It was difficult, when considering Phil, to know whether to ascribe his general incompetence to age or stupidity, or both.
It was said that he had, until quite recently, been a foreman in construction, drywall, to be exact. And now here he was, just a few months later, in retail. In the sporting goods department of a large chain store. Save-mart, to be exact.
Well, he was in his seventies, that much was known. And he was an amiable enough guy, who liked to whistle while he worked, as well as a dapper dresser, with his button down shirts and snazzy suspenders.
But he was very old, of that there could be no doubt. His head had that shrunken, skeletal look to it, with the remaining fine white hair clinging to it like wistful tendrils of vine. He couldn't hear too well. If you repeated his name loudly while he was engaged in some activity, he would look up in alarm, his mouth working spasmodically, and he would cry, "Well?"
Not "what" but "well". I always wondered why he would say "well" when he meant "what". But I never asked him, for it would have been rude to. He was at least 30 years older than me. He was at least 25 years older than his wife, Joan, for that matter, who was a part-time checkout supervisor. Everyone wondered why she had married an old geezer like Phil, but no one asked her, of course. It would have been rude to.
We all realized that the transition from construction to retail would be hard for Phil, but we couldn't have imagined just how hard. It took him forever just to learn how to use the phone! He couldn't seem to get the hang of answering pages. When there'd be a price check for sporting goods at the front registers, it took him forever to respond to it. At first he just didn't pay any attention to the page, and then when we had impressed upon him that he had to, it took him a long time before he could master the system of picking up the phone and pressing the intercom button and then number 17 for checkouts. Sometimes he'd press "page" by mistake and you'd hear his nervous, tentative voice over the store loudspeaker saying something inane like "Uh, Dave, how do you work this darn thing?" all over the store.
Well, I had to admit it was kind of funny when he did this. It broke up the monotony. But when he messed up on the sporting goods register, the customers tended to get irked.
He was completely thrown by the registers. He would totally forget what had just been shown him about ringing up credit card purchases or checks. Even when he went back to the front registers for remedial training, it still didn't make too much of a difference. He'd still mess up big time.
Mark, a little Filipino guy who had worked in the store about six months and already knew everyone, quoted a wise old Filipino proverb when referring to Phil. "You can't teach an old dog new tricks," Mark said.
Phil became an object of wonder and amazement. One day, after he had been working in the store nearly two months, he asked the store manager where the pet department was. She was aghast, as pets was directly across from sporting goods. It was kind of amazing that anybody could be that dense not to notice it.
"I'd never have drywall done by that guy," Ted, another of my sporting goods associates, a mere kid of 58, muttered, shaking his head.
We thought that maybe it wasn't just because Phil was old that he didn't pick up on things. Maybe, we suspected, it was because he was old and dumb. In fact, maybe he had been dumb all his life. Or a fourth possibility---maybe he just didn't care.
But he seemed conscientious enough. When you asked him to fill the motor oil, he'd fill it. He'd put all the different grades of oil in the wrong places, but he'd fill it. And the bowling shoes. He'd fill that section up, too. Sure he'd put the $39.97 shoes in the spot labeled for $25.97 shoes, but at least he'd fill it.
"You'll go to heaven, Ruth," the store manager, Ms. Taylor, said to me one day. She meant because I had patience with boobs.
"Thanks," I said.
A decision was made to move Phil to footwear, part-time. In footwear he was assigned the task of removing tissue paper from the incoming shipments of shoes.
"A tissue paper technician," somebody quipped. But Phil was extremely slow at this task. It took him overtime hours to complete the job.
"Speedo Phil," Robbie, another Save-mart associates, who was eighteen years old, called him.
"Is he really that slow or is he just milking the job?" somebody else wanted to know.
One day they had Phil filling in back in my department. Evidently a customer asked him where light bulbs were in the store and he didn't know. So he asked the assistant manager, Paul, who told me.
"I'm not making this up!" Paul said. Light bulbs were right over in the home center department, adjacent to sporting goods on the left hand side.
"Something's got to be done, something's got to be done," muttered Paul. "It's a shame."
But who wants to be the one to fire someone who's old enough to be your grandfather? I mean, how humiliating for Phil, not to be able to make it at Save-mart. It's not like working for a hot-shot company like Microsoft or the Chase Manhattan Bank, for god's sake, where you actually need to know something.
So right now, as I write this, Phil is still working for Save-mart. Still screwing up big time.
"He's awful!" I told the store manager a little while ago. I had never referred to any employee in that way before.
We sort of laughed together in agreement. We sure hoped we didn't get as dense as Phil when we got old. We kind of thought we wouldn't.