It was Christmas break 1978, my sophomore year in high school, and I needed a job. My 16th birthday was just three months away.
The cool guys in my class were buying used Alfa Romeos for around $6000.00. I did a quick audit of my finances and, including the heavily disputed money I owed Rod Hedges for a bet on whether he could get to second base with Lisa Foster, I was about $1,006,000.00 short.
“Why don’t you try the mall? They’re probably looking for seasonal help,” offered my mom.
“I don’t want to work at a dumb ass mall” I said, clearly overestimating the demand for my services.
“You can watch your brother then.”
My brother, Will, is 4 years younger, so watching him, in and of itself, should not have been a difficult task, except that our older brother Tommy was home full time which meant that Will was always at risk of suffering some misfortune that reflected poorly on me. Tommy would have sold Will to human traffickers without batting an eye. To this day I shudder to think how easily this could have been arranged if Tommy had offered even a minuscule percentage my way.
The next day my mom dropped me at Penn Square mall.
“I’ll meet you back here in two hours,” she said as she handed me a $5 bill.
I went to the mall directory and planned my route. Stork Shop, Junior Miss and Fabric Fair were quickly eliminated. Then I saw the British Import Shoppe. I walked in to find a man half-asleep behind a glass counter. He was wearing a Union Jack shirt, red suspenders and a bowler hat. He was clearly startled to see someone.
“Mighty fine to see ya lad? Out for a shop?”
“Is it for your mum? Or your pop?”
“I was thinking I….”
“Don’t worry. We’ve bits and bobs for everyone. Take a look around and let me know whether you see anything.”
His congenial manner and inability to read a situation offered helpful insight into how we won the Revolutionary War but little else. I was about to beat a hasty exit when I spied several “Going Out of Business” signs behind the counter. Guilt wouldn’t allow me to go away empty handed.
“How much for the Big Ben lighter?” I asked.
“50 pence. Or three quarters American.”
I was 10 minutes in and my ledger balance was already down about 10%. Time to fish in a bigger pond. The mall had two large department stores: John A. Brown and Rothschilds.
I decided to try John A Brown first. Greg Brown was a kid in my class so I could drop his name if necessary. I went to the hiring department and filled out an application.
A receptionist examined my submission.
“Do you have any references? We don’t hire anyone without references.”
I leaned in: “How about Greg Brown?”
“Put his number down in the blank.”
“No. I mean Greg Brown…you know….the son or…um…maybe the grandson or….nephew of John A. Brown, the owner…also known as your boss.”
“Nice try. My boss is the Dayton-Hudson company.”
I was ready to call it a morning but fate drew me across the concourse to Rothschilds where I asked the receptionist for an application.
“Do I have to list references?”
“Yeah put down a couple of names and numbers but we don’t check ‘em.”
“How can I be sure?”
“Because I’m the one who’s supposed to do it. I mean how stupid. Who’d put down a shitty reference?”
I could see a bright future at this place. The hiring manager came back from a smoke break and the receptionist introduced the two of us.
“I already checked his references. All good,” said the receptionist.
“How soon can you start?”
“Be here at 9:30 sharp.”
My mom was excited that someone other than immediate family or the government would agree to shelter and perhaps even pay me for a day, so she was up early laying out my clothes.
“What did they say you would be doing?”
“Jeez, I don’t know mom. It’s a bunch of old bags who sell shit. You tell me.”
“Here. Wear this.”
She handed me a chambray leisure suit that we bought at Shepler’s Western Outfitters.
“No way. I haven’t worn that since 8th grade graduation.”
“If you hadn’t ripped the left sleeve off your navy blazer at Uncle Jim’s funeral you could wear that, but this is the nicest thing you own.”
I felt like a retail insider as I entered through the dock area. When I got there everyone was in the break room. I filled out a tax form and learned that my hourly wage was the bare minimum-$2.90 per hour.
Pretty soon Ron Arnot burst through the door. Arnot was a former assistant baseball coach at a local high school. He was asked to leave after some ‘irregularities’ involving a camera in the girls softball team locker room.
His wife was the daughter of the Rothschilds owner so he was using this as a temporary assignment before going back to ruin more teenage lives.
Arnot had a buzz haircut that went all the way down the folds of his neck to the top of his back as if a former mullet had been closely cropped. He was one of those guys who thought there was a conspiracy afoot when the world failed to treat him as he imagined it should.
He was holding a clip board clasping a stack of sales receipts.
“Gather round men.”
Never mind that 90% of the employees were women over 60.
“I’m not gonna sugarcoat this, team. You guys sucked ass yesterday.”
Arnot‘ s neck hair stood on end like a cornered Rottweiler.
“Let me tell you, I’m not going to have my ass embarrassed by John A. Brown. So what’s your excuse? Why are they kicking your ass?”
Where Coach Arnot was concerned, there was no ‘I’ in ‘team’.
“Better merchandise” offered one clerk.
“Lower prices” said another.
“More selection” intoned one more.
“Ha. Shows what you know about retail” said Arnot without a hint of irony. “Listen up whiners. Two days from Christmas and we aren’t even close to our goal. If we don’t hit today’s target then no employee discount for your layaway merchandise.”
A collective groan arose from the group as Arnot stormed into his office.
I wandered around looking for the woman who hired me. Turns out she was sick. So I gave a tentative knock on Arnot’s door.
“This better be important” came the reply.
I cracked the door a bit.
“Um…sir….I was just hired and today is my first day.”
“What? By who?”
“I think her name was Karen.”
“You mean Carol?”
“That sounds right.”
“What did she hire you for?”
“I guess you needed some help…”
“No I mean what department?”
“She didn’t say.”
Arnot escorted me to the loading dock where he and the head of shipping had a private conversation. They both looked me over from afar and the shipping manager gave an emphatic shake of the head.
“Run upstairs and see if Mrs. Farley has anything. She’s in make-up.”
I took the escalator up to the second floor. The lady who yelled “better prices” at the morning pep talk was standing at the make-up counter desperately trying to find something in her purse. After a few seconds she gave up, retrieved a lipstick cartridge from the display case, ran it across her mouth, wiped it off and set it back carefully.
“Are you Mrs. Farley?”
“We don’t open for..” she checked her watch….”4 more minutes.”
“Mr. Arnot sent me up to see you. This is my first day.”
“Goddamn Arnot. Always sending me his castoffs.”
Not much on new employee orientations, she started looking around. Finally, she spied a young man across the sales floor.
“Bradley! Yoo-hoo Bradley.”
Bradley seemed eager to please as he hurried over.
“Yes Mae! How can I help?”
“I’d like you to meet…” She paused and looked at me.
“Oh um…Timmy. Timmy Hoch” I said.
“Nice to meet you Timmy” said Brad sweetly as he put his hand in mine.
“Bradley is in charge of the fragrance department. He’ll find something for you.”
Brad sized me up for several uncomfortable seconds and said: “Follow me.”
He led me to the break room.
“You can’t wear that.”
“It’s all I have.”
He retrieved something from his locker and tossed it at me.
“Here. Try this on.”
It was a green cable cardigan sweater about three sizes too big. It had a sash at the waist and itched like it was made of fiberglass.
“A fragrance model has to look the part.”
“Come on. I’ll show you to your station.”
Bradley placed me at the second floor entrance to Rothschilds, directly across the concourse from John A. Brown, and handed me a basket with perfume samples.
“Hand these out. But don’t give one to every single lady you see. Use your judgment.”
“So who should I give them too?”
“Never reward track suits, t-shirts, crop tops, letter jackets or anything western. For God’s sake this isn’t Sheplers. Oh and every 10 minutes or so, spray two shots from one of these counter samples. Keeps everything fresh.”
The sweater was so big that every time I tried to hand out samples I’d have to wave my hands in the air to roll the sleeves back. I looked like a miniature Liberace impersonator just before he sat down at the piano keyboard. One time, I was trying to draw back my sleeves and appeared to be signaling distress because the security guard came over.
“All good there little fella?”
Nothing can disabuse you of the illusion of being a highly sought after fragrance model like being called “little fella” by a mall cop.
“Yeah. Just working.”
“I think you’re having an allergic reaction.”
“Your neck looks like pounded beef steak.”
“I am a little itchy.”
“Maybe you oughta take a break. Get that looked at.”
“I’m not supposed to leave this area.”
“Listen fruitcake. This ain’t Checkpoint Charlie. Jesus, go get a Benadryl or something.”
It was either the power of suggestion or the massive recent inhalation of Enjoli, but suddenly I was feeling light-headed. I made my way over to Mrs. Farley. My intuition told me that she was a pretty good resource for a prescription med.
“Goddamn kid, what happened to you?” she asked.
“I’m not sure. I don’t feel so good. Do you have an allergy pill?”
She heaved her purse on the counter and started rifling through a trove of pill and airplane liquor bottles. She shook a moldy brown tablet into my sweaty palm.
“Take this. But not on an empty stomach.”
I walked over to the food court and bought a bean burrito from Taco Tico. By the time I made it back to my station I felt as though I’d been hit with an elephant tranquilizer.
Mrs. Farley diagnosed my anaphylaxis, slipped me another pill and ushered me to a narrow storage closet where I fell into a deep slumber. Some time later she was rapping at my shoes.
“Get up. Arnot’s looking for you.”
My dizziness had dissipated only to be replaced by a churning stomach. I went back to my post. It felt like a rodent was trying to gnaw its way out of my intestines but I couldn’t bear the thought of spraying any more perfume to mask the smell. Then I spotted Arnot.
“Hey pipsqueak. Holy shit. It smells like a goddamn goat farm over here.”
He sprayed a few blasts of Charlie perfume and pulled me to one side.
“I’ve got a special op for you. I need you to run down to Toy Land and get a remote control car.”
“Okay.” I stood there a beat. “With what?”
“Don’t you have any money?”
I opened my wallet to display my remaining three one dollar bills and a coupon for a haircut at the Mane Man. Arnot shook his head and handed me a $10 bill. Two days before Christmas, Toy Land was pretty picked over so the only remote control car I was able to find was a yellow Barbie corvette.
Arnot was still waiting at my post when I returned. He was less than pleased with my selection but so eager to implement his plan it hardly registered. He pulled a smoke bomb from his pocket and put it in Barbie’s passenger seat.
“You got a lighter?”
I pulled the Big Ben lighter from my pocket.
“Ha. Figures. Take this over to that John A. Brown entrance, light this baby and drive the car into home furnishings.”
Aside from the references slight, I didn’t have a beef with John A. Brown. But I was easily impressionable and frightened, your Honor.
“Why don’t I just throw it and run?”
“Because that’s against the law pipsqueak.”
I doubted Arnot was versed in the finer points of the penal code but he told me even if what we were doing was a crime, I was already an “accessory before the fact” so it was too late to back out. The Barbie ‘vette had a cord which tethered me dangerously close to the IED. After a few minutes, a malfunctioning escalator slowed the tide of holiday shoppers and my window of opportunity was nigh. I lit the fuse, gunned the car until the cord ran out, dropped the device and let the momentum carry the canister forward.
I ran back to Rothschilds where Arnot and I waited to watch the ensuing carnage from a safe distance. We were able to detect only a faint wisp of smoke and a small flurry of activity but, all things considered, it was a dud. Arnot let out the sigh of a man well-experienced with exciting buildups and false starts.
“Get back to work Pip.”
Since we now shared the bond of co-conspirators, he shortened my nickname.
I went over to Rod Hedges’ house the next morning to borrow something to wear. I looked through his closet and found a brown and green polyester shirt emblazoned with camels drinking from an oasis. I was shopping for Bradley now.
“Don’t forget about that million dollars you owe me” reminded Rod.
When I got to work I was told that my new assignment was to clean and stock the employee break room. While it didn’t carry the panache of fragrance salesman, it was decidedly less threatening to my health and my liberty.
The break room turned out to be a perfect fit. The employees would come in with all manner of gossip and tales of personal woe. Mrs. Farley told me that she was invited to her daughter’s house for Christmas with her grandkids but she couldn’t afford to get her merchandise out of layaway and she didn’t want to show up empty handed. I started to tell her some bullshit story I had heard in Sunday school about the difference between “presence” and “presents” but I didn’t want to be responsible for the emotional carnage wrought by her failure to bring a proper gift.
Bradley needed a raise so he could afford his rent which he was having to supplement by giving his landlord samples of Aramis cologne and foot massages. His personnel file was “marked” with some allegation of making a pass at a customer which followed him like a scarlet letter.
My work in the break room gave me easy access to Arnot’s office and since Arnot happened to be dodging a process server on Christmas Eve, he was pretty scarce. Motive met opportunity so I found Mrs. Farley’s gifts and put them in her locker. Then I made a few edits to Bradley’s personnel file.
I went to the food court for lunch and decided to do a little math. According to my rough calculations, I had earned about $35 before taxes over the course of a day and a half. I would have to work another 2056 hours to be able to afford the Alfa Romeo. That’s when I spotted Lisa Foster.
“I heard about you and Rod.”
“I think you know.”
She turned a couple of shades of red when I offered her an out. In exchange for a written denial I could probably slide her some samples of Tabu.
The store closed at 5 p.m. for Christmas Eve. I was helping Mrs. Farley carry her bounty when we spotted Arnot sneaking back into his office.
“Merry Christmas Ron” called Mrs. Farley. “And thank you.”
She thought Arnot had forgiven her balance.
“Merry Christmas Mae. Merry Christmas Pip.”
My brother was waiting at the curb. Just then, Brad came by and gave me a long hug.
Tommy was cracking up when I got in the car.
“How much did you make today fairy dingleberry?” he asked.
I took Lisa Foster’s statement out of my wallet.
“A million dollars.”