Give Me a W!
In many ways, my sojourn
in a tiny
community in the Pacific Northwest has been perfect. Then when I meet
my husband-to-be, Sean, my life becomes a purgatory of longing: he is
in Philadelphia, non-negotiable.
At this point in our
lives, neither Sean—who is blind—nor I have enough money for me to
simply pack my bags and show up at his doorstep. So while I send off
resumes to companies in the greater Philly area, I also consider
getting a temporary job until something Back East turns up.
Unfortunately, the tiny community where I live boasts the world's
tiniest newspaper with the world's briefest classifieds…until one day
when Wal*Mart rears its behemoth head.
The newspaper ad is
vague, but includes the word “temporary.” I am ecstatic: I am nothing
if not temporary!
I apply online and
within a day get a call from a “recruiter.” The recruiter asks me
impertinent questions. Do you do drugs (he asks this three
times)? Do you have a background in theft? How do you feel about
unions? He asks for the phone numbers of two references.
Never in my working
life has anyone ever once actually called a reference, not even when I
asked them to. The next day, the recruiter has called both, asking them
the same impertinent questions. Then he calls me, and is pleased to
report that I have landed an interview. I have no idea what the job
On a cold spring day, I
drive my Festiva to the hotel where the interviews are being held. The
Festiva is a tin can on wheels, a zippy little tin can I obtained by
providing editorial services to an empty-nester with a
memoir-in-the-rough and one too many cars on her hands.
A handful of people
mill around the foyer, and little paper signs taped to the walls direct
us to rooms off the foyer: “Initial Screening,” “First Interview,”
“Second Interview,” “Interview with Management,” and finally “Drug
Screening.” An unsmiling lanky young man offers me a basket of hard
candy with a sign hanging from it that reads “Welcome to Walmart.”
In the initial
screening room—a huge room filled to capacity with desks and facing
chairs—the recruiter (I recognize his voice) tells me that my
references spoke highly of me, but that I would have to pass a drug
test. Then he slides a pile of papers toward me, hands me a pen. I am
to fill out the paperwork before I can proceed to the next step. He
asks if I have questions.
“What exactly is the
“They'll explain all of
that to you in the next step.”
He leaves and I fill
out the papers, endless “sign here” sheets of tiny type, endless
repetitions of my work history, my criminal history. Then comes the
personality profile. Page after page of probing philosophical
questions, all multiple choice. I check my watch. I have already been
here two hours.
When I finish the
paperwork, I am directed to wait in the foyer. I watch people come and
go, and after a while I am called into another huge room where I queue
up behind a long line of people—like at a bank—waiting for an opening
at one of the tables. My turn comes and a woman my age beckons me to
sit down. Then she gets up and leaves. After a while she comes back,
sits down, reads through my paperwork (this takes about 30 minutes),
then signs a sheet, tells me to wait out in the lobby, congratulations
I made the next interview. Not once does she look me in the eye.
I clear my throat.
“What is the job, may I ask?”
By this time it is noon
and I am starving, but like a heroin addict, I feel too close to
scoring that elusive job description to give up and go home. I eat the
candy offered and rub my temples, which are throbbing. After a while,
someone calls my name and I enter a narrow room lined with desks and
chairs. I am led to one and sit down in front of a middle-aged man who
is poring over my paperwork.
“I'd like to ask you
some questions,” he begins over the din in the room, and proceeds
one-by-one through the personality profile. “Why did you answer 'no' to
'should an 18-year-old be jailed for a first-time theft of a $5
One by one he calls
into question my lefty principles, and one by one I recapitulate until
he is satisfied. I tell myself this is acceptable because I am moving
on. This is the whole point. This is just moving-on preliminaries. It's
all just temporary.
Finally, he gathers up
all the papers and stands up. I do, too, then he tells me to sit down.
I sit. He leaves.
At last, a tall bearded
30-something wearing a white shirt and tie, the sleeves of his shirt
rolled up, sits down in front of me and stares. He has big brown eyes,
moist and bloodshot. He has my paperwork, which he does not even glance
at. Instead, he opens up a large horizontal file and asks when I can
“Tomorrow,” I say,
then, “what is the job?”
“Didn't they tell you?”
He seems shocked. Then he gets over it, and explains that I will either
be on a team inside the store or in the warehouse, which did I prefer?
“The store,” I say,
having no idea what the hell I am choosing.
“At this point, I would
like to offer you employment,” he says. “Do you accept?”
“Thank you. Yes. How
much does it pay?”
“$7.14 an hour.”
I was expecting at
least twice that. The company of my fiance will take twice as long to
“You look shocked,” he
I smile. I sign. He
points me to the drug test room.
A little pale woman my
age who looks incredibly tired hands me a kit and a map. I notice her
whole body seems to list to the right, as if she is wearing two
different heel sizes.
I drive to the medical
center where there is a special room for drug tests takers. I feel
incredibly guilty, sure remnants of my hippie days still course through
my body. I am instructed by a surly nurse to take off my coat and my
vest and my shoes before I pee into the specially-marked container. It
is dark out by the time I get home.
I get three calls the
next day, each verifying one piece or other of my existence, the final
call telling me to report to orientation the following day at 8 a.m.
The orientation takes eight hours. The young woman who
sits next to me is Latvian, I find out when she has difficulty filling
out the 11 forms we are required to sign. It isn't a language barrier,
it's that there are not enough pens to go around. There are 60 of us,
and 35 pens. Do you think someone could go out there to the
stationery aisle and get us a few more pens? I almost shriek, but
remind myself that each hour I am $7.14 minus taxes closer to my
Beatrise is gorgeous
and baffled. We are instantly friends and raise our hands
simultaneously when offered a choice of shifts.
During the next four
hours we are subjected to many videos, one of which all but threatens
firing if we so much as mouth the word “union.” At the lunch break I am
depressed enough to warrant spending the day's profits at the Japanese
restaurant across the street.
The next day is
training day. I arrive at 6:30 a.m. and find Beatrise in the lunchroom,
a bandana over her hair, sniffing into a handkerchief. She tells me she
is a physicist, but can't get credentialed to teach until she's been
here a year. We stare into each other's eyes like deer caught in the
headlamps: a whole year at Wal*Mart? She bursts into tears again.
The training begins
when the little, pale, tired, listing woman who had given me my drug
test kit introduces herself as the HR director. There are about 40 of
us crowded into the room, and I cannot hear her over the mumblings of
my co-workers. At some point, she leaves the room and we snake behind
her, but since the hallway is only two-persons wide, all of her
explanations of time clocks, coffee breaks, paperwork, etc., are only
heard by the first six people. The rest of us follow silently. We
wander through the store, one behind the other, like prisoners, up and
down the aisles. I notice the people shopping do not seem to regard
this as unusual, a line of 40 people slithering across their paths.
Finally we pool in the
middle of women's clothing, and the HR gal appears before us, still
talking. I push forward in time to watch her spill something on the
floor and mop it up. Behind her I spy Beatrise running through the
Back in the lunchroom,
the HR director teaches us the codes—blue was especially fascinating
since it meant a lost child. All the doors of the vast building
instantly lock and we are to converge on the restrooms, where
kidnappers take children to change their outfits. Yellow is the code
for a hostage situation. She instructs us to faint if a robber tries to
take us hostage.
We break for lunch and
I again take myself out to Japanese food, swearing to myself and to
Sean that I shan't continue this indulgent behavior. In fact, I have
begun a mantra—I can do this!—that plays in an endless loop in my head
as I dig in to sushi and hot miso soup.
Four more hours of
understanding just how dangerous pool chemicals are, just how many
square feet of smoking space there are outside, and why-when-where we
can park on any given day of the week. At no point in this training do
we learn what it is we are hired to do. We are simply told to be
clocked in before the time clock registers 8:00 a.m. We are told this
is non-negotiable. That this is critical. We are lectured for 30
minutes about this.
The next morning, the
line of people waiting to punch in runs from the clock deep into the
bowels of the store. I join the line, missing Beatrise's sad presence,
and wait with the others. I finally notice that the line is not moving.
Someone explains that the clock is jammed and we are waiting for a
manager to show up to unjam it. By the time the manager shows up and I
get to the clock it is 8:57.
We gather in the same
room and finally are told what we will do: move stuff. The 90,000
square feet that is Wal*Mart is going to get reorganized and we are the
crack team to do it! Five women and the manager—who the whole time is
scratching his crotch—stand in front of us and begin the cheer:
“Give me a W! Give me
an A! Give me an L!—”
We are sullen and
quiet. They stop the cheer and scream at us to get more involved or the
offer of employment will be rescinded.
a squiggly!” our leaders do the twist and we giggle with
embarrassment. The cheer ends with, “What's that spell?” and we shout
“Walmart!” and they shout “Whose Walmart?” and we yell “My Walmart” and
then they yell something incomprehensible, or perhaps I've just
momentarily lost my hearing. Everyone is clapping and woo-hooing and
I'm trying very hard not to cry.
reorganization is going to last six weeks, at which point if we are
lucky we will be offered permanent employment. As we are pointed at and
chosen for teams, I do the math. Six weeks times five days equals 30
days. At seven bucks an hour, I should be $1,680 closer to Philadelphia
and Sean. I can do this!
Pat is my team captain,
a Wal*Mart lifer. She's 62, a heavy smoker and when she's not on the
reorganizing team, she runs the automotive department, “her” Wal*Mart.
She seems very excited about her team: me, a young man and woman, and
Ginger, my age, who is a permanent employee. Ginger runs the frozen
food section, “her” Wal*Mart, she says with an eyeroll. I love her
We go out onto the
floor and since the new shelving has yet to arrive, we help the other
employees do their thing. I end up in pool supplies and am instantly
doused with a caustic chemical that eats a hole in my shirt. I run
through the 90,000-square-yard scrimmage to get to the bathroom sink.
No one seems to notice or care that I am running at full bore holding
my shirt out in front of me, crying.
I cannot believe
Wal*Mart has reduced me to tears, and I vow not to let this happen
again. I am temporary. It is all very, very temporary. I plan to wear
the damaged shirt everyday: See? See this, asshole? Now, leave me
the rest of Day One helping two women who are clearly good friends.
They are both obese, which doesn't seem possible since the work is
incredibly physically demanding. We are lifting huge boxes of toilet
paper up onto shelves, box after box after box. I'm winded and aching,
but they are cheerful and joking. When lunch break comes and I head out
to the Festiva for my sandwich, I pass them eating burgers at the
McDonald's inside the store.
I sit in the parking
lot with the windows rolled down, listening to RVs pull into the lot. I
am suddenly overwhelmed with the fact that not only is this my first
day, it's only the first half of my first day. So I do more math and
decide to face the beast that is Wal*Mart in two-hour increments. The
first two hours, then a break, two more hours, then lunch, etc. I can
The next Monday, the
manager (as opposed to the associate manager or the assistant manager
or supervisor or supervisory assistant) reports on the weekend sales.
The numbers are stupendous, in the hundreds of millions of dollars. I
can't tell if the manager—who is scratching his crotch the whole
time—is reporting on all Wal*Marts or just this one. But it doesn't
matter. Either way the amount of money flowing through this world is
not to be believed, especially as I look around at my cohorts in our
After this report, the
Crotch Scratcher tells us we have special guests: grad students from
the local college who are getting their MBAs. The students and their
prof file in and surround us, and I can't help but check their fists
for stones. While we all stand there—townies and gownies—Crotch Man
tells the students that we are only the temporaries. As they file out,
I whisper to each one: “Study hard!”
Monday, week three.
After the morning financials—Wal*Mart nets zillions—we have a visitor.
The Lions Club president comes in, and Crotcher Dude presents him with
a 3x5-foot check for $650 dollars. Someone takes a photo. We do the
cheer and go out on the floor.
For the most part, my
two-hour increment strategy is working, plus I'm losing about three
pounds a day. I've never worked so hard in my life, and I still can't
get over how many of the employees (all female) are overweight.
Pat, however, is not.
She's all muscle. The shelving has arrived and we proceed to move the
entire contents of Wal*Mart from this spot to that spot. We then move
this other stuff from that spot and put it in a new spot. We do this
hour after hour, stuff after stuff, while periodically a passing
manager screams at us.
The shoppers don't seem
to notice this chaos. In fact, they don't seem to be aware that they
are in a public place. “Shut up, stupid,” a woman calls out to her
husband. “I hate you, Mom!” a teenager shouts down the aisle.
clearly Type A, tries to keep her wits about her as the pressure to
move more stuff faster builds. We are on the floor, putting metal pegs
into metals holes, trying to line up shelves so we can put the stuff on
the shelves. Pat is having a hard time keeping track of the holes, so I
try to help her. I count out loud, and she whirls around and stops just
short of backhanding me in the face. Instead, she opts for yelling,
“Shut the fuck up!”
I think about Sean. I
think about being a writer. I think about anything other than how close
I am to getting hit in the face. The smell of potpourri is overwhelming
and I excuse myself, while Pat marches off to have a smoke.
I go to the restroom
and hide in the cubicle. That morning I got an email requesting a phone
interview. A small Quaker college in the suburbs of Philly wants to
talk to me about being their senior writer. It's the day after
tomorrow. That's two hours, lunch, two hours, break, two hours. Yo si
puedo! I have to call in sick to do the phone interview.
phone interview goes well, and they invite me to the campus for the
full-fledged interview. They will fly me there, put me up in a historic
bed and breakfast, take me to dinner at a fine French restaurant, then
we will spend the next day interviewing with faculty, administrators,
staff, etc. The schedule is such that I will get to be with Sean for a
whole evening and part of a day. Oh frabjous day! I count the number of
My cheerfulness lasts
until the next morning, when we are met with a special team flown in
from New Orleans. They are taking over the management of the
reorganization, because we are doing such a shitty job. Martha, one of
the team captains, stands before us and cries, telling us she is tired
of working 70 hours a week because of our laziness and how she is
humiliated by having to have this new team. She says she plans to
retire from Wal*Mart and that we can all fuck ourselves, or something
of that nature. Then we do the cheer.
Before I go out to the
Festiva for my break, I leave a newspaper on the table. The headline
reads: “Walmart discriminates against women, class action suit to be
filed.” When I return from lunch, the newspaper is gone.
I find the tired,
listing HR gal and explain that I have a family medical emergency and
must take three days off. She sighs deeply, and hands me a form. I am
to gather three signatures from various levels of management. I prowl
the arena in search of management. It takes me an hour to get all the
signatures. Pat's is not required, though my absence will affect her
the most. I decide not to tell her. I'm too scared of her.
For three days I am
soaring with joy and excitement. The college campus is gorgeous, the
people dignified and brilliant, Sean more beautiful and hilarious than
I remembered. I meet future in-laws,
eat French food, and explore the gorgeous Pennsylvania spring. Then
it's back to Wal*Mart, “my” Wal*Mart.
But I'm filled with
hope for the future, and the increments begin to go by more rapidly.
For one thing, I am no longer on Pat's team. Ginger and I have joined
forces. Ginger is infinitely reasonable and a hard worker. She chats
about her kids and her boyfriend and what she watched on TV. She
doesn't ask me any questions, which I admire. She has all the physical
markings of an unprivileged life: crooked teeth, bad skin, strange
hair, cheap clothing. One day, Ginger tells me a story of how a
co-worker's boyfriend hit on her, and how disgusted she was by that.
She feels sorry for the co-worker, because “she's had a pretty rough
life, and she doesn't deserve to be treated like that.”
That day there is a
terrific crash of broken glass and Ginger and I are assigned to clean
it up. It's quitting time, but Ginger continues picking shards of glass
off the floor with her bare hands, stacking broken vases into shopping
carts. She tells me to go home and I say, “Okay.” But I can't do it.
Unbelievably, I find myself voluntarily working overtime.
Friday, Week Five,
increment two. I'm hanging buttons on pegs when a woman calls out to me
to “come on over.”
“I'm giving you a Zap
card,” she says. She pulls a business card out of her red apron and
proceeds to write teeny tiny words on it. She hands it to me and says,
“I'm on the safety committee, and you hung up that ladder instead of
just leaving it on the floor. Good job.” I thank her. I read on the
card that it is worth one dollar in the vending machines in the break
room. I go to the break room and everything in the machines costs
$1.25, except gummy bears. I buy them and put them on the table, where
they remain for my tenure.
get home, there is an email from the college saying close but no cigar.
Sean and I have a long chat, and we decide that it is time for me to
come to the East Coast, job or no job. I am thrilled, if a little
nervous. Sean says he will Fedex me his new credit card. I'll trade up
the Festiva for a station wagon, fill it with my stuff, and drive
across the states.
On Monday morning, I
find the HR gal, whom I now realize is probably 10 years younger than I
am. I tell her I am sorry, but I have to move on.
“Oh,” she says, “before
you go there is another interview.”
“An exit interview?”
“No, just one we forgot
to do in the beginning. Then after that is the exit interview.”
We go into the
interview room, sit at a table and the Crotch Yanker comes in. He asks
me a bunch of questions—“Can you lift 30 pounds? Are you allergic to
pool chemicals? Have you ever shoplifted?”—then leaves. I sit across
from the HR gal and ask her if I passed.
hands me a piece of paper, the exit interview, already filled out. The
last box is marked “yes”—would you hire this person again?
good to know I'll always have a job to go back to.
ROBIN PARKS' stories and essays have
appeared or are
forthcoming in The MacGuffin, Bellingham Review, Prism
and other journals, and her fiction has won the Raymond Carver Short
Award. She has an MFA from Fairleigh Dickinson University, where she
Presidential Fellow in Creative Writing.
[copyright 2009, Robin Parks]