the best shitty job.


keith was a real asshole when i first met him. he didn't say much to anyone, and when he did, he always kept it blunt and short. he wore glasses and always kept a short beard. the first time i worked with him at tower records, he acted like i wasn't even there. when my supervisor, ricky, introduced us, i extended my hand, anticipating a shake, but keith just walked on by. ricky gave a nervous laugh, signaling an apparent inside joke that i was too new to understand. i was dumbfounded, but not hurt. i was more surprised that someone could be so callous towards someone he didn't even know. what the hell was that? who was this guy?

a few nights later, keith would grumble, "so, what kind of music do you like?" i mentioned a few bands, the only one i truly remember namedropping was weezer, but keith remained stoic, as though he was expecting me to name "safe" bands that i felt he could identify with. i didn't try to further engage the conversation by asking what music he liked, as i just assumed he would say nothing and walk away again. the intercom broke the awkward silence that ensued: "keith, phone call, line 4." keith picked up the phone and chatted casually with his friend, stu. i don't remember much of the conversation, but my ears perked up when i heard him say, "i'm working with the new guy. he's pretty cool. he likes weezer." i felt, at that moment, i had finally won the respect of the store's veteran elitist.

we hung out more and more, mostly during store hours, and sometimes at lunch. mostly, keith would recommend "essential" music, and every time i claimed ignorance to, say, a certain pixies or delgados record, both keith and ricky would become hysterical. "how could you not own this?" they would say, or "that's perverse!" defeated, but also curious about these supposedly life-changing records, i would bundle them up with a rubber band and stick them in the holds cubbyhole under "j," and purchase them after work, employee discount included. it was always a thrill to close up shop at midnight, open my new cd, and pop it into the store's main stereo system, where we remaining closers would be subjected to a "planet of sound."

despite our budding friendship and his music recommendations, there was still something a little unsettling about keith. he was, essentially, a sunny day real estate song personified. he played everyone hot and cold, and when he was upset, he didn't hesitate to make it known. i remember a certain occasion when he snapped at a customer: "just be patient." luckily, the customer was apparently used to being treated like a dog. either that, or he just didn't care. maybe he had a real career and simply felt bad for us peons working in customer service for minimum wage.

another time, i was running low on one dollar bills in my register, but as there were only two hours remaining, i figured i could make it through the night. around eleven o'clock, however, there was a surge, and i didn't have enough change for a customer. i called keith over the intercom. it took him a while, since he was counting out in the backroom, so i repeatedly apologized to the customer, who didn't seem to mind. as you might imagine, people buying rap cds at eleven o'clock at night don't really have anywhere else to be. keith finally showed, a stack of one-dollar bills in his hand. he pulled out twenty-five dollars and stuck the wad of one-dollar bills into the far right slot. he slammed my register. "you should've said something earlier," he said grimly. "sorry," i said, "i didn't think i was..." but before i could finish, he stormed off. this left me in a sour mood for the rest of the night.

he never apologized for the incident, and i never expected him to. that's kind of how things worked at the store. he would blow up at a co-worker, and instead of apologizing, he would just start a conversation about music, or else invite him to lunch. the more we hung out, the more we found that we shared the same taste in music, but also an inability to approach pretty girls that frequented the store. "pretty girls make graves. i like the band, but the smiths song is better," he would say.

keith also liked that i called everything "gay." i don't know why i did this. as a former jesuit student at an all-boys school, i hated the homophobes more than the homophobes hated gay people. but for some reason, i found it amusing to insert some gay word into bands and lyrics and just about everything else. it was more than just saying, "that's hella gay." calling things gay became a huge hit at the store, and finally, i was part of the inside joke. and the more vulgar we were, the better. for instance, the opening lyrics to death "fag" for cutie's "styrofoam plates" with a new gay twist would become: "there's a saltwater-cock in your tight, bleeding asshole." likewise, we would get peanut-buster parfaits from fairy queen, and a bean and cheese burrito from "gaytos" (betos).

keith used to play bass in a band called salinger, and they got legendary music producer steve albini to record their only ep. when the band couldn't sell the surplus of records they had ordered, keith gave them away to employees. the songs were pretty good, but merely echoed 90's indie rock influences who barely had more than a cult following themselves; bands like silkworm, sebadoh, pavement, etc. but unlike their predecessors, salinger wasn't really poppy or rocking, or anything at all, really. in essence, the band essentially reflected who keith was, or at least who he appeared to be: moody, in his own world, expressing a deep desire to just be left alone.

keith and i gossiped about the girls we worked with. "lindsay's cute," he said, "but she's got dragon breath." when i told him that our co-worker, moriah, was taking an advanced calculus class, he waved it off. "big whoop," he said, making a jerking off motion with his hand. one day, a girl named adrienne came into the store. she was our co-worker, kate's, friend. adrienne talked to me and keith about music, and how she was excited that she got to meet members of a band called sugarcult. we kept our judgments to ourselves. in count-out, i asked him what he thought of adrienne. he was his usual blunt self, quickly asserting, "she's fuckable." he didn't normally talk about women this way, and i thought that maybe he was trying to be funny. "she seemed really excited to have met sugarcult," i said. "yeah. sugarcult," he said. we both laughed. "why would anyone admit to meeting sugarcult?" "i don't know," he said. we then proceeded to take turns imitating adrienne, claiming to have met such bands as three doors down and matchbox twenty.

i know what you're thinking. what a bunch of judgmental pricks. that's probably the reason you stopped buying records from the store, to avoid people like us. but we couldn't help it. at $6.25 per hour, we had to have something that could make us stand out. instead of building relationships, we built massive music collections. it was like a secret code, or an eternal inside joke, one you couldn't be a part of, unless you were buying agætis byrjun. life was too short to spend it listening to the radio. then again, i supplemented my collection with a lot of terrible girl pop, but that's a different story...

i came back to work at tower two consecutive summers during college. keith was still there, like so many others. he started going out with adrienne, the girl he merely passed off as "fuckable" in the not-too-distant past. they lived together in a one-bedroom apartment in sacramento. my cousin and i visited them every now and then, but never stayed too long, since their two cats, fat louie (from the princess diaries) and mr. arizona (fast and the furious) gave me violent allergy attacks. on one particular visit, my cousin and i were weeding out keith's massive collection, since we were preparing for another amoeba records invasion. adrienne came in to announce that she had gotten a job at kaiser hospital. the three of us more or less ignored her. when dealing with music, nothing else existed.

adrienne left the room, and then keith did, too. my cousin and i were still in our own little world. "why the fuck does he still have these dave matthews records?" "i don't know. pull them out." "eminem?! alanis morrisette?! what the fuck?" keith came back into the bedroom. "adrienne's upset." "why? about what?" "she was upset that you guys didn't congratulate her about her new job." "oh," my cousin said, "should we apologize?" "no," keith said, "it's alright. but you guys should probably go. it's getting late, anyway." "alright. man, sorry about that."

keith and adrienne eventually got married. i was still in seattle, so i couldn't attend. my cousin said he wasn't invited. adrienne kept working for kaiser, making good money. meanwhile, tower records folded, and keith, then working at tower's corporate offices in west sac, was laid off. this, i assume, took a heavy toll on both of them. at one point, adrienne decided that she was going to radically alter the course of her life by joining the navy, and keith had every intention of following her to the naval base in monterey. it turned out, though, that her placement would be in chicago, but this drastic relocation didn't sway him, either.

as the story goes, from what keith told me, he drove with her all the way to chicago in the car he owned, and once there, she jilted him. she kept his car. heartbroken and broke, he was forced to retreat back to california. unsure of what to do with himself, he moved back in with his parents in grass valley, ca, where he continues to work today at the local target. he has plans to move to san francisco with ricky, and the two of them want me to join them.

i have to admit i'm hesitant about it. i just can't envision three music nerds living together. will things be different, or would we still be the same music junkies, browsing the used vinyl sections every free moment we got? i'd like to think that that part of my life is over, and that it's time to move on. but move on to what?

it's hard to imagine that i'm now the age that the two of them were when i first met them at tower, seven years ago. at the time, i wondered about them, even worried about them. who were these individuals in their mid-twenties, still working retail? was there something wrong with them? why didn't they have real jobs and families of their own?

the last time i saw ricky was in september, and he wanted to meet up at the last remaining tower records store, the one located on broadway, renamed r5 records. as we walked through the dark parking lot across the street, he said, "i hate to admit it, but that shitty job really was the best job i ever had." "i know," i said, "i feel that way, too, sometimes."

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