It was New Year’s Day, January 1, 1992. I requested New Year’s Eve off from Ghetto Kroger.
And, like any good manager, Mr. Hannus scheduled me for the morning shift on New Year's Day. What a nice guy.
I awoke to the background sound of a fuzzy television. I was lying comatoses in my bed. There was gin (which I hate) on my breath, puke on the bed sheets, empty bottles scattered around my bedroom and, sadly, zero naked women sandwiched on either side of me. (sigh)
I rubbed my head and looked at the clock. It read 9:03 a.m. I was supposed to be at work at 8:30 a.m.
My mouth dropped. I pictured Mr. Hannus sitting there with his arms crossed, looking at his watch, tapping his toes, and shaking his head in disappointment.
“Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit,” I yelled.
I thought about calling off work. But then I recalled a co-worker tell me that, if you call in sick for work, Mr. Hannus will call a taxi cab to come pick you up. Plus, it was New Year’s Day. What college student didn’t go out last night and get shit-faced?
In other words, there was no way of getting out of this. Hungover or not (or even still drunk) I had to go into the Ghetto Kroger and put in my five hours or scheduled work.
I hopped from my bed, scanned the room like The Terminator and grabbed any decent types of clothes I could find:
- Wrinkled Bugle Boy Jeans circa 1990. CHECK!
- Wrinkled, stained white button-up shirt. CHECK!
- White socks. CHECK!
- Black Reebok Shoes. CHECK!
I walked out into the mess that was our living room and shut off the TV. A mysterious couple was cuddled up asleep on one of my couches. On the love seat, was one of my roommates, wrapped up into a little cocoon. I was amazed at how he fit his 6 foot frame into that small little couch. All were sound asleep. Suffice to say, I was jealous.
I ran into our bathroom, tossed a handful of water on my dome, then hopped into my Silver Grey Chevy Spectrum and swerved onto Summit Avenue with the pedal to the metal.
I arrived at a fairly empty Ghetto Kroger parking lot. Being Sunday, I figured there weren’t going to be too many customers. But the parking lot reminded me of a scene from some sort of crazy zombie-Armaggedon-post-apocalyptic-envisioned devastation. Empty. Grey. Desolate. Bleak.
I shuffled into the Ghetto Kroger and could literally hear my footsteps on the dirty, grey tile. Yep, that’s how quiet the place was. There was no cashier, no bag boys, no managers, no nothing. I felt like Burgess Meredith in that weird Twilight Zone story where he was the last man on Earth?
“Eimer,” I heard a familiar voice ring in my ear. “You're late!” I stopped in my tracks, closed my eyes, clenched my teeth and turned towards Mr. Hannus, who was standing in the Customer Service area. He held out his finger and motioned me to come his way.
He was a tall black man, with big Mr. Magoo glasses. But the one thing that was funny about Mr. Hannus was the way he walked. There was a hitch in his step, like he had a fake leg or something. (I never did figure that one out). Today, he was dressed to the nines in a tan dress suit, which should have served as an outfit in some 70’s blaxpoitation pic.
“Get in here,” he yelled pulling a number of huge boxes from under the counter. “We got a big football crowd coming in for the Ohio State game, which means there’s going to be a lot of smokers.”
The boxes were marked Marlboro, Camel and all the other brands you might expect to see. “While there’s no one here, I need you to stock up all of these cigarettes and get ready for the Buckeyes crowd.”
“Okey dokey,” I said. Before I could finish 'dokey' he was out of the Customer Service center and headed towards the door.
“Wait," I yelled. He stopped mid-strut and looked back at me with a rather pensive look. He raised his eyebrows and cocked his ear my way awaiting some sort of question.
“Umm, where are you going?”
He paused for a moment. His mind was whirring and buzzing like an old Commodore 64 computer.
“Where am I going? Where do you think I’m going?” He asked like I was the stupidest guy on the planet Earth. “I’m going to mutha fuckin’ teach Sunday School, that’s where I’m going.”
He started to walk away.
“Uh…” was all I could muster. He stopped again and looked back. “Dammit Eimer what is it? I'm goin' ta be late for my class!!!”
“Is anyone else going to be in here?” I asked. My eternal buzz was slowly turning into an eternal hangover.
“Yes. Yes. Yes.” He said. “Someone’s coming in to run Customer Service at 10 a.m. Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go teach some fucking Sunday School. Okay?”
“Okay,” I said as he slowly sauntered away. Shuffle. stra somewhat relieve that I was given this menial task considering my condition. “See you after Church.”
As I started to load up the cigarette boxes. I felt his beady cigarette ashtray eyes looking me up and down.
“How long you going to be here?” he asked.
I pretended to be startled, “Pardon?”
“How...long...are...you...going...to...be...here?” he asked in a slow tone like, again, as if I was some sort of retarded child.
“Um, 3 p.m., I think. Why?”
“No, not today,” he said waving his hands. “I mean how long you going to be here, in this store?”
I wasn’t prepared for all of these questions this early in the morning.
“Um, not sure,” I said. “I graduate in 1995, so probably until then.”
“Umm hmmm,” he said and walked away.
After Mr. Hannus left, I began to stock the cigarette shelves, which were conveniently located behind the Customer Service desk to deter any poverty-stricken nicotine-hungry thieves.
Then I looked around and realized no one was around. Then I looked at the tremendous amount of booty starting back at me. Camel Lights. Marlboro Lights. Menthols. Filtered. Unfiltered. Cigars. Blunts.
The world was at my finger tips.
Then I noticed a box. Then I noticed that familiar bullseye branding. It was Lucky Strikes. I knelt down and prized open the carton of cigarettes. It was simply beautiful.
Now I don’t fancy myself a smoker. But if I did smoke cigarettes, it would unfilitered Lucky Strikes. I mean, if you’re going to smoke, you might as well go all out. Right?
Also, around this time, I had started to write short stories. In all of my stories, everyone smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes. Plus, when Hollywood came a calling and I had to produce one of these masterpieces that I’d written, I would need a cool name for a production company. Hence, Lucky Strike Productions. The logo would emulate the cigarette brand and would have that worn, pulp fiction paperback look. It was rebel!
Then I thought up an idea. A wonderfully rebellious type of idea. The urge was to great. The hangover too strong. I just had to do it.
I popped my head up out of the customer service center and looked back and forth. I glanced up to and glanced at the security camera. It was face the exact opposite way of where I was kneeling.
With my back towards the security camera, I quickly grabbed a couple packs of the Lucky Strike cigarettes and jammed them into my pockets. Without missing a beat, I continued to stacking the cigarette shelves until all were filled.
Then, about five minutes later, I started to get dizzy. Then, I had a faint taste of gin on my mouth. Then, I felt like I was going to puke. I ran to the bathroom and puked up the rest of the alcohol and, oh there it was, last-night’s Rally’s hamburger. I sat in the restroom for a couple minutes waiting to see if the volcano eruption had subsided. It had.
So I washed off my face and walked back to the Customer Service center to continue my cigarette stacking.
As I approached the front of the store, I noticed Mr. Zimmer, our other store manager. He was a short man. About 5 foot 6. He resembled a slightly slimmer version of Brian Dennehey (the guy who played the sheriff in First Blood for all of those unaware). He had these deep set, piercing blue eyes that could possibly shoot lasers if he was a superhero. He wore a nice dark-gray suit. His arms were crossed and his was staring right in my direction.
It was also readily apparent he was awaiting my arrival.
The look on his face was a mystery. I couldn’t tell if he was angry, pissed, happy to see me or none of the above.
Then, I thought about the cigarettes in my pocket. The blood immediately drained from my face.
“Mr. Eimer,” Mr. Zimmer said with his hand outstretched. “Happy New Year.”
“Happy New Year to you,” I said nervously as I shook his hand.
He looked at me straight in the eye with a slight smile like he knew something that I didn’t know.
“We’ve got to have a talk,” he said. “Can you follow me upstairs.”
“But, Mr. Hannus wanted me to..” I quickly interjected.
“I don’t care what he said,” Mr. Zimmer said slightly annoyed. “The cigarettes can wait. We need to talk now.”
I blinked and slowly followed Mr. Zimmer up to the office. My heart was pounding. Sweat was beading down my face. My throat was dry.
I silently shuffled up the stairs and glanced over to Pam, one of our older cashiers, who worked the day shifts. Looking for some sort of charity, I waved to her and offered her a smile. She simply stared at me with this sad look on her face like she felt sorry for me.
I swallowed. I was fucked. The two packs of Lucky Strikes in my pocket felt like 10-pound bowling balls.
We arrived in Mr. Zimmer’s office. There was only one wall, the rest of the walls were lined with one-way mirrors overlooking the entire store. I also noticed the video camera aiming at the Customer Service desk.
I slowly began to realize that he’d been up here the entire time. He pointed to a seat in front of his desk. “Why don’t you have a seat over there,” he ordered. I obliged.
He sat in his seat, which was turned away from my face and towards the one-way mirror overlooking the cashiers. Then he let out a deep sigh, swiveled his chair around and looked me straight in the eyes.
“I talked to Mr. Hannus before he left for church,” he looked up at me for some type of recognition that I was understanding what he was saying.
“Uh, huh,” I nodded wondering if this was a sly way of greasing me up for a confession.
“Well, he mentioned that you were going to be hanging around here for a couple of years.”
“And, knowing this. And seeing how well you’ve been doing at the bagging area, and outside with the carts, not to mention helping out the security in capturing a couple shoplifters …”
“Uh huh,” I uttered thinking back to one or two times I’ve prevented a couple small, quick (and rather stinky) shoplifters with copious amounts of steaks in their sweat pants from exiting the store so the police officers could catch up to them.
“Well, I’m not sure how to say this, so I’m just going to say it.”
Dead silence. I was on the edge of my seat. I was now going to be humiliatingly fired.
“Would you be interested in working in our meat department?”
My mouth dropped. The two packs of cigarettes in my pocket lightened up. My heart began to beat for a different reason.
“You mean, no more bagging?” I asked. I felt shell-shocked. I felt relief. I felt a lot better. I felt important. I felt scared.
“Not anymore," he said. "Now, if you want this job, you would report to the meat department next week, so they can get you up to speed before James leaves.”
“That’s great,” I said.
“And, there would be an increase in pay, according to the UFCW rules for meat and seafood departments,” he said referring to the union that supports all Ohio Kroger stores, and also takes a pretty substantial amount from your weekly paycheck too.
“Really?” I said seemingly excited that I would be getting a raise. The first raise of my entire life. “Well,” he said with his eyes wide open. “What’s it going to be?”
“You mean, you want to know right now?”
He nodded. “Seems to me like a no-brainer though, wouldn’t you say.”
I paused for a moment. I started thinking about working in the front. No more staring at cute college girl cashier butts. No more Cowboy. No more standing outside. No more fights in the parking lot. No more bagging. No more Jonas, who would now be promoted head bagger. No more Big Head. No more bums asking me for money.
It was beautiful and frightening at the same time. In essence, I was being asked if I wanted to trade this great big dysfunctional, and sometimes foul smelling, front-store family for a life of blood, guts, hamburgers, lobsters, meatcutting and pig’s feet.
Mr. Zimmer was right. It was a no brainer.
“Let’s do it,” I said extending a hand. “Thanks for the opportunity.”
He let out a big smile and shook my hand. “That’s great,” he said. “We’ve got a great bunch of guys back there.”
“Can’t wait,” I said. And truly meant it.
“Finish up your shift here today, then plan on coming into the store on Wednesday at 3 p.m. for your first day,” Mr. Zimmer said. “I'll notify the guys in the meat department and we’ll also have to fill out some new paperwork up here before your shift.”
My hangover was completely gone. I hopped down the steps with a big smile on my face and continued stacking cigarettes. For the rest of the day, I bagged every grocery bag like it was my last. I fetched carts like a Golden Retriever chases after a ball. I greeted bums, hooligans and thugs with hearty ‘Hellos’ and ‘Happy New Years’ as they entered the store.
All this and I was getting a raise to boot. Life was truly grand.
I looked up at the clock. It was almost 3 p.m. I was so happy I had almost forgot that I was supposed to meet my roommates at a friend’s house to watch the Ohio State and Syracuse game.
Then, I remembered something. I put my hand down into my pocket and felt the cigarettes. I groaned.
I quickly went to bathroom, walked into a stall and retrieved one of the two packs of Lucky Strikes from my pocket. I then walked up to the Customer Service station and handed the pack over to Michelle, one of Ghetto Kroger’s cutest managers (which wasn’t saying too much).
“Um, I found this in an empty cart in the back of the store.”
“Thanks sweety,” she said and gave me a look. “By the way, congratulations.”
“Uh, thanks,” was my only response.
Word was beginning to spread. As I turned away and I knew, right then, I would never steal anything again from Ghetto Kroger.
And I didn’t. At least for a couple of month.
Which was enough time to get acquainted to the plunderers, rastabouts and other eccentric characters who worked in the meat and seafood departments.
SIDENOTE: Oh, and that other pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes. It's packed somewhere in my basement. Every once in a while I come across it and reflect on my days at the Ghetto Kroger. I just haven't had the heart to throw it away.