Friday Free-for-All #79: Retail

Friday Free for All

Here’s the next in an ongoing series in which I answer random questions generated by a website. Here are this week’s questions. Feel free to give your own answers or ask your own questions in the comments. And wow. I normally do multiple questions here, but I had no idea that the subject of my very few years in retail would have so much material.

Have you ever worked retail?

I’ve worked retail two times in my life, once in a mom-and-pop operation, and the other for a corporate big-box. I worked for the former for about three years. I walked off the job in the latter after less than a month, if that.

The mom-and-pop operation was a pharmacy located in a hospital complex, and you’ve probably seen the type. It’s the place on the ground floor of the building with medical offices where you can get your prescriptions filled, but it also specializes in candy, cards, balloons, and gifts you can grab on the way up to visit grandma on the fifth floor of the main building.

The owners were a Japanese couple, Akira and Alice, and Alice’s sister Agnes also worked there. They were actually great people to work with, although Aki had a really strange sense of humor, especially since I was the only gaijin in the place, so he made fun of me a lot for that, but I always had the sense that it was just some sort of bravado masking affection, and it was entirely cultural even though he was a first-generation American.

I inherited this job from one of my roommates, and had it junior and senior year of college, and then a year or so after school, even though my commute suddenly went from just under six miles to just over 26 miles after I’d moved back home.

I basically worked the front counter in the store, as well as did inventory and stocking the shelves, and I also did delivery rounds every afternoon to a bunch of mostly regular clients, including some pretty famous ones, since this particular hospital had an orthopedic group that dealt with the L.A. Lakers, L.A. Kings, UCLA Bruins, and a lot of Hollywood A-listers.

But I really did love a lot of the regular clients who weren’t famous, and we all got to know each other pretty well. A lot of them were total characters, like the old Italian man (judging by his real name) who had been a boxer in the 1950s, but with an Irish moniker, or the kind of imperious and stern woman whose entire porch was enclosed in wrought iron, and whose German shepherds would come out in advance of her and keep an eye on me the entire time.

I could easily see that she had a large, framed picture on the table just inside the door that was a photo of a man in 1950s era Soviet military uniform, presumably her late husband. Oh yeah — she wore a sidearm, too. But she was an incredibly generous tipper.

I also delivered to various doctors and employees in the complex, but the most interesting one was an eye-ear-nose-throat specialist who would get a special delivery about every three months.

My boss would go into a secured room to package it up in a brown paper bag that was stapled shut and which had an NCR form from the Federal Government stapled to it.

The first time he gave me this delivery, he told me, “This is one ounce of 99% pure government cocaine. Take it to this doctor and get this form signed. If you don’t come back with the form, don’t come back.”

If I remember correctly, the price the doctor paid for it was something like $99, which was far, far below what the street price of coke that pure would have been at the time — not to mention that the volume would have at least doubled if not tripled due to it being cut, so I was basically walking a couple of blocks carrying a bag worth the modern equivalent of close to $55,000.

Although I only did it a handful of times while I worked there, the one adjective I could use to describe the doctor on the receiving end was “perky.” And he always, always tried to jokingly talk me out of his having to sign the form, but that was always a hard “no” from me.

That NCR form was the government paperwork required for any controlled substance with a medical use, and it certified that the pharmacy got what was delivered and that it was sealed, and that the doctor got what the pharmacy had gotten and it was sealed. The doctor kept a copy, I took the other two back to the pharmacy, one of those went into my boss’s files and the other got sent back to the government.

I casually mentioned to one of my roommates after the fact that I’d delivered 28 grams of 99% pure government coke to a doctor and I could see his eyes light up as the numbers danced in his head, but before he could say anything, I just sternly warned him, “Don’t.”

Another notable part of my education came via a cardiologist who had a habit of coming in around the end of day on Fridays and giving my boss a prescription he’d written for himself. My boss would return with a small yellow box, hand it over, and ring it up to the doctor’s office account.

Technically, since he was a cardiologist, amyl nitrate was something that would very normally be used in his practice. Just not after hours on a weekend. This was when my boss explained the concept of “poppers” to me, and also when I realized that doctors were not above dipping into their own stash, or taking advantage of their own godly powers to dispense drugs.

Back to our mortal customers, though, my favorite was a woman in her mid-90s who shared her first name with my paternal grandmother. She was pretty much blind, but always glad when I made a delivery, and at the end of every transaction after we’d had a nice chat, she would reach into her jar and tip me with a giant handful of change from it, apologizing for only having pennies.

My roommate, Carlos, had told me about her, and assured me that she knew that they weren’t just pennies. I’d regularly leave her place with seven or eight bucks in change weighing down my pockets. Awkward and bulky, I know, but she was terribly sweet and it was all worth it.

In fact, when I finally left that job to go on to my first adulting office job, she was the only regular client that I made an unscheduled visit to, just to let her know that it was my last day, and that the boss’s son was going to be taking over my job.

Even though I hadn’t delivered anything because there was nothing to deliver, she still tried to tip me, but I politely turned her down. I can only assume that she’s no longer with and has been gone a long time now, but she was one of the bright spots of that job.

And yes, my old boss and the pharmacy are still around. But this is the end of my TED talk on my pleasant time in retail. Let’s get to the one that sucked.

This job was actually during my sophomore year in college, and happened because I was interning in Hollywood, which was a bit of a shlep from my campus near LAX, but found out that Big Box Retailer down the street was hiring, and I figured that if I could coordinate hours between the freebie intern thing and the paid job it would make the 17 mile commute worth it.

Except… number one was that I did the intern thing during afternoons and business hours, while retail store wanted me mostly weekends — after I had specified when applying that I was only available weekday evenings.

This was also when I learned that those big box retail stores don’t work quite the way you think that they do.

Sure, they have a bunch of different departments, like men’s and women’s clothing, electronics, toys, nowadays groceries, books, hardware, sporting goods, whatever. You may think that all of those departments are run by the store itself, but they’re not.

Nope. Think of each one as a totally separate store under one roof, each one run by a separate management team, but with those managers pitted against each other to show corporate the best sales results in a sort of unstated hunger games competition.

Now add on ridiculous micromanagement. For example, as I learned on my first day because I arrived early and eager, clocking in more than six minutes early would make my manager freak out, because that meant they had to pay me for an extra quarter hour.

Also, my manager was named Tudy. Not Trudy or Judy. Tudy. And that always bugged the fuck out of me, as in, “Why don’t you have an actually grown-up name again?” Okay, maybe it was immature, but I was only 19 and the name made it all but impossible to take her seriously.

The department I worked in was electronics, so I was consigned to be one of those people behind the glass counter with the locked shelves dealing in cameras, computers, gaming consoles, PDAs (which were still a thing — the data assistant part, not the inappropriate making out) cordless phones, and the like.

I also had a co-worker who was apparently the horniest thing on Earth and who I think was hitting on me in veiled ways. I should have taken him up on that, but since I was young and stupid, my perception was that he had to have been over 30, so not attractive. Photos I found later when I was past 30 (because we still sold Polaroid cameras), told me otherwise. He actually was cute.

Technically, we made commissions on our sales, although I don’t remember ever getting a single check. I think there may have been some sort of probationary period involved. I honestly don’t remember. But as the scheduling got more ridiculous and Tudy tried to get me to come in at times that I possibly couldn’t — like when I was in class or interning — I’d had enough.

One Sunday when I was supposed to come in that afternoon, I was doing a photoshoot for an actor friend, we were running over, and I just couldn’t deal with it, so I called up, couldn’t get hold of my manager, so left a message for another one that I wouldn’t be in.

A few days later, I was at the bank to deposit my paycheck, as we did in those days, and guess who winds up in line behind me? Yep. Tudy. And she tries to chew me out in Karen fashion. “You do not just call some other manager if you’re not showing up. How could you do that, blah blah blah.”

One of the most satisfying moments of my life. I turned around and told her, “I quit. Now stop talking to me.”

She was livid, but I never went back there again — to shop or to work.

My other sort of retail experience was delivering pizza — another job I got on the recommendation of a friend when I was sixteen. Now, the legal requirement was that drivers had to be eighteen, but the warning bells should have gone off when the owner just told me to write down that I was eighteen years old and sign it, and then I started immediately.

This was in the days before GPS, so I was stuck with a Thomas Guide and instinct. It was a school night as well, but from the time I started at six p.m., the deliveries didn’t stop. I’d take three out, then come back to four more, and I was the only driver working.

And the shift didn’t end at ten p.m., like it was supposed to. It went on to midnight, and then to two a.m., and I’m sure that the owner of the franchise was breaking some serious child labor laws by that point, but I finally managed to get out of there by 2:30 a.m.

And I’d certainly gotten an education in the meantime on my rounds. It was surprising how many people would order pizza, be given a delivery time, and then immediately start fucking, so I was greeted by more than a few sweaty boyfriends in hastily pulled-on swim trunks or, in one case, nothing at all.

There was also the guy who tried to pay for the pizza with his wife’s sexual favors, but even though I was in the closet at the time, I knew that I wasn’t into her and he was pretty ugly.

Lessons learned:

Mom and pop pharmacy, where the owner is a highly trained professional who has to deal with government regulations on a daily basis — an excellent experience where I was treated well, and the customers treated us with respect.

Big box retail where the bottom line was everything — management treated us with contempt, talking to customers frequently felt like talking to a wall, and the in-fighting between departments was ridiculous — although it never stopped the 50-something menswear manager from spending way too much time over in Women’s petites, flirting with the teenage women working there.

Independently owned big-name pizza franchise with an owner of dubious morals — abuse of employees and labor laws, and the customers were just as bad. Incidentally, when I showed up on my second day, made it through two hours before I made a quick stop at my parents’ place to go throw up in the bathroom from stress, then came back to the store and quit, he didn’t seem at all surprised.

I’m guessing that his drivers turned over more frequently than his pizza dough did.

If you’ve never worked retail, you should do it once, even if it’s just taking on a seasonal job down at the local mall. It will open your eyes about how much people in these positions should really get paid, show you what terrible people a lot of customers and managers are, and teach you to respect the people who are really the ones keeping our day-to-day lives running.

Hint: Not a one of them is a billionaire entrepreneur, real estate developer, banker, stock broker, realtor, Hollywood producer, or their ilk, because those people only take, then don’t give.

Nope. Go learn to appreciate your sales clerks, stockers, checkers, baggers, delivery drivers, medical workers, sanitation engineers, electricians, plumbers, janitors, cable installers, housekeepers, and anyone else who tends to be invisible to the people who most rely on them.

Spend a day in retail, and learn empathy.

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