. (And no, it wasn’t shit.)
Daniel said it sounded like Fred needed to have his anal glands expressed, that usually that goo is passed on with the stool, but sometimes it gets backed up and has to be removed manually by a vet. Since I didn’t have the money for that, he offered to come over and do that for me. A day or so later, Daniel and Melissa came over, Daniel wrapped his hand in some paper toweling, and pressed his fingers on specific spots on either side of Fred’s rectum. More goo came out, and Fred seemed relieved. For the remainder of his long life, Fred never had that problem again.
I was telling this story the next day to my male co-workers and they expressed disgust. One of them said,
–That’s nasty. Why would Daniel even want to do such a thing?
And I explained,
–Well, look at it this way, if you had to sleep with Melissa every night, I bet you’d probably find sticking your hand up a dog’s asshole to be a pleasant change of pace.
Regina Pulaski was a young mother whose marriage to a pothead restaurant cook was dying by inches. She wanted out. She wanted better.
From the way Regina told it—and I never had cause to doubt her—she was a Siren. Men met her and lost their fucking minds. Some of the time she would respond to them. Most of the time she didn’t. But they never forgot her. And they never got over her.
Regina and I did not get along at all initially. But we eventually bonded over two things we had in common: 1) She had a son she loved more than life, whom she spoiled shamelessly. I had a dog I loved more than life, whom I spoiled shamelessly. 2) We both had big mouths. Neither of us could shut up talking about the crazy, fucked-up adventures we’d had in our lives.
I told Regina that one day I would write a novel based on her life.
Cathleen Coleman was from a rich San Antonio family, a Catholic girl who desperately wanted to be an East Coast Jew, the same way I’ve always wanted to be a British aristocrat. She looked like a cross between Amelia Earhart and Bjork, loved T. S. Eliot and “The Simpsons,” and was studying Jamesian pragmatism.
She made the most shocking jokes at my expense. When she helped me prepare a new resume when I was getting ready to go job-hunting in Austin in 1998, I gave her a first draft. She jotted commentary all over the margins. Next to my list of interests she wrote,
–“And I like little boys….Mmmm, little boys…”
Once, in the Stock Room, she was berating me in front of a few other co-workers. She got me so frustrated, I said,
–Goddammit! You frustrate me so fucking much! You and my mother are two-of-a-kind!
–Why’s that—because we both call you on your bullshit and neither of us will sleep with you?
I was so horrified the only thing I could do was laugh.
Vincent Hoffmann was hired the same time I was. We used to got off to one side and talk about how stupid most of our co-workers were. He said one of his chief memories of the store was when he’d work in his section, and hear, from halfway across the room, the sound of me heaving sad and desperate sighs.
He was a very conservative and devout Catholic, from a family of seven children. He had a girlfriend, Bernadette, who headed up a local anti-abortion crusade. He also was a professed foot fetishist. I tried to explain to him that the whole point of a fetish was that it was something you kept to yourself.
Vincent was responsible for the religion section as well as the New Age books, which he referred to as “newage,” pronouncing it like “sewage.” A New Age customer once chewed him out for shelving the black magic books next to the white magic ones, because she said the former sucked all of the strength out of the latter.
Vincent and Bernadette eventually moved into separate apartments in my complex. One night, when Vincent was working and I was home there was a power outage. I stuck my head out the door and saw the whole neighborhood was dark. Bernadette was standing by the front entrance to the complex. I wandered over there and she introduced me to her roommate, Cindy. We talked about the outage, and I said,
–Yeah, I was just getting ready to give Fred a back massage when the lights went out.
Cindy suddenly made an odd harumphing noise and turned and walked away. I found out the rest of the story the next day from Vincent.
When he got off work that night he’d gone by Bernadette’s and she’d said they’d seen me. Cindy was in quite a huff:
–I can’t believe they allow those where you work.
–What are you talking about?
–I can’t believe they allow people like that to work in your bookstore.
–People like what?
–J____ isn’t a homosexual.
–But he said he was getting ready to give some guy named Fred a back massage.
–Fred is his Basset Hound.
One evening around 2am I took Fred for a walk and saw Vincent sitting out in front of his apartment. We talked for awhile, then saw a large old car drive in, and pull up beside a dumpster at the far end of the parking lot. School had just ended, so it wasn’t uncommon to see dumpster divers come by and prowl through the trash to see if any people had left good stuff behind when they moved out. Foreign students often tossed appliances, full sets of dishes and pots and pans, and perfectly good pieces of furniture because they couldn’t take all that stuff back on the plane home.
But after these guys poked around in the dumpster they pulled over to the front office. And as Vincent and I watched, they jumped out and loaded two newspaper honor boxes into their trunk and sped away.
We called the cops. They showed up about an hour later.
Two months later I got a knock at my door. It was a stocky middle-aged police detective, wearing a loud polyester suit that looked like the seat cover to a ’71 Chevy Impala:
–I’m Bryan PD Detective Steve Tyler.
I suppressed an urge to make an Aerosmith joke, but still asked,
He grimaced slightly. He’d heard that before.
–Just Steve Tyler….This is concerning the theft of the newspaper honor boxes which you reported on such-and-such date.
–Yes, I’d almost forgotten about that.
–Unfortunately, we have had no leads and the case seems to have reached a dead-end. We were, however, contacted by the landlord of a local apartment. One of his units had been recently vacated, and the residents had left behind several newspaper honor boxes which appear to have been pried into, and there was a good deal of loose change scattered around on the floor.
–Well, Detective, I’m no expert, but that sure sounds like a lead to me. Maybe you should start by asking the landlord the name of his former residents.
Billy Moore was a tall slacker, a bullshit artist, and pseudo-intellectual. He was always trying to seduce bookish college girls. He’d buy up books he thought were “intellectual”–usually the literature and philosophy titles I wanted—read the first and last pages, then skim the contents. Then when he’d meet a smart girl, he’d dazzle her with his superficial knowledge and lure her into the sack.
Billy believed that it was inevitable that I would one day become a great writer, because he thought I looked like one. He mentioned this to Preston, who pointed out that I did greatly resemble the famous picture of Balzac with his hand on his chest.
Billy’s nickname for me was “Jimmy the Hat,” a reference to the cap I’d wear in the winter. He had to explain to me that “jimmy hat” was a slang term for a condom.
He was a funny guy. One day I was working the register and a desperate woman walked in and said,
–My son’s been reading an R. L. Stine “Goosebumps” book for a book report. He almost finished it, and then he lost the book. The report’s due tomorrow! I’ve looked all over town—Hastings, Barnes and Noble, Wal-Mart, the libraries, and I can’t find a copy anywhere. Do you have “Goosebumps Number 16?”
Without having to check I said,
–Yes I do.
Then I locked the register, went up the ramp, and walked directly to the book. The woman was beside herself with joy. She praised me effusively as I rang her up. She made so much noise that it got Billy’s attention, and he was soon sliding down the ramp like a cat just awakened from a nap.
–Your co-worker here is a miracle-worker! He just saved the day! I’ve been looking for this book for my son’s book report tomorrow and couldn’t find it anywhere, and this gentleman just walked right up and found it! He’s my new hero! He saved the day! And he’s made one little boy very happy!
–Oh, J___ makes little boys happy every day.
I gritted my teeth, and turned and shot Billy a look that said “Ix-nay on the Edophilia-pay jokes,” but the woman didn’t notice and continued,
–Well, that’s just great! I’m sure he does! He was a life-saver for me!
Roger was short and wiry. He always wore short-shorts and effeminate clogs. He was interested in healthy living and eating, though he dipped snuff. He was obsessed with rock- and mountain-climbing.
Years after we all stopped working for the store, Roger and Billy got past the talking stage, saved up their money, and went on a mountain-climbing trip to Nepal. Then Roger disappeared. A missing American tourist is a big deal in Nepal, and a massive search was conducted. He was eventually found in some remote village, where he’d taken some powerful Nepalese hallucinogenic and scrambled his brains. Billy managed to get him back to the States, but Roger was never quite right again.
Ellen Le Doux studied marine biology and Russian language and literature. She was also a big-time feminist, who probably had more hair on her legs and under her arms than I did. My nickname for her was “Fuzzy.”
Diane Daniels had recently come back after spending several years teaching school in poor Mexican villages, so she tended to spread the whole “Socially Committed Citizen of the World” act on a little too thickly. Though she was overly serious, she could be fun at times. Once someone was playing the “Grease” soundtrack on the store stereo, and Diane and I came bounding down the wheelchair ramp, dancing and singing the John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John parts to “You’re The One That I Want.”
Diane seemed to have a lot of female health problems, and was always taking off sick halfway through the day, claiming to have menstrual trouble. Bert always scheduled only the bare minimum of staff to cover all shifts, so if someone got sick, we’d all get screwed and inconvenienced. Because of her seemingly ceaseless monthly flow, I privately dubbed Diane “Spindletop,” after the famous Texas oil well gusher.
Judy was a short gal, a single mother, with a ten-year-old son, a history of drug and alcohol abuse (she was called “The Zombie” in high school), and really appalling taste in men. Her friends seemed to consist solely of the people she knew from Alcoholics Anonymous, and seeing what they were like made me sure I’d never want to develop a drinking problem.
Judy was one of the female co-workers who more or less took care of me, giving me rides to the supermarket after the one near my apartment closed. One evening I developed this paranoid notion that some tall, creepy biker guy, who looked like Lemmy Kilmister from Motörhead, was following us, watching us, and smiling. And when we went out to the car with our purchases, the guy actually approached Judy and started talking to her. Later she explained to me this guy was another one of her A.A. buddies, as well as a creepy, ex-con boyfriend.
One evening a disheveled slacker guy came into the store and talked to Judy for a long time. After he left she explained he was her husband.
–Don’t you mean “ex-husband”?
–No, we’re still married.
–Is this one I never heard about?
–No, this is my only husband. Grayson’s father.
–But I thought you got divorced eight years ago.
–No, we split up eight years ago. We still haven’t gotten around to getting a divorce.
–Why such a long delay?
–Well, my husband smokes a lot of dope. A LOT of dope….
I was supposed to close one night with Judy. Bert was staying until 8pm. Judy was up at the register and Bert and I were working back in the Stock Room. Judy called back on the intercom:
–Hey, I’m feeling really sick. I need to go home. Bert, can you close for me.
–Sure. No problem.
–Okay, well, I’m gonna call my mom to come pick me up. I’m just not feeling well at all.
A little later Bert and I went into the front of the store and found Judy laying on the floor behind the front counter.
–Hey, when an old blue Chrysler pulls up,let me know. That’s my mom. She’s not bathed for three or four days and she doesn’t want to come inside.
Bert and I exchanged alarmed looks, but we didn’t want to know.
Rachel Blasco was a cunt.
I know my more delicate readers will be upset to read that, but if you bear with me for a few more paragraphs I will more than justify myself.
Rachel was a Jewish-American Princess from Florida. She was married to an art history professor named Enrique Blasco from somewhere in Latin America. Rachel was very impressed with Enrique. Enrique was very impressed with Enrique.
Rachel used to pronounce Enrique’s name with a very rolled “r,” so naturally Vincent and I made fun of that. But I took the mockery one step further and referred to Enrique as “Ricky,” which pissed off Rachel, because it detracted from his god-like dignity.
Ricky made huge, highly derivative paintings, which he exhibited in local coffee houses. Rachel talked Bert into letting Ricky hang some of his pictures in the store. For several weeks, every time I worked the register I had hanging over my head this huge figure of a naked man, dick flopping around everywhere, as he was being chewed by the cogs of a giant machine. Finally so many customers complained about this atrocity that Ricky had to come take it away.
Rachel was an elementary education major. Rachel didn’t like children. Rachel didn’t want to have children because she didn’t want them to mess up her pristine house.
Rachel and Ricky were yuppie assholes. Rachel and Ricky threw a cocktail party to show off an expensive carpet they’d just purchased. Rachel threw a screaming fit and shouted at one of her guests when he accidentally spilled some of his drink on the expensive new carpet.
Rachel was stupid. One day I overheard her talking to a customer. He wanted a copy of T. E. Lawrence’s war memoir, “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” Rachel had never heard of it before, and tried to interest the man in a copy of Stephen Covey’s self-help book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” I intervened and steered the man in the right direction.
On Easter Sunday Rachel announced,
–Today is Easter Sunday, when the Jewish officials rightly executed the traitor Jesus for stealing secrets from the Temple and showing them to the Gentiles! Jesus is dead! Today is a great day!
Then she smiled, as if she was expecting a pat on the head or a piece of candy for giving her little speech.
There were several Christians on the staff, myself included. I said,
–Rachel, are you being rude just because you’re ignorant or are you being rude because you enjoy acting like an offensive bitch?
But she just smiled.
When I refused to switch work days with her because I didn’t want to close one night, get a few hours of sleep, then open the next morning, she took it badly. When, a few months later, I asked if she’d switch work days with me so I could attend an academic conference for my birthday, she refused. But that was okay—I found someone else who’d help me.
Rachel was a drama queen. When a bee flew into the Stock Room she began screaming and waving her arms around, shrieking,
–KILL IT! KILL IT! A BEE! KILL IT FOR ME! A BEE!
–No. I like bees. Bees are helpful and useful, unlike some people I know. And I don’t want to kill a creature just because you don’t like him. A living thing shouldn’t have to die just for your sake.
I was pushing a cart of books through the store one afternoon. Rachel was in the front room, talking to two gay friends. She swung her arms and torso around melodramatically and said,
–And THIS...everybody…is James!
One of the gay guys arched an eyebrow and said,
–and does he have a Giant Peach?
And I arched an eyebrow and said,
–Buy me some drinks and you might find out.
And I pushed the cart outside.
As I said before, Rachel was a cunt.
A few years after we’d both left the store, Rachel found herself pregnant. This was annoying. This was not what Rachel and Ricky wanted. But Rachel decided not to have an abortion.
Rachel had a baby girl instead.
This is okay, they decided. We can spoil her. We can fuss over her. She won’t be as messy as a boy.
A few years passed. Rachel found herself pregnant again. This one was a boy. This was annoying. Boys are messy. Boys are dirty. Boys ruin the imported carpets.
Rachel and Ricky got the boy a round of tests at the hospital. Rachel and Ricky strapped him into his car seat and drove him home. Rachel and Ricky gave him a name. Rachel and Ricky installed Little Ricky in his posh, newly decorated nursery.
A few days later the hospital called. Little Ricky’s tests had indicated the slightest presence of Down’s syndrome.
Rachel hung up the phone. Rachel picked up Little Ricky from his crib. Rachel went out to the car and strapped Little Ricky into his car seat. Rachel drove 37 miles to Huntsville, Texas to an orphanage, and signed Little Ricky over to their custody.
Rachel drove back to College Station. Rachel invited Regina and her little son Brandon to dinner. Over the main course Rachel rattled off what she’d been doing the past few days. Rachel described giving her “imperfect” son up for adoption with the same lack of emotion she used to describe hiring an exterminator to spray the house for termites.
And on the way home, Brandon, asked his mother,
–Why did Miss Rachel give her son away?
Our regional manager was Rita. She’d been with the company forever, since the days when staffers took two-joint coffee breaks on the roofs of their stores.
At first, I thought she was a breath of fresh air, a no-bullshit person who called ’em the way she saw them. She took Preston aside and told him he needed to behave himself. But she didn’t do a good enough job, and he was soon back to acting like an asshole.
She corrected my pronunciation of a name once, and did it in front of several people. That is one of the quickest ways to get on my bad side.
She fired Gordon for his lackadaisical attitude. But then she replaced him with the idiot Bert. Bert worshiped Rita, and quoted her frequently. She once said,
–Change is good.
Bert repeated it on a regular basis, took it as a mission statement, decided it was law.
Rita told Bert to constantly re-arrange the store:
–Customers may complain they can’t find where anything is, but they wind up buying more.
Naturally, Bert believed that nonsense and the flawed arguments upon which it was based.
The one sensible thing Rita said was
–There’s no such thing as a bookstore emergency.
But Bert never figured that out.
Rita gave Bert an order: the next three employees he hired would be women. Bert didn’t mind. He preferred hiring women anyway, so he could flirt with them, ogle them, and try to talk them into sleeping with him.
Two former female employees considered filing sexual harassment lawsuits against Bert, but decided against it, because,
–That would get Bert in trouble.
1996: I asked Rita about Gordon’s offer that after I worked for the store for a year, he’d look into getting me a transfer to Austin. She said,
–Sorry. Gordon was wrong. You were lied to. You were screwed. And anyway, you have such a bad attitude here in this store I wouldn’t think of allowing you to transfer to Austin.
–But the reason I seem to have a bad attitude is I’m miserable here! I want to move back to Austin! Then I won’t be miserable!
–You’ll have to prove it to me. Change your attitude and we’ll talk in a year.
1997: I asked Rita about the transfer.
–Sorry. You don’t have the math skills. I’ve seen you do everything with that pocket calculator. You don’t seem to understand the way things work in Austin. A calculator would just be…very poorly received. If you were working at the register or the Buy Counter in the Guadalupe store, and took out a calculator to do a math problem instead of doing it in your head, it would effectively be as if you took your penis out of your pants. It would be that shocking. Others would be that upset.
Bert continued careening towards madness. Rita ignored the negative reviews we sent in about Bert twice a year at evaluation time. She wasn’t about to give up on her boy.