It’s been almost four years since I quit my job at the Giant Evil Bookstore. I have spent a great deal of time and space bitching about that job here on the blog. But it was never really the job itself I hated, it was the mindless bullshit that surrounded and permeated the ins-and-outs of my trying to get my daily tasks done. And of course the soul-sucking, spirit-crushing reality of working my balls off for forty or more hours a week and still being very, very broke in a city that simply doesn’t like that it has to tolerate broke people but still wants its goddamn free-range organic artisinal craft brew served to them by a lesser human. That may be a blog for another time.
More to the point at hand, I absolutely adored most of the folks I worked with. They’re a smart, funny, hardworking, and deeply caring bunch and I miss them all the time. I bring this up because a couple of days ago my old boss got fired. I don’t have any details, except that he left in the middle of a shift and I can’t think of any good reason the guy I knew would bail like that. Maybe he didn’t get fired, maybe he got a big fat promotion and they told him he had to leave right then without telling his staff. I honestly don’t know. Being 3500 miles away, I am the last stop on the gossip train. There was a little bit of a happy dance celebration on Facebook when the news went around, all of us former minions basically singing “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead.”
Now I’m feeling sort of bad about that. In retrospect, it’s not really the dude himself I ever had a problem with. He’s actually a super nice guy. It’s just that his zealous adherence to corporate policy made him the worst manager in the history of management. Is that the fault of the man? Or of the corporation? Or some brainwashy combination of the two? Does one have to have a certain predisposition for fucking people over to do that job? I think so. Does that make the company all the more evil for nurturing that mindset and creating an environment where fuckery is the norm? I think so. Do these elements combine in such a way that the little people actually doing the heavy lifting constantly live in stress and fear? Absolutely. What bothers me about this situation is that while we wage slaves at the bottom of the totem pole know that we’re not thought of as real people, that we’re seen as just failed sales goals and benefit expenditure risks, I feel like we might also forget that the asshole boss and his asshole boss and her asshole boss? They’re all people, too. People who don’t have to sweat running out of money at the end of every week and don’t have to deal with five hundred bitchy customers every day and don’t blow their backs out moving giant, cumbersome displays with no help, sure, granted. But still, people.
Here, I’ll give you an example from either side of the scumfuckery coin.
Story the first: our store moved locations a couple of years before I left. The new store was the biggest in the state at the time and the opening was a huge fucking deal. We had one lady who was a sort of community liaison, organizing special events and working with local teachers, that kind of thing. She’s a great lady and a good friend. A few days before the store opened we were having a staff meeting and our boss’s boss was there. Given that our group was a mixture of veteran booksellers and temporary hires who had never worked in a running store, he was pop quizzing everyone on some basic operational stuff to make sure we were all on the same page. One of these dumbshit questions was to list all of the benefits of the store’s reward card (which, by the way, is one of the worst trends in retail – can we stop with the bandwagon marketing already?). After all the correct answers had been given, my buddy joked that, bonus, one could also use the card to scrape ice off of a windshield. It was funny. Not terribly funny, but funny. We all laughed, including my boss. However, minutes later, she was escorted from the building, having been fired on the spot. “But Vanessa, that wasn’t your boss, that was his boss.” Yes, that’s true. And obviously I wasn’t in the room to see how hard he tried to keep her on staff, if at all. The point is that someone was fired for making a joke. Show me where it says in the company handbook that inappropriate humor is grounds for dismissal. You can’t. I looked. Our boss agreed to that fuckery. He signed the paperwork. And, interesting sidenote: the Christmas before this incident, the Best Buy next door sold holiday gift cards that were actually working ice scrapers! I’m not even kidding.
Story the second, the flip side: I was working a middle shift one Black Friday, the worst of retail nightmares. I got off work at seven in the evening, right as a coworker was about to take her lunch break, so I stuck around to hang out with her for a bit. I was sitting at an outside table smoking a cigarette, when some human piece of garbage ran by and snatched my purse. Wallet, phone, keys – everything gone. Since I had to cancel all my cards and change my bank account numbers and wait for all the credit fraud people to get their ducks in a row, I didn’t have access to any of my money for about a week. My boss made sure that my car wouldn’t get towed until I could have it re-keyed, and he also got me a gift card for a hundred bucks so I could buy groceries and dog food. It was a really nice thing to do, and he didn’t have to do it. I honestly wouldn’t have made it through those next couple of weeks without that gesture. Especially since my grandmother died that weekend and I had to take a few days off to go home, so my next paycheck was almost nothing. He absolutely saved my ass.
So here’s the thing: I never said he wasn’t a nice guy. We could hang out and talk about fantasy novels and punk music and have plenty of perfectly pleasant interactions when we were just being people. But as far as managers go, he was a monster, and that colors my perception of him as a person. It’s unfortunate but there’s no other way for me to see him. He was the face of all the bullshit that got brought down on us, even if he was only following orders. He was the one keeping people at thirty-eight or thirty-nine hours a week so they couldn’t get benefits. He was the one cutting us to a skeleton crew then writing people up for going overtime, because five people cannot do fifteen people’s worth of work in the same number of minutes, no matter how much we want to. He was the one hiring outsiders for management positions rather than promoting any of us, because we all knew what the starting salary should be and they didn’t. He was the one who put a convicted sex offender in charge of a crew that included several teenage girls. He was the one pushing sales contests where he got the prizes, not the salespeople. And yes, a lot of that is corporate policy stuff, but it should say something that he carried it all out unabashedly, unapologetically, and with a vigor bordering on gleefulness. Whenever he got to say something like “Well that’s the way it is, if you don’t like it you can always go find work somewhere else,” he did so with a grin on his face. He loved that job.
I suppose some of this agro could be coming from my comparing him to his predecessor, who I really liked. A lot of my cohorts had real issues with her, too, but I personally never had any problems when she was there. She got removed from our store for going over payroll because she routinely gave everyone the hours that they had been guaranteed. Imagine! The gall! To have integrity like that. How dare she? When the bonuses of a bunch of white-collar pencil pushers are on the line? Furthermore, she knew how to do every job in the store. She would jump behind a cash register when we were busy (instead of sitting in the office watching the security monitors and paging someone else over the intercom to drop whatever they were doing and go up there). She would come do dishes or help take orders when the cafe was slammed (rather than just coming over and telling us that the line was too long and that one of us needed to bus the tables). She would personally incentivize individual employees with small rewards like an extra break or a cup of coffee (a silly thing, and completely against the rules, but great for morale). When she left, it really felt like a hammer coming down. The new guy made us all miserable and edgy. Maybe things would have changed soon enough anyway and he just had bad timing. This is right around the advent of the non-Kindle e-reader, so the shit may have been on the verge of hitting the fan regardless of who was in charge. Either way, it was no longer fun to go to work. Instead of saying “How was your day off?” or whatever happy thing we used to say at the beginning of every shift, we started to commiserate and trade horror stories about the newest round of bullshit. It was stressful and toxic. I started having panic attacks and drinking a lot and my doctor was doing a lot of tests on my heart. At that point, isn’t it kind of irrelevant whether it’s the company’s fault or the manager’s?
I was bitter and angry for a long time about that job. I still can’t stomach going into most stores around Christmas, but other than that I’m mostly over it. That feeling of having traded a good chunk of my life for very little money and a few ulcers has largely abated. And I have to say I learned a lot in my time there. I learned to never underestimate the depth and breadth of the stupid questions the shopping public will ask, and how to navigate those questions in a professional manner. I learned how to stifle laughter for at least as long as it takes to walk from the cash register to the loading dock. I learned that milk boils at 180 degrees, and that if you’re mean to a barista they will give you decaf. I learned how to efficiently wrangle groups of people with very different skill sets so they can work together. I learned that I don’t ever want to work for a large corporate entity again, or even for someone who doesn’t know how to do the job they’re asking me to do. I learned that positive reinforcement always works better than negative, and that simply acknowledging someone’s hard work goes a long damn way. That job taught me that I want to start my own business. That bad manager taught me how not to run a store, and that I will always treat my employees like real people who matter. I think I might have fucked that up without his fine example. So I say thanks. And I sincerely wish him well.