We sped through traffic. Manipulating traffic in this city never easy. Speeding through it is damn near impossible. Heedless bystanders who don’t understand about crosswalk lights, maniac cab drivers who I guess think that it’s some sort of honor to die while driving, and the gigantic potholes that can swallow up most of a civilization—these are the things you have to take into consideration while you’re trying to navigate through the madness that we’ve dubbed “traffic.” And that’s when you have ordinary driving conditions.
When you have some crazy-ass drumbeat thudding into your skull at super-high volume, when you have Arnie over there in the passenger seat yelling about how we’re going to save lives, and when you see the giant fire roaring away in front of you, that’s when driving gets really tricky. So you might think that the auto-drive function in the Portmobile was a good thing. But if you think something like that, it’s because you’ve failed to realize that if it wasn’t for the auto-drive function, you wouldn’t be dealing with these last factors at all.
The Portmobile drove us through everything with computerized precision—and by “computerized,” I mean like the way that they always thought computers would work back in 1960, when they talked about how computers would work really well in the future—not in this year of Our Lord 2004 (a.k.a. the Future), where we all know that computers glitch out every time the temperature changes.
“Auto-brake engaged,” The Portmobile said, as it slammed us to a halt in front of the burning building.
“This is a terrible idea,” I said. “Not only are we going to get ourselves killed, we’ll be getting other people killed by getting in the way of trained professionals.”
“There are apartments over the store,” Arnie said. “You help the customers get out in an orderly fashion, I’ll go around the side to the apartments and get the people out of the there.”
The building wasn’t really blazing, I guess, but there was smoke pouring out of it, and a couple of the windows were broken. I suppose it wasn’t actually “roaring away” as I said earlier, but when you’re driving towards a burning building with the intention of going inside of it, see if maybe you don’t exaggerate a little. Of course, I didn’t really have any intention of going inside the burning building.
There weren’t any emergency services there yet—no police, no firemen, no ambulances. There was no one to actually stop me from rushing into the burning building. I acted like I was rushing towards the entrance until I saw Arnie dart around the corner, then I went to stand with the rest of the people who had gathered across the street. I mean, come on, man, I had no idea how to go about saving people. I wasn’t just being a coward when I had tried to explain to Arnie how we would actually be hindering the rescue people once they arrived. I mean, sure I was being a coward, but a coward with a very valid point.
“Hey aren’t you that hero?” Someone asked from behind me. I turned around and saw one of the Circuit City employees standing there smoking a cigarette.
“No. I’m not a hero, I’m just some guy who mooned the wrong person one night.”
“Yeah, I hear that.” He took a drag off his cigarette and looked back up at his place of employment. “So you aren’t going to go in and try to save people?”
“Man, the way I see it, you have more of a responsibility to save those people than I do.”
“Yeah, eff them. I wouldn’t mind if a few more customers went in to return their stuff before the fire department got here.”
“You must work at the customer service desk,” I said. If you’ve ever worked in retail, you can quickly pick up on the world-wise cynicism that comes with being forced to deal with bitchy customers who think they own the world just because they dropped a couple of bucks in your store.
“Yeah. Too bad the fire didn’t start at the front counter—it would have been like natural selection sped up to have them all lined up to burn. Kinda like cleaning out the gene pool a bit.”
“You were in there when the fire started?”
“Yeah. One of the managers was trying to give a home theater demo to a customer and started the whole home audio section on fire.”
“No, I’m not. That’s him, standing over there.” He pointed to a rat-looking fellow who was busy talking on a cell phone. “He’s over there talking to the district manager, blaming it on some poor bastard that makes like nine bucks an hour.”
Again, it’s kind of a had-to-work-in-retail-at-some-point kind of thing. The managers, it’s like they were carefully handpicked from a secret stock of inbred crack-addicted monkeys and put through several lobotomies as part of their manager training. And then when they screw something up, they blame it on some low-paid schmuck who is actually trying to support a family on the low-wage insult that’s called a paycheck. I’m a little bitter.
I looked at the kid’s nametag. It said “Harry.” I asked the kid if his name was Harry.
“Oh, hell no. Harry was a dude that used to work here. He got fired a few weeks ago and I jacked his nametag. I don’t want customers knowing my name.”
“Oldest trick in the book. So what’s your real name?”
“Are you a Circuit City shopper?”
“Nah, we always mail-order. Don’t ask.”
“Cool. My name’s Patrick.”
“Nice to meet you. I’m, uh…well, I guess the outfit kind of gives it away.”
“Yeah.” He offered me a cigarette, which is a really nice thing to do, and he even let me use his lighter to get the thing burning.
“So everybody made it out, then?”
“Nah,” He said, lighting another cigarette for himself. “The managers said that no one was to leave until all the customers were out. There’s still a line at customer service, and I think there’s a guy trying to decide on which DVD player to buy.”
“Do they know the building is on fire?”
Patrick just looked at me like I was insane.
“So what happens if the employees just say screw it and actually leave the burning building?”
“That rat-looking dude over there, his name’s Dominic, he said that anyone who left before the customers was fired.”
“They can’t fire you for leaving a building that’s on fire!”
“You been outta the retail game too long, my friend.”
“That’s retail, man.”
“So you’re gonna get fired?”
“Nah, I’m on my lunch break.” He looked at his watch. “I just hope that the fire department gets here in the next twenty minutes or I’ll have to go back in.”
“Back into the burning building?” He nodded. “To help customers who are too stupid to leave the burning building?” He nodded. “Geez, man, that’s taking customer service a step or two too far.”
“I gotta get paid, my man. Have you ventured out into the job market lately? It took me two months to get this job. I don’t really feel like living in a cardboard box until I can find another one.”
I noticed there was a mob of reporters who had shown up, and they had recognized me. They were moving towards me. I know it’s kind of sick, but given a choice between being shown on the news (again) in my tight fitting outfit and making an ass out of myself on public television, or running into the burning building, I would actually take the building.
“Tell you what,” I said to Patrick. “You give me the rest of your cigarettes, I’ll go in and make sure that all the customers get out of there.”
“No deal. You might end up getting caught in the fire, then I still have to go in, plus I’m out a pack of smokes.”
“Thanks for that vote of confidence.”
“Hey, man, I’ve seen you in action. Your luck has to run out at some point.”
“Tell you what. You give me at least three cigarettes, or I’ll make sure there are still customers in there when your lunch break is over.”
“Wow, you’re a real bastard,” he said. He was kind of grinning as he pulled out a few cigarettes from his pack.
“Yeah, I really am. Maybe I should get some therapy.”
He handed the cigarettes to me. “Good luck man.”
“Thanks.” I walked across the street, confident. I wasn’t confident in my abilities to save anyone, or even make it out of the fire alive. What I was confident of was the ability of the city’s emergency crews to save my ass. I heard the news hounds barking their questions at me, but I ignored them and walked into the burning electronics store.
When you first walk in, you’re faced with a giant escalator, and a small section where they sell cell phones. This section of the store seemed to be doing okay, I suppose. There were alarms going off everywhere, and the escalators had stopped moving, but aside from that, things seemed normal. There was a young couple asking the cell phone salesman questions about the service plan differences if they signed a three year contract and what kind of range they would get because her parents lived up in Connecticut and they traveled up to that area a lot and didn’t want to pay the roaming charges
“Excuse, me,” I said.
“You’ll have to wait,” the husband or boyfriend or whatever said. “We were here first.”
“Yes, I realize that, but the building is on fire.”
“I SAID, you’ll have to wait,” the man said. He looked like an Old Navy mannequin that had come to life, only his hair didn’t look like it would move as easily as a mannequin’s. I thought about just leaving this couple for the firemen or for the fire, but I realized this poor bastard sales guy would go up in flames with them, probably. Not that he wouldn’t TRY to run, but they probably wouldn’t let him escape until he had answered all of their mundane questions that were already answered in the pamphlet he had given them.
I was trying to decide what method I should use to get them out of the building, and I had kind of decided on grabbing her purse and running out with it, but then I realized that they wouldn’t give chase, they would just stand in the store and demand that someone call the police. That’s when I remembered about my fanny pack.
My fanny pack is an easy thing to forget, believe it or not. It’s so psychologically scarring that you begin to mentally block it as soon as you put it on. Plus, I have a big-ass gut that hangs out all over the place, so most of the time, I can’t see the fanny pack even if I have it strapped on in the front of me. It had been torn all to shit throughout my tenure as Portly Boy, and I had finally gotten around to sewing it up after realizing that I was losing all of my cigarettes. I had put all kinds of cool iron-on patches on it, like the Batman emblem and one that looked like Spider-Man swinging around. One that said “Death to Mother Earth and All of Her Minions,” and another that said, “Save the planet, make Green Peace an endangered species.”
In the course of all this sewing up and ironing on of things, I had decided that I needed some stuff to put inside my fanny pouch. At first, I tried to loot Arnie’s suit for some cool stuff, but every time I touched it, alarms went off. In the end, I just ordered some stuff off the internet.
I couldn’t quite remember what all I had stuck in there, so I just reached in and pulled something out at random. What I pulled out looked like nothing more than a handle with a couple of little metal rods sticking up out of it. When I clicked off the safety switch and pushed the red button on the side of the handle, a miniature bolt of lighting sparked between the two rods. I smiled, pushed the metal tongs against the man’s neck, and pushed the red button.
He goes, “Hey, what’re you AUUGH!” And he crashed onto the floor in an unconscious heap of worthless flesh. Which, in my opinion, was kind of what he was before, only standing up.
“Bruce?” the woman asked. “Bruce, get up we have to get to the airport by AUUGH!” That last part was because I had shocked her into unconsciousness, too.
There is no way to describe the pleasure I got out of this. I mean, I’m no serial killer or psychopath or anything, and I don’t generally get joy out of hurting people…
But here’s something to think about next time you go into a store and treat the salesperson like a piece of shit that should be groveling at your heels: At some point, everyone in retail sales reaches a place where they realize that they can find a new job. There is a certain point where you’re sitting there, talking to idiot customers, and you suddenly realize that there has GOT to be another way to pay the rent. Maybe you’ll have to start robbing liquor stores, or selling crack to grade-school students, but anything is better than this.
And what you, as the customer, should think about is, you DO NOT want to be the customer when the salesperson reaches that breaking point. Because maybe this poor bastard who has been serving the idiot public will just take off his corporate-logo shirt that has been sucking at his soul since he very first put it on and he’ll just walk out of the store without saying a word, or maybe he’ll stab you in the neck with a pen, hoping to get a life sentence out of the deal so he’ll never have to work in retail again. Just something to think about.
My point is, I generally don’t like hurting people, but it sure was fun to zap those two pompous assholes. And I wouldn’t have thought it was so fun if I hadn’t already been dealing with dicks like this in my life. I looked up at the cell phone guy.
“Sorry, man,” I said. “I should have let you do one.”
“That’s okay,” He said. His eyes gleamed strangely, like the way a cat looks if it’s been locked indoors for way too long. “I’m just glad I got to see it.”
“Yeah. Listen, do you think you could drag the two of them outside? I have to go up and see about helping your co-workers.”
He looked at the two people snoring at his feet. “Yeah, I guess. I mean, I COULD drag them outside.” He stared at them. “But…why?”
“I’m not going to have time to drag them out myself. If they get overlooked, there won’t be anyone to get them out. They’ll be burned alive.”
“Yeah, I would miss it, but…Oh, you want me to SAVE them.” He shook his head and smiled, like someone who has just gotten the punch line of a tricky joke.
“Look, dude, you’ll look like a hero, you’ll get on TV. Maybe it’ll get you laid or something.” He still looked skeptical. “And you won’t get fired.”
“All right, man.” He looked at the unconscious bodies and smiled, getting that crazy look in his eyes, again. “Thanks.”
“No sweat.” I started up the escalator.
Escalators are not like regular staircases. I mean, I guess it’s obvious what with regular stairs not moving you up without walking and all, but I mean, they aren’t BUILT the same. Regular staircases are built to be walked up. The steps on escalators are meant to be stood on while you’re lifted up. If you’ve ever walked up escalator stairs, you understand what I’m talking about. They’re like a step and a half each, so walking up is really awkward and quite a chore. And if you’re a fat guy in a bodysuit, walking up an escalator is especially taxing.
I reached the top, out of breath and feeling like I was about to die. There was a giant TV in front of me, playing a video of that little chick who pretends to be a skate-rat. I can’t remember her name, but she’s always claiming to be some punk skateboard rocker when really she’s just another pop-candy one-hit wonder. Maybe two-hit wonder, I guess, because I didn’t recognize the song that was blaring out at me as I topped the stairs.
To my left was a long line of people, divided by those little straps between the metal poles, like everyone is cattle. This method of line-dividing is most popular at amusement parks, but it seems to have caught on in the rest of the world, and I think it’s only a matter of time before those dividers are everywhere. Like you get up in the middle of the night to go take a pee, and you end up walking through a miniature maze from your bed to the toilet, just in case there are lots of people lined up.
To my right was a rolling cloud of smoke, and every once in a while, a bit of flame would lick out over the escalator. I heard a child scream somewhere about how it couldn’t breathe, and then a female voice say, “Hush, Darius, Mommy’s talking about money right now.” The child immediately stopped screaming.
I quickly decided that the section of the store filled with smoke and flames was a job for the firemen when they showed up. I started towards the customer service line.
“Thank you for calling Circuit City, how may I direct your call?” That’s what one of the ladies at the customer service desk asked the phone as she answered it. “Yes, ma’am, we’re on fire right now. What? No. No, ma’am we’ll be closing for the day. No ma’am, I’m sorry, we CAN’T stay open just a little bit longer for you to get down here to exchange your TV. No, ma’am, I’m sorry, but there are no managers available. Yes, you can hold until a manager is available.” She pushed a button and set the receiver don in it’s cradle.
The phone was still ringing. “Thank you for calling Circuit City, how may I direct your call? Yes, sir, the building is on fire. No, sir, we don’t sell microwaves.” She hung up. The phone rang again. “Mike, do you think it would kill you to answer the phone?”
The guy next to her shrugged. He was kind of short, with a shaved head and a couple of earrings. “Screw ‘em,” he said. “I’m just tryin’ to get these people out of here.”
“Sir, you’re going to have to wait in line, just like everyone else.” That was what the girl said. I guess she had decided to ignore the ringing phone. It took me a second to realize that she was talking to me.
“No, I’m not a customer. I, uh…I guess maybe I’m here to save you.”
“Cool,” she said. “Answer the phone within three rings and keep a smile on your face when you’re dealing with customers.”
“Not that kind of save. Um, the buildings on fire. You need to get out of here.”
“Right. And you’re going to pay my rent after I get fired?”
She was pretty hot, and I thought about offering to let her stay at The Drunk Tank. “Let me try to clear out this line first,” I said.
I took out my stun gun and used it to take out the first few customers in the line, but then the battery died. I reached into my fanny pack and pulled out another object. Pepper spray—and not that low-grade crap we had before. “This is pepper spray,” I told the line. “The first person who doesn’t haul ass down those steps over there gets it right in the face.”
It worked pretty well at first. The first five people in line broke out of line and headed down the steps. The sixth guy, he goes, “I’ve been waiting here for ten minutes, and I am NOT leaving until I get this VCR returned and AUUGH! MY EYES! You blinded me, what have you done to my eyes?”
“I blinded you, you dumb shit.”
“Let me do one,” the customer service girl said.
“Me, too!” Mike said. They both rushed around from behind the counter and I gave them each a vial of pepper spray from my fanny pack. The customers realized that they had lost the upper hand and bolted from the line. The few stragglers were pepper-sprayed with enthusiasm, and soon the customer service line was empty except for a few bodies that were curled up on the floor complaining about how it burned it burned.
“Get these idiots outside,” I said. “I have to go check on whoever else is still in the store.”
“You drag ‘em out,” Mike said. “I’m going to find some more people to pepper spray.
“No way,” I said. “It’s my spray. Why should you get to have all the fun?” Mike glared at me and I glared back.
“I have an idea,” the girl—TRACY, according to her nametag—said.
“Do you really think this is going to work?” I asked. I looked at the line of carts in front of us. They looked just like the carts you get at the grocery store to push around your groceries, except for painted real big on the side was the store logo, and instead of being filled up with groceries, they were filled up with wailing and/or unconscious customers. We had strapped a few of the carts together and piled them full of customers, and were about to kick the entire construction down the stairs.
“Do you really care if it does?” Tracy asked.
“Not really, no. But rescuing these people, it’s starting to seem like some sort of sin. I mean, they aren’t smart enough to get out of line and leave the burning building. Maybe God was TRYING to get rid of them, you know?”
“You think by saving these people, we’re going against God’s wishes?” She looked skeptical.
“I’m not saying that’s what I think. I’m just saying maybe it’s an option we shouldn’t quickly rule out.”
“We’re wasting time,” Mike said. “And I’m an atheist.” He kicked the carts onto the escalator and took a step back. The carts rolled slowly at first, then gained momentum. It was a pretty horrible racket as they rolled, bounced, and crashed down the steps. It was kind of worse when the cart in the front of the line twisted, though, because then there were all kinds of scraping sounds as the carts rammed into each other, and then all kinds of thudding noises as the people fell out of the carts and rolled the rest of the way down the stairs. Mike shrugged. “Beats burning to death, I suppose.” He grabbed the can of pepper spray out of my hand and rushed into the smoke.
“Remember the rules!” I yelled. “If you spray them, you have to get them out of the building. Or at least to the bottom of the escalator!”
“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered from somewhere in the smoke. I heard a brief spray and then the crying out of a customer. “Staircase is over there to your right,” Mike said.
A few seconds later, a man can stumbling out of the smoke, coughing and wiping his face. “That man sprayed me with something,” he said.
“Sorry about that,” I said. “Here, I’ll help you down the stairs.”
“But I still need to exchange my Jessica Simpson CD.”
Tracy gave the guy a fresh face-full of pepper spray and pushed him down the stairs. I was kind of worried that the tumble down might kill him, but he only rolled a little ways before he hit the piled up carts. He staggered to his feet, then tumbled down past the carts to the bottom. By then, firemen were pouring into the building.
One of them grabbed the guy and guided him outside.
“Come on,” I said. “We should get out of here.”
“And let Mike have all the fun?” She ran off into the smoke.
“Sir!” One of the firemen yelled. “Sir! Come down the stairs. This building is not safe to be in.”
“No shit,” I said, and ran off after Mike and Tracy.
I mostly had clean-up duty after that. The best way to figure out where the two customer service people were was to follow the customer cries of pain. When I came up on a customer roaming around randomly, whimpering about my face, my face, it burns, I would take them to the escalator and pass them off to a fireman. We ended up “saving” about eighteen people before Mike and Tracy ran out of spray.
The firemen rescued two more customers, and the poor bastard back in home audio who was still trying to demonstrate how well the home theater worked.
“Looks like we got everybody out,” a fireman said as we exited the building. “Your buddy helped us get the people out from next door, but he spilled a bottle of booze and ended up blowing up most of the top floor.”
“Is that something you would be inclined to tell anyone else?” I asked him.
He looked at me for a second and then started laughing. “Nah. We probably would have lost most of that floor anyway. And these people who are all complaining about getting pepper-sprayed, that was probably just from all the smoke.”
“Yeah, that would be my guess, too,” I said. “I mean, what kind of maniac would go around pepper-spraying people in the middle of a blazing fire?”
He laughed some more. “You know, I would be a lot less understanding if you hadn’t gotten so many people out. That was crazy and reckless, and I don’t want you to ever attempt anything like that again.”
“Believe me,” I said. “I don’t ever want to do anything like that ever again.”
He looked around, still kind of laughing, and said. “You know, I used to work customer service at this very store. I wish I could have been in there helping you, man.”
“Maybe next time, brother,” I said.
Just then, a gob of reporters rushed up, pointing their microphones at us like some odd sort of weapon. They were asking all kinds of questions, and I realized that I was pouring sweat and covered in grime. It was only a matter of time before my suit started adhering to my body in a really embarrassing way, and I didn’t want any part of being on television like that.
“Ask Mike and Tracy,” I said. “They’re the real heroes today. And the firemen, of course, they’re the real heroes, too.”
“And me,” Arnie said, walking around the corner. “I’m a hero, too.”
“No, you’re not. You’re just some drunk guy. Get in the car.”
We jumped into the Portmobile and sped off, Portly Song blaring.