The Seeker

A Meta-Cognitive Journal About Writing… Plus Other Stuff

A 21" Receipt (cont.) / Blue Light Special

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The kind folks in customer service for K-Mart never called me, as they promised they would after I took the time to fill out their survey at I specified that I could be reached after 8PM; somebody from Biloxi, Mississippi tried to call me late the next afternoon. I wonder if it was them. If you’re reading this and want to take the survey and see if they call you- go ahead. I’d be glad to hear what they have to say.

As I mentioned previously, I have long-standing resentment towards K-Mart that goes back to a horrid summer I spent working there. I used the experience early on at Northwestern in workshops as I was earning my chops as a writer. Since this recent episode with K-Mart makes for a natural transition into that story, I’m going to serialize that story here for the next few weeks. Spoiler alert: K-Mart wasn’t the only problem in the summer of 1988.


Blue Light Special

K-Mart debuts on the north side of Angola, Indiana in the spring of 1988. The powers that be plow under the x-rated drive-in theatre next to the Putt-Putt; a new shopping center is erected in its place. When it goes up, K-Mart goes with it. For Angola, it’s a giant step away from being a snoozing rural town and towards becoming the type of place that can contend with other faceless industry-driven towns in the Corn Belt. When the K-Mart doors yawn to welcome a glut of eager consumers, it represents the capstone in the growth Angola experienced throughout a decade that saw its first stoplight, its first McDonald’s, and its first Pizza Hut. I’m not concerned with the betterment of the town in June of that year because I’m busy graduating high school and interested in making more money than I do mowing grass. I need to pad my wallet before I leave for college late in August–so I turn to our brand new shining beacon of commercialism and prosperity.
I complete the job application and discover than the negotiations to land a job at K-Mart are much more intricate than I suspected. Phyllis, the Personnel Manager, eventually offers me a job despite my demand for Thursdays off to mow lawns, and I accept it at $3.10 per hour. I’m an “01,” which means I will sweep, mop, unload trucks, set up and take down displays, take big items out to cars, and do whatever other menial tasks need to be done. That’s all okay by me since it sounds like I’ll be doing something different each day.
I manipulate my mowing schedule so I can be at K-Mart on a Thursday to get oriented. I’m oriented along with Bonnie, a girl who was in the Special Education class I aided throughout my senior year. When we are seated in the breakroom to fill out paperwork, Phyllis whispers to three or four of us to help Bonnie out with her paperwork. When we look at her, she mouths the word “Slow,” jabs her thumb in Bonnie’s direction, and leaves.
Once my paperwork is complete, I’m put to work in the stockroom to help price items coming off delivery trucks. The employees range from the very young like me to seasoned retail workers in their thirties and forties to a few senior citizens. The women wear mostly pants; a few wear dresses. The men wear slacks and shirts with ties, as per K-Mart regulations. Some appear to be modeling fashions right off the K-Mart clothing racks, like plain-front polyester slacks, or short-sleeve polo shirts with a tie. All wear nametags pinned to their shirts that declare in an arc of red text across the top: “Thank You for shopping K-Mart!” Names embossed on plastic strips underscore the red text. I remember Phyllis’ caution: “You get fined a quarter every time you don’t have your nametag.” I wonder if anybody ever gave them $20 up front just so they wouldn’t have to wear it; I wonder, too, if anybody was ever so petty as to record when a nametag wasn’t worn.
It’s the first time in my life I’ve been thrown into a large group of people to work towards completing a big task. I’m apprehensive about not knowing anybody in the stockroom and decide the best way to make new friends is to crack as many jokes as I can. I start with the worst puns I can muster as products roll by on the conveyor: “This will keep K-Mart Head and Shoulders above the competition… Aquanet? Isn’t that what you use to catch a fish?… Similac? What exactly is it lacking?” Sheri, a brown-haired woman in a blue vest with a belt full of pricing guns and markers, rolls her eyes and mutters, “This one with the jokes,” as if tired of me already. Nobody else along the main conveyor and the aisles that branch off it says anything. They keep their eyes on the products rolling past, periodically snatching a few to mark prices.
The next day, I get my first real taste of K-Mart life at the store meeting held every Friday at seven o’clock in the morning. You’re supposed to show up for it even if you’re not scheduled to work. The idea is for the store manager to rally the troops so we feel a sense of community, which I guess is supposed to translate to happier workers, greater productivity, and eventually an outstanding store environment for consumers. Management’s idea of fostering the sense of community means stuffing us with donuts. Each table has several waxed cardboard boxes stuffed with long johns, French crullers, and glazed donut holes. The donuts mights as well be magnets that pull in every woman in the store that makes my 175-pound frame look puny. I can’t get a seat anywhere or squeeze between any of them. Another 01 in my predicament mutters that they are The Donut Mafia.
Not only am I without donut, but I’m also one of the few employees not smoking. Most have a cigarette resting in an ashtray, bobbing between their lips as they talk, or clenched between their index and middle fingers. Some are engaged in a mezmerizing juggling act in which three items receive equal attention: they munch their last bits of donut as they snuff their cigarettes in an overflowing ashtray as they swallow the last tepid drops of their coffee.
I don’t hear a thing the manager tells us. I exit the meeting smelling like smoke, and I can’t shake the smell the rest of the day.
Over the next few weeks, I discover that the smell of smoke lingers much longer than the sense of community after the Friday meetings. By then, I have come to know about 85 percent of the employees and realize I have very little in common with most of them. They have mostly divided themselves into two groups. One claims to work at K-Mart because they lost their jobs at a local factory and need something until they can get on at a different local factory. The other group has decided K-Mart is the career opportunity they’ve been waiting for all their life. I don’t belong in either group, but my intention to leave for college in a few months thrusts me in the former. I don’t like being labeled, but at least my group members aren’t delusional about doing all they can to make the Angola K-Mart a store the likes of which will make the community and corporation proud. How the other group will do that isn’t clear to me, nor is the reward they will receive if they succeed. It seems unlikely that any of the regular employees will be rewarded financially, and I don’t think any of them will be writing their pen pals or commenting in interviews with The Steuben Republican about the tremendous amount of pride they feel in regard to their commercial utopia. Yet there are so many in that other group who are eerily gung-ho.

Written by seeker70

August 19, 2009 at 1:50 am

Posted in K-Mart

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