A Million Little Peteys: The Trueish Memoirs of a Young Man's Amazing Peccadillos With His Discarnate Friend Riding Shotgun
Make a list of all the people you've harmed. Make direct amends.
I wake up cold and hungry. Shivering. I'm sitting behind the wheel of my '73 Pinto wagon. I look at my watch. It's five AM.
Where am I? I look around. The street is unfamiliar to me. I glance down at the passenger seat. There's a bag from Jack in the Box. I look inside. Jumbo Jack. Large taco. Onion rings. All uneaten. Untouched. And cold. So cold.
How did I get here? I turn the ignition. Nothing. Out of gas. That would explain part of my predicament. But only part.
It's November of 1978 and I'm a clerk. Retail clerk. Union local 1442. Santa Monica, Malibu, Venice Beach. I work in the Malibu Market Basket. A week ago, a new little gimmick hit the market. It's called "Miller Light." They say you can drink more and not get filled up. Sounds good to me. Me and my buddies pick up a couple cases. I polish off twelve or thirteen between 5:00PM and 2:00AM. Maybe sixteen. I don't remember. Tastes great? Not really. Less filling? Yeah, I suppose so, since 12 didn't fill me up.
But most importantly, just as tanked. And just as hung over.
Somehow I get to work at 9:00AM. I'm working back in the dairy cooler, and that's okay by me. The cold feels good.
But it gets busy up front, and I'm called to the checkstand. That's not what I want to hear. Not today. Not now. Not in my condition.
I stagger up, unhook the chain and give the lady one of my looks. You know, the disgusted kind. What are you doing here? Can't you see I've got work to do?
That was back in the days before scanners and all the high-tech digital stuff. They call us "semi-skilled labor." Yeah, right. You ever try memorizing the names and prices of 150 different kinds of produce? Nothing "semi" about that.
So I start ringing up the lady, and here comes the produce. Things I recognize. Green pippin apples? No problem. Naval oranges? Bueno. Russet potatoes? Swish.
I said celery.
I know, I'm thinking.
I'm holding a stalk of celery in my hand, right in front of my face, waiting for the penny to drop. Yeah, it's celery. But I can't think of the freaking name.
Tastes great. Less filling. Sounds like a win-win, doesn't it? Except they don't tell you what sixteen of 'em do to your memory after a night out with the boys and three hours of so-called sleep. No, they don't tell you that. You have to figure that one out on your own.
A lot of times you see stuff you don't know the name of. Kohlrabi cabbage. Belgian endive. Haas vs. Fuerte avocados. There are some things a straight guy's not supposed to know. But that's okay. I just ask Gladys in the checkstand next to me.
But not this time. I don't know the name. But I know that I should know. And that makes all the difference. The part of the brain that recognizes objects is not communicating with the part that knows their names. I'm in some kind of timewarp. I'm so hung over that I can't think of the name of celery.
How do I get out of this? I can't exactly hold up a bunch of celery to Gladys and ask, "Duh, what's this? Never seen this before."
So I fake it. Yeah, I just make up a price. 49 cents. Whatever. I slide it down and move on, hoping the lady doesn't notice.
It's all forgotten.
Except by me. I remember. I don't want to remember it, but it remembers me.
Yeah, I remember the retail clerks strike of 1979 too. Lasted only nine days. But a lot of things can happen in nine days. A whole lot of things. Things maybe you're not so proud of. Things you'd rather forget.
As the day of the strike approaches--August 17--I get one of my brain waves. Yeah, they happen sometimes, even back then. Was it Petey? Knowing what I do now, it probably was. But that's another story.
When the store manager orders a shipment of groceries for the next week, he slides a little wand over the UPC code on the shelf under the item. You've seen 'em. Everybody has. One swipe = one case from the warehouse. Two swipes, two cases.
A hundred swipes, a hundred cases.
And that's what gives me the idea. Our biggest selling item is Best Foods Mayonnaise. It's what we in the Grocery biz call a "loss leader." Get folks in the door for the 89 cent mayonnaise and stick it to 'em with huge markups on aspirin and tooth paste. Hey, it's capitalism. It's legal.
I've only been in the biz for two years, but there's already one thing I know: we haven't sold a case of beet aspic the whole time. Fact, I don't think we sold a single can of the stuff. Whatever it is.
So I take my box cutter, and ever so carefully, surgically remove the UPC code from the beet aspic and switch it with the Best Foods. Cold-blooded? Sure. Brutal? Maybe. That's the idea. Bring management to its knees and get that cost-of-living raise that I've already spent, oh by the way.
The strike goes down. The manager, Howard--he's a nonunion guy, so he's trying to keep things together in the store--does his usual order from the warehouse.
And what happens?
This is what, 2006?
It's 27 years later, and there are still 78 cases of beet aspic sitting in the back of that store.
But those are just numbers, and right now I'm just thinking of one number: number nine. I've got to make amends. I've got to buy all that beet aspic. All of it.
To be continued.... if Oprah shows the slightest bit of interest....
ADDENDUM--what did Joyce say?
Ah, he's very thoughtful when he's not absintheminded, now that I come to drink of it.