Finally I Can Confess

There have been some nasty attacks in Silver Lake, with men walking alone being grabbed, robbed (sometimes) and injured (often). For a while it seemed nothing was being done, then the LAPD announced they had arrested two boys aged 15 and 16, who were gang members. Scary stuff. This prompted me to think about the crimes I have committed in my time. I am reformed now, but there was a time… (wavy screen effect, as we go back, way back, back into time)

I used to work at Woolworths in my home town of Bedford, from 1989 to 1993(ish), on Saturdays, during holidays, when I was back from college and so on. I worked in the Record Department (called the “Record Bar” because of it’s awkward queuing principle: “Who’s next please?”), behind the till, up in the storeroom, and out on the shop floor restocking shelves. Woolworths has now gone out of business, ending a long history of High Street ubiquity. I have many memories of working there, too many to go into detail over, but here are a few.

  • Before Xmas 1989, everybody that bought anything at the record bar also bought a copy of the Phil Collins CD, …But Seriously.
  • Before Xmas 1990, everybody that bought anything at the record bar also bought a VHS copy of Pretty Woman.
  • Every Xmas, everybody that bought anything at the record bar bought a 5-pack of 180-minute Memorex VHS tapes.
  • Every January, everyone that had bought Memorex videotapes brought them back for a refund, because they were shit.
  • Some bright spark at head office thought the crap Eurodance tune by U96, Das Boot, was going to be as big a hit in the UK as it was in Germany. It totally wasn’t, and for weeks we had boxes and boxes of this CD single piled up in the stockroom. Even dropping the price to 49p and dumping them in the bargain didn’t shift them.
  • Some bright spark at head office designated Akira as a kid’s film, “because it was a cartoon” despite it having an 18 rating. Therefore, because head office said so, we had to put it next to the Disney and Thomas The Tank Engine.
  • We had Easter Eggs in the stockroom in January. “Oo, it gets earlier every year, dunnit?”. Shut up.
  • People smoked in the lunchroom. Seems weird now.
  • A customer brought me an open penknife that she had found on a shelf, and told me it was dangerous for staff to leave their boxcutters lying around. I agreed, apologised, and kept the penknife. Nice wood handle, folding 2″ blade.
  • A couple of weeks later, the manager (who was getting on a bit IMHO) saw me using said penknife and said, “Where did you find that? I lost it a couple of weeks ago, after I had been opening boxes with it.”
  • To begin with, I used to sweep the floors at the end of the day. One day I was on the shop floor sweeping when the lights went out. The manager had turned them off, thinking the place was empty. I called out that I was still there, but he’d gone. Eventually the alarms went off and the police turned up to find me standing waving in the window. The manager, who had to be called in from home to open the doors, blamed me. Senile old fool.
  • I think there was quite a lot of naughtiness and thievery that went on, because the Manager (not the senile one – his replacement, an altogether sharper cookie) instigated a random bag search when we were leaving the store to go home.

Now that the company is gone, I can reveal a filthy secret that has haunted down through the decades. One day, I was working in the stockroom, unpacking a case of TDK blank cassettes. I used to buy a lot of these, because we used to swap copies all the time, and I would buy vinyl to play at home and then tape it to play in my walkman. It’s called format-shifting, try it sometime. I was short of cash. I needed some tapes. I was alone in the stockroom. The slippery slope beckoned.

I unwrapped a 3-pack of TDK D90’s, with a street value of £1.99 (I think) and put the cellophane in my pocket. Then I removed the cellophane from each of the tapes. I opened each tape case, removed the little sheet of labels, and wrote appropriate band and album names on them, which I then stuck to the tapes. “808 State – Ninety“, “Pop Will Eat Itself – This Is The Day, This Is The Hour, This Is This!“, “Jesus Jones – Liquidizer“ and so on. I wound the tapes forward a bit so that it would look like they had been played. I scuffed the cases on the floor so they wouldn’t look too pristine. I went to the locker room and put the tapes in my bag, and kept all the wrapping in my pocket. I then went around the store for the rest of the day, putting bits of cellophane and label backing sheet into the various bins around the place, behind tills, in the stockroom, in the breakroom.

At the end of the day, as we all trooped down from the locker room to the back exit, I was nervous about the highly valuable contraband I was carrying in my duffel bag. It felt like I was carrying the Old Man Of The Sea, but he was made out of burning hot radioactive lead. The manager was standing by the door, the keys in his hand, ready to lock the door behind us all. Would he do a bag check? As I approached him, I said goodnight, then I walked out into the Saturday dusk.

I got about 5 steps, then he called out, “Matthew!”.

I froze, and turned around. Should I run? Brazen it out? What did he want? Why me?

“Good work today, Matthew, thank you.”

I smiled, turned, and went to my bike, chained to the railings across the square. I tried not to fumble the keys as I hurried to unlock it, and escape. I was free. Or so I thought. The guilt would make sure I would never be free.

(The last four pararaphs are not true.)

I guess in some small way I contributed to to the collapse of the company. For this, I apologise. But I won’t apologise for the fact that I can breathe free at last.