Sunday, September 26, 2010

All of my childhood dreams came true…

My experience at Ultra prepared me for the next notch on my career belt. Every 2 weeks or so, our cupboards would start to get really bare. When you opened the snack cabinet and all you saw were those dehydrated fruit snacks Aunt Irma had given the family 2 Christmases ago, you knew Mom was going to be looking for an Ultra volunteer soon. I usually tried to lay low during these times, but my propensity for staying indoors surrounded by books made me a sitting duck. As soon as I heard my mom slamming cabinet doors and talking to herself about coupons, I knew what was coming.

Sometimes I was able to put my brother in the line of fire without him ever knowing it. All it took was the mention of a money-making opportunity. “Hey Chris, I think I saw a quarter behind the tv. I would have picked it up myself, but it was too hard to get at.” It was like waving a raw steak in front of a hungry lion. He couldn’t stay away from a challenge like that. Chris’ navy blue combination lock safe was always full because he was always working. The kid has been 40 since he was 8. I should have felt guilty. It was almost too easy…but I’d do anything to avoid going to Ultra.

Ultra was a big, warehouse-like grocery mega-store that was big on savings and low on frills. Cement floors, 12 foot high shelves, and NO BAG BOYS. In order to make their wares cheaper, Ultra did not provide a person to bag up your groceries…it was self-serve, do-it-yourself hell. When I first heard about this place, I felt a little twinge of excitement at being able to arrange the food in the bags however I’d like. I imagined people walking by, admiring my work. This would be a giant game of Tetris…or Dr. Mario…it would be great!

The reality was something much different.

As I may have eluded to in previous chapters, I am ga ga over organizing….I don’t care what it is…if there is a way to categorize it and separate it into bins, I am all over it. This is what the allure of bagging was…unfortunately, the art of organization does not fit well with fast moving conveyor belts.

The first time I tried my hand at bagging, my mom nodded at me confidently and reminded me not to put the soap or cleaning products in with the food. I nodded back, cracking my knuckles as I got several bags ready. I started off okay. I would make up little songs in my head as I filled bags expertly. Eggs, milk, fruit roll ups, chips! If it’s too full the bag rips!! First you go high, then you go low! Put the cans in a row! Some will be in the fridge and some on the shelf! Then you’ll be eaten by Lynn, Larry, Katie, Chris or myself! I’d arrange everything beautifully in brown paper sacks, humming my made up tunes. Things were going first.

After about 2-3 bags, things started to get ugly. Food was getting backed up. Bacon was flying off the conveyor belt. Bread was being smashed in between a carton of orange juice and a rump roast. A bag of grapes was bursting open and grapes were rolling down the belt loose. My mother stood calmly at the check writing stand, pretending not to notice the Armageddon happening only inches away.

I eventually got control of the situation…thanks to a mentally impaired stock boy who noticed what was happening. He ran over and gave me a few tips before he spit on his hand and offered it to me. I shook the slimy hand and wondered where I had gone wrong. I was getting schooled by a kid that was handi-capable (that’s how we had learned to describe kids with special needs at school. My 6th grade teacher, Mrs Wittman, told us to call them handi-CAPABLE because they were just as ABLE as us to do God’s work. It wouldn’t be until years later that I realized NO ONE says this…).

I dreaded the grocery store after that. My palms would start to sweat at the mere mention of it. I’d do anything to get out of going, but once my mother realized that her grocery store guilt trips didn’t have as much of an impact on her other two offspring, she decided she’d have to groom me into a top notch bagger. She started giving me pep talks on the car ride over to Ultra. She’d remind me that I needed to have my game face on. I couldn’t take so much time arranging things and I should probably skip the song writing. I needed to take care of business! I could do it! Several more trips to Ultra made me into a bagging artist. I could bag like the wind, and I wound up loving it.

When the “Help Wanted” sign went up in the front window of Sterk’s (the more expensive grocery store closer to our home…they had baggers), I knew I had to apply.

I got hired a few weeks after my 16th birthday. It was summer in Indiana, I had just gotten my driver’s license, and I had my own car. Life was just about perfect. Getting the job at the grocery store was like finding an onion ring in your fries at Burger King. I couldn’t believe how well things were going!

Actually the car was a hand-me-down from my older sister Katie. It was a ride that came to be known as the Blue Beast. It was a powder blue Plymouth Horizon hatchback. It looked like a go-cart and drove like one, too. You didn’t need a key to start it, and the bottom scraped the ground when it drove over bumps in the road. It didn’t have a/c, but with all the windows down, it wasn’t too bad. I pulled into the Sterk’s parking lot a few minutes before my shift. It was still early in the day, but it was already humid and sticky outside. I took a quick peek in the rear view mirror to make sure all my pimples were sufficiently covered with tinted oxy and pressed powder. My face glowed orange and I noticed that I was starting to sweat. I realized I had better hurry up and go inside before my fake tan melted off. I pulled my Bonne Bell lipgloss out of my pocket and swiped it over my lips in one sloppy motion. Then I kicked the door open and heading toward the store.

I felt a gush of cool air as the automatic double doors chimed open. I was met almost immediately by a girl in her late 20’s with hair like Farrah Fawcet (when she was on Charlie’s Angels). Considering it was 1995, I was wondering if she went to much trouble to achieve this look. Almost as if she had read my mind, she introduced herself as Angela Chasby, HEAD cashier, before she started explaining how long it takes to do her hair in the morning and how she had almost been late today because of it. As I tried to figure out a tactful way to ask her why she takes so long to do her hair, I spotted a magazine featuring current, popular hairstyles. Perfect! I was just about to grab the magazine when a pimply boy who didn’t look much older than me ran up behind Angela, putting his hands over her eyes as he conspiratorially instructed me to “shhh!!”. I studied the dirt under his nails as I watched Angela’s face transform into a mask of shy pleasure. She lifted the boy’s hands with her own and whirled around as she shrieked. She turned back to me, “This is our resident prankster, Randy. Randy, Erin. Erin, Randy.” I watched as Randy took my hand in his and brought it to his lips, doing an awkward sort of half curtsey at the same time. I tried not to outwardly shudder as I smiled politely at him. “Fresh meat…” Randy looked confident as he blatantly looked me over, and I was relieved when an overhead voice announced that there was a cleanup in aisle 9. “No rest for the Workers…ain’t that what they say?” Randy grinned at us and took off in the other direction.
"It's for the"wicked" rest for the wicked!" I said this outloud, but no one heard me.

Angela laughed and said, “Don’t mind him. He’s pretty nice once you get to know him.” I smiled and said he seemed like a good guy (total lie). Angela handed me an apron and a name tag. She showed me the break room and showed me how to sneak magazines back there without paying for them. I made a mental note to suggest the hair magazine to her later.

Pretty soon, I was finished with my training, and I got my very first drawer. Images of childhood games with Keri Kutrandy and Kelly Lipperdony flashed in my head. Playing grocery store used to be one of my favorite games, and today I was getting to do it for real! I smoothed my apron and smiled encouragingly to customers as they approached the checkout area. No one came to my checkout stand. I sprayed Windex on the conveyor belt, making sure my stand was impeccably clean. I rearranged the magazines, gum and candy. I counted the money in my drawer, stacking the bills neatly with all the presidential faces pointing the same way. Finally an elderly woman that was dwarfed by her massive cart wheeled toward me.

I ran out to help the woman, smiling generously. Instead of appreciating my humanitarianism, she squawked, “I’ve got it! You just worry about your job missy!” I was shocked, rebuked. I backed away hurriedly and knocked over a stand of mini balloons. The lady looked annoyed. I picked up the stand and placed it back where it belonged. I ran behind the cash register and started scanning the groceries. I took a deep breath and regained my composure after about 8 items. Then the old hag got out her coupons. Shit. Angela didn’t show me how to do coupons. I looked around frantically. I needed help! Why wasn’t anyone around to help me?? It was my first day, for God’s sakes!

I smiled sheepishly at grandma and said, “It’s my first day, and well, you see….” She interrupted me and said, “Fuck! Don’t they even train their people anymore?” I was so shocked by the F bomb coming out of her sweet grandma mouth that I was speechless. I desperately looked around again. Please! Someone notice me! Grandma was staring me down as I pitted out my starched white button down shirt. “Carol!” I hissed at the checkout girl next to me. She ignored me as she chewed her gum and examined her electric blue nail polish. I said her name again. She turned around, popping a bubble and looking put out. “What?” I made a waving motion to indicate that I wanted her to come over. She just stared at me. “Come here!” She walked over and looked at grandma. “Oh…Hi Mrs. Hutchins. How are you today?” Grandma looked pissed. “I’d be a lot fuckin better if you guys trained your girls.” Carol looked unfazed. She nodded her head and snapped her gum.

Without asking she took the coupons and expertly keyed in codes. Grandma looked pleased and informed us she was going to need help out. “Perhaps you’d be able to go and fetch the boy.” I looked at Carol nervously. Fetch the boy?? “She means Randy. I saw him restocking shelves in aisle 3 earlier. He’s probably still there.”

I nodded and power walked over to aisle 3. No Randy. Great. Suddenly, I heard boxes falling and I looked behind me. Three boxes of Mrs. Grass soup had mysteriously fallen to the floor. I walked over and looked at the empty shelf where they had been a few seconds earlier and I was met with Randy’s face staring back at me. I was startled and I let out a little scream. This delighted Randy to no end. I rolled my eyes. “There’s some mean old lady up front asking for you, BOY.” Randy took off running. Apparently he knows who I’m talking about.

I took my time getting back to my register, hoping I didn’t run into mean old Mrs. Hutchins again. By the time, I returned, my register area was empty and Angela was hovering nearby. “Where were you?” I gaped at her. “I went to get Randy for Mrs. Hutchins and…” She nodded as if she already knew this. “You need to come right back. You can’t leave your drawer unattended. If it’s short money at the end of the day, you’re responsible for that!” I swallowed, feeling small.

The rest of the day went smoothly. I actually enjoyed it. This job wasn’t going to be all that bad. I started to think that I might have a future in the grocery store business…. until Lollapalooza.

My friend Sarah was a concert hound. Whenever any band came to town, Sarah knew about it. She was always organizing groups of people to go to concerts in the nearby surrounding areas. Most Friday nights I slept over at Sarah’s house. I had been working at Sterk’s for about a month when one such Friday transpired as usual. However that Saturday morning wasn’t like any other. As I opened my eyes, I saw Sarah standing in front of her full-length mirror, studying her outfit. “What’s going on?” I croaked.

She turned around with her hand on her hip. “Don’t tell me you forgot.” Just then, our friend and Sarah’s neighbor, Jenny, burst through her bedroom door. “Lollapalooza, here we come! Erin, why are you still in bed?” I threw the covers back and started looking through Sarah’s closet for something to wear. I settled on a pair of jean shorts and a green tank top with little flowers on the shoulders. I brushed my hair and put on some mascara. I heard a car pulling into the driveway. At the same time, Sarah and Jenny exclaimed, “Joe!” I followed them down the stairs and saw Joe in his dad’s old Lincoln with Kathy Mayfield in the front seat next to him.

Sarah, Jenny and I got in the backseat and Joe headed toward the highway as he lit up a cigarette. I pulled my hair back into a ponytail as the wind whipped through the car. The tinny sound of the Violent Femmes could barely be heard over the sound of the rushing wind. I laughed as Sarah got a mouthful of Jenny’s hair. I looked out the window, enjoying the cool air on my face, and I saw Sterk’s over Sarah’s left shoulder.

Uh oh. A revelation.

“HEY! Turn the radio down!” Joe rolled up his window and shouted,
“What?!” I told him to pull over at the Shell Gas Station on the right. He does, and we all sit in the silent car for a minute, everyone staring at me, wondering what is happening. “I was supposed to work today.” Sarah looked confused.
“What time?” I glanced at Joe’s clock radio. It read 11:02 am.
“1:00.” Sarah let out a rush of air and said, “That’s plenty of time! You can still call off.” I smiled. “Could I? What should I say?” Joe turned around. “Just say you have a family emergency. It works everytime.” He said this with such authority, I couldn’t argue. I got out of the car and approached the pay phone. I picked up the dangling yellow pages and looked for Sterk’s under Stores, Grocery. I found the number and dialed. When I heard a voice saying, "Sterk's, where the customer is always number one, how may I help you?", I asked to talk to the manager. As soon as she was on the line, I blurted out, “This is Erin Orth. I can’t come in today. There’s been a family emergency.” I was met with silence. I chewed my lip and waited. When she spoke, the manager sounded as if she did not believe me one bit. She asked for details. This I was not prepared for. Why hadn’t I practiced?? I stuttered and said something about going to Wisconsin to help with the family farm. ....the family farm! This is the best I could come up with?! Then she did something no boss should ever be allowed to do...she asked to speak to my mother.

That’s when I knew I was dead.

I told the manager to hold on and I ran back to the car. “She wants to talk to my mom.” Jenny’s eyes bulged. Sarah swallowed. Joe exhaled smoke slowly and said,
“You’re fucked.” Kathy didn’t even flinch. She stayed cool as a cucumber. “I’ll do it.” We all stared as she got out of the car and went over to the payphone. She talked into the receiver for a few minutes and came back. “She wants to talk to you again.” I stood, frozen. “Hurry up!” I stumbled forward and picked up the phone. “Hello?”

“Either you are here when your shift begins or you do not have to bother coming in again.”

Shit...what did Kathy say to her??

How could I have forgotten to get this critical information? I was messing this up on so many levels. “Am I making myself clear?” The manager’s voice was harsh, unrelenting, shattering my internal thought bubbles with her razor sharp resolve. I gulped. “yes.” She grunted, sounding pleased. “Ok. So should we expect to see you at 1:00 then?” I paused for a few seconds, thinking about the scanning gun I loved so much. When I answered, I felt like I was no longer a girl…I was a woman. “NOPE!” As I plunged the receiver down, I felt like a new me was blossoming…a new rebellious me…and I liked it.

Lollapalooza that day was just about the most fun I’ve ever had at a concert. Sarah and I got some older guys to buy us beer. Jenny snuck past security and got backstage. Kathy got her bra ripped off while she was crowd surfing and Joe almost got busted smoking a joint with a group of middle-aged hippies.

Everything was great until I got home. Somehow the news of my job loss had already made it into the Orth household and my mother was none too pleased. “I can never go there again! I’m so ashamed.” I hung my head and muttered, “We don’t even go there anyway. We go to Ultra.” Wrong move. Talking back only enraged my mother more. Talking back only enraged my mother more. She started scrubbing the counters with vigor as she muttered something about me being "a sassbox". My dad backed her up from the living room. “Don’t talk back to your mother!” I stared at the porcelain duck sitting on the kitchen counter and shrugged my shoulders. “Well, I already did it. It’s done. So what can I do?” I started to get up and my mom pushed me back down. “I’ll tell you what you’re going to do, young lady. Tomorrow morning, you are getting up bright and early and you are going down to that grocery store to apologize. You hear me?” I groaned. I could tell she was not going to budge so I conceded, promising to go in the morning.

The next day I did as I was told. I drove down to Sterk’s, hoping the manager I spoke to yesterday was not working today. No such luck. As soon as I crossed the threshold she was on me with a smirk on her face. “Come here today to beg for your job back? Well you’re not going to get it.” I suppressed the urge to kick her in her big fat shins. Instead, I said, “I’m sorry for the way I quit. It was irresponsible of me.” Her smile got bigger. “Well, you’re still not getting your job back.” I was infuriated that I should have to endure this embarrassing display so I turned around and headed for the door. On my way out, under my breath, I said, “I only came because my mom made me…” I wanted to say more, but decided to take the high road.

Later that night, my mom asked me how it went, and I told her, recalling the manager’s expression and tone of voice bitterly. I expected her to tell me that I got what I deserved, but she didn't. My mother surprised me that night. Instead, she got mad right along with me. “How dare she treat you that way when you were just trying to do the right thing??” Then, more to herself than me, she said, "How dare she ruin this life lesson for my daughter!"

The next day my mom went into the store and gave all the managers a piece of her mind. After that, no Orth ever set foot in Sterk’s again…. not that we ever went there much before anyway…it was, afterall, the “fancy grocery store that could afford their own bagboys"…and everyone knew that no one bagged groceries better than me anyway.

Working with Ma and George

Just as my older sister had paved the way with my babysitting gig, my older brother laid the foundation in the pizza and fish biz. Thoone’s Carryout was about 2 miles from our house. It was around the corner from the grocery store, a little hole in the wall. Its food was simple and it was pretty good. It was cheap, and the Thoones’ customers were loyal. It was owned by a ma and pa, literally. They did the cooking, they took the orders, they were the cashier, the bagger…they did everything….with a little help from the teenagers they took under their wing.

I started at Thoone’s in the summer of ’94. I had just turned 15 and I thought I was lucky because I was able to get a work permit and finally get my first REAL job. My mom dropped me off on my first day in her emerald green Chrysler. She touched my cheek and told me how proud of me she was…her baby, at her first real job. I shook my head, embarrassed and leaned on the door handle. I stumbled as I stepped out of the car, but caught myself before actually falling.

I stepped into the tiny waiting area of Thoone’s, a bell above the door announcing my entrance. I stood awkwardly, waiting. I was wearing khaki pants with a purple and green striped t-shirt. My feet were comfortable in my favorite Keds tennis shoes. I started to look around as I waited. I noticed a bench so I sat down and studied a newspaper article that was framed. Apparently some newspaper reporter thought Thoone’s was Northwest Indiana’s best-kept secret. At that time, I was on a strict diet of Lipton soup, French fries and candy. I was a very picky eater and turned my nose up at most foods. My parents ordered pizza and perch from Thoone’s regularly, and I refused to eat it. It was pretty ironic that I was now working here.

My musings were interrupted by a mumbled, “Well, don’t just sit there, come on.” I looked up to see Mrs. Thoone (everyone called her Ma). She was about 5 feet tall, but her poor posture made her seem like she was 4 ft 2. Her ginger colored hair was graying at the temples and was pulled back in a messy French twist. Wayward strands stuck to her forehead and neck, wet with sweat. Her gnarled hands were resting on the counter next to an ancient looking cash register.

I approached the counter where she was standing and she sighed, exasperated with me already. “Well, you can’t very well climb over the counter, now, can you? Use the door!” Oops. Duh. I turned to my left and went over to a tall, skinny door that creaked when I opened it. I walked into The Kitchen. Big butcher-block tables, several stoves, a big pizza oven and fryers were all around. In the back, I saw a grumpy looking old man with shaggy white hair, wearing a white undershirt with white jeans and a white apron. Ma motioned toward him. “That’s George. Say hello, George.” The man nodded his head in response and grunted in my general direction. I smiled and said, “Nice to meet you!” The “oo” on “you” was held a little long and hung in the air awkwardly. I looked down at my feet and cleared my throat.

“We have a lot to get done! A LOT to get done. Where to begin? I guess I’ll have you do the phones. Now, when the phone rings, you answer it and you say, ‘Thoone’s Pizza and Fish. Erin speaking. How may I help you?’” I nodded. She continued, “The person will place their order. You write it down and give it to me or George.” It sounded simple enough. This job was going to be a breeze! I settled into a folding chair positioned near a phone attached to the wall with a pad of paper on my lap and a pen poised.

As I waited for the phone to ring and give me purpose, I stole furtive glances at George and Ma in action. They moved like old, rusty robots, stilted and systematic. I watched Ma as she turned on the deep fryers and made the batter for the fried fish she was expecting to sell this evening. As the grease began to boil it exploded into hot fiery missiles, landing on Ma’s arm every 2-3 minutes. She seemed to barely notice this as she shook the fry baskets. She would touch the affected area momentarily as she let out a low and monotone, “Ow.”

George was a few feet down from her working on some pizza dough with his bare hands, adding flour as he kneaded the lump in front of him. Both frowned. Neither spoke. I studied my fingernails, willing the phone to ring. When it did, I answered on the first ring.

In a rush of excitement, I blurted out, “Hello? Uh-er, I mean Thoone’s. This is Erin. Can I take your order?” I heard Ma sigh heavily. My one responsibility! I had messed it up already! I felt my cheeks flush as I turned away and wrote: ‘one large pizza: ham, onion, green pepper and mushroom. Will pick up in one hour’. I hung up the phone with flourish and tore the green slip of paper off the order pad. I padded over to George and set it down in front of him, silently. Heading back to my station, I heard George speak my name for the first time, and I could feel my palms start to sweat.

I turned around. “Hmmm?” I tucked my hair behind my ear. He bellowed, “You just took this order?” I wasn’t sure how to respond. It was obvious that I took the order. Instead of questioning his intentions, I nodded. He started swearing under his breath, and I looked quickly at Ma. She came rushing over, wiping her hands on a towel as she wriggled in between us. She groped for the glasses that hung around her neck, finding them and placing them on the bridge of her nose. She held the small green paper at arm’s length, studying it. At the same time, she asked, “What is it, George?” He shook his head and uttered a word I barely heard: “Ham.” Ma groaned. I stared at both of them, bewildered.

Suddenly, as if something inside of him had snapped George closed the distance between us in less time than I would have thought he’d be capable of. He took me by the arm, leading me toward a large blackboard. At the top of the board, a menu had been printed. George pointed to it. I gawked at him, wondering when he was going to let go of my arm. He barked, “Look! Do you see the menu?” I squinted up at the small rectangular print out with coffee stains on two of its corners. It was stapled above some tattered photos and thank you cards. “Do you see where it says ‘Pizza’? Read me the topping choices.” Shakily, I spoke aloud the plethora of ingredients listed above me. When I finished, George had a satisfied expression on his face. His arms were crossed in front of him. I looked down at my arm, thankful to be free of this old curmudgeon’s grip. “Well?” I jumped, realizing that he expected some sort of answer from me. I opened my mouth. I closed it. George had had enough. He lunged forward as he growled, “You didn’t say: HAM!” I stole a quick glance back up at the weathered menu, willing ‘ham’ to be written there. It wasn’t. Damn.

“You’re going to have to call that customer back and tell them we don’t have any ham.” I could feel a pool of sweat forming in the small of my back. Shit. “Um…well…you see, I didn’t actually get their number so…” Now it was Ma’s turn to be incredulous. “Whaaaaaat?” (this was said with such nasality…it was like every Chicago accent joke, standing in front of me, in the flesh). I swallowed and looked at the phone. “Well…I…er…” Ma and George exchanged nervous glances. “Surely you got their name.” George was pleading. I silently shook my head as I backed up, trying to hide.

Before realizing what had happened, I heard a loud thud and the sound of glass breaking. I cringed, squeezing my eyes shut, wishing I was anywhere but in that kitchen. When I looked around to survey the damage, I saw that there was not one, but two broken picture frames with old black and white photos peeking out under the wreckage. I immediately bent down, trying to pick up the broken pieces of glass. I cut my pinkie finger when George bounded over, letting out a terrible howl.

“My pictures! Look what you did! Oh! Oh! Ma!” I did a backwards crab crawl away from the scene of my crime, staining the floor with blood as I scooted. There was a period of silence as George got a broom and swept up the glass. Ma bandaged up my finger without saying much. When she finally did speak, she said, “Maybe that’s enough for one day, kiddo.” I was like a bull in a china shop, and we both knew it. If it were up to George, I probably would have been fired on the spot.

I left Thoone’s that night on foot. Ma insisted that I call home for a ride so I faked it, preferring to enjoy the warm night as I contemplated my future in the food service industry.

Monkey Management

Make ‘em proud!

The day I graduated from high school, my big brother, Chris, handed me a carefully wrapped rectangular brick. I peeled away the shiny wrapping paper, and read the title of my gift. What Color is Your Parachute: A Practical Manual for Job Hunters. I opened it to the first page when something caught my eye. An inspirational message was written on the inside front cover:

Dear Erin,
I hope this book helps you to figure out what most interests you. Remember, no matter what you do, you have a loving family behind you.
Love, Chris
P.S. Try not to fuck this up, too!

Monkey Management

I was 11 years old when I began my journey into the corporate world in the form of babysitting. My big break came when our 17-year-old neighbor, Matt Hennison, got a job at Subway. Matt was a boy who lived on our street that my older sister Katie pretended not to notice. When coincidentally Katie, too, got hired at the local sandwich shop, I saw my chance. I was ready to transition from needing a babysitter to being a babysiter.

With the majority of my sister’s free time being devoted to a much more important, sandwich making career, it was time for me to inherit the task of watching the children of the family that lived in the house behind us. They were the Thompsons, a happy little family of four, a mom and a dad and two blonde haired, blue-eyed angelic little girls. I almost couldn’t believe my luck…someone was actually going to pay me to play!

I was an idiot.

This was my first lesson on the foolishness of thinking you have a handle on a situation based on appearances alone….nothing is ever as it seems. Oh, and if it seems too good to be true that’s because it is, Stupid.

My naïve assumptions about these kids didn’t last long. I walked in blind, but my eyes adjusted after about 10 minutes into my first visit. Katie never bothered to tell me the details regarding Mr. & Mrs. Strange-son and their two freak daughters, but the family didn’t have any trouble telling me themselves…each and every time I saw them.

The younger of the two girls was 5-year-old Jane. Jane had a nickname (created by moi) that her parents thought was endearing, never bothering to ask me where it originated, how it had come to be…nothing, no questions asked, just a giggle and a nod when I’d walk in and greet their daughter, “Hey Sbd.”
(SBD stood for Silent but Deadly…Jane or “Janie” as her parents liked to call her…which by the way, drove me crazy!! (perhaps because their voice would always go up two octaves every time they said it that way…like the creepy older sister from that Stephen King movie, Pet Semetary. You know, the girl I’m talking about? It’s the one that has the twisted spine and lives in the back bedroom, the one that always calls for her younger sister, Rachel, with a really high-pitched witch-like voice? That’s what these two sounded like when they called for their kid… ”Jaaaannnieeee”… still makes me shake off shivers!)

Back to the reason for the nickname: Sbd was a beautiful little girl but she had some wicked gas. It was the kind of flatulence that grown men would be proud to call their own. I’m not being dramatic. I had an older brother. I knew what bad ass smelled like. The kid ate nothing but Spaghettios and Twinkies, and I guess I can take credit as being the first person to discover this combination emits a highly toxic gas. It would curl your nostril hairs. It would make you gag uncontrollably. It would make your eyes water….and the worst part was that it would creep up on you, and as you realized it was coming from Jane, she’d be standing there, grinning at you like she had just found a cure for Cancer. The stench would linger in the air, but no mention was ever made of the fart…by anyone. Without fail, as soon as the noxious fumes had been released Sbd would be on me. She would immediately want to be my shadow. I’m convinced she knew that she was trailing the foul odor and wanted to make sure I suffered… it was a tad unsettling..... a little odd....kind of irksome… ok, I’m going to be upfront and just tell you…the kid was a psychopath.

The other girl was seven. She had a jack o’ lantern smile and white blonde hair. Her name was Kelsey but I called her ‘KIT’. It stood for “Know it All”….the kid thought she was the resident expert on all topics brought up for discussion now, in the past, and if she wasn’t aware of future topics yet, she would be. No matter what I said, she was defending the opposite stance. I felt like the kid was grooming herself to be the captain of the Speech and Debate Team and I was her soundboard. It was exhausting just being around her.

My predecessor also failed to mention that my brother, Chris, liked to make regular prank phone calls during these gigs….information that would have saved me some heart-palpitating minutes!

The first time I babysat for Sbd (pronounced spud) and Kit, I was hopeful; one might even say joyful. It was a brisk fall day in late October. I was supposed to be at the Thompson’s house at 1:00. I put on my favorite aqua sweat suit and my new Reebok high tops at 12:30, and I started walking. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was going to be way too early. I abruptly altered course and wound around Bluebird Park, stopping at my favorite lopsided swing. Someone had wrapped the metal chain link handles around the top three times, making it much shorter than all of the other swings. I liked this because I was tall, and none of the other swings were as much fun. Pretty soon, I consulted my watch and was shocked to see that it was 12:58. I had been so proud of myself. One might even say cocky…gloating about how responsible I was, how ‘ahead-of-schedule’ I was… that I had let time slip away as I enjoyed my favorite playground toy. Shit.

I hopped off the swing and skinned my knee in the landing. I frowned at the black stain and small hole forming in the knee of my favorite pair of non-school pants and tried to ignore the pain throbbing in my knee. I took off running and got to the Thompson’s doorstep at 1:03, sweat glistening on my brow and upper lip and clothes looking slightly dirty and unkempt. I was about to ring the bell as Mrs. Thompson flew into view in an overwhelming array of red and purple chiffon.
“I just got off the phone with your mother.” She said this as she looked me up and down distastefully. “We were worried sick. She said you left over an hour ago.” (My mother was famous for exaggerating everything).

I mumbled something about falling on my way, but Mrs. Strange-son had not stuck around long enough to listen to my answer. She was already being distracted by Sbd and Kit. They were playing peek-a-boo behind her shoulder and giggling hysterically. She sighed heavily as she reached into a jewelry box on the counter and clipped on the most enormous earrings I had ever seen. She started barking out orders as she applied her brick red Revlon lipstick, studying her reflection in the mirror. I had no impulse control at that time, and before I could stop myself, I blurted out,
“Where on earth are you going?!”

Considering it was 1:00 in the afternoon on a Saturday in a quiet Indiana neighborhood, it was a valid question. She looked at me, (eyes bulging and narrowing, bulging and narrowing),for much, much longer than what I felt was necessary.

“Not that it’s any of your beeswax (Pronounced “beeeeeeZwax” she said it with a long drawn out ‘e’ and an emphasized ‘z’ in the middle), but I happen to be a lady who lunches.” I was confused. My mom ate lunch all the time, and I had never seen her in a getup that even compared to this lady’s frock. I started to tell her as much, when she suddenly popped up and announced that Mr. Thompson would be home around 6:00 pm.

The kids and I watched her back out of the driveway, Spud hanging on my back; legs squeezing my sides and her hands, all sticky from jelly, firmly around my neck. Kit stood holding my hand like she was my long lost daughter. (She gripped it so tightly that I lost feeling in my tall man finger for at least 30 seconds!)

As soon as the car was out of sight, the beasts came to life. Spud started pulling my hair and kicking me in my side, demanding that I play “horsey”. With each kick, gas would come bursting out of her, making me feel like I was stuck in the public bathroom down at the old 76 gas station on Sheffield Road. As I struggled with Spud, I realized that Kit was gone, and it had suddenly gotten very quiet. I took off at a sprint, yelling her name as I went. Spud, still on my back, was echoing me, doing an annoying imitation of my voice which was actually pretty good (which is probably why it was so annoying).

A loud crashing sound clattering from the basement resulted in Spud sliding off my back, nearly choking me in the process as she used my shirt as grappling hook of sorts. I took off after her, taking the stairs 2 at a time. By the time I got downstairs, the Thompson’s playroom looked like a refugee camp. The little gremlins had destroyed the place. Games, Barbies, tinker toys, doll clothes, wayward legos, books and puzzle pieces littered the floor. Kit sat in the middle of it all, looking pleased with herself as she used what appeared to be a pair of hedge clippers to cut her Cabbage Patch doll’s hair. Spud just stood off to one side, looking wide eyed and bewildered as she sucked her thumb and twirled her hair.

I sighed. It was going to be a long day. I convinced the girls to play a fun game with me called: “Let’s get organized!” (How I sold the concept of this game…I WISH I could remember! All I know is that it worked.) Once the toys had been put away, we could then reassess and see what it was we wanted to play. Unfortunately, by the time we finished the “getting organized” game, I was exhausted. It was then that I had a brilliant idea.

“Let’s play a new game.” I announced to the kids. They nodded their heads eagerly. “Ok. You have to wear this blindfold,” (I looked around, trying to find something to use as a blindfold…my eyes locked onto Mrs. Thompson’s old wool glove…) Of course, Kit had to balk at the idea of using a glove for a blindfold, but I got her to come around. I explained that we would take turns putting a movie into the vcr and the blindfolded person would have to try to guess what movie it was just by the sound of it. If they couldn’t get it just by the sound, they could peek (this was decided later when it was determined that the first version of the game was too difficult for Spud). I breathed a sigh of relief. This was a low energy game that kept the girls entertained for a surprisingly long amount of time.

I was almost drifting off to sleep on the couch when the shrill sound of the phone ringing reverberated through the room. I jumped up and ran over to an ancient looking black phone with a rotary dial. “Hello?” All I could hear was someone breathing. “Um…Hello?”

No response.

I waited about 10 more seconds before I hung up. I tried not to let it bother me as I went back to the couch where the girls had settled into watching Cinderella. Just as I had hoped, the movie game had morphed into just plain old movie. Just as Cinderella was giving Gus the mouse a new shirt and hat, the phone rang again. I picked up the receiver, deciding to try something new that I’d seen on Different Strokes. (Whenever they answered the phone, they always said, "Drummond Residence" which to me, sounded very fancy and grown up).

“Thompson Residence.”

A deep, echoing voice said, “Have you checked the children?” Instantly, I was afraid. Only one year prior I had seen one of the scariest movies I had ever seen up until that point: When a Stranger Calls. I had snuck downstairs during Katie’s slumber party and I’d seen the whole thing. This killer calls this girl and asks her if she has “checked the children.” When she does finally go upstairs to check on them, they’re DEAD! Pretty gruesome. Freaked me OUT. Now here I am, listening to the same scary line while I’M babysitting?! I assumed my ears were playing tricks on me so I calmly said, “Excuse me?” Click. No one is there. I hang up the receiver and pick it back up quickly. Still nothing. I try to relax, but I was pretty nervous. (I hadn’t yet realized at this point that scary movies weren’t actually real…)

It was nearly 5:00 pm when the phone rang again. I looked at it with dread, and timidly said, “Hello?” I heard Mr. Thompson on the other end of the line. He called to tell me that he is going to be late and that I need to give the girls Spaghettios for dinner. He tells me that he has already ok’d this with my mother which I am immediately annoyed about. I was hoping to use her as an excuse to get the hell out of there! I realized I was stuck so I hung up the phone and fed the girls their dinner. We were eating Oreos for dessert when I heard the phone again. “It's probably your dad...” I said as I jogged over to the phone and almost dropped it when I heard a breathy voice say,
“Have….you…..checked….the children???” I was terrified, and I was not sure what to do so I gripped the phone a little tighter, swallowed and waited. I heard breathing. Then... I heard something else…a dog. Wait a second, could it be? I pressed the receiver into my ear, straining to hear. It is. It’s the sound of my own dog, Elka, barking, something that might have been hard to place, but then I heard my father’s booming voice say, “Elka! Be Quiet! more barking then: "God dammit!” That was DEFINITELY my dad, and I knew.


It was my older brother. I quickly decided I would use this discovery to my advantage. I pretended I still didn’t know who it was so I could use this opportunity to prove how brave I was. Trying to sound as genuine as possible, I yelled into the phone, “Leave us alone, you big rotten stupidhead!”

I let out a satisfied breath, beaming as I waited for his response.

I thought to myself, There. That will show him!

Suddenly I heard a deep rumbling laugh coming from the other end of the phone.

I was furious. “Chris! What is SO funny?” I demand. He doesn’t answer me. I lowered my voice and said, “I am telling mom when I get home, and you are going to be in big, big trouble!” All I heard in response was more laughter. I slammed the receiver down.

After I hung up the phone, I went back into the kitchen. On the table, the cookies and milk sat, abandoned. Shit. I ran into the living room, scanning for the girls. Empty. I ran down the hall., looking into each room I passed. I paused at Mr. & Mrs. Thompson’s bedroom door. I could hear splashing and giggling coming from inside. I threw the door open and ran into the master bathroom. There, looking like miniature incredible Hulks were Spud and Kit. They had decided to take a bath and thought it would be a good idea to add 10 whole bottles of green food coloring (I still wonder to this day why on earth anyone would have that much food coloring in their house). I gasped. Letting the green water out of the tub, I filled it back up with clean water and added some baking powder for good measure (my mom was always doing this when I took baths…I wasn’t sure why, but figured it could only help…besides, it felt kind of fun to scoop in the clean, white powder in an official doctor-y sort of way). I scrubbed both girls until their skin was a reddish green. After the tenth time, the girls were not about to let me at them with a washcloth again, and I figured it would have to be good enough.

Just as we were getting their pajamas on, we heard the garage door opening. The oompa loompas lost their freakin’ minds.

“Daddy!” “Dad’s home!!” They were tearing down the stairs before I could even stand up. I heard Mr. Thompson greeting them, and I held my breath, waiting for him to comment on the putrid green tinge their skin had taken on. Instead, he seemed please that they had been bathed. He put them to bed as I washed the dishes from our Spaghettio dinner.

I heard keys jingling and looked up from the Sleeping Beauty cup I was drying. “Come on. Leave those. I’ll drive you home.” I did what I was told and headed over to my shoes. In the car, Mr. Thompson made small talk, commenting on the weather and the upcoming community garage sale. Pretty soon we were pulling into my driveway, and Mr. Thomspon was handing me a 20-dollar bill for eight full hours of babysitting his sassy offspring.

I was on Cloud Nine.

Twenty dollars! I was already shopping in my head, picturing candy buttons and cherry sours and warheads….I was a candy junkie and 20 dollars meant a whole lot of candy.

I went on to babysit for the Thompsons several more times. I’m not sure if I was just plain naïve or a glutten for punishment. All I knew was that I had a steady supply of candy and I could buy Tiger Beat or Teen Bop anytime I wanted. What more could any pre-teen want? In my book, I had it ALL and I was as happy as a clam.


I'm not sure why I picked the name "FickleErin"...I guess just plain old Erin was taken. I wonder if this is one of those suggestions that the computer makes? If it was...that just creeps me out. I don't know how to change it, so I guess for now, I'm stuck with it. I had this idea for a book so I started writing it....I don't have any clue how you get something published without knowing I figured I'd "blog" it...I have no idea what I'm doing.