Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Behind the Counter: Chapter Three

His name was Layne Lamoreaux. The moment I saw all those extra vowels, I knew he originated from somewhere deep within the old Confederacy.

The casual good looks, if a few generations removed from the cotillion days, along with the very French name spoke to an ancient family. His ancestors likely stood astride horses and looked out over a vast expanse of tobacco fields of the New World more than a hundred years before Jefferson put pen to paper.

This I calculated before we ever sat down.

"Why is he here?" I wondered. I have to imagine he thought the same about me, a fat penguin in an ill-fitting blue suit and wearing a tan sweater vest because I thought it at least lengthened my profile.

It didn't.

I was wearing four layers of clothes, a tie and a flickering hope for something magical and intangible as I stepped up to interview for a job that paid $6.25 an hour.

Layne has a crooked tooth. I notice it immediately as I take a seat across from him at a depressingly gray table in an airless room that I imagine once served as a prison for the low-ranking series of office drones who occupied the space.

Layne looks too young to be a Wal-Mart manager. Too smart too, although I was to later learn that "Wal-Mart management" and "intelligence" are mutually exclusive terms.

As I greeted Layne, my mind worked furiously. Could I impress him? Would he recognize a fellow Southerner? Would Wal-Mart understand that I had another job?

Layne started to speak. I was enthralled. Honeysuckle floated from his voice, with the scent of magnolias, roses and the crisp, bracing taste of an icy mint julep. It was the sound of Virginia royalty, white columns, stately oaks and hounds baying after a scarlet-tailed fox. Who was this man? And why was he here?

"Why do you want to work for Wal-Mart?"

"Describe your current job."

"Do you have any previous retail or service industry experience?"

"Which positions are you interested in?"

"What hours are you available to work?"

That was my interview.

As I described my current job, I got the impression Layne wasn't quite sure what to make of me.

Who can blame him?

- - -

I always had a soft spot for Layne, because I felt like he was at least a half-step above the other manager in our store. In my line of thinking, he was younger, and therefor a bit more likely to retain a few brain cells that the House of Wal hadn't flattened out of him yet.

Layne developed a bit of a protective attitude toward me too. I could always count on him to have my back - and the either explain what I needed to know or help me with what I needed.

What Layne expected in return though, was unwavering loyalty - not to him, but to Wal -Mart. The degree to which a job, a slavish retail job at that, could completely come to dominate the lives of seemingly intelligent adults still boggles my mind.

Once the store opened, I became Layne's favorite person to find whenever he needed anything doing in an area he was managing.

I hauled ladders, stocked shelves and moved flowers in the Garden Center.


Some girl named Heather, who lasted just weeks after opening, helped me stack dozens of the ugliest mechanized fur-covered kitty cats in the Toy section.

I'm not positive I can describe the horror of these things, or the insanity of the marketing executives who thought people might buy them.

Remember that old episode of "Are You Being Served?" The one with the exploding "PussyBoots" display where the cat's head and tail spin round and rotate? It looks like that. A two-foot stuffed cat with fur the color of ashes.

What is supposed to be a smile on his face resembles a snarl. The box, a color my beloved Granny would call "pussy pink," completes the presentation.

I can still remember Heather slicing into a carton, her orange box opener running neatly across the taped seam.

"Those stupid kitties," I heard her sigh in disgust. She have the box a savage kick toward the end of the aisle.

We already had a shelf full of the hideous things, plus another one of the risers, the "too-tall-too-reach" shelves above customer height.

- - -

Bit by bit though, I grew chillier toward Layne.

I could neither understand not stomach the slavish devotion to Wal-Mart, especially when it started to hurt me.

Late during our first holiday season, Layne came to the customer service manager, wanting someone to attend the register in Sporting Goods. Their last person left at 7 pm.; he needed someone for another three hours. He wanted me.

It was during those three hours I realized Big Business is fully about profit over people.

I had been scheduled to work 10 am - 7 pm. The manager that sent me back to Sporting Goods promised I could go home in an hour.

As you might expect on a Saturday at a Wal-Mart, it was busy. People wanted help; I tried the best I could because I was being paid to help. I didn't know how to sell fishing licenses. There were no instructions on the computer. I saved at least a few fish that day.

Did you know you can buy a gun at Wal-Mart? A middle-aged Hispanic gentleman came up to Sporting Goods and wanted to buy a gun.

I cannot sell a gun. By law I cannot sell a gun, because in order to sell firearms, associates have to go through special certification and training.

With no Sporting Goods staff anywhere in the building, it has to be an assistant manager. Usually as thick as flies, they are scarce on weekends.

Layne eventually shows up, looking put out that I interrupted his paperwork and gives the guy a form for the background check.

"Call me when he's done with that," he said, walking away. "And don't just stand around while you're back here. Zone the shelves."

Fifteen minutes later, I call the managers office. No answer. I page. No response. I call the customer service podium and have them radio for him. Ten minutes after the game starts, with a visibly angry customer, I get the message "Layne went home."

At least the gun had never been removed from the case.

I finally got to go home at 11 pm., after 13 hours on my feet. No one ever came to replace me.


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