Saturday, November 29, 2008

To Die For...

This weekend's tragic crushing of a Walmart employee by Xmas shoppers trying to get the early Black Friday bargains reminded me of an incident that happened to me in the early 80's when I was working at a Walmart-ish store called Zayre. It was similar because they sold cheaply made clothes and low cost foreign made crap. It was the first place to go to buy a Michael Jackson sparkly glove or to get vinyl blinds cut to order. For over three years it was my world. I started as a part-time associate and then moved up to the manager of the Toy department. Quite the accomplishment on the Southwest Side of Chicago. (When I quit to go back to college my mother cried crocodile tears and proclaimed it was the 'worst mistake I'd ever make in my life'. I think she was really crying about her 20% discount going out the window.)
I've many stories about my years there, most of them I think of fondly. There was, as in all work environments, a myriad of characters: Ed Crowley, the burly guy who worked in the hardware department, the sweet Irish lady who worked in Bed and Bath, funny Mary Sims who worked in Housewares. Matt the sexy Polish guy who I had the biggest crush on, nerdy Jeff in electronics, etc. Not a week would go by when someone wouldn't say, "They should make a TV show out of this store..." I mostly remember laughing a lot. You had to, it was a shit job, working in that huge fluorescent tube lighted store with it's miles of low cost clothes, cleaning supplies, and various other junk.



It was Christmas 1983 and Zayre had decided to keep its stores open 24 hours a day. I gladly took the night shift from 11 to 8. It was quiet and all I had to do was restock and take inventory. Every so often a stray factory worker or Midway Airport crew man would wander through like a zombie and maybe get a Barbie Works at McDonald's play set or Masters of the Universe talking Skelator mask. My job was mainly picking up the mess from a days worth of kids running through the department tearing apart every package that was in reach. I found that some parents felt like their children could do whatever the fuck they wanted as long as they didn't have to deal with it. Parents would go do their shopping after telling their children to go play in the toy department. I never understood how a mother who carried a child for 9 months would feel o.k. with leaving them alone in a store. Bob and I once ran across a cute little girl, about four years old, in the housewares department sitting on the floor with blue Tydee Bowl running out of her mouth and down her front. It took ten minutes of paging the mother who showed up screaming as the ambulance pulled up to the store. Whenever Bob talked about the incident he'd just say, "Ba-Ha... She'd been Smurfed..."

But Christmas just turned up the stress with out of control kids and maniac parents. I would have a calendar in my room that I would hang up after Thanksgiving. It would count down the days until Christmas was over. Ten days. Nine days. Eight days. If you want the joy of the holiday season knocked out of you work in one of these stores. That year, 1983 was the year that at the International Toy Fair in New York City the Cabbage Patch Doll was introduced. That fall Zayre got its first shipment in. I thought they were nothing dolls and in fact, the ten or so we got sat on the shelves for weeks without even being pulled out of their boxes by the mobs of roving children; Even they weren't interested in them.

By Thanksgiving however it was a different story. The news was all over the 'hottest' item to get your children this Xmas. It was from Kim Davis, a cashier, that I recall hearing about how popular the Cabbage Patch Kids Dolls were becoming. Kim never said two words to me before, but since she heard that these new type of dolls were coming in she acted as if we were the best of friends. "Please, you'll do that for me, huh?. You'll put one aside. My little girl saw a commercial and has been after me for weeks for one." "Sure..." I couldn't imagine that they would sell out, we were getting over a hundred units of the doll. There was no mad rush for them on that first sale day, although they did sell quickly. People were curious and slowly picked through the dolls looking for the one they wanted. My only job was to tell people that there were no more dolls in the back, that we didn't have one by a particular name or trying to find the missing birth certificate that was pulled out of the box and thrown on the floor. As the big holiday came nearer, the frenzy began to build, everyone wanted one. Even the few left over dolls that were pulled out of the boxes and were damaged disappeared from the shelves.

Every day more and more people started to come up to me asking for the dolls. Once while working the night shift, at 3 AM in the morning, I noticed two couples wandering around my aisles. They had obviously been drinking. One of the women came up to me and slurring told me she wanted a Cabbage Patch Doll. I told her we didn't have any in stock and she snapped at me, "My girlfriend works at the Zayre on Southwest Highway she told me that this store has them hidden in the back." I said I didn't know what she was talking about and she yelled at me and accused me of lying, then pushed her way into the storeroom at the back of the department and began looking for the dolls. Her boyfriend looked pitifully at me and shrugged and then went and got his girlfriend. She yelled, 'Fuck, fuck, I know they have them!" It was downright spooky.

Two weeks before Christmas the dolls were completely sold out everywhere. No one could get them and there was the beginnings of a panic among parents that their children would be left out of the experience of having one on Christmas morning. Around that time Zayre had the doll featured on the cover of its sale flier for $30. These dolls were now selling for hundreds of dollars if you could get them. When the shipment of two hundred units came in they were put in the the locked manager's offices and it was announced that the day before the sale the store would be closed at 11 and not reopen until the big sale started the next day at 7. Bob, Jeff and I worked through the night moving merchandise to make a large space in front of the cashiers where we piled the dolls. All the other employees were forbidden to touch the dolls. A lottery held for employees and that would decided who would be able to buy one.

It was a bitterly cold December night. By two in the morning we could see that people were pulling up in the parking lot; By 3 AM, they were lining up at the door. Jeff nasally said, "This is out of control.." By 7 AM there were hundreds of people pressed up against the glass doors. I don't remember what we as 'associates' were expected to do when the doors opened, but Jeff, Bob and I just stood back and watched. The doors opened and people pushed in with a big roar and descended on the pile of dolls. One big guy ran and did a belly flop into the pile, his arms outstretched trying to grab as many as he could although there was a 'Limit One Doll Per Person". People yanked and pulled each other out of the way, grabbed dolls out of each others hands, pulling some of the dolls apart. Most shocking I saw a man punch an elderly woman in the face breaking her glasses and her nose to get the doll out of her hands. The cashiers with panic on their faces tried to check people out as people pushed to get into line. The guards, whose job mainly was to sit in a booth and look for people shoplifting had suddenly become crowd control. It was fucking the most frightening thing I'd ever seen. Police were called, people were arrested, and the dolls sold out in under fifteen minutes. The store was closed down until noon and a big sign on the outside was put up that said "Out of Cabbage Patch Kids".

Reading about this poor, underpaid Walmart worker who was crushed by that crowd trying to get some X-Box or Elmo Doll or whatever the fuck the media is telling us is what we need to have made me sad and angry. Is it because the economy is in the crapper again as it was in the 80's that this behavior is surfacing again? What if there were a real disaster and shortages of food? The image of those zombie-like people attacking that pile of dolls comes back to me every time I see one dirty and worn out in a bin at at thrift store. What was all that energy for? Is getting something on sale so important that someone had to die?

At the time, I thought of a good idea for Christmas giving. Alternate gift buying for odd years. So every other year is a gift giving year, the even years are just a time for reflection and get togethers. Sort of Big Xmas, Small Xmas. I'm sure that the retailers wouldn't back me up on this one. There is this group who is trying to promote: Buy Nothing Day. Coming from a family of shopaholics this really hits home.

I'll get off my soap box now... But be safe, shop responsible, don't push and think, "Is it really a bargain if you don't need it?"

Peace...

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5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Ahhh, retail... I love this story. We had a Zayre but I opted for the Woolco and worked there for exactly one hour and fifteen minutes, after my dept manager made me take back the 20 gallon can of HTH Chlorine that he had just asked me to put on the sales floor. I told him what he could do with it and clocked out. My paycheck was about 2.00, I think. The next day I got a job at the Day's Inn Airport and continued my career in Hotel/Restaurant Management. Funny, we used to say the same thing about the hotel business, too. They should make a TV show out of this place.

Great story, John!

DannyBoy

Frankie said...

Excellent post. I remember those ugly Cabbage Patch dolls. I was 18the Christmas of 83. I remember the news clips of the people going crazy over those ugly dolls, wondering WHY!

Those news clips taught me a lot, but I forgot -- Fast forward about five years ago, DH and I were low on cash and decided to go to one of those 5am sales. We had our then 8-year-old son with us. OMG, I was so floored. We went to get a new TV and some bedding. It was the worst nightmare I had ever seen in person. (Thankfully no one was injured or killed.) The greed, oh, the greed. At least I can say I was only guilty of that black Friday garbage once.
It wasn't quite as bad as the video of the 1983 Cabbage Patch dolls, nor your story, but it wasn't pretty. And it wasn't safe for my son. I had no clue.

Never again.

FWIW, I'm one of those mean moms that never let my son go to the toy section alone -- or anywhere in a store alone. He used to get so frustrated because his friends did. That drove (drives) me crazy.

Horrifying about the litle girl drinking Tydee Bowl. Sheesh.

Thank you for the reminder.

What a sad state of affairs.

Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Scrooge,

Obviously you don't understand the real meaning of CHRISTMAS! HELLOOOO! Perhaps if you had CHILDREN OF YOUR OWN instead of being a GODLESS FUDGEPACKER, you'd understand how much Christmas gift giving means to the rest of us!

Don't rain on my parade!

Mrs. A. Merica

Jana said...

I so, so love your blog. And I love your idea of the alternate gift buying. I hate to say this but I hate Xmas for exactly the reasons that you say. It is all about what you buy. Now, it isn't even about what we buy, it is about how much we are doing for the economy. Or not. It is such a commercialized holiday. Just hate it. But love your blog. And yes, I remember Zayre's.

Aaron said...

I really hope Mrs. A. Merica is a tongue-in-cheek parody. I fear, however, that it's a tongue-in-ass earnest sentiment. (People who actually write the word "HELLOOOO" are usually among the ranks of the 80's-Permed and Breeding. Isn't there a nice Bonnie Tyler video you can go watch, honey? I think there are some stirrup pants on sale. Aisle 4.)

Oh, and the best gift you can give your kid this Christmas? Put him up for adoption.

My mom collected those fugly cabbage patch dolls (not the ones with the plastic faces, but the ones that were all cloth). She had them all sitting on a wicker chair in her bedroom. It was like a room full of Baby Jane dolls.

We had a trampling at the Wal-Mart in East Peoria while I was visiting home last week. The greeter didn't die, but was sent to the hospital. People are out of fucking control--I think they should arm those greeters with tranq darts.