Incident In A Mall # 57 - Taking Care Of Number One
Try to memorise the following three numbers: 35711 - 01988 - 21087.
Now match the first number to an item in a shelved stockroom and while doing that, hold the remaining two numbers in your head. Then, locate all three items and bring them to three separate customers within a time frame of four minutes. Repeat the process fifteen times an hour for seven hours and this is a typical day of your working life.
But this is not about you, by a long shot. This is about Joe.
Joe McCormack is a runner at one of the country's leading sports shoe retailers in a mall on the east coast. There is no intended pun in his job title. He does not run for miles in the latest sports footwear; his job is to 'run' back and forward between the storeroom and the front of shop for the 'servers.' He never runs, he walks quickly, at a pace he thinks his own, and there is some dignity in that.
The job of 'sales staff' is split into 'server' and 'runner' because, although there are 3,000 shoes on display, each shelf has only one size of shoe, and there are 24 other sizes in the stockroom, making the total number of pairs of shoes available between 40,000 to 50,000. One person cannot both serve and retrieve the shoes as this would leave customers stranded and waiting, so the runner fetches, while the server keeps the customer distracted from the pain of boredom and waiting.
Behind the scenes, the shoes are arranged linearly from 00001 (by the back-of-store door), to the final number on the last shelf at the far end, which is currently 45683 - where a pair of Nike Unleashed Mid iD running shoes in a size 13 is to be found. You would think there would be some computerised system, scanners, barcode numbers, bleepers, with numbers on some portable screen that Joe can read. But in this and every other sports retailer, the products are space age and the staff conditions Dickensian. Joe has to memorise all the numbers and search by eye.
At weekends, when it's busiest, and he's running for two or three servers at the same time, he'll be in the back getting three boxes when his walkie-talkie calls in another number, say: 13993, Reebok Track, size 3. The more customers, the greater the chance Joe will get the numbers mixed up, but this is rare as he's worked here for three years.
However, this is also a problem.
Joe is running out of time. Head office rarely employ staff over the age of twenty, as they seek to mirror the demographic of their main customer base. Already at nineteen, he is getting 'too old'. And Joe is about to become a father. On the wall at home at his mother's, where he lives, he has a calendar, and every day he scores off another number till the due date. Forty-one days to go. His girlfriend, Sally (18) has done the maths on his wages and thinks they'd be better off on the dole with her getting child support. Joe's against this though 'cos they'd have to pretend Sally was a single mum and social security could do them for fraud.
Fuck that and fuck them all.
He never knew his dad, and his mum's never had a job. He wants to have a real family for once. Sally says if they're gonna live together he'll have to make more money and get promoted out of the stockroom, but this scares him, as he's fine with numbers, but it's folk he has the problem with.
Promotion means moving from runner to server.
Today is his trial run as a server and a new kid of sixteen will be his runner. He's sure the kid'll get lost in the stockroom and screw everything up, and he's kind of hoping for it. The kid's called Nick; he wears Vans, has a lip stud and an eyebrow piercing, both of which, Karen, the floor manager, has insisted he remove. When Joe explained the job to him, Nick said: Jeeso, can they no get a fuckin' robot to do that?
The first customer arrives; a young mum. She wants Nikes for this toddler in a padded suit that's crawling around Joe's feet and can't even stand. Joe thinks it's insane, that she'd waste sixty quid on these things the kid'll grow out of in a month, that might even damage the natural growth; but he calls it in on the walkie-talkie to Nick, reading back the shelf number from inside the left shoe: 15774. He adds: Kids, size 1, just to help Nick out. Minutes go by. The kid is trying to climb up his leg and there's no sign of Nick.
Due to the layout of the mall, with each retail outlet being a long thin rectangle with no basement or ceiling storage, the stockrooms are essentially narrow corridors wrapped around the shop like a sheath. Their stockroom has only one entry point, so you have to walk past the same numbers every time you enter - over two hundred times a day. Staff get bored, they do secret things to try to make it more engaging. Jemma - smoking, till she set off the alarms; Tim - popping tabs; Sally texting her mates (phones are banned from front of shop); Debs and Tony doing things for which they got fired.
Nick is finally back, with the right box, smiling and lurking about; he wants to stay and watch Joe fitting the shoe. The kid will not sit still, it wrestles and screams and will not let its mum nor Joe put its feet in the doll's house versions of real trainers.
Joe used to be well into trainers. He thinks about the 486,000 they sell a year and how maybe only one person actually needed a shoe scientifically designed for a world-class athlete, and how most folk just wear them to the shops. And it's not like the kid's going to grow up to be Michael Jordan just cos he's got Air Jordans. And when his kid's born, they'll have to go through the same shit, or the kid'll get teased for having the wrong trainers. And that's more fucking money.
The mum hums and haws about the price and asks him again, again, if she can get them in the sale and why not? And it's clear she couldn't afford them even if they were, but he can't lose his rag cos floor manager Karen is hovering. So the mum is dragging the kid off muttering the price like it's a fuckin' liturgy, over and over 59.99, 59.99.
Next it's a group of lads in Reeboks and Lacoste and he knows they've no readies for the Adidas they say they want; knows fine well where they're from, cos he's not too many streets away from that shite himself. They'll no buy a thing; just here for the wind-up, a bit of mayhem. He tries to bottle it and get them out as fast as possible, but they're shouting instructions at him. Him. And he feels a bit of the power of it, cos it's not him that has to run, it's the runner. So, quite the thing, he sends Nick off for four pairs of this, four pairs of that. They're laughing as soon as the kid's turned to get the shoes. Karen loiters and stares. Joe has to make a sale and they're hogging his time and the old anger is coming back. He leans in and hisses in his own voice, not his sales voice, the one that scares Sally, the wee whisper.
Hey ya scum, get the fuck out of here!
They give him the finger as they go, knocking over a stack of football boots, which he then has to pick up.
Next it's this hefty bloke, forties, stinks of fags, and he wants a pair of Usain Bolt Yugo Run Pumas in a size 9. He hands Joe the shoe from the rack and it's a 6. Joe contacts Nick by walkie-talkie, reads out the number and asks for a nine. Try on the shelf above, he says. The man grows impatient in the time it takes Nick to return, empty-handed. Nick can't find a nine, he apologises; there's only 7s and 11s. The man looks them both over and asks Are you sure? Nick hesitates so Joe takes it on himself to go into the back to double-check. The kid was right. Joe hopes to hell the guy won't do what he thinks he's about to do, but that's what he does.
Let me try the 7 then, he says.
If you haven't got their shoe size, they take it like a slap. They probably work in a job just as shit as you, but when they come in here they want to be treated like David Beckham. They want you to call Puma or Nike personally and get a pair of handmade trainers flown in by jet. All you can do is try to interest them in something else, which is what Joe does, showing the guy a pair of almost identical New Balance.
No, no, no, The Pumas! the guy says, the 7!!
Joe nods at Nick, Best bring the 11 too, save yourself a trip, he says. The kid doesn't understand how the guy will try on the 7 and grunt and swear as his toes nearly break, then he'll insist on trying the 11, then he'll complain that it's too big, and all the time, you can't say Maybe you'll grow into them, or Maybe the leather'll stretch, because if you do, the next day, they'll be back, with damaged shoes, demanding a refund, and your name will be dragged through it and you'll have to pay for them.
It happens, just as predicted - the guy trying to stamp his foot into the 7, balancing against Joe, face bloating purple, saying, They're a wee bit tight. Then it's the 11s, and as the guy tries to walk in them he trips on that whole two inches of empty space at the toe, and curses the shop and Joe.
Three customers and no purchases and supervisor Karen watching.
What other sizes have you got? the guy asks.
You are a 9, Joe says, you need to buy something in a nine.
The guy shouts, Get me your supervisor, smart arse! Joe sees the time that he has left not in days or weeks, but in seconds. Look, he says to the guy in that voice, hissing through teeth, There's three thousand trainers in here and they're all the fuckin' same. So, take yer pick and be on your way.
As he passes the man's frozen face, Joe takes the shoe boxes from Nick's arms and says, I'm going back into the back. Karen heads swiftly over, asking the customer if he is happy with the service, calling after him - Joe, Joe! But he keeps on going. Joe is a runner, not a server, and he has just run out of time.
This story is from the collection, Tales from the Mall, now available in paperback and Kindle. App launches on 1st June.