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The Jungle

Blue Light Special

On the last Kmart.


For several weeks, the “EVERYTHING MUST GO!” billboard screamed at travelers driving up I-69 in Michigan. It was the first in a group of signs—each blaring a similar all-caps message—starting five miles outside Marshall and leading passing cars off the highway in something like a haphazard funeral procession which ended at the city’s Kmart. There shoppers paid their respects to the gasping retail chain whose history in the state began sixty years ago, and, in November, ended there, too, when the last of my co-workers locked the front doors one final time. I had left by then and so had most everyone else, a strange crew of hangers-on, often working odd hours and performing unusual tasks. But that was our job: we made everything go.

Of course, it didn’t feel like Kmart was going anywhere when I pulled into the parking lot on my first day. The asphalt was freshly paved, as if the store had just opened. And some of the sale signs plastered on the storefront easily could have been repurposed for a grand opening. That illusion vanished as soon as I stepped inside. A closed in-store Little Caesars loomed over the checkout aisles. Whole sections in the back sat vacant as workers dismantled the shelves. The floor displays were a mess.

I shook hands with Paul, the store’s manager, and he led me into the backroom to fill out some paperwork. I didn’t really know what to expect when he turned me over to Amy, the assistant manager, for the onboarding process. After all, the store was closing in two weeks; there couldn’t be that much to say. It soon became clear that in Amy’s mind, Kmart had already died. She told me I could work whatever hours I pleased and for however long I wished, a practice almost unheard of in retail. When I stocked shelves at Safeway, for instance, I was a slave to the schedule my manager made for me. I was surprised by this Kmart policy and reached for a pen to sign my employment agreement. A small fly crawled across the paper. Amy smashed it.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

She soon took me to the front of the store and passed me off to the mostly female checkout staff. They also had long ago given up on Kmart and spent most of the time when they weren’t helping customers, whom they uniformly hated, bantering about their divorces and children, and bullying Cheryl, a kind older woman whose only misfortune was not sharing in any of theirs. Once, when we were all smoking outside, Cheryl accidentally singed the tips of her hair. Gabby, the checkout staff’s ringleader, mocked her: “Oh? So you’ve never smoked before?” The others piled on, rather cruelly.

I learned a lot about these women. Sophia was going through a rough divorce. She said she would rather be manning the register at the local marijuana dispensary and fantasized about sitting behind the counter sampling the product. Ellie, who had only started a week before me, couldn’t stand being in a place that required her to wear a surgical mask. When I flouted the rule, she confronted me.

“Wait, why don’t you have to wear a mask?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I responded, choosing my words carefully. “No one told me to.”

Ellie looked at Gabby, and Gabby looked at Sophia. They each said one by one that they wouldn’t force me to comply. It was a small comfort, but a comfort nonetheless. Those women looked out for each other—and me.

It was a different story in the back. There two guys with hardly anything in common were clearing out shelving units. The younger one, Declan, had only recently graduated high school, and this was his first job. His father had been here before him, but he quit for the Walmart down the road. And, of course, Declan didn’t want to be at Kmart either: he planned to join the Army once the store shut down. He didn’t have much else to say, except for the stray question about my love life. He asked whether I had a girlfriend (no) and whether I was interested in men (also no). Well, he told me, there were plenty of people back in high school who swung both ways. “You know there are no cameras upstairs,” he added emphatically. “Like, you can do anything, and no one can see it.” He continued the innuendos, but I had heard enough. I stepped outside for a cigarette in the cold rain. 

The other guy, Mike, looked like he was in his sixties, but actually he was only forty-three years old. He had worked at Kmarts around the state for most of his adult life and moonlighted as a Papa John’s delivery driver. He was more focused on work, and, unlike Declan, was affable and easygoing. Like a lot of people with a delivery job, he was upset about high gas prices and blamed the current president. Not too long ago—under Trump, he claimed—gas in Marshall had been just under a dollar. He was also skeptical of electric and self-driving cars, which he was certain were scams. Mike owned three non-electric cars and was proud of all of them. A few years ago, Mike helped break down the second-to-last Kmart in Michigan, just half an hour down the road in Jackson, which made him the backroom’s resident expert. He showed us how to separate out the scrap metal from the rest of the stock and palletize it so that it could be sold to junkyards. He told us that we could take anything we found upstairs; it was all trash at this point anyway.

Declan, perhaps because of the lack of camera surveillance, kept running upstairs and hiding in a rather dark corner behind some shelves. I couldn’t tell what he was doing, but he bolted up there whenever he got the chance. I admit that when I investigated, I expected to find something unseemly. Instead, I burst out laughing. There, stuffed in the corner, was an old grocery bag filled with hundreds of unused Michigan Lottery scratchers. Scratched-up tickets lay on the floor around it. When I mentioned the bag to Mike, he chuckled. There was no chance that Declan would ever hit the jackpot. The scratchers were long expired. “Anyway,” Mike said, “you have to scan them into the store system to work. They’re made that way so no one can steal them.”

But there were plenty of other things that we took from the backroom without shame. Our main goal was to find some old Kmart memorabilia, which many of the employees felt they deserved for their decades of service and commitment even as the chain lurched in and out of bankruptcy. And they did deserve it. Our scavenger hunt was like one last Blue Light Special sale. Unfortunately, the pickings were slim: an old Santa Claus suit, more than one V.C.R., and a useless pile of dial-up-era computers. At one point, someone found a box of re-usable red Kmart-branded shopping bags. These we decided to take, and we were careful to hide them from John, the liquidator sent to Marshall from the corporate headquarters in Chicago.

John was always walking around the store, calculating how much money he could squeeze out of the place before it closed. “He’ll try to sell anything he can get his hands on,” resentful employees insisted. We all feared that he would find our souvenirs and sequester them. Amy called him “the Bad Guy”. John of course knew that he wasn’t liked. “Amy makes me sound worse than I am,” he told me. “It’s not like I have a gun that turns you into liquid. I’m just helping the store close down.” Maybe no one liked him because he so clearly was not from Marshall and had the difficult job of winding down one of the city’s major employers. John was a hard worker. I liked talking with him. And someone had to be the Bad Guy.

Later the Bad Guy would be Paul, the manager. One day I was filling out some paperwork when he walked into the backroom and saw me maskless. “I knew I was forgetting something,” he said. “You have to wear a mask. Has no one told you that?”

I recalled my conversation with the checkout women and once again tried to speak carefully: “No, no one has,” I said. “I don’t have one.”

I really didn’t have one, and like all the other employees, I didn’t want to wear one. But Paul gave me a mask anyway and told me to put it on in front of him. It broke immediately. He gave me another one, and that broke too. I discarded it once I was out of his sight.

When my last day arrived, no one knew it but me. I had simply decided that it was time to leave. That morning I quietly palletized shelves with Mike and Declan. The dirt and dust caked on our hands was a disgusting shade of brown. Meanwhile Paul and Amy used a forklift to move and arrange the finished pallets. It seemed odd that the manager and assistant manager were doing this work, but it wasn’t as if I could have done it. I’m not forklift certified. It was also odd that we were still restocking some items. In the mid-morning a U.P.S. truck with a shipment of pajamas showed up behind the store. Paul, Mike, and I unloaded them, and I silently wondered why we were doing any of this at all. Half the store was already empty and the rest of it was quickly getting cleaned out.

As we walked back into the store, Paul once again told me to put a mask on, admitting, however, that nobody wanted to do it. “Why do we have to wear them, then?” I asked. “What is Kmart going to do if we don’t—shut down the store?” He paused for a moment and sighed. “It’s just store policy,” he said, and returned to his office. I felt bad afterward, even though I was only joking. Paul didn’t want to wear a mask. He didn’t want to tell me to wear a mask. And no matter what he did, he was still losing his job.

I spent part of my last hour tossing metal scraps into a dumpster, alone. Every now and then a piece not thrown high enough would clang against the high wall and ricochet back at me. It was an odd way to close out the life of a big-box store whose reach at one point was rivaled only by Sears. When this location closed down, I thought, there would only be six left in the country—and none in the Midwest where the chain originated. That meant there couldn’t be more than five hundred of us still employed by Kmart. What a strange chance that I ended up as one of those people.

Soon my back began to hurt and I was anxious to leave. I should have listened to those signs that say, “Lift with your legs, not your back.” I decided to palletize shelves in the store since working at the dumpster was no fun alone. But with every minute that passed inside my back hurt more and more. It felt like time was slowing down. And it didn’t help that I forgot to eat lunch that day. Just before my shift ended I went to the break room and found a guy sitting there eating a sandwich. He nodded at me and I at him as I grabbed a bag of off-brand Doritos. He asked when I got off my shift. I said 5:00 p.m. He looked up at the clock and saw that it read 4:55 p.m. “Oh,” he said. Not his problem.

As I was clocking out, a customer walked in and started talking to John. “Man, I remember when this place opened, that’s how old I am!” he said. “It really is sad to see it go.” John hurried away from him. He was still the Bad Guy. “Yeah,” he said. “It is.”

Colman Rowan is the editor of American Colman, a humor website.

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Colman Rowan is an editorial intern at the Detroit News. He studies English and Journalism at Hillsdale College.