July 22, 2007

"Who knew I could miss large, strung-out, racist white women so much?"

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

I take customer service extremely seriously. Having worked in secondhand retail for several years has heightened my awareness of truly terrible customer service when I’m on the receiving end, but it also reminds me that the poor saps don’t deserve to be screamed at over it. I have often been one of those saps, taking it all with a smile, while some strung-out junkie or overpaid yuppie vented their rage at being treated unfairly. The best part about working in the trading of used materials (books, music, magazines, hookah pipes) is that it's a buyer’s market, and you don’t really have to buy anything from these jackasses. I was always more than happy to negotiate with a rational person, but the minute it turned ugly, I had no remorse in turning everything down, even if the deal contained an item that I would covet myself (Buffy DVD boxed sets, broken-in knitting needles, etc).

There were several occasions where I could have just flipped the table over and stormed out on my job, and most of the time they were bug related. Living in the scorching southwest, it’s not unusual to come across your fair share of roaches and scorpions, but when they are neatly packed in between DVDs and “vintage” (read: old and smelly) books, where is the line? The worst such incident didn’t actually start out too badly. Someone had decided to trade in their prized VHS Hercules and Xena boxed sets. These had been lovingly placed into a large clear plastic tub and set up on the trade counter. I had no idea how much we would sell these for, I was new to the Music Department and still all fresh-faced and eager, so I called another buyer over to school me in the ways of the boxed set. He proceeded to reach into the tub to inspect the product. He took one tape out of its Lucy Lawless-encased shrine, and what came spilling out were roaches, potato bugs and spiders of Temple of Doom proportions. He dropped the set back into the tub and slammed the lid shut. This ruckus caused the other box sets to stir and very quickly the entire bottom of this tub was filled with bugs and I was gagging in horror. That could have been me! Not wanting to humiliate the customer (Lord knows having to carry out a bucket of bugs would be embarrassing enough) we calmly paged the owner of these tapes to the front.

What arrived at our counter could only loosely be described as female (the braless breasts unleashed under the homemade tank top confirmed this), covered in tattoos (a few swastikas for good measure), half of her head shaved, half dredlocked, with few-to-no teeth visible to the naked eye. My co-worker, God bless him, simply stated that we would not be able to take any of her items due to the condition of them (meanwhile, a tornado was forming in this tub, perhaps a West Side Story rumble between roaches and stink bugs, all visible to anyone with eyes). She snorted. She saw the bugs. She grabbed her tub and with a “Fuck you guys,” walked out of the store with her flea circus in hand. I was fully pressed against the back wall, trying to shake the imaginary bugs out of my hair, when I got a parting shot of the tattoo that was on her calf: a Diet Coke can and a Pepsi can leaning against each other. Classy.

While insects are certainly traumatizing and most people would have thrown in their apron after something like that, I was always far too curious as to what was going to be next. What was to be found in the giant box of porn brought in by a man we only knew as “Bedsores”, a scaly, Jabba-the-Hut of a man who would sit in our adult section for so long that a ring would form around him, like a moldy pumpkin that had leaked? Usually it would require the discreet use of rubber gloves and an employee with a sturdy constitution. Or, when something that can only be described as a pink, crocheted penis cozy (with a place for one’s balls mind you) was unearthed from a box containing cook books and random knick knacks, did you take it in, did you touch it, did you pretend like it’s not there? If I remember correctly the deal was left unclaimed and, after closing, we chased each other around with the cozy stuck on the end of a pencil. You have to admire that kind of craftsmanship.

Sadly, it wasn’t the bugs, rude customers or amusingly crafted pornographic objects that led me out of the store after three years, it was the simple need of more money. My husband still works there and is still generally happy, while I sit here in my cube and wonder what kind of tales he’ll tell me tonight over dinner. Who knew I could miss large, strung out, racist white women so much?

contributed by M. Maiden

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

I held her baby in my arms, watching helplessly as she raced from room to room tipping furniture and tearing frames off the walls. I hadn't said anything remotely out of line, but ever since her husband came clean about his ongoing affair, she had been very unpredictable. As their nanny, my first reaction to this current outburst was concern for the baby; broken glass was scattered in a glittering warpath behind her. It was a miracle she hadn't been cut.

After she ran out of things to break, she threw open the window and screamed into the alleyway. The baby began to writhe in my arms at the sound of it. As the only sane adult in the house, I took charge: sat her down, told her to calm the baby, began gingerly gathering all the glass so that the house would be safe by the time the four-year-old got home from her play date. The glass was everywhere, had been pulverized in places, the dust filling the cracks between floorboards. An hour later, when I left, I swore to myself I would never return. Nothing was worth this.

I wound up working for them for another fifteen months. ~TB

"I pushed open the door and saw blood first..."

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

The problem with San Francisco is the weather. It’s just too good. Bums from Fresno, Los Angeles, Portland, and everywhere else eventually funnel down to the city by the bay to settle in. No winter really, hardly a hot summer to speak of, just a little rain, and most of the time it never cracks 80. If you ain’t got a roof, you can’t do much better.

We’d tried everything at Virgin to keep the bums out of our bathroom. We didn’t even want the damn thing, but since we had a café on the third floor we were under orders to maintain a public restroom. In San Francisco a public restroom was little more than an open invitation for bums, gutter punks, and crack addicts to get a free shower and a place to sleep it off, while the rest of us 8-dollar-an-hour jerks had to spend the our shift cleaning the thing out with a bucket of bleach and trash bags wrapped around our shoes.

When I was finally promoted to manager, somehow the restroom was slid into my stack of responsibilities – right there with VHS and porn. I was king of the untouchables. You might look at it and say that maybe I was being punished for something: a dead medium that nobody was buying; pornography, which everyone loves, but nobody really wants to sit through the distributor catalog and decide whether you’re buying ten or thirty copies of Ass Violators 6 (we bought ten, they sold out, I had much to learn); and the dankest, darkest corner of the Virgin Megastore.

For a while my crew used to draw straws to pick the schmuck who had to clean our little slice of heaven at the end of the night. Often I’d volunteer, showing the troops I wasn’t any better than them even though I made their schedules and a whole $1.50 more an hour. Every night was the same; put on the gloves, tie the trash bags around your shoes, dump out the bleach water on the floor and on the mop. You mopped everything. You mopped the floor, the walls, the sink, and the toilet. Bleach is supposed to kill everything, that’s its job, it’s what it does.

To strike pre-emptively, we eventually worked out a key system. Surely you have encountered this: take the key to the restroom and tie something incredibly fucking huge and brightly colored to it so that it can’t be flushed or stuck into a pocket. This also made it easier to identify who exactly shit on the walls or tried to flush their needles down the pisser. For the most part it worked, and we built a tally of “customers” who were no longer allowed in our store based on their bathroom decorum. Months passed. We were winning.

Al came into my office ghastly white; he stammered a bit and tried to point south or southwest, it was hard to tell since his arm was shaky and moving back and forth like a weathervane in Kansas. I put down the latest release sheet from eXtreme Productions and asked him what the matter was. Al did his best:

“I gave a girl the key to the restroom… and… she hadn’t been back in a while… so I took the master key and went in to see if maybe she left it in the stall on her way out.”

I got up and made my way across the floor towards the restroom, Al leading the way like Charon across the Styx. I pushed open the door and saw blood first. I’ve never been good around blood, and blood on chipped white tile is the worst way to see it. In the corner was a girl, young, wearing a white patterned dress. She’d cut her wrist open and slumped against a wall. I thought about bleach.

Al had already called the paramedics, I made radio calls to the upper manager.

Later that evening I was on the sales floor with my boss, leaning against the staircase that looked down to our main floor. With his crisp British accent Lewis interrupted our conversation with a curt “Oi, fuck me…”

He nudged me and pointed to the campaign banner.

It was the Virgin Sacrifice Sale.

contributed by B. Foote

“'You know what’d make a great movie…?'”

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Mel was short and leathery and his long beard connected directly with the hair encircling his bald spot as if his head was wreathed in a wiry black bird’s nest. He had ridden a bicycle to the day labor office, so when we were paired up and sent off to a housing development with a couple of shovels, I drove. He had that sort of crisp, stinging smell that you’ll often find on somebody without a home and I was grateful that it was still just cool enough outside that my request to drive with the windows down met with no objection. We arrived at our destination as the sun was still just rising. I’d spent the last month since graduating high school working as an electrician’s assistant and had done my share of digging ditches and hauling away heavy bits of metal, but that work had gotten ensnared in a legal battle and after a few weeks of unemployment and an expensive year of school looming ahead, my father’s exhortation that I get a job had led me to day labor. I figured I could handle labor and I only had another month’s worth of days to do it in.

Once Mel and I arrived, we met up with the foreman in charge of us and he laid out our instructions. We were to go up and down the streets of this larval subdivision and shovel the dirt that the big earth movers had pushed into the gutters back up off the street and into the lots. We got to work, wondering idly if we’d make it around the entire place before our eight hours were up for the day. As we plodded along, scooping up the dirt and squinting away from the rising sun, Mel did his best to make time pass. He told a few colorful stories about the trip to Las Vegas he claimed to have just returned from. His stints as a day laborer apparently supported his embarking on adventures across the southwest. I had begun enjoying myself despite the increasing heat and the disappearance of our cloud cover. We’d cleared a few blocks and seemed to be making decent time when we met our first earth mover. As they graded the ground where a house would be erected sometime in the near future, dirt that we’d just shoveled up was pushed right back into the street. My guts churned in horror as I realized the Sisyphean nature of the task we’d been assigned. Mel just grumbled some swear words and hated the foreman a little more.

It was afternoon, and I knew my liberal application of sunblock had begun to fail me, by the time Mel found out that I was headed off to film school in New York in a month’s time. This led immediately to that statement that few can resist saying after they’ve heard such news.

“You know what’d make a great movie…?”

Except this time it wasn’t followed by an anecdote about something that had happened to a person he knew. Instead he launched into a speech that was something less than a story but was related with intense conviction that he knew exactly how it would work as a movie. It turned out that his ambition was to make a documentary about how aliens had built the pyramids and that there were secret messages embedded in their proportions and the shadows they cast. As my head throbbed and my skin ached from the radiation it was absorbing from the Arizona sun, I began to feel like I was becoming delirious. I reeled, feeling more and more fevered until finally—our eight hours were up! We sought out the foreman and he angrily informed us that he still had us for another two hours. This was the first that Mel or I had heard of a ten hour day, but the foreman assured us that this was what he’d paid for, so we trudged back to our gutters. For one hundred and twenty more minutes, each of them keenly felt, Mel and I shoveled on, chatting about the Bermuda Triangle and watching our progress obliterated behind us as we worked.

contributed by Nathaniel Wharton

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

y office is having a blood drive.
Though as a telecommuter it is logistically impossible for me to attend, I am still included in all communications about local events, and while usually that bothers me (e.g., "Cake in the mailroom!"), today it made me endlessly pleased. A coworker just sent out a message with the subject "Desperate need for blood." I know she meant the need for donations, but all I can think of is her going on a total murderous rampage. She has a desperate need for blood. Desperate. ~CK

"You’d think shooting arrows in the desert would be fun...”

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

It was my second week as a teller at the credit union that is located inside a Wal*Mart. I had spent the first week trying to convince myself it wouldn’t be as bad as I thought. The second week was about to prove me wrong.

Even while busy helping another customer, I noticed her in line. I saw her waiting to be helped, clutching what seemed to be a makeshift bandage on her right arm. She was looking around to see if anyone was noticing what pain she seemed to be in. I started counting tellers and people in front of her to see if I would be drawing the short straw. Of course I would. (Later I’d get much better at seeing who to avoid, and taking the appropriate amount of time with the customers before them in order to make sure another teller had to help.)

As she approached my station it was abundantly clear that my instincts were dead on; the better view allowed a clear look at the filthy gauze bandage around her forearm. It was blood stained on both sides and touching the counter in front of me. The sight of this particular girl under any normal circumstance would already be enough for me to conduct myself with both eyebrows raised high; between her greasy blonde hair and visibly double-wide bra straps was the face of a girl so eerily simple that it seemed to register no real discontent with her present situation, the pain being merely inconvenient. This, in combination with the obvious wound I was trying not stare at, meant instant discomfort and a struggle to concentrate.

“I need to take all the money out of my account.” She told me.

Struggling with the computer system I was still learning, I tried to bring up her account. She explained that she was going to the emergency room, so she would need all of her money.

“Oh my goodness,” I mustered awkwardly, pretending I couldn’t see her bloody bandage and swollen arm. Since I had not asked any fact-finding questions about her injury, she clarified for me matter of factly, volunteering, “Yeah, you’d think shooting arrows in the desert would be fun. But it’s not!”

These words hung in the air since I had no idea how to respond to them. Finally her account came up.

Oh, god.

She has nine dollars in her account. Does she know that?!?

At this credit union, a five dollar minimum balance was required at all times to keep your account open. I told her this, and went on to sheepishly offer her the four dollars she could take with her to the hospital for her bleeding arrow-hole. She decided it would be better to take all nine, and reopen her account next week. I guarantee you I was more concerned than she was.

I dispensed her nine dollars, and closed her account, and off she went, leaving me to gape and look from side to side to see if any co-workers had overheard any of it. I had no idea at the time that she was a regular, and over the weeks to come, I’d have multiple (unavoidable) opportunities to see her and witness the aftermath of her desert excursion gone very, very wrong.

contributed by Leah M. Blunt

"I was their tongueless eunuch, bearing grapes."

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket
When I was barely nineteen I became employed as a graveyard-shift waiter at Denny's, America's legendary last stop between the nightclub and the early morning toilet-hug. The events that led to this are a story for another time, but I will say that my attempts to begin college while working full-time through a temp agency had been a fiasco. As willing as I'd been to mutilate my youth in a world of polo shirts, briefcases, and respectably square haircuts, I could not turn the trick any longer. The crying jags, the heart palpitations, the insomnia that led me to fall asleep at the wheel on my way to work (and at my desk once I arrived)— these factors could no longer be rationalized as part and parcel of the workaday world. I was as courteous as possible during my nervous breakdown; I gave two weeks notice.

I conducted myself at my Denny's interview like I would at any other. Sandi, the general manager, goggled at my resume while keeping a nervous eye trained on my perfectly knotted tie, as if any moment I would realize where I was and bolt for the door; I smiled bravely, waiting, listening to eighteen-wheelers growling practically overhead as they exited the 202 freeway. "Okay," she said finally. "You're hired, and you can start training tomorrow night at ten. But..,” She squinted, grappling with words, and then leaned in close. "But why? Why are you even here?" Sandi had deep brown eyes. She was a mother of two, and mothers need to know these things: why and how. Having rarely been capable of telling the truth to my own mother or to any previous employer, I was surprised to find myself returning her eye contact and saying, "I just... need... to try something else. And I need to stay up late." She nodded sympathetically, having heard and seen it all, and then gave me a maroon apron.

The Denny's dress code was straightforward and inflexible. A button-up Oxford shirt, white or blue. Slacks, black. Shoes, black. It was basically the outfit they give to asylum inmates when they are released back into the wide world. I groomed myself with care for my first day, dismayed to find myself almost as dressed up to haul grits as I had been to fax memos. I needn't have worried. I was trained by Seth, who spoke in a stoner mushmouth dialect and whose own shirt had been washed to a pale-gray tatter. The instinct to render judgment and feel automatically superior to such a person had been ingrained in me by my former life, but it became instantly clear to me that Seth and I enjoyed equal footing on the bottom rung, and in fact I could stand to learn a thing or two from him. By five o'clock the next morning, as I walked home toward the sunrise drawing flies with my ranch dressing perfume, I knew I had found my people.

Denny's was my purgatory, my beautiful ordeal. Swooping headlong into the null visibility of the smoking section, serving meals to people drunk enough to have forgotten what they ordered by the time it arrived, skidding around corners on floors drenched with mop water and sausage gravy, shouting to be heard over parties whose ears had been blasted out by nightclub speakers, explaining each night's litany of fresh disappointments, which soup/pie/dressing our menu promised that we couldn't deliver. The key to getting the most out of purgatory was not to see it as exclusively mine. Nobody was beautiful under our harsh lights, after hours of drinking or dancing. No joke was as funny as it was intended to be, no interaction was as graceful as it ought to be. If you didn't arrive at our restaurant with your own cross to bear, we'd supply you with one: the wait for a table when it seemed everyone had been seated ahead of you, the drink order that never arrived, the wad of gum discovered under the edge of your plate that somehow survived the dishwasher. The way everybody at your table paid what they owed on the check only to find that it didn't add up to the total. I was a custodial presence to these shades, and my favor or dismay could exalt them or break the back of their whole night. I was a mercurial servitor, enslaved by my position but struggling to arbitrate justice and pancakes as benevolently as possible. On the occasions when we servers hardened our hearts and cranked the AC down to 60 degrees in order to drive out obnoxious but otherwise undeserving parties of twelve, I knew that at worst, I was only human.

I grew to crave the thrill of almost certain nightly disaster, the Russian roulette in which the number of chambers, let alone bullets, was constantly changing. You could do everything right and then drown under a wave of too many customers, or you could have everything in your favor and ruin it all yourself by absentmindedly tilting your wrist two degrees, allowing a ham and cheese omelet to slide off its plate and ooze like a mutant slug right down a woman's back. Even then, as you hid in the kitchen so you wouldn't have to face the Omelet Lady, you knew that in an hour everything would be reset: all new customers, all new traps and landmines. I would see my fellow waiters and waitresses go down in flames on either side of me, peeling out of formation to rinse the syrup out of their hair or dissolve into hysterical tears in the manager's office. We were extras in an old submarine movie, running around in a panic throwing levers and shouting into radios while red lights flashed and water sprang through the leaks after each enemy fusillade. Some bore the strain better than others. A waiter who was an ex-marine developed a bad habit of settling problems with his customers out in the parking lot; I hated and admired him.

Once I found my footing at Denny's, I became a rogue entity, shortcutting my way to supremacy and undercutting each new bureaucratic contrivance that stood in my way. I gained access to the label makers they used to make our nametags, and before long the floor was humming with servers named Hoss and Lolita and Ichabod. I managed to escape every single mandatory staff meeting, leave a half hour early every shift, and read the newspaper in plain view of the office's two-way mirror. What could they do to me? Sonny, the waiter who relieved me from duty at six AM, was on work release from prison, dropped off and picked up by the grim penitentiary bus. Clearly the management had more to worry about than my saddle shoes.

You lose touch with reality when everything is always at its worst. You develop those emergency room coping instincts, that gallows humor that made M*A*S*H so hypnotic. One night a drunk sorority girl bolts from her plate of fried eggs with her hands over her mouth, hauling ass to the bathroom with a stream of vomit marking her progress behind her in a dotted line, and you barely look up from the cash register. Then her concerned sister chases after. You watch her skid in one of the puddles of puke and yelp as she flies off her feet, her face connecting with the glass pie-case at a truly astounding velocity, the sound of the impact sickening enough to make several people put down their forks for keeps. You clamp down on the laugh curdling through your nervous system, and you're already mentally listing which of your friends wakes up the earliest so that you can set your alarm clock just to wake up and tell them that you saw this. A fourteen-year-old Mexican boy has been "legally" hired to attend to crises like this, and comes out of the kitchen with a bucket. He begins to patiently mop up the mess; he ladles puke into the bucket with his hands and then polishes the blur of face-grease (and I swear, lip gloss) from the surface of the pie-case with a thin rag, while people mill around him and the unconscious sister, trying to decide which of the girls is in worse shape and who is sober enough to do anything about it. It is four in the morning. You have three tables left and a bucket of silverware to roll, and goddam if a whole week doesn’t go by before you remember this scene ever took place.

The bars closed at one AM, and by three the siege was usually over; I usually had time to wolf down my own clammy salad or fried sandwich before the strip clubs closed at four. It wasn't a surge of patrons I had to gather strength for, it was the strippers themselves, who would clip-clop in at about 4:10, assembling in full regalia for a post-shift feast, their fake hair glinting under our fluorescent tubes. In the beginning, I was confused why all the waitstaff clawed over each other to be the one that served them; life was depressing enough without having to study rancid makeup application up close and explain the word "carafe". I learned soon enough that in exchange for indulging their most capricious culinary whims and royal attitudes, the strippers would generally leave a tip upward of $75, regardless of the amount of their check. The server on stripper-detail would basically forsake all other tables for the rest of the night; would stay as long as they stayed; would pick out all the green bits from the iceberg lettuce to ensure a perfectly white salad; would convince the cooks to invent elaborate entrees that were nowhere on the menu; would concoct exotic beverages from Denny's limited palette, such as half-sprite-half-iced-tea-with-grenadine, and keep the refills coming; and would generally give them someone to feel superior to after a long night of riding poles and laps and coke-sprinkled emotional roller coasters.

At first getting to wait on them was a treat, because of the money. Later, it became a mitzvah because they were lost little girls stranded in their flesh like nymphs in trees. And then eventually even that couldn't get me through it anymore, and I often gladly let other servers help themselves to the experience. If I was the only waiter left on the floor that night, however, they would be mine (and I, theirs), and that was that. It became my bête noire, the only indignity that I couldn't always subvert or wriggle out from under.

Look at my life, I’d think. It is really happening, just like this. I will always be this, or something similar, mind straining to keep up with what my eyes are seeing, the dark windshield watching the headlights cut through fog. It is my hands in bleach-water, my fingers twisting silverware into napkin sleeves, my face reflected close-up in the white tile above the urinal where I pray hourly and swallow air and wonder whether the future exists, or just more of this. There was plenty of time to ponder as I poured dressing into the little dishes they liked to have on the side, one for each flavor to ensure the most variety and the most waste. They had arrived during the last hour of my shift, and I was trapped into service. Tamrynne unfolded herself from their large corner booth and turned heads all the way to the ladies' room, and I was startled by a low grunt in my ear as Don, the cook, baked his face under the heat lamps in order to peer through and watch her walk. "Damn," he crooned through no front teeth, "Girl look so fine, I'd suck her daddy's dick." Tamrynne was a rare creature among them, possessing a legitimate, profound beauty that made it all the more disappointing to overhear her mental vacancy. The girls had grown to accustomed to my presence, and at times I was touched by the candor of their humor and intimacy when they knew I could hear. I was their tongueless eunuch, bearing grapes.

I sat at the counter, waiting for the chime to signal that their thirty-pound tray of food was ready for me to shoulder. On her way back from the restroom, Tamrynne swerved on a whim, sat next to me as if we were old friends, and began to dish about the most recent flap with her jealous, steroid-swollen boyfriend. Uncomfortable and determined to keep her life at arm’s length from mine, I began to offer her the most careworn, mundane platitudes I could think of—but then I looked up to see her eyes dancing knowingly, and my stream of bullshit choked to a halt. She was really seeing me, listening intently, amused at my discomfort, sad for my position. Aware. We were suspended like this for a moment, and I could feel myself teetering on the brink of some strange profound connection. Well why not? My costume was no less ridiculous than hers, my polyester cowboy shirt with pearl snaps (white), my drawstring cargo pants (black), my Velcro sneakers (black). We were equally alien to this place, to each other. She leaned in close and asked conspiratorially, "Listen, are you gay?" I was still not used to answering this question honestly. I gave her the short version. "Well do you mind if I ask you something, then?" She took my hand; through my haze of exhaustion, I knew that whatever she was about to ask, I was ready to proceed with an open mind.

"When you get fucked in the ass, doesn't it HURT? How can you STAND it? My boyfriend tried to do it to me in the shower yesterday, and it felt like he was KILLING me. Do you ever get USED to it?!?"

My mouth opened, but no sound came out. DING! Their order was up. She fluttered back to her table and told the girls that she was right, the waiter's gay, and picked up with them where we left off. "Do you ever get USED to it?!?"

Look at her life. Look at mine. I guessed we had both better.

contributed by Tom Blunt

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

One of our competitors in the Insurance industry sent a letter to us explaining a new product they're offering called "Lump Sum Cancer". That's right. It's designed to provide a lump sum benefit to the client in the event that they are diagnosed with some kind of internal cancer. Unfortunately, their marketing geniuses obviously couldn't figure out how to get rid of the word "lump" when describing their new cancer protection line. Ugh. ~LMB

"'I said a little whipped cream...'"

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

The term "barista" is occasionally thrown about to make coffee shop workers sound respectable, and thus respected, but I have yet to meet the person fooled by this charade. People on both sides of the counter understand the concept perfectly: one group is rich enough to spend five dollars a day on a disposable luxury item, and the other group is desperately clawing their way toward financial stability, many of them waving their hard-earned college degrees in the air like so many white flags.

At its best, this arrangement breeds a sort of community: the workers, not invested enough in their job to put on airs of professionalism, engage their regulars in witty banter and prepare their drinks with care borne not out of love of the job but out of genuine affection for their patrons. At worst, however, the system mirrors indentured servitude: underfed peons begrudgingly preparing items they cannot themselves afford for the disdainful, idle rich. During a six-hour shift, one might be praised or insulted, amused or angered, hugged or hit; perhaps all of the above. The sheer volume of customers and speed at which they are dispatched from the counter ensures that, at the very least, no day will be boring or routine.

It was in this environment that I witnessed some of the most aggravating and disappointing behavior our society has to offer. Often, it was the simplest cruelties that were hardest to fathom: neglecting to say "hello" or "thank you," talking on their cell phones while ordering, leaving their spilled drinks for someone else to clean up. Even before my position as a barista, I was careful to avoid such behavior because I was raised to be polite. It is important to recognize other people as other people. However, these subtle daily devaluings were punctuated on occasion by true achievements in assholery, and these are the stories that I tell at parties when people ask about what it's like to work at a coffee shop for four years.

The quickest transformation from man to monster occurred one winter when the guy with the goiter walked in. (You judge us, we judge you.) He was a regular, but not one whose drink I remembered, an oversight I would soon regret. A tall man, he stared down at me and ordered a 16-ounce mocha with a little whipped cream. I gave him his total, accepted his payment, and ditched the register for the espresso machine. Now, laid out on the page, his order seems quite specific, and I will admit to some culpability in this interaction. My work did not, in truth, adhere to his exact specifications, and when I handed him a 16-ounce mocha with whipped cream, the disappointment was plain on his face. There was a tense moment as I awaited the verbalization of the complaint clearly forming in his mind, but my fear eased as he silently sauntered to the opposite counter to claim a drink stirrer and lid for his cup. It was wrong of me to lower my defenses, however, for it stung all the more when he earned his dramatic triumph. Swiveling sharply, he met my eyes and calmly muttered, "I said a little whipped cream," while slowly running the stir stick over the top of his cup, his one smooth motion sending a heavy dollop of milky froth plummeting to the carpet below. Victorious, he capped his drink and left without another word. I wish I could say I recovered from the shock quickly enough to laugh in his face, but the thought materialized too late.

I also wish I could say that I passed my four years of servitude without a visit from the local law enforcement officials, but this simply isn't the case. For a reason I am at a loss to explain (people with advanced psychological degrees tend to find themselves more gainfully employed), people who spend long hours at a coffee house tend to feel that it is, in fact, their house. As such, they begin to take liberties one would not take at a restaurant or other business. For instance, making off with a newspaper without paying for it was all too common. The practice became so rampant that customers began to point it out to the counter staff, indignant that they were sacrificing their hard-earned quarters while others got their headlines for free. Most of the employees didn't care too much, or didn't want to rock the boat. I, on the other hand, felt fairly invincible given the length of my tenure and depth of my skill, so when I spotted one of the deviants (wearing a full suit, no less) heading towards a table with his ill-gotten goods, I made a mental note. He sat benignly reading the news; I stood casually ringing up other customers. Finally, the moment of truth arrived, and I pounced. When he returned to the counter for a refill, I charged him 55 cents: 30 for the coffee, and 25 for the paper. The surge of pride I felt was disproportionate.

Sadly, so was his reaction. Within minutes, he was on the phone with the police, who arrived in baffling numbers. I was pulled aside and questioned, calmly informing the officer that I had merely charged the gentleman for the newspaper that was still clearly laid out on his table. There was a general confusion over why city officials needed to be involved in this situation. The man insisted that I had slandered him by accusing him of theft, a charge that he steadfastly denied on the grounds that he would put the paper back (he didn't, and even if he had, it would have borne the smears of ten crumb-caked, thieving fingers). Finally, the officers, five in all, departed, with one woman staying behind to inform me that she couldn't arrest the fellow because the paper never left the premises, but that if it happened again she'd be happy to help me file a restraining order. I wouldn't have, but it turned out not to be necessary: shamed and affronted, the man defected to a state-wide chain that had opened across the street.

And yet for all the drama, indecency, and health code violations, I can truly say that I enjoyed my time at the coffee shop. I became a staple in the lives of hundreds of locals. I saw them more often than most of my family members and was likely the first person that some people said hello to every morning (for those who bothered to say hello). These people permeated my life: sitting in the audience when I got cast in local shows, helping me find jobs when I got desperate, and even offering condolences after my mother's death. On my last day, people expressed genuine disappointment that I would be leaving. Tips doubled. Some hugged me. Others tried to convince me to stay, even for just one morning a week. One woman, one of the many whose name I do not recall but whose 12-ounce café au lait I will never forget, came back hours after getting her drink, thankful that she had caught me before the end of my shift because she had brought a present and a card. Unaware of the fact that I had spent years looking forward to the day when my house no longer reeked of coffee, she had gotten me a latté-scented candle.

contributed by Chris Kelly

"She had apparently been expending great effort to tolerate me..."

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

She was one among many. Your average rich bitch shopping for costume jewelry at our Upper West Side boutique. After browsing, she finally approached me at the counter with a box and some tattered tissue paper. In it was pair of tarnished earrings she wanted a refund for. Offering no excuse other than not liking them, and unapologetic about her lack of receipt, she demanded her money back in a raspy New York accent. Explaining that our policy made no room for such situations, I denied her request. On the spot, she developed a story about her son sending them to her as a present and plead her case again. If this was true, it was unclear which year they had been a Christmas present for-- the earrings were not in good shape. Because there was no manager available, I did what I thought was the most generous thing in my power, which was to offer her store credit.

The realization that she was not getting any cash from me swept over her face. She digressed quickly, and proceeded to go through our entire store naming all of our displays "Garbage!" or "Hideous!" or "Disgusting!" She had apparently been expending great effort to tolerate me from the beginning.

Finally, with all decorum out the window, she spat, "You're an ASShole!"

Practically in the same breath she asked what my name was. I politely told her. With a that figures look on her face and on her way out the door, she said, "Well, that'll be easy to remember, I know another Leah that's an ASShole!"

And with a that figures look on my face, I went about my day.

contributed by Leah M. Blunt

"I crouched behind a bunker listening to bullets whistle overhead..."

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

My first job ever was as a target-painter at the Rio Salado Practical Pistol shooting range. I was thirteen. My dad was a match organizer and prize-winning competitive shooter; every Tuesday he'd pick me up from school and take me straight out to the range in the middle of the desert, where we would set up the day's obstacle course. After lugging steel targets, prickly blown-out tires, and sun-cracked traffic-cones into formation, I would paint the targets white to cover last week's bullet-marks. The lead slugs flattened and fell away on impact, leaving black scars on the white targets. If we finished early, then after my Mountain Dew break I would be sent to shuffle around in the blistering gravel, hunting for the brass shell-cases that were expelled with each shot; Dad recycled them for home bullet-making.

Once the match started, I remained on the sidelines wearing protective eye- and ear-wear, armed with a bucket of white paint and a disposable foam brush. After every few shooters I would scamper out onto the range and paint over the gunshots as quickly as possible while the heavily armed crowd waited for their turn to fire. After all the contestants had completed the stage, I was allowed to go hang out in the sand-pit that had been set up for children, in the concrete-floored common area, or by the trash-burning barrel during the winter, where I would join the other shooters' kids in seeing how many objects we could feed the fire before an adult noticed and made us cut it out. I was paid $10 for the afternoon's labor-- plus all
the soda, microwave popcorn, instant cocoa, butterscotch disks, and Hormel chili-cups I could eat, as long as I wasn't too conspicuous about it.

Occasionally I would get hired to help with big weekend tournaments. At one rifle event I crouched behind a bunker listening to bullets whistle overhead as they passed through a cardboard target shaped like a torso; when the shots stopped, I lowered the target and quickly patched it with brown tape so that the next shooter would be guaranteed a fresh, smooth surface. By the end of the day, shell-shocked and fatigued, I would bring home as much as $50, a fortune by kid standards.

I wasn't so much promoted from my target-painting job as retired from it. One day as I stood on the sidelines searching the shimmering sky and gravel embankment for something interesting to look at until it was time to scamper, I heard a strange sound like a buzzing bee and then felt something smack against my kneecap with a THWACK, like a rubber band. Apparently brass casings will occasionally blow apart when a bullet is fired, and I had been nicked by a piece of shrapnel. There was a trickle of blood, but no pain and nothing in the wound, so I felt lucky to have just been grazed and to have an excuse to take an extra-long Dew break.

A week later I bent to tie my shoe in PE class and saw metal glinting from the almost-entirely healed wound. Aha, I had taken on actual ordnance. Fascinated, I began to try to dislodge it with my thumb and forefinger, but it was firmly planted. A trip to the school nurse
(anything to get out of PE class) strangely resulted in no phone calls home, even after I explained what was in my leg and how it got there. She told me to keep it clean and keep yanking at it. I was clearly beyond medical help.

After an evening of intense concentration, I was able to free my little passenger, a shred of brass a half-inch long, warped into cruel hooks and snags by the heat that had exploded it. Perhaps out of parental concern for my safety (however unlikely this may seem within
the context of this story) I was put out to pasture in the relatively comfy, air-conditioned office-shanty where all the shooters lined up to register for the day's match, and where I tabulated all of their scores. My job title was "Statistician" and my pay jumped to $25 per
match, though I still had to help Dad set up and paint before the shooters arrived. As far as introductions to the world of working for a living go, I was lucky to be given such an honest glimpse at a formative age. Now if you'll excuse me, this Hormel chili isn't going
to eat itself.

contributed by Tom Blunt