The choice was between working for a local lawyer who wanted to improve the Ivy-League image of his office, or for a bank--a little slow, perhaps, behind the teller's window, but good money for smiling and counting. So I wore tweed and joked with earnest sophistication everywhere I applied for a summer job.
It must have been a belt loop I missed, or maybe the lawyers were from Yale. But in any case, when a friend mentioned that his dad, the assistant manager at Super-Saver Drugs, was looking for help. I realized I was all too interested.
I was actually optimistic as I pulled up in front of the store. Situated in a small roadside shopping center outside Albany, N.Y., it was far enough away from home that my friends would not get to enjoy my plight. I looked forward to my late-night commutes--taking on the open road in my parents manual Toyota. The store itself was, as its motto suggested, "not your average drug store." Some retail genius had decided to try putting all the department stores and drugstores in New York out of business. The result was a Woolworth's with the lunch counter removed, a prescription counter put in, and the walls repainted a sickening yellow.
The Super-Saver had a key-making machine and computerized check-out. It sold everything from its own brand of moth balls to picnic tables, from gag mugs to ratchet sets. A sign in the window warned customers all summer that Coke and Super-Saver aspirin were on sale only until the end of the week.
All I knew about the assistant manager, my friend's father, was that he had cable TV and a Praise the Lord Club sticker on the back of his beat-up blue New Yorker. He and his family also owned a Woolworth's tapestry of DaVinci's "The Last Supper." The manager, who wore bell-bottoms over his brown patent-leather shoes, looked just like his picture on the "This is Your Super-Saver Manager" sign above the customer service desk, so everyone knew who he was.
He made me fill out all kinds of forms, including a W-4, which I did with an innocent, stupid honesty. He also laid down the law from the outset: You'll need a tie, and no dungarees. You should shave, and we don't let the stock boys wear tennis shoes." I hate people who call sneakers "tennis shoes," but I was a slave to capital, so I kept nodding and smiling.
Working only a few hours a week to start. I had plenty of time left over to sun-bathe. Luckily, I could get a 10-per-cent employee's discount on my Super-Saver cocoa butter lotion. Not bad, I thought, until I realized that after taxes my pay would total less than $100 a week. Even with cheap cocoa butter lotion, you can't go very far on that.
The first day on the job, I shelled out 89 cents for a Super-Saver polyester tie. Damned if I was going to stain a real tie with discount spaghetti sauce. Next, I had to get trained. The manager assigned me to John, high-school dropout and expert on stock-boying. John, however, was reluctant to share his expertise, and I was forced to teach myself tricks such as keeping my thumb out of the way of the razor blade carton opener and making sure that all the cans of toilet bowl disinfectant had their labels facing the customers.
I gradually picked up the jargon: "Endgap" is the shelf at the end of an aisle: a "cutter" is a razor blade with a sheath: "fills" are sets of chores involving filling endcaps by opening cartons with cutters. A "carryout" means helping a perfectly healthy old lady carry six bottles of Sprite and getting stiffed on the tip.
Aside from John, I worked with several other Super-Saver regulars. Mary Ellen, a cashier, died her hair blonde twice a year, had a boyfriend she called Bonzo, and was saving up for a Mustang II with a red vinyl interior. Bill, one of the other assistant managers, never really managed, but he drank coffee, ate doughnuts, and leered at the younger cashiers. AT 5-ft., 7-in., he packed away a lot of doughnuts and weighed at least 300 pounds. In contrast, Susan, the head cashier, was 6-ft., 2-in., and thin as a Super-Saver broom stick. She wore spike heels, tight pants, and gobs of Super-Saver make-up. Greg, yet another assistant manager, often enjoyed touching Susan secretively in the store room near the trash compacter. I never found out why he was fired in mid-August, but Susan got more lackluster than usual after he left.
I began, as any self-respecting laborer would, to invest importance in my work. I cared if my endcaps looked nice and full, and I developed a distinctly casual style in wielding my cutter. I took pride in my ability to steer up to six shopping carts at a time from one end of the store to the other. I considered it a challenge each time a customer asked about the location of an obscure Super-Saver product, and I began to memorize aisle numbers. For my efforts, I was given increased power and was eventually assigned to sort the incoming merchandise and attach a sheet of price stickers to each item.
Called upon to heave 67-pound cases of Prestone onto a 15-foot pile in the stock room. I gained a new pride in my athletic ability. After working up a sweat filling the charcoal display, I would roll up my sleeves, loosen my tie, and whisper, "Now comes Miller time," as I sipped a Fanta grape soda.
It was in the break room that I got my chance to flirt with Jill, an undiscovered sex goddess. Unlikely, you say? How about 14th runner-up-in the Miss New York State contest? She would toss her perfectly coiffed sand-colored hair, hazel eyes twinkling, and say. "So you go to Harvard, huh?"
"Yeah." The secret was out.
"You gonna be a lawyer?"
"No, I major in history." Meaningless, but who can think straight when sitting next to a poster of a huge lion captioned. "The Customer is King. Without Him. Paychecks Would Be Impossible."
Of course, there were bad days at the Super-Saver, like when I sorted cases of Super-Saver soda, deciding which ones had too many maggots infesting them after nine years at the warehouse. Shoppers, outraged about inflation and economic inequity, often directed their anger at the handiest extension of the capitalist hierarchy--me. And I had to endure repeated performances of the 101 Strings version of "Across the Universe."
Worst of all, I found out that we didn't even have control over our own store. Everything was decided by the Central Office. They told us where the lawn mowers should be put on the shelf, and where the shelf should be put in the store. They even told us exactly what to say at night. "Attention Super-Saver shoppers. It is now 9:30 p.m., and Super-Saver is preparing to close. Please-bring all final purchases forward for a quick and efficient check-out. Super-Saver will be open again tomorrow morning at nine for your shopping convenience. Good night from Super-Saver obviously not your average drug store."
So, as the end of the summer faded into September and I began to pack for school. I felt little regret over leaving my job behind. I daydreamed about tearful farewells between the tweed blazers and silky slit-skirts at the bank and wistfully vowed that next summer would be different. Maybe if I wear my blazer and smoke a pipe. . . .