Valentines Day, New York City, 1990
Quentin was desperate to make the rent. The superintendent had rapped on his door that morning with a message from the landlord: pay up or get out. It was a tiny studio in a crumbling 5 story walk-up on East 93rd St. near 1st Avenue. Quentin felt lucky to have it. After an unpromising job interview in the West Village, he saw a Help Wanted sign in the window of the Duane Reade drug store on Sixth Avenue.
This Duane Reade grew like a split-level tumor out of the West 4th Street Subway Station. Inside the store looked like may have been dropped there from a great height, like Dorothy’s house in Oz, and never settled itself. Its main entrance smelled of piss and was haunted by a scrawny crackhead who shook an angry cup at you when you entered. A layer of dust and grime covered the narrow aisles and sparsely stocked shelves and dust balls roamed the floors.
The cashier, Prudence Pinderloo, (her name tag said), glared at him and summoned the manager, Nigel Pinderloo, a short, stout brown man, who glared at him as well and asked him a few terse questions. He was hired. When he reported for duty the next morning Quentin was planted at the high impact, temperamental register after a brief, brusque lesson from Prudence. He struggled to master its complicated keyboard and wondered if the thorny Pinderloos had designed it themselves.
The pharmacy in the basement was run by Nigel’s brother, Trevor Pinderloo, and his daughter, Cecily. Hostility seeped like poison gas from the Pinderloos and filled every dirty crevice of the store. For the Pinderloos, the customer was the enemy and there were several shouting matches a day. They were from Guyana and Quentin suspected it was French Guyana where they had managed the Duane Reade on Devil’s Island.
Nigel’s mother, Priti Pinderloo, worked at the store part-time. She was a tiny woman with a sweet round face and wore her gray hair in a ponytail over a foot long. Priti spent her time humming while she dreamily tickled the empty shelves with a feather duster.
When Quentin carried some boxes to the storage room, he bumped into her and knocked her glasses off her face. They fell onto the floor and he, unwittingly, stepped on them. After that none of the Pinderloos spoke to him. After he punched in, he went directly to the register where he remained until one of his two fifteen-minute breaks or his half hour lunch. The Pinderloos had found a way to bark at him without looking at him and every day he asked himself, Am I here?
Quentin found that, despite the nonstop volume, he liked dealing with the customers. They were mostly sturdy Greenwich Village regulars, sophisticated lifelong New Yorkers, bohemians! There were always some actors he recognized from television but couldn’t name including the guy who played Mr. Whipple in the Charmin commercials. Every once in a while someone asked him to squeeze the Charmin and took a picture with him. Dazed painters and sculptors in splattered sweatshirts on a break from their masterpieces bought cigarettes, Slim Jims, and paper towels. Interwoven among them all were the neighborhood psychos who were just trying to get warm or cool while they shoplifted.
He liked it when the kids got out of school at 3pm and poured into the store to buy candy, soda, and chips. They were loud and out of control, but Quentin enjoyed their energy as the well-behaved ones tried to get the most for their money and the shady ones with wily, innocent faces, bought the cheapest thing, and stuffed their pockets with as much swag as they could fit.
Though he wasn’t the most efficient cashier and could never figure out coupons and returns, the customers preferred him to the Pinderloos, of course. One regular asked, “How can you stand them?”
Though he hated the exhausting job, he was able to make the rent that month.
On Valentine’s Day, he was on duty for eight hours when every last-minute shopper below 14th Street jammed the store to buy last-minute heart-shaped boxes of Russell Stover’s discounted, thoughtless candy, thoughtless cards, and faded red roses for their beloveds. If he loved someone, he would be embarrassed to hand them these shoddy love tokens on this manufactured Hallmark holiday. Looking at the tense, unhappy faces at his register, he imagined the disappointed ones who would be presented with these inconsiderate trinkets.
His register jammed several times and Nigel angrily fixed it without even looking at him. The lines of last-minute lovers snaked through the tight aisles and thrummed with anger and frustration. Everyone was making New York Minute calculations about each other as time stood still in the pitiless fluorescent light. The thrumming was punctuated by incongruous, peppy computerized voices promoting Valentine specials and flu shots.
The smell of the cheap chocolate oozed from the bright red, heart-shaped boxes and gave him a headache. When he got a short bathroom break, he went to the pain reliever aisle, but the shelves were empty. Mother Pinderloo was dreamily massaging them with her feather duster.
After five hours of his eight-hour shift, red hearts swam before his eyes, and he began to hallucinate. He thought of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poem, A Coney Island of the Mind. He seemed to have fallen into a Duane Reade Of The Soul, an existential sinkhole where everything is advertised but nothing is available on the dusty, puke green shelves. A place where kindness shriveled like the ancient roses, where the Pinderloos snapped at you without looking at you. and dignity was impossible without a fight. He was ashamed of himself for having this miserable, minimum wage job, being bad at it, and for having no Valentine on this idiotic, manipulative holiday.
He was drenched in flop sweat and feared that either he or the store would implode, collapsing onto the subway tracks below. He punched out after 10pm and crawled into bed where he hid the whole next day. When Nigel called to find out where he was, he quit.
“I knew you were a pussy,” Nigel said.