My ticket to living in Chicago was Blockbuster Video. I’d always dreamed of living here, and when I found myself working at a franchise in my college town after graduating (and having no real idea what I wanted to be when I grew up), I asked the owners if they knew of any openings in Chicago. Turns out, they did. And so I began working in a store in the northwest suburb of Hoffman Estates in the summer 1992.
Being summer, kids were out of school and video rentals were up. So, the store was staffed many of those same kids. They were a cast of characters who I still remember vividly. Dani the Princess. Brandy the Clown. Jean the Dim Bulb. Since I was new to Chicago and worked all the time, these kids fulfilled the social component of my life at the time. They were all lazy, and needed a lot of prodding to work at times, but they were all good kids. Many of them also came by on the nights of their formal dances to show me their dates and/or dresses/tuxes. They would fight over who would work the skeleton crew with me on Christmas Day because I was a pushover, and made it fun.
One afternoon there was a lot of excitement amongst the staff, proclaiming “That’s Mike” and “Mike is coming in.” I had no idea who Mike was, but everyone else on staff seemed well acquainted with him. There was quite a furor in the store as “Mike” looked for his movies. He was approached by staff and customers alike, I noticed from my perch behind the register. When Mike approached me, I rang him up and asked, “Did you used to work here?” After he left, my manager Scott (I called him Scooter) pulled me aside.
“That’s Mike Singletary.”
That meant nothing to me. “Is he a rapper?” I shrugged.
“He’s a Chicago Bear…football.”
It wasn’t the only time I’d tangle with a Chicago Bear. Walter Payton’s (a name I was actually familiar with) kids were frequent renters. Our computer system allowed for notes to be placed on accounts to alert our team to problems. These notes could flash brightly to ensure they are seen. With the Payton family account, there was an ALL CAPS flashing note from Scooter, indicating we shouldn’t rent to the children in the family without a membership card. The kids came without cards, so I didn’t rent to them. I hated arguing with kids because they were almost always stupid, but I was a rule follower. I offered to the hold the movies they wanted to rent until they came back with a card. They declined and groused, then departed.
Later that busy Friday evening one of the workers told me I had a phone call. I sometimes had friends calling to see what my schedule was so we could plan to go out afterward. But it was it was a very high-pitched voice on the other end of the phone, handing me my ass about not renting to the Payton kids. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Payton, but your kids need to bring their membership card.” Click. It wasn’t Mrs. Payton. It was Walter. And he was coming to the store. To hand me my ass. In person.
I don’t want to sound too glib, but I was an assistant manager at a Blockbuster in the Chicago Suburbs. I wasn’t saving lives or getting paid “saving lives” wages. I’d put up with my share of snooty nearby Barrington Hills patrons, and went toe-to-toe with them regularly. Sometimes people made mistakes, or misunderstood or picked the wrong movie. You could tell when someone was genuine. And I was happy to credit their account. But in retail, you had your share of ass hats who were either looking to scam you, or had nothing better to do than harass you and question store policies. Apparently, Mr. Payton had nothing better to do. (Not to speak ill of the dead, Mr. Payton didn’t himself come back to the store, but apparently drove his kids back to the store with their membership card.) So, basically, he followed the rules.
Working in retail is a rite of passage that should be mandatory like military service in Israel. But it’s something that has to be done in your 20s when you’re young and resilient. Aside from the low pay and horrific hours, it was a time in my life when I had the most fun and the least sleep. I try to remember that time in my life when I get bogged down with work nowadays. Back then, I dreamt of having a job like the one I have now with weekends and evenings free–let alone working from home four days/week.
I’ve come a long way since moving to Chicago alone, a friendless stranger to everything. And I still have no idea who plays for the Chicago Bears. Or Cubs. Or Bulls. Or Blackhawks.
Please be kind. Rewind.