Tuesday, March 05, 2013

behind the counter chapter five "Connie"

We arrived for orientation and waited in the entryway of a brand spanking new Wal-Mart.

Scaffolding was everywhere. There was a McDonalds! I was so impressed that MY WAL-MART WAS GOING TO HAVE A MCDONALD'S!

I have no idea why I thought that was important, except that I was fat and lazy and damn what did they put in those fries?

I know, in every logical sense of the word, that what I get out the drive through window is in no way related to a potato. I have held potatoes in my hand. My granny made me French fries with potatoes that came out of the ground hours ago. Those aren't potatoes. Those are pieces of hot, fried sensory satisfaction. You pray for the crunchy salty slightly smushy fries at that PERFECT temperature where you can jam a whole fistful in your mouth and chomp away with glee.

It happens sometimes. The fries are designed to be that good, but a lot of things have to line up for you to hit the exact window. When it does, don't you think about pulling over in the next parking lot and jamming the entire box in your mouth as fast as you can? Fries.

So, yeah. I was happy to see McDonalds.

A plump mocha skinned girl sat at a table near the wide door. She continually held one phone to her ear and fielded questions with the other.

Wait. We waited.

At eight, we were herded in to view Wal-Mart cheer. I should have ran.


There were exactly three white males in a group of fifty. Mostly women, white and minority. A sprinkling of seniors. Very heavy on Hispanics of every stripe and Haitians; the hiring manager, who would teach the class was Cuban.

But then I spotted her, across the room.

Connie was a curious creature. She was the closest thing to a true, honest, bright, intelligent friend I had in my time inside the House of Wal.

Her bulb seemed to flicker on and off, but with a distinctive and wildly unpredictable irregularity that baffled me. No doubt it baffled the rest of Pew 22 down at St. Pious of the Holy Waters of God. One minute she's keeping up in a conversation about internet memes; the next, she starts yammering on about Jesus and literally giving me bible verses.

Is this a white trash viper or an aspirational garter snake?

Neither, it turned out. When the universe wired Connie, somewhere in the billions of nerves that make up the human body, a single neuron zigged when it should have zagged. Much to my chagrin, poor Connie was what I'd call a dingbat, pure and simple. Worse, I think she knew she was a few beers short of a party and spent her entire life trying to get ahead anyway.

 I could see the potential spark of greatness, even brilliance on the girl. Looking into her eyes, at the back of the pupil, in a space that only others with "the gift" recognize, I could also see a pain that staggered me.

Such a tragedy, to know that you are doomed to a life of of pot roast and dirty green minivans with a rusting and dented fender because of a quirk in the genetic code. Did mama eat tuna fish that day? Or was it the two glasses of dreadful champagne she had at Aunt Lucille's third wedding?

She was too smart for the rest of the girls in the starter home exurbs and trailer parks, although the lower the social class, the more accepting. All the girls in Brynwood Acres Mobile Home Resort loved Connie. She was funny, at least, funnier than them. And Connie could cook.

They let her join them in bachelorette parties and girls nights.  She usually had one daiquiri and then played responsible adult.

What Connie really thought was to put on a dress cut down to here, up to here, as sparkling as diamonds and strap on shoes that hurt to stand up in. She'd toss on an outrageous coat and dash out of her fabulous apartment to meet a random assortment of people for drinks.

She loved "Sex and the City." In her circle of bored housewives who watched "stories" on daytime tv, played lotto and thought frying a hamburger was cooking, she was surely the Miranda, a little brainy, with some Charlotte prissiness tossed in. At least, that's what everybody thought.

Connie loved men, at least when her wiring was firing. When it wasn't, she was married to something that looked relatively harmless, but was large and grunted a lot. Poor thing. Imagine waking up next to an old Gray sweatshirt stuffed with a bald mannequin every day for the next 40 years. And you didn't really remember the night you conceived the child that led to the marriage you were more or less forced into.

She thought I was the most amazing thing she had ever seen,heard or touched. A friendship was born instantly.

We tried. We really tried.

Connie and I were thick as thieves during the afternoon of orientation. We traded phone numbers in the parking lot and agreed to meet for lunch on the first Monday we were supposed to be back at work.

Three days later, we parked across from each other at an unholy hour of the morning in a parking lot I would come to bitterly resent over the next three years, Connie hopped into my car, we hugged and jabbered like old friends.

We clocked in at 8 a.m.

I saw Connie for two minutes during our first break. We ate lunch together. We walked out together at 5:15 p.m.; we moaned about our aching feet.

Lunchtime became our refuge to share news, store gossip and more. I was working everywhere. Connie was weighing taking a promotion into a full time job in the deli. She had also applied for an executive assistant job at either a law office or financial firm.

Her husband usually called during our lunch hour to "check in." Some of the hissing and back and forth was comical. "Why are you calling me? No we don't get to come home early today. Get off the phone. What if it's the lawyers?"

It never occurred to her that a white collar firm calling to make contact with a candidate would not simply hang up if there was no answer. That's why voice mail exists.

But we did have fun.

During lunch, associates are considered "off the clock," therefore, we could leave the property. One day, Connie and I visited my new apartment. It was our secret adventure, something we could share that no one else in the store could. We were special. We were the glittering martini girl queens, the ones who shopped for real estate on their lunch hour. They didn't eat at the greasy (and incompetent) McDonald's; we picked up real food at Wendy's!

We even shared a tiny split of champagne out of plastic Starbucks cups. We finished the champagne standing in my empty kitchen, then ate because we were paranoid about being "drunk" at work.

So much fun packed into that golden hour.

After four weeks, Connie abandoned hope on the secretarial job and caved, taking the position in Deli. Two days before the store opened, she started managerial training. This was just a recipe for disaster.

In theory, Connie was hired to work three shifts a week (24 hours) as a customer service clerk in the deli and meat department. When she applied, her interview stressed years of experience in a small family deli/grocery store. Connie imagined she would be slicing meat or cheese, perhaps; or stocking shelves.

For six weeks, Connie (and the rest of the 400 associates in the store), did nothing but brute manual labour. Despite multiple other Wal-Mart's in the area, Connie received almost no training in running the deli equipment, the ovens, the dryers or the freezer controls. No one was allowed to turn on anything used to cook food until four days before opening. Wal-Mart didn't want to waste food on non customers.

Three different assistant managers yelled at her about cardboard on the floor. The assistant produce manager went ballistic because a pallet of ice cream accidentally melted on the floor. A Cuban woman accused Connie of getting her wet and then stealing her purse.

The "promotion" turned out to be a poisoned Apple. Connie was the dead pig, lying on Wal-Mart's fatter table, with that rosy Deli apple in her mouth and dead eyes staring right out from the mounds of fresh fried processed chicken strips and potato wedges into the produce bins.

Connie accepted the position so late that she missed 28 of the 30 days of training. She had started her Wal-Mart career less than two months ago. Now, she was responsible for ordering, customer service and scheduling at a SuperCenter deli. She was also expected to manage two dozen employees, mos who spoke almost no English, AND work 40 punishing hours per week slicing ham for old ladies.

Connie didn't know anything about Wal-Mart technology, industrial food service, managing people and she barely spoke English. She was a nice girl who knew how to slice meat and clean.

Connie lasted six weeks.

I saw her twice more before she passed out of my life forever.

The last time I saw her at work, she looked miserable. Connie was running the meat slicer with a tired motion that spoke to too many hours under florescent lights, too many unpleasant customers and 50-hour weeks on her feet.

It was just 11:30 am. I'd been sent to lunch early. The store was slow. I thought Connie might be able to get away an  We could catch up.

No dice. She was the only person working in Deli today. Two firings, a transfer and a all-out left her under-staffed. With the euphoria of opening over, a round of exits started and hiring didn't keep up.

Connie's tired face begged me for a soda and a candy bar. I bought them for her before I bought my own lunch.

I saw Connie one final time just before Christmas. She brought her husband and son in to shop. She was pregnant again, despite never finding another job. There was talk of moving to North Carolina. Maybe Georgia. The husband had better job prospects.

Connie filled her cart with groceries and canned goods from Wal-Mart, identical copies of the same bags, boxes and packages she had spent weeks putting on shelves months before. It didn't bother her that she was spending $200 on low-quality meat and produce at a retailer that failed to train her for a job she ultimately failed at - and her child will likely be born without health insurance.

She came up to the customer service counter to say goodbye and wish me a merry Christmas. Connie had already cracked open a pack of Snackwell chocolate cookies which she blamed on her pregnancy.

She promised to email. I scribbled my info on a piece of register tape.

I never saw Connie again.

Connie was a curious creature. A curious creature indeed.


Anonymous said...

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