As a Kmart employee back in the 90s, I spent many days and nights having my ears infiltrated by the Kmart Radio Network.
It was never a smooth transition from Bryan Adams, “Everything I Do” to an ad for two-ply paper towels. There was no easy way to shift from the Muzak version of “Always” by Atlantic Starr into “Save with Layway!”
But that was the Kmart way.
Arriving on a weekly and monthly basis, the “station” was broadcast via cassette tape, which arrived under lock-and-key, the store manager, the only person with authority to hit “play.”
The Kmart soundtrack was undoubtedly designed to lull customers into a shopping trance while tickling their brains with the latest deals and offers. The music was, well, watered down and generic. But between the long hours dealing with entitled customers and shoveling Little Caesar’s ‘Crazy Bread’ down my throat from the in-store restaurant during my “15-minute-break,” I did discover a few tunes that I still dig to this day.
For instance, take Oleta Adams’ “Get Here,” a beautiful song, but more lullaby than shop-a-thon-inspiring tune. Without the Kmart Radio Network as my musical tour guide, that’s a jam that I might not have ever taken the time to listen to otherwise.
One of my favorite parts of the job was putting together creative end caps, choosing clever merchandise pairs (chips/salsa, flashlights/batteries, canteens/bug spray, etc.), and then making the displays look as appealing as possible.
Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet” guided the way; a song that was built for stocking shelves. And stocked I did.
As with every job I’ve ever had, I’d try to put my own creative flourish in everything I did. And there was no place that was more apparent than by abusing the store’s intercom system.
I had no problem interrupting Huey Lewis and the News’ “Power of Love” to make announcements. Obnoxious announcements.
“Ladies and gentlepeople, please stop what you’re doing and listen to this life-changing message. There is currently a Blue Light Special on Mobil 5-W-30 oil. Keep your car running longer with this top-of-the-line…INSERT SUPERFLUOUS ADJECTIVES HERE…”
Each time I pulled that flexible microphone towards my oral cavity I was an absolute menace. It was my childhood dream of becoming a radio star coming to fruition.
Another highlight of working, of course, was the money. This was my first job, one with a steady weekly paycheck. And boy, did it feel nice to be independent. Ten months later, when I made the leap from $4.35 to $6.15 an hour, the change felt seismic. My newfound wealth opened the door to CDs, concerts, and all kinds of indulgences.
Friday afternoons were paydays. I’d normally work on Fridays, but for whatever reason, I had a few days off, so I decided to pop in to grab my paycheck. After spending close to a year cutting through the Fresh Meadows apartment complexes walking to and from the big-box retailer, I was now driving, kinda. I was mere weeks away from getting my driver’s license, and my parents were cool with letting their uber-responsible son use their old car to run “essential” errands.
I’m not sure why I so desperately needed to pick up my check, probably for concert tickets. So with my checkered Skidz pajamas pants on, I hopped into the 1983 Volvo Turbo, (months before I was due to get my driver’s license), popped in Side 1 of Jane’s Addiction Ritual De Lo Habitual, and was on my way.
“Nosotros tenemos más influencia con sus hijos que tú tiene, pero los queremosCreado y regado de Los Angeles, Juana’s Addicción”
HERE WE GO!
I am still way too amused that my first car crash happened during a song named “STOP!”
The light ahead of me was green…yellow…so I made the left turn as the light turned red. Little did I know there was a delayed red on the other side…meaning my light was red while the oncoming traffic still had a green. They don’t teach you that in Driver’s Ed, and frankly, I still think it’s pretty dumb traffic engineering.
An old Buick barreled into the passenger side of my parent’s Volvo, causing a sizable dent and spiraling me into shock.
How much will this cost?
Will I get arrested?
Can my license be withheld until I’m 21?
Will my parents kill me?
I don’t recall how everything was settled. There were no cops, I think the man gave me a note (pre-cell phones!), and I went home in shame. It wasn’t until days later that I realized the other driver was likely going too fast and that all of the blame did not lay at my feet.
My parents were great about the whole thing, and a few weeks later I received my driver’s license. However, I did spend the next decade avoiding Jane’s Addiction in the car for fear that it would create another accident.
There were many K-mart job components, but perhaps the most important rule has always stuck: Always Be Busy. It didn’t matter if Belinda Carlisle’s “I Get Weak” was playing or Maxi Priest’s “Close to You,” there was work to do.
Stocking shelves, organizing the storeroom, returning merchandise to its appropriate section, walking the floor, and asking people if they needed help–the cardinal sin was to let management catch you doing nothing. This protocol was enforced, but it was also enacted by the store’s management staff–all the way up to the top. I have no insight into what the management program looked like at K-mart in the 90s, or at any retailer for that matter, but it had a blue-collar, workperson-like bent to it.
And I liked it.
It’s easier to do the grunt work when you see your boss doing it, too.
Once I earned my “retail legs”–for anyone who has ever worked in a store–you know what I’m talking about–I was good to go.
The worst place to work was at the “Customer Service” desk. It was here where you would have to enforce the store’s loosely-worded return policy. People returned everything from six-packs of dented baby formula with two cans missing to sneakers with holes in the soles. The used tampon is where I drew the line, but I’m pretty sure a thin-skinned manager forced me to take it back with a smile.
Ninetween-ninety-two was the Year of the First Job, which led to 1993, Year of the Concert. My $6.15 job allowed me to see Pavement, Catherine Wheel, Beastie Boys, Sonic Youth, Sugar, Failure, Soul Asylum, Bettie Serveert, Ned’s Atomic, Offspring, Built to Spill, and on and on and on.
I never stole from the store. Well, maybe one thing.
One night, while working down in the Layaway section, a hotbed for employee congregation (no cameras! opening bags of chips! flirting!), I found a spare red K-mart vest, just like the ones we were issued and forced to wear at all times. I packed it into a tight ball and shoved it in my pocket. I knew who I wanted to gift it to: D’arcy from the Smashing Pumpkins. I scammed an extra name tag, popped the stickers carefully on the badge, and my creation was complete.
Why? I have no fucking idea. Somewhere in my teenage brain, I thought there was nothing more alternative than thumping a bass on stage while wearing a K-mart vest.
The plan was set. On November 24, 1993, I would arrive at Roseland early and give D’arcy a gift that was so cool, so unique, that she’d probably even wear it on stage that night! When she appeared, I recall getting a bit shy but being prompted by a friend to close the deal. D’arcy and I made eye contact, I presented her with the one-of-a-kind gift, and was met with, potentially the most dismissive reaction I have received in my entire life.
Looking back, I can understand how random and odd and stupid the “gift” actually was. And I have always given musicians and “stars” the benefit of the doubt, because a 10-second transaction should define no one, but holy shit, was Ms. Wretzky’s nastiness palpable. The K-mart vest was likely tossed in the trash seconds later. That’s all good, but at least pretend you give a shit about a fan, not take an approach that would make anyone feel so small.
The sour exchange did not damper the show, and Billy brought his full on Silverfuck-Somewhere-Over-the-Rainbow beauty. Damn, the Pumpkins were so good during their prime.
So I guess I owe Kmart an apology for lifting the red vest. It was the first and last thing I’ve taken from a job. Actually, that’s not true. I also took a stapler from Kmart for some bizarre reason, and I still have it today!
My teenage years as a retail worker had a few other stops. There was a couple of weeks at Bed Bath & Beyond in the curtain department. Random weekends at Stern’s department store as a fill-in sales associate. And two separate stints at Modell’s Sporting Goods, where I would go on to meet my future wife.
The fact that I can’t remember a single song that played at any of those brick-and-mortar retail stores, reinforces the fact that the Kmart Radio Network was a treasure that should not be taken for granted.