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Vignettes from six years within the Cult of Sam

As I walked through the new mega-Walmart on South Pacific Highway earlier this week, I experienced flashbacks to my six years within the Cult of Sam.

It was my college job that expanded one year beyond college. I have no regrets, and for all the philosophical and social problems Walmart represents about American culture and enterprise, I have to say that working there in my late teens and early 20s wasn't all bad.

Of course, at the time I thought donning the blue smock and zombie-walking my way to the punch clock was a fate on par with 58 years in a Stalin-era Soviet labor camp. I briefly considered writing a book of personal essays about my time in the Cult of Sam for my English senior thesis. The title was to be "Darkness on the Edge of the Parking Lot," a riff on my favorite Bruce Springsteen album.

Sorry, but I don't have stories in which I'm forced to work unpaid overtime, and I was not given a "Clockwork Orange"-type lobotomy in a dark room behind the pre-cooked chicken grill that made me hate unions, gays, atheists, the Spice Girls or any other form of toxic liberalism.

But that's not to say those six years were not eventful, or even character building. The following are two vignettes that basically encompassed my Walmart experience. I suspect my stories sound familiar to those who have donned the blue smock.

Dead fish

The first thing I did every Saturday morning for two years was scoop dead fish from the wall of aquariums. The pet department was my first post when I began my Walmart career in fall 1997. Pets was fairly low key. The only hustle was keeping the dog food aisle stocked and making sure some kid didn't strangle his little sister to death with the doggie choke-chains we sold.

The worst part was dead fish detail. Our store's aquarium system was outdated and most likely could have been the focus of an animal cruelty lawsuit had PETA members shopped there. The glass was perpetually slimy and the system leaked a pungent blue slime on the lower left corner of the floor that I had to mop up two or three times a day.

And it was my job every Saturday morning at 7 a.m. to flip on the aquarium lights and survey the carnage. There were times when I'd fill two large Ziploc bags with the limp bodies of angel fish, gold fish, betas, sucker fish and tiger oscars. I'd write down the causality list and the price of each dead fish, add up the butcher's bill and then slip my findings in a slot outside the manager's office.

I didn't want to be a boat rocker, but after a few months of this I asked my store manager if there was anything we could do to lessen the suffering in those aquariums. I was told not to worry about it and to focus on keeping the dog food aisle packed. A customer had complained the previous day that she couldn't find the Alpo flavor her puppy wanted.

Stan's bloody head

Four years later, I was sent to work at the Tire and Lube Express at another store. My job was to change oil and repair and replace tires. I had never changed my own oil nor broken a tire off a rim prior to this shift, but it was not my place to argue with Sam's Will.

Why anyone would risk placing their $60,000 Ford F350 in the hands of Walmart "tire and lube technicians" is beyond me. But I was weary of toiling beneath fluorescent lights in the main building and welcomed a change.

My trainer was this dude named Stan who had the grease monkey thing down pat. He'd worked in professional garages previously, but I think he was fired for stealing or something like that. Anyway, he was down in the pit breaking a plug loose from an oil pan when he slipped on a puddle of Pennzoil 10W30 and smashed his face against a metal shelf.

I jumped down in the pit and helped him to his feet. Blood poured down the left side of his face and into his eye.

"OK, man, I'm gonna call (Manager X) and get an ambulance," I said.

As I left the pit, Stan suddenly grabbed my arm and with pleading eyes, said, "Stop. They drug test you when you get injured. I need this job, so I'm gonna take off. You tell them that I got sick or something."

And with that, Stan bolted from the pit, leaving me to explain to the boss why his shop manager had left without notice. On top of that, Stan left a blood trail from the pit floor, up a yellow ladder, out the bay door and into the parking lot where his girlfriend, who was a cashier at the time, picked him up. I later became friends with Stan, spending time at his house watching football and listening to his girl play the tuba. I didn't know at the time of his injury that his girlfriend was pregnant, which explains Stan's desire to hot-foot it out of the garage before someone spotted his gory head wound.

I peeked out of the pit to see whether the boss was in the vicinity. Seeing no one, I sprinted across the garage to the janitor's closet and pulled out a mop bucket half filled with grey, foamy water. There was no accompanying mop with this bucket (typical of the way Walmarts operate) so I grabbed a handful of oily rags and wiped away Stan's blood trail, stealing glances over my shoulder to see if the boss was standing there. I felt like a character in a Coen brothers movie.

After most of the blood was wiped away, I collected myself enough to find my manager. When I told him Stan had suddenly gotten sick because of the heat and a migraine, the boss shook his head.

He then started complaining about how hard it was to find good, hard workers these days, or something like that.

I returned to the garage and found that another co-worker had just returned from lunch. When he asked where Stan was, I shrugged.

The dude shrugged back and jumped down in the pit to finish the oil change Stan had started. I stood in the bay hoping that I hadn't missed any blood drops.