Thursday, January 21, 2010

Memory Remix: #11 - What’s Love Got to Do with It?, Part I

1986, just a few days into the year. Most people were still hung over, and society in general was moving very slowly in that lethargic, oh my GOD, we have another year to deal with kind of way.

Tina Turner was coming to town, and I desperately wanted to see her in concert. She was still riding high from the “Private Dancer” album that had snatched her from relative obscurity and threw her back to the top of the charts where she rightfully belonged. The girl was blazing hot and everybody wanted a piece of that.

Well, not everybody.

Trouble is, I was scheduled to work the night of the concert, and I was having an irritatingly difficult time getting anyone to trade shifts with me. No one was interested in my dilemma. (I perhaps should have kept my mouth shut about the actual reason for the trade. Attending a concert is not quite the same as, say, a medical condition requiring surgery.)

I couldn’t even get a polite “maybe” out of any of my co-workers. Looking back, this should not have surprised me one bit. After all, I was working with a bunch of redneck guys that had probably never even heard any music that did not involve banjos and farming vehicles of some kind. In addition, all of these guys were bitter, vindictive men who hated where they worked and, by association, hated everyone who worked there with them.

You see, at the time, I was employed by the illustrious firm of Quik Trip, Inc. This was (and still is) a chain of convenience stores based in Tulsa. And actually, as far as convenience stores go, we were at the top of the food chain. Quik Trip was known for the cleanliness of the stores and the quality of the service. We actually received considerable training. And our outfits were cuter than anybody else.

But still. It was a convenience store. There was only so much glamour and excitement to go around.

And even when you work for a high-end and fancy chain like that, there are going to be some pitfalls. Not all employees got the opportunity to experience the tragic side of the corporation. In fact, most of the employees were unaware of such a thing as the “high-risk” store.

Sounds intriguing, yes? It’s not. This just means that a particular store has been constructed in a part of town that has seen far better days. That there might be some unsavory characters comprising part of your clientele. In fact, because it’s a “high-risk” store, one of your customers might even kill you and take all the Fritos and bean dip. But hey, we had a great benefits package.

I don’t know why they had these stores. Most of the Quik Trip locations were in really nice parts of town, or at least decent parts of town. All of the customers were yuppies and everyone said “Thank you.” But for whatever reason, the corporation insisted on this handful of stores in some really dumb-ass places.

I didn’t start out in a risky store. My initial assignments were way in the south of Tulsa, at that time a booming place of exploding growth. Buildings were going up so fast that the concrete was still wet. I liked working in those stores. People were thoughtful and kind, full of grace and humanity. Probably because they weren’t running for their lives to avoid being gunned down by the local crack dealer.

In fact, there was one holiday when I had to pull a triple, working from 3pm on Christmas Eve to 3pm on Christmas day. (I was the only single person on staff at that store, I have a soft spot in my heart when it comes to Christmas, and I could use the premium pay.) I expected the customer flow to be light. What I didn’t expect was what those few customers would do when they walked in the door.

They brought me food. Christmas dinner. When you work in a particular location, you get to know the regulars, and they get to know you. You see the same people every day, and you develop mini-friendships. But still, it didn’t prepare me for the neighborhood reaction when word got out that I was pulling a triple on Christmas.

Next thing I know, there’s a parade of people lugging in all kinds of stuff to eat. Before long, there was enough food stacked in the walk-in cooler that I could have lived in there for weeks. It completely moved me, decent people doing a decent thing, that they didn’t have to do. (Yes, I cried a little bit when no one was in the store.) One of those moments when your belief in the basic goodness of humanity is affirmed.

I smiled a lot when I worked in the south Tulsa stores.

Then the day came when I smiled no more.

The area manager called me up one day, when I was singing and twirling in one of the pretty stores, and advised me that he had a GREAT opportunity. One of his stores had a staff that was a little unfocused, and they needed some help getting things in order. My performance appraisals showed that I was doing a humdinger of a job, and they sure could use me up in the north part of town.

Stupidly, I let myself be flattered. (They liked me! They really liked me!) Whatever I can do, Mr. Area Manager Man, to help this company be a shining beacon to the nation. Just tell me where to go and I’ll go there at once.

“There” turned out to be the intersection of Lewis and Admiral. Uh oh. I didn’t know much about the exact location, but I knew enough about the general vicinity that my heart skipped a beat. It was an incredibly crappy part of town. What was this man doing to me? I thought we were friends.

He kept chattering away on the phone, really trying to talk up this new assignment. Now that I had been apprised of an actual address, I suddenly noticed the desperation he was cleverly trying to hide in his voice. This was not his first phone call of the day. I was no longer a humdinger. I was merely the next in line on what was apparently a long list.

I slightly hinted that perhaps I would like to stay where I was. He hinted back a little more strongly that if I wanted to move up at all in the company, that I WOULD be doing this, and doing it with great enthusiasm. Oh, and there would be a slight bump in pay if I played nice and said yes.

Oh, well that did it right there. More money? At a time when the only furniture in my tiny apartment was strategically-placed record albums? Hell, yeah. What’s the address again?

Little did I know that employees in these high-risk stores referred to the salary “bump” as combat pay. It would not take me long to understand this terminology. In fact, it would not take me long to consider using my bump to purchase protective weapons from some of my new customers. The kind of customers that did not bring you food.

Let me tell you a little bit about the location of this store.

At one time, this had been a rather plush place to live and work. It was not that far from the original “downtown” Tulsa, so my assumption is that some of the fancier families had moved to the area and created a bustling neighborhood. By studying some of the buildings from the past that are still standing, you realize that some serious money went into their construction.

I have no idea what happened between then and now, but it wasn’t good. It was a total crap-fest by the time I rolled up to my newest Quik Trip assignment, several decades after the bloom was gone from this former flower of the city.

Directly across the street was a blood bank, housed in one of the faded-glory buildings of yore. There is one thing you need to understand about blood banks that are located in low-income sections of town, especially if the star-date is 1986: One of the biggest donor segments is composed of drunks and homeless people. Not kidding.

This blood bank was actually a satellite office, so they only accepted donations on certain days. On these designated mornings, I would watch these filthy people crawl out of wherever, and then attempt to form a line in front of the building, even though most of them had the jitters of some kind and could not keep still. It was quite a sight.

Once they had been drained and received a cash payment for their services (yes, they were paid, this was not an act of generosity on their part), the drunks would walk out the bank door, stagger across the busy street with no regard for oncoming traffic, and throw themselves through the front door of our store. Once inside, they headed to the beer section and picked out the best combination of cheapness and quantity they could find.

Then they would wobble up to the counter, throw down their selection, and demand a pack of smokes as well. They would spend every last penny on beer and cigarettes. It made me sick. But there was nothing I could do, I had to ring them up. They weren’t drunk at the time of purchase, although they soon would be. And out the door they would go.

This is what some people become. And so it goes. Reflect on your life, and be thankful. Just sayin.

Directly to the right of our store was an odd, brown building. There were no recognizable windows in this building, just some very decrepit and old wooden siding, running the whole perimeter of the building. There were no signs to indicate exactly what type of establishment this might be.

But something was going on over there. At the back of the lot was a small parking lot, holding perhaps ten or twelve cars. And it was always full. Always. I never saw anyone enter the building, or leave the building, but the cars changed all the time.

It was fascinating, in a way. But creepy in another. Seriously, what was that thing all about?

As mentioned, when you work in a convenience store, you develop mini-friendships. People open up after a while. So I tried to do a little sleuthing concerning this mysterious structure.

Me: “So, what’s up with the brown building?”

Mack Daddy Yo: “That one over there? Hell, I don’t know. Ain’t got no clue. You?

Me: “Uh, no. That’s why I’m asking. Ever been in there?”

Mack Daddy Yo: “Me? Hell no. I’m not goin in there. My girl said somebody died up in there.”

Me: “Died? Really?”

Mack Daddy Yo: “Hell yeah. DEAD kinda dead.”

Me: “Wow, that’s some kinda dead alright.” (Yes, you pick up the lingo after a while, can’t help it.)

Mack Daddy Yo: “Sho nuff. Say, you got the new ‘Juggs’ in?”

On the other side of the brown death-building, once you crossed Admiral, was a porn store. A very popular porn store. Apparently, people came from miles around to peruse the wares. In fact, it was such a happening spot that, on the weekends, the porn store parking lot would fill up, and randy folks would start parking in our lot.

Which meant that one of our weekend duties, believe it or not, was chasing off the this surplus so that people who wanted to visit OUR store would be able to do so. That was a lot of fun, intercepting drunk and horny people, and trying to make them understand that they would have to move. This was known as porn duty. Me being the new guy, I usually got stuck with this thrilling assignment.

Me: “Dude, you can’t park there.”

Jerk: “Why the hell not? Who the hell are you?”

Me: “I work right here. If you’re going to BUY something right here, that’s cool, come on in.”

Jerk: “You got any snatch mags?”

Me: “Well, nothing like you’re going to find over there.”

Jerk: “Then I don’t wanna go in there.”

Me: “Then you need to move.”

Jerk: “Who the hell are you? I can park wherever the hell I want. Hell.”

Me: “You need to move. Or I can call the cops. You want me to call the cops? I can do that. Seriously. Want me to?”

Jerk: “Oh really? Well, I can kick your ass. You want me to kick your ass? I can do that.”

(Keep in mind that I’m 20 years old at the time. I don’t look like I can kick a pebble, let alone an ass. Yet I’m supposed to be Mr. Tough Guy in charge of chasing off the drunken farmers who are determined to find pleasure in lewd publications. I don’t WANT to be this guy. I’m all FOR the release of sexual tension. Go Big O! But I have bills to pay and a job to keep.)

Me: “Dude, come on. I’m just telling ya what’s what. If I owned this store, you could do whatever you want, hump the gas pumps, knock yourself out. But I don’t own it. I just work here. And I wanna keep my job. You with me?”

Jerk, pausing for a second as he sways back and forth beside his car, then: “Yeah, I guess. But I wanna see some titties. I just wanna SEE some TITTIES!”

(Am I seriously having this conversation? I graduated from high school with honors. I have two years of college under my belt. And I have no desire to look at titties. Ever. But circumstances have led to me having this particular verbal exchange with some inbred yahoo whilst standing in the parking lot of a convenience store in the bad part of town. I really thought my SAT scores would have gotten me beyond this. My high school counselors lied to me. I hate them.)

Just as Jethro is about to cause some serious hurt, there’s the familiar whup-whup of a police car sounding a preliminary warning. The farmer turns and runs like a laxative just kicked in, leaving his car behind. Fine. We’ll have it towed in the morning. In the mean time, the wino blood donors have a place to sleep for the night.

The squad car that pulls into our parking lot is being driven by my police officer friend Justine. She’s the real deal, tough as all get out, and doesn’t have a problem telling anybody to go anywhere. Therefore, I deeply love her, in a non-titty way, especially since I’m stationed here on the outskirts of hell. She helped me out a lot during my time in purgatory.

Like the night I was almost killed.

Okay, it never really got THAT far, but it could have. It played out something like this:

It’s fairly late at night for most people, but really just the beginning of Armageddon for this part of town, when all the crazies wake up from their drug-induced comas and go looking for kicks. I’m in the store all alone, trying to do the cigarette order for this week. This activity basically consists of me counting every single pack of every brand that we have in the store, comparing the totals to how many we had last week, and then determining how many I should order for the following week. This is not why I took Calculus in high school, but perhaps I’m whining a bit.

The door bangs open and in wanders some wild-eyed teenager who is clearly underage. He marches back to the beer section, picks up a 12-pack, then saunters up to the counter, all cocky and such. I immediately ask to see his ID.

(Side note: I’m only 20 at the time. I’m not of legal age to purchase alcohol, but I can sell it. Such was the twisted state of legality in Oklahoma at the time. Might even still be the case. I haven’t been there in a while.)

Stoner dude is not happy that I asked for his ID. He argues. I argue back. He calls me a variety of names that rhyme with buckhead and baggot. I don’t give in. He finally has had enough, shoves the beer toward me so that it falls on the floor at my feet, then stomps out of the store.

Great. Yet another confrontation to confirm that my life is a living hell. I go back to counting cigarettes.

A bit later, as I’m stooped over and counting some inventory on a lower shelf, I hear someone banging on the glass doors at the entrance of the store. Come on people, I’m busy here. Just open the door and come on in. I stand up and look toward the front of the store.

The wild-eyed teenager is on the other side of one of the doors. When he realizes that he has my attention, he raises both arms and places his hands, fingers splayed and palms forward, on the door, just above his head. Then his tongue snakes out of his mouth, and he licks the glass in one long, freaky trail of saliva.

At that moment, that precise pinpoint in time that I will never forget (trite, but true), I completely understood what the expression “blood runs cold” really means. This was so not right. I suddenly couldn’t breathe.

Then he peels his left hand off the glass, reaches down into the waistband of his pants, and pulls out a gun.

Which he then points directly at ME.

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  1. Oh my goodness you actually worked a Stop-N-Rob.. whoops I meant QT back in the day.. wayyy cool.

    Wellll, let me jar your memory a bit back in the late eighties when I used to sell the finest hand rolled sage-tysick stogies before the apache's muscled me out. You remember the story on the Tulsa ten o'clock New Years eve'87 when the fuzz busted Ronald McDonald behind the Dairy Queen down a ways from QT on Admiral blvd. with handcuffs and all? The news anchor said he was caught red-handed eating a dude!

    I just want to state for the record that crap Ronald was high on that night was by no means my hand-rolled finest. That was the work of the devil - Geronimo and his wacky-root! So called herbs.. my ass!

    Getting back on track with my comment, did you ever get to go see your gal in concert?

  2. Hey Mike,

    Yep, Justine told me all about that shakedown under the Golden Arches. Small world, right?

    Anyhoo, hang tight for my girl and the concert, it's coming...