1968: Mercantile Subversion

broken eggs2

When you’re on the brink of adulthood a year can seem like a very long time. Given that puberty was a near-fatal condition for me it seemed like the 365 days between my 14th and 15th birthdays would never end – but blessedly they did, and to my surprise I was a much different young man in 1968 than I was in 1967. I had added an inch to my height and chest, my voice stopped cracking and I could run without looking like I was engaging in a series of stumbles. I had also acquired some basic social skills so at that point it was safe enough for the community for me to have a summer job.

At first I was unsure about the idea; I had had a miserable freshman year and had been looking forward to taking a month off to decompress, but that plan came to a screeching halt when my mom told me the janitor at the post office needed someone to cover his duties while he vacationed in Texas …and she had already put my name forward. I sulked a bit until I found out that I was going to be paid – which changed the whole deal. The sun came up, the birds started to sing – life just got much, much better as I merrily counted the proverbial chickens before they hatched.

I wasn’t quite so merry two weeks into the job when I found out that I wouldn’t get paid until Jerry (the janitor) returned from his trip. The concept of delayed gratification is a tough idea for a teenager and while having that big pay-day just in time to buy school clothes was a good idea I wanted some money in my pocket NOW. As my duties at the post office took just a couple hours each weekday morning I started looking around of additional employment opportunities.

As luck would have it a job opened up at the grocery store right next to the post office. Child labor laws weren’t quite so strict back then so I would be working eight hours a day Tuesday through Saturday. I started that second job brimming with confidence; secure in the knowledge that I only had to walk 100 feet from my first job to the second so I’d never have to worry about being late….but within a week those 100 feet seemed like 100 miles. Working ten hours a day was a lot harder than I had imagined and I was so exhausted that all I could do during my lunch break at the grocery store was sit in the back of the storage room and “sniffle” ( 15 year old boys do not “cry”)…and it wasn’t just fatigue that had me depressed.  Not only was I constantly tired, I was missing out on all the summer activities I had planned and had no opportunity to spend any of that extra money I was making.

….which wasn’t turning out to be as much as I had anticipated. I went into the work force that summer with no knowledge of FICA or withholding tax and was stunned to see the bite taken out of a paycheck for an unmarried person with zero dependents. I handled the disappointment as the responsible, mature teenager that I was: I sulked. My performance suffered accordingly and was immediately noticed so my hours were dropped to half-time for two weeks after which I would be “let go” just in time to start my sophomore year of high school.

You’d think I would be relieved to see the light at the end of the tunnel but in fact I was perturbed. That summer I’d had more money than I had ever before in my life and I liked it. I had hoped to turn my summer gig at the grocery store into an after-school job and felt pretty disgusted with myself for failing, but the next day I found out that it wasn’t my job performance that was causing the change; one of the adult workers in the store had a nephew that wanted the job so I was being eased out to make room for him.

Now it was personal.

Celtic blood figures prominently in my lineage and an oft-quoted saying shared by the Scots, Irish, Cornish and Welsh is “No one harms me and goes unpunished” Despite that genetic tendency I have tried to avoid vindictiveness in my life, but my internal blue-painted Pict won the moral battle that summer. I was going to wreak terrible vengeance on the way out of that job, albeit in a classical passive-aggressive manner.

I took great pains to show up for work well-groomed and early on the last day. My mom even paid a rare compliment on my appearance as I left for the grocery store, noting that I was even wearing my Sunday shoes – though she had no idea I chose them for the black marks they would be making on the store’s floor rather than their appearance.  I made sure I was ever so polite to each customer no matter how picky they were about the way their groceries were bagged. When traffic at the registers slowed down I was off to the aisles in a flash, opening cases, pricing cans and stocking shelves ; I was such a dynamo of mercantile efficiency that the owner started making weak jokes about keeping me on past closing time on this last day to get as much out of the “good Dave” as possible. Had he known what I was doing in between bagging groceries and stocking shelves he would have hustled me out the door at the first opportunity.

My first target was the cooler where eggs, milk and other dairy products were stocked. It would be the easiest of all my targets – all the cooler items were stocked from inside the refrigerated space itself and I would be out of sight while I was “at work”.  Cooler items were placed on racks behind double-pane glass doors that faced into the main store and as the rows just inside the doors were depleted we would restock items on the back of the racks inside of the cooler, carefully pushing them forward until the front rows were neatly aligned again…which also insured that older stock in front would be picked up before new arrivals.

There was a 2”-3” gap between the front end of the shelf and the inside of the glass doors. Figuring that proper timing was essential to a good alibi I selected a few low-demand items and pushed them all the way forward so they would fall out of the case and onto the floor when the door was opened. Other than suffering near-cardiac arrest when a customer made a first-in-the-history-of-the-store request for prune yogurt my “time bomb” was set up without a hitch. It was so easy in execution that I put a block of cheese on top of the cool-room compressor for good measure, figuring it would be a good week before the smell became over-powering and another week before they finally found out the source of the odor.

The next target:  soft drinks. At the time soft drink cans used pull-tab openers that were secured to the top of the can with a latex seal and removed by pulling on a ring attached at one end. These small strips of metal were already prone to being broken which would result in sealed cans with no means for opening (the old “church key” openers were almost impossible to use on the semi-domed can tops). Every time I would pass a pallet of soft drinks I would randomly bend tabs to just short of breakage, varying the degree of bending to again insure a comfortable margin of time between my exit and the mishap.

I was so caught up in my pranks that I lost track of time ; suddenly it was quitting time and I was ready to go  but my boss must have wanted to get the last minute’s worth of work out of me.  While the rest of the crew turned in smocks and signed time-cards I was sent to mop a spill on the condiments aisle. At that very same moment they started turning off lights making the job doubly difficult but while I was swabbing the floor tile free of broken jars of mayonnaise, relish and mustard the inspiration for my last bit of revenge hit.  As functional and efficient package design was at least a decade in the future most grocery items were packaged in glass jars that were not designed with stack-ability in mind. It took only moments to position a few jars slightly off-balance, so that merely picking one up would topple several others to the floor where they would invariably smash open in a nasty, marginally mop-able mess.

Not many people were picking up hitchhikers that night so I ended up walking six of the eleven miles home – and when I finally arrived I did little more than wolf down a sandwich before going to bed. The next day we drove to Anchorage where we spent several days buying school clothes and visiting friends. By the time we got back home it was payday at the store, but as a precaution I waited an extra day before going in to get my last paycheck. I wanted to keep a low profile and avoid any possible connection with my acts of mercantile mayhem – and nothing got the owners attention quicker that an employee that was too eager to get his check.

I was in luck – when I showed up early that evening the store staff consisted of one cashier, the butcher and the other bag-boy. “Man, you got out of here just in time” he said as I was signing the check roster. “Just about everything that could go wrong went wrong last week. We had stuff spilling all over the place and I must have spent the whole time mopping.” At that point I made a quick exit (with my check) and made a mental note to by my comics at the drug store for the next couple of weeks.

You know, I’ve told that story many times over the years and it always gets a good laugh – goofy teenager exacting his revenge against oppressive adults ( it would have made a great John Hughes movie if it had happened in Aurora, Illinois). It also typified the mind-set of the counter-culture Sixties, with the stereotypically “oppressed” young guy getting back at “the ‘Man’ who’s bringing him down”… but it wasn’t until I started writing this blog post out that I recognized the situation for what it truly was: an infantile temper tantrum.

I was a total jerk and there really isn’t much I can say in my defense.

Looking back over subsequent years I think I’ve subconsciously known that all along, because the incident produced something more than broken eggs and shattered jars. A few years after the aforementioned acts of sabotage the owners hired me again, once for a six month stretch as the weekend janitor and again during college when I worked for them as a stocker when my regular oil-field job fell through one summer.  During both of those times I worked my tail off, performing my assigned duties to my best ability and then going out of my way to find other chores that had been overlooked. Those that know me well often comment on my diligent work ethic and I have to confess that it was at this time in my life that I became a “working machine”. Were those two later periods of employment at the grocery store simply the natural evolution of my employee philosophy?

… or was I trying to make up for the $37.83 worth of dairy products, condiments and sodas that were wasted so many summers ago.

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