[Read James Wagner’s first and second dispatches from the hardware store.]

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CENTRAL NEW YORK — I entered my job in the plumbing department by way of the bathroom. To be employed at the hardware store, I had to pass a drug test. They needed pee.

I arrived at the clinic, an underground complex full of elevators, large-leaved, drooping, potted plants that nearly blocked off the narrow hallways. I became lost a few times, entering unmarked doors to find a lobby of people staring at me. I finally found a set of stairs and proceeded down another part of the complex, like a hidden section behind the other section in which I had just been. I tried the first door. It had a different name on it than for the one I was looking, but I soon realized this was the place. I would be told later the prior company still had its name on the door. After not waiting long, the lone worker there, a man who doubled as a secretary and urine processor, asked me to come back to a second room.

The secretary/urine processor asked me to stow all my items in a flimsy tin receptacle. I complied. He then looked me up and down, without a single pat, and handed me a cup.

I walked to and entered the bathroom. There was red tape across the sink, to render it unusable. The secretary/urine processor told me the water in the toilet was dyed, to thwart something or other. He mumbled.

When done, I took the warm cup back to him and felt very strange handing it over. Embarrassed, really. I also felt badly for him. I thought, “This has got to be an awful job, handling this stuff all day,” and so I asked him if it was.

The secretary/urine processor said it was not. That was the end of the conversation.

I watched him fill out a form, label a sticker, and seal the lab envelope. He seemed to be wondering what I was doing, and then said, helpfully, “You can go now.”

I said, “Okay,” but was confused about how, exactly, to leave the room, etiquette-wise. I briefly thought about shaking his gloved hand, before dismissing it outright. I left the underground complex feeling quite unsettled.

- - -

I passed the drug test, which strangely amazed me, even though I’ve been sober and drug-free for over four years. I feared that my liver still had booze in it somewhere, which I’m sure is ridiculous, but my fears often make little sense. For example, I am quite fearful of some flying animals (bats, seagulls) and some flying insects (grasshoppers, moths), but not others.

- - -

The hardware store had a two-day orientation for me and everybody else who passed the drug test. Two assistant managers led the orientation sessions. I was very tired the first day, as I’m not used to getting up at seven, and so I was fighting to keep awake.

We started with a let’s-get-to-know-everyone game. I hate doing let’s-get-to-know-everyone games. I’m always battling myself before speaking, trying to decide whether to say something that would completely ridicule the entire process, and thus make myself look like an ass, or say anything else, and feel like an ass.

After this initial discomfort passed, we began going through the company handbook. Basically, that’s all we did for the next two days. The assistant manager read the entire 130-page manual, interrupted only by short videos on proper procedures and proper associate manners.

There are, it turns out, two ways to treat a customer — the wrong way and the company’s way. The wrong way, according to one video, was wrong because the associate acted like a human being, responding to the customer with a full range of emotions. The wrong associate explained that he thought the customer was an idiot, if so, or was a bother, if so, and the customers walked away with their feelings hurt, and, more importantly, took their money elsewhere. The company’s way achieved the exact opposite effect: the employee had his feelings hurt, regardless of what the customer asked for.

- - -

At the end of the training, the assistant manager led us in a cheer. He instructed us to clap, in rhythm. Meanwhile, he got into a kind of hunched, standing squat, as if he was going to lunge like a wrestler, while clapping with us. Then, he began the cheer, starting with the first letter in the company name, which we shouted back in unison. Everyone was cheering. Everyone was into it. People in their thirties cheering as loudly as people in their forties or fifties. The cheer continued through the remainder of the letters spelling the company’s name.

The assistant manager then shouted, “What’s it spell?” A thick neck vein popped out underneath his now reddened skin. We shouted back. The assistant manager said, “What’s it spell?” There was a weird fury to his question, a crazed, military yelling. Again, we answered, and, again, he asked to, I guess, make sure we could spell.

The clapping was maddening, and I felt the violent possibilities within this group theater. This was the end, at last, of our two-day ritual. We continued clapping as the assistant manager asked his final two questions. He was bellowing now. “Who’s going to kick ass?” he shouted. People responded, prophetically it seemed, “We are!” And then it all ended, with his final, maniacal shriek, “What’re you going to do?”

The answer, the only answer, being: “Kick ass!”

We were now employees, officially.