Friday, March 08, 2013

Behind the Counter: Opening Day

The first day was a nightmare.

Even as I think those words, before I put my fingers to the keys to type them, even now, as I see the letters form words and then a sentence on the screen, I get a chill thinking about the horror of what it meant to be chained to a register for eight hours on opening day of a Wal-Mart SuperCenter.

I knew it had to end.

I was revolted by the need that drove thousands of people to spend money on poor-quality goods. During that process, they humiliated the under-paid and under-trained staff struggling to help them. Nothing we had been told even began to prepare us for this.

[something needs to go here]

Of the many, many examples from that day, one stands out so clearly in my mind. It was 12:30 p.m. on Opening Day and it seemed like half the county was trying to cram into the store because even though there were already two Wal-Marts and a Sam's Club in town, a SuperCenter might have something new! Oh, and they were so sad when they learned that SuperCenters had less "stuff" - meaning the merchandise - because half the store was given over to grocery. Instead of a "super" grocery store and a "super" Wal-Mart, a SuperCenter was in reality a discount grocery store and a limited-selection Wal-Mart with bad service.

This wasn't an event, it was a slaughter.

I was running register four, one of the "little" registers, without a belt and only three bagging spots, out by the grocery door. Every single person in line was angry at being in line, because they thought Wal-Mart was supposed to be all about fast service. They should have known that our "training" amounted to four hours of pretending to scan groceries at super-slow speeds and never using real money. We never learned one-tenth of the things we needed to learn. Instead of sending us to other stores to train and learn, our store management thought it more important for us to stock shelves, carry boxes and unload buggies.

I had been blindly running items across the scanner and throwing them into those stupid Wal-Mart sacks since 8 a.m. I hated those Wal-Mart sacks. Every cashier did. Slick as a greased-up used-car salesman running a political campaign, they either stuck together so that you couldn't get them apart to stick the stuff into, or they came off in clumps. I was nearly in tears, every third person that came through was complaining about the price of tomatoes and nobody taught us how to price override produce and I swear I was never so close to quitting anything in my life.

"Your fast lanes are not fast!"

Just beyond my bagging carousel, an elderly man in gray slacks, a pink pullover and a brown striped cardigan was screaming at the top of his lungs at one of the only genuinely nice people in the store, assistant manager Cardenas. Poor Cardenas. The two women at my register stopped in the middle of their credit card transaction to listen. As the shouting got louder, the audience grew, even over a din that would have felled the walls of Jerico.

"Your fast lanes are not fast!"

"Why are your cashiers so slow?"

"Why is this a brand new store and the service so bad?"

"Why should I ever come back here?"

"I need you to tell me why I should ever come here to spend money if I have to wait 30 minutes to check out and you have every lane running. This is unacceptable. It is unacceptable. Do you hear me? Do you understand? IT IS UNACCEPTABLE!!!"

And then he decides to jump onto me. And so help me Kali, Cthulhu and Amenhotep, because I do not even remember checking him out.

He points at me and goes "You. Yes you. The fat one. You charged me twice for this. I said something and you ignored me. I gave up. Do you understand me? I gave up because I just wanted to get the hell out of here and never come back. I saw this man and I'm going to tell him that I hope you get fired. You're slow and you don't know what you're doing."

Cardenas just stood there.

I just stood there. I wanted to scream and yell and hit him, but I knew that the world didn't work that way. We aren't savages - at least, I'm not.

I did want to cry.

Except that I'm supposed to be better than all this squalor, the college-educated, Mensa-member peacock amidst these scratching hens; we won't mention the squalid, all-too-common pigeons that comprised the customer base. To admit defeat is to admit that they're better.

I stuck it out.

I went to lunch.

I sat in the corner and ate my turkey sandwich, drank my soda and wished I'd packed four times as much food.

I commiserated. "Who has time to worry about packing the bags goods? I just shove it in and pray."

I went to the corner, put my head down and tried to sit very quietly. I hated the too-bright fluorescents, the processed air filled with the scent all the harsh cleaning chemicals and the screams and yells of the jam-packed store just a few feet away. The roar vibrated right through the wall. In the years I worked there, that noise was one of the few that ever penetrated the Break Room. Sound-proofing - especially in the customer-facing direction of the store was particularly good. You could even make a reasonable case for missing faint pages in there - an excuse some managers used with surprising regularity.

Today though, I was just overwhelmed.

I had traveled abroad, wandering streets in Mexico at midnight before I knew better than to do such things. I had a "real" job in an office; I didn't have to work standing up. Hell. I'd been to college. I'd been to college for free. I graduated summa cum laude.

Today. Today I could not cope.

Fifteen thousand people in search of low prices, speedy checkouts and friendly service with a smile were like nothing I had ever seen before.

In Mexico, I opened the door of a cab in a centro at midnight after six too many tequila shots and the cab driver looked like Sloth from "The Goonies." I looked at him, he looked at me. I said "Excusez-moi,"  which, I admit, I have no idea what I was doing. I was quite obviously a drunk American college student. But no way in hell was I getting in that cab. But not even what I saw in a cab that day was near to rivaling the hungry horde that descended on us.

After I came back from lunch, I got the death sentence. I hated being sent to run one of the "big" registers, the sixteen registers with the rotating belts that were designed for great, big, mother-whopping buggy-loads full of cheap, plastic Chinese crap and low-quality, D-grade, processed, imitation food products. In theory, cashiers should be able to scan and bag faster than customers can load the belt. Excuse me while I go laugh my head off.

I got sent to eight, right in the dark heart of hell. Eight also had a funky scale and no phone. Two hours, a line that wouldn't quit and no way to signal for help except blinking my light.

Register Eight was really not so great.

By two or three in the afternoon, word started making its way through the cashier network: "Watch out for the chickens!" I didn't understand what that meant, but figured that I'd know it when I saw it.

I saw it.

Wal-Mart sells cooked whole chickens that you purchase in the deli. Most grocery stories have something similar. You can get them fried, roasted, broiled, etc. These were roasted; they smelled delicious. They were also extremely greasy, as it turns out.

I learned the greasy part when a woman stacked two of those chickens atop a load of cans at the end of my belt. When I pressed the button to move the belt forward, both those chickens lurched off the stack and right onto the floor where they exploded like twin grease bombs. I hadn't been paying attention and didn't see her trying to get everything out of the buggy to try to compensate for my inability to scan and bag at the same time.

 I could see them falling. I remember thinking that I was going to get into trouble for this somehow. Her back was turned to pile some more stuff onto the belt. I pressed the button. Skriiitch.

The chickens come packaged in these plastic trays. A clear plastic dome fits into a black plastic bottom. I've been in enough grocery stores to know that Wal-Mart selected the cheapest possible design - the one that used the most minimal amount of plastic possible. The heavy, steroid-plump, factory-farm chickens sloshed around in a stew of fat and juices. The ill-trained girls taking these out of the broiler and throwing them over the counter in the deli didn't understand you need to  drain the bird and let it cool at least a little. Also, the cheap trays had nothing but four plastic snaps to secure the lid, which really didn't fit in the first place.

From day one, every cashier treated those birds with the utmost of respect. To make folly of the fowl was to invite a burned hand, a splash of hot fat, a filthy register or an unholy grease bomb, the likes of which I was now getting an up close and personal view. The birds slipped down the stack of cans sideways. One carton opened up in mid-air, spraying the register, the front of the woman's buggy and the tile with hot fat and chicken grease. The other one held together a few seconds longer; in a nice bit of karma, it splatted right at her feet. Pity that I didn't get to see the chickens bounce across the tile.

She screamed. I screamed.

I flicked my light on and yelled. I mean, there was chicken on the floor and that just could not be allowed to happen!

Near 4 p.m., when I got my second break, I looked at the roof and realized that the sky had changed. It was evening, or at least not high noon, which was the last time I looked skyward. I sat on a chair at a cheap plastic table and drank a soda. I had nothing left to give. I could not imagine doing this 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week for years on end. People make a living like this?

I willed strength back into my body. I pushed open  the swinging doors and walked to the front to learn the assignment for my last hour.

Register four. At least it was a speedy.

A woman yelled at me about tomatoes vs. tomatillos.

Another brought a bulging buggy through. Managers ordered us to "just check people out" because everybody was waiting in line. Customers started screaming at her, then screaming at me for checking her at. The whole time, I'm swiping her load of cat food, shampoo, towels and bananas as fast as I can and throwing it into bags. She's just loading and unloading. Another old white man in a blue blazer is giving her hell right on top of her buggy and she doesn't bat an eye. He's cussing up a storm until she hip-checks the cart back into him. I thought there was going to be a brawl. All this, on day one.

I get to leave.

As I walk out, the lines are only getting longer as the after-work traffic comes in. The store looks like a temperance league armed with bombs and rockets hit a saloon. Leaving the employee doors, I notice a woman loading diapers into her cart. Under the rear wheels, she's grinding a tiny little pink onesie that she knocked off a hangar. As she rolls off, she sees the onesie and kicks it under the shelf.

I ought to go pick it up. I don't. I'm off the clock and I realize that I was paid just a few dimes above minimum wage today.

I walked out.

I should have ran.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I started reading your blog last year when I worked at a Walmart super-center and needed an intelligent outlet for my rage at the stupidity of both the customers and the staff.

All I have to say is, I AM SO SORRY FOR YOUR PAIN.

As long as you work there, though, keep on writing; people are listening.

Anonymous said...

I came here from a link at Balloon Juice. Jeebus H. Christ, working at Wal-Mart sounds so dispiriting.

Of course, I have worked at a deli, a pharmacy, all sorts of service jobs and the one thing that I KNOW is that people suck when they think they have power over you - as in, "the customer is always right".

Screw that.

You sound too intelligent to be working at Wal-Mart. I hope you have found a better job recently.

I will never shop at Wal-Mart just because of the way they treat their workers.

Eric Jackson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Charles Flaum said...


You sound too intelligent to be working at Wal-Mart. Battery Led Picture Light