Monday, February 11, 2002

How Kmart Helped Me Become a Man (Albeit a Whimpering One)

The most enjoyable year of my life (or as the kids like to say "the funnest") was either fifth grade when I was the indisputable four square champ of the Central Park Elementary School playground, or my freshman year at Macalester College where it seemed so refreshing to be able to attend mind boggling classes, and have all night philosophical conversations where the possibility became more and more clear that there existed a whole world I didn't know a thing about.

Funny thing though whenever you are able to pinpoint with such precision the exact moment when something is "most" anything that whatever is to follow is by its very nature a letdown (or "bummer" as the kids say).

One of the things that become readily apparent my first year away from home was that all the high falutin talk about the true meaning of life and other grand ideas didn't exactly square with the real world where people had bills to pay and mouths to feed.

So my sophomore year of college I did what any boy with middle class guilt would do, I got me a job at the neighborhood Kmart.

This was my first actual job, one where unlike my college work study, I had to apply and interview for. When they called me up to offer me a job in the sporting goods I felt like I had won the lottery. They liked me, they really really did.

The contrast between my day life as a student at a prestigious (or at least it likes to think it is) liberal arts institution and my night life as a sales clerk for one of America's most storied retailers whose clientele is heavily weighted toward the blue collar type couldn't have been more stark. But I enjoyed my co-workers from the moody Ernie Gonzalez who taught me everything I know about fishing lures (which is little), to Steve Gelking who taught me everything I know about being smooth with the ladies (which is even littler).

By day I would write another solid B+ paper or sit silently in a journalism class with my then rather limited point of view ballooning just by the exposure to those from other cultures and upbringings. At night I would sell another shotgun to a frightening looking person or mess up drilling three bowling balls so I could sell the perfect fitting one to a customer who wouldn't know the difference. I liked the campus life as much as I did getting on the store PA and doing a Blue Light Special on golf balls with deference to Phil Collins, "It's a su-su-su-per deal!" And they paid us in cash every Friday leaving some with the temptation to wander through the store and buy that car mat that we had had our eye on for a long time.

The two worlds collided one spring semester when I was taking an American History class that actually had the audacity to question America's foreign policy actions and the Sunday I was busy straightening up a gym bag display located on the main aisle into the store. I was just about finished with the chore when a man, dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans stood at the display next to mine, a display that held men's underwear. He picked up one of the packages and said in a gruff voice I'll never forget, "Made in the USA" a reference I'm sure that had something to do with my puzzled Asian face.

The message was clear: I didn't belong in this most American of settings, and my ancestors had obviously wronged this man or this man's family in some harsh way. And there were still things his country (which obviously wasn't my country or our country) did better than wherever it was I came from even if it was just briefs making. My perceptions about being an American were rapidly crystallizing. It seemed apt that months later I would be fired from the store through a misunderstanding that to this day tears at my heart and afterwards my mom staged a personal boycott of the retailer not letting my dad shop at the store (not that they ever really did). And somehow it makes me feel both vindicated and sad that the corporation has now filed for bankruptcy.

A similar deflated feeling of community hit me like a storm as I watched the Super Bowl pre-game show last week. The corporate patriotic hype around the game seemed to represent all that is wrong with this country, or at least what this country would be like if Frank Burns had gotten the better of Hawkeye and Trapper, with all the fabricated heart tugging emotion and extravagance. It was a garish display capped by Paul McCartney singing the truly dreadful wannabe anthem "Freedom" that sounds as if it was written in five minutes. The whole thing was enough to make me want to check the label on the boxers I had on (purchased at Target). One day later Mee Moua, the first Hmong legislator in the nation, was sworn into her Minnesota State Senate seat leaving one to inconclusively wonder whether her election or the atmosphere accompanying the football game better represents what this country truly is about.

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