Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Ghost of Bosses Past

Ghost of Bosses Past
“Pick that sack up” he yelled. “Do you have any idea how much that sack cost?” as he pointed a finger in my face.

“No, not really( as though I cared )” I replied.

“It cost me $.01 and that’s throwing money away.” “If I catch you doing it again, we are going to the back room and having a little talk” he snapped. A little talk to him meant we weren’t going to be chatting over tea and talking sports, I was going to be the sport.

James Peek a man in his late 30’s , was the manager of the Piggly Wiggly I bagged groceries at during my senior year in high school. Red wavy hair slicked down with Ultra Brylcreem, a sheepish smile to say he was onto you, and eyes that would make you run for cover made it evident he was no fool. He had simple philosophies. Work hard, dress neatly, treat “his” customers respectfully, don’t waste, and you might survive.

My first day at work required a tour of the store and Mr. Peek was my personal guide. The last stop on this whimsical tour was the stock room (aka the back room). The entrance to the stock room was an old swinging steel door like one would see in a restaurant in between the kitchen and the serving areas. This one unfortunately didn’t have a window where you could see if anyone was coming through so proper caution when approaching could save a nose from being broken.

The back room was where Mr. Peek, gave his new recruits boot camp. Standing tall with his hands on his hips slightly bent over forward to make sure I could hear him he began to call out his repertoire of rules- “Rule #1- I’m the boss and what I say goes, understand?” as he held up 1 finger. “Rule #2- I will treat you like I would treat my own kids, understand?” as he held up 2 fingers. “Rule #3- If you are ever rude to “my” customers, we will have us a talk back here, understand?” as he held up 3 fingers. By this time in my indoctrination, I was hoping he was missing some fingers, so I could get out of there. I was wondering if he was going to tell me to hit the floor and give him 20. By now, my mind was thinking, the Marines were using Piggly Wigglies as a cover for recruiting and I’m standing in front of my Drill Sergeant.
“Do you understand the rules?” he said sternly looking straight into my eyes. “Yes Sir” I replied while my mind replayed the rule book. Let’s see, you’re the boss, you will beat me within an inch of my life like you do your kids, and if I break Ms. Smith’s eggs or squash Ms. Jones bread, I get an all expense paid trip to the torture chamber. Now I know why there was no window on that swinging door.
The store set up was all designed so Mr. Peek could watch all the action. His office was right inside the front entrance to the store. It was an elevated open office with half walls, so that it looked down at everyone and he had a clear shot- I mean view of everyone and everything. Strategically placed mirrors where he could see every aisle and I saw him toss out more than one shoplifter that he caught. Justice was swift. No police, just him as the escort out with a shout “Don’t ever come back in my store” like Marshall Dillon restoring law and order. From his throne he could rightfully claim that he was King of the Piggly Wiggly Empire and many people paid him homage and tributary by shopping there.
The store was built on a hill and the parking lot had a steep grade toward the end. The back entrance door had a steep decline that ran about 50 yards downhill and into the lower end of the parking lot which made for great downhill runs with the shopping carts while we rode them and used our shoes for brakes.
Mr. Peek reigned supremely and wisely. Saturdays were the busiest days and all hell broke loose if it was double or triple coupon day. I knew Mr. Peek would be more agitated on these days so I prayed for mercy every night before going to bed. “Dear God- Now I lay me down to sleep, tomorrow I might die at the hands of Mr. Peek, if I should die before I’m through, I pray the Lord, Mr. Peek does too.” Amen!
Mr. Peek knew the name of his loyal customers. Every old lady south of the Mason-Dixon Line and west of the Mississippi shopped there. He engaged his customers with a rousing robust southern, “Howdy, how are you today?” and with a hand on their shoulder and look into their eyes, “I appreciate ya.” He was a master purveyor of charm and wit, a true salesman and showman that rang up sales of twice that of larger stores in the chain.
“His” customers were quick to tell on you if eggs were broken or bread squashed from poor bagging. The cost of replacing them came out of your pay check and that could mean no money left over for date night. No one called labor boards to bail them out, that’s the way it was.
Mr. Peek had his good side and would also defend you. One of his customers, a man in his 40’s, was trying to “hit” on me. At first I thought he was just being friendly with me, a guy thing, until he made it abundantly clear that he had ulterior motives. To a 17 year old teenage boy in 1968 this was rather unsettling. I advised Mr. Peek of whom it was and he was astonished as it was a very loyal customer. However, he believed me and approached this man with my accusations and promptly escorted him out of the store and in very direct language advised him that he would personally take care of him if he ever came back.
We live in a time where we need more Mr. Peeks. Those who are not afraid to stand up and tell it like it is. Those who work hard, have values, and take action. Those who don’t pander to public opinion, or bow at the altar of compromise and that follow through on commitments on their beliefs. Mr. Peeks was fundamentally driven, nothing wavering, a true patron of the America I once knew. I’m grateful for those like him, although tough, that knew they were passing onto my generation the values and ethics that would be needed in my world. Though Mr. Peek is gone, his memory like all great warriors of those times, goes on in the hearts and minds of those like me, that he cared enough to tell it like it was—

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