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I've been watching orientation videos all morning for my new job, along with a hundred or so other new employees of Wonderments Family Fun Park. So far we've seen videos covering proper use of employee break time, representing the park properly while in uniform, sexual harassment and dating in the workplace, employee theft, and preventing stock loss. It's all standard workplace new hire fare, the kind of warnings no one is going to pay attention to, and management knows no one is paying attention to, but they show us anyway so there's no ambiguity when people get fired for doing all this stuff.
The video we're watching now is unique, however. Wonderments, the video explains, makes a lot of money every day, and all that money needs to be brought from the individual stores and food carts and carnival games to the front office to be counted. To accomplish this, employees are to place the money in provided cash boxes. The video shows a picture of one of them, which is essentially a World War II ammunition box. They're even dark green and weathered looking, with serial numbers painted on the top.
“In the event of an attempted robbery,” the disembodied narrator says, “these cash boxes can be used as a weapon to fend off an attacker.” The video shows a short, innocent-looking girl walking through the park holding the cash box when she is accosted by a large hairy man who demands the box. The girl in the video windmills the box over her head, smashing the guy in the face. The crowd of people here let out a variety of gasps along with some laughter and scattered cheering. I guess that's one way to wake up a room full of college students.
A ten-year-old girl could crack a skull with one of those boxes. Mostly, management wants to send the message that when it comes to the money, they are Not Fucking Around. I know this already, and that's why I won't be stealing from the park this summer. I'll be stealing from everyone else.
The video drones on and I look at my employee welcome packet in the dark. It's hard to read, but I can see that at the bottom of my copy of the contract, my specific job assignment has been filled in: I'll be working at a place called The Jolly Tinker. I wish there was a way to find out if anyone around me was working there too, without having to talk to them. This part of the orientation is just for the retail workers – all the games operators, lifeguards, and cleaning crew are in separate rooms – but it's still pretty unlikely. There are dozens of stores throughout the main park, and another half dozen in the water park as well. I suspect it's their unofficial philosophy here to make sure customers are within two minutes' walk of a cash register at all times.
There's a short discussion period about the video where no one talks about anything we just saw, then a question and answer session where no one asks any questions. It's their fault for how they structured the orientation, though: everyone got an itinerary, so everyone knows that lunch comes right after the Q & A. The human resources representative who drew the short straw and has to train us – a tall, middle-aged woman with thick glasses and small, thin lips – gives up after a moment of awkward silence and announces lunch time. The rest of the room sighs with relief like having to get paid to sit and be bored for a day is the worst thing that has ever happened to them.
I walk across the park to the employee cafeteria along with the rest of the people in my orientation. No one notices me, and I don't talk to anyone. I like it that way. When we arrive, the cafeteria looks more like an old warehouse building – painted brown, one door leading in, one door leading out, no windows. It's painted to blend in with the perimeter fence and down a side path to try and prevent any non-employees from wandering in. After being out in the summer sun, the whole place feels dim and dingy due to its lack of windows.
The line takes forever to get through. They could have saved so much time by giving us a bag lunch in the orientation. It wouldn't be any worse than the stuff they're serving here. I assume employee eating areas aren't subject to state health inspections, since this place is still open. The other new hires all chat while they eat, leaving me alone. I prefer to watch and listen instead of talking.
The afternoon passes as we're subjected to more training videos. None of the rest of them feature anyone getting hit in the face, and from the hairstyles and wardrobe choices, I'm guessing all the videos are at least twenty years old. I never do get to find out if anyone at the orientation works in the same store as me.
At the end of the day they split us into groups based on where we'll be living for the summer. The local teenagers get to go home, but the rest of us get shown to the dorms they rent to out-of-state employees for fifteen bucks a week. My room is a total pit, a collection of splintered wood, chipped paint, and a window I can't see out of because even though housecleaning washed the inside of the window, the outside is still covered in dirt and grime.
It's not without its charm, though. It's a place to sleep, which is all that matters. It's dirt cheap, which is going to make it a lot easier to keep the money I make this summer, and I have no roommate. The room is small but not cramped, with two dressers and a bunk bed. I'm sure I'll get a roommate eventually, but for now I'm happy to enjoy the privacy. I make the bed with the provided lumpy pillow and stiff, scratchy brown blanket, and lie on the bottom bunk. Various previous employees have written their names and year worked on the plywood above me that supports the top bunk, along with crude drawings of dicks, instructions to “fuck this place,” and “get out before it's too late.” Good advice if there ever was any, but I'm sticking around. For now.
I make it a point to unpack. I enjoy the process. I know I won't be here long, but it makes me feel like I own the place. Own the choice to be here. Visitors live out of suitcases. I'm moving in. I don't have that much anyway – a few shirts, a few pairs of jeans, an iPod. Just enough stuff to fill a drawer. If I need anything else while I'm here I'll shop for it, but I suspect I'll spend most of the summer in a work uniform.
The last thing I take out of my suitcase is a plain white mailing envelope. Inside I have all the cash I brought with me – about four hundred dollars. I use banks when I absolutely have to, but I've always liked the feel of money in my hands. When it's in a bank, it doesn't feel real. There's a bulge in the envelope that crinkles the paper – a small bishop from a glass chess set. My uncle taught me how to play chess when I was young. I never kept up with it and don't really play anymore, but I remember how much he encouraged me, how he taught me to think and think quickly, be smart about what I said and didn't say, and stay focused on my goals.
He gave me a beautiful glass chess set for my birthday when I was ten. None of my friends played chess, but I always left it set up in my room anyway, just to look at. When my family moved two years later, the box with the chess set in it got banged around. The board cracked and half the pieces cracked or shattered. The white bishop – not exactly white, but more cloudy, like it was meant to be clear but the glass was flawed – was one of the pieces that didn't break. I kept it with me and threw the rest away.
I tuck the envelope in my drawer under the clothes and go downstairs. The employee store next to the lobby supplies the toiletries and other junk employees need, because if the park is going to provide housing for a few bucks a week, they sure as hell aren't going to supply toothpaste, towels, toilet paper, or anything else for that matter. We even had to pay for the pillows and blankets, which we were assured could be sold back at the end of the summer provided they were still in acceptable condition. After an entire summer with no air conditioning, I imagine it takes a lot of Febreeze to make them reusable.
The store is manned by a single employee, an old man with two days' worth of unshaven gray facial hair and an empty, bored look in his eyes. He watches me like a hawk while I shop. I can't tell if it's because he thinks I'm going to steal something, or just because there's nothing else to do.
I pick up items mostly at random. Toilet paper, soap, toothpaste, stuff like that. They have food, the sort that appeals to teenagers who can't cook and adults who are too lazy: mini frozen pizzas, instant coffee, single wrapped hot dogs, but most of it requires a microwave, so I skip all that. I wouldn't bother putting a microwave in my room even if we were allowed to, and the microwave in the store is bound to be disgusting.
“Hey, do you have any pencils, or ink pens, or paper? Office supplies?” I ask.
“Hey man, we're a convenience store, not Office Max.”
I look around a bit more and give up, putting my stuff on the counter so he can ring it up. “You guys carry flip flops, but no ink pens.”
He manually punches the prices of things into a cash register too old to have any sort of bar code scanning device attached. “Pens won't save your feet from the stuff growing in the showers around here.”
I grab a pair of flip flops and add them to my pile of essentials. “I'll just borrow a pen from the front desk, I guess.” It's going to be a great summer.
* * *
The girl behind the register is large in every possible way. Six feet tall, wide mouth, big nose. Curly hair exploding in every direction like she's never imagined combing it. Huge hands and fat fingers, graceless and grabby. Fat enough that she wears one of her own white shirts because they don't make the blue and yellow Wonderments gift shop uniforms big enough to fit her.
I've been here a week, and I've worked with her a few times. I'm not sure how long she was working here before I started but the park has only been open for the season for about a month, so it can't have been that long. I don't remember her name, and now I'll never have to, because right now park security is politely informing her that she is an idiot. Also, that she's fired. She's been stealing money from the register – eighty dollars on three separate occasions. She's likely stolen less before now, but since the bean counters in the cash office expect mistakes, they overlooked it when the register was five or ten dollars short. When you hire someone to work for minimum wage seventy hours a week with no overtime pay, you expect a certain margin of incompetence. Apparently, eighty dollars is the cutoff point where someone goes from “probably stupid” to “probably stealing.”
I guess she missed the part of orientation when it was made clear employees were supposed to smash in people's faces to protect the park's money. Or maybe she did see it, but the idea of an extra few hundred bucks was just too tempting. Now she's busy screwing over any chance she has at deniability.
“We need you to come with us, please,” says the first security guy.
“What!?” she says, instantly defensive, like someone who has been committing petty crimes since they were seven years old and never even once gotten away with it. “I didn't do anything, I don't have to come with you.” She says it like she's expecting the security guy to nod sagely, see her reasoning, and leave.
Security Guy's partner says, “Don't make a scene. We just need you to come talk to us.”
“I said I didn't take anything. I'm staying here!” Real smooth. She looks more guilty than a five-year-old with a face full of frosting denying eating a birthday cake that wasn't meant for her.
The security guys escort her out, each holding one arm. I'm expecting her to fight them, but she doesn't. How disappointing. A temporary store manager (apparently the original manager quit unexpectedly and they haven't found a new one yet) comes over to the register. He shuts it down, pulls the drawer out and puts in a fresh one. Without anyone saying a word, the large girl in the white shirt is gone forever. Everyone else has that look like they can't wait to talk about it, but for now, the gift shop swells with more people, totally unaware of the scene that unfolded moments before their arrival.