Toys, Toys, and More Toys: One Month at Toys-R-Us

In Los Angeles, during the tail end of 1990, menial, insignificant jobs were surprisingly scarce, but with persistence and bad luck, I managed to land one at Toys-R-Us. After submitting an application, I called the store day after day and asked to speak to the store manager. “Hi, my name is Mark Cisneros. I dropped off an application yesterday, and I was wondering if you’ve had a chance to review it?” The manager knew nothing of my application, but on the fifth day, and after numerous phone calls, the manager finally called me. “Can you come in for an interview?” “For sure,” I said. “When is a good time?” “We’ll schedule it for tomorrow at three o’clock,” he said. After a fifteen-minute interview, the job was mine. I was hired under the title of “Christmas Help.” This meant my employment would end after the winter holidays, unless, however, they deemed my job performance worthy of long-term employment. I didn’t burst into tears or pound my fists on the ground when they disclosed this to me. I wasn’t there for a career. I was twenty-years old. I needed money; they needed help. It was a win-win. The interview questions were brief and pointless, and asked little of my work experience or of my desire to be part of the Toys-R-Us team. The manager’s main concern was my availability. I informed him that I was available afternoons and evenings. I was a full-time student at Rio Hondo Community College in Whittier. My last class ended at one o’clock, so I was available anytime after this. My actual job duties were not discussed, and I didn’t ask. “Your first day will be this Tuesday at 5 p.m. Look for me or for the manager on duty to find out specifically what you’ll be doing. Good luck,” he said. I rose and shook the hand of a female employee who was part of the interview panel. “I appreciate it. I’ll see you on Tuesday. Thank you,” I said and exited the small office near the cash registers. Toys-R-Us was a daily disaster during the holidays. Parents rush through the doors, their kids savagely pulling on their leashes, like pit bulls in a rap video, and as soon as families took their first steps through the doors, the hounds were let loose, all at once, and they ravage the store. The kids were given full reign over every aisle, with no parental accountability whatsoever, and they took full advantage of it. This is why they needed extra-help during Christmas. There were more toys on the aisle floors than there were on the shelves. My job was to tidy the aisles and re-shelve all the boxes and toys and balls and bats and gloves and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and My Little Pony’s and Star Wars figures and Transformers and Hot Wheels and Furby’s and Barbies and Care Bears and all the Troll Dolls with their Don King afros. I walked into the store ten minutes before my start time. I didn’t see the manager that had hired me, but I did see another employee. He was in the “Kites” section. He was a sixteen-year-old veteran, and he looked it, too. I introduced myself and asked him if he had seen Sammy, the manager that had hired me. He said Sammy had gone home, but that there was another manager on duty that would be around in a bit. “What should I do right now,” I asked. “Well,” he said as he looked around the store. “Just go around and pick things up off the floor and put them back where they’re supposed to go. The manager will be here in a little while and then he’ll tell you what he needs you to do,” he said. As it turned out, this brief conversation with the kid was essentially my training and introduction to my duties. There wasn’t an authority figure present, no one that looked serious or important. The manager never did present himself, and I didn’t meet any other employees. I wasn’t even given a Toys-R-Us work polo, let alone a name tag. I was told by a pimply teenager to clean the aisles, and this is what I did. I went straight to work, walking up down every aisle, picking up and re-shelving piles of toys left scattered in the wake of Hurricane Parents Don’t Give a Shit. My shift ran from about five o’clock to midnight. It was a sacrifice because this was the daily time frame I had designated for drinking and cruising around with Mario, Maggie, Deanna, Carmen, and Lorena. It was barely worth sacrificing, but I knew the toys needed me. They had to be dusted and cared for. This is what I was hired to do, and I wasn’t going to shun my responsibilities. Once I was done with the Transformers and Star Wars section, I turned the corner for the next aisle. It was the Dolls section. Raggedy Ann was on the floor next to Kermit the Frog. I returned them to the middle shelf, with Kermit on top of Raggedy Ann in a biblical position. I spent six-hours re-shelving toys. I didn’t talk to anyone, and I made very little eye contact with the public. Sam was the only employee I had spoken to. I was enjoying my anonymity. The next day was exactly the same, except that I didn’t talk to Sammy. Raggedy Ann and Kermit were still fornicating, and there was still a shitload of toys all over the floors. Again, I restocked toys until midnight. Then I punched my card and walked out. No one said “bye” or “hello,” and I didn’t bother trying to get to know anyone. In normal places of employment, my behavior may come off as strange to other employees, but this wasn’t a normal place. It never seemed strange to anyone that a young, Mexican dude was walking around the store for six-hours, picking up toys and restocking them, all without any clues to suggest that he was a store employee. No one said a thing, and in the two-days it had already put in, I never spoke to a store manager about my actual duties. It was winter, so the drive home was always cold. I drove a 1964 VW Bug. There was no heater and no insulation. It was a beer can with a motor. My mom always saved a plate for me and placed it in the microwave. It was a home-cooked meal, what the family had eaten that evening. It was wrapped in plastic wrap, and it was always delicious. The entire gesture was one of pure love, and it was one of the special perks of working nights. I would eat alone at the kitchen table while everyone slept, and I could reflect on my life and school and Toys-R-Us. Psychologists say that eating alone causes early death, but a lively idea came to me during one of these solitary dinners, and it was good one! The next day, I arrived at my scheduled 5 p.m. start time, with the intention of putting my idea straight to the test. I walked up to the entrance, let the doors swing open for me, and strolled straight to the employee’s lounge. The metal time-card clock was hanging on the wall next to the empty water cooler. I would’ve filled it had I known where the water was, but I didn’t want to risk blowing my cover. There were about twenty-five to thirty employee time cards sitting in their slots. Each one was labeled with the employee’s name and I.D. number. Mine was at the very bottom, directly next to where the blank cards were kept. I clocked in, and then made my way to the store’s entrance. I walked out and headed for my car. I looked in my rearview mirror as I pulled out of the lot. No one had seen me. I rendezvoused with Mario and the girls at New Temple Park in South El Monte. I had a few beers and took a couple of hits from a joint that Maggie was passing around. At eleven p.m., an hour before closing, I returned to Toys-R-Us. I strolled into the employee’s lounge, a little buzzed but cautious about not being seen. I pulled my card out of its slot and clocked out. I walked out of the store and went back to New Temple to meet up with the crew. I did this again the next day, in the same exact way. And then I did it the next day and the next day and the next day. No one noticed. I collected a check every two weeks. I would get to Toys-R-Us at five o’clock or so, clock-in, go home or go out drinking with my friends, come back at eleven o’clock, clock-out, and retire for the evening. A month of this and still not a single employee bothered to ask my name. There were some close calls, but nothing to make me stop what I was doing. It was effortless, made easy by the other employee’s lack of interest in being social. They wore their apathy on their shirtsleeves. All of us were surrounded by toys, every night, and no one could manage a smile. I, of course, did my part by making little attempt to be social. I had a plan, though, and I had to be resolute. Saying hello to a fellow employee would’ve prompted someone to ask questions. I was tired, though. As this pattern wore on, the plan became burdensome. The extra driving to and from Toys-R-Us was expensive. Gas had reached $1 a gallon, and everyone was pissed off about it. We were almost ready to hit the streets in protest. “Fuck, man! I’m not driving anymore! This shit is expensive,” my friends would say about rising gas prices. But we loved the freedom our cars gave us, and we liked driving. We weren’t going to stop, and we would continue to pay whatever price they asked, no matter how much we seemed to complain. Finally, one day, I has enough. I decided to stop. I collected my last check from my time card slot, and I never returned. The game became too stressful. The driving, the clocking in and the clocking out, the interruption to my social life, the empty water container—it was too much for me to handle. I quit. And that was that. Looking back, I don’t feel too bad about what I did. I’m not proud of it, but there were two parties involved. I did my part and they did theirs. I should’ve been introduced to someone. I should’ve had a job description. I should’ve had a shirt and a name tag. I only made about $600, in the two months I was there. On a nightly basis at Toys-R-Us, there was much more than $600, in broken toys on the floors, and no one cared enough to pick them up. This was the only time in my life where I’ve done anything like this, in any job. I knew it was wrong, but I was young and rebellious. I may have been acting out, too, at Toys-R-Us’ lack of attention and lack of interest in me. I wasn’t the only new hire during the holiday months, but I was probably the only one that noticed a serious flaw in the way Toys-R-Us was conducting itself. I couldn’t stand for it, and my only recourse was to walk out. And for this I am not sorry.

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