In college, I worked in a record store. A series of record stores, really. Also, it started in high school. I was all set to play the marimba in marching band (“what can I play, since I only know how to play the piano?”). Then mom and dad said something to me along the lines of “what are you doing? who’s going to pay for this? There is no college fund, and you need to get a job.”
So, I bought a navy blue polo shirt and a pair of khakis and went to work at Blockbuster Music. Oh yes, the world once contained stores where people would buy non-used music, and one of those stores was owned by Blockbuster. Gas was 1.95 a gallon, people did the Macarena without irony and electricity had just been invented.
The years spent unsealing rap CDs for the teenagers of Lexington, Kentucky became a year of unsealing rap CDs for the teenagers of Antioch. This is the valuable work experience that got me a job at what may be Nashville’s best-known used music (and comic book) store.
I worked with such characters as “Always High Manager,” “Old Rock Dude,” “OTHER Old Rock Dude,” “Body Odor Guy,” “Weird Art School Guy,” and “Lesbian Who Wants You To Watch John Waters Movies.”
The customers had names, too. “Go Pee Man,” a mentally challenged fellow who had an unsettling habit of materializing out of thin air, only to appear behind you and say, “Go Pee!” This would be your cue, of course, to reach over the counter and grab the bathroom key. After handling the long piece of wood attached to the key, you’d have a burning urge to wash your hands ASAP, to clean roughly 30 years’ worth of microscopic traces of fecal matter from your hands. Other customers included “Crystal Meth Guy,” “German Dude From the Gas Station” and Marty Stuart.
We clocked in on an ancient ka-chunk, ka-chunk timeclock which, from what I can hear when I’m in the store these days, is still being used. I never did quite grasp how to line up my time card with the machine. For over a year, I would be appearing to take my break before I’d even started my shift. It was one step up from the gap-toothed time card dinosaur on The Flintstones. I think I may have once clocked in from 1973.
Everything in that place had been there a while, none of it ever getting a thorough dusting. Items that didn’t sell just gradually faded from the sunlight or got buried under a thick coating of dead skin (aka “dust”) and, quite possibly, more traces of fecal matter. It was oddly Darwinian. Undesirables would get marked by ages on the shelf and those markings would damn near guarantee that the items would never sell. This is to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of items that weren’t even on the sales floor.
The sales floor may have resembled a cross between the house of Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons and the world’s most overpriced yard sale, but the upstairs, “behind the scenes” area was like a retirement home for VHS tapes, Loretta Lynn merchandise, and roughly 100 sealed copies of Faith No More’s Angel Dust album. The only time the endless clutter came to a stop was when a space on the floor would be left clear to allow a hatch in the floor to open. Throughout the upstairs, little trapdoors could be opened to look down on would-be shoplifters on the sales floor. Who were we kidding? That place probably lost as much as it sold, but no matter. One sale of a sealed Beatles “butcher” cover would keep the ship floating.
Also in the upstairs was a small area next to heaps of old G.I. Joes and Star Wars figures where employees kept bags and purses. This is where I began to find mysterious little notes tucked into my backpack, coat pockets, and purse. Little poems, always written in red ink on good quality paper, complete with a deckled edge. Always in the same all-caps sort of handwriting.
It wasn’t Calculus. Nothing in that store was computerized, which meant that everyone knew everyone else’s handwriting. Besides, most guys still write with that sort of tiny, disconnected “ball and stick” print (no pun intended) that’s taught in first grade. There’s not a lot of epic penmanship left in the world. Besides, “Body Odor Guy” didn’t seem like the type to write little poems. Nope. My poet was Weird Art School Guy. But how to respond? I couldn’t suck all the mystery and joy out of the thing by walking right up to him and saying something. The thing to do was to write poems right back. Of course I wrote poems. It was the nineties and I was in college. All I was missing was a Jesus Lizard shirt and a bottle of black hair dye.
Back and forth the poems went. Things continued on this way until the nightly walk to the parking lot after work ended in conversation. It’s cold; let’s talk in the car. Let’s kiss in the car. Let’s fog up the windows. Let’s laugh at how we just fogged up the windows.
When I showed up for an afternoon shift the next day, I was wearing a high-necked Victorian blouse, and had my hair down. Why? Because my “hello, I have a giant fucking hickey” shirt was dirty, that’s why.
I unveiled my neck only to “Lesbian Who Wants You To Watch John Waters Movies.” Upon seeing my neck (which looked like I’d taken a baseball pitched by Wild Thing Vaughn), she gasped and whispered “Amy!! You’re not like that!!….well, maybe you ARE!” It took a week for the whole thing to heal, during which I had trouble using my neck properly.
After that, the poems continued for a while, until our less-eloquent speaking selves realized that, while it was a fun adventure, we were kidding ourselves if we thought this was a relationship. It’s all well and good to call my hair a strawberry veil (it was red then) and call my room my kingdom, but what are your long-term goals?
When I finally got out of retail and quit the job at the record store, he got me a cake and had a Sappho quote iced onto it: “do not prod the beach rubble.” The first part of the quote was “if you are squeamish,” but just putting the end on the cake made the message seem like sage advice to a friend going off to bigger and better things. I sense that this meaning may have been lost on the employees at the Kroger bakery, but not me. I lived on purple cake covered in purple roses for three days and (ah, youth) still never got over 105 pounds.
I heard that the guy eventually began writing poems to another girl who worked there after I did. She had him reported for sexual harassment and he got fired. How unfitting. How unfair.
Every so often, I think about him. Every so often, I clean out a closet. Sometimes, in that cleaning, I find a little box. In that little box I find a bundle of neatly-lettered poems, all in red ink, on good paper with a deckled edge.