Ash-grey winter skies and frozen slush on the roads. Basement apartment. Minivan’s wheels spinning up the hill, advancing inches then backsliding feet. Any garbage left outside ransacked by bears. Trudging along fluorescent-lit tile aisles, their white squint-inducingly keen, their red accents harsh and saturated and on-brand. Already awake for three hours by 0600. Work assignments delivered by a jocular, iron-pumping boss but originating in software. Workday over by noon. Basement apartment filled with spiders. Waking up in the dead of night to a woman’s scream of utter and blackest despair, originating in the apartment above mine. The town’s two street grids intersecting at an odd angle. The spiders are large and fast and evidently poisonous. Software that does not and must not care. Target policy mandating a khaki bottom and red top, but leaving facial piercing and hair-color choices up to individual employees. No context for the woman’s scream. Yes, bears. The local newpaper calling them “hobo spiders” and running a front-page article on them. My one pair of khaki pants becoming increasingly dingy over time; nobody notices. Sleep interrupted on a subsequent night by police officers entering my spider-infested basement apartment, guns drawn. The woman above me evidently a suicide threat. My manual transmission Toyota minivan’s name: “Van-chan,” i.e., the English “Van” suffixed with the Japanese diminutive honorific. Target store number 224.
I did not learn how the world works in college, nor did I learn the way of things during the two cushy years that followed graduation, where I “taught” English to uninterested speakers of a major Asian language in its nation of origin. No—it was after that, upon the metaphorical road’s failure to rise up to meet me, that I was forced to take a job in Shitty Retail, working the 0400-1200 logistics shift at a Target store in Cheyenne, WY, USA. It was there under the threateningly, vertiginously expansive skies that I learned the way of the world.
The job of the logistics team was a simple one: Facilitate the flow of retail product from the trailers on which it arrived out to the shelves and racks of the sales floor. The trailer would pull up to the dock at 0400 hours, at which point one logistics sub-team would move its contents to The Line, a series of ball-bearing rollers that comprised a sort of passive conveyor belt, which allowed cartons to be speedily slid down the length of the stockroom. As they so slid, another team sorted them by department and loaded them onto pallets, which each department’s logistics sub-unit would haul via hydraulic pallet jack from the stockroom out to the department, where the cartons would be opened, merchandise put on shelves, and the excess returned to the stockroom as “backstock.” From start to finish, the process could take between two and six hours, going linearly with the amount of merchandise on the trailer.
Ernest was a veteran of the Vietnam Conflict. He was short, overweight, balding, and had a face like a displeased smallmouth bass. He’d worked on “electronics” for the Army; what that meant or how much Shit it brought upon him during his tours of duty was never clear. After the conclusion of his military career, he worked for the US Postal Service. The USPS era was Ernest’s heyday, insofar as it kept him in health insurance, ammunition and Ayn Rand reprints. Details regarding the end of Ernest’s career as a public servant were scarce; speculation around Target 224 was that his sparkling personality might not have contributed overmuch to his advancement prospects; ditto his lethal, eye-watering halitosis.
In any case, years of executing on bureaucratic/logistic policy had made Ernest into an effective mover of boxes and sorter of retail matériel. At Target 224, he worked mostly in the consumer electronics and media departments, which was where yours truly wound up.
Ernest was capable of cordial interface; he was capable, even, of pleasant conversation. But woe betide the unlucky retail worker who encountered him when something—anything—had gone awry. Ernest carried an industrial-grade chip on his shoulder. I lost count of the number of times I greeted him at 0401 hours with a neutral “Good morning,” only to be met with a peevish retorical question like “What’s good about it?” or simply a flat refutation: “No it isn’t.”
His hatred of politicians was equaled only by his desire to discuss politics, and he was full of dubious if entertaining data. A staunch and inflexible believer in Second Amendment rights, Ernest believed that guns were very important, and held those who would separate them from him (or anyone, ever) in the bitterest contempt; his best stories were those of the rank hypocrisy evidenced by legislators who he felt would impinge upon his right to bear arms. One of his favorites centered around Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA), who he asserted possessed a concealed-carry permit which she used to regularly pack a .45 caliber automatic pistol even as she was known for introducing and indeed campaigning on anti-handgun legislation1.
Of all the personalities at Target Store 224, Ernest was perhaps the saddest. The system had failed him; he was in his late 50s, and worked entry-level retail for seven or eight bucks an hour with few to no benefits. Behind his bitterness and libertarian bluster there was an agile mind and a jovial humor, but the world presented him with ever-fewer reasons to exercise them. He was angry; angry at nearly everything, all the time. I didn’t blame him at all.
On paper, Cindy should have been my friend. She was a nerd, the kind with strong opinions on video game sequels; the kind who rolled polyhedral dice. Cindy claimed (credibly) to be half-Chinese, and claimed (mostly credibly) to be a Sinophone of the Cantonese persuasion. I use the verb “claimed” because a few weeks of working with Cindy made one detail of her personality clear above all else: She was a compulsive liar, and would say anything, particularly in service of the narrative that she was too good for Target 224; that her tenure there was a short stopover on the way to bigger and better things.
Her lying and exaggeration was not limited to self-aggrandizement—it was part of her basic conversational strategy, as near as I could tell—but self-aggrandizement was where it was at its best.
The grandest and most ongoing of these utility-lies was the structure of patent falsehoods supporting her claims of academic excellence. She claimed to have achieved a perfect GPA in high school without really trying2 and moreover claimed to be maintaining a perfect GPA in her coursework at the U of W3. The most obvious dissembling began when she discussed her post-undergraduate prospects. She wanted to go to law school, and asserted that this would be no problem, since the NYU Law School had already admitted her, with a full scholarship, without her having ever applied.
“Wait—” I asked. “—you never even applied?”
“I know! Craziest thing, right?”
Pressing her for details was fruitless. She’d been given an unasked-for full ride to NYU Law. That was her story, and she stuck to it.
She loved to talk about herself. She would gladly tell you about her role-playing game character4 and her boyfriend5. No conversation within her earshot was safe from Cindy verbally crowbarring her way in and making it about her.
I loathed Cindy.
I loathed her because we were the same. Just as Target 224 was not where she was meant to be, it was not my place, either—or at the very least, I hoped, desperately, that this was true. I was smarter than this. I could do better than this. It was only temporary, I told myself.
This thinking led, I eventually realized, to my holding my co-workers in implicit contempt, which was precisely what bothered me so much about Cindy: the obvious disdain she had for everyone around her, disdain so keen she would say anything just to not be one of us. And so the only difference between Cindy and me was that despite or perhaps because of her compulsive lying, she was actually very honest about the contempt in which she held everyone. And the disingenuous scumbag, well: That was me.
Her unwitting inspiration of extremely unpleasant self-realizations on my part aside, I have Cindy to thank for one of the most glorious and satisfying moments of schadenfreude I have ever experienced.
It was the busiest retail shopping day of the year, AKA “Black Friday.” Target 224 anticipated the day’s total sales to be anywhere between six and eight times a normal day’s. Madness. The stockrooms swelled at the vast inflow of merchandise, the logistics team constantly and frantically flowing it to the front. Etc. Etc. Retail hell is never more hellish than Black Friday.
The overwhelming pace and volume was also exhilarating, though. It broke the monotony, and one of the very best monotony-breakers was to be had in the break room, where the normal depressing assortment of shelf-stabilized puck-shaped vending-machine food was augmented with a vat of homemade chili courtesy the one really genuinely decent person at Target 224: Shelley the HR lady. She’d made the chili the night before, and used a couple of habanero peppers to bring the spiciness of the whole big vat up to a moderate level, so as not to insult the collective machismo of the crew.
Habanero peppers are very spicy indeed, which is why it only took a couple to spice several gallons of chili. Shelley the HR lady had a small box of peppers left over, which she set beside the chili with a handwritten note warning would-be nibblers as to their provenance and the gastronomic threat they consequently posed.
The note inspired an idle discussion among the logistics team along predictable lines: What Was The Hottest Food You Ever Ate, Do You Even Like Hot Foods, What’s The Hottest Pepper, etc.
And that would have been that; it was an idle discussion between hectic hours on the packed Black Friday sales floor. Except that Cindy could not help herself. She could not resist asserting that yes maybe the habanero pepper was spicy or whatever, but the very spiciest pepper was from the region in China whence came her ancestors, and it was so hot that it actually gave off literal heat.
Nobody challenged her on this obviously absurd statement, since to a one we were aware that Cindy was full of shit. A couple of noncommittal “Wow”s were all that greeted her. Whereupon Cindy, ungoaded by anyone, seemed nonetheless compelled to prove her assertion, so she grabbed one of the habaneros out of the small box and just popped it into her mouth, evidently to prove that it wasn’t really all that spicy.
Except the habanero averages around 200,000 Scoville units, making it maybe twenty times spicier than a jalapeño pepper. Which is to say a habanero is very spicy indeed.
Cindy seemed to simultaneously flush and pale as she chewed. Moments later, she was sprint-walking out the door of the break room, headed, one assumes, for the bathroom. But water would not avail her.
I was never very good at arriving on time for my shift. I’m in general not an incredibly punctual person; my personal average seems to hover around 5-10 minutes of tardiness, which my guess is on the high side of acceptable for an American. But in the ruthlessly quantified world of big retail, this did not fly. Those employees that were paid by the hour (i.e., very nearly all of them) had their time tracked to the minute, and once my tardiness average drifted past a Target-approved margin, I was issued an official warning. This behavior was corrected by resetting my alarm clock from 0310 hours to 0255 hours, which I do not mind saying took a major psychological toll on me, this passing of the 3 AM barrier.
But a more powerful incentive than any official reprimand was the constant and ongoing quest for an LRT.
The LRT, or Laser Radio Terminal, was a bulky and pistol-gripped accessory, with a laser bar-code scanner at the business end and a utilitarian grey un-backlit LCD facing the operator. It had a trigger for engaging the laser scanner, and a series of rubber calculator-like keys encrusting its dorsal surface.
It could be used to accomplish basic retail-type tasks like checking item prices and stock levels, but had a variety of more esoteric and mission-critical (to those of us pulling the early logistics shift) functions.
It made some tasks easier, and without it, other tasks were completely impossible. LRTs, though, were in limited supply, and if I arrived late for my shift, I could be left with an old and busted instance of this most crucial piece of retail hardware, or—horrors!—no laser radio terminal at all.
Without an LRT, you’d have to resort to asking other, better-equipped logistics people to scan items when you needed them scanned—which was time-consuming in addition to being vaguely humiliating. Vaguely humiliating experiences were abundant at 224, so I did my best to be among the wielders of the Target inventory software’s laser eyes or nostrils or whiskers.
The best and funniest joke I ever shared with a fellow Target 224 denizen was with Jason, a kind of mellow metalhead guy who I don’t know if he smoked pot, but he seemed like the kind of guy who would, without making a big deal out of it—meaning the pot-smoking.
At one point and for no reason that I could determine, Jason began saying “Pff, look at me, I’m Hal,” to/at me when we’d walk by each other in the store.
I soon began to retaliate. “Ooh, look at me, I’m Jason.”
After a few weeks, this became abbreviated.
Rick was the Logistics Team Leader for Target 224, one of a handful of salaried employees at the store. He was maybe 5’6”, but had to weigh at least 200 lbs., very little of which was bodyfat. He had the wide-shouldered swagger of a man who wants to make it perfectly clear that just because he’s a little short does not mean he can’t still beat your ass. Rick approached his responsibilities at Target 224 with the glib and jocular urgency of a football coach.
Every morning at 0600 Rick would call a “huddle” via the store’s PA system. All store employees present would then gather in one of the wider aisles for a brief presentation on the previous day’s sales, which normally summed to between $40,000-80,000. Rick then gave us the number of boxes in the day’s load of freight—between 1 and 2000 pieces—and then (invariably and inevitably) exhort us to “really blitz this one out, okay, guys? Let’s get ‘er done!” This would be followed by a handclap, then a nervous glance over his tired-eyed logistics team, as though checking to see if they were buying the Coach Rick schtick.
“Blitz” was Rick’s favorite word in the English language. He was either unable to think of another verb that he felt meant “to work rapidly,” or (more likely) simply felt nothing else quite packed the same punch as “blitz”6. His insistence that his subordinates treat this, a deeply shitty retail job, with the same jockish enthusiasm that he himself applied to it grated on everyone, and one morning Nate and Jon7 formulated a beautiful revenge.
The trailer that morning was a large one, containing nearly 2000 individual boxes to unload. Each trailer-load of boxes that arrived at Target 224 had an unload time associated with it—a number of minutes within which the two logistics employees (in this case, Nate and Jon) charged with trailer-unloading duties were meant to complete the job. This span of time was derived progamatically, i.e., by software.
Rick exhorted them per his usual routine and using his usual vocabulary, so Nate and Jon decided that they actually would “blitz” the trailer, and unloaded it as fast as they possibly could.
Within minutes, they had overwhelmed the line with freight, and Rick was red-faced and sweating from trying to keep up with the flow of boxes. Evidently he didn’t feel able to tell the two unloaders to slow down. The consensus reached during post-blitz analysis in the break room was that doing so would have amounted to an admission that maybe blitzing was not always called-for, which in Rick’s world was unthinkable.
The deep color of the logistics team leader’s face after being so thoroughly blitzed earned him the covert nickname of “The Crimson.” The incident and the moniker it generated continue to stand out in my memory as one of the most deeply just and satisfying incidents I ever witnessed at Target 224.
It was through the window of jargon that a profound truth about the nature of Target 224 eventually became clear.
Consider the term “planogram.” This neologism refers to a data structure representing a store shelf and its fixtures in a retail space. It is a representation of the physical arrangement of the shelf, writ digitally.
The ability of a computer to generate and manipulate planograms has profound implications for retail businesses. The Target 224 computer system contained a representation of the entire store’s layout, down to individual merchandise-pegs. When a customer purchased an item, the point-of-sale system reported the sale to the computer, which then adjusted its record of the merchandise that was physically present in the store. Combined with the numbered and bar-coded bins in the stockroom, the computer’s knowlege of the state of the store’s inventory at any given moment was savantlike and nearly omniscient.
Its accuracy was based on the ability of the logistics team to execute their duties. Our job was to brush the informatic feelers of the LRTs over retail product as directed by the computer, passing its laser cilia over DVDs and alarm clocks and patio furniture and cheap seasonal decorations and frozen foods such that it knew how much of what was where.
And slowly I realized that Target was not a building or a store, Target was software—software designed to turn money into more money via automatic organization and manipulation of goods and people. To the extent that any process at any level could be quantified and automated, it was.
We, the rank-and-file, took our marching orders from the computer. It generated lists of merchandise to be pulled from the stockroom and arranged on store shelves based on what items it knew had been sold from those shelves. These batches of orders were generated rapidly, sometimes hourly. If you’ve ever wondered how big retail operations like Target keep their shelves so neatly arranged and stocked and how you so frequently seem to be the first person to take an item off a peg or shelf or out of a rack, this is how:
A lonely and winter-numbed twentysomething awoke at 0255 to make his 0400 shift, a shift given to him by HR software that allocated shift-hours based on the previous week’s sales. A baby-faced Mormon and a bald apprentice turf specialist worked to meet a trailer-unload time that was derived in software based on the size, weight, and arrangement of cartons within that trailer8. Each of those cartons had a computer-generated label that instructed someone—a pathologically dishonest sinophone, say—to take it to a given department, where an over-mellow metalhead opened them and replenished the store shelves, then carefully—very carefully, since employee error rates are tracked and posted publicly—scanned each excess item into computer-tracked bins in the stockroom. The store then opened, and a different customer bought the same item you later would, and there would have been an unslightly gap left on the store shelf, except the computer noted the sale and added a replacement item to a batch of stocking orders it generated and assigned to a bitter libertarian veteran of the Vietnam Conflict, who muttered and cursed through yellowed teeth but did what his LRT directed him to do, executing a store policy evolved to generate maximum shareholder value and placing the item on the planogram’d shelf before going home and deciding which of his guns to sell next in order to make rent.
And I watched all this and understood that as vast and terrible and coolly omniscient as the Target-mind seemed, it was just one organism in a much larger sea, that there was indeed other software devoted to packaging up pieces of Target and entities like Target and selling these packages to other pieces of software, and that these deeply complex transactions were also automated even as they defined the shape and course of the lives of billions of Ernests and Cindys and Jasons and Ricks, and that as horrifying as this was it was none of it malicious, only efficient.
And I know that while I walked out of the doors of Target 224 for the last time on a beautiful day in May 2005, one of the first genuinely warm days of the abbreviated Wyoming summer—while I walked out of those doors and will never return, I am and will always be part of the system in which Target 224 exists, just as you are, and will always be.
- A brief internet search suggests that whether or not this is true, it is at the very least a pervasive meme among your more die-hard second amendment defenders. ↑
- This was admittedly possible, given the perhaps less-than-rigorous academic standards that I maybe unfairly assumed were de rigueur in the Wyoming public school system. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- A Twi’lek stripper; feel free to google it. ↑
- Never named, known always and only as a hastily-articulated “myboyfriend,” one word, and whose two biggest aspirations, according to Cindy, were 1: Working for Microsoft and 2: Being bitten by a vampire. ↑
- A third possibility: “Blitz” may well have been a term used in the management methodology taught by Target’s corporate leadership to its management-level employees in the field. If this seems unlikely to you, I would encourage you to look into the nomenclature employed by the Six Sigma management method, or—god help you—Scrum. ↑
- My memories of Nate and Jon are not vivid enough for me to give them their own section in this piece, but I remember this much: Nate was a baby-faced and lapsed member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, who we frequently and probably unfairly quizzed on Mormon ritual, and Jon was a shaven-headed and articulate giant of a man who besides working logistics at Target 224 was attending school for Turf Management, yes “turf” as in grass, and I found this way more fascinating and admirable than Cindy’s law school aspirations and putative admission. ↑
- It turns out trailer-load optimization is its own highly complex and specialized sub-field of logistics, entirely devoted to answering a simple question: For a trailer with a given volume and maximum load weight, how do you approach the limits of volume and weight at the same time, resulting in as little wasted capacity as possible? I.e. if you pack a trailer with boxes of batteries, you’ll hit the weight limit way before you actually fill the trailer, so there’ll be this cavernous space left empty in the trailer; contrariwise, if you fill a trailer with pillows you’ve just blown most of your weight capacity. So what would be the optimum mix of pillows and batteries such that you hit the weight limit just as you fill the trailer? Easy enough to figure out when it’s just pillows and batteries, but think about how many different kinds of items Target carries and it gives you some idea of the complexity of the problem. ↑