Work Space: Robert Gray
A Broken Gold Pen that Still Works
Here’s the short version: It was the summer of 1971, just before my senior year in college, when I started working part-time at a Grand Union supermarket. The following spring, as my four-year undergraduate foray reached its inglorious conclusion, the store manager offered me a full-time position “until you figure out what you want to do with your life,” as he put it. Seven years later, I was still there.
I worked the graveyard shift for a while during that stretch, bossing a two-man crew that restocked the closed store from 11 p.m. until 8 a.m.
How did that go? It went something like this:
The freight truck was late. We didn’t finish unloading until nearly 2 a.m., which put us in a hole. The timing has to be perfect on a freight night — beginning with the truck backing up to our loading dock before midnight — for us to get all of our aisles done and faced off in pure dress-right-dress formation by morning.
Our only chance for a win last night would have been if all three of us had dug deep and just kept grinding to the finish, but I’m bossing a couple of kids who don’t really give a shit and I’m not much of a boss. I pushed myself to the edge of exhaustion getting my aisles stocked with 90 minutes to spare, then did what I could to help the other guys. They resented both my speed and interference. They can accept losing without effort easier than losing while trying to win. On the other hand, it’s hard not to take into account the logical question: Why would anybody give a shit about working this crummy shift?
Which is how we find ourselves in the present, dire situation. It’s 7:45 a.m. Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage” blasts from the store’s tinny speakers. Usually by this time we’ve cleared the floor, but two aisles are still heaped with empty boxes and plastic debris that documents our failure to come through in the clutch last night.
I walk over to the cereal aisle and notice that Luke actually seems inspired. He’s pounding his fist through boxes that still have to be broken down and cramming them into a shopping cart. I hear Jerry doing the same thing at high speed in the next aisle.
What this tells me is something has finally lit a fire under their asses. That something is probably the stark reality of the ticking clock and imminent arrival of Lenny, the store manager. They don’t want to be around for the horror show that will accompany his discovery of our defeat.
In the mid-1970s I thought I might be a poet. That is, I wrote poems. They weren’t good poems, though a few managed to get published eventually in spite of themselves. The first was “Love Poem Again,” which appeared in the Fall 1979 issue of a lit journal called Lacuna.
This modest publication credit propelled me toward one of the biggest decisions in my life: I would abandon my career as grocer and become a full-time writer. As it turned out, the process would take just a bit longer than I anticipated.
Fortunately, we’re not privy to the gory details of our futures until we hurtle past them. Otherwise, we’d be frozen in place and time, terrified, forever Godot-waiting: “Well? Shall we go?” asks Vladimir. “Yes, let’s go,” Estragon replies. Stage direction: “They do not move.”
Lenny’s the third manager I’ve worked for, and by far the toughest, though I played sports all my life so I knew how to adapt to his Vince Lombardi act. It’s not that I don’t care about doing a great job. I do. I just don’t care about him. Someday he’ll be transferred and I’ll still be here. That’s the basic deal. So whenever he rants after a loss like this one, I keep my eyes focused on something, anything, just beyond his left shoulder and nod, knowing that he’ll be yelling at somebody else five minutes later.
I also remind myself he couldn’t find anybody else who’d run his crazy desert island night shift better than I do, at least on the good nights. He knows that whatever problems I have with my crew, I give him the equivalent of two workers’ effort. Everybody likes a two-for-one sale.
As I inspect the other aisles, my sense of dread escalates. The cardboard morass had at least sustained the illusion of a work in progress. Now the reality is clear. We spent time stocking, and had none left over for straightening and facing off. Hell, there are still two pallets left in the back room that we didn’t get to at all. A big, big loss for the home team tonight. The crowd’s booing, demanding ticket refunds.
Jerry nearly runs me over with another cartload of trash destined for the compactor, then dodges past Luke, who emerges from the back room with the wide dust mop we use to sweep down the aisles. Yeah, these guys are moving now. They can always smell the finish line, even when they finish dead last.
I push through the swinging red plastic doors to the back room. The music goes dead suddenly, and Lenny’s voice comes on with its familiar growl. “Bob, meet me in the break room.” When the music returns, it’s no longer the Pink Floyd, but the canned dreck that plays all day — a hundred violins wringing the life out of what might be a Beatles song.
I gave a month’s notice in the fall of 1979, right before the holiday season. My colleagues threw a party to wish me well in my glamorous new career as a writer. They didn’t know exactly what that might entail, though, as I soon discovered, neither did I. We drank a lot, remembered good times and bad. Even Lenny seemed sad to see me leave.
They gave me a small, gift-wrapped box and a card. I opened the present and found a gold Cross ballpoint pen. It had an inscription. On one side was “R.H. Gray 12-20-79” and on the other “1116,” which was the store’s corporate identification number.
A lean, fierce man, Lenny’s height is further enhanced by a full head of meticulously combed black hair over a chiseled smoker’s face that always looks pissed off, even when he laughs. Not that I’ve seen him laugh much. He barely glances my way as he heads for the coffee machine, picks up the glass pot and swirls dregs around. Disgusted, he slams it back down on the burner.
“What happened?” he mutters at the machine. He’s not talking about coffee. He won’t look at me. Not yet. You can almost hear his brain working out a plan of attack, calculating the precise moment when he should lock onto me with his fearsome steely-grays and turn me into a puddle.
“Late truck,” I say, forcing any signs of emotion out of my voice. It’s a simple explanation, not an excuse, and definitely not a plea for mercy. There’s no point in that approach.
“Store looks like shit.”
“Your boys do anything last night?”
“Ran out of time.”
“That what I’m supposed to tell Williams if he shows up today?”
Williams is the District Manager and the only man on earth who intimidates Lenny. DMs can make or break a store manager. The difference between being on good terms with your DM and on his shit list is directly proportional to the odds you will be able to keep your present store or be transferred to a 30-year-old, five-aisle dump in East Nowhere.
Lenny knows the deal. I know the deal. That’s the only reason he doesn’t chew me up and spit me out. Ultimately, he needs a few people like me. He’d never admit it, but it’s an understanding we have that transcends the ceremonial bullshit he has to dole out on days like this. Later, I’ll play the role of scapegoat (in absentia) during his conversation with the DM. “I kicked his ass,” Lenny will say, and the DM will nod — unsatisfied, perhaps, but willing to let the caravan move on.
This is the way of groceries.
“We’ll get it back in shape tonight,” I say.
He snorts. “You fucking better. And tell those punks to straighten out their act. Christ, I just saw one of them dancing with a fucking broom when I came in. Dancing after a night like that. Why didn’t he use that energy to do his fucking job?”
Lenny pretends he doesn’t know the kids’ names. I’m guessing it has something to do with making them earn the right to have an identity in his eyes. Not that they care. I must have passed the test at some point, but I don’t remember when. Not sure what the prize is either.
“Jesus H. Christ,” he grumbles as he slams his fist into the door on his way out.
I say nothing.
After one last inspection to make sure the aisles are clear, I punch out and head through the back room toward the loading dock. Out there, I breathe the fresh spring air and let the morning sun burn my face.
What late truck?
I don’t like to think of myself as a loser, but on days that start like this one has, the thought does cross my mind. Even my usual strategy for self-defense — a watered-down Zen conviction that people should not be judged by what they do for a living, but by what kind of people they are, mixed with a little Somerset Maugham/Razor’s Edge/Larry Darrell theory that you can still be a scholar without necessarily turning it into a profession — fails to muster sufficient force to repel this morning’s guerrilla attack of self-loathing.
Now I hold the Cross gold pen in my hand. It hasn’t worked for decades and I’ve never tried to fix it.
No, I take that back. As an icon, it has never stopped working. Grand Union store #1116 was once my work space; as was the frigid apartment where I lived during my first winter as a “full-time” writer; as was the café where I took a job as a prep cook just three months after leaving the grocery world. Writing, I quickly discovered, was scary work; scarier than the graveyard shift.
Robert Gray works as an editor and weekly columnist at Shelf Awareness, which publishes two newsletters–one for general readers and one for people in the book business. He launched his book blog, Fresh Eyes Now, in 2004. Gray has written for numerous publications, including Tin House, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Publishers Weekly and Cimarron Review. From 1992 until 2006, he was a bookseller and buyer at the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vt. He has an MFA in Writing and Literature from Bennington College and lives in Saratoga Springs, N.Y..
More from Robert Gray:
Shelf Awareness: http://www.shelf-awareness.com
Book business: http://www.shelf-awareness.com/booktrade.html
Fresh Eyes Now: http://www.fresheyesnow.com/