When I was 12 years old, my mother’s cooking left me no choice but to seek employment. I was chased into the workplace at this tender age by leathery livers, Jello surprise medleys and pot roasts as dry as the desert sand. Consequently, I found myself shortly thereafter happily sacking groceries for 25 cents an hour. A few months later, a man named Roy Furr opened the Furr Foods Family Center, a colossal, ugly building housing one of the first mega-sized grocery stores. A ten cent an hour raise brought me into their ranks for the Grand Opening, and I was as excited as any housewife when the doors finally opened on the first day of business. For a kid who likes food, there is no better place to be than in an extra large grocery store. Not only could I surreptitiously snack on all the fruits and produce, but there were all sorts of other perks. Day old doughnuts, broken packages of sweet rolls, and an almost unlimited amount of lunch meats, candy and soft drinks. Plus, I was making so much money that I could buy several hamburgers a day and still have money left over. At this point in history, hamburgers could be had for anywhere between a quarter to fifty cents. I was in heaven.
The only black cloud on my silver lining was that I wasn’t allowed to stay at the store all the time. I bitterly regretted having to attend school when I could be working, and always used work as an excuse to avoid family outings. Needless to say, my joyful attitude and unquestioning willingness to do anything asked of me, caught the manager’s eye and I was shortly promoted to bottle boy. Here was a job truly suited to my manifold talents. I would collect, clean, sort and case all the soft drink bottles brought back to the store for deposit. These full cases would than be stacked in never ending rows in the back storeroom and ultimately given back to the various beverage distributors via their drivers. It was a huge task in the pre-plastic era when all bottles were glass and all glass soft drink bottles were reused. I was given a section of the back room just beneath the manager’s office dedicated to bottles, and there began to build my empire, filling case after case of bottles and stacking them to the ceiling, which was actually the floor of the office above. Working there daily, I noticed that many of the conversations and phone calls made in the privacy of the manager’s office could be quite clearly understood if I happened to be standing below in just the right place. This came to my attention one day when I heard my own name mentioned. Looking up and standing on a few empty cases, I was able to overhear Mr. Spence, the manager talking to one of his assistants about what a great little worker I was and how he wished he had a dozen more as enthusiastic as me. My chest was just beginning to swell with pride when he laughed and continued on as to how no job was too nasty or dirty for me. His assistant, a pimply faced guy named Charles chuckled and said “Yeah, Jim, he’s the only one I’ve ever seen who actually wanted to be permanent bottle boy.” “Hell,” replied Mr. Spence, “you should have seen his face when I told him. It was like I had given him a new bicycle.” They guffawed to one another and left the office, leaving me to reach up and touch my ears, now hot and red with shame.
Granted, it was just as they had said. I was so happy with the pay and constant supply of food that I would have done anything to stay there. Plus, I really liked the giant store, with countless little crawl spaces and storage rooms and warehouse catwalks. I used to love to explore the hidden attic space where huge bales of grocery sacks were stored and the pharmaceutical cage was kept. I liked the camaraderie of the boys, older and younger, who worked there; the tricks we would play on one another. I even came in on my day off just to say hello to everyone and find out what was going on. Furr Foods Family Center was the best, most rewarding place I had ever been. Nothing about it was different, but after hearing their conversation, I felt irrevocably changed and cheapened.
Given what was obviously considered the worst job in the store, I was now determined to make it into the best job. An interest in building and architecture had been with me since I was a baby. After spending weeks and weeks stacking and re-stacking the cases, it occurred to me that they were much like building blocks. We always had many more empty wooden cases than we needed, in the unlikely event all suburbia decided to return their empty bottles on the same day. They were a hassle to store and I was constantly moving them around to free up space for the full cases of empties, which had to be loaded onto trucks every few days. A plan was occurring to me.
“I’ve decided to totally rework the bottle room!” I proclaimed to Mr. Spence the following week. “I’ll come in on Sunday evening and work until it’s finished so we can start the new week with everything in order.” He looked at me, stunned, astonished and finally with a big smile said, “You do that Mike and I’ll give you a 15 cent an hour raise, starting Monday morning.” I couldn’t believe it. I almost felt guilty for what I was about to do, until I remembered his laughter.
That Sunday, when the back room was quiet and deserted, I began my project, first emptying out the entire bottle area to create a fresh palette. Next, with military precision, I built a six foot by eight foot room in the corner against the walls, directly below Mr. Spence’s office. With a thin steel plate I found in the alley, I spanned three cases, stacking cases on top of the steel and leaving an opening below, producing a “doorway” one case wide. The “door” was ten cases screwed together which slid invisibly into the opening, creating the illusion of a solid wall of empty cases. Around this, I stacked other walls of cases, always leaving access to the doorway of my inner sanctum in the aisles between. Full cases were stacked by brand on the far side of the bottle room and collection carts labeled by brand were between, with my worktable in the middle of it all. After testing the final result and eyeing my handiwork from a million different angles, I retrieved a few items I had brought from home and began to set up house. A late night tour of the virtually empty store allowed me to fill my larder and magazine library as well.
Monday afternoon found me comfortably lying on a sofa made of Coke cases and a sleeping bag, munching on a sandwich I had just made and reading Hot Rod magazine. I was also 15¢ an hour richer for my efforts. The store intercom was perfectly audible as were all the conversations in the office above. Grocery store security is very perimeter oriented. No one stops a sacker or stocker walking anywhere in the store with anything, as usually they are either retrieving it for a customer or restocking it, or going for a price check or taking it to the dumpster if the item is damaged or soiled. It’s only when you try to leave the store that you are at risk. My supply line was thus guaranteed. I once even had a small conversation with Mr. Spence while holding an eight pound ham not 20 feet from my hidden lair.
In the previous months I had discovered that all the duties of a bottle boy could be performed in about one fourth of the time I was at the store. Because no one had ever done the job for more than a week, my predecessors had always been working through the learning curve, putting in long hours and complaining constantly. I, on the other hand, as a “professional” bottle boy had figured out that once my system was in place, it was a breeze. An hour’s hard work a day at the very most, left me free to spend the next three or four hours improving my mind, doing homework and sating my appetites in the privacy of the bottle boy’s apartment. My mother would proudly proclaim to friends that I simply whizzed through my lessons and always got good grades in spite of working from 4:00 until 9:00 each evening. She never even questioned the fact that I would arrive home not hungry, and roll into bed without the slightest nod to homework. Of course, she never understood what I had created, and I regret to this day that I never informed her of my escapade. When my name was called or I was summoned to the office over the intercom, I would simply wander out of the stacks of cases carrying a particularly nasty six-pack of half full Grapettes (which I kept on hand for such occasions). Usually the sight and smell of the Grapettes alone would be enough to cause anyone to wave me on my way. Other times, when I tired of reading, I would walk around with a couple of bottles of Orange Nehi in which I had added cigarette butts and a bit of fresh orange juice. It was sufficient camouflage for a spontaneous shopping trip. If things were dull, I could always pick up a tube of Liquid Aluminum and seal the doors on Mr. Spence’s new Ford Victoria. It was a trick I relished.
Things continued pretty much the same for almost a year thereafter. I even received a raise in pay based on the fact that whenever paged, I would always show up immediately, unlike some other boys who might be taking groceries out to a car or loading trucks or actually working. No, young Mike was Johnny on the Spot when Mr. Spence had any questions whatsoever regarding the Dr. Pepper delivery or whether the Royal Canadian driver left 12 cases or 18. Responsiveness, Mr. Spence called it, while adding another 20¢ an hour to my earnings. I thought he was actually getting to like me, sort of the son he never had.
Nothing lasts forever, however, and it came as no surprise when, while eating a fabulous fresh ham and baby Swiss sandwich, I overheard Mr. Spence and Charlie plotting my demise.
“I don’t know”, said Spence, “it’s just creepy. If you call him, he’s always there, but I never see him anywhere in the store. The kid is other worldly.”
“I know, boss, but let’s face it. Who else is going to be bottle boy? I mean, he really has that in control.” Charlie reluctantly admitted. “How would we ever replace him?”
“How about that Crenshaw kid? He might be dumb enough to be bottle boy. I need to get rid of Hicks, he’s spooky.”
“Crenshaw’s not that dumb. Besides, I caught him trying to boost cigarettes out of the store.” said Charlie. “Personally, I think we would be better off firing Crenshaw and putting the hammer down on Hicks.” They talked on for some time, weighing the various virtues and liabilities of the two of us and ended their meeting saying that we should both be fired, but who wanted to do the bottles, and how could they talk Crenshaw into it anyway?
From below, I knew that my fate was sealed. Fortunately, Crenshaw lived across the street from me and was a lifelong friend. The next day, I shared my secret. I took him into my inner sanctuary and told him of the luxurious hours I had spent doing homework and eating gourmet specialties. I knew, of course, that he would fall in with my plans immediately. A day later, Jimmy Crenshaw was sitting with me in the Bottle Boy apartment, swilling Cokes and proclaiming himself to be the next Bottle Boy. It took him only a nanosecond to appreciate the luxury and privacy the Bottle Boy commanded. He was also congenitally lazy, which was a plus. We shortly had a plan worked out.
The following Monday, I entered the office of Mr. Spence and announced “I’m quitting. It’s incredibly hard work and I feel like I’m getting nowhere. You’re never going to promote me to stocker and I’m getting behind in my schoolwork. My parents are threatening to call Mr. Furr and complain about the hours.”
He took the surprise message with grace and agility, saying there was no need to quit, that I could resign instead, netting me two weeks pay. Thereafter I told him that I had an eye on a kid named Crenshaw who I thought might be persuaded to be bottle boy if he was given a large increase in pay. It was a very hard and disgusting job, after all, but Crenshaw was dumb enough to take it if properly persuaded. Spence agreed and asked that I send Crenshaw to his office. He then thanked me for “toughing it out” this long and assured me that he would give me a sterling recommendation to my next employer. His relief was palpable.
So it was that I left Furr Foods Family Center, a little tearful to be honest, but with a swelling of righteousness in my soul and the gleeful knowledge that Crenshaw would rob them beyond belief in the months to come. What it ultimately left me with, however, was a profound distrust of upper management and a lifelong belief that only by working for yourself are you given any job security whatsoever. In the intervening years, these beliefs have been confirmed at virtually every juncture in business again and again.That’s what I learned at Furr Foods Family Center when I was a boy.