It was a blustery Sunday spring morning about 12 years ago when I arrived at the Cheapo West store looking forward to a quiet morning shift. I hadn't been working for Cheapo very long but Sunday mornings were definitely my favorite times to work. Often I'd be paired with manager Bill Seeler whose taste in music was impeccable. We wouldn't get a whole lot of business until noon time, mostly regulars would stop in and browse the bins, so we were able to get a lot of work done to Bill's soothing classical selections.
This particular Sunday morning I sensed right away that something was amiss. Maybe it was my ultra-sensitive Inspector Clouseau like instincts or maybe it was the unusual sight of a police car parked in the parking lot next to Al's car. Al has always put in a lot of hours into his business but even back then it was rare to see him at the store on a Sunday morning. Being the man with a perpetually present guilty conscience as I approached the store I wondered what I had done so very wrong. Perhaps they had somehow discovered that I was a closet Barry Manilow fan and they were now going to take me away?
As I entered the store I saw what the problem was. A driver (presumably slightly intoxicated) had plowed his vehicle into the southwest corner of the store right into the easy listening A-K section. The wall was crumbled, plaster scattered all around, and you could actually see into the back of the alley from the steps of the store. Al had me pick up the bigger pieces and vacuum up the rest. I didn't know him very well at that point but I was impressed by how calmly he was taking it all. If it had been MY store I'd be cursing up a storm. Then I realized something. It WAS my store. Part of my own anger toward the situation was that some idiot had recklessly destroyed months of my own work (I had spent at least one morning organizing the easy listening section) and had created a whole bunch of new work for my coworkers and me (and just how many Ferrante and Teicher records had he ruined?).
I appreciated how well Al was taking the matter. His calm demeanor conveyed a quiet inspiring confidence- life constantly throws us the unexpected and the best way to deal with that is to do what you can to work your way through the mess. Or as my last best friend would say it's about taking, "baby steps." I'm one who needs to respect those who I work for before I decide to stick around. This was the very moment I realized I'd be around Cheapo for awhile.
Last Monday I was reminded how sometimes a surprise can make your day and sometimes it's the last thing you need. I was sitting at my dimly lit desk in the State Office Building doing some research feeling like I was getting no where quite rapidly. All of a sudden the fire alarms (one of which is right above my cubicle) began blaring. Not that I was working on anything that vital but I felt annoyed knowing that the chance was it wasn't really a fire but rather somebody had probably left their toast in the toaster too long. I walked outside where I was surprised to see the smiling face of a person I wasn't expecting to see having never seen her at my work place before. She was talking on her cell phone but she smiled and waved. She walked over to me and we chatted and she came back to my office to see my tiny little corner space. She glanced at my picture of Max the Cat, who she has volunteered to kitty sit, and was duly charmed.
Later in the afternoon I got an amusing email from out of the blue from a fellow member of the Buffy fan club. At the end of her message she asked if, "I really worked for Cheapo." In my reply I said yes, but it wasn't as glamorous as it sounded.
Looking back maybe the unusual events were an ominous warning sign. The next morning after a reckless (or is that restless) night of tossing and turning I groggily turned on my computer. This person sent me another email indicating that she had heard on the news that Cheapo may be on fire. I wondered what the heck she was talking about when I opened up my copy of the Pioneer Press to a front page fire photo captioned, "Fire destroys four St. Paul businesses on Snelling Avenue." Talk about being the bearer/barer of bad news.
After a morning meeting I got myself out of the office and drove on over to the store. Figuring they might not be allowing traffic in the area I parked a few blocks away. I could smell the pungent odor of burnt everything. As I approached I noticed the Cheapo side of the building didn't look too bad. Then I saw the front. Home Video's roof was nothing but charcoal remains. It looked awful. I then saw Al, Mary, Steve Brown, and Eric Tell and was glad to see everybody, though in a bit of a state of shock, seemed to be in good spirits. This too is just another something we have to overcome.
There is something intensely sad about looking at the ruins from a fire. The fresh ashes only serve as painful memories of all the dreams and work gone up in smoke. For the past couple of years my nephew has trained to become a fire fighter. I've often wondered why anyone would choose that field. Besides the danger, having to deal with destruction over and over doesn't seem like the healthiest endeavor to me. I've been fortunate though I've been burned, I've never been personally touched by a fire.
Thus my own experience comes from reading a series of Peanut strips in which Charlie Brown safe in bed is awoken by the banging on his door from a panicked Snoopy. Charlie goes out to see what the problem is and we see a distraught Snoopy standing next to his dog house which is ablaze. The story goes on to the ruin- Snoopy has lost his pool table and egads, his Van Gogh. As Charlie tells Linus and Lucy of the extent of the damage all Lucy can continuously mutter is, "He was probably smoking in bed."
The other fire memory etched in my mind comes from the TV show "The Waltons." One of my favorite episodes is where the family house burns down and both John Boy and Grandpa blame themselves. John Boy is feeling guilty because he had just taken to smoking a pipe to be a more sophisticated writer and Grandpa fears he is the culprit because he had fallen asleep with a space heater still a burning.
This time it isn't fiction. Yet seeing Al once again with his sense of humor in tact was reassuring. The end result isn't about who or what we can blame. It's about enduring and digging through the rubble because that is what we have to do.