At age 53 everything changed. I was run out of the good job I had held for over 20 years, and for a long time the pension I’d earned, the thing I had counted on to provide for me, was in jeopardy. My skill set was pretty specific to my old job, the market was tough and nobody with a salaried job to offer seemed interested in an old guy and I needed some money. The sign pointed one way: retail and minimum wage. Those experiences at a store we’ll call here “Bullseye” helped inspire my new book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent. Here’s an excerpt from that book.
Let the young men in other small Ohio towns dream of bright lights. In Reeve, Ohio we thought growing up we were going to work in that factory. But while we thought it was drawn in ink, it was really watercolor. There were pieces of machinery from the factory left on the ground, too unimportant to sell off, too heavy to move, too bulky to bury, left scattered like clues from a lost civilization, droppings of our failure. Might as well been the bones of the men who worked there.
Reeve lost out on the Bullseye store, when Gibbsville offered better tax breaks plus a couple years’ free lease on the old high school land after they closed the second high school due to people moving away.
The idea was our tax money was used to lure that company in, and they were smart enough to play Reeve off against Gibbsville like we did in football. It was our tax money being used to create jobs for us. They held a job fair, with tables set up in the other high school’s gym, decorated with magic marker-written signs and a few tired balloons, which was all that stood for the fair part. A lot of people were already lined up when I got there, and the Bullseye people were wearing their bright blue vests walking around, looking us over like livestock. We covered a lot of ground, from last year’s model of homecoming queen to retired guys who couldn’t afford to retire. “Interested in loading dock?” they said to me, “C’mon over and talk about cosmetics here,” they’d say to the pretty high school girls. We were good little pieces of meat.
One guy said that because Bullseye drove his small store outta business he had to take a minimum wage job at Bullseye, which only pays him enough so that he sorta has to buy at Bullseye. They made him a greeter at the front door and told him to be enthusiastic. He was. Like that, all the jobs were not much. You got one and you were happy at first, but you soon felt like you made it onto one of the life boats from the Titanic but were just waiting for the next big wave to dump.
My job at Bullseye was to take big boxes of things off the truck, and do the break down. It was called officially by Bullseye “Inbound Event Processing.” What happened is that a computer at the Bullseye headquarters called a computer at a warehouse, which notified a computer in New Jersey to send off a buy order ultimately to a factory computer in Thailand to make some more headache pills to replace the ones we had ordered for our store. They came in a big carton of say 144 smaller boxes. I tore a pick sheet off the printer, which told me to count out thirty-six of boxes into a plastic tub labeled Pharmacy, then count out twenty-four more and put them into a tub labeled Grocery, and so forth. Somebody else would come into the back room from each of those departments and take their tub. Because of me and my counting, the Bullseye store could order a big cheap box of 144 and I’d divide them up right. A computer could not do that and so almost reluctantly I had a job.
The job was real easy to learn. There was no apprentice system needed here, no paid jobs for boiler operators’ assistants, no plumber’s helpers. I walked in and Steve, the Team Leader, said “Take the pick sheet there, go to the truck, hit them with that barcode scanner gun, count them out right, initial the pick sheet and put it in that folder. Fifteen minute break’s at noon. No talking. Come in to work through the rear entrance, never use the front door or park in a guest space. Late from break twice and you’re fired. Bullseye welcomes you as a valuable addition to our team, um, Earl.” He’d looked up just at the end of my welcoming speech at my name tag. It was almost like Bullseye didn’t want him to think much. Maybe us neither.
On my first day, I met with Teri, from Human Resources. She told me I had to decide how Bullseye would pay me. See, Bullseye wanted everyone to use electronic direct deposit, which was the cheapest, well, Teri said best, thing for Bullseye and thus for its valued team members. Problem is that to use direct deposit you had to have a place to deposit into directly, a bank account. That used to be simple, and as a kid I remember being walked into the bank one Saturday morning with a bag of quarters and some paper birthday money to open my first passbook savings account. The old guy banker even let me keep the pen I used to sign things. Now, banks want chunky minimum amounts to open an account, and want to charge you for checks and stuff and fees, so for a guy like me banks were too expensive. You also needed a mailing address and ID to prove you were just homeless and not a homeless terrorist.
“No problem,” said Teri from Human Resources, “Bullseye understands and for a $7.95 biweekly courtesy fee will gladly issue you a paper check.” I would then have to take the check to a storefront check cashing place ’cause I had no bank account, and pay a courtesy fee of four percent largely because they could care less if you’re a homeless terrorist as long as they get their share.
“No problem,” said Teri from Human Resources, “Bullseye understands and will pay you in the form of a debit card. It looks just like a regular credit card, and every two weeks your salary gets loaded on it electronically, automatically.” I could even manage it on-line, if I had an on-line. So I did that. Only I found out that to get actual cash I had to stick the thing into an ATM for a fee, and if the balance fell below a minimum, fee, and there was a monthly maintenance charge fee, so basically if I didn’t spend it quick enough in the right way my money evaporated. The only place I didn’t pay a fee to spend my own money was if I used the card at Bullseye. Even just getting my hands on my money I’d earned was like trying to pick up dog poo by the clean end.
Teri also guided me through my drug test. Most places that don’t pay much seem really concerned that their workers are drug-free. I’m not sure why this is, ’cause I learned that you can be a banker or lawyer and get through the day higher than birds on a cloud. Regardless, I did what I had to do in front of another person, handing him the warm cup. He gave me one of those universal signs of the underemployed I now recognized, a “we’re all in it, what’re ya gonna do” look, just a little upward flick of his eyes. Even though I was hung over, I did pass thanks to alcohol not being part of the test.
Then I had to buy some blue, collared shirts and what my mom would’ve called khaki slacks, which were the uniform for Bullseye. I got to keep and wash the uniform, which was okay I guess, but even with the employee discount it meant that I worked my first two days just to buy the clothes they wanted me to have. As a kid I used to get all my clothes at Christmas mostly, except for jeans and T’s, but you had to be pretty rich to wear jeans and a T to work.
It was hard to get to know the other workers, the associates, as we were told not to talk and because it turned out that Steve the Team Leader had another computer. His computer wasn’t hooked up to the headache pill factory but instead was watching those pick sheets. As I came to learn, the bar code scanner was kind of watching over me. The people who came and picked up my filled tubs had one too, and those scanners told Steve how fast I was picking and filling. On days when I apparently wasn’t doing those things fast enough, Steve would come out and tell me I was not performing to my full potential as a valued teammate and that meant I had to work faster. I did. I did not have his computer, so I wasn’t sure how fast was right, or fast enough, and so I tried to just do it all as fast as I was able. But no mistakes—Steve was angry, sure, if I was slow, but if I put too many or too few into a bin and the bar code scanner told him, that made him especially angry. It was my job to pick and sort stuff, but it was Steve’s job to make sure Bullseye made money, he said. That was what I came to know as management. Still, it was better than when I worked off-the-books for a while in the craft store at Christmas, coming home like a dancing girl with a pocket full of ones and fives covered in glitter.
This girl named Leigh missed one day. She told Kevin the Store Manager she misread the schedule. Kevin said if she didn’t have a doctor’s note then one more time and she was gonna get excused, get back to work, have a good day. Excused was the word Bullseye used instead of fired. Words sort of meant something different inside Bullseye, like they never really wanted to make it clear what they meant. Kevin the Store Manager said one time he had worked twelve years for Bullseye, so he knew the special meaning words, and the rules and the tricks, and got to be the boss. Kevin the Store Manager loved rules. He was probably the only person who really didn’t stick Q-Tips in his ears just because the box said not to. Rules made him feel comfortable by making his choices smaller. He’d flirt clumsily with the high school worker girls, and they’d flirt back without enthusiasm thinking it might be good for their jobs in some still-developing pubescent version of being nice to the boss. Everybody learned fast. Kevin had as his big responsibilities making sure the pricing guns were racked at the end of each shift, and doing bag searches for the cashiers on the way out the door so they wouldn’t steal. You could guess this wasn’t Kevin’s dream job. It was nobody’s dream job. It was just somewhere you ended up and, if you were tired or unlucky, got stuck.
Out in the parking lot, this young guy with a clipboard came up.
“Hey, you got a minute? I’m from the union, wanna talk with you about a meeting we’re having soon.”
“Get away. We heard about you at the last team-building exercise. They said to stay away or we’d get fired. Said you can’t even be in this parking lot, it’s private property of Bullseye.”
“Just give me a minute. C’mon, they’re paying you, what, $7.25 an hour? That’s what a fast food lunch you gotta eat in your 15 minutes of break costs. Is that really what an hour of your labor, your life, is worth?”
“Mister, back off. We ain’t got much but these jobs. We’re scared. Some of us got kids and all of us got bills. We can’t afford to go to your meeting.” That union guy was out there all the time, even when it was raining. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why someone would be standing there in the rain. Must have been somethin’ in it for him.
New thing: Everyone has to memorize the five rules of superior customer service and recite them on demand from Kevin the Store Manager. He actually walks around the store and stops us, saying, “Earl, tell me Rule Number Three.” Rule Three is, “Ask the guest if she has found everything she desires.” The hard part is about half the staff speak Spanish, and memorizing the rules is really hard for them. Thank you for listening to this and please come again (adapted by me from Rule Five).
New break policy: zero to five and a half hour shift, no break. New schedule policy: all shifts reduced to five and a half hours or less. Somebody said it was illegal not to give us breaks, but what can you do, call the cops like it was a real crime? Well, turns out the joke’s on me. I asked that union guy out in the parking lot about it, and he explained to me that we were in a “Right to Work” state. By law, employers are not required to grant breaks to anyone over age 16; Bullseye gives us some kinda break, but in other places minimum wage workers like us do eight and nine hour shifts without a meal or a chance to get off their feet for a few minutes.
I actually asked Kevin the Store Manager about this. He was always encouraging us to talk to him about anything. “My door is always open,” he said, before going into his office and closing the door. One time I knocked, and standing in the doorway I asked him about having a break more often, just a few minutes to sit down and take a load off, and Kevin the Store Manager said:
“You’re lucky to have this job. Lotta people out there who’d take your place.”
“I know Kevin, and I’m grateful. I’d just like a chance to sit down and eat a regular lunch on long shifts.”
“Well, we all gotta do what is best for Bullseye. Careful you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
I got it. Even if I’m never fed.
People not caring like that let the bullies get in charge. When I was a kid I really believed the border between me and the world leaked both ways, so that I could maybe affect things instead of just being affected by them, but it’s different now when you work for a company like Bullseye. At that point you realize that not everything is possible, and that changes everything.
I did start talking once in a while with a woman named Jodie. She wasn’t very pretty, but she had that desperate available look in her eyes, the one women don’t see ’cause it isn’t there around women. “I got two kids,” Jodie told me. She was always tired, saying the one kid won’t sleep alone and insisted on crawling into her bed at night. “I told all the kids, Mama doesn’t have any more sugar, go to bed, but they keep coming around.” The older one watched the younger one all day while Jodie was at work, and at night he wanted time with Mom. Price on families is hard to measure but easy to see.
“After Chris, who used to be my boyfriend, lost his part time job and took up drinking full time, things went bad for us at home,” Jodie told me. “He’d come back later and later, and then started coming back so late it was early the next day. Too many times our money ran out ’fore the month did. Food bank at the Salvation Army looked like the Monroe Mall used to look, same people in line nowadays. It was first come, first served, and people with cars could get there before us that had to wait for the first bus at 4:22 a.m., so it wasn’t fair. Some mornings you’d be standing in the weather with the kids for hours for boxes of macaroni and cheese.”
“Hey Jodie,” interrupted Ephraim, her Team Leader. “Can you quit break a few minutes early and clear off the end caps on aisles four and six? We got a load of those new iTablets coming in and corporate wants to give them a lot of shelf frontage before the holidays.”
“Sure Ephraim, I’ll get right to it. What do you want me to do with all the boxes of macaroni and cheese that’re out there now?”
“Just throw them away, Jodie. They’re ready to expire. Nobody wants them. And get those tablets on the shelves right. Sales affect my bonus, corporate watches that stuff.”
I still had seven minutes left on break.
Guests, which was a Bullseye word for what we used to call customers, like us, but a darker version of us. One of them made one of the high school girl associates cry, saying she was gonna ruin her kid’s birthday because we sold the last of some stupid toy before she got there. Kevin the Store Manager came over and apologized, stepping right between the red-faced consumer and the crying valued associate, promising a rain check special order and a swift and courteous checkout when the time came. Another one threatened to call the police on us because we closed earlier than he said we said we would.
Funny thing happened. I was walking in to work, hat and jacket on outside so no one could see my Bullseye nametag and all. Some woman bumped into me by accident. She turned and apologized, said something about the weather getting colder and said sorry again, smiling. I then saw her like ten minutes later inside the store, me dressed as a Bullseye associate and her pushing a shopping cart. She almost ran over me, but didn’t say a word. Me, a person in the parking lot, but just an item inside.
We all learned the look, the minimum wage stare, the look that pleads with the customer to please just give up because we can’t fix it, but we won’t care about not fixing it. There was nothing else we could do. In return, the customer can say just about anything to us. Bullseye values its guests, so much that for a $4.99 purchase they can treat us this way. Self-respect goes cheap in Aisle 38.
Most of us were just trying to make a little money. But some people were spayed. They’d been yelled at too many times, or were too afraid of losing their jobs. They were broke. People—and dogs—don’t get like that quickly; it has to build up on them, or tear down on them, like erosion, one thing after another nudging them deeper into it. Then one day, if the supervisor told them by mistake to hang a sign upside down, they’d do it, more afraid of contradicting the boss than making an obvious mistake. You’d see them rushing in like twenty minutes early to stand next to that clock so they wouldn’t be late. One associate broke down in tears when she accidentally dropped something, afraid she’d get fired on the spot for it. They all walked around like the floor was all stray cat tails, step on one and set off all the cats screaming. It was a bad way to live as an adult, your only incentive to doing good work being they’d let you keep a job that made you hate yourself for another day.
Before I gave up, there was a potential, a white shirt maybe a little dirty, but with another good washing left in it to carry it into tomorrow. I had known prosperity, I had a place, at least in theory, I could bounce back to. Not these kids. They are never going to know where back is. They’re never gonna trust no one, never gonna trust nothing. When I was little, we all wanted to be astronauts. What do they have to grow up to be? To work at Bullseye? Jodie and those boys wanted me to give them some kind of a future when I couldn’t see down the road for myself, never mind for three other already wounded people. She said “I love you” to me a couple of times, but we both knew it wasn’t love or lust—maybe just comfort. And if they were lies, and you wanted to choose to believe them, then there was no sin. Sometimes that’s all you can expect, and sometimes that’s enough.
Still, me and Jodie got along well, and we thought of ways we could help each other. One day her kids were sick and she didn’t want to leave them home alone, so she brought them in to work. She told them to stay in the toy aisle all day looking at things, pretending like they could buy them, and me and Jodie took turns quietly checking on them until quitting time. Some cough-soothing syrup went missing too between my picking and Pharmacy’s filling. That day of all days Jodie got asked again to work through her break, so I had to feed the sick kids Ho-Ho’s and red pop for lunch, which probably made them feel better than me overall.
Our biggest attempt at trying to help each other was after Jodie transferred to sporting goods and one day told me how customers were always asking her for Aze bandages and white tape and stuff. That all was kept over in Pharmacy. Bullseye told us our guests were the most important product, and had Rule Number Two that if a guest asked for something somewhere else in the store you couldn’t just say, “Sure, over in Aisle Seven,” but you had to walk them there as a courtesy and wait to see if they found what they were looking for or needed additional guest service interaction. Jodie said the problem was so many people kept asking for athletic tape that she was walking a lot and her team manager, Ephraim, was on her for not being at her station. She told Ephraim about the athletic tape taking her away, but he said something about her needing to learn to work smarter not harder, which did not seem to help, because the athletic tape was still not where customers were asking for it. Having to actually talk to the customers, we came to understand, was the weak link in the chain of efficiently transferring money from them to Bullseye.
“So Earl,” Jodie said, “I know how we can get ahead here. We can do this thing called innovation Ephraim told us about at the last team-building meeting. He said we have to be ahead of our customers’ needs to succeed in this market. So, you pick me some athletic bandages and tape, and put them in my tub instead of Pharmacy. I’ll have the new things set up all nice near my station, and when Ephraim comes by I’ll show them off. We’ll for sure win that ‘Catch Us Doing Our Best’ prize.”
I think it was only because firing two valued teammates at the same time would’ve made Steve and Ephraim look bad, or because they couldn’t figure out a way to blame it on one another, that we didn’t get thrown out that day. Ephraim was a cooler Team Leader, explaining to Jodie about unit stock control, location sales metrics, and how important it was that each Bullseye store maintain its unique identical layout. Steve just told me never to do anything that wasn’t on the pick sheet again, or he’d call security and have me walked out. He also later secretly tagged me on my performance review as ineligible for rehire, which I only found out after I was laid off and trying to use Bullseye as a reference for Taco Bell. Jodie got reassigned to the children’s section, which everyone hated because it was where the most shoplifting took place and she was worried about having to see one of her mom friends doing it. Her first task was to put out only one shoe of a pair on display, keep the other one in the back until someone paid, to discourage people from stealing ’cause they couldn’t get the set. After customers just started stealing any old right shoe to go with any left shoe on the rack, Jodie had to redo it so there were only left shoes on display.
Then for a while the big hope was for a German car factory to locate in our part of Ohio. It was in all the news. At one point cars were pretty much made in Detroit, then somehow we got from there to here, where Detroit looks like Dresden after WWII and Dresden looks like Detroit before WWII. I noticed some foreigners in nice clothes come in to the food court now and then, along with our politicians who were offering tax incentives. I’d listen in on them while I was wiping things up, hoping to get the inside track on those jobs.
“Mr. Mayor, we thank you for your hospitality. Our friend here from your governor’s office has taken us around to so many of your rustic small towns. I must say, Ohio is quite beautiful.”
“We do like it here Manfred—may I call you that? But of course in addition to being so pretty a countryside, we have a lot of hard-working Americans anxious to get started.”
“And that, if I may be blunt Mr. Mayor, is our concern. The tax breaks are generous. What worries us, frankly, are the workers. Our motorcars are complex machines, and our quality is our brand. Can your people meet our standards, at our price?”
“These are good people, Manfred. Salt of the earth.”
“Mr. Mayor, allow me to tell you a true story. Apple had redesigned their iPhone’s display literally at the last minute. New screens began arriving at the assembly plant in China near midnight the day before the units were to ship. A foreman roused 8,000 workers inside the company’s dormitories, gave them each a hard biscuit and a cup of tea and sent them into the factory for work. Within thirty minutes of being woken, they started a twelve-hour shift fitting displays without a break to meet Apple’s deadline. Can your workers do that? Do they have those kinds of skills? Perhaps, of course, we would serve coffee instead of tea here. A little joke, yes?”
“Um, well, Manfred, I just don’t know. I mean, we have laws here, about people being able to sleep and how long they can work.”
“In my China factories I do not even by law have to allow workers breaks for water or sanitation. We do find limited meals are necessary for productivity. Those are the skills I need. Can your people provide them?”
“Manfred, really, those aren’t skills, getting out of bed to work in the middle of the night, twelve-hour shifts. You can’t bully your workers. Can you? What you’re talking is more like, well, I don’t know, more like you need farm animals than people.”
“Ha yes, Mr. Mayor. I understand your joke in English. We indeed have such a saying in German as well. You are funny, but in North Carolina they are offering us the incentive of using prison labor if we locate the plant there, only a few of your pennies an hour. I do think it would cost more to feed farm animals. That is my joke to you. But yes, yes, of course I understand. I have opened factories for our company all over the world, and I have heard the same thing in Shenzhen and in Chennai. In the end, there I have found workers at our price point, in our needed quantity, with the skills we require, despite these so-called ‘laws.’ It is flexibility those places offer me. Of course, your people do speak good English, and that is a plus for us. But can you guarantee me that they’ll work to our standards? Can you assure me for example that there will not be a union here to disrupt our labor price calculations?”
“Well, on the quality, sure, they’ll do it, of course. And now, you know I can’t control the thing about the union here—”
“Mr. Mayor, again, we are in your country and I am happy to follow your custom of direct speech. My company needs a North American facility, but our margins are tight. I can drop this plant across the border in Mexico as easily as I can drop it here. You will please think about that. Meantime, allow me to take a closer look at your labor pool, ‘size them up,’ I think you say in English, no?”
For me at Bullseye, things didn’t go so smoothly, even after I got my old position back. Steve the Team Leader explained one day that Bullseye had innovated a new warehousing system that centralized item distribution in such a way that goods came to our store pre-sorted into tubs. Instead of me breaking down a big box of toothpaste into tubs for Pharmacy and tubs for Grocery, it was done centrally somewhere else by someone else. The people who used to just have to pick up their filled tubs from me were redefined so that they now went into the big truck directly and lifted out their pre-filled tubs. They could skip their own bar code reading part, and so Steve laid off three of those people for efficiency, too. Steve did thank me very nicely for my contributions to the Bullseye family and took my blue vest. Steve said he hoped I would leave without a fuss.
I did. I guess in the end I had precious little fuss left in me.
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