Thanks, Wood Man

The summer between high school and college, I worked as a salesman at Payless Shoes in Menlo Park Mall. Espadrille wedges were the must-have footwear for Summer 1996, and they’re reprising that role in 2012. (Fashion is perhaps the only thing more recursive than writing.) It was a minimum wage job made even more ignoble by Fox’s popular TV series Married… with Children–not a shift passed without some customer shooting an Al Bundy reference in my direction, or so it seemed. My other part-time job was life guarding at the Y, so in terms of teenage cool, my self image wasn’t too bruised. But I received a discount in the food court and learned the calculus of retail psychology: rain and high temperatures generate mall traffic; a shopper who asks to see more than three styles of shoes will purchase none; and EVERYONE will shoplift if they are given the chance to. To this day, I still look at shoppers’ feet when they enter and exit stores. That’s how I know espadrilles are selling well this summer.

To while the hours away on rainy days, I would lean against the cash wrap with Payless’ head manager, the Wood Man, and listen to the tales of his glory days as a basketball player at the University of Delaware. How he came by that appellation, I’m not sure. Like all good nicknames, it has multiple and conflicting origins. I think it has something to do with the way he would hack at opposing players on the basketball court. Regardless, with my entry to college eminent, he took it upon himself to forewarn me of the follies that too much freedom could bring about. He would relate his misadventures, and I would laugh until I was breathless. The Wood Man had old material and a new audience and, as they say in the stand up comedy business, he killed it every time.

Over the weeks, he narrated almost every day of his five semesters of college. Then came other hilarious lessons on dating, marriage, driving under the influence, and child rearing. I was a good audience and a loyal employee; he trusted me implicitly with his treasured stories and never thought that I would judge him. And I never did. Not even for the one with the punchline, “my wife made me buy a new microwave.”

Being the veteran retailer the Wood Man was, he went on vacation the week of Independence Day and left behind a busy boring wreck of a store. In my downtime, I sped the sands of time through the hourglass of retail perdition by writing in my journal. Little sketches of customers, lists of records I wanted to buy, vignettes, short stories all made it onto paper when I wasn’t re-boxing avalanches of shoes or filing shoplifting reports with mall security. The Wood Man discovered my writing habit when returned from his vacation, and, as punishment for the dusty window displays and three pairs of steel toe work boots gone missing, conscripted me as a his personal scribe (because “someone should make a book of his stories”). True to his word, he recapped his stories and I took notes during slow shifts.

Near the end of my tenure as writer-in-residence at Payless Shoes, the Wood Man didn’t show for work one day, but the regional manager did. It was lunchtime, and I was alone in the store when he asked me where my manager was. If the Wood Man’s stories had taught me anything, it was not to rat on your friends. So I told the regional manager, he wasn’t scheduled to work today. The suit eyed me, then opened his day planner and said he’d be back tomorrow. The next morning, the Wood Man and I arrived in the employee parking lot at nearly the same second. Before he killed the engine on his subcompact, he opened the driver’s door, jogged over to me, and threw his arms around my neck. Too tired to shrink away, I stood there as he rambled, “You saved my life yesterday. Johnny Cheapsuit, the regional manager, went to Champ’s after he came to the store and saw me bellied up to the bar.” My eyebrows raised themselves. “You know he sat down and had a drink with me because you told him I wasn’t working yesterday?”

On my last shift as a shoe salesman, the Wood Man called me into his office to thank me for my dedication to the company and for saving his bacon. He handed me a swank leather box and told me to open it. Inside, a blue and gold Waterman pen lay nestled on a bed of gray velvet.

I never commemorated the Wood Man’s life in book form, but I used the heavy ballpoint pen to write the  story of our summer together and mailed it to the store in an envelop with my new college return address. I never heard from him and never sought him out. And the Wood Man’s stories remain under glass in my mind.

If this blog post were a Wood Man story, it would end like this: “Are you ready? You’re gonna like this one. Ready? So this is the punch line …” The best gifts I’ve ever been given as a writer are the people I’ve met people who have stories to tell and who tell them with unmitigated zeal–people whose lives are the prewriting for texts they speak or play or write. An equally good gift is an odd situation that makes each voice in the daily din distinct, a moment long or short that forces me to listen and glean what is really happening but hidden by the mundane. As a writer, I like to keep these moments for myself because they keep me from forgetting why I write and what good writing does. At other times, these happenings and the people who make them happen teach much simpler lessons, portable and universally applicable wisdom like the Wood Man’s: your microwave oven has the potential to last forever, as long as you don’t mistake the kitchen for the bathroom.

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1 Comment »

 
  • Nicole Wittenburg says:

    Lenny,

    Great post! It really read like the stories you described. It’s amazing how some people can just be so fascinating and inspiring for no particular reason. As writers, I think we are extra sensitive to the unique humanity of each individual. Maybe a “Wood Man” publication is in your future…

 

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