Sit down my child. See, before your Uncle Punkie was a technical monkey for large testing corporations, I worked retail. See my earlier story about Crown Books. Let me tell you about Cargo Furniture.
The Light at the End of the Tunnel
I was unemployed for two years once. Two long, horrible and wonderful years. Horrible because of the crushing poverty, depression, weight gain, and feelings of inevitable doom. Wonderful because it got my writing career off, I raised my son from six months to 2 and a half, and was a dutiful househusband. But the horrible part pretty much overtook the wonderful part. I kept a journal in a notebook of jobs I applied for, and in those two years, I called, mailed, and applied in person to over 400 places. Only about a hundred of those got me interviews. Only six ever seemed promising. I had an assortment of writing jobs, all paid a few bucks here and there, and part time seasonal help, but really, I was unemployed. Christine carried the weight of sole wage earner for a horrible company during that time.
Cargo came to me literally as I was at the door with a warrant for a court appearance from another a bill collector. It was I think our sixth or seventh one, I don't recall. I was waiting for a callback from the now defunct "Nature Company" store, and as the phone rang, the sheriff knocked on my door, my son was trying to chase the cats, and I had something burning on the stove. I took care of all at the same time. The phone call was from my friend Tracie, and between her, CR trying to get out the door, and the sheriff trying to get me to admit Christine was hiding in a closet (the bill was in her name), and the burning Ramen noodles on the stove, I was severely distracted. I think I accidentally gave the sheriff the impression Christine did not live at this address anymore, when I was trying to tell him she was at work, and no, I didn't know the address. So he left, with the warrant, and my Ramen was now burned. I cried because it was my last package for the week, and it was Thursday. Tracie then remembered, out of the blue, that her company, Cargo Furniture (which she loved), was hiring in my area (she was in Maryland, the store looking for help was in Tyson's Galleria). I got a phone number, hung up on Tracie, called a girl named Gretchen, who was so eager to hear from me, she arranged an interview in the evening. That was great!
The interview went very well, and Gretchen was a charming young girl with almost bleached blond hair who looked very tired. Apparently, she had no staff, and was running the store all by herself. She wanted me to do a "follow-up" interview with another manager in the superstore in Chantilly. So we went there the next day. That guy's name was Mike. Mike was a manager who had been with the company since its beginning, almost 15 years. Mike was ... odd. Nice, but odd. He spent half of our interview complaining about the quality of the merchandise he had just gotten, and then wanted to know what *I* thought about it. I waffled. Should you agree with the guy interviewing you, yet slamming the product they sold? Was this a test? He also asked me a killer question I will never forget, "Give me three reasons not to hire you." Man, another test? I couldn't think of anything.
It was a test, and I passed, apparently. I got a call a few days later from Springfield Mall, a manager named Laura wanted to hire me. Who? Who is Laura? And Springfield Mall was a 30-40 minute drive from Reston, and with only one car my wife used ... public transportation SUCKS in this area, too. Christine and I talked it over, decided we needed the money over everything else, and I agreed.
Gretchen's Master Plan - Part 1: Supplant
This had to be the worst set up. Laura was, later aptly described by the district manager, "a sad sea-cow of a woman." I was cheerful, outgoing, ready and eager to start a new, real, full-time job for the first time in years, and I couldn't have hit a bigger wall. First, I was replacing the current assistant manager, a girl named Carol. Carol was informed of this the day I started, and she was on "temporary full time status" so she could train me. Let me repeat this, because it bears repeating. The girl I was replacing, replacing because she did a poor job, and wasn't told of her demotion to eventual part-timer until my first day, was to train me. This was one of many management decisions made my Laura. Laura also informed me that my work week was going to be 48 hours a week, 6 days a week. I was stunned, and blurted out that this was not told to me during any part of the interview. "We don't tell people that during the interview," she said, "because we lose more applicants that way." I bet. I could have balked some more, but Laura told me anyone who ever questioned this schedule would be fired. I was desperate for work, and shut my trap.
Laura had some rules. One of her rules was that all recorded sales for the day was to be rounded up by 3s. Let me explain this, because it's damn idiotic. Normally, people round by 5s. Like 23.5 would be rounded to 24, and 23.4 would be rounded to 23. She rounded by 3s. So when I called in weekly figures to the office, they were (surprise!) off by a lot. Her second rule was I was not allowed to talk to ANY other manager but her and a manager at landmark called Serena. Serene was sweet. Bitter, but sweet. Bittersweet. I grew to like her anyway. But should, say, Stefanie from Landover call, I was NOT allowed to talk to her for some reason, unless it was strictly business. Stefanie was Tracie's boss. I was not allowed to talk to Mike or Gretchen, and this caused a weird incident I will retell in a little bit. Another rule was Lunch Break was to be taken before or after your shift, not during the middle. So if you worked from 8am to 5pm, you left at 4:30 and never came back. The last, and worst rule, was not for me, but her kids.
Laura had apparently been the manager of a store down in Virginia Beach, but then left her husband and had a restraining order put on him. Our DM, Phyllis, out of kindness, put her a few hundred miles up north to help her start her new life. Laura was a now a single Mom for three kids, aged 12, 6 and 4. She ruled them with an iron fist. After they got home from school and the daycare sitter, they had to call her every half hour on the half hour. Laura quickly made it apparent that I was working the 1pm to 9pm shift for the rest of my life.
The first time I was alone with Carol, and Laura was elsewhere, Carol said to me, "No offense, but you'll never make it here. Laura has a problem with men I won't go into, but working under her is a depressing and suffocating hell." Carol was bitter, but admitted her main problem had been attendance. She was a teen mother, now 19, with a son about my son's age. We bonded on that level. She also never wore anything professional, always seemed to wear loose-flowing afkan hippie-gowns or tie-dye parachute pants.
The very first day I was allowed to be in the store all by myself, it was like a depressing black cloud had left the store. My optimism returned. I could stand Laura. I only had to spend 1-4:30 with her, anyway. Later, this became almost nothing, as she always found excuses to leave early. I called Serena with any questions I had, and running the store was fairly simple. Tracie called me often to cheer me up, too.
Then one day, Gretchen called. "How are you?" she asked, all perky. "Uh, fine... what can I help you with?" I answered. "Nothing, I wanted to chat." I recalled Laura's rule. I sweated. "Um... uh..." "So," she said, with a voice leading to nowhere good, "you like working with Laura?" "Uh..." I said, "Sure. She's... swell." Gretchen countered with, "No she's not, you liar! (giggle) Just PLEASE don't quit before the end of your first month okay, promise? Prrromise?" Gretchen could coax a drowning man to swim with her sunny humor. "Okay," I said. The first hint was planted in my brain.
More hints followed. I got to talk to Phyllis, the District Manager for the first time (about 3 weeks into my job), and she was totally insane like a female Robin Williams. Now, most managers hated her guts, but I always got along with her. I never could find anything wrong with her. Maybe I was just lucky we always got along, because many managers QUIT because of her with alarming frequency. Laura had also informed me to always tell Phyllis "Laura is with a customer," whether she was or not, and if she was in the store, and not with a customer, I'd have to say, "But she's wrapping it up." Laura was with a customer at the time Phyllis called, and when I said "She's--" "BUH!" said Phyllis. "Er, she with--" "BUH!!!!" went Phyllis. Then she pressed keys on the phone pad. She was nuts like that. "Don't tell me, she's out of the store, but told you to say she's with another customer. Right? Huh huh huh? [BEEP BOOOOP]" I said, "No, she's with a guy up front, would you like her to call you back?"
"NO!" said Phyllis. "I want to talk... to you! How do you like that? Didn't expect that, did you? [BEEP BOOOOP BEEEEP] " Suddenly, she downshifted to a sweet caring mode, "How are you...?"
"Okay..." I said.
"I heard you're really great. I want to meet you! You working on the 31st?"
"I am closing that d--" I stared to say, but she interrupted me with the phone keypad again.
"[BEEP BOOOOP BEEEEP] WRONG! You're opening that day, sweetie. Okay? Let Laura know that. I can't wait to meet you! Buh-bye! [click]."
Laura was not amused when I told her. "They are moving me to another store, I bet. Goddamn Manassas Mall." I suddenly put it all together. I bet she was being demoted. I didn't know anything about Manassas, but I knew the concept of a "penalty store" from previous jobs. A "penalty store" is a store they put a manager in when they can't fire a a manager, but want to pressure them to quit. I was pretty sick of her thumbscrews in place at the time, so I stabbed her below the ribs with, "Ooh, a promotion to another store. That would be cool!" She said nothing, but glowered at my smile.
On the 31st of March, exactly one month of employment, I came to the store to find Laura, Phyllis, and Gretchen. Gretchen was happy to see me. This was her plan: my interview went so well, and she knew she was leaving Tyson's to replace Laura in Springfield (a bigger store), she had Laura hire me to replace Carol, whom Laura was trying to fire. That way, Gretchen got to keep me. Their risk was Laura would drive me insane. It was hatched by Gretchen, Mike, and Phyllis. Laura did go to Manassas, and later quit to move back with her husband in Virginia Beach.
Gretchen's Master Plan - Part 2: Promote
My first day with Gretchen was like night and day. Phyllis took me out to lunch to ask if I had a problem with a female boss. I told her no. Then she asked if I had a problem that Gretchen was 18. She was 18??? Well, I can't think of a reason to hate her because of her age. I was 23 at the time, so that was only 5 years difference. Phyllis approved of my attitude. Then she told me, "Your store is a mess. Gretchen will go crazy trying to fix it. Make sure she only spends 8 hours a day doing this, or she'll burn out, and be no use to the company."
Gretchen was one cool cat. Very fun to be with. She taught me so much about management and leadership, and she also had her head on straight as far as who she was and what she wanted. It was true, for the first few weeks, she did go nuts trying to fix the store. We were losing money like crazy in overstock, bad accounting ("Rounding by 3s? Laura rounded by 3s? Jesus!"), customer followups, and general mismanagement. Our store began to turn around, but as bad as she was doing, it was like turning a huge oil tanker. It took time to slow down, stop, turn around, and speed up again.
Gretchen was odd in many ways. One big weirdness she had this Taco Bell obsession. She pronounced it funny, like her accent was on the wrong syllables. She said, "Taca-bell" like one would say "Tinkerbell," instead of "Taco Bell" like two words with more of stress on the second word. She also used it to cure any ailment she was suffering. She actually uttered these words: "Ugh... I feel so sick, like I am going to throw up. I am going to go eat some burritos. Be back in a minute." What? No no, you AVOID burritos when ill, Gretchen ... no! But it was I who did not understand the wisdom of Gretchen. She also was hooked on this song, "Whoomp, There it Is!" by the group Tag Team, and would play it from the cassette single a lot.
Through her, I got to meet other managers, and what became part of what was known as "The Legend of Manassas Mafia." It seemed most of the managers in our area were all trained by Mike. Gretchen was one of them. Stefanie was another. So was a girl named Lascetta. Later there came Roy and Gary.
Let me pause here and talk about the wonder that was Lascetta. She was a short girl with a demure build, and looked delicate and pretty, like a little Dutch girl. But in that dainty package hid a powerful and brutal force that could, with the whip of a few simple words, lay a person flat like soggy piece of pasta. She might as well have been Irish, because she sure could have held the best with any Irish temper, and came out the winner with tufts of her opponent's hair in her fingernails. You simply could not believe from such a tiny little package could come the sharpest mind, the razor wit, and the kind of cursing and swearing that would make even a seasoned sailor blush. Frequent responses to her comments were, "Oh my GAWD! You didn't just say that, did you?" She was also as funny as hell, a very good manager, and later made a wonderful mother. Before she got pregnant with the only man who could weather her storm, she drove in demolition derbies. No fooling. The real ones, and had trophies, scars, helmet, and Polaroid photos to prove it.
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