in Geezer, Musings

Where I’ve worked: Dart Drug

One of my many nametags

I was mistaken in saying the nameless computer store was my first job in Virginia. That honor actually goes to Dart Drug Corp. Dart Drug was a chain of D.C.-area drug stores similar to CVS only dirtier and much less professional. Dart was the creation of Herbert Haft and his big-haired, feuding family. But well before the Haft family turned on each other the company was going through troubled times. The management of the chain had just bought the company and the business always seemed to be on the brink of collapse.

I had been talked into working there by my friend Evan MacKenzie. It was a job, and even at a pay rate of $3.66 per hour it was better than nothing (or McDonald’s, I figured at the time). I never considered it a long-term employer but it suited my needs for a time. If there’s one good thing about a skimpy paycheck it’s that it’s less likely to bounce. So in September of 1986 I applied for a job and soon pinned on my name badge at the Dart Drug store in the Sugarland Plaza shopping center, 247 Harry Flood Byrd Highway in Sterling, VA.

Evan and I worked afternoons and evenings as cashiers and stockers taking over for the full-time daytime crew. The store manager was a New Yorker named William Tell who didn’t know quite what to do with Evan and me. The assistant manager was Paul O’Neill. I thought he was cool … well, as cool as you can get working at a drug store! Then there was Jay, the overzealous supervisor not much older than me who took his job far more seriously than he had a right to.

Dart Drug Button: Gillette "Go For Two"

Go For Two

A lot of retail people hate to run register but I actually enjoyed it. I would get into this rhythm of keying in the prices that would shift me into an almost meditative state. I loved working with the numbers and considered myself a pretty good cashier. Even now, when I’m out shopping I’ll pitch in an extra dollar or change to my total so that my change comes back as an even amount. I always assume I’m doing the cashier a favor by making her not count out a bunch of change for me but sometimes it backfires and the cashier get confused. You’d be surprised at how many cashiers can’t count. It boggles my mind.

The worst were Sunday mornings, when the sales circular would hit the papers. Dart would have a coupon in their circular and the customer would pull the paper out at the last minute after you’d already rung up their item. And that’s the only way we would know something was on sale. We used electronic cash registers but none of them were programmed to register sale items. None of them read the UPC symbols, either. It was all manual keying. A cart full of items would cost you some feeling in your fingertips and 20 minutes of your life.

As far as methods of payment go, if a customer wasn’t paying cash it was hell. These were the days before check cards. God forbid someone whiped out a pen and started scrawling on a check. Not only did it take forever for the customer to fill out the check but then the cashier had to look up the check’s account number on our lengthy “bad check” list.

Credit cards were fun, too. There was none of this instant verification stuff. If a customer pulled out a credit card, we had to look up the number in a paper book the size of a community newspaper, making sure it wasn’t a stolen credit card. Occasionally we would have to call the credit card verification agency and wait for the mysterious human on the other end to give us the okay. Only then would we haul out the bulky credit card imprinter, run the card through, and manually fill out the carbon paper card receipt. Then we would dump the credit card receipt in a lock box under the register and (when we weren’t feeling lazy) rip up the carbon paper. To say it was primitive is an, uh, understatement.

Dart Drug Button - Your Life Vitamins

Your Life Vitamins

It was fun whenever some high school kid, maybe even a classmate, would come in and attempt to buy beer with an obviously fake ID. Sometimes the ID would not even be even close to believable. Usually these hapless schmucks would simply get laughed out of the store. Then again I probably fell for more than I should have. We did what was required by law and not much more, it seemed.

Evan and I would cut up quite a bit. Oh, we’d get the work done, whether stocking shelves or running register, but we would frequently put different names on our name badges. For a while we were Bartles and Jaymes, named after the duo in the wine cooler ads. I was Otis (as in nothing in particular) and Evan was Spuds (as in Spuds MacKenzie) for a time. The manager would just shake his head.

You never knew who would walk through your register on any given day. One day a friend of my coworker went through my line and liked what she saw. I found her phone number under my windshield wiper at the end of the day. We dated for a while.

Another time a wealthy, attractive woman piled a bunch of items on the counter and wrote a check to pay for it. I recognized the name on the check: it was the wife of Doug Tracht, a prominent Washington radio jock otherwise known as The Greaseman. Tracht may not have been a celebrity outside of the D.C. area but when I was in high school The Greaseman was one of my heroes.

Then there was the sad old man suffering from dementia who would be driven to the store by his female caregiver and spend thirty minutes wandering the store, randomly filling his shopping cart to the brim with items he didn’t need. If we didn’t shoo him out of the store in time we would turn him away at the register and have to restock everything he tried to buy.

Meet Ed Jaymes

Then there was the snowy night when I may have helped catch a killer. Paul, the assistant manager, and I would sometimes while away the slow days by prank-calling the pay phone outside the store. From the manager’s booth we’d watch for someone to walk by and just as soon as they did we’d make the phone ring as if by magic. Anyone dumb enough to pick up would get an earful of gibberish or some similar sophomoric nonsense. We would then hang up and roll with laughter! It was torture if that person continued into the store, knowing that any eye contact would likely make us burst out laughing. No one ever got wise, though. God, that was funny!

On a night when the falling snow had kept most people off the streets (and out of the store), we watched one man march from the parking lot straight for the pay phone. Just as Paul dialed it the man picked up – too soon to play a prank. Paul looked up, surprised. Normally we’d give up on the prank but something about this guy’s behavior drew our attention. We watched him made a long phone call before he got back in his car and drove away.

A few days later I saw on the news that a man matching this guy’s description was wanted for murder. I called up the detective and told him of the payphone guy from a few nights before. The detective was very interested in my details, particularly the description of the car the man had driven (I had gotten a good look at that when I went out to fetch the carts from the parking lot).

When they finally captured the guy the cops found his wife’s body in the trunk of his car. Sad. I don’t know if this event was the catalyst but Paul later joined the Fairfax County Police Department. He’s since become quite a dedicated and determined detective.

As much as I liked running register and handling the money, like all cashiers my register would occasionally come up short at the end of the day. It was usually a small amount: a rounding error or something. Never more than a few bucks, typically. One night, though, I was short over $20 and the next day Mr. Tell quietly arranged for a loss prevention officer to show up.

I was working register the next day when Mr. Tell and this other gentleman invited me back to the back room to talk. The loss prevention officer was a sad-sack former sheriff’s detective (why would someone leave the sheriff’s department to work for a dumpy store chain?). I spent a bewildered hour locked in the back room as he tried every trick in the book to get me to admit to stealing the money. Of course, I would never steal and simply being accused of it brought me close to tears.

Once I figured out where all this was headed I called my parents. They were at the store within minutes and completely livid that I had been interrogated in such a manner. They really rescued me. It was the angriest I’d ever seen my mother.

I never forgave Mr. Tell for putting me through that, especially since the whole time I worked there all cashiers were given identical keys that would open any cash register. Not only that, but I’d heard one loser cashier bragging about how he could fish twenties out of the lock box using gum stuck to the end of a straw. How the manager could suspect me in spite of all this defied explanation. Hell, I was arguably the most honest person who worked there!

I quit the store the next day, and Evan eventually followed suit. Eventually the chain went under: a fact I quietly celebrated when I returned to the former store many years later. At the time I left I had a lead on a nicer job. Sure I’d have to dress up more but it was a boost in pay to $4 an hour! How could I refuse?