Pick N Save Milwaukee Circa 1985

In 1985, after East Side Foods (your Rock And Roll grocery store) closed… I needed a job. I lived in a rented room in a house, I had no transportation other than my skateboard, could only work second or third shift (because I was still going to UW Milwaukee) and had no experience in anything but working in a grocery store. I applied at several close by locations, fast food places, bookstores, restaurants… but no luck. I eventually had to extend my range to the furthest reach of a reasonable walk/skateboard ride. Eventually I made my way from campus into Shorewood and to the giant Pick N Save warehouse grocery store.

The store eventually closed and is now something else in that location, but back in the day it was THE store. There were like 20 long aisles with high shelves and overstock above, a giant backroom, and tons of employees flitting about in the deli and produce and meat departments. The ceilings were high with iron beams and skylights. It was a huge cavern like thriving food-tropolis.

I found the Service Desk and got an application and filled it out on the spot. Long story short… after a few days I got hired.

Here I am (with Jeff B.) sporting my P N S t-shirt, or as we called it, our uniform.

EK_0002

I came my first night via skateboard, with my decorated box cutter ready to go, thus giving me a reputation as a skate punk (so far from the truth) which stuck with me to the end. The team of guys was really tight and with my “experience” I got the good aisles right away, which made some of the other guys upset. I was stocking cereal and they were stocking sugar and dog food, the bad aisles.

The sugar aisle was hated because the bags, though not individually heavy, were usually shrink wrapped in groups of eight or ten, which you couldn’t just hack open, you had to be careful with… and, you usually ended up covered in a sticky coating of sugar dust. The dog food, being a warehouse store, was in all sizes including industrial size bags and they were awkward and heavy.

At the store there was a guy named James. He was a big slab of a guy who sweat like a pig and who seemed to scare the other guys. I thought he was funny as hell and he liked music the way I did, though he was into what as he called it “the music that the brothers made”: Mowtown. In the breakroom before our shift he wore headphones and danced and sang to himself, doing spins and turns like one of Gladys Knight’s Pip’s off to the side. He was a show all by himself. One night I asked what he was listening to and he launched into an impassioned speech about The O’Jays and The Spinners. We hit it off immediately over the love of music, much to the surprise of the other guys. The big guy and the skinny punk. James’s afro was just big enough to look retro, but not crazy, and just before we headed to the floor he would put on a bright yellow headband. It was an interesting look.

When he was in on Tuesday’s and Thursday’s he volunteered for the sugar and dogfood. He was trying to lose weight and he took on the bad aisles as a way of working out. He was all grunts and smiles as he worked and I started joining him for the sugar/dogfood challenge. I didn’t have his gusto and usually flamed out before the end of the shift and wondered how this guy had the energy and drive to complete the night, losing a few pounds in sweat but being not much worse for wear. I would barely make it home and collapse, which was not good for the 9 am class I had in Medical Technology. It was a dark time, as I have alluded to before.

So life at the store was good on the one hand, James and I discussing music and working our butts off, which made the shift go fast, but there was one aspect of working there that hurt my soul:

Top 40 Radio

I don’t even recall the name of the station, but the store pumped it in through speakers way up in the open metal rafters, the local top 40 radio station. That’s right. Top 40. It was ghastly.

To his credit, the team leader of the stockers lobbied to change the station several times but was shot down.

So, here we were in the aisle discussing Mowtown and Rock while Madonna played for the millionth time over our heads. It was awful. Again, as I have said before, even a good song played continuously will turn evil after a while. I have nothing against a playful stream of Top 40 every once in a while. All sugar coated and hook filled with a side of bouncy beats and high percentage of female lead singers. Only, the way these stations work, unlike college radio, is by playing the same set of 20 popular songs over and over and over and over and over………  sheer torture.

I loved Tears For Fears before I started working there. I had their first album “The Hurting” and then bought “Tales From The Big Chair” which exploded shortly before I started working at the Pick N Save. I can barely stand to listen to either album anymore. Pick N Save killed them for me. I probably heard at least 3 of their songs twice a night. It was horrible. I felt the love of the band being squashed out of me by repetition. So sad.

James liked Stevie Wonder, so when “Part Time Lover” would play he would dance in the aisle and sing to the passing customers who smiled at first, then seemed scared as they got closer and saw the man sweat. It really was something to see. I think the team leader of the stockers wanted to tell James to stop his singing and dancing, but in truth of fact the man was a stocking machine and he was not going to risk it. I saw him come over to our aisle sometimes to see what was going on and shake his head and walk grudgingly away.

There were some good songs during that time, don’t get me wrong, I mean even Top 40 has to hit a couple winners once in a while even if you aren’t pop friendly.

They played some Springsteen, some Powerstation, and even some Prince sometimes, but largely it was songs like Run To You (Bryan Adams), Boys Of Summer (Don Henley), Everytime You Go Away (Paul Young), The Heat Is On (Glen Frey) and Walking On Sunshine (Katrina And The Waves). Not horrible songs, but ultimately like the Chinese water torture… drip bland song, drip bland song, drip bland song, drip bland song… until you were successful at just tuning it out, or became laser focused on the songs and went crazy.

I think there were really 3 songs that stand out for me from this period. 3 Songs that define the whole state of radio during my musical incarceration at Pick N Save. They are as follows:

1. Scritti Politti – Perfect Way    This song was not my style of music, especially then, but when I think back to my time at the store it is the song that comes to mind immediately. Honestly I don’t think I have heard it since then, but it was a nightly item then… several times nightly. It sounded like a hundred other songs of the period, but it had something that was indescribable that made it get stuck in my head. The fact that I haven’t heard it in 20 years but still remember it vividly is a testament to the time, and the insidious power the song had. I can’t recall any of the lyrics except the chorus, and maybe that was the beauty of it. blah blah blah… “I’ve got a perfect way”… blah blah blah…

2. A-Ha – Take On Me     This song’s simplicity was what made it catchy and I liked it. Punchy keyboards (which were king during those days) and very singable lyrics. I liked the pencil sketch video too and seeing it cemented the song in my head. When it came on the radio at the store I literally could not tune it out. It was like a siren drawing the ship toward the rocks. It soon became tiresome, then bothersome, then annoying, then absolute torture. This may actually be the first song that I liked that was ruined by being played so often. It took many years after the store before I could listen to it and sing it with the gusto I used to sing it with back in the day. I have made my peace with Take On Me, but it has been a long journey.

3. Jefferson Starship – We Built This City      OMG. This song is the epitome of 80’s music. There is so little musical substance to the song it is funny. Grace Slick is a voice to be reckoned with sure, but the droning drums, the almost keytar-like guitar and then the actual one-handed keyboard work all smoothed out and genericized throughout the whole song. It was just the chorus that stuck in your head. The opening of the song was the chorus! Brilliant on their part. You could recognize it from the opening second. I wandered around mumbling “we built this city” over and over for the longest time. It was like I was hypnotized. I think I may have, in its peak, heard this song like 8 times a night for months. I listened to it twice while I was writing this and I still can’t say why it is so fixed in my memory. It isn’t that it is bad, or good for that matter. I think it just has a jingle-like quality that cannot be escaped. You know what I mean, like the jingle for a TV commercial for something stupid that you immediately forget, but can remember the jingle for years. Yeah, that’s it.

I may have to listen to it one more time. Ugh. I hate myself.

During my tenure at Pick N Save, generics were making a huge insurgence. We had the green stripe brand. You know, boxes labeled “Cookies” or “Juice”.

generic packaging

Working this aisle was a pain because there was very little rhyme or reason to where things went in the aisle, and you could only really recognize things by their shape and size, since all the packaging was the same. Like in Repo Man.

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So in this aisle you did a lot of back and forth until you learned the unconventional layout. The perk was however that it was the first aisle in the store and you could see the sun come up outside through the main entry doors. The downside was that the speakers were lower in that part of the store, so the music, good and bad, was louder by a smidge. Good for Springsteen but you had to suffer through louder Madonna.

That was the conundrum that was Pick N Save.

James stopped coming in after a while, he got a day job, and winter came and made the trek in, which was on foot, long and cold. Luckily, that spring I ended up moving to Sun Prairie, where I got a job working at a Sentry store.

School was in effect done for what turned out to be many years, and this job was during the day, so it was better… but they had Top 40 piped in there too!

Sigh.

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