I was 16 years old, and I had just gotten my first “real job”. An hourly job at a local drug store, close to a college campus. I call it a real job because as a teenager, it had me work with adults on a regular basis. It wasn’t mowing lawns and babysitting as a one-off gig, it was an actual 4-day a week part-time job. For the first time, I got a different view on how “real adults” behaved. It was a drug store, so I occasionally found myself in awkward situations, like selling condoms to friends of the family, or checking out embarrassing medicines.
I learned to be professional and keep a straight face in the first week, even though it was funny to 16-year old me. After a month, you learn that no one else needs to keep a straight face. They just don’t care. People buy condoms. It’s routine. Move on.
This is a story about one of the people I met. Mike was a guy in his late 20s. Skinny, with coke-bottle lens glasses, long stringy black hair, and a goatee. He wore black leather vests & jeans underneath the job’s required red apron. He looked like a kid who spent his entire youth playing D&D in a basement, grown up and gone bitter. We all kept box cutters in our aprons, because restocking required opening & breaking down dozens of cardboard boxes. Mike didn’t have a box cutter. Mike carried a big, intimidating hunting knife on his belt in a black leather sheath. You know, for opening cardboard boxes.
The store had a “waste” basket. Not trash, but un-sellable product. When a kid would break a bottle of shampoo open on an aisle, after clean-up the remains of the bottle would go into the waste basket. When product was defective or damaged, it’d go in there, and the basket was never empty. Mike would sometimes walk down the candy aisle, grab a 1 pound bag of M&Ms, and slit it open with his hunting knife. He’d glare at me and say, “Oh look, this bag broke open” and walk away munching M&Ms. Half a bag would show up in the waste basket later.
One of the items this store sold was a drain assembly; the thing you’d put at the bottom of a kitchen or bathroom sink. We had a rash of those being stolen, or opened and left in parts on the floor. Teenage me wondered, why would this random item be targeted? Mike knew the answer. The drain assembly contained a small metal mesh screen, perfect for putting at the bottom of a marijuana pipe. We were next to a college campus after all.
This was my introduction to working life, and how adults work together. Learning about marijuana pipes, how to steal from a drug store with a technical process, and the mundane day to day of selling condoms and hemorrhoid ointment.
The store’s employees were all misfits of one sort or another. There was the Vietnamese house wife (Tho) who never spoke, and stood behind the cash register – competent and perfectly willing to do the job, but not one iota more than required. She had no friends, did not communicate, and only ever traveled by being driven by her stern seeming husband. There was the manager Sean. A constantly over-caffeinated man of about 40 with wiry black hair, a mustache and a twitchy way of talking. Sean always seemed greedy and grasping. I imagined he had big plans to elevate himself with the company, and as such couldn’t be bothered with day-to-day operations. There were regular customers, like the 90-year old man who walked with a cane and bought 2 packs of unfiltered Lucky Strikes every day at 4:00PM. As a teenage smoker myself, a 90-year old 2-pack a day customer was a special kind of hero to me, proving how wrong all the guidance counselors were. And there was Steve, the affable pharmacist who was under the mistaken impression that Sean was attracted to him, after a mishap in the bathroom, which will have to be a story for another day.
And then there was Mark, the stocky but muscular assistant manager, who was probably mid-40s and had a world-weariness about him. He was the one who actually ran the store, since Sean only came 2-3 times a week. Mark laughed easily, but without any sound; his laugh was just air escaping his nose; he had a great sense of humor but seemed almost like laughing was too much effort. He had 2 kids and was putting himself through night school to get another career in accounting. I closed up the store often with Mark, and counted thousands of dollars (the store’s daily take) with him at the end of the night. Cash always gets counted twice by two different people and recorded twice so nobody steals. We’d walk down the strip mall together to make the bank deposit. Holding $8,000 in cash in a padlocked stiff canvas zipper bag, walking down the sidewalk hoping not to get robbed was quite a thing.
People in your life function like models; they show you what you can do, and what you shouldn’t do. I respected Mark’s work ethic & humor. I felt bad for Tho, avoided Sean, and had a sneaking suspicion that Steve the pharmacist was making more money than all of us combined. Mike was the most interesting though, because his general “fuck the world” trip and independence would resonate with a lot of teenagers.
Mark the assistant manager and Mike didn’t get along. Mark was a hard worker and Mike was a cynical fuckup. They needed each other, one for the pay, the other for shelf stocking. Mike was too bitter to put behind a register. Glaring at nice suburban moms who just have questions about shampoo & batteries wouldn’t do, so Mike mostly stocked, and did “fronting & facing”. Making sure you could reach product, see the label, and so on. The managers probably knew that Mike stole the occasional bag of M&Ms. The store had cameras, and they weren’t fools. But these were pragmatic people. With the store staying within acceptable levels of “waste & loss”, why create a hiring problem for yourself?
Mike & I spent a lot of time together. In the dead hours after a holiday, we’d just wait for customers, while the same Christmas songs from the corporate-approved piped in radio station played endlessly. I learned about musical Stockholm Syndrome; when you hear a song so many times, you come to hate it. Hear the same one a few more thousand times, and you start to like it again, almost like a psychic defense mechanism. “All I Want for Christmas is You” by Mariah Carey, I’m looking at you. So while Mariah worked away at the back of my brain, I’d be behind the register. Waiting for customers who weren’t in the store to come check out. Mike would roam the floor, pretending to work, munching M&Ms. He’d tell me about his favored cigar brand (Backwoods) and why he liked them. You see, it was because they had a natural tobacco wrapper; it was the glue in cigarette papers that caused cancer, not the tobacco, so Backwoods were safer to smoke.
I think I knew he was full of shit. But I can’t say I knew. I say I think I knew, because I was doing my own experimentation at the time, and what I knew for sure wouldn’t have filled a thimble. Real adults get mixed information they can’t be sure about, not like kids who get straight facts in school. I didn’t know. This was an age when I wondered: would smoking cigarettes sold to women (Virginia Slims) make any difference or make me more feminine? Spoiler: no, they’re just cigarettes. I hadn’t fully gotten over the scandal of stealing a $4 bag of M&Ms.
Mike had an air of rebellion to him, and he had adulthood & independence. You could look up to Mike. But not really. Mike lived in an absolute dump of a tiny apartment about 10 minutes from the drugstore, with 2 roommates who fought incessantly. He drove a beaten-down old Ford Fiesta, the sort of car that could die at any minute and surprise no one. He lived hand to mouth all the time, and spent the majority of his time being bitter and depressed in a suburban drug store. Playing at adulting is not the same as the real thing. I didn’t know to care about invisible adult issues, like “what if you are constantly poor and your only way to get to work becomes unusable”.
Mike was originally from Pennsylvania. He was born and raised there, and that after high school, he became a warlock. Mike had been inducted into a coven in Pennsylvania. No, covens are not just for witches. After a falling out with other members of the coven, he had decided to come to my city to flee, because he was concerned for his life. I think I knew he was full of shit. But the story was too good to let go, so with some probing he allowed that he had performed various kinds of ritual magic with this coven. The disagreement had been over who and how to target with this magic. He was quite concerned that they would find him, and so he had cast a spell on himself to hide his location from their probing magic.
I asked him what kind of spell this was, and he said he could make himself “dim”; not exactly invisible, but hard to notice. Unobtrusive to the point where he would be very easy to overlook. He claimed to do this in the store as well, to avoid customer interactions; by making himself “dim” people would simply walk right past him, even if they were looking for a clerk, unable to notice him. He could do this within a space (like the store) but could similarly make himself hard to locate via magical means. I asked him how one cast spells, and he talked about it in terms of focusing attention & willpower. He would direct his intention through practice and ritual, and cause the world to change to his will.
I think I didn’t believe him. But after many questions – and we had hundreds of spins of “All I Want for Christmas is You” to spend together – I was convinced that Mike believed Mike. It wasn’t him pulling the leg of a teenager for sport, he held up under questioning. This sent me down rabbit holes of not-quite adult investigation in my spare time though. Was ritual magic real? How much power did pure intention have? Do dangerous covens of warlocks exist?
Like the rest of that year, the research gave me slivers of adult answers. But only the bits a 16 year old can wrap his head around. Yes, ritual magic is real, but it might not work like I thought it did. Pure intention was powerful, but in a muddled sort of way I’m still trying to figure out. Covens most definitely do exist, but the jury is out on whether they’re dangerous, or just nuts. I was looking for straight answers, and finding it was a little of column A, a little of column B. These were not school facts.
I still wonder what was going on with Mike. What I remember makes me think now that he was severely depressed. And why wouldn’t Mike be depressed? Why wouldn’t Mark be tired all the time? Why wouldn’t Sean be focused on getting out of his job? Mike wasn’t mentally ill, but operating on a different wavelength would be putting it lightly. If Mike is around today, he wouldn’t even be a QAnon believer, he’d have too much disdain for those rubes. Detached, depressed cynicism doesn’t let you get passionate about anything; everybody’s wrong, what they’re talking about isn’t even the point.
After a year and a half, I left the job to continue school via an exchange program in another country, and I didn’t return back to that drug store for about 2 years. When I came back, most of the staff had turned over, which happens in low-paying dead-end jobs. I found Steve the pharmacist and a few others who overlapped with Mike during his time there, and I asked them if Mike was still around. The answers were all the same. “Mike? I don’t remember a Mike.” People in your life function like models; they show you what you can do, and what you shouldn’t do. Mike the Magician proved to me that it is possible for adults to make themselves dim. To most people.