A Kid in a Candy Store

[Originally posted on Sept 3, 2012. Wow, I've come a long way since this...]

“Yeah, man, we’ve got the M-Audio stuff over here.”

Salesdude A walked us past rooms of instruments to an electronic area.  It had been years since I stepped in a music store – for years, my journey was too painful to even think about playing.  I felt like a fraud.  Still, I walked past the instruments with a sense of reverence – these instruments were relics of the gods to me.  In my recent adventures in novel-writing, I am exploring the idea that we are all scientists in search of magic.  To vainly quote from this potential novel: “In our heart of hearts, we know there is an explanation for every mystery in the universe, but we want to find that one thing that cannot be explained; we want to walk amongst the gods and experience a divine beauty that separates us from mushrooms and protozoa…We want to explore that final frontier that takes us beyond truth and illusions, where magic is real.”

To me, the arts are magical.  To be able to hold an instrument – to connect to that universe of theory and space and sound, to string together a series of notes and create a beautiful, tangible representation of who you are, where you’e been and what you hope for, is a divine experience.  That is something I didn’t realize until I couldn’t do it anymore.  So in that moment, walking by the glossy shapes displayed along the walls – the Warlocks, Flying Vs and Stratocasters, I thought of the homes they would find, the magic that could be created on them, and the people who made those models famous.  Not all created a divine experience, but that’s just the bitchy music critic in me talking.

“Hey, we’ve got some nice guitars, huh?”

My reverence was broken by Salesdude A.  I was staring at the guitars as he pulled the M-Audio device out of a glass case for us.  “Yeah…” I was dismissive.  Guitar Center salespeople can get really pushy if they smell a purchase.  I also didn’t want to show what a fraud I was – I didn’t want to even touch the guitars, let alone play them.

“You play?”

“I used to.” I smiled and looked away.

“Bass was her instrument,” my husband offered. No, don’t go there…

“Yeah? Cool.  Did you check out our basses? I could go over there and pull one off the -”

“No, no. I’m good, thanks. I don’t play anymore.”  Please don’t talk about this.  My mind recalled chucking my bass into a landfill.  I didn’t even open the case to take one last look at it, as if it could establish some psychic connection with me.  I always think of that case as a closed casket.

“She stopped playing a few years ago, but we just got Garage Band, so she’s looking to get back into playing and writing,” Chris again filled in the blanks.

“Okay, cool.”

Fraud.

As Chris talked hardware geekstuff to Salesdude A, I looked around the store a little more.  To anyone who ever grew up wanting to be a rock star, music stores fill you with nostalgic memories.  I think everyone in that category has a memory of going to the local music store over and over and staring at that one guitar or piece of equipment you know you couldn’t afford.  You’d go in the store to buy something mundane like guitar picks or strings or something, and you’d check up to see if That One Guitar was still there.  It was, and if the guys in the store knew you well, they’d offer to take it down and let you tinker with it.  I accepted the offer only once.  The bass felt amazing in my hands – it was like putting your hands on the steering wheel of a Bentley.  I played the opening notes to “No Me Esqueca,” and my hands moved with ease over the strings.  It was a work of art, that bass;  at least is was when compared to my shitty Lyon bass at home that gave everyone else carpal tunnel when they played it.  The bass was under $1000, but there was no way I could ever afford it.  I wasn’t allowed to work, and saving my $1 a day of lunch money could only go so far.  I handed it back to them after only a few moments of playing.  Someday.

That little music store, Connecticut Music, almost felt like a home away from home to me.  It was family-owned and was in a little house across from a strip mall.  I still dream about looking in their store window to see what they had on display.  The family probably didn’t know me by name, but they knew me.  I was in there at least once a week.  Every major gift my parents got for me was purchased there – my Fostex X-26 (Christmas, 1989), my shitty Lyon bass (Christmas, 1990), a Crate amp (Birthday, 1991), the DR-550 drum machine (Birthday, 1992). I bought a few things on my own – a used cheapie Fender with one of those little beginner’s amps, and inexplicably, a florescent-colored tambourine.  The family was friendly to me and very supportive of the local artists – one time, they saw me walk in with the latest issue of Metal Edge (Don’t.Judge.), they opened it up to a picture of Steelheart, and told me to buy their album because they were from Stamford and we needed to support our local bands.  I secretly hoped one day they would do that with my picture.  Whenever my parents went in the store to buy one of those gifts, they would tell my family how much they could tell I loved music.

Looking at Guitar Center, I wanted to laugh.  I was never a fan of these places.  Sure, the selection is incredible – you could fit all of Connecticut Music in just the guitar room – but…the experience.  I watched Salesdude B do his pitch to a customer.  “Yeah, man, check this one out…” he took a guitar off its display rack, plugged it in, and did his best “I’m an awesome roadie tuning The Master’s guitar in front of the crowd at New Haven Colosseum” WHEEEEEEEE-bleezo-ble-ble-ble-ble-blittoblittoblitto-SQWEEeeeeeee-WOOOOOOWWWW thing on the guitar.  He looked at the slightly bored consumer – expecting approval, awe, and of course, sweet, sweet commission.  “Wanna try?”

I rolled my eyes a little.

We got what we needed and headed back up to the front of the store.  It was like that scene in Airplane! where all the solicitors are harassing the guy while the guy he walks through the terminal.  If Chris stopped at an instrument, someone would jump on us.  “Hey, hon check out this keybo-”

Salesdude jumps out.  “You like this keyboard? It’s really great! Check it out!” Plunk-plunk-plunk

No thank you and keep walking.

But Chris isn’t used to music stores, and there were a bunch of shiny new things for him to look at.  “That’s a big drum set…”

Salesdude.  “Yeah, great drum set! You play? You should!” Bow-rat-tatt-pow, splusshhh!

Chris, don’t feed the geese.  Keep walking.  Faster.

We bought our gear and I practically ran to the car.  I made a quiet promise to myself to avoid Guitar Center at all cost in the future.

In time, I let go a little and allowed myself to enter other music stores, attempting to leave the feeling of Fraud behind.  A couple of years later, I entered a family-owned music store to rent a cello.  I was admittedly a little terrified, but I got through it and rented my cello.  This past year, I went into a Music & Arts store to buy an acoustic guitar – I liked the environment.  The salespeople were really nice and helpful.  I told Chris that the place reminded me a little of Connecticut Music, even though I knew the store was a chain.  We returned a few months later to check out keyboards.  They knew we were just looking and wouldn’t buy on that day, and they still took time to talk to us.  No pressure.

Towards the end, we had a nice chat with the store manager.  “We can get things in, but we keep a limited stock here.  If you’re looking for a bigger selection, our parent store, Guitar Center, has a lot of options for you…”

I grimaced and heard Chris stifle a snicker.  We finished up looking at keyboards, thanked them for their time and walked out the door.  Chris smiled at me.  “You just died a little inside, didn’t you?”

“Yup.”

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I Gave a Great Happy Ending

[Originally posted on Mar 28, 2012. This is the last entry of my most popular/favorite posts. Everything after this point is in actual posting chronology.]

[Note: * indicates a name change]

“…And we welcome you to the Friendly’s family!”

Upbeat Piano Music faded as the Friendly’s logo proudly remained, its image flickering oh-so-slightly due to VHS over-usage.  Do I just sit here and wait?  The screen went to snow.  I looked around at the break area where I was placed.  My first job.  Well, my first real job after being the world’s worst papergirl…up until this point, I was forbidden from working.  Due to a change of events and a change of heart by my parents, I was allowed to get a job and I desperately needed to save up money for college fast.  Friendly’s was the only place in walking distance from my house that would take a chance on an inexperienced teenager, and I gladly accepted the job.  Eventually, this is going to be a familiar place.  I pictured myself sitting in the back room during breaks, drinking a cup of coffee and chatting with a co-worker.  I pictured reading the memos and notes on the bulletin board, nodding knowingly at their message.  I was going to be The Best.  I was going to be the Tom Cruise Top Gun/Days of Thunder of waitressing.

As I looked at the bulletin board, one memo stood out.  It talked about a per store statistic on the amount of food and supplies brought in versus the money the store brought in.  Apparently our store was listed as the worst of all Friendly’s stores.  Using indirect corporate-speak, the memo basically accused our store of stealing a bunch of shit.  I looked around suspiciously.  Thieves!  Not on my watch, Mr. Friendly President.

“Ah, the video is all done!”

I turned around.  My boss, John Thirkus* had a warm smile that balanced that fine line between James Stewart and To Catch a Predator.  He was a man no younger than 50, balding, and he lived alone with his mother.  I liked him.

He handed me a menu.  “I’d like you to shadow Pete tonight.  He’s really great with the customers and he’s been with us for a long time.”

“Great!”  I was a little nervous.  As I shadowed Pete and learned the ropes of Friendly’s waitressing, I was surprised at how much the waitress had to make for her customers: salads, Belgian fucking waffles (Wafflefest was a long month, dude), drinks (including milkshakes and Fribbles), and every single ice cream concoction on the menu.  Making thier sundaes as designed was usually not so bad, but there are people on this earth who love to over-customize.  For example, the Friendly’s Reeses Pieces Sunday consisted of 5 scoops of vanilla ice cream, ladles of chocolate, marshmallow, and uber-addictive peanut butter sauces, whipped cream, and a handful of Reeses for garnish.  And yes, I believe I still know how to make all of the sundaes after all these years.  Despite the perfect harmony achieved by the flavors carefully selected for this sundae, customers would often order like this: “can I get a Reeses Pieces Sundae with chocolate, cookie dough…um…peanut butter fudge…butter pecan…and…let’s see;  I haven’t had black raspberry in a while, let’s go for that!  Oh! And for the sauces, can I do peanut butter, pineapple and caramel?”

“Sure!”

“And don’t cheap me out on Reeses Pieces like that waitress over there.”

“You got it.”

One of the first things I learned from Friendly’s was you must learn how to answer to multiple bosses and cater to their idiosyncrasies.  For example, take cash handling.  Thirkus instructed me to merely ring up, take the money, and give the customer their change.  Frau Margaret*, the assistant manager, took issue with that.  Frau Margaret was a German immigrant who had been in her 60s for the past 23 years.  She was demanding and spoke in a thick German accent, so naturally, many of our culturally-sensitive customers and line staff referred to her as a nazi.  Frau Margaret was a good person, she just was a royal pain in the keister.  When she saw me handling a customer’s money at the register, she walked up and took the money from my hands.  “No, no, no.  Ven a customer geeves you ten, you leave it out on top of the cash box like thees, and geeve his change.  If you don’t do thees, they vill lie and say they gave you a tventy.  So you can say, ‘no, no! You gave me a ten!  I have eet right here!  Don’t try to pull a vast one, sir!’”

“Oh, okay!”  I smiled as I gave the change to the fellow who was just told he was likely a con artist.

He grabbed the money from me and huffed.  “Nazi…”

Of course, five minutes later, our other assistant manager, Josef*, watched my cash handling and shook his head.  “What are you doing?”

I explained Frau Margaret’s con-busting technique.  He sighed.  “Don’t do that; it’s stupid and insulting.  Besides, the money could blow away.” ?? We weren’t near a window.

About twenty minutes later, Frau Margaret saw me employing Josef’s technique.  She took the cash out of my hands again.  “What deed I tell you?  Put the ten here.”

For sanity’s sake, future transactions were handled whatever way the nearest manager wanted.  Of course, in less than a week, I discovered I had one less manager telling me what to do.

I came in to work on a Sunday to find the entire restaurant in shambles.  Our ice cream window guy, a young man every Friendly’s patron in 90s-era Stamford accurately nicknamed “Urkel,” pulled me aside to explain.  “Did you hear what happened to Mr. Thirkus?”

“His mom died, right?”

“No!  Well, yeah, that happened too, but you won’t believe this!  Apparently, the Friendly’s truck driver made his delivery early this morning, Mr. Thirkus signed off on it, and he – and all of our food – are nowhere to be found!”

I raised an eyebrow.  Well, everyone grieves in their own way, I guess… “He stole an entire truck of food?  How did that even fit in his car?”

Urkel raised his gangly arms above his head, as if a puppeteer tightened the strings.  “I don’t know!  But we are almost out of everything.  No cookie dough!”

Oh, shit. No cookie dough ice cream?  That’s like the scene in Airplane! where they say there’s no coffee.  What a long damn day that was.  We each fought each other to get the last scraps of everything for our tables and received extra-crappy tips.  That night, I imagined Thirkus speeding down I-95 in his Caprice Classic, digging into a giant tub of half-melted cookie dough buckled into the passenger seat, blasting Cat Stevens while honking and screaming at passing semis, hamburger patties and hot dogs flying out of his windows at 68 miles per hour.  Really, my day wasn’t all that bad…

Friendly’s corporate briefly sent in an emergency manager named Tina to help us.  Tina was awesome and didn’t put up with anyone’s shit.  It figures she was temporary.  Our next manager was a beady-eyed go-getter squirrel named Phil Goldblum*.  For Phil’s first week, he preferred to assist the line cook.  He pulled a ticket off the carousel and groaned.  “WHO is employee 742?”

My muscles tensed.  “That’s me.”

He looked at my ticket.  “Can you tell me what ‘K-HD’ is?”

A quick lesson in Friendly’s shorthand – each menu item had a designated shorthand we were expected to memorize, and if you have ever been in a Friendly’s, you’ll know that means we had about 845 menu items to learn.  The “K” indicates a kid’s menu option.  Thankfully, we only had four – Mac N Cheese (K-MAC), Hamburger (K-HAM), Grilled Cheese (K-CHEESE), and…

“Hot.Dog.”  I made sure to emphasize each word so he got it.

He tossed the ticket on the counter.  “It’s FRANK.  Get it right next time.”

What an asshole.

In addition to constantly riding my ass for my Captain Obvious shorthand that everyone behind the counter understood except for him, Phil was a bit of a creeper.  One day I was assigned hostessing duties for my shift.  He smiled at me.  “Why do you have your hair up?”

“Because Frau Margaret told me it’s unsanitary to wear your hair down in a dining establishment.”  Really, dude?

He flipped my ponytail.  “Forget her.  Wear it down, it looks really pretty.”

Ugh.  But, money.  “Okay.”

Of course, five minutes later:  “Fraulein! Vy is your hair down?  Vee don’t vant blond locks een our patty melts!”

Jesus.  Needless to say, I agreed with Frau and held my ground on any future ponytail debate.

Keep in mind, I was a very plain-looking high school senior.  Yet, any eating establishment has its share of sex-crazed sleazers.  I was known by several names: Babe, Honey, Cutie, Sexy, That Stupid White Girl…it was my first experience with that sort of thing, but I knew that’s how it was in the food industry.  And, money.  I’d usually just blow it off and act like a naive bumpkin.  It worked sometimes.  Other times?

Enter Sean Mulligan*.  Unlike the other guys, who just liked referring to me with cutesy misogynist nicknames, Sean wanted a date.  I was 18 and had no interest in a guy in his late 20s.  I was really bad at saying “no” to people, and I’ll admit, it was wrong of me to not be direct.  I wound up making a couple of high-octane bitch moves in my life because of this problem, but those stories are for another day.

On this day, Sean came up to me while I was making Happy Ending Sundaes for a table.  “So, we should go to a movie together some time.  It would be fun.  What do you say?”

I smiled at him.  “No, thank you; I don’t watch movies.”

He laughed.  “You don’t?  Everyone watches movies!”

“I don’t.”

“Why not?”

“I like reading.  Alone.”

We went about our sundae-making although he later cornered me near the kitchen.  “Hey, since you don’t like movies, how about I pick you up and make dinner for you at my apartment.  A couple of candles, some soft music…”

As sure as the sun is hot, my asshole brain inserted a mental image.  Tiny apartment using cinder blocks for makeshift shelves and bookcases…two candles lit on a tiny table…food that’s a cross between marsala and Hungry-Man…a boom box, quietly playing “Is this Love” from Whitesnake…Sean in a button-down shirt, half unbuttoned to show a mildly hairless chest (hurrff!)…I panicked.  “I…I don’t eat.”

Yes, I really said that.  And no, he didn’t take the hint.  I think I ultimately told him I just wasn’t into dating and it’s not you it’s me, and blah blah blah you’re 10 fucking years older than me, and please kindly leave me alone and let me talk to Urkel in peace, thanksmuch.  But more giggly and evasive.

This was happening around the same time I realized Phil wasn’t paying me my credit card tips, and good ol’ Mark the Sunday Waiter was grabbing my lower hips every time he “brushed” by me.  When you think Friendly’s you just don’t think Sausagefest, do you?  Unless Sausagefest was a monthly promotion that came with a Happy Ending Sundae for just .99! What a deal!

After just a few months, I knew that I wanted a Happy Ending for myself.  Not that kind, you sicko.  And not the ice cream sundae kind (although I do love a Happy Ending with chocolate ice cream and that peanut butter sauce – yummers!).  For one thing, I was leaving for college in a short amount of time.  For another thing, I didn’t want to be like some of the good people I met there, who were so beaten down by the hard work and disrespect they encountered they forgot what it was like to expect more out of life.  Sure, some people enjoyed it there.  All of Sausagefest did, I’m pretty sure.  A few waitresses liked it, too.  But some people belonged in a better place, and I’m not sure they realized they deserved better.  That’s what happens when you settle for too long – you give up a little bit each day.  I didn’t want that for me – at least not at that point in my life.

I found a job paying less doing data entry and I put my two week notice in, although Phil wouldn’t accept the resignation.  By that time, I stopped hating him (a few experiences where he was forced to work the floor miraculously made him tolerable), but he was still a little bit of a creeper.  I agreed to stay on, and did my thing.

What was my “thing,” exactly?

I grabbed two gallons of peanut butter fudge ice cream on my way out and never stepped in that Friendly’s ever again.  It was no Thirkus-style exit, but it was my little way of saying, “so long, you frank-eating, sausage-festing, Whitesnake-playing mother fuckers!”  That? Was an acceptable happy ending for me.

 

 

Image: Suat Eman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net