At age 53, everything changed. I was run out of the good job I had held for over 20 years, and for a long time the pension I’d earned, the thing I had counted on to provide for me, was in jeopardy. My skill set was pretty narrow, the market was tough and nobody with a salaried job to offer seemed interested in an old guy… and I needed some money. The sign pointed one way: retail and minimum wage. Those experiences at a store we’ll call here “Bullseye” helped inspire my new book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent. Here’s an excerpt from the book:
You can purchase the book here.
Let the young men in other small Ohio towns dream of bright lights. In Reeve, Ohio we thought growing up we were going to work in that factory. But while we thought it was drawn in ink, it was really watercolor. There were pieces of machinery from the factory left on the ground, too unimportant to sell off, too heavy to move, too bulky to bury, left scattered like clues from a lost civilization, droppings of our failure. Might as well been the bones of the men who worked there.
After the factory was gone, we got a big-box retail store in called Bullseye. They held a Job Fair, with tables set up in the other high school’s gym, decorated with a few tired balloons, which was all that stood for the Fair part. A lot of people were already lined up when I got there, and the Bullseye people were wearing their bright blue vests, looking us over like livestock. We covered a lot of ground, from last year’s model of homecoming queen to retired guys who couldn’t afford to retire. “Interested in loading dock?” they said to me, “C’mon over and talk about cosmetics here,” they’d say to the pretty high school girls. We were good little pieces of meat.
My job was real easy to learn. There was no apprentice system here, no paid jobs for boiler operators’ assistants, no plumber’s helpers. I walked in and Steve the Team Leader, said “Take the pick sheet there, go to the truck, hit them boxes with that barcode gun, then initial the pick sheet. Fifteen minute break’s at noon. Late from break twice and you’re fired. Bullseye welcomes you as a valuable addition to our team, um, Earl.” He’d looked up just at the end at my name tag. It was almost like Bullseye didn’t want him to think much. Maybe us neither.
It was hard to get to know the other workers, the associates, as we were told not to talk and because, as I came to learn, the bar code scanner was kind of watching over me. On days when I apparently wasn’t doing things fast enough, Steve the Team Leader would come out and tell me I was not performing to my full potential as a valued teammate and that meant I had to work faster. I did. I wasn’t sure how fast was right, or fast enough, and so I tried to just do it all as fast as I was able. Steve the Team Leader’s job to make sure Bullseye made money, he said. That was what I came to know as management. Still, it was better than when I worked off-the-books for a while in the craft store at Christmas, coming home like a stripper with a pocket full of ones and fives covered in glitter.
Kevin the Store Manager was always encouraging us to talk to him about anything. “My door is always open,” he said, before going into his office and closing the door. One time I knocked, and standing in the doorway I asked him about having a break more often, just a few minutes to sit down and take a load off, and Kevin the Store Manager said:
“You’re lucky to have this job. Lotta people out there who’d take your place.”
“I know Kevin, and I’m grateful. I’d just like a chance to sit down and eat a regular lunch on long shifts.”
“Well, we all gotta do what is best for Bullseye. Careful you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
I got it. Even if I’m never fed.
People not caring like that let the bullies get in charge. When I was a kid I really believed the border between me and the world leaked both ways, so that I could maybe affect things instead of just being affected by them, but it’s different now when you work for a company like Bullseye. At that point you realize that not everything is possible, and that changes everything.