[Some names are real, some are changed, and some are made up because I don’t remember their real ones. You can guess which is which.]
I was leaving work when my phone buzzed: a text. It was Megan.
“You want to get drinks?” It read.
Two months prior to this evening, I was employed at Sound & Vision, a used CD/DVD store with two locations in downtown Philadelphia, one on 2nd Street and the other on South Street. Separated by less than a mile, when I needed to bounce from one store to the other, I frequently took a scenic stroll past Penn’s Landing.
I began working there in June, only a few weeks after departing Charlotte. The job involved sifting through stacks of mostly unlistenable CDs while blasting Neutral Milk Hotel over the stores speakers or staving off boredom by watching movies on a 13″ television. For a 23-year-old new to the city, it was almost the perfect job. Steve, the owner, played the role of Almost.
A man more horizontal than vertical, Steve had spent his entire 50 years in Philadelphia but looked no less road worn for it. He rhapsodized frequently about his past accomplishments and justified his current, not-quite-estimable status by blaming any number of villains: Past employees, city officials, his baby mama.
I suspected, however, that his decline in fortunes might fairly be attributed to his crack addiction. That, and his weakness for companionship. Prostitutes aren’t cheap; although, his did appear to be on the, shall we say, more economical side.
As Steve’s extracurricular activities took precedence over managing his stores (and paying his employees, and bathing), he charged me with finding someone to cover the shifts he was no longer interested in working himself.
One of those interviewees was Megan. She was a petite, mousy girl with an almost perfectly round face and hair so thin and matted down, she gave the impression of someone just a couple months out from finishing chemo treatment. Other than the aforementioned baby mama, Donna, the staff was all male, so I recommended Megan to Steve who, with all the vehemence he could muster, said, “Fine.”
After that, I rarely saw Megan unless there was a problem. The stores could operate with one employee at a time, and as the de facto manager (a role I had essentially forced Steve to bestow upon me), I took all the hours I could get.
When I did cross paths with the other staff, we shared our latest stories on Steve’s erratic behavior.
“He came into the store with a hooker and emptied the till.”
“He called me up, yelled at me, and then started sobbing.”
“He smells like a homeless man, if that homeless man ran back-to-back marathons.”
With Steve growing increasingly unhinged, the responsibility of running the stores fell to me, even as I knew no employees were being paid. Some of the newest hires – including Megan – still hadn’t received a single paycheck. I received promises almost daily that we would be paid “the next time I come in.” But one afternoon, I noticed an ominous bill in the pile of mail. Holding the unopened envelope to the light, I could make out the words “Past Due” and a number with five digits before the decimal.
On what would turn out to be my last day working for Steve, I arrived before noon at the South Street location. Megan was to work at 2nd Street that afternoon; it was a normal Sunday.
A few minutes after I opened South Street, Megan called in a frenzy.
“My purse was stolen.” She had opened the store, set her bag down on the counter and gone to the back for a moment. When she came back out, someone had absconded with her possessions. Frazzled and upset, she wanted to go immediately to the police station to make a report. I told her I’d have Steve come down and cover the store. That didn’t seem unreasonable. Apparently, I was mistaken.
Steve arrived at 2nd Street in a sour mood, his 4-year-old son and Donna, the child’s mother, in tow. Immediately after relieving Megan, he called me on the store phone and launched into a lengthy diatribe, complaining about our overstock and any number of other grievances. This haranguing continued for a half hour, until eventually his voice began to drop out and his words jumbled together. Then silence.
He fell asleep. Poor guy, apparently all those hookers and blow had plum tuckered him out.
An hour later, I received a call from Megan.
“They’re both passed out.”
“Donna is asleep on the ground behind the counter, and Steve is passed out in the back. He doesn’t have clothes on.”
I had unfortunately had the inauspicious experience of walking in on a sleeping Steve before, so I knew what she was witnessing: A gray-haired, whale of a man, undressed to his skivvies, his gelatin hindquarters squeezed to the point of bursting inside tighty (off-)whities. It was a sight meant for neither man nor woman.
“You have to get out of there,” I insisted.
“I can’t,” she protested. “The boy’s here. There’s a homeless guy in here with him.” Where was Norman Rockwell when you needed him?
Megan did leave, after Donna had stirred, and she came straight to South Street. I was sitting there with another employee who Steve had fired the night before (the employee claimed he quit). He was looking to get paid, and come to think of it, Megan wouldn’t mind the same.
I gave the former employee about $200 out of the till, figuring that was the least Steve could do. I told Megan she should just go home for the day. There was no way she could be expected to work around her half-naked boss (no sexual harassment policy on earth would let that fly). I told them that if Steve contacted them, tell them I gave them permission and they could blame me.
They did. And he did.
When Steve awoke from his power nap, he called again, apoplectic. He upbraided me for giving away his money. For an hour, we yelled at each other, I laying out his numerous sins, he venting all the ways I had earned his disdain. Then, with his anger boiling over, he abruptly hung up.
Stewing for half an hour, I paced back and forth behind the counter while the few customers the store had stared at me with concern apparent in their eyes. They’d heard everything.
I called Steve again and quit. Immediately, he turned apologetic and conciliatory. He offered to pay me (most of) what he still owed me. He offered to drive me home. He offered to buy me dinner. I took him up on all of it; then I still quit.
My triumphant exit was slightly undercut by the fact that I had already agreed to cover Megan’s shift the next day. But then that was it.
A few days later, I started working at Penn Book Center and I put Steve and his insanity behind me.
Megan and I had remained in touch, but this was our first excuse to hang out.
“They’re running a crazy promotion. Free vodka from 6-7.”
In those days, I wasn’t yet on the whiskey train. As an inexperienced drinker in Charlotte, I initiated my journey towards noble alcoholism with rum. However, after a few too many nights that resulted in my evening’s drinks reincarnated as vomit, I was looking for a less sweet drink. Vodka, why not?
The bar was somewhere downtown, and that’s about as specific as I can hope to get. When I arrived, Megan was there with a friend I didn’t know. The promotion, – sponsored by Smirnoff, or Skyy, or Absolut, as if it made a difference – was as advertised: From 6 to 7, the bar was slinging free vodka. The three of us immediately lined up and downed a round. And then we did it again. And again.
In between drinks, Megan and I caught up. She had stayed on at Sound & Vision for a month after I left. With the crew diminished, she was catapulted into the managerial role I had vacated. Whereas I had convinced Steve to allow me to take cash from the register when I needed to pay bills and whatnot, Megan lasted nearly two months at the store and never received a red cent. “I quit last week,” she said.
By the time the hour had passed, we had managed four or five shots each, and I, being a vodka-newbie and drinking on an empty stomach, was feeling the warm, Russian comfort in my gut. My drinking companions, being prudent with their finances, packed it in when the free booze dried up.
I, on the other hand, had a full time job that actually provided an income. I said goodbye to my companions and saddled back up to the bar.
All I remember after that was stumbling out of the bar, maybe ten minutes later, just as possibly three hours. Crowds of well-heeled couples were gathered on the sidewalk, waiting for taxis. I circumvented the line and threw myself into the back seat of an unsuspecting cab.
“Where you going?”
“50th Street and Spruce,” I sputtered.
The cab was swirling. The planet was shaking. As the taxi pulled away from the curb, I felt a familiar churn in my core. I rolled down the windows and – well, I’d like to say that I managed to evacuate everything outside the window, but I suspect that was not the case.
“Here you are,” the cabbie said curtly after only a few minutes. Even wasted, I knew he couldn’t have possibly gotten all the way across town.
“Where are we?” I asked, as much a question of location as a metaphorical pondering from death’s door.
“No, 50th Street. Five-Oh.”
“I don’t go that far,” he stated in such a way as to preclude debate. Drunk, sick, and wobbly, I paid the protracted tab and stepped out of the cab and into darkness. I was just on the outskirts of Center City, but it might as well have been the woods by Camp Crystal Lake for all I knew.
Now, on top of my inebriation and general wooziness, I was lost in a city I had only lived in for three months. My dark haze had me turned around and unable to figure out which direction I needed to head. Looking about me, I picked a direction and…
Woke up on my lumpy futon the next morning.
This wouldn’t be the last night I would find myself in an unknown Philly neighborhood and somehow will myself home. It was also the initiation of a brief affair with vodka that would last roughly until I moved to southern California and began courting a burly gentleman named Jack.
I hung out with Megan two or three more times after that night and then she just slipped out of my life, like so many other two-month friends I’ve had. Philadelphia, more than anywhere else I lived, was a city I merely passed through, sometimes stumbling. Much of that year set the pattern for the next decade of my life, but when Year 2 ended, there were no tearful goodbyes, no farewell parties.
I was stronger for it: the struggles, the isolation, the city’s coarse touch. I chose Philadelphia for my second year specifically so I could push myself, test my mettle. In that sense, it fulfilled every expectation. It’s why I’ll always have a fondness for that dirty town; even a slight appreciation for Steve.
Still, a month before I packed up all my stuff and moved to Southern California, I trekked down to 2nd Street and saw something that made me smile:
The end of Sound & Vision. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.