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Ode to Kevin Smith by Alex Thiel

Alex Thiel HeadshotPart of me thinks that the dropped ceiling within the musty party store that I worked at must have held in the energy of those who frequented its premises. The only window to the whole building was the poster-covered front door that was limited to letting through small slivers of natural light. Otherwise, the building was illuminated from flickering fluorescent tube lights on the ceiling and the multiple reach-in coolers that lined the outer walls. The non stop droning of fans from the coolers would cut off any ability to hear conversations emanating from deep within the aisles of the bazaar, but when I would make my nightly rounds to turn off all the lights there were times when I felt the reverberations of something otherworldly. Perhaps that eerie feeling was the manifestation of something immaterial that had been waiting around for a long time. The environment of the Big Ten Party Store seemed to keep the remnants of its customers long after they had left the physical walls.  Years after I stopped working there, I feel as if I have held onto remnants as well.

Some of these customers were daily visitors, and sometimes they would even visit multiple times within my own shift. They would greet me behind the counter and make some joke about how “you must be here all the time, don’t you ever go home.” I would say the exact same thing back, dismissing how depressing it was that I was on a first name basis with regulars at the liquor store. A few of the customers had been making their ritualistic daily trek into the windowless building to purchase their vices since before I was even born. 

The first day that I was hired in, my supervisor told me not judge anybody coming in since they were our business. To be honest, I am not the kind of person to even speak rudely when somebody is directly confronting me. But it was draining to the psyche to realize that I was the person helping lead some of these people down the slow road to their eventual demise. I often felt as if I was the hooded boatman guiding them across the river Styx. Once, a woman named Jane even called the store relating to me about how her son had died that day, and she proceeded to ask me to get a couple of six-packs of Miller Lite set up for her for when she came by later. I spent a lot of time within the walls of that old store analyzing. I like to try and discern the machinations behind why individuals act in the manner that they do, and banter from the customers always provided new fodder to work with.

The other employees had been at least ten years older than me, aside from one girl my age named Liv. Something about the environment seemed like it was causing her physical discomfort to be working in such a place. We would talk about music sometimes, and I was actually friends with her brother since I had worked with him at a prior job, but Liv seemed predetermined to remain detached from joy as long was she was within the store. She was never rude to me or anything of that sort, but she had very little patience for the perceived bullshit brought about by some customers. I had not yet reached that point in my employment and was not looking forward to spending more time working there if her reaction was the product of years spent within. Liv had also taken the time out of her life to paint various tiles of the store’s ceiling with intricate recreations of Michigan craft beer bottle labels. I guess she was trying to brighten up the place a bit.

Three months after I started working there, my boss hired his brother Patrick to be a clerk as well. For me, this occurrence felt akin to a breath of fresh air. Patrick was my age but had gone to a different school in the area. We quickly learned we had a lot in common, along with knowing a few of the same people. Unlike me though, Patrick had lived all over the planet. He had spent a bit of time in Australia farming with his brother and had lived in multiple states within the continental United States. He definitely carried himself with a worldly sort of aura, and it seemed as if he had seen and dealt with a lot of strange things. There was one day we worked together, and I had brought in my 3DS to play Super Smash Brothers in a blind spot from the security cameras. The next day Pat showed up with his own 3DS and told me he had just gone out and bought one so we could play together. Once we had gotten past that sort of initial coworker banter and developed our own friendship, we would spend a lot of the seemingly endless downtime by trying to probe the lifestyles of different regulars that frequented our registers on the daily.

We had different viewpoints on these people. Patrick seemed to have very little interest in having any sort of pity for the customers and would often say that they are grown adults making the choice to be there. I tended more towards being overly sympathetic and willing to listen to any sort of sob-story that people would try to tell me as I stood behind that counter, unable to make a quick exit out of any awkward conversation. Many times, I was left standing in dialogue with a customer that was unable to tell from my restless body language and constant attempts to end the conversation that I had other things to get to around the store.

 There was one guy in particular named Tom who would come in daily and play lottery. There was never a set time that he would stop by, but if he had not been there early in the day then it was positive he would be there at night before the store closed up to play Club Keno. Tom would not just come in, run his numbers, and then leave. Tom would sit in the parking lot for hours, sometimes until we closed at midnight, and come in about every half an hour to play lottery numbers. Since we were the two employees who got shafted with the second shift since nobody else ever wanted to close, Pat and I spoke with Tom at length and learned a fair bit amount his life. Tom had said his father used to be an arson investigator, and that he himself was the youngest out of a large family that had been set up well with inheritance for each kid. 

Once, Tom told us that his son had hung himself when he was in high school due to bullying, and that the school had done nothing to mitigate the issue beforehand even when it had been reported. After this conversation I was floored. It was shocking to hear a story with such depressing overtones told almost directly from the source. I had also grown up going to Catholic schools for a time, and had other friends who actually had gone to the same school as Tom’s son albeit at different times. They had also been frank in their interpretations of how cruel people could be in that sort of school. The wound that Tom’s son’s passing had on him after close to twenty years seemed to still be festering even if the subject did not bring many visible wells of emotion every time he spoke about it. I mean, if you were telling a relative stranger about it. 

Pat did not feel the same way. After Tom had left, Pat told me about all the excess information Tom had related to him that I was not privy to. Things that had been related to Patrick by Tom on some nights that I had not been there, or that Tom had told other employees in the decade-plus that he had been coming in. Apparently, Tom’s hours spent at the corner store were hidden from his wife. Tom would call and say that he was out on business or meeting with a friend, while spending the days hiding away from his elderly wife and trying in a fruitless pursuit to finesse money out of the of the Michigan lottery. He would often tell me how he was just one or two numbers from winning out on insanely large paydays, but I knew that it was extremely doubtful he could ever hit big. Tom had been to rehab for his addiction multiple times, never having any permanent help, and it had gotten to the point where the rest of his family had removed the inheritance that his father had left for him in hopes that Tom’s gambling would get better. In a sense, Tom’s handling of the tragedies of his life involved removing himself from the rest of his remaining circle. 

I could relate a bit. There were a lot of different things that I held away from those who were close to me, but nothing that would take up vast majorities of my day every single day. Pat and I would spend time wondering about how Tom’s life had to be if he was hiding so much of his life from the last people around him. In the end, each individual person lives their own lives within the boundaries of their mind and can make their own concessions on the external factors that they deem important. It was a sort of awakening the day that we spent talking about Tom and his life. The hours that had been lost to addiction could have been spent building up relationships with those around him, or even utilized in more productive ways that may have helped him to deal with his loss without funneling money into a black hole.

Life is a funny thing. I had spent so much time within the walls of the dank building thinking about how pointless my own existence was, how I would inevitably end up working in a similar place to where I was at for the rest of my life. The more time I spent within the premises of the party store, I began to realize I could not end up like that. The years that I had spent there had already weighed heavy upon my shoulders, and a lifetime of supplying liquor and nicotine for the working class already seemed to be laid out within my cards. Tom and his story had me empathetic for his own situation, but I realized that I could not be overwhelmed by my own feelings of sympathy. The context of the building had made me into a listener while Tom related his story, but it was my own experience that made me interpret his words the way that I did. 

Originally, I had felt that Tom was a result of the world acting upon him. Numerous tragedies had led him to feeling the constant need to scratch his itch and submit to his addiction. After my time spent at Big Ten, and more specifically after my time spent working with Pat, I started to see everybody in different lights. We are not solely the creation of past experiences, and every single day allows us the ability to break off what has held us down before and move towards a better life experience. Sometimes, we do not have the strength to do move on in a positive way and continue to harm ourselves for a multitude of possible reasons. 

I still could not bring myself to judge the regulars at the corner store, but I was able to see through a more developed lens. I have no authority to judge anybody, and I try my hardest to give people the benefit of the doubt when I see them in situations that I have minimal context for, but at the same time I must be aware that there could be any number of situational factors that led them to that point. Within my own existence, the relationships that I form with those around me are relative to those own situational factors. The people around me are dealing with innumerable things that they may not relay to me to function as benefit for my understanding and that is okay. 

I am not sure in what ways that my time at the party store completely affected me, I doubt that I will know for sure for a long time until I have enough wherewithal to look back and see the different paths I could have followed if I had stayed there. The emotional connections that I received from the customers and more specifically from Pat have seemed to stick with me though. Even when the world seems insurmountable, it is still our personal choice to be here every day and deal with the stresses. Our human agency is what defines our lives.

Department of Writing and Rhetoric

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