Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Good At That

I checked my watch and cursed. 11AM. It was supposed to be a quick trip. Dash out, pick up Mom’s prescription refill and dash back home to catch any callbacks on the million resumes I’ve sent out. No problem, since Mom is, after all, letting her unemployed son live in her house. The goods were in hand by 10AM and I was headed toward the door. Then a sign caught my eye.

“CAREER OPPORTUNITIES,” the sign read. I zeroed in on it like a heat-seeking missile on a bonfire, narrowly outrunning a senior citizen. Poor Grandpa tripped on his orthopedic loafers in the home stretch. The next thing I knew, I’d wasted an hour thumb-wrestling the ornery trackball on the hiring kiosk at XYZ Department Store.

Applying for jobs has become a compulsion with me. Any time I see a “HELP WANTED” sign, I stop in and apply. I’ve applied at places I previously wouldn’t have considered for two seconds: restaurants, convenience stores and oil change stations, among others. I’m sad to say there’s a subtle form of bias among us retail grunts. Those who toil in specialty stores (Best Buy, Borders, Old Navy, etc.) tend to look down their noses at the drones in general merchandise shlockhouses (the –Marts, for example). Those in general merch pooh-pooh the needy souls working in those little bits of Hell on Earth, fast food places and gas stations. As if it takes a PhD to stock shelves at one store and not another, right? Like Anonymous Smarty Pants once said, “There’s no shame in honest work.” The one place I did pass up, however, was an adult video store advertising for a new cashier. There would be no way to gloss that over on a resume.

Okay, Take 2: with Mom’s blood pressure medicine in hand, I headed for the door. . .

“John Left! John Left!” called a female voice.

Damn, I thought, I’ve sunk to a new low. A woman actually wants to speak with me and I’m feeling inconvenienced.

I turned toward the voice and was instantly transported back 17 years. It’s a frigid Saturday in November. Halftime at a varsity football game I had absolutely no interest in. The marching band is finishing up its rendition of Mr. Mister’s “Kyrie”, but I’m too busy freezing to notice. I only perk up when the reason I’m there hits the field: the cheerleading squad. I always meant to thank the designer of those rah-rah uniforms for making my fantasies oh-so-much richer. A prime collection of teenage beauties, for sure. But the cartwheels and hand-stands of one coltish, ruddy-faced blonde cause my body temperature to spike 20 degrees, unfreezing my ass from the bleachers and popping several zits on my face. Young love. Sigh.

Segue to Monday in the cafeteria. Ruddy blonde walks past my usual table, popularly known as “The Losers’ Lounge,” at lunch.

“Hey!” I call to her, doing my best Anthony Michael Hall. “Nice cartwheels last Saturday!” Even then, I had a touch of the Poet in me.

“You were there?” ruddy blonde answers, beaming. “Wow, thanks! I was so cold, I couldn’t concentrate and screwed up our routine.” Amazingly, ruddy blonde sits down
next to me in The Losers’ Lounge and proceeds to make conversation. Like you’d do with another actual human being. And somehow, she refrains from dumping her can of Fanta Red Cream Soda over my head when I do my Max Headroom impression. I got a lot of soda pop shampoos in those days. Then, they called it dorkiness. Now, they’d feed me Ritalin.

So began. . .a pleasant friendship. As much as I wanted to be her one and only, she and I were never more than friends. But she was that rarest of birds: the pretty and popular cheerleader who made time to be nice to Quasimodo here. I never forgot it.

Back to 2005. The pretty and popular cheerleader stood before me again. “John, long time no---” said this woman, who I’ll call “Denise.” Why do people, upon meeting old acquaintances, always spout the S.O.S.? If you’re so happy to see them, why struggle for words?

“Denise!” I said, shaking her hand. “What are you doing here?” See what I mean?

Denise was still ruddy and blonde. Like most of us, she was also sporting a few wrinkles and a couple extra pounds. But she still made my body temp spike. And she was wearing a new uniform---that of an XYZ Store employee. My question caused her to look down bashfully and wring her hands.

“Working,” Denise said, “at the cosmetics counter.”

“A new career!” I said, trying to sound upbeat. “Last I heard, you were a social worker for the county.”

“Yeah, until last year. It was a great job, but my nerves finally gave out. I’m. . .in transition now. How about you?”

The Dreaded Question. My wheels started spinning.

“I’m a freelance copyeditor for Acme Publishing. I work from home. Which is why I’m here. Now. On a weekday.” I ended with a patently phony chuckle.

A gruff voice, much like the Sergeant’s on “Gomer Pyle,” boomed out of the store’s loudspeaker system. “A representative from each department must report to Customer Service to pick up your strays. A representative from each department. . .” For the laypeople: “strays” is retail-talk for stuff customers pick up and then dump in other aisles for the hell of it, or stuff customers leave at the checkout lanes when their checks bounce or their Visa, MasterCard and Amex get refused. It’s the drones’ task to go off whistling like the Seven Dwarves and reshelf the stuff. This has been a Public Service Announcement.

Denise laughed and patted me on the shoulder. “Oh, that’s me! Take care, Johnny. Good luck with the publishing. I’m glad to see you’re making it. Maybe I’ll see you at the next reunion.”

“Maybe,” I said, waving as Denise hurried off. “So long.”

I left the store, jumped into my car and pulled out of the lot. I felt unusually warm, but it was a different kind of warm than what I felt 17 years ago. Even if they do hire me, I thought, I’ll just brew up another story to cover myself. I’m getting good at that.

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Anonymous Bloggeries said...

It is funny how a person, like me, can go from a great job that took years of training, to applying at even the local filling station. I guess it is like the old saying, "Desperate time...."

Ever wonder what would have happened if she seen your application right after you left? Hmm..... "Publisher huh?"

7:04 AM  

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