As I bagged the last customer’s groceries, I looked at the clock above the tiny Winn-Dixie manager’s office: 9:55 pm. Time again to begin again the nightly cleaning ritual. Without waiting to be told, I headed back to the slop room.
Cleaning the 25,00 square foot store was back-breaking job; and as the lowly bagboy, at the bottom of the store pecking order, the most menial tasks of the process were mine. Above me were cashiers, who only needed to count out and leave; and the stockmen who got the easy job of using the Hobart self-propelled floor scrubbing machine.
It was an unvarying process. After sweeping and dusting the entire store, I’d wait as a stockman walked leisurely behind the Hobart, up and down each aisle. Then I’d take a mop and swab the aisle vigorously from shelf to shelf to prevent streaks. It took me longer than them to complete an aisle, so I’d fall farther and farther behind. Soon I was mopping dry, streaked aisles, which required even more energy. By 11:00 pm, I’d be alone, exhausted, with my mop and gleaming, streak-free floors.
Assistant Manager Frank Palmero was usually the one who closed the store. Frank bore a passing resemblance to Burt Reynolds and he did all he could play this up. He drove a Trans Am, wore a mustache, chewed gum incessantly and laughed at his own snappy comments. But he was all business. I had asked him several times if I could run the Hobart vs mopping. He usually laughed. “Whaddya, kidding me? Chain of command, kid, chain of command.” Slap on the back, smacking sound of gum, laughter.
But on this particular night, it was the Produce Manager on duty, not Frank. Alan Guralnik was an easygoing guy, a recent NY transplant, who sounded a lot like Joe Pesci. But he was much more approachable than Frank. What the heck, I thought. Worth a shot. I walked up to the cashier’s window and spoke through the circular hole.
“Hey, Alan,” I said.
He was writing and spoke without looking up. “Yeah.”
“I was wondering….could I use the floor machine tonight?” I asked.
Suddenly, I had his attention. Bucking the established system was a big deal. He looked at me, taking in my immature appearance, clip-on tie, Winn-Dixie name badge. I don’t know, maybe he saw a little of himself in me, the new guy from NY, an outsider among peers. But surprisingly he said “Yeah, OK. Tell Ronnie I said it was OK.”
Incredulous, I walked to the slop room. Ron Dietrich…another 70s throwback who looked like one of the Bee Gees, with a bushy afro, a gold chain, and a polyester shirt…already had the hose in the front of the streaked and grimy Hobart machine. The soapy water was rising.
“Hey Ronnie,” I said casually. “Alan said he’s gonna let me run the Hobart tonight.” Guess you’re gonna mop, sucker!
Ronnie looked at me, waiting for the joke to end and for me to reach for a mop. When I didn’t, his face darkened. “What?” he glowered. “Alan said that?”
“Yeah, “ I replied.
Ronnie didn’t say a word but pushed through the double swing doors and strode angrily up the middle frozen food aisle toward the cashier’s office. The cashiers and other stockmen, who were clocking out, sensed something interesting and lingered.
Ronnie walked up to the window, spoke briefly, and Alan emerged from the office, palms out in a placating attitude. I followed, but didn’t hurry…I thought any show of fear on my part might break the spell…but I heard the end.
“…he’s just a bagboy! I ALWAYS run the machine! He doesn’t know how to DO it!”
Alan looked at me, the semicircle of curious employees, the irate Ronnie. I think he reasoned if his authority was questioned now and he backed down, he might lose his grip of things. What next, cashiers asking to stock shelves?
“Ronnie,” he said. “I said he could run it tonight. Let him run it.” There was an exchange of glances all around….what was this? Clearly, I had done something to earn Alan’s favor. The other stockmen gave Ronnie a sympathetic look as they shuffled out the door.
The Hobart was easy to operate. Two handles were pushed them down to make the it move forward. Hot water and soap were dispensed to the brushes at the front and a large circular squeegee in the back sucked up most of the water, except for lines that required mopping to prevent streaking.
I tried not to look smug as I headed down the first aisle. I held the red plastic handles down and the Hobart made a satisfying shum shum shum sound as the brushes swirled around. I came back after my first pass to find Ronnie leaning on the end of his mop, bucket at his feet. He glared at me. The machine had only one speed and while I was not trying extract payback, I was soon on aisle #4 while Ronnie was just finishing up aisle #2. Only 13 more aisles to go. Ha!
Everything was going gloriously. My suede chukka boot shoes with their crepe soles were easy to walk in and I was barely breaking a sweat. My thoughts drifted away to pleasant things as the merchandise rolled by and Ronnie grew farther and farther behind. I would occasionally see him mopping or pushing the bucket back into the mop room to dump out the filthy water.
As I reached the frozen food aisle in the middle of the store—the halfway point—I could see Alan in the office. I took one hand off a handle for a second and waved. He waved back and smiled.
Winn-Dixie had a sale that week on apple juice. Directly in front of the office was a towering display of 64-ounce Red Cheek apple juice in glass jars. As I rounded the corner, disaster struck.
The crepe sole of my shoe hit one of the watery streaks from the Hobart and my foot shot out from under me. As I fell, I instinctively grasped the handles, keeping it in forward. My face was touching the grimy stainless steel back of the machine as it dragged me blindly around the store. I couldn’t let go because I would have fallen on my face.
The sight must have been startling. I heard my name being shouted and then a tremendous crash as the Hobart plowed through the tower of apple juice like a tank. Glass shattered all around me as the display collapsed, covering me with glass shards and apple juice. The Hobart ran into a register, the machine stopped and the wheels spun in place in the soapy water. I was finally able to let go of the handles, put my hands down, and slowly stand up.
To say it was a mess would be failing to even hint at the carnage. About a hundred shattered bottles, 50 gallons of sticky apple juice, the ruined display, the crumpled shelves. Rivers of apple juice ran everywhere; under the shelves, the magazine racks, the registers, the checkout stands.
Ronnie had come running up to see what had happened but didn’t say anything. I’d like to think it was out of compassion, but I think he realized the danger of doing anything except quietly observing.
The office door opened and Alan stepped out into a lake of apple juice. He carefully picked his way through the mess, surveying things. “Darryl,” he said without looking up. “Go get a mop and clean this up. Then finish the floors. Ronnie, you’re on the Hobart.” Then he went back into the office.
I was crushed. Not only had I disgraced myself, ruined forever another chance to escape mopping, and created a story that would be told for months, maybe years….but worst of all, I had let Alan down. He had given me a chance and I had blown it. As I gingerly picked up glass and mopped up apple juice, I could only imagine the dressing-down he would receive the next day from Frank and the store manager.
I think I finally clocked out about 1:00 am. As I drove home north along US441 with all the rich agricultural smells swirling around me, WQAM playing, and the Big Dipper on the horizon in front of me, one of Mom’s favorite sayings came to mind. Mom, whose 98th birthday would have been yesterday.
This, too, shall pass.