12:04 AM, January 22
I walk into the new Walgreens, a shade of gray just lighter than death.
Saccharine radio pop-rock-hip-hop blares from unseen speakers. This week’s
specials scream from all sides.
‘Could I have an application please?’ I ask the cashier. He pulls one out
from under the desk and smiles slightly. He knows something. I ask him about
this shift. It’s 4 pm to 12 am paving the way for the graveyard shift, 12
am to 8 am.
I figure that’s where I want to be. Halfway between New Haven ghettoes
and Yale-New Haven Hospital, there’s gotta be interesting stuff going on
at 4 am under these fluorescent lights.
But will I get shot?
"Well, yeah, if the bullet’s got your name on it "
2:00 PM, January 29
Having returned the application and gotten the call I was waiting for, I
show up for the "computer test." The questions on the test are
strictly to ensure that I am right for Walgreens and Walgreens is right
for me; it will be helpful only if I am completely truthful.
The first few questions have to do with how many crimes I’ve committed
and how recently. Then I move on to the drug section. "Walgreens understands
that it is typical in American society to experiment with drugs. However,
Walgreens is not interested in hiring any addicts."
The next screen is blunt: "What kind of items have you stolen from
your employer(s) in the past 24 months?" The choices include:
(a) Food, candy, chips, etc.
(c) CDs, hair dryers, records, etc.
(f) Cars, jewelry, etc.
To supplement: "What would you say is the total cash value of the items
you’ve stolen from your employer(s) in the past 24 months?" the options
range <$1 to >$100,000.
Actual Walgreens employees come onto the computer screen. They tell me what
they like best and worst. They like the camaraderie best. A chipper
young woman intones that the most difficult thing to get used to is angry
customers; she looks pretty angry herself.
Finally, the crucial test. A video of a customer is to be shown, and I am
to respond as I would in reality. A reddish, drooping woman in her
40s materializes. "Yesterday they told me that they’d have my photos
today. Now you tell me they’re not here. I’ll kill you if you tell me to
come back tomorrow!"
The following week I have an interview. After five minutes of questions,
my future boss sighs, "Well, I see no reason not to hire you. So, pending
your passing a drug test, you’re hired." She’s clearly elated to be
working with me, and we shake hands.
9:00 AM, February 4
A trainee watches three videos before beginning employment at the
Walgreens on York Street, where Parking Is Limited To 60 Minutes Or Your
Car is Towed. One of them is called "So You’re Starting a New Job."
It’s the best by far.
The ‘host’ is a man named John Astin. You may remember him from such
films as Get to Know Your Rabbit, Killer Tomatoes Eat France! and Stepmonster,
and as a leader of a Buddhist sect in Santa Monica, or a visiting professor
at Johns Hopkins University. But we’ve all seen him before in the nightmares
of our collective subconscious. He has smiling jowls that seem to curl and
crinkle, and a strange twinkle in his eyes, like Vince Fontaine in Grease,
or a host on a variety show gone sour.
He offers some tips for starting my new job. Tips, he reminds me, that
will help me throughout my life. Like "Watch your appearance!,"
"In your aisle, gets a smile!," and "Nobody waits at Walgreens!"
The Walgreens-specific video is set to a raucous rap sing-along beat. It’s
really old school. It’s really old. Groups of flat-topped employees
are smiling, and yelling things like "Working at Walgreens is great!"
unison. An African man with gapped teeth admits with a smile, "But
working at Walgreens can be hard." I can see myself in the reflection
the television: a little too much hair, collared shirt recently
purchased at Sal’s, moth-bitten cartoonish mod tie, khakis too short. I
doubt I’ll ever get in a company video.
11:30 AM, February 5
This week I’m in training, 9 am to 3 pm. Then I start my graveyard shift,
from 11 pm to 7 am. Kay, a motherly woman in her early fifties, is training
me today and tomorrow.
Run it through the red light. Do it again until it beeps. Press Total when
all the items have been rung up. Type the amount of Cash Tendered. Scramble
for the change. Fast. Don’t forget the receipt. (Five dollars free if I
fail to give you a receipt.) Don’t forget to say Have A Good Day. (Don’t
forget to mean it.)
Keep on standing.
Kay’s been working at Walgreens for 13 years. Pay starts at $7.00 an hour.
She thinks I’m a little crazy for wanting to work the late night shift.
But there’s that feeling of being alone in the world-waking up early-early
for once to see the sun rise and live while everyone else is asleep. A clandestine
I-and-thou with the world.
2:30 AM, February 11
As my new boss Mr. Narichania puts it, "This job, it’s okay, but it’s
nothing to look forward to. It’s work work work all the time. From the moment
you punch in you cannot stop working." When there are no customers
in the store I’m supposed to "face" all the merchandise. This
means ensuring that every battery, bedpan, condom, diaper, and Dorito is
in the front of its shelf space and at a ninety-degree angle. I face the
items as fast as I can.
Ah, new fish!
When I finish, I ask Mr. Narichania what to do next. He thinks for a second.
"Do it again, I guess."
I get lonely here in the wee hours between night and day. Sometimes we only
get one customer an hour, sometimes none. When they come I hang around them,
inspecting their movements for a twitch toward the cash register and hoping
they’ll strike up a conversation. I dote. I want to tell them that I’m lonely
and glad to have them, but I don’t.
5:50 AM, February 25
Strange things happen to my mind at Walgreens. Let me explain.
There is facing. I move an item a few inches forward so that it sits at
the front of its display, right misplaced items, and turn items a few degrees
this way or that, so that they are perfectly square. As always, it is the
appearance of order that really matters. This work takes its toll on me.
Absurd as it may seem, the experience of cleaning up the
store every night only to return the next evening and find it a jungle is
something akin to running on a treadmill, and I can’t help harboring a secret
animosity towards the customers for mussing up the displays. Then there
is the repetitiveness of this work. I face thousands of items a night. There
are over 100,000 Walgreens employees in the United States of America; Wal-Mart
employs "1.3 million associates worldwide"; Kmart,
Target, Rite Aid, the list is endless, and the numbers pile up. Is this
what human beings were put on this earth to do?
Even though the work is mundane, purposeless, and repetitive, I have the
intractable desire to do a good job and am often ashamed by it.The music
is, to put it lightly, maddening. It is omnipresent, persisting through
the 2-5 am hours despite the complete lack of customers. In the break room
I stand on a chair and turn the ceiling speaker off, but every night it’s
back on again. The osmosis of the Muzak’s gray content into my brain is
slowly driving me towards insanity. For once, I’m aware that some of my
colleagues feel the same way, having discussed the matter with Joe the Security
Guard. Husky country voices meld into overproduced pop ballads, an epidemic
of synthesizers into pleading R&B tunes, pedestrian harmonicas into
saxophone solos, painfully catchy odes into competitions over the use of
the word "love." But it all sounds the same through these speakers.
A friend reminds me that this music has probably been tested to ensure that
it leads to a buying mood. I ask Mr. Narichania, and he confirms my suspicion:
The music is beamed into every Walgreens from a satellite. It comes from
The day shift and night shift are completely different. During the day,
there is action, movement, work to be done. During the night there is facing.
During the day the workers talk to each other, laugh, do something to pass
the hours and soften the job. During the night my colleagues are Janet and
Mildred. Janet hasn’t spoken a friendly word to me since I’ve arrived-she
hasn’t spoken 10 words to me, period. I like
Mildred, but I worry that there’s something wrong with her. A typical conversation:
Me: You going to lunch?
Me [making quote symbols, smiling]: "Lunch"?
She: What you mean?
Me: It’s funny to have lunch at 4 am
She: Yeah, that’s lunchtime.
The assistant manager before Mr. Narichania lasted only two months, and
his predecessor’s tenure was four weeks. So they shouldn’t be too surprised
that I’m planning on hanging up my blue vest in a few weeks. I feel guilty,
of course. I don’t think they’ll mind too much, given that they get three
or four new applications every night. The turnover is surprisingly quick
in a high-profile gig like this.
7:24 AM, March 3
Kay walks in, finally.
"My savior!" I yell with a grin.
The customer in front of me, obese under her hospital garb, with Buddy Holly
glasses and diagonally-slicked black hair asks, "This means you can
"Yeah. Get a good night’s sleep," I laugh. It’s groggy, and I’m
"I used to work nights, back when I started at the hospital, for three
long years. The whole world is against you."
"We should have our own neighborhoods-"
" where everyone gets a good day’s sleep, and the calendar day
"It’s a dream."
I hand her some silver and a bag.
"You have a good day."
The trick here, as always, is to get through the next day, hour, and minute,
and not to think about the weeks or months that may follow. It’s just too
depressing. So I sing at 2 am, I dribble a children’s bouncy ball at 3 am,
I dance at 4 AM, and I almost lose my balance at 5 am. I try to create a
parliament of Happy Easter! balloons, and I build pyramids with a pile of
Sony® 6 Hrs (ep) Brilliant Color and Sound Premium Grade videotapes.
Bottom line is, my colleagues work the graveyard shift to get away from
3:40 AM, March 12
A woman with brown hair and her left eye half-closed walks purposefully
into the store and directly to the counter.
"Other than these shirts here, do you guys sell, like, clothes?"
for a second as her lame eye flutters. "My kid got all his clothes
cut up yesterday," she confesses.
I point her to aisle two, where Walgreens stocks a mysterious array of ghetto-fatigue
XXL shirts and XS shorts in bright blues, oranges, and pinks. She runs over
and returns with a shirt and a pair of socks.
"What happened, if you don’t mind my asking?"
"Adam got in a car accident." My smile drops, and I ring up her
Marlboros twice. "He and his friends were driving, and two quads-four
wheelers, not cars!-ran them off the road. The car flipped over, and he’s
in the hospital."
11:00 PM, March 15
As I show up to work one Friday night, my Honduran friend Jesus from the
afternoon shift is preparing to go, and we talk.
"I’m leaving soon," I tell him.
"But your shift just started!"
"No, I mean this job."
"Yeah? Me too. There’s no life here." I know exactly what he means.
"Three people quit last week."
"I guess it’s going around, like some beautiful epidemic. What you
"Computers. That’s my field." I’m impressed, and I’m really happy
Lorna, short with pale features and reddish hair, ambles over to us. "I
went to school to become an RN and a pharmacist. All those degrees, and
I’m working,"-she lowers her eyes and her voice, pauses, then looks
at me-"here. Nobody wants to be here."
A tall black woman steps up and interrupts us. "Do you have an application?"
I’m stoned, and I realize it’s obvious as my hands reach like pincers for
the form, which is missing.
"Sorry, but we’re all out."