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Sunday, 15 May 2011

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Seven Stories about working in a bookstore:

The manager, Peter Crisp

Peter Crisp was the manager of Bravado Bookmark, a thing he seemed to take simultaneously as a badge of distinction and a cross to bear-he was middle-late thirties, seemed baked by life, wiry and out of shape, bent over a cigarette or incessantly scuffing his hair. I was still fledgling to retail work, so it was easy for him to spin himself as some kind of poorman champion of the free world to me-not that I believed him, but I had no call to know that he didn't really do any work and so had little to complain about, littler still to hold his head up, over. It was made evident fairly quickly, though, that the rest of the staff didn't particularly cotton to him-a sad thing, in retrospect, because it wasn't so much because he was a flawed leader, but because he was standing in their way from advancing to slightly better hours, retaining the same rate of pay (not that they showed any clear indicators of being able to breathe life into Bravado, they were just waiting out the retail evolutionary clock, easier than looking for work elsewhere).

***

When we worked together, Peter would spend a good deal of time in the little office-not quite a separate room, just a partitioned off area, the walls not quite reaching the ceiling so that all of his telephone conversations were distinctly audible from anyplace in the store. To take the curse off this-as most of the calls seemed to be contentious and personal in nature-he would put in a cassette of Scott Adams reading from The Dilbert Principle. I didn't complain, because some of it was funny, but as he tended to not turn on the store lights (the only switch being in this little office) the few customers who did wander in would pause on the threshold, see me leaning on the counter, blink, look at the ceiling until I'd assure them we were open.

"This is Scott Adams, the guy who does Dilbert", I'd explain and they'd nod and grunt some smiles, vaguely happy and relieved.

"I like Dilbert".

"Yeah, Dilbert's good stuff."

***

Peter would tell me how he could leave the job at any moment if district management wouldn't lay off him.

"They have their own deals to be worrying about-I run this store. They want to make it like this store is bringing their company down, I don't think so".

He (according to himself and asserted quite regularly) could go be a handyman, any time, any place. As he had traveled across five states for this book store manager job and was only living in a hotel down the way, it didn't matter to him at all.

***

One day I was walking along with my friend Nicolai Clover-this in the strip mall just over from the strip mall where Bravado was located, connected by a thin patch of grass between parking lot curbs-and Peter came riding up behind us on his bicycle (helmet on, cigarette in tight fingers at the handle bar).

"Hey guys, how's it going?"

Nicolai sort of shyly nodded, at a loss, and I just said "It's going fine."

He rode his bicycle in circles around us, straightening his legs out and exerting at the handle bars like as though to do bunny hops, but never quite got the bounce and to control his turns he'd have to bend his legs, every few seconds, his orbits getting woozy until he just put both feet down and walked the circles, still straddled on the bike.

"You all want to come eat?"

"We just ate at Roy's, actually" I said, Nicolai just shrugging when Peter looked at him as though to confirm.

"I'm just going back to the hotel, you know? Did some grocery shopping?" He elbowed at the single bag in the little holding compartment over the back wheel.

"Cool".

"What are you all doing?"

***

I showed up to work one day to find Peter just getting there, unlocking the door though the store should have been open for several hours by that time-he was wearing roller blades, thick shin-guards and knee pads, elbow pads and a helmet, cigarettes dangling from his lip, what turned out to be a helium canister on the pavement at his feet, leaned to the brick of the store front, a bag from the grocery store rumpled next to it.

"Want to help me blow up some balloons?" He was breathing heavily and in the five minutes it took him to get out of his roller blades he explained that he'd been meaning to get this helium canister for awhile, that everyone needed to get trained on it.

"What do you mean?"

The thing was, he felt that it was always a good idea to have decorative balloons for sale, that people really bought them.

There was a balloon store just a few shops down, but I didn't mention anything, just wondered either is this where he got the idea or was this something that I should try to keep him from learning to protect his feelings. "We sell balloons, now?"

"We'll blow some up, decorative ones, have them around and people can buy them and we'll have extras behind the counter, in case they want a fresh one."

"Okay. I see."

"And then I got some regular balloons too, so we can just blow those up when kids come in, get the parents in a happy mood to shop and then maybe the kid'll see the bigger balloon and we'll get a sale there, too."

I'd never seen a kid in the store and the only identifiable parents had been the few people who had browsed our miniscule Children's section for five minutes before asking me did we have Yertle the Turtle or Harold and the Purple Crayon or Goodnight Moon to which I would say No, but would offer to special order them.

***

Peter had troubles, troubles-and because I was the noncommittal, non-judgmental type (at least face-to-face, aloud) when he started arbitrarily turning against the rest of the staff I became his confidant. It put me off, though my girlfriend and Nicolai and the few other people I knew just made it into an in-joke, this thirty-seven-year-old guy trying to be best buddies with the kid just out of highschool.

He told me how he had taken the job because things had gone south with his special lady-this is who he was on the phone with most of the time-and he'd just wanted to be away. He said it was alright living in the hotel, but that it overall was a bad deal because he had been promised promotion to District Manager, had given up his lucrative career as a general fix-it guy, thinking it would be all be some grand adventure. Laced in with all of this was what seemed like really earnest promises to make me manager when he finally did get the bump-Pamela really thought she was next in line and overdue the position, but there was no way things would go that way, as far as Peter was concerned, because she was a ditz who always messed up the magazine shipment. I didn't know what to make of any of it though, because he never even got me more hours when I would ask-in fact, it seemed he had little to do with making the schedule and when I'd ask Pamela she said that she was only supposed to split the hours between shift managers.

"Aren't I a shift manager?"

"I don't think so, you've only been here a month and you can't work nights."

"I can work nights. I prefer working nights."

To Peter's credit, she was a ditz, always flitting her eyelids completely non-flirtatiously and her train of thought would disintegrate from the motion.

***

At the close of business one night, Peter met up with some guy he'd become pals with-I was meeting Nicolai to wander around, talk about the novels we wanted to write.

"What are you guys doing?"

We both shrugged, said we were just gonna go to get burgers at Roy's, hang out.

"You've gotta come to this rib place over here (he gestured to the next strip mall over) this place is amazing and Ryan says they have free trivia."

I didn't know what "free trivia" was and so Peter enthusiastically explained, as though this explanation was imperative, would seal the deal on our foursome for the night.

So we wound up going-it was a franchise rib place-and he tried to flirt with the waitress while asking for trivia pads (electronic devices to play along with the perpetual trivia questions that were displayed, thirty second timer, on strategically placed televisions) but the advances came across more like he was propositioning a whore.

He and this Ryan seemed to have become fast friends, laughing at everything the other said-kind of angry laughter, like they had been though some history together and were facing down the barrel of something, again. And when Peter abruptly stopped me midsentence at one point-big gesture of both palms up, traffic cop-and said "Hold on hold on...alright guys: Rock Quiz" like an audio footnote or a Greek chorus Ryan (his voice an even mix of NPR announcer monotone and jive hipster) explained that "When he says Rock Quiz, you gotta stop, listen to what's playing on the speakers, name the song, the artist, the album the...(he lost steam, got doubtful)...the...year of the album...whatever...the...("The singer, the guitarist" Peter rolled his hands, cutting in over top)...yeah the singer, the guitarist...the album, whatever. Each thing gets you points."

Not so complicated or groundbreaking a thing to do, but Nicolai and I nodded at the detailed explanation. It must be noted here that when most people do a "rock quiz", it's when a deep cut from some album is playing, or a cover-version of something obscure, or a live recording from a particular concert, hence the title Rock Quiz-Peter, though, did it when the answer was "The Beatles...Back in the U.S.S.R...The White Album" or "Pink Floyd...Another Brick in the Wall ("Which part?")...Part Two...The Wall" or "Sympathy for the Devil...The Rolling Stones..." and so on.

I ended up not wanting my burger because I'd ordered it plain but at this place plain meant it still had sauce all over it, so I just ate fries and Nicolai and I turned down all of Peter's offers to sneak us some beer by having us finish our waters and he'd pour some beer in, really quick, and then we'd drink it really quick and then he'd order another because it was "like two dollars a beer or something, it's really good here."

When Nicolai and I left, Ryan was having a cigarette while Peter was strapping up his rollerblades and getting his elbow pads on.

***

I really become friends with people who talk to me sort of quickly, though honestly I at base dislike most of them. I mean, I superficially-become-friends, don't know how to say No to people, am always supportive and have a demeanor that must telegraph this-homeless and drunks, they seek me out like a trick, as do slightly mentally unstable people and the elderly just teetering on the edge of dementia. That sounds terrible, and it sounds terrible to lump Peter Crisp in with that lot, but I got to thinking of him in the same way. I mean, I tried to avoid ever having to be put in the position of turning him down on an invite to his hotel, flat out, but I could always sense that such invitations were coming, knew I'd probably get stuck in to it (if he cornered me without Nicolai around to be my excuse, I was a sitting duck) and have a bear of a time getting myself out once I was in.

***

He showed up one day and, really iconoclast, a jagged Kaboom, told me "I know I haven't shaved but I don't care if I shave anymore" and while I was nodding, about to say something in response, he explained further "They say they're coming in for meetings or to walk the store, but they never come in, they aren't coming in" and then he told me he actually didn't even feel like working that day and since he was the boss he was giving himself the day off.

"You okay with that?"

"I don't care."

"Alright."

He went into the backroom to use the toilet, came out and told me that when Pamela showed up at four to tell her that he'd just left, five minutes before, and that if she had a problem with my being left in the store alone that he'd allowed this only because he had gotten a call, a personal emergency back home, and needed to get some paperwork taken care of.

Whatever that meant, it never came up with Pamela-she just showed up, asked me if I still wanted more hours, could I work a few mornings for her.

Pablo D'Stair welcomes reader contact/comments. He can be reached at unburiedcomments@gmail.com

 

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