Here Are a Few Things Most People Don’t Know About Walmart:

The last job I had before teaching full time was at Walmart.  Specifically, the new Walmart Supercenter in Purcell, OK.  Actually, my first week was at the old Walmart—not a Supercenter—on the other end of town, followed by two weeks setting up the Supercenter for opening, and 2-3 weeks in the Supercenter’s Tire and Lube Express.

I ended up at Walmart for the same reason I assume many employees end up at Walmart, I needed a job and I needed one now because I needed money and I needed it now.  I had been substitute teaching, which in Oklahoma paid $40 a day (as opposed to $100 or $120 in CA) and where—due to the small, rural schools in Wayne and Purcell—they called you once or twice a month instead of every day.  So subbing wasn’t cutting it and there weren’t a whole lot of jobs in Purcell but Walmart was opening a new Supercenter and I got in on the mass hiring.  Literally—I was in a mass interview followed by a mass tour of the store followed by a mass handing out of blue vests and knives.  That’s right, knives, which brings me to the first thing of a few things most people don’t know about Walmart: every employee is armed.

Technically, every employee is issued a box-cutter, but really, what’s in a name?  When you want a box-cutter to be a box-cutter, it’s a box-cutter, but when you want a box-cutter to be a knife, it’s a knife.  It’s really in the eye of the holder.  The reason everyone at Walmart needs a box-cutter is that at Walmart, there is no down time.  If you’re not helping a customer or making a sale or changing a filter, you are either stocking shelves (and hooks) or you are scanning the stocked shelves (and hooks) to ensure that they are stocked correctly.  There is a steady flow of pallets, each stacked tall with boxes of merchandise, from the warehouse to your department, all of which must be opened and shelved (or hooked).  Thus, box-cutters.  So, when dealing with a Walmart employee who seems perhaps emotionally unstable—as may not be all that uncommon—think “box-cutter in pocket” before pissing them off.

The next thing most people don’t know about Walmart is that people at Walmart either worship Sam Walton or want you to worship Sam Walton.  In the staff-only areas, such as the staff lounge, there are all these pictures of Sam Walton with Sam Walton quotes, like, “There is only one boss: the customer,” and stuff like that.  Once, I commented to a fellow employee that in one picture in particular, in which Sam was sort of reaching toward the camera, it looked like he wanted to throttle one of us.  The fellow employee just looked at me with pity.

At least twice during the term of my employment, I heard an employee use a “Sam-ism,” so to speak, to either motivate or correct another employee.

But that’s not the best part.  The best part is that at Walmart staff meetings, they play Sam Walton trivia, which consists of questions about Sam Walton’s life taken from his books, which, by the way, are recommended reading.  And what do you get if you win Sam Walton trivia?  Just guess  That’s right, a better box-cutter.  A nice box-cutter with a comfy grip and new blades, instead of the crappy box-cutters that everyone gets.  And they go ape-shit for the new box-cutters.  They love them.  They name them.  They taunt those without new box-cutters.  They form new box-cutter cliques. 

The third thing most people don’t know about Walmart is the Ten Foot Rule.  When a customer comes within ten feet of an employee, that employee must stop what they are doing, smile, and ask the customer, “How May I Help You?”  Now, in Oklahoma, where people are generally more friendly (it’s true), they’re very good at the Ten Foot Rule.  In California, not as much.  But that doesn’t mean that Walmart employees in California or anywhere else don’t know about the same Ten Foot Rule they know about in Oklahoma.  So feel free to challenge your local employees.  If you’re within the ten foot zone and are being ignored, maybe a little “Ahem.  Ten Foot Rule.”  Actually, that’s mean.  Don’t do that.  To hell with Walmart and their Ten Foot Rule.

Which brings me to the final (for now) thing that most people don’t know about Walmart, which actually maybe everyone knows about Walmart:  Ten Foot Rule or not, the only thing Walmart employees are really really able to help you with is where things are in their department. They know where things are in their department because no matter how big or small the item that employee has placed that item in that spot or on that hook hundreds if not thousands of times.  But beyond that, don’t assume that every employee is an expert or even interested in their department.  Hardware people are not sent to hardware, or sporting goods people to sporting goods.  People are sent where people are needed.

For example, I worked for three weeks in the Purcell Supercenter’s Tire and Lube Express.  I changed hundreds of people’s oils.  The top-side part.  Changed their air filter, checked levels, tire pressure, etc and most importantly filled their engine with oil.  I rotated and balanced hundreds of tires.  I had no idea what I was doing.  None.  I couldn’t get a job sweeping the floor in a non-Walmart garage or tire shop.  I was taught a series of steps that I performed over and over  People that know me well know that I know nothing about cars or engines or tires.  Nothing.  Nothing.  Nothing.  So think about that the next time you drop off your keys and head inside to buy a new comforter.

No Title!

I started writing Parnucklian for Chocolate three years ago during my teacher credentialing night classes, which took place on Monday and Wednesday nights and which were super boring most of the time and often bearable only—with the pretense of taking notes—by making a grocery list or drafting one’s will or doodling the same 3D-looking box over and over or—as was the case the day I sort of out of nowhere starting writing about Josiah, the protagonist of my novel, and his family—writing a story.  I wrote the first twenty pages or so—pretty much the first draft of the first chapter—while sitting in those classes, and a few weeks later I sent those twenty pages in as workshop material to the University of Nebraska’s Low Residency MFA Program, which I began that winter.  Most of the remainder of the novel—which grew to around 300 pages—was drafted in the course of that two year program.

Here are some pictures of those first pages I wrote while not listening to some lecture about reaching every learner, even the “exceptional” ones:

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This Week I Received My Signed Publication Agreement

This week I received my signed Publication Agreement, about which I am very excited, from Red Hen Press, who are publishing my first novel, titled Parnucklian for Chocolate, in the Spring of 2013 (or at least that’s the plan).

In fact, the reason I started this blog a few weeks ago is that one of the things that Red Hen said I should do on this big-list-they-sent-me-of-things-I-should-do-between-now-and-then was to start blogging.  So I did.  And it’s been fun, though it’s admittedly difficult to consistently maintain what with work and marriage and Dr. Oz every day at 4 and Christmas and all that.  When I started I was thinking it would be a daily thing.  But that didn’t happen.  Then I set a goal of 3 posts a week, and that happened for the first week.  But not the week after that or the week after that.  So this week I’m going to shoot again for 3 posts or more, but I at least know I can keep up with posting every week.

Anyway, another thing that Red Hen said I should do on their big-list-of-things-I-should-do (actually, this one was more of a must do than a should do) was to write three descriptions of the novel: a one-line description, a one-paragraph, and a one-page, all of which my wonderful wife Liz helped me with and which I’ll share here:

Here’s the one-liner:

Parnucklian for Chocolate is a dark comedy about what it is to grow up an alien in your own family and your own life.

Here’s the paragraph:

Parnucklian for Chocolate is B.H. James’s first novel.  It is a dark comedy about Josiah, a young teen who has spent his whole life being told he is special.  James’s novel examines the tall tales that exist in all families, and what happens when we lose control of them.  Josiah was raised by an overwhelmed and overwrought mother who told him his father was from the planet Parnuckle.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.  His origin mythology is a web of 1980’s pop culture references and a mad desire to make a mistake mean something.  It is a novel that examines what happens when we start to see how crazy our parents are, and how crazy we were to ever believe them.  It is a novel that shows us how grown up kids have to be, and what freaks we all are.

Here’s the pager:

Parnucklian for Chocolate is a novel about growing up an alien in your own family and your own life.  The story follows Josiah from the age of five to sixteen.  As a small child, Josiah willingly believed that his absence of a father could logically be explained by the simple fact that his father was a high ranking alien official on the planet Parnuckle.  It explained so much, such as why he should only eat chocolate and why he should be proud of and idolize his father, the Keymaster of Gozer, even though they’d never met.

But as time goes on and gaps in this mythology widen, Josiah is faced with two options: either it’s all very real or it’s all very pretend.  Both answers constitute a huge betrayal.  This comes into sharper focus when Josiah meets Bree, a prematurely mature girl who has also been repeatedly betrayed by her parents.  And when Josiah’s mother marries Bree’s father and they attempt a typical all-American nuclear family, chaos ensues—equal parts despair and absurdity.

This is a story that examines in sometimes pathetic, often hilarious style what it is to be the victim of who your parents are.  It is a story that shows just how grown up children often have to be, and how alone we leave them even when they are in our care.  It is a story that recognizes we all rely on mythologies about ourselves to make the least bit of sense of our lives.

The characters are vivid.  The scenarios are absurd.  The style is distinct.  The humor is dark.  Parnucklian for Chocolate is sure to stay with you for years to come. 

BH James has taken a bizarre situation and made it relatable and recognizable to all those who read it—alien or otherwise.

By the way, I’m being published as BH James because it’s more Googleable.  If you Google Bill James you get the baseball guy.

The Absurdity of Sears (Or At Least the Absurdity of One Thing Some Employees at Sears Are or Were Doing)

Liz and I bought a washer and dryer on Black Friday.  Five days earlier, we had been instructed by the participants of Occupy San Luis Obispo (all eight of them) to stick it to the man by not purchasing anything whatsoever on Black Friday.  But we did anyway.  It’s so much fun.  We got up at 4 in the morning and went to Target and bought hecka stuff and then to Macy’s for even more stuff (in both cases, utilizing the numerous gift cards we were so kindly given at our wedding) and finally Sears where, as stated, we found a seemingly (and now, having processed through them several loads, I can confirm not merely seemingly but indeed quite) perfectly operational washer and dryer at nearly half the price. 

Our last washer and dryer I had purchased on craigslist from a nice lady who had upgraded.  That washer and that dryer, likewise, were perfectly operational, but we had to sell them last summer when we moved to New York.  Upon returning to California last summer, we did not replace them, and have been frequenting the laundromat ever since, which—what with having a car again and all—isn’t as bad as lugging a thirty pound bag of dirty clothes down three flights of stairs and down the block as we did each week in Brooklyn, but it’s not the most convenient thing ever and we were pretty eager to do laundry at home again.

Anyway, this isn’t a post about exploding appliances or anything like that, merely about what we saw when we returned to Sears this past Thursday to pick up our purchase.

Let me set the scene:  Sears has a pick-up area.  In the back.  There are some large sliding doors, special parking spots to back up to, and a waiting area adjacent to the warehouse with some chairs and such.  Within the waiting area, posted in two or three different places, are notices of a policy in which the customer receives a coupon for store credit if said customer has to wait longer than five minutes to receive their merchandise.  Also posted on this wall is a whiteboard boasting that on that particular day, 100% of customers had waited less than five minutes, and for the entire month, 94%.  Facilitating this policy and these statistics were a mounted television screen listing customer last names and their corresponding wait times and a self-service digital kiosk which scanned either the customer’s receipt or the card used for purchase.  When the receipt or card is scanned, your name appears on the screen and the clock starts.  Sounds great, right?

So when Liz and I entered this waiting area, before noticing any of the notices or statistics, we found eight to ten people—enough people to fill the waiting area sufficiently enough that not everyone could move out of the range of the sensor governing the automatic sliding door, preventing said door from closing—all looking both weary and frustrated.  Liz and I looked at one another with a maybe-this-will-kind-of-suck-but-oh-well-washer-and-dryer-yay look, and once we had waited long enough that the other waiters felt a sense of solidarity with us and began conversing with us, it was revealed that they had been waiting anywhere from an hour to two, which seemed strange given that by that point we had noticed the notices regarding the wait policy and the impressive accompanying statistics and also noticed that though there were eight to ten weary and frustrated customers in the room with us, there strangely were no customer names, let alone wait times, listed on the screen mounted above us.

The reasons behind this discrepancy became clear when a nice older lady was brought her dishwasher.  It goes like this: when you enter the waiting area, Employee 1 politely asks you what you are picking up and tells you oh yes I can help you with that may I please see your receipt thank you it will be right out.  Employee 1 then reads the item number to Employee 2, who then radios the number into the warehouse while Employee 1 sort of stands in front of the self service kiosk.  When the item is finally located in the warehouse (or in the store, maybe, I don’t know) and is on its way to the pick up area, Employee 2 is notified by radio, Employee 2 tells Employee 1 to go ahead and scan, Employee 1 scans the receipt, and the customer’s name suddenly appears on the overhead screen and the clock starts.

The nice older lady with the new dishwasher, though she reported having waited for nearly an hour, had a “Wait Time” of thirty-four seconds.  A nice young man who purchased a new riding lawnmower and who claims to have waited for an hour and a half had a “Wait Time” of ten seconds.

You can’t really blame these employees.  Someone or some committee at Sears corporate (part of the 1%, probably) came up with this idea for this policy and passed it down to the stores, probably putting a bunch of pressure on the store manager who then put pressure on the warehouse manager who put pressure on Employees 1 and 2 to uphold this policy that particularly during the Holiday season is probably unrealistic.

And it’s not like anyone—or at least anyone while we were there, including us—really challenged it.  Once people had their merchandise, it was all in the past.  So Liz and I spent twenty minutes marveling at the absurdity, had our twenty second wait time, and were headed home toward laundry bliss.