A six-part series by Laurence Peterson documenting an example of downward mobility in Post-Meltdown America

Part 4: Characters

Surveying the Costco Avon Habitus

George was a diminutive 70-year-old who was known as “Tweety Bird” for his resemblance to the Disney character and the way he moved, with an outsized bald head and rapid, back-and forth lateral swaying gait. He came in every day, just about, and often twice or more. He employed two greetings, and two greetings only, directed both at old timers and newcomers at CDS: on some days, he’d growl “I’m taking what I want and I don’t give a fuck!”; on others, he would remark that every day was a beautiful day that we should all be grateful for.

Once an advisor had been at CDS for a little while, George would generally stop for a while and regale the chained advisor with the story of his children, both of whom, he claimed, had died in a clinical sense and had been revived thanks to divine intervention. He would then offer the advisor the chance to read a religious tract he promised to bring next visit, an offer which was, in my experience, without exception declined. George would then employ a strictly businesslike demeanour toward the new advisor for a while, defaulting pretty much to observance of the disjunctive greeting solely.

After a while he would chat a bit, but only about the most banal topics, and only very briefly. One exceptionally slow afternoon, I saw George propelling toward me and was so desirous of meaningful human contact that I tried my best to get him to stay and talk to me for a while. But he would have none of it; and as he hustled away I was sorely tempted to shout after him “GEORGE, THERE’S MORE TO LIFE THAN JESUS BRINGING YOUR DAMN KIDS BACK FROM THE DEAD! But I held my fire and retreated into the usual, post-encounter stupor.

Sorrowful post-industrial

He of the Sorrowful Countenance came in regularly, but not nearly as often as George, maybe twice a month. He either walked with a cane and heavy limp, or, much more frequently, used a motor cart provided by Costco for elderly or infirm shoppers, of which there were proportionately very high numbers of in the Avon store. Avon is wedged between Brockton (and the Costco store is just over the Avon border), where I live with my mother (whose family have been here since colonial times), a truly benighted, impoverished and violent post-industrial city whose chief legal industry appears to be storefront churches, all too many of which sport an altogether delusional affiliation with the prosperity gospel (“Winners City Church;” “The Church of God, Inc.”), and Randolph, which is popular as a retirement community; and between the two towns, along with Avon and Stoughton, already mentioned, residents are either too poor to buy much of anything or, in the case of the elderly, too infirm to take much out of the big box store, other than meds: hence the popularity of the chemist’s shop, whose sales (funded largely by government-subsidised Medicare and Medicaid), along with those of the off-licence, pretty much keep the whole store somehow ticking-over.

A few words about Brockton: it was actually named after a British-Canadian hero of the War of 1812 (and it is often forgotten that the US unsuccessfully invaded Canada a few times during this war, and the war was unpopular in New England) when the city was incorporated in 1881, and was actually the site of the first functional central power station in the world, installed by Edison himself, in 1882. Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested here. Back then, and well before, Brockton was famed for the local shoe industry, which supplied the Union army during the Civil War, sometimes with rather shoddy gear. But the industry had long faded, and, after a brief flirtation with consumerism during the ‘sixties and ‘seventies, a large proportion of those who had attained or in some instances inherited wealth—especially the educated and young, including me, I should say—gave up on the place as a hopeless case, and this caused a very rapid and particularly devastating decline.

The city then relied on what fame it received from its production of heavyweight prizefighters and high school American football teams. The most important economic development here in the last few years has been, arguably, the choice of part of the downtown to serve as the setting for a film about the legendary smoke-and rubble Detroit riots of 1967. Needless to say, the pharmaceutical industry-led opioid crisis has dealt a heavy blow to the area, adding insult to injury. The city has large Haitian and Dominican communities (amongst the very poorest countries in the Western hemisphere), but an almost all –white rump continues to dominate the city’s politics, pretty much in line with their interests rather exclusively. All in all, the place seems to be trapped in a negative dialectic involving a smudgy glory that is rapidly and perhaps exaggeratedly overwhelmed by complete reputational infamy.

Doleful

Anyway, Sad Sack (as he was originally known, until I stole the Sorrowful Countenance moniker from Cervantes’ Don Quixote and applied it to him) developed a reputation amongst CDS personnel as a uniquely doleful personality, who always had a long tale of woe at hand to share, in detail, with anyone who would listen, and appeared to view the chaining of the CDS advisor to the cart—and inability to flee—as a tacit assent to converse in this vein. His physiognomy, moreover, reinforced his miserable reputation perfectly: he had a long head that bulged at the bald crown, and open-mouthed gape that suggested a condition of kinetic shell-shock just awaiting imminent and overwhelming release in the form of ceaseless complaint.

The powerful combination of his appearance and reputation had an interesting, and, I admit, rather shameful impact on me. Unlike the other chained advisors, I would, whenever I saw him puttering towards me in his motor-cart, spill something I was serving, or make a mess some other way; and by the time he reached me, I would usually be in the middle of as obscenity-filled a tantrum as I thought I could get away with, depending on who else was around; in short, I wanted him to think that I was nuttier than he may ever have been. And, usually, He of the Sorrowful Countenance would linger round my cart maybe for a second before simply moving on to less threatening pastures.

Something about him really channelled my inner douche-bag, and I am not proud that I was so taken by his appearance that I could not even give him a fair chance to engage with me. I suppose it is a lame excuse, but after experiencing the tedium and humiliation of a shift (he usually came in towards the end), the last thing I was psychologically prepared to do was to reach out in any meaningful sense to someone who did not fit a profile I was rather comfortable with.

New breed of shopper

John was noteworthy mostly because he represents a new breed of shopper: he looks for bargains at Costco and resells on Amazon. He doesn’t seemed to be bothered by any ethical scruples about this: he’s just trying to get by, and Costco will probably be doing a whole lot better at the end of the day that he might be (though whether Costco can do the same against tax-dodge favoured, low-wage addicted Amazon is another question entirely). He’s a school bus driver during the morning, but spends many afternoons at Costco, and talks at length with CDS advisors. He was a nice enough guy, but there was one other peculiarity about him: he believed in the damnedest things, like conspiracy theories involving politics and alternative histories. He didn’t talk much to me because I would try—not in an obnoxious or impolite way, I’m pretty sure—not to dissuade him–we never even got that far–but simply to express that there were other “ideas” (NOT facts…) out there regarding these things.

The last conversation we had involved the first migrations to the Americas: John thought Europeans were here first, before the so-called Native Americans. I tried to offer the notion up for consideration that scientific dating of artifacts, fossils and so on point to the latter being in the Americas at least 40,000 years (I was off by at least 20,000 years here, but the validity of my point was unaffected), and that no other group could possibly stake such a claim, but we had to tap dance around the matter—I think because he thought it involved racially-tinged subject-matter, and he, like many others I met at Costco, seemed at the same time overly eager and afraid or even guilty to bring up such things—and we ended up getting tangled in knots haltingly “discussing” the domestication of horses in the Americas.

Lack of alternatives

Several of the communities surrounding Avon (much of the rest of Massachusetts went heavily for Clinton) voted for Trump in the general election, and this leads me to say a word or two about the general educational and cultural situation here, in light of John’s crazy beliefs. What strikes me the most is the sheer deprivation of alternatives to almost childish media and entertainment complex in the area, like relentless plugging of syrupy charity or inspirational stories featured on the local news (I believe use of the word “news” designating such programmes should eventually give way to something like “the inspirations”) given the complete refusal of that media to feature anything that smacks of controversy, for fear of alienating viewers and driving advertisers away. Accordingly, the elderly in particular, many of whom in this area, like my mother, are not connected to the internet at all, receive from TV a incessant diet of celebrity worship, stories featuring no more than “kidult (a term I saw an investment report use for a title about media and advertising directed towards adults who were socialised with childlike tastes in the ‘nineties)” complexity, and last, but not least, at least 1/3 of broadcast time dedicated to adverts.

Pravda could never have been too much worse than this. And the broadcasters show so little consideration for their audience that they allow the same advert to be shown several times an hour, often twice during the same commercial break. Within such a general climate, those who do peer beyond the private networks to cable and even the internet are so familiar with characters like Trump, that media settings like Fox—featuring the same personnel and choice of topics/level of discourse–become the natural default setting, and you have to go pretty far out of your way to get much of anything different.

There were a few characters amongst the CDS staff, and I’ll mention three of them here. Marc clearly preferred hiring older, retired people: in my view that was because they were far less likely to argue with him or even quit after one of his nut fits. Accordingly, most of the Avon CDS people were retirees, grandparents and older persons looking to supplement Social Security (I don’t think anyone at the Avon location collected a pension from a company), but there were a growing few who, like me, were middle-aged men who were ejected from a career path during what was supposed to be their peak earning years.

The trio I will mention all fit into the former category. Manny was a sixty-five-ish, mildly overweight, enthusiastic biker who, somewhat at odds with the image he liked to project, spoke with a jarringly high-pitched voice. He sported a Frank Zappa-like hairdo and goatee, but often looked like an almost hallucinogenic caricature of Zappa, one squashed down to size from Zappa’s lanky frame, and enveloped in a kind of dazed, timeless atmosphere some cartoonists excel at portraying (I’m thinking of Zippy the Pinhead here). He was a former soldier in Iraq and prison guard (there was another CDS advisor who had been a prison guard, too, and this after serving as a teacher), but many of us doubted all this for a long time because Manny complained constantly about the smallest, most trivial things, and this with that voice of his; and it was difficult to reconcile a military/corrections career with incessant, soprano moaning about not getting a stool to sit on during a shift (there were only six stools to serve shifts involving at least eight sales advisors in the vast majority of cases).

I used to joke that if ISIL caught Manny and took him to a beach to be beheaded or shot, he’d dedicate his last breath to the complaint that, in forcing him to kneel to take the knife or bullet, he never got offered a stool; and I pondered at length about how Manny’s comrades in arms could possibly share a foxhole with someone who complained as much as he did without chucking him out of the Green Zone or whatever.

Mixed results of low pay 

Most jobs, especially jobs on the lower end of the pay-and-status scale, employ not a few workers who take their positions a tad too seriously, but Chuck raised this dedication to level he made his own, given the paltry means CDS offered to regard any of the positions it tended to offer with any seriousness whatsoever. He had been with CDS for a long time, took intense pride in his work, and assumed that everyone else who worked for CDS was as dedicated to the mission—whatever that was supposed to be—as he was. He also tried constantly to be helpful—too helpful–which sometimes led to unfortunate unforeseen consequences. I remember in particular an instance in which Chuck was yelling across a few aisles at a couple who were clearly looking for a particular item in the store in vain, and his loud carrying-on caused their very young child to cry as Chuck screamed the suggested directions after them.   He tried to inculcate a respect for CDS protocols to junior advisors, even in its more absurd applications.

The best example of this involved the tarp-like covers we sometimes put over carts. These covers did not wrinkle, but, for some reason, CDS enjoined us to fold the covers up in some time-consuming, seriously complicated, Mozartian way I never understood and place them in plastic bins at the end of a shift. I will never forget the exasperated expression on the face of a new, very young advisor, as Chuck explained in detail a procedure—and the dire importance attached to carrying it out in full—that was utterly unnecessary, just as we were hurrying to flee the place at the end of a long shift. And Chuck would freak out if this and other small routines were not performed with all due correctness and solemnity.

Finally, there was Dan. Dan was a very sweet guy, and a lot of fun to be around for the most part. He may be the only person on earth whose chief passions in life juxtaposed a desire to copy the King James Version of the Bible in its entirety with dog racing. His manuscripts consisted of wire-bound notebooks that took up several cartons and were stowed in the back of his ramshackle mini-truck. Despite the fact that he was immensely amusing and interesting to talk to, there were times when he would fulminate about his hatred of political correctness and associated political/religious matters openly in the store, and he had been warned several times about this, even by us—and, it should be said, he usually said he agreed with our warnings, for what that’s worth. But his natural openness regarding just about everything prevented him from taking the advice to heart (not to mention the boredom and humiliation that brought out the worst in all of us), and every few months we would learn of yet another incident that put Dan in some jeopardy. He was just as open about his medication schedule and history of therapy as he was about, say, religion, and he could often be heard bringing these matters up with complete strangers as they tried to consume their samples and steal away.

One other CDS worker deserves a sort of mention, but not so much as a unique personality as a telling deformation that found a predictable home at CDS. Alan was an engineer who had—for mysterious reasons—stopped working in his field, but indicated that he wanted to go back to it eventually. He may have attended MIT (I know members of his family did), but it was never clear to me if Alan himself had done so. Alan was a friend of Marc’s, and it was not long before Alan went from being a mere CDS advisor to a shift supervisor, even though he did not seem to distinguish himself an any way. In fact, one time Alan turned up piss drunk for work after Marc begged him to come in, and Marc even purchased a white shirt for Alan to wear (a white shirt and black trousers constituted our uniform) when he turned up in his rather disheveled state.

Now Alan was constantly telling other CDS workers about his former life and, especially, about business trips to exotic places that almost none of the rest of us (I was something of an exception here, having travelled widely in Europe, North Africa and the Caribbean, and having lived in England) could even have dreamt of visiting. He also applied business-speak analysis to problems we faced. This sort of thing turned just about everyone else off. I was familiar enough with the latter (Six Sigma management principles, etc.) to give him a polite hearing, but he seemed to think I wasn’t worth the trouble beyond a point, so he more or less ignored me altogether. What really bothered me about Alan, though, was the fact that he didn’t help very much with the cleaning up at the end of a shift (unlike many of the other shift supervisors), preferring to remain in a chair unless something required his attention.

It was the perfect logical consummation for a visibly useless job, featuring all manner of gratuitous humiliation: a supervisor who not only attained his position clearly and purely due to his connection to his immediate superior, but chose to employ a personally-outdated conception of status in navigating a world in which ultimate pointlessness regulated almost every interaction.

Simple contempt

Much of what I have mentioned so far, I hope, reinforces the essential point I stated earlier, that many jobs these days involve an inordinate degree of boredom, humiliation and stupidity; this sort of thing, as I argue, is not exactly unusual in our wonderful new economy; but employment at the Avon Costco illustrates the other aspect I mentioned, in a type of work which produced little visible benefit for anyone, in a truly unusual way, or so I thought for some time. For, at the Avon location, Costco management, and some of the staff (the others were without exception really great people), treated CDS workers with simple contempt, even rudeness at times, and, at least where management were concerned, went out of their way to create petty hassles for us.

One of the most senior Costco Avon managers had a vendetta with CDS going back years, to a time when virtually none of the current CDS staff worked at the site, and continued raging against us even as staff and managers from that time turned over. So we laboured away in positions designed to aid Costco, when Costco management clearly wanted nothing more than to see us gone once and for all. Theoretically, we should, one would think, provide feedback on sales involving demonstrated items with the various Costco departmental personnel, or even managers; but I never, ever saw any of this, and if we did bring up such matters with these Costco people, we would be ignored at best or told to mind our own business, in all likelihood (most of us did not even dare to be so presumptuous). Maybe Marc discussed these things out of sight, but I sincerely doubt that it amounted to very much at all.

In fact, CDS workers spent a considerable amount of time directing Costco members to requested destinations in the store, and this went far, far beyond informing them of where CDS demo’ed items were stocked. Costco warehouses are usually the size of a football pitch, or perhaps a small, American cathedral, and hold dozens of rows of racks which stretch about thirty metres in the middle and another twenty on the sides. Costco adamantly refused to provide maps of the place, and I was told by Costco workers that this was because Costco wanted people to find their way to intended purchases only after being tempted to buy a lot of other items they might happen upon. Costco tended to understaff on many occasions, particularly when it was busy, so it fell on CDS advisors to guide members who took the trouble to ask for assistance, as Costco workers were in short supply on the floor—and those who were on the floor were rushing about so much that it was difficult to flag them down. I already mentioned how Chuck reacted on one of these occasions. But, far from receiving any thanks from Costco, we were usually treated like idiots, or perhaps children, who got in the way and actually hindered Costco personnel from carrying out some sort of exalted mission we simpletons had no appreciation for.

It often happened that while giving directions to members, Costco people passing by would drag the customers away from us without even as much as an “excuse me,” never mind a thank-you. Lord knows how much money Costco saved relying on us to perform this service, especially since they paid their people a lot more than we got, including, in cases, benefits—unheard of for us. And this provides the only coherent reason I can think of for keeping us on: we were just a little bit cheaper to employ demonstrating products than if Costco put their own people on the job, even if it remained questionable, at least in many cases, whether or not the demos were instrumental in driving increased sales in the first place.

Inspections

But it went beyond this. Costco Avon managers actually subjected us to inspections involving, they said, sanitary issues, and such searches could involve stipulations so absurd that it was pretty clear that the whole thing was a charade designed to make our lives miserable on the one hand, and get us, or our managers responsible for us, in trouble. The emblematic case I will relate here concerned spray bottles of water and sanitiser each cart was equipped with. Costco made a point of making us separate the water bottle from the sanitiser by a measured distance in the compartments under the cart top.

I have already mentioned how cramped things could get in the carts, so this foolish, baseless requirement served only to make this situation worse. And, needless to say, when I worked in two other Costco locations, the advisors there had never heard of such regulations. Oh—for people so concerned about sanitary matters, Costco allowed rubbish bins to overflow (and remember the prepared food slops here) regularly, making our efforts to keep our areas clean all the more unnecessarily difficult. And when we asked Costco management—politely—to do anything about the situation, there was often a conspicuous delay in carrying out the request, and sometimes nothing was done at all. Any injunction to cleanliness seemed immediately discredited if it originated with one of us.

The end of the shift saw yet more absurdities accumulated onto the pile. In order to keep us on the floor as long as they could, we were all directed not to come back to the tiny CDS space in the back of the store until fifteen minutes before the end of the shift, unless we were cooking, baking or microwaving (these advisors ended their shifts half an hour before clock-out time). This ensured that we would get in each other’s way in the super-cramped space in a way that was even more frustrating than the beginning of shift routine, because everyone would be going to the exact same place: to the one small washing up area in the office; and all would be carrying stacks of dripping crockery and utensils.

Only two, or at most three advisors could do the washing up and drying, and with these two stuck in place in the very small office, attempts to place clean items in bins and on racks in the same office were slowed down considerably (especially if, as it often happened, dirty dishes had to be piled on the floor for lack of space). And, if this weren’t enough, those stupid ice slush bins we had to use required emptying, and the only place we could do this consisted of a grate in the floor which was found right behind this huge floor cleaning device—it was nicknamed a Zamboni, after the machines used to smooth ice on ice rinks, which the devices resembled more than anything else—that took up virtually all the space in a kind of half closet reserved for it.

So advisors had to contort themselves carrying bins full of melted ice to get round the Zamboni (there was less than a foot on either side of empty space) before pouring the slush from the bins into a small cement drainage block. The routine was so annoying that I developed a reputation amongst the advisors for being the last person back every shift: I’d rather stand out on the floor for a few more moments of normal shift tedium than to get back and bogged down in this lunacy.

Turning the screws that little bit more

Our area was right next to the rubbish compressors, and often Costco allowed shopping trolleys full of perishable and even non-perishable waste to build up in this area, which we had to use as a thoroughfare in order to wheel the carts into their overnight depot space (Chuck was a stickler here, too: the carts had to be lined up perfectly, with the right sides showing and so on) directly beyond the compressors. Sometimes we would have to remove their trolleys in order to get our carts out of the way first, and since our closing routine was so frenetic as things stood, the extra work could be exasperating; and even the Zamboni—which we were not allowed to drive–would be left out occasionally, just to make things worse.

But, as was so typical in this job, CDS policy turned the screws a little more just for good measure. One of the most important rules they insisted on rigid adherence to involved the length of a shift: it was not permissible to clock out even a minute after six hours had registered. Managers could be fired if repeated instances of this failure to observe protocol occurred. Given the almost inevitable backlog involved in the closing routine, this meant that one of the senior CDS people would have to make sure you’d punched out even if your work wasn’t finished. Just about all the CDS people helped each other, so unpaid extensions of the shift were never long: maybe five or ten minutes at most. But the dual point remains: it was unnecessary and the work remained unpaid.

The business about the trolleys filled with waste requires comment as well: it was truly revolting how much Costco threw away. CDS’s entire business model, on top of that, is a monument to waste, from the food we threw away to the disposable utensils and receptacles we used exclusively to serve small samples in, everything that wasn’t consumed went down the chute. And all this occurs within a big-box store people drive miles and miles to get to in their petrol chugging SUVs. By the way, we were told in no uncertain terms that any attempt to smuggle morsels destined for the dumpster would constitute grounds for instant termination.

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