Sting sang once that he didn’t “want no dead end job, [and that he] don’t want to be no number”.
Sadly, I was not familiar with the song before I took a job while in college. I was offered a job working part-time selling shoes inside a Kmart. What most people didn’t know was that at one point, when there were Kmarts, that the shoe department was its own little world inside of the stores, with its own leaders and codes and rules and pay rates and headaches to go along with them.
My first day was a Wednesday, and I was wearing a white shirt, black tie and black pants, looking more like a lost missionary than someone who would be selling size 11 pumps to cross dressers and rubber overshoes to local news personalities. I still remember the words my boss (who would be my boss on and off over the next 11 years, 7 months and 19 days, but who counted) told me;
“the probationary period is 30 days but if I don’t like you in a week, you’re out of here.”
I spent the rest of the night, putting shoes back in their boxes properly, when I wasn’t pulling the paper stuffed in their toes out with a tool resembling a pair of medical tongs. I told myself that this was only temporary and that once summer was over, I would be back in the classroom and working towards my degree, and that I could get through these tedious tasks and massive boredom. In the fall, I was back in class but I continued working selling shoes.
Who knew that a department inside of a Kmart could sell over a million dollars’ worth of shoes a year? Who knew that we could do it two years in a row? Who knew that the boss would be rewarded with an all expenses trip to Florida while me, the person who did all the work would get nothing? Oh, I did get something, in his words, I got “the privilege of working another year.”
There were more red flags waved at me during my tenure here, that you would have thought I was a matador in training but I ignored them all and would continue to do so until the company no longer had a use for me and I was let go.
Valentines day 2003, my new boss, and the DM with whom she was sleeping, were seated at a card table in the middle of a slowly emptying Kmart store, one that only had a few months left in existence. They handed me a clipboard and told me that I needed to sign this form to say that I would not sue the company for any reason. In order to get my last paycheque, they required my signature as well.
Expecting the same severance that had been given to those workers let go a mere two months earlier (which for me would equate to 26 weeks’ worth of 40 hours a week pay), I thought nothing of it.
I signed my name, took my envelope and began the 2.9 mile walk home. As I walked home, I thought about all that I had seen in my time working there. Who knew that there would be a whole category of things I would find in shoes: whole slushies in tweety slippers. spent bullets, fireworks, chicken bones, used pregnancy tests, pizza crusts, and so on. Who knew that the famous blue light special was just a small box on wheels that you plugged in and turned on with a switch? It made an annoying hum that I will never forget.
Tired of walking, I opened the envelope. Seems my company had gotten the last laugh, for inside the envelope was not 26 weeks of pay or even 20 weeks of pay, but rather, barely one week’s worth. They had cheated me and I had let them do it. Seems this was my reward for tying together 15,000 pairs of sandals in the middle of winter in a storage area of what had once been a Chuck-e-Cheese restaurant, on my last day of work there. This was my reward for living the Al Bundy lifestyle, but without the 4 touchdowns in a single game for Polk High.
Months later, I went back to where the store had been and stood by the security fence, watching as the building was slowly demolished. A man came up to me and asked what I was doing. I said taking pictures of the place where I had spent the last 11-plus years of my life, so he shrugged and let me stay behind the line and snap away. I watched as the building in which I had given so much of my life was slowly knocked down and hauled away. Maybe I got the last laugh after all.
Cover image courtesy of Mike Mozart via Flickr