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.
I did start talking once in a while with a woman named Jodie. She wasn’t very pretty, but she had that desperate available look in her eyes, the one women don’t see ’cause it isn’t there around women. “I got two kids,” Jodie told me. She was always tired, saying the one kid won’t sleep alone and insisted on crawling into her bed at night. Price of this economy on families is hard to measure but easy to see.
Jodie told me. “Too many times our money ran out ’fore the month did. Food bank at the Salvation Army looked like the Monroe Mall used to look, same people in line nowadays. Some mornings you’d be standing in the weather with the kids for hours for boxes of macaroni and cheese.”
“Hey Jodie,” interrupted Ephraim, her Team Leader. “Can you quit break a few minutes early and clear off the end caps on aisles four and six? We got a load of those new iTablets coming in and corporate wants to give them a lot of shelf frontage.”
“Sure Ephraim, I’ll get right to it. What do you want me to do with all the boxes of macaroni and cheese that’re out there now?”
“Just throw them away, Jodie. They’re ready to expire. Nobody wants them. And get those tablets on the shelves right. Sales affect my bonus, corporate watches that stuff.”
Guests, which was a Bullseye word for what we used to call customers, were like us, but a darker version of us. Funny thing happened. I was walking in to work, hat and jacket on outside so no one could see my Bullseye name tag and all. Some woman bumped into me by accident. She turned and apologized, said something about the weather getting colder and said sorry again, smiling. I then saw her like ten minutes later inside the store, me dressed as a Bullseye associate and her pushing a shopping cart full of affirmation. She almost ran over me, but didn’t say a word. Me, a person in the parking lot, but just an item inside.
We all learned the look, the minimum wage stare, the look that pleads with the customer to please just give up because we can’t fix it, but we won’t care about not fixing it. There was nothing else we could do. In return, the customer can say just about anything to us. Bullseye values its guests, so much that for a $4.99 purchase they can treat us this way. Self-respect goes cheap in Aisle 38.
Most of us were just trying to make a little money. But some people were spayed. They’d been yelled at too many times, or were too afraid of losing their jobs. They were broke. People—and dogs—don’t get like that quickly; it has to build up on them, or tear down on them, one thing after another nudging them deeper into it. Then one day, if the supervisor told them by mistake to hang a sign upside down, they’d do it, more afraid of contradicting the boss than making an obvious mistake. You’d see them rushing in like twenty minutes early to stand next to that clock so they wouldn’t be late. They all walked around like the floor was all stray cat tails, step on one and set off all the cats screaming. It was a bad way to live as an adult, your only incentive to doing good work being they’d let you keep a job that made you hate yourself for another day.
Before I gave up, there was a potential, a white shirt maybe a little dirty, but with another good washing left in it to carry it into tomorrow. I had known prosperity, I had a place, at least in theory, I could bounce back to. Not these kids. They are never going to know where back is. They’re never gonna trust no one, never gonna trust nothing. When I was little, we all wanted to be astronauts. What do they have to grow up to be? To work at Bullseye?
For me at Bullseye, things didn’t go so smoothly. Steve the Team Leader explained one day that Bullseye had innovated a new warehousing system so he had to lay me off for efficiency. Steve said he hoped I would leave without a fuss. I did. I guess in the end I had precious little fuss left in me.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can purchase the full book here.
Click here to learn more about author Peter Van Buren.
Excerpted from Ghosts Of Tom Joad: A Story Of The #99Percent by Peter Van Buren. Copyright © 2014 by Peter Van Buren. With permission of the publisher, Luminis Books.