This is a reposting of a blog entry that was originally published on OpenSalon.com on December 10, 2010. It’s the first in my series of Christmas-themed posts.
In the love-it-or-hate-it Christmas sweepstakes, I am firmly on the “love it” side. As unfashionable as this might be, I look forward to all the rituals, food and socializing that corresponds with the annual Santapalooza (for me, it’s a strictly secular holiday).
While I have many great memories of wonderful Xmastimes past and present, there are certainly a few duds in there too–and the Xmas period of 1986 is unquestionably a benchmark in crappadoodles yuletide seasons.
At the time, I was managing a music retail store which I will refer to as XYZ Records. I have already written about quitting the store in a slow blaze of glory nine months later and, by this point, things within XYZ were really starting to sour. It was becoming an increasingly unreasonable company to work for, with things starting to head south sharply through the preceding autumn. By that time, a feeling of dread would envelope me every day when I walked through the door. What I didn’t yet know was that things weren’t going to get any better and that the Xmas season of 1986 would turn out to be particularly unpleasant. Over the course of three consecutive weekends, I was presented with a series of challenges when I least needed them.
This was still the glory days of record retail (although now it was mostly cassettes and CDs we were selling) and the month of December was always routinely nuts. It was normal to do the equivalent of January-through-March’s total business within the final week preceding the 25th. It was tough enough getting through the avalanche of the seasonal customers without having to deal with a new crisis every seven days.
A Gateway to Hell!: The front of XYZ Records. Gunfire not pictured.
The store was situated in a mall in East London, Ontario, Canada. It was a charming place, featuring the ongoing odiferous perfume of fried onions from the mall diner intermingling with the pungent hair products from the beauty salon. Our store was sandwiched in between.
Each year, the owner of the diner played Santa Claus to the mall urchins along with his daughter and co-worker, HMB (Heavy Metal Babe aka Hurtin’ Metal Babe as we called her, owing to this metalhead’s notably uncheerful personality), acting as one of Santa’s helpers.
I have a delightful memory of Santa’s first appearance that year. As this alcohol-enhanced St. Nick begrudgingly galumphed his way to his throne, HMB/Santa’s helper skulked along behind in her seasonal dress and bonnet, smacking one of the young mallys upside the head with the back of her hand for making fun of her attire.
It was that kind of place.
On the first weekend of Christmas …
I had a staff of four including myself; someone I will call Jimmy Richards (as in Page and Keith) as my Assistant Manager; Lady Bump (who was introduced in the Ramones/Demics episode/blogpost …. Jimmy Richards will eventually be showing up, too) was working there as my full-time employee for a period; and someone I will call Corey Hart, because that is who/what he looked like, as my part-timer.
Jimmy and Corey had been working there prior to my arrival, with Jimmy and I becoming great friends for a period of a few years. Corey and I had never really taken to each other although we certainly didn’t have an adversarial relationship. He always struck me as none too deep and a real “follow-the-pack”er. Mr. Hart was a “Christian,” as in having an increasingly slavish devotion to his church’s questionable tenets, and seemed utterly free from intellectual analysis or insight. It used to gall me that he had the temerity to pontificate on his highly selective “moral” values while he would meanwhile point and laugh at mentally and physically challenged mall patrons. Nauseating—and both LB and I let him know that.
Then there was his Godly, Christian girlfriend who always looked like she was in transit from getting a tit job while on her way to making a porno. Trust me, I say that not as a prude in any way but instead bring that up as emblematic of their “selective virtue” and hypocritical righteousness that made me want to hurl.
As our store was in a suburban spot, we carried a truncated catalogue, mostly geared towards the bigger sellers. However, during the Xmas season, a deluge of additional titles in all genres were routinely shipped out to each location in order to capitalize on the extra sales. Among the temporary stock was plenty of heavy metal. Now, anyone who knows me knows that, a handful of artists/songs/albums aside, I have never been a huge metal fan and particularly loathe/d the glossy, glammy pop metal of the ’80s that was big at this time (Soundgarden and Jane’s Addiction had yet to rise). Regardless, being in the east end of the city meant that we sold the stuff by the crateload and so getting a surfeit of metal titles was great for business. I had given Corey the job of stocking the bins with this new merchandise and, in the process of doing so, he became mortified that he was in the position where he would now be selling and “promoting satanic death metal” to impressionable young’uns.
After selling successive copies of Slayer or King Diamond or whatever, he became overcome with Christian guilt and horror at his culpability in leading these poor sheep astray (as if!) and decided on the spot that he could no longer work at the store—precisely as the first full-on crazybusy weekend of the holiday season was about to kick in.
He literally wanted to walk out the door there and then (apparently, he had no quams about leaving three other persons high and dry and in a tough spot, as we were all swimming in a pool of moral turpitude anyway) until Jimmy was able to talk him into staying for at least that first Xmas-season Saturday.
For those of you who have worked in retail, particularly if you are or have been a store manager, you will know all too well that once the Xmas season kicks in, you need to have the store and staff running like a well-oiled machine. It’s not just that you are dealing with 5-10 times the number of people and sales that you’re used to, but also that most of these folks are not regular customers and therefore need product assistance. There is no time to be piddling around with anything extraneous. Ergo, the LAST thing that one needs at such a moment is to have a staff member quit, and then have to hire and train someone amid sales-ticket hysteria.
But, that’s just what I had to do as no amount of pleading would sway this brave crusader to hang in there until after Christmas was over. Amazingly, through the mall grapevine, we heard about a college student who was looking for a job and who could start on Saturday the 13th. She turned out to be a simply fabulous person—smart, friendly, spirited, kind, funny, responsible—who instantly lightened our misery and energized us with her positive presence, going on to work at the store until she was finished school the following spring.
Still, Corey’s sudden bow really threw a wrench in the works and left us short staffed for several key days, meaning that I pretty much ended up almost living at the store for a while.
We’d now had our Xmas drama and wanted to no more. Unfortunately, this was only the trial run.
On the second weekend of Christmas ….
It was Friday the 12th and I really felt as if things were on the upswing as we began the penultimate weekend prior to Xmas. The new part-timer was in place to start the next day, and all three of us had vowed to pitch in and show her the ropes. So, it was while in this calm state of mind that things would soon be under control that I was ringing through a woman and her young son at the front of the store. It was about 8pm and, unsurprisingly, the mall was teeming with people. Just as I was handing the woman her change, her little boy, who had been fixated on the lottery booth directly outside our store, said “Look, Mommy, that man has a gun.”
On cue, two shots were fired into the mall’s ceiling as hordes of panicked shoppers screamed amid the chaos of everyone trying to take cover in the closest store. It really did seem just like a movie.
I quickly corralled all the terrified customers and myself into our back room, startling Mr. Page who was back there prepping some stock to bring out (LB had just finished her shift and left for home).
We all stood quietly, trying to discern what was happening, comforted in the knowledge that we had a back door to escape through should we need to. Some people wanted to exit immediately but I wouldn’t allow it, seeing as we didn’t know what was going on out back of the mall.
After a few minutes, curiosity got the better of me and I decided to slink out from the back room. I crawled on my belly through the store, positioning myself behind the album racks where I could stay hidden yet still peer through to try and gauge what was going down.
All I could really see was an eerily empty mall, with the muzak droning on, and some unidentifiable figures milling about just outside our front doors. I got about ¾ of the way there when a stampede of people flooded out of every store en masse, letting me know that the thieves were gone.
The clerk was unsurprisingly hysterical but thankfully uninjured. Luckily, only the two “making a statement” shots were fired, leaving a neat pair of bullet holes in the mall’s ceiling for years thereafter.
Many people, of course, just wanted to get the hell out of there (it was a good thing that we didn’t let people leave during our rear exit: as it turned out, the getaway car was essentially waiting right outside our back door).
Once we had sort of calmed down, realizing that everything was now ok, our thoughts then turned to what could have happened, and how dangerous things could have been.
Our nerves shaken, Jimmy and I went out for a post-work drink, reflecting on our two weekends of bad circumstances—and what were the odds of all that happening back to back? Surely it would be smooth sailing from here on in …
And on the third and final weekend of Christmas …
Following the abrupt defection of Corey Hart followed by the next weekend’s gunfire, we had started to make jokes about what might go wrong during that final weekend of Christmas retail.
When I say we joked about it, I mean we were truly kidding. We were sure that we’d had our quota of seasonal misery as we braced for what is always the most singularly insane shopping period of the year.
On the 19th, I started my Friday as I usually did, broadcasting my radio show. From 1984 through 1992, I did a once-a-week, three hour radio slot on the local university station every Friday morning from 9am to noon. Following my shift, I would then head to work for the afternoon and evening.
As I pulled up to the mall, I noticed a swarm of police cars in the parking lot. “Not wildly out of sorts for this mall,” I thought. When I pulled around the back to park my car, I noticed a few more of them. Hmmm.
For a split second, it crossed my mind: “What if it’s something to do with our store?” Noooooooo. Perish the thought, I reckoned. We were due to catch a break, not be shit on once more.
I came through the back, hung up my coat … and then felt my heart sink as I walked out onto the store’s floor and saw Jimmy in a discussion with a few cops who were taking detailed notes.
Another shot of the XYZ store in early 1987. We appear to still have stock in the store at this time.
What had happened was this: our usual Friday order for the week had arrived that morning. Since XYZ were inordinately stingy when it came to allotting staff hours per store, I only had enough for one staff member to be at work during the weekday morning hours.
Jimmy had a routine with the delivery guys where they would come through the front door inside the mall, unlock our back door, unload our boxes, give Jimmy the keys, and then leave through the back door, followed by Mr. Page briefly running into the rear office area afterwards to lock it. However, this being the Friday before Xmas, Jimmy was so swamped with customers that it took him a good 10-15 minutes to be able to get off the sales floor and lock the door.
LB came in to do a mid-day shift ahead of me, allowing Jimmy to go back and start processing the order. And this wasn’t any order, but the last-weekend-of-the-season order (read: the biggest, most important one of the whole year as you want to have absolutely everything on hand to sell as well as wanting all your biggest sellers in large quantities).
Within very short order, Jimmy realized that several boxes of merchandise had been stolen. He knew that they had been delivered as he’d quickly counted them upon arrival. But several had gone walkies during those 15-or-so minutes.
Not only did that mean that we’d had thousands of dollars of merchandise stolen, but it was also when we needed the merch the most. Not to mention that we knew this was going to go down like a lead balloon with a head office that was already pretty much hostile towards its staff. How neither of us ended up getting fired for that one I’ll never know, since they seemed to get rid of people for a whole lot less.
After much scrambling, emergency re-orders and deliveries, and taxi-facilitated stock transfers from within the city, we managed to pull it together and get what we needed. But, again, this all went down in an atmosphere where we all would have been run off our feet under the best of circumstances.
I just wanted it all to end. I couldn’t deal with the thought of what would go wrong on a fourth weekend, so the holiday couldn’t arrive and be gotten over with soon enough. When we finally shut the doors during the afternoon of the 24th, the four of us repaired to the back office and spent an hour or so hanging out, indulging in some much-deserved festive booze (ok, perhaps we had discretely started that part earlier in the day).
Actually, while the series of events of those three weekends are forever burned in my mind, the true, personal legacy for me of that month was down to a few other things that occurred during this time frame. At some point in the midst of all this, I had one of the two worst birthdays of my life that included an always-tense visit from my regional manager but, more importantly, a series of firings that had a longer-term impact in my personal life. Owing to this and an even more decisive then-blip on the radar that developed into a real tragedy, I have always retrospectively seen Sunday December 14/Monday December 15 as the key pivot between the first part and second parts of my life.
This sadly marked the start of an elongated dark time.
This holiday season from hell may have finally been over, but things were never really the same again. (I will explain all this much more fully when my memoir series, My Life – In Concert! looks at a k.d.lang concert that I took in during this period, upcoming as no.38).
So, to end on a fun note …
… all four of us fell in the love with the Beastie Boys’ then brand-new debut album, Licensed to Ill, in December of 1986. We had it on constant rotation in the store, with its humour and sonic inventiveness lifting our spirits. Appropriately, the cover depicts a disaster and begins with the track Rhymin’ and Stealin’.
Also read about how I quit this nutsy company in slow blaze of revenge glory nine months later with … Dear Record Store, I QUIT!: The Most Joyful, Protracted Job Exit of My Life.
Other Christmas-Themed Entries:
Xmas #1: December 1986: My 3 Xmas Weekends From Hell Snuggle in for a heartwarming seasonal tale of being a store manager and having to endure armed robberies, flouncing Christian employees, slap-happy Santa helpers, and looting mall rats. Merry Christmas to one and all!
Xmas #2: Twisted Seasonal Sounds: A John Waters Christmas The Pope of Filth curates what is probably the most “unique” collection of seasonal tunes on the market, filled with redneck children singing Happy Birthday to Jesus, ornery’n’tourette-inflected C&W, Theremin-driven toe tappers, and other joyfully questionable sonic Christmas delights.
Xmas #3: Ludicrous Seasonal TV: Star Wars Holiday Special George Lucas once said of this special “If I had the time and a sledgehammer, I would track down every copy of that show and smash it.” Read here and find out why.
Xmas #4: KA-CHING-A-LING: Xmas Advertising Highlights 1949-2011 A collection of seasonal ads from my magazine archives, taken from a variety of international publications spanning 60 years. Which items were singled out as worthy Christmas lucre from then until now, and how were these retail treasures flogged and positioned? And what do you need and need to know about seasonal entertaining: the booze, the turkey and fixins, the cards, the decorations, and so on, as well as how to capture it all for posterity.
Xmas #5: Christmas Advertising: LIFE Magazine, November 30, 1959 This entry zeros in on the Christmas-related ads featured in a single issue of LIFE from November 30, 1959. What was being proffered up as gifts and seasonal accoutrements during those final weeks of the 1950s, and how were they being depicted and sold? These specimens bark out the rigidity and restrictions of the day as the epoch of the 1960s was about to commence.
Xmas #6: I Believe In Father Christmas, or: Brown Shoes Don’t Make It We all find out the truth about Santa Claus at some point. Here is my story of crestfallen discovery and it involves … my dad’s shoes.
Xmas #7: VariousArtists’ 12 Days of Christmas Viewing A dozen alternative xmas-y eyeball suggestions that you may wish to consider, even if a few of them take liberties with the concept of being Christmas-related (and two look forward to New Year’s Eve).
Xmas #8: VA-Tel presents 20 OUTTASIGHT XMAS SENSATIONS! Here’s some fun’n’hip shakin’ musical accompaniment for the annual Santafest. This splendiferous list mostly avoids the obvious or overly solemn, and should get the gang groovin’ at your seasonal shindig while helping to mask the sound of partygoers vomiting in the bathroom after too many Baileys … or drive everyone swiftly out the door, depending on the circles you run in. (A playlist of this terrific 20 can be found over on my YouTube channel, VATV). Featuring the Ramones, Jingle Cats, Judy Garland, Wild Man Fischer, Sharon Jones, RuPaul and many more.