August 30, 2015

The Dalton’s Gang


It wasn’t my first job by any stretch—I’d been working since I was nine—but let’s just say it was my first legitimate job, with an interview and a name tag and a bi-weekly computer-printed paycheck and everything. On the surface, yes, it was just a part-time job in a small chain bookstore in a shopping mall in Wisconsin. Starting a few days after my sixteenth birthday, I worked an average of about twenty-five hours a week after school and on weekends. During the summer they tossed me a few more hours. I had to wear a tie and dress shoes, and was forced to deal nose-to-nose with the hardcore public for the first time. It was there I was confronted with the reality of what sorts of crap the masses were actually reading, and it mortified me. Although I was already a Cultural Pessimist at that point long before I ever heard the term, it was within the plastic confines of that little mall B. Dalton’s outlet I began to hone my grandiose theories, citing Danielle Steele, Stephen King and Harlequin Romances as far more demonic and insidious destructive forces than sitcoms or Ronald Reagan.

            But there were nevertheless a couple of very interesting things at play within that tiny middlebrow bookshop.

            Given it was one of the town’s few bookstores, the other employees were a melange of misfit characters who often felt as trapped by the reigning provincialism of the time as I did. In its own way, it was as interesting a collection of characters as I would later encounter at the Guggenheim or the NY Press, but on a much smaller scale.

            The manager who hired me was a funny and relaxed woman with degrees in French and Russian. As first bosses go, she was quite possibly the worst I could have hoped for, since it was all going to be downhill after that. Sure enough, a few months after I began she left to apply for a job with a federal intelligence agency. I was told later she didn’t get the job, but she was never heard from again.

            Her disappearance meant Martha was promoted to the manager’s job. On the bright side, I guess, she at least offered better preparation for some of the other bosses I’d be meeting in years to come. Martha was a short, squat, twitchy little nervous bird of a woman, not nearly as well-read as she presumed herself to be even though she wore glasses, and what humor she did foster was strained and uncomfortable, as if she was aware of humor as a concept, but wasn’t really sure what it entailed. It’s not that she was demanding or shrill or unreasonable, she just took everything very seriously and made all the other employees a little uneasy.

            Okay, here’s a telling anecdote. Endcaps are those book displays at the end of the aisles, the ones that face into the main corridor at the end of each aisle. These displays tend to be thematic and dull, with the themes determined by the corporate accounting and marketing departments and sent down to the national outlets from on high. They were changed once a month. So you might have an endcap of cookbooks, or Stephen King books if he had a new one out, or holiday-themed children’s books if there was some damn holiday or another afoot. Out of kindness I suppose, they would occasionally leave one of a store’s endcaps undetermined, open to the discretion of a store manager, who could choose an employee to come up with an endcap theme of their own choosing. For all the years I was at that store, I was allowed to create my own endcap only once, and even though it came down again after two hours, I’m still proud of it.

            There is a running joke among bookstore employees the world over, and it’s solidly based in truth. Namely, no one has ever worked in a bookstore for more than a couple of weeks without encountering a determined but confused customer who stumbles into the shop and says, “I’m looking for a book. I don’t know the title or the author, but I know it’s orange.” You cannot imagine how often this really happens, and the book in question is inevitably orange. So when given the chance to create my own endcap, simply enough, I scoured the store and gathered together every single book, from Dr. Seuss to Friedrich Nietzsche, with an orange cover, displaying them all in one convenient area. Being the considerate sort I figured it was a public service aimed at making things easier for the customer. Next time some baffled soul came in looking for an unknown orange book, all we would have to do is point.

            Well, this made Martha’s head hurt. She couldn’t draw any thematic connection between the books on display, and when I explained it to her she somehow got the idea I was mocking her, or the company, or the customers or something, and made me dismantle it again.

            She was also the same woman who made me restore my nametag to its original form after I changed the name to “Joseph K.”

            Things got much more interesting when it came to the other part-timers, all of whom snickered at Martha behind her back. Maggie was in her late fifties, a former sexpot who’d gone to seed. She’d been married and divorced so many times she lost count, but got herself a gorgeous house on the water out of the deal. She was a chain-smoking drunk with bleach blond hair whose skin had turned to wrinkled leather after a lifetime of obsessive tanning. She was a charming and unapologetic flirt who still picked up guys at bars weekly, and everyone adored her, I think in part because she just didn’t give a damn.

            Sarah, maybe in her early forties at that point, was what the youngsters today would call a MILF. Yes, well, to me anyway. She was another sly flirt, smarter than she let on, who was known at the store for ranking all the romance novels in terms of their smut quotient, and so was much sought after by customers.

            There were also two younger women there, maybe in their mid-twenties, but I always had a hard time telling them apart. One didn’t like me much at all, and the other, on the surface a wide-eyed innocent, confessed to me once that she was only getting married because she was pregnant, but wasn’t sure if she was marrying the father or not. That was a reasonably uncomfortable afternoon at the store, gotta say.

            The appropriately named Randy was about as close to an honest to god leprechaun as I’ve ever met. He was a short, wiry guy with, well, a leprechaun’s beard, squinting, twinkling eyes, and far too much energy. He was always somewhere between a smirk and a cackle, and his speech was an endless barrage of dirty jokes, bad puns, and non sequiturs. Everyone loved working with him (save for Martha), but he was canned after a day’s entire take mysteriously vanished while he was closing down the store himself one night. He claimed someone—quite possibly a rival leprechaun—must’ve snuck in the back door and grabbed it when he was sweeping up, but no one much believed him. I did, but that didn’t count. It was too easy for everyone to believe someone that wacky would’ve pulled something that stupid.

            Then there was Jake, a philosophy grad student at the local university who was studying with my friend and mentor Fred Kersten. He didn’t have much by way of a sense of humor either, but we had a bit to talk about when it came to philosophy, and he was always either recommending or warning me away from certain books, plus he was incredibly socially awkward. He wasn’t what you might call the most personable fellow, but still openly lusted after all the young women he saw passing by outside the store. He was just kinda creepy that way.

            And Mark, Jesus. Okay, Mark was tall and pompadoured and handsome, as cool as they come, a suave, smooth beatnik who’d been saddled with a day job. He’d worked with Fred as well, and hosted an avant-garde music show on the local college radio station. It was on his show I first heard musicians I’d read about but never experienced before, like Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass. I was a punk rock kid at the time, but he made me some tapes of things that would have an even greater impact on me than Black Flag, like Pere Ubu founder David Thomas’ solo recordings, and Eskimo throat music. He was also the first person to mention The Residents to me, and though he kept promising to bring me tapes, he never got around to it. No matter.

            Now, okay, here’s where things start to get weird. Jake, see, he befriended the mall nutjob, a bald, wild-eyed man with a floppy arm who spoke clearly but incoherently, always wore a pristine white button down shirt, and limped his way around the mall all day, stopping occasionally to sit on a bench for a spell to continue furiously highlighting his well-worn Bible. Sometimes he screamed. There was clearly some serious neurological damage at work there, but no one knew exactly what had happened. The general consensus was that he’d been normal once, but had either been in a car accident or was the victim of some operating room blunder that seriously damaged his brain. Afterward he became some kind of religious zealot and continued growing crazier and crazier each year. Unlike most people who just wanted him to stay away, Jake engaged him in long conversations and told me the crazy man was actually quite brilliant. My own thinking was that Jake was probably taking his R. D. Laing a little too seriously, but I guess that wasn’t my problem.

            Well, a woman I’d known since kindergarten, we’ll call her Lena, worked at a donut shop in that same mall, not too far away from the bookstore. I guess the bald crazy man spent a lot of time in the donut shop too, and since Lena took the time to listen to his insane babblings, he became what you might call a bit fixated on her. Then Jake, who got to know Lena through the crazy bald man, also started to develop a crush on her. She was a friend of mine, but I could understand their reaction. She was bright and sharp and cool, carrying herself like she was a quarter-stoned all the time, though I don’t think she ever was. She was just relaxed and maybe a little too patient.

            Oh god—Richard! That was the crazy bald man’s name! Just came back to me.

            Anyway, this went on for some months, the three of them forming a very strange ménage-a-trois. Eventually though, relaxed as she was I guess she’d finally had enough of Richard’s crazy attention and cut him off. Well, then Richard came stomping into the store while Jake and I were working and began loudly ranting that she was a devil woman and so forth. It took awhile for Jake to finally glean that Richard was talking about Lena, as Richard’s world seemed to be overrun with assorted devil women. When Jake at last figured out he was talking about Lena he blurted (maybe out of his own frustrated attempts to get anywhere with her), “You mean Lena? That little slut? That little whore!”

            Creepy as he could be sometimes, I’d never heard him say anything like that before, let alone about a friend of mine, so I was a bit taken aback. Maybe realizing this, he came over to where I was shelving after Richard left and apologized, explaining he didn’t really think that way, he was just humoring the crazy man.

            After that, things kind of fell apart for the three of them. There was no lasting rancor that I could discern, no one got stabbed, things simply returned to the way they had been.

            But the soap opera wasn’t quite over yet.

            I wouldn’t call Mark a “ladies’ man” so much as he was a “dangerously young girls’ man.”

            When I first met him, he was married to a gorgeous and charming young blond who worked as a bartender at a hep downtown restaurant (or as hep as Green Bay could get in the early eighties anyway). What I would only learn later was that he had a history of dating blonds in their late teens, only to dump them unceremoniously when they hit twenty-five in order to take up with yet another teenager. As he grew older, his girlfriends stayed the same age, which is quite some trick.

            So it wasn’t long after the Jake-Richard-Lena triangle fell apart that Mark himself took up with Lena.

            I wasn’t aware this was happening until one night he invited me and a couple of friends over for a visit, as he put it in his own smooth, debonair way, “to share some wine and some talk.”

            I was a little surprised when we got over to his place and Lena answered the door. She let us in, and Mark shambled in from the bedroom disheveled and groggy. It turned into another uncomfortable evening as I tried to keep ahead of the wine and attempted to figure out just how the hell all that had happened. But they seemed to have a cozy little hep life together there, so who was I to judge?

            Sure enough it wasn’t long afterward that I learned he was divorcing his wife for Lena. A few years later he would do the same thing to Lena, and I always felt bad I hadn’t been able to warn her somehow.

            But you want to know what the really sick thing was? I was, what, eighteen by then I’m guessing. And one night after everything had shaken out I got on a bus and went downtown to that hep restaurant and took a seat at the bar hoping I might run into his ex. I couldn’t see a damn thing in there, but eventually concluded she wasn’t working that night. So I ordered a beer, a whiskey, and a cup of coffee all at the same time. I drank them in no particular order, got back on the bus, went home, and forgot all about it.


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