We headed out to Kmart Saturday after I read via The Reader‘s Facebook page that the store was closing.
First thing I noticed after bracing my way through the crowd headed the other direction with armloads of stuffed white poly bags was the gray tape stripe on the floor. It split in two directions, one toward Health & Beauty, the other toward Apparel.
Neon orange signs had been taped on shelves, on end-caps, on stacks of appliances piled on the floor. “Closing sale. 10 to 30 percent off lowest marked price!” Not much of a discount, but it was only the first week. That number would climb — 25 to 50 percent, 75 percent. Until nothing was left but broken toys.
I wasn’t there to pick up deals. I was there to see if I recognized anyone from the old days. Foolish. My co-workers were long gone. I worked at Kmart right out of high school. Back then, this store on 134th and Maple was located off 108th and Maple — 108th Emmett, to be precise.
Unlike today, when any tat-covered, blue-haired teenager with a pissed off look can get a job at almost any store, restaurant or fast-food joint, in the early ’80s, part-time jobs were scarce. I’d applied at all the usual places — Baker’s, Food City, even a telemarketing company on 90th Street. I never got a call back.
The only reason I landed that Kmart job was because my dad, who owned a salvage store in Fremont, had done business with Mr. Speckman, the store manager. Even then, it took some convincing, but I got on, hauling manure and watering plants in the Garden Shop after being indoctrinated in the checkouts. When summer ended, I sold appliances and picked up extra hours in the warehouse.
I loved working at Kmart. And though it’s been more than 25 years, I still dream about it and remember some of the arcane numeric systems — the codes. For example, all employees were assigned a number used for in-store announcements. My number was 32, as in “Thirty-two to the registers please, 32.” Steve was 41. Matt was 51. Rob was 55. Janie was 2. The store manager was 300. Strangely, I don’t remember my old girlfriend’s number. There’s probably a reason for that.
Every product category also had a number. Hardware was Dept. 5. Home improvement was 61. Appliances was 6. School supplies was 25. Housewares, 41. Toys, 4. Glassware, 22. Some nights, instead of counting sheep, I run through these numbers in my head in an effort to nod off.
The work was mundane. Time was divided between the checkouts, stocking shelves, warehouse work or helping customers. If you had something to do, time went by fast. If you didn’t, it crawled. There were no smart phones to fill in the empty spaces. I don’t know how anything gets done at discount stores these days. I know if I’d had a smart phone back then, I never would have gotten anything done.
Eventually they trusted me enough to let me work overnight stocking shelves, where they literally locked you in — an effort to protect both you and them from thieves. One night I was handed a can of lacquer thinner and a putty knife and was told to scrape the old red tape-stripe off the linoleum floor. That red stripe had to be gone by sun-up to make way for the new gray stripe.
The first thing I did after 300 locked me in was carry a boom box from the appliances department to the courtesy counter, where I taped down the handle on the PA microphone (used to announce Blue Light Specials). By pointing the mic at the boom box, I became the store’s resident deejay. It would be the first and last time bands like Guadalcanal Diary, The Reivers and The Replacements would ring throughout a Kmart.
The beauty of any hourly job was knowing your day started when you punched the clock and ended when you punched the clock again. Every Friday after 5 p.m. we all walked to the cash cage in the back of the store to pick up our envelope. That’s right. Kmart paid its hourly employees in cash once a week. I guess they figured we would spend some of our hard-earned money before we left the store, and most of us did.
I worked part-time at Kmart for five years, which helped pay my way through UNO. My last wage was $5.10 an hour. I quit shortly after I got an internship at Union Pacific that led to a freelance job that led to a career. I remember picking up my last envelope and saying goodbye to my comrades, like a parolee leaving prison, knowing some of them were bound to end up lifers.
I left them all behind. I couldn’t tell you where ol’ 41 or 55 or 51 or 2 are today. Some of them, like me, moved onto other jobs and other lives. Some of them are dead. And some of them still work at Kmart somewhere, but not at this store, not today.
Eventually there will be no more Kmarts. Every store will be squeezed out of the market by Wal-mart and Cosco and Sam’s Club. And when the last Kmart closes, we’ll lose a piece of merchandising history that will fade away like the dimming glow of a Blue Light Special, with an echoing call in the distance, “Attention Kmart shoppers…“
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.