Under the Cruel Tutelage of Mama San – A Retail Story

“It’s the wood that should fear your hand, not the other way around. No wonder you can’t do it, you acquiesce to defeat before you even begin.” Pai Mei, KILL BILL: VOLUME 2

I admit to stealing the title of this entry from the second part of Quentin Tarantino’s masterwork, the epic revenge tale of Beatrice Kiddo, alias “The Bride.” Some might disagree with my assessment of the Kill Bill movies as masterworks. After all, Tarantino is the same Writer/Director that gave us Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. While I love both of those movies… and every movie that he ever wrote, directed or both save for Jackie Brown which, too this day, I find somewhat long and laborious despite Samuel L “Accept No Substitute” Jackson, I have a special space in my heart for Kiddo’s plight. Perhaps this is because I was reared on the movies of Bruce Lee and the like. Perhaps I simply have a propensity towards Uma Thurman’s hotness (admittedly, I do… she was the one positive thing about Batman and Robin). Either way, Kill Bill: Volume 1 and Kill Bill: Volume 2 will always sit at the head of QT’s filmography for me, regardless of how good Django Unchained ends up being later this year.

But enough about that. This entry isn’t meant to be a review of the Kill Bill movies or of any of Quentin Tarantino’s movies. I’ve always had this idea in the back of my head about writing an autobiography. The problem with that? My life really hasn’t been that interesting. I mean, I’ve done stuff. Lots of stuff. But I’ve never climbed Kilimanjaro and I’ve never seen a single Wonder of the World (0 for 7, baby, not to mention 0 for all of the modern Wonders of the World). I’ve never backpacked across Europe and I’ve never gone on a Vision Quest. It’s not likely that I ever will, at least not in the foreseeable future. My Bucket List as I stare down the barrel of 37 years young (or old depending on what mood you catch me in) consists of more pedestrian desires: Learn to golf. Learn HTML. Get in shape and run a 5K. Visit Disney World. Visit Maine. Visit the English Isles. There are other inclusions but those six are the ones that jump out at me. As you can tell per what you just read, my Bucket List is about as interesting as the instructions that came with your new television. Note well, friends: If you went with an HD TV, don’t spend a hundred dollars on an HD cable. It’s s ripoff. You can get the same thing for a 20 spot at your local Best Buy. So ends the Consumer Reports segment of this blog entry. But I digress…

Sh*t, when do I ever not?

Back to the autobiography: I’ve always wanted to write one but I’ve always worried that there’s not enough substantial, entertaining material in my last almost 37 years to fill a couple of hundred pages. What would I call it? “A Life Less Extraordinary?” Sure, one or two people might be interested in reading about my experiences. Maybe those people would see a few of their own life experiences in mine. But the others? My own, subjective 99%? They’ve got their own experiences, both good and bad to muse upon. Why pay their hard earned money to read about mine?

I think that’s why I originally wrote “Endworld” and its sequels, “Children of Endworld” and “Heaven and Endworld”–it was my way of writing something I’ve always wanted to… my story…whilst hopefully making it entertaining to my own, subjective 99%. I originally described those books–collected together once upon a time as “The Endworld Chronicle”–as a “Fictional Autobiography.” And they were. I guess to some extent they still are though the Fictional Autobiography dynamic has, thankfully, faded over the subsequent years since I wrote versions 1.0, 1.0 and… you guessed it, 1.0. Appearance wise, many of the primaries are unchanged from what they were when I originally wrote them but personality wise? They have all evolved, over time and with age, in to somethings more than fictional representations of the friends and the family that I grew up with. Each primary has an arc, now, and is a character in his, her or it’s own right and in my opinion? Each deserves to be immortalized. “The Endworld Chronicle” was my thank you gift to the people that helped me get through the toughest time in my life. The dedication, virtually unchanged since I originally wrote version 1.0 of “Endworld” says it all: “This novel is dedicated to my companions. My brethren. My friends. The once and future inspiration behind its conception. Je’taime.” Christ, this is sounding more and more like a self-help exercise than a novel, isn’t it? I never said a trip in to my psyche was a smooth one, guys, but thanks for coming along for the ride.

Incidentally, not many people reading this blog have read the first, completed draft of “Endworld” version 2.0. Don’t worry, folks: I haven’t shelved it again. It’s still in the Beta stage. Those that have read it have either complimented me or critiqued me to death. Eventually I will have to go back and tweak what I wrote… maybe when I’m sleeping more than four hours a night. “Endworld,” like it’s characters, has evolved. It is no longer a one-off book in a trilogy. It’s the first book in a much larger story… larger than I envisioned it at 18 years young… and it needs to set up not just the characters but the mythology of that larger story. So the process is not done. I guess I can’t check Write and Publish a Novel off of my Bucket List yet. That would be like Beatrice Kiddo crossing Bill’s name off of her “Death List Five” before she even made it to Mexico. It would be premature and sublimely stupid.

Which brings me back… again… to this whole idea of writing an autobiography. While many of the tales of my less than extraordinary life are far from sordid, damning or hurtful to a future run for political office (like that would ever happen) or a Lifetime movie, there are one or two that could be entertaining. I can’t speak for everyone… can’t say that my own, subjective 99% would enjoy the stories that I, personally find entertaining. But I’d wager that many would. And I want people… I want you who are reading this now to be entertained. There is one particular planned but unwritten chapter that has always stood out amongst the others in my mind as one that I really, really needed to write. I always saw it as either a chapter in my autobiography, or a jumping off point for an entirely different Fictional Autobiography called, quite simply, “A Retail Story.” Today? I have decided that I am going to write that chapter as if it were included in my as-of-yet unwritten memoir. That chapter, which ever since I saw Kill Bill: Volume 2 has otherwise known in my psyche as…

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Chapter __: Under the Cruel Tutelage of Mama San – A Retail Story

Someone intelligent once said that life is full of second chances. Second chances at love. Second chances at friendship. I know about those two second chances better than most. But rarely has anyone that I know mentioned “second chances at a career,” likely because they refuse to acknowledge work as anything other than a nuisance. Before I was an Office Manager/Inside Salesman but after I was a writer… amateur or otherwise… I worked in retail. I spent time, virtually in every position in the retail hierarchy. I started as a stock boy working one day a week. I worked my way up to Cashier and thereafter, to Head Cashier. I then worked my way up from Head Cashier to Shift Supervisor, first “SS B,” and then “SS A.” “Shift Supervisor A,” it should be noted, was at the time one step below Assistant Manager in the hierarchy of the company that to this day is still known as “Today’s Neighborhood Drugstore.” The position has, since, become defunct. My journey up the corporate ladder abruptly stopped there, however, when I left my cushy position at the store five minutes walk from my childhood home to spend a year in State Pen. When I returned from my adventures on the fringe of Pennsy-tucky my old position had been filled, there was no room for me and I was exiled to a small store on the other side of the county. I spent a few months there before I decided that it was time to move on. I signed up with a temp agency, gave my notice and left Today’s Neighborhood Drugstore, I thought never to return. I was wrong.

Less than two years after I left it behind me, and explored “careers” as both a Medical Service Specialist and a library’s Head of Circulation, I returned to the company that I had spurned, not as a Shift “A” but as an Assistant Manager. I spent my mandatory month in a training store despite the fact that I knew most, if not all of what I needed to know to be an effective Assistant Manager. And then, four weeks after my return, I got my store assignment.

Long story short? It was a disaster. From the first day I set foot in mystore I was at odds with my manager. He wanted to run his store one way and I wanted to run it another. It got so bad that one day, less than four months after I had started, I walked out on my scheduled shift. I retired home and sent my District Manager an email informing him that I was done. Finis, in Shakespearean terms. I drank a fifth of Canadian Whiskey and passed out. It was one of the most peaceful, substance-induced naps I can ever remember enjoying  in my now 37 year, then 23 year existence.

I was awoken after sunset by my phone ringing. My roommates were not home. I picked it up and was shocked… nay downright bewildered to hear my DM’s voice on the line. He wanted to know what had happened… why I had walked out. I explained everything to him as best I could and he assured me that plans had been placed in motion to move me to another store as soon as was possible. I simply had to return the following day for my scheduled shift. I would not have to deal with the manager, I was told. Apparently, I had not been the first, second or sixth employee to walk out on him in the last year. Not that what I did that day was justified, regardless of how much of a dick said manager was. To wit, I was pretty damn stupid, even then. I hadn’t learned half of what I thought I’d learned… what I know now. I hung up with my DM that night and was reassured. I reasoned that everything was going to be fine. He’s got my back, I thought, he’s going to put me someplace where I can excel. I drank some more whiskey and went back to sleep. I was content.

It should be noted herein that the concept of “put[ting] me someplace where I can excel,” like the idea of being given a second chance has many a variation. I was not a company boy despite my years of service to Today’s Neighborhood Drugstore. I was a college graduate but my degree was not in the retail-friendly field of Business or Management. I made more money than your average, ordinary college graduate turned Assistant Manager because of my history. I had three weeks of paid vacation where most off-the-street AMs had one. In short? I was an employee of privilege. Privileges that I’d rightfully earned, mind you, but my little, walking out stunt had soured the institution more to me than I knew. My DM’s impassioned plea to get me to return was little more than a farce that I had fallen for hook, line and sinker. A week after I returned and made nice with my manager I got my next assignment and immediately knew that I was doomed. I was bound for the 24 hour store in Norristown, PA, alias Norristown West, otherwise well-known throughout the company at that time is one third of the high volume, low yield trinity of local Neighborhood Drugstores (the other two stores were both within the city limits of Philadelphia). It was a make or break assignment, I knew. I would either succeed and get promoted, or I would fail miserably and end up working a low volume store an hour and a half from my home until I quit. My then-manager smirked when he told me the news. I came within a breath of punching him in the face before I realized that I’d already done enough.

I left my first store as an Assistant Manager to very little fanfare. No one got me a card, and the only person that said goodbye to me was my Head Cashier/Cosmetic Manager. I left the store a beaten man, my head held low. I had the weekend off but the following Monday I was expected at my new store at 6:55 AM sharp. My manager-to-be hadn’t even called me to tell me. She’d asked one of her Shift Supervisors to do it. I remember that conversation as if it were yesterday.

“Mama San expects you here no less than five minutes before your shift starts,” the Shift informed me in her gruff, man-voice between what I assumed were puffs of a cigarette.

“‘Mama San?'” I asked the Shift, “does Mama San have a name?”

“Best get used to calling her Mama San,” she informed me, “and don’t screw up and call her ‘Mamacita.’ You’ll be cleaning the pubic bathroom for the next six weeks.”

“You mean ‘public,’ not ‘pubic,” right?” I asked.

“I mean ‘pubic,’ kid,” she chuckled, coughed, and chuckled again in her cigarette-enhanced voice, “see you on Monday.”

I gulped. I never asked her name… never got to say goodbye. She hung up on me before I could get the words out.

I didn’t sleep that entire weekend. Visions of the “pubic” bathroom and the chain smoking, bearded Shift Supervisor that I had configured in my over-imaginative mind kept me awake despite everything from alcohol to weed to jerking off. When my alarm went off at 5:30 AM the following Monday morning I seriously considered killing myself for the first time in my life. Somehow, though… someway I found the fortitude within me to get out of my bed and go take a shower. It’ll be okay, I kept reassuring myself as the extra-hot water scorched my skin and awakened me, you won’t know ANYTHING until you’re there. Said litany repeated itself as I pulled on my black slacks, my black, button-down shirt and my bright red tie. If I’m going down, I thought as I looked at myself in the mirror, I’m going down looking my best. 

At shortly after 6:00 AM I grabbed my directions and headed out the door of my apartment in Jenkintown, PA in to the early, late-summer morning. I climbed in to my then-new, 1998 Dodge Neon Sport and began my trek toward my new store. I arrived not five minutes early, but 10, finished my third cigarette of the drive, checked my appearance in my vanity mirror and got out of the car. I walked through the automatic, double doors of my new assignment at exactly 6:55 AM per my manager’s pre-specified directive and in to the fluorescent glow of the spacious store. I thought that I was ready for anything.

What I was not ready for was the hooded figure that came bolting up the Hallmark aisle as soon as I walked through the doors, his or her arms filled with what appeared to be condoms and HIV test kits. Said person ran passed me and sprinted out the door. He or she dropped a pack of Trojan Magnums. The alarm went off. And then my worst fear came true. I simultaneously heard the sound of a door opening to my left and the tarnished, bass man-voice that I had heard over the phone on Friday screaming expletives after the fleeing shoplifter… expletives which I will not include herein. I looked left just in time to see a large, grey streak that smelled of hand sanitizer and Newport cigarettes run passed me, something gripped tightly in its hand. Is that a bat? I thought as it vanished out the door. Someone yelled “what happened?!” from the other side of the store. I turned from the door and beheld Mama San for the first time.

She was much, much shorter than me… five feet and nada inches at the most. She had short cropped, straight black hair and a stern face. Not cute and not beautiful by any stretch of the imagination but powerful. I could tell, even at a distance that what she lacked in height she made up for in muscle. Her unreadable, gray eyes met mine for the first time. She cocked her head, flashed a grin and folded her arms beneath what were either her breasts or her pecs… I couldn’t tell which. She was wearing a pink, short sleeved shirt with a high neckline and a pair of khakis.

“You Frank?” she asked as she uncrossed her arms and moved across the floor toward me. She paused a few feet in front of me. Simultaneously, I heard the automatic doors behind me fold open. Mama San looked passed me and authoritatively said, “well?

“Got… away,” the voice of the Shift said between huffs and puffs, “took off down… Main Street toward the… train station. He was gone by the time I… I made it out there. Must have ducked down…. down an alley,”  she completed.

I reluctantly turned to take in her appearance and cringed. Not visibly I hoped but mentally. She was exactly as I had pictured her. Well, almost as I had pictured her. My height, she appeared to weigh about 300 pounds and had curly, black hair that framed a cratered and battle worn visage. While I could tell, per her stature that she too was muscular I could further tell that she was not the proverbial rock that Mama San appeared to be. Could she have bench-pressed my then-275 pounds with her pinky if she had wanted to? Probably. Did I wish to test her physical prowess? Not then. Not ever. Few times in my life have I been afraid of someone. I was terrified of her from the moment that I first laid eyes upon her.

“‘Down an alley?'” Mama San said with no hesitation, a definitive edge to her voice (doesn’t sound like SHE’S scared of her, I thought), “there are no alleys in Norristown. You’re full of it. You ran out of breath because you spent the entire night chain smoking and not working. Is that the example you want to set for our new Assistant who…” she looked away from the Shift and looked back at me. She once again sized me up from head to toe and chuckled, “what’s with the black-on-black, kid? You look like a fat Johnny Cash in that outfit.”

Needless to say, I chuckled despite her blatantly derogatory reference. I had been fond of a black-on-black approach to my wardrobe for as long as I could remember, and the red tie was what I and my friends had called a “power tie” back in school. Not once pre-that moment had I ever made the connection to Cash. I could think of nothing else to say in response other than, “‘you like Johnny Cash… um… ah…” I stuttered over my words. I knew what I had been asked to address her as but was leery of doing so. It didn’t seem to fit the situation. She’s my manager for Christ’s sake, I thought, and this is my first day here. Do I really want to insult her? That, I realized, was not then and would never be an issue. She… Mama San… was unfazed by such things.

“No, Frank, I can’t fucking stand Johnny Cash,” she replied, “do I look like someone that wears shit kickers and line dances? Don’t answer and embarrass yourself. It’s no. I drink red wine spritzers and shoot tequila. You ‘wanna work with someone that drinks moonshine, eats roadkill and enjoys Bluegrass you should have stayed in the training store out in cow country. Here in Norristown we listen to hard rock or heavy metal while we work and that’s it. I fired the last girl that listened to Brittany Spears while working. Now ask me again what kind of music I like.”

I cringed from her onslaught. My heart beat rapidly. I opened my mouth to speak yet all that emanated from it was a simple, squeaked affirmative that I would grow quite accustomed to over my time working with her. “Yes… Mama San,” I said hesitantly.

She smiled and refolded her arms beneath her pec-breasts, “Good. Real good.” She looked passed me at the Shift Supervisor, “Weezy: Catch your breath and let Johnny-Boy upstairs. Get him set up in the computer, give him a set of keys, the safe combo and his schedule. Then once he’s done that, show him around and stick him down in the dungeon. That mountain of bulk overstock down there that ‘Pilicki last ‘worked’ the other night has his name on it.” She glanced back at me.

“You’re here from seven until four today,” she said, “I expect that you’ll have that entire pile worked and organized by the time you go home. Jimmy Vee,” she said with an intentional emphasis on the vee, “tells me that you’re a superstar, or at least you think you are. I could give a crap what Jimmy Vee thinks. I’ll judge for myself how good you are at the end of your shift, whenever that ends up being. Any questions?”

I shook my head and repeated my previous refrain though instead of “yes” I said “no, Mama San.” She flashed me a grin, nodded, turned and walked back to the cosmetic aisle without another word. The Shift walked passed me with a grunt and another waft of fetid air, her baseball bat still in hand, and motioned for me to follow her upstairs. She set me up in the computer, gave me a set of keys, the safe combination and my schedule per Mama San’s directive. Thereafter she led me on the cook’s tour of the store–all three levels of it–and eventually, in to the dungeon.

It was just that: A high-ceilinged, dimly lit room with pallets and shelves lining the walls. At the time that she had assigned it to me, I had thought optimistically, bulk overstock. Nice. I can bang that out in an hour or two and re-stack it beautifully. I had, after all, reorganized the bulk at my previous store. But the bulk overstock pile that Mama San had referred to was not nearly the small pile of paper plates and tampons that had sat neatly in the loft there. It was a towering, unruly and unorganized mountain of mildew-scented Depends and Marcal napkins that sat on a series of six pallets–two deep, for a grand total of 12–at the base of the furthest wall from the conveyer belt. Mama San had not been kidding: She had store supplied a piece of white poster board and had duct taped it to the stack of 20-25 red and gray totes, behind which the bulk of… well, the bulk rested. A single word was written on the poster board in big, black, capital letters. Actually, a name: “FRANK.” Shit, I thought with a sigh, it really DOES have my name on it. 

The Shift left me alone in the dark, damp dungeon with a final grunt and a sarcastic, painful slap on the back which manifested in to a bruise in the shape of a callused hand print within 24 hours. I glanced at the pile and back at the conveyer belt across the room. I sighed again. Here we go, I thought. I identified a rusted and rickety old u-boat across the room, walked over, claimed it and wheeled it back to the pile. I removed the sign from the trays and began to load them on to the u-boat without a word. Within five minutes I was sweating despite the fact that the dungeon was quite cool.

In the hours that followed, I managed to work through, organize and condense the pile in to half of what it had been when I had first beheld it. I separated out all of the case overstock (non-bulky, non-perishable products like dish detergent, bleach and laundry detergent) and tray overstock and labeled everything. By the time I was finished, my shift had been over for over an hour. I had not eaten lunch and I knew even without the benefit of a mirror that I looked and smelled like a hobo. My red tie was covered in black dust and my black shirt and pants were covered in white dust. A moment after I placed the last box on top of the pile, I heard footsteps on the iron staircase leading down to the dungeon. A few seconds later, Mama San emerged from the shadows and stepped casually in to the center of the room. She, too, was disheveled and covered in dust. She saw me standing in front of the diminished pile, folded her arms beneath her pec-breasts again, grinned and nodded her head.

“Not bad, Johnny-boy. Not bad at all. It’s not the best I’ve ever seen it but it’s an improvement. How do you feel?”

“Fine,” I smiled and said without hesitation. I was, of course, lying. In truth? My entire body ached and I was suffering from a nasty case of Agita. I brought my hand up to my mouth and coughed once. I was not surprised to see the mucus in my palm tinged with black and grey. I’ll be blowing that shit out of my nose for a week, I thought.

“Stock answer,” Mama San replied without hesitation, her grin unwavering, “how do you really feel?”

I considered my answer for a moment before I responded with, “Like reprocessed dog shit.”

Her grin widened and she unfolded her arms, “That’s good, Johnny. Real good. At least we can be honest with each other.” She paused before continuing with, “now can I be honest with you?

I nodded and managed, “Of course.”

Her grin faded… her expression grew stern in the space of a heartbeat and she continued, “The manager of your last store? He and I go back. Way back. He actually trained me when I was an Assistant. Your little walking out stunt really pissed him off and when he told me about it, it did the same to me. And then I found out that you were coming here and I thought to myself, ‘oh, great. Now I get to deal with him.’ But then I thought about it some more and I decided that maybe, just maybe you had something for me to work with. And based on what you just did there”–she pointed to the bulk, case and tray overstock pile behind me–“there is. So not everything that Jimmy Vee said about you is bullshit. But make no mistake, Frank, it’s not going to be easy. Your name tag may say ‘Assistant Manager’ but in my world, you start at the bottom. I want you down here in the dungeon, in the backroom and up in the loft working and reorganizing every shift that you’re here until I tell you otherwise. And don’t even think that you can work your nine hour shift and go home. Here in Norristown, we stay until we’re done the job that we’re assigned. Top to bottom. No carryover. Is that clear?”

I nodded and answered her with, “Yes, Mama San.” It was, I knew, the only response that she would tolerate.

Her expression softened. Her grin returned. She looked at her watch and then back at me, “Looks like we both missed the ends of our shifts. Go home, Johnny-Boy. I’m off tomorrow and you’re in two ’till eleven. Get some sleep so you’re bright eyed, bushy-tailed and ready to rework and re-merchandise seasonal. I’ll see you later this week.”

I nodded and walked passed her. I mumbled “goodnight Mama San” as I did so and she muttered something back that sounded like “‘nite.” I gained the base of the iron steps and was about to begin ascending them when she spoke my name again. I turned to face her, one foot on the bottom step and the other still on the dusty, concrete floor of the dungeon. She stood once again with her arms folded under her pec-breasts. Her grin had not faded.

“Yes?” I asked.

She took a step toward me and a puff of dust from the floor enveloped her shoes and lower legs, “Your old manager? He and I may go way back but I know what a piece of work he is. There were times I wanted to walk out on his neurotic ass too. But do you know what the big difference between you and I is, Johnny-Boy?”

I did. “You didn’t,” I responded unflinchingly.

“I didn’t,” she repeated, “I was smart. I stuck it out ’cause I knew that I’d eventually move on. Because of that, the road that I took to get from where you are to where I am right now was a hell of a lot easier than yours is going to be. But in the end, Frank? Trust me: It’s worth it. You did the crime. Now do your time, however much you don’t want to. Be good and Mama’ll treat you good. But try a stunt like that with me? I’ll fire your ass on the spot before Jimmy Vee has a chance to transfer you again. Clear as crystal?”

I nodded. “Yes, Mama San,” I said. I repeated my previous “goodnight” and started up the steps without another word. I walked out of the backroom and out the front doors of the store with nary a look backwards nor a “goodbye” from the crew working around the store and behind the counter. I got in to my car, lit a cigarette and drove home. En route, I drove by my old store to see if my old manager was working. He was: His car was parked in it’s customary spot by the loading dock. Somewhere between when I saw his car and when I got back to my apartment on the outskirts of Jenkintown I managed to smile a little. I may have even chuckled. This is going to be interesting, I thought as I arrived home, killed the Neon’s engine and stepped out in to the humid, late-Summer dusk. My then-roomates were home and waiting for me with Chinese food for dinner. A shit, a shower and a shave later and I was sitting with them around our dining room table eating Mongolian Beef and General Tso’s Chicken. I told them about my day and they told me about theirs. And for a few, brief hours my life reverted back to its “normal” state.

But the next day I was reworking and re-merchandising seasonal per Mama San’s directive until after midnight. And the following day I was reworking and re-merchandising the current week’s promo until after 6 PM. I was off the next day but I was back at it again on Friday, Saturday and Sunday before I got another day off. My life, those first days in Norristown, passed before my eyes in a grayed-out haze of whitewashed, cracking walls and rickety lofts. But as the days and then the weeks wore on in virtually the same haze something strange started to happen to me…

I started to like my job again. For the first time since I’d left my first store I was enjoying myself. Each shift that I worked Norristown’s backroom, dungeon and loft became more and more my backroom, dungeon and loft. I took pride in my work… I began to implement practices and procedures that would, over time, become the hallmarks of my own, personal management style. I scanned all of the overstock in to a file in the store’s computer with separate locations for all types–regular, bulk, case and tray. Pre-then, I had only ever inventoried shelf overstock per my training. Mama San thought that it was unnecessary but when she saw the way her shelves, piles and trays emptied she hopped on board. After a few weeks, I was even assigned my own, personal pair of stock boys whom I trained to do the same things that I did.

By the end of my first month in Norristown, Mama San’s overstock situation was half of what it had been and her on-hand, inventory dollar amount had dropped exponentially while her store’s margin had gone up. She was so pleased with my work that she put me on another, high-maintenance backroom project: Eliminating roughly 100 trays of discontinued merchandise pre-our November inventory whilst staying below our targeted markdown percentage. I was able to eliminate all but a dozen and Norristown had one of its best inventory performances in its then-six year history. By Black Friday of that year the backroom was running like a well-oiled machine and I was working six to seven hour shifts as opposed to eleven to twelve hour ones. I’d lost 25 pounds and while my nicotine and caffeine intake had spiked, so had my athleticism and my enjoyment of bands like Ministry, Anthrax and Pantera.

On late, Christmas Eve and early Christmas morning, Mama San and I sat together in the office eating hoagies and listening to Creed while we watched the store. I was wearing a black shirt, a pair of black jeans and a Christmas tie that I had purchased off of our Christmas novelty rack. I had buzzed my hair off and had grown a goatee and mustache. My own mother had recently told me that I looked like a bad ass before she had criticized me for how much I was smoking. On the counter top before me was my latest creation: A sawed off, forearm length steel pipe with duct tape wrapped around one end and the words “THIRD SHIFT EQUALIZER” printed in loud, black letters upon its barrel. Our store and others in the area had recently been suffering from a rash of  robberies by a man we had all come to call the Basket Bandit. Third Shift Equalizer sat next to Mama San’s crowbar–“Rosebud”–on the desktop as our last line of defense against the fiend that had been coming in during the overnight hours, leaping the counter and stealing our cigarettes and Nicotine replacement therapies. We had two overnight Shift Supervisors dressed in plainclothes and stationed in two, different locations around the store. Each was armed–the gruff, man-voiced Shift with her aluminum baseball bat and the other… “‘Pilicki”… with a weapon similar to my own–and waiting. Norristown’s finest had a car parked behind the building. We were in full stakeout mode. Joy to the fucking world, I thought.

“He’s not going to show up,” Mama San said. She took another bite of her hoagie and chased it with a sip of her Mountain Dew.

“He will,” I responded, “it’s been two weeks since he was last here. He’s right on schedule.”

“Christmas Eve?” she replied, “really? You’re obviously delusional. I think all that dust and dirt that you’ve inhaled in the backroom has gone to your head.”

You’re delusional if you think I’m not going to nail this prick,” I responded, “he’ll be here,” I repeated, “trust me, Mama San.” I reached down and caressed Third Shift Equalizer. It’s steel felt cold against my fingertips. Cold… and comforting. I shivered as the cashier that had been tending the register stepped away from it. My heart started to pound and my adrenaline started to rush. Maybe THIS time, I thought as she disappeared in to the interior of the store as she had every hour on the hour since her shift had started. I heard Mama San chuckle next to me. I averted my gaze from the automatic doors to her. She was smiling. I inquired about what she thought was so funny. She shook her head and chuckled again.

“Nothing, Frank. Nothing at all. It’s just… funny how people change, don’t you think?”

I took a swig of my own Mountain Dew and smiled back, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mama San,” I replied, “I’m the same black clad, fat fuck that walked out on his last manager and ended up condemned to work in this shit hole a few months ago, aren’t I?”

Her smile widened and her chuckle became a guffaw, “Sure, Johnny-Boy, whatever you…”

I felt, rather than saw what was happening behind my turned back and was on my feet immediately. Mama San’s smile vanished and her eyes popped wide to the extent that they could open. She too stood, grabbed Rosebud and bolted down the steps toward the floor before I could turn around. I instinctively grabbed Third Shift Equalizer, turned and followed her out of the office door as a large, gray streak that smelled, even at a distance, of onions and Newport cigarettes and a smaller, white streak that smelled of Drakkar Noir converged on the counter from opposite sides of the store, their respective weapons drawn. The hooded figure was in mid-swipe of the Marlboro shelf when he turned and saw us moving on him. He wasted no time in dropping the basket that he carried. He grabbed a lone carton of Marlboro Lights and deftly vaulted back over the counter and ran out in to the night.

The alarm sounded. I heard ‘Pilicki barking something to the police via his clam shell cell phone as I easily ran passed my 300 pound, man-voiced, huffing and puffing Shift and out in to the cold, December night/morning. I could see the figure running about a dozen feet away from me. He was already crossing Main Street when I heard the sound of a siren wailing behind me. The squad car that had been stationed behind the building blew passed me and after him but I was undaunted. I ran on, Third Shift Equalizer grasped tightly in my right hand and the air chilling my sweat as soon as it formed on my brow. I began to scream profanities after the fiend as he gained the other side of the street, dropped something and quickly scampered up and over a fence. Simultaneously, the squad car stopped with a screech and two officers jumped out, their weapons drawn. They followed him over the fence and disappeared in to the shadows above and beyond as I gained it.

I thought about following but decided reluctantly to ere on the side of caution. I stopped short of the fence and looked down. At my feet lay the lone carton of Marlboro Lights the bandit had grabbed before fleeing. I picked it up with a smile on my face and began to chuckle. My chuckle quickly became a laugh and my laugh segued in to full-blown hysteria. My Shift stopped beside me and breathlessly asked me what the hell was wrong with me. I held up the hand holding the carton to her, turned with tears streaming from my eyes and trotted back across the street. I could see Mama San silhouetted against the fluorescent glow of the store… her store behind her, her breath crystallizing before her. I held up the carton of cigarettes like a trophy as I gained the other side of Main Street. She nodded and shouted, “well done, Johnny-Boy!” I felt a warmth envelope my heart, soul and mind despite the late December chill. Validation, I thought as I walked passed her and in to the store. The alarm went off again as I walked through the automatic doors and my hysteria redoubled.

“Looks Like We Made It,” by Barry Manilow was playing over the piped in radio station that we endearingly referred to then… that employees of Today’s Neighborhood Drugstore still to this day refer to as “WCVS.” Fitting, I thought as I tossed the carton of cigarettes to ‘Pilicki with a nod and made my way across the front of the store toward the office. My smile did not waver. I can’t tell you what, exactly I thought at that moment but I can certainly paraphrase.

Someone intelligent once said that life is full of second chances, I thought as I opened the door to the office and went upstairs, second chances at love. Second chances at friendship. I know a lot about those two kinds of second chances… more than most, really. But no one ever talks about second or even THIRD chances at a career, likely because no one wishes to acknowledge work as anything other than a responsibility or a nuisance. 

Before I was an Assistant Manager, I worked in retail, I thought as I dropped Third Shift Equalizer on the counter top with a “THUD,” I swear I’ve been working in retail for the entirety of my adult life. I’ve spent time in every position in the in-store hierarchy. One day soon I’ll be a Store Manager, and one day, I’LL end up employing the kid that walked out on Mama San. When that day comes? I’m going to make that kid’s life a living and breathing hell for two reasons. Numero uno? Because no one fucks with Mama San on my watch. Oh no. No one. 

And numero dos? I thought as I sat back down, took another bite of my hoagie and another swig of my warm Mountain Dew, ’cause I’ll have been where he or she is at that moment. The moment when he or she walks through the automatic doors of my store five minutes before his or her shift is scheduled to begin. I’ll understand him or her better than I would have understood him or her a few months ago. And I’ll be sure to tell him or her THIS story when I show him or her the pile of bulk, case and tray overstock that he or she is required to work and organize before he or she can go home. Because that’s what this is all about… what LIFE is all about. It’s about passing on the lessons that we learn, be they good, bad or ugly. 

This story, I’ll say, I thought with a widening smile as I leaned back in my chair, laced my hands together behind the back of my head and closed my eyes, is the story of the most valuable lesson that I’ve ever learned about having, retaining and advancing in a career. During my time in Norristown, PA… 

…under the sometimes cruel tutelage of Mama San.  

* * *

Obviously I am no longer employed by Today’s Neighborhood Drugstore. I haven’t been for seven years. I’d safely wager at this juncture in my life–staring down the barrel of 37 with a home, a family and a Bucket List that kicks in at 40 years old (or young depending on the mood you catch me in)–that I won’t be returning any time soon. Within a year of when the events chronicled in this story happened I was promoted to Store Manager and I was running the same store that I had walked out on a little more than a year previous. Irony? Of course. From there I transferred to another store in another district… I left Mama San, Jimmy Vee, my Shift Supervisorand a whole slew of other, colorful characters behind me. It was at that store that I met the woman that I would, one day, marry, buy a home with and have children with… the same woman that I am with to this day. If Today’s Neighborhood Drugstore gave me nothing else it gave me that, and for it I will be eternally grateful.

There are other retail stories, some more amusing than others. Maybe one day I will write them all down. But not today. There’s the one about the night the lights went out in Norristown, That one involved a blackout, a bunch of hoodlums carrying Rubbermaid containers that they had likely purchased from my… from our store and a bonding moment between me, my gruff, man-voiced Shift and Third Shift Equalizer. There’s the one about Norristown East as we called it when we Grand’ed it, co-staring a guy named BP, an angry loss prevention dwarf named… no joke Howard Stern fans… Hank and a lot full of planted trees, only one of which saw the actual, grand opening of the store. The others ended up in the flatbed of some Mexicano’s truck.

They’re not all amusing, either. Some are actually quite poignant. Life and death… that ‘kinda stuff. But I won’t belabor you with them now. I’ve already written more thanenough. This story was the one that I wanted to tell. Why? I’m not entirely sure. Maybe just to reminisce. Maybe because I haven’t spoken with the primaries of this, particular story in a long, long time. Jimmy Vee is still going strong and is my wife’s current DM. And that man-voiced Shift? She’s still working the overnights at Norristown Westand likely will be working them until the day she retires. The only difference? She’s an Assistant Manager now and not a Shift “A.” Or maybe she’s a Store Manager. Why not? Despite her propensity for being “weezy” and chain smoking when I knew her she was one hell of a good worker. The neurotic manager that I worked for so briefly? He retired shortly after I left in 2005.We developed quite a friendship despite our initial misunderstandings. He even stopped by to have a drink with me the night after my last shift ended.

But what about Mama San? The inspiration for this blog entry? Well, I am sorry to report that one day shortly before I left Today’s Neighborhood Drugstore she was terminated, supposedly for stealing. Rumors abounded about a conspiracy… about “weeding out” a high dollar employee in a favor of one that would do the same job for half the money. I never got validation of that and I likely never will though the same was said about many an Assistant Manager and Store Manager around the time that I abandoned my career there in favor of another one. Mama San has since disappeared off of the Grid. I can’t even find her on Facebook. But if she’s reading this right now… if she somehow managed to stumble across this little blog entry in her travels along the information superhighway…

Hey Mama San. It’s Johnny-Boy, alias Fat Johnny Cash. The months that I spent working for you in Norristown were the best months of my staggered, 13 year retail career. I learned more from you then I learned from anyone else and those lessons? I carried them over in to not only the career that I have now, but in to the life that I lead daily. Because true lessons aren’t exclusive to the confines of a three level store in Norristown, PA. You’ll be happy to know that too this day, be it in my job or in my personal life, I never ever quit before my shift is done…

And I never will.

F.

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