my 1st job: proust, a baseball bat, and clark


“how can you call yourself a bookstore if you don’t have ‘remembrance of things past’?” she said for the 17th time, rolling her overly shadowed eyes.

i apologized again to the lady (banshee) at my register while attempting to catch the eye of the nervous gentleman still standing in line, hoping to give silent assurance that his transaction was actually a top priority. i noticed him clutching a copy of dean koontz’s latest, his knuckles white, his temple veins prominent, his inner monologue rattling in my mind: “christ, why didn’t i go to barnes and noble?”. to be fair i’d been talking to this lady for almost 15 minutes about not currently stocking to her desires, was on the verge of tears as i had no idea how to appease her wrath, and i’d only been working at the store for 3 and 1/2 weeks. this was my first job to be precise.

crown books, the bastard child of the retail bookstore gods. crown books, the bookstore incarnation of the friend it would be so much easier to like if they didn’t constantly wet themselves in public. yes, you could buy books there, yes, the customer service was friendly, yes, there was a varied and ample pornographic magazine selection, but it all amounted to a fluorescent lit, pallid vortex, devoid of all personality, filled with a poorly organized book selection. envision a perpetually gray room with a single stained copy of the collected poems of stephen baldwin and a half-eaten pop-tart and you’ll get the idea.

apparently the final nail in the coffin for this grim world, at least on this day, for this woman, was lacking a single volume of proust’s opus ‘remembrance of things past’ (more literally translated as ‘in search of lost time’). nope, no ‘swann’s way’, no ‘sodom & gomorrah’, hell, we didn’t even have a copy of the final volume ‘time regained’ (because who really reads that far into the epic anyway to necessitate buying the darn thing. you’d think it would always be on the shelves).

now all bookstores worth their salt should stock this mammoth text that very few people have actually read (i hear both of them enjoyed it). but i had at this point assured the lady that we could order her a copy, i could send her to another crown bookstore that may currently have it in stock, and in desperation i’d even recommended going to the far superior book chain down the street (guaranteeing they’d have it, and reminding her they also had a starbucks . . . in the store!). regardless, she wanted to let me know, in her eyes, how rancid and vile an excuse for a retail effort crown books actually was for this glaring omission, as if i, a long-haired, pimply, nirvana-listening 16 year old were somehow responsible for the inventory. i mean, she was right, crown books was awful, but i’m not sure i was to blame entirely.

by now, the dean koontz fan wasn’t the only person in line. a lady with a baby stood waiting to purchase several mr. men books. a gathering of teenage girls were whispering to one another, expressing their lack of empathy for my plight with cruel giggles and mock looks of pity (i still wanted to date all of them). in the end i had to resort to calling clark, the store manager to the register. clark was the kind of boss you felt was always on the edge of a nervous breakdown. he had that thousand yard stare you only see with people who say they saw some horrible shit in ‘nam or who’ve spent far too long dealing with the unreasonable demands of retail customers. and ladies and gentleman, i was about to watch him finally snap.

he told the lady the entire list of options available that i’d already communicated ad nauseum for the last 20 minutes. he maintained a look of complete civility throughout and at about the 10 minute mark of being berated for his incompetence as a store manager for not currently stocking proust, she went too far. she said, after reminding him that she considered our store a terrible bookstore, that he should be ashamed of himself and should lose his job.

“listen, i’ve told you everything i possibly can, we stock the goddamn book, we just don’t have it currently. now please, please, get out of our store. go to the barnes and noble. go anywhere. i don’t care. just leave. i cannot help you. and i’m going to do something drastic if you don’t get out of my sight, like, immediately” he said at very near to full volume.

in stammered shock she said “well, i will then . . . you are very rude . . . i won’t be coming back here again” she said, strutting to the exit like a peacock that just conquered half of europe.

“good” he said loudly and then again, softly, almost sadistically to himself.

silence. i looked to clark for some kind of cue as to whether we should all return to business as usual.

then, i watched the rage of years of unreasonable exchanges such as this pop out of his brain, down his arms, into his vice-like hands, to descend upon a box of glass magnifying book weights. a full box, i should point out. then i watched said box sail across the length of the store, crashing into a wooden stand of recent hardcover bestsellers (‘midnight in the garden of good and evil’, i believe). clark having tossed the box over the heads of customers, evoking a collective gasp and general wide-eyed astonishment. i think had he dropped his trousers and started dancing naked on the customer service desk we’d have been less astounded.

clark then dashed across the store, picked up the stand, and stormed off to the employee break room. my co-worker, mandy, said i should go check on him while she dealt with the remaining customers. i sheepishly opened the break room door to witness clark madly swinging a baseball bat (?) upon the aforementioned stand, which was now essentially a broken shred of its former self, a sad wreckage, clark’s wrath having won the day.

“are you okay?” i said, not really knowing what to do. “no, alexander, i’m not. i wish such evil upon that woman. i mean am i human being? at what point do you say enough?” that question still gives me pause. and i suppose, that day, for himself, clark answered his own question.

clark was relocated, presumably to another crown books somewhere far far away from the woman who caused him so much anguish that day. never saw him again, so i hope he’s happy and at least partially recovered. i must admit, to this day, there’s something i perversely understand about clark’s behavior. i recognized that at some point in our lives we all get a little tired of being told we’re less than human for not providing the necessary amount of proust.


22 thoughts on “my 1st job: proust, a baseball bat, and clark

    • thank you for stopping by Pete and for your kind words.

      and, it is truth, amazingly. actually have to check in with myself to say, yes, that did really happen. thankfully haven’t witnessed such a complete meltdown since!

    • i can’t speak for Clark . . . but for me it’s still very present in my memory, so perhaps this post is my therapy? for what it’s worth, it’s been helpful!

      thank you for stopping by!

  1. this one definitely brought me back to my mall days. oh, people are special. and for what it’s worth, i have an inner clark in the back of my head even now when “client service” gets intense.

    • yes, anyone with experience in the retail/mall/customer service world has definitely dealt with a customer like this at some point. we’ve probably all wanted to “clark”-out . . . it was scary to witness, but inspiring in some strange way . . . perhaps, like you, speaking to my inner clark.


  2. This reminds me of an experience I had when I was briefly working as a clerk at Kroch’s and Brentano’s bookstore in Evanston, IL. A young man wearing headphones walked up to the counter and (without taking them off) asked me — in complete earnestness, NOT as a prank — whether we had the Cliff’s Notes for Harold Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind.” I nearly died.

    • i’m surprised you didn’t spontaneously combust, because, literally, how will you ever witness anything more amazing!?!

      i merely read about your experience, and probably stared at your comment for a good 5 minutes trying to process the information in a way that wouldn’t melt my brain . . . how did you survive?

      i have no doubt that gentleman is doing something terribly important these days.

      thank you for sharing, people are astounding!

      • I tried to explain his naivete to him, but he just didn’t get it. I tried three different ways, I think. And then my short-tempered boss (this was during holiday shopping season), who was listening in, lost his patience and shooed the guy away.

        The guy is now almost certainly a GOP policy wonk.

  3. I was so confused when I read “no, alexander, i’m not.”

    Throughout the whole piece, I had thought I was on Xander Strange’s blog.

  4. I needed a good story today — even if it was a frightening one. Makes me want to ask if you’ve done any short story writing that you might want to share…I so enjoy your writing style, and the blogs make me hanker for some fiction from your pen…er, keyboard.

    • thank you Kasi, that’s very kind.

      i have written some stories here and there, and i do plan on sharing some in the near future. glad to hear i’ll have such a respected audience welcoming the effort!

  5. This fucking shines. I am living in the image of teenage you walking toward the back of the store to Clark wondering how in the hell one asks an exploding bomb if he’s “okay.”

    I am so glad to meet you. This was great.

    • Hello Kim, thanks so much for reading and for your kind words. furthermore thanks for creating and welcoming people to this writing collective. Such an amazing project! has already introduced me to the thoughts of so many interesting writers.

      yes, as soon as i read the prompt about 1st jobs, knew which story to tell, it lives rather vividly in my mind to this day as you can imagine.

      i still hope Clark is okay!

  6. Great story, it brings me back. Customers can be real empathy voids. Reminds me when I was a 17 year old working as a ticket seller at a movie theatre, I had a woman come up to me to buy a ticket for Ghost. She was visibly upset when I told her the movie was sold out and she called me a bitch. She then threw her popcorn on me. I wish I had an inner-Clark that day.

    • as if you were somehow responsible for buying every single ticket to the movie . . . amazing! tragic disconnect where people in service roles become robots to some individuals.

      i fear your inner-Clark, he would have no mercy!!

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