Near the end of February, I was already wearing the Staples red polo shirt and black pants. I didn’t have to do more tests, thank God, and all I had to focus on was talk, read, study, and memorize random English words that might be useful someday in my future. Juan walked me through the store aisles, told me where the items were and how I should greet the customers. I also met other members of the crew, most of them UCSB students working a part-time job, trying to do something else with their lives when there was no homework to do.
But not everyone was young and living the spring of their existence in this job. There was also an adult man working here, whose autumn was probably overdue, but somehow, stubbornly, he continued strolling around this old and sometimes miserable world.
His name was Roberto.
He was the kind of man you hate within the first ten seconds after you shook his hand, yet, unbeknownst to yourself, as the days and conversations conspire to murder the menacing hands of time, you end up realizing there is a lot of sense in his demeanor. He was a scholar, an information hoarder, someone whose thick, reading glasses had rested on a mountain of books every night after he was tired of reading.
That was more or less what Juan told me when I asked him about Roberto.
Puzzled, I asked, “and what is he doing here?”
Juan took no offense. I was glad he also agreed Staples was a pretty shitty job. “I don’t know, man,” he confessed. “He said he was teaching at some university back in Mexico but then came here. Like everyone else.” He looked at me for two seconds after he said that.
Yes, I got the point.
Roberto was walking around, pushing a black, square cart, carrying price tags around, pulling out old tags in the pens and pencils aisle, and changing them for new ones he had on top of the cart. At the bottom, there was a red plastic basket where he tossed the old tags.
“What’s his job here?” I asked Juan.
“Changing prices,” he said while moving a big box with file folders he said we needed to put away on its respective aisle.
“How often does that happen? Once a month?”
The look on his face suggested I just asked a stupid question. “Try once a day,” he said.
I frowned, “Really?”
“Yeah, sometimes things are on sale today, sometimes they aren’t tomorrow. He is in charge of that.”
“Sounds laborious,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said after cleaning the sweat off his forehead. “You and I have it easy. We just have to put boxes away.”
I went to have lunch that day, thinking just how lucky I was.
The line at the McD’s was bigger during the lunch rush. People who worked at the many businesses nearby waited impatiently on line, eyes darting at their watches with anger, hoping for a miracle that would allow time to stop so they could properly chew on their food before getting back to work. Of course, that was not going to happen.
Blanca was the manager on duty that day, but she wasn’t alone. A shorter, round, and friendly Mexican girl was in front of a register wearing the manager’s attire. Another girl was wearing the plain crew uniform next to her, hitting the touch-screen with anger, as the customer in front of her told her about how special she wanted the cheeseburger to be.
Blanca and another crew member (a tall, white and skinny guy who turned red because he was yelling out the order numbers) were in charge of giving out the food. Soon enough, the short friendly manager was taking my order, all in Spanish, which made me wonder how she knew I’d understand her?
Whatever, I thought, getting down to business. My food was suspiciously ready before I even paid for it, but I was in no mood to argue about it. I grabbed my tray, said thanks, turned back, and saw the girl I’d helped carrying her bicycle the day I was looking for a job. She smiled at me, and I had that feeling in my stomach people call butterflies. I never quite understood what butterflies had to do with infatuation.
Because I forgot her name, I decided to call her The Bicycle Girl, although I thought that didn’t make any sense in the real world. She sat in one of the booths near the window, I approached her, asked her if I could sit, and she said no.
“I’m kidding,” she said, witnessing how my heart sank for a second.
“Ok,” I said.
She had a nice, slender body, I’m not going to lie, but it was her eyes and smile that I found incredibly attractive. She looked innocent, sweet, and almost perfect. There was something else about her I couldn’t put my finger on. She was too polite, the kind of person who would never utter the word ‘fuck’ even if her life depended on it. But she was neither conceited nor condescending. At least I wasn’t getting that vibe. We had the get-to-know-you conversation, she told me where she studied, and I told her where I worked. She looked genuinely interested in me, and I was not complaining.
Ten minutes into the conversation, she told me something that explained her behavior. “I’m a Christian,” she said. Oh, I thought, knowing that her next question would determine whether or not I’d be able to see her again. “Do you believe in God?”
An honest man would say no and leave with his head up, glad he never said something only because he wanted to get into a girl’s pants.
“I do,” I said.
I wasn’t an honest man. Besides, I hadn’t had sex in three years and was righteously desperate. But what I said wasn’t completely a lie. The good thing about me is that I can freely walk on the verge between good and evil, belief and disbelief, which allows me to sin with ease because I am not completely sold on the idea of eternal damnation.
“Really?” she asked, noticing how I’d gone away into my own head for a couple of seconds.
“I was raised Catholic,” I said, “but I’ve always had doubts about that religion.”
She smiled. “Have you ever been to a Christian church?”
“No, I have not.”
“Would you like to come with me to a Sunday service?”
“You don’t call it a mass?”
“No. That is how the Catholics call it?”
I thought about it. “Ok. Where?”
She gave me the address of the church along with her phone number. I left with a smile on my face, which faded after I realized I was ten minutes late for work.
Juan gave me an angry look when he saw me clocking in. He was busy helping a customer carrying a desk out, so I supposed he’d later come and tell me something. I went back to work; the boxes I needed to put away were still waiting for me. In fact, that was all I did in that place, and even if those were just my first days at the job, I was already visualizing how my life was going to be.
When I had a chance, I talked to Roberto and told him what I was thinking. He was still working on his price tags, doing it with such skill and detail I almost felt I was looking at Da Vinci while he was painting The Last Supper. He would look at the expiration date on the tags, making sure he was doing it the right way. I was looking for a word to describe his behavior. Devotion. That was the only word I could think of. He had the same devotion for his job, just like The Bicycle Girl’s devotion to her God.
He took his glasses off. They were hanging on a string around his neck. “How many days are you going to work here?” he asked, his tone dry and blasé as if he was mad I took him away from doing his job.
“I don’t really know. I said I wanted full-time.”
He laughed, showing off the place where his teeth were once upon a time. “Everyone wants full time,” he said while licking his finger to count the price tags he had left. “Do you know how long I have been working here?”
I shook my head.
“Too long. I don’t even remember. That’s why I looked for another job at K-mart.”
“So you’re suggesting I look for another job?”
He smiled, “See? You’re a smart kid,” he said and continued doing his job.
I waited a week to see how many days I was working next. I was working normally three or four days a week. This wasn’t working out. I didn’t want to look for another job. If I did, I would have to stop going to school. How would I be able to work and study at the same time? Then, one day I had a serious talk with myself in front of the mirror.
I thought about The Bicycle Girl and her apparent devotion and belief in the theological. I thought about Blanca from McDonald’s and how she managed to work the floor when hungry customers throw themselves at her every day during the lunch rush. I also thought about Roberto and how focused he looked every day while tossing away old tags and changing them for new ones.
They all were working their asses off, and I was taking it easy every day. I knew I had the same commitment while studying, but my bank account was seriously shrinking because I never had enough money. I needed to do something. I had to do something. I started looking for another job.
Photo by Tatlin.