My life was Star Wars and Sour Patch Kids until I got my first job at 15. I made $6.65 an hour bagging groceries, pushing carts, and mopping shit off the bathroom walls at the Pick ‘n Save on Silvernail Road in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. Because I was home schooled, this job, my church youth group, and the skatepark were my only points of social connection. I felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere. At the skatepark, I was too polite. At church, I was too eccentric. And at my job, I was too passive. Really, I was just a teenager. But I didn’t know that.
Church was a strong force in my life, partly because that’s how I was brought up, partly because I was terrified of Hell, but mostly because, outside of TV and movies, it was my only connection to the larger world. It was my steadfast and I took it more seriously than most others my age. I fasted, prayed, read my Bible, avoided thoughts on sex, and shuddered at swearing. I didn’t have to deal with any cliques keeping my idiosyncrasies in check, so I marched to my own beat. This was a boon for my creativity but a bane for my sociability—at least in the grocery store break room.
I made conversation by asking people if I could pray for them, if they believed in Jesus, if they went to church. If they didn’t know what to say they would laugh, ignore me, and go back to eating their Lean Cuisines. I can’t blame them. I was asking for embarrassment, but I chocked up the various harassments I endured to some kind of minor martyrdom; the greatest of Evangelical virtues. When I pushed rows of carts through the parking lot I entertained fantasies of being tortured and crucified for my religion. This is the path towards sainthood, even though Protestants don’t believe in saints. I could think of no higher honor. Church rhetoric told me to step outside my comfort zone, to lay down my pride for the greater good, and to not care what others think. So whenever the stockers or shift managers called me a dumb-fuck or a faggot, or shoved me into the walls, or turned out the lights on me in the bathroom, I took it as a sign that I was doing something right.
It wasn’t only my religion that invited the abuse, but my naiveté, too. Almost everyone who works at a grocery store is unhappy. When you’re in that situation, having something to collectively deride—the asshole boss, the parking lot crackhead, the bagger with Fragile X—distracts from the misery of minimum wage. Soon I became the oddity, the thing to mock. I was moralistic and my opinions on normal topics of back room conversation—drugs, alcohol, sex, sports—was anachronistic. My self-righteousness put me above them. I was better than because I abstained. One night, a few of the stockers stood outside on a smoke break. I was pushing carts into the corral. One stocker, ’90s cool with his bleached spiked hair and pierced ears, said, “Hey, you, faggot dumb-fuck, hold my cigarette while I go to take a piss.” I said no, but not because I was combatting his condescension. Rather, I thought smoking was wrong, and holding a burning cigarette would morally implicate me. He spit at my feet. “Get that broom handle outta your ass, faggot.” The others laughed.
The bullying became regular and from all sides. The store manager, Bob, was Wisconsin-portly, in his mid-40s, never graduated high school, and had a mustache that reached maybe a 9 on the pedophile scale. One day he called me into his office to tell me to do this-or-that. Some other managers were with him. He asked me, “Hey, Ben, is your last name Dover?” I shook my head. “No, it’s van Loon.” They all laughed. I felt exposed, so I left. Later I realized, oh, Bendover. That became his nickname for me. Even this I counted in support of my martyrdom, which helped keep my chin up. But secretly I began to resent how my religion scorned retaliation, or even defensiveness. Christianity’s moral maxim in the face of abuse is to “turn the other cheek.” It’s doormat morality. It’s what Marx means when he says religion is an opiate. It makes people docile, harmless, and easy to control. If my young Christianity taught me anything, it was how to roll over.
As the bullying continued, and as people got used to my passivity, I became the go-to guy for the worst clean-up jobs. I cleaned diarrhea from the urinals, period blood off the bathroom stalls, greasy animal carcasses from active garbage compactors. I always said yes and never complained, because complaining is wrong. Though, inside, my resentment stewed. I resented them for how they treated me, and—though I was too scared to say it—I resented my religion, for how it seemed to invite abuse. But even still, Evangelicalism’s valorization of martyrdom and promises of afterlife rewards were enough to keep me committed. So my retaliatory urge compromised with a willing accomplice: Passive Aggression.
The assistant store manager, John, was also a portly high-school dropout in his mid-40’s. He had squinty eyes that his facial fat further flattened. His lips hardly moved when he talked. He often stood at the front of the store to watch me wrangle the carts. Because I was a teenager he assumed I was lazy and stoned, so he liked to yell at me for no good reason. I learned that his buttons were easy to push. “Benny-boy,” he’d say. “When you’re done brining in the carts, mop the bathrooms.” I would say, “Sorry, I didn’t hear you. Can you repeat that?” He’d say it again, louder. I’d say, “Mop the bathrooms? I’m not sure I understand.” He’d get red in the face and then give up. This passive aggressive tactic worked on him, so I started using it on other people, too.
One of the lead stockers, Ed, was a 30-something bachelor from West Allis, a Milwaukee exurb. If Pewaukee is the suburban version of TGI Fridays, West Allis is White Castle. I was 99% sure he had raped at least one person in his life. Man or woman, hard to say. “How’s your b-hole, Ben?” He’d say. Because he was tight with the managers, he sometimes told me what to do. “Hey, you, fucker, help me make this shelf level.” He would raise one side of the shelf, and I would lower the other side. He would lower his side, and then I would raise mine. When he got angry, I’d play stupid, like I didn’t understand the instructions. He’d curse me out, but inside I felt smug as hell.
The passive aggressive tactic felt good, because it was an invisible strategy. People already thought I was strange and maybe a little ‘off,’ so I used it to what I considered my advantage. Because they treated me and talked to me like I was dumb, I played dumb. I made people repeat themselves. I messed up simple instructions on purpose. I covertly destroyed displays and made messes. I cleaned the break room microwave by spraying industrial cleaner inside it and turning it on for 20 seconds. The abuse and harassment continued, but at least I got the satisfaction of inconveniencing my aggressors. The church rhetoric told me this was wrong, because it was a shortcut to avoid turning the other cheek, but I felt like I had my dignity in tact—even if my notion of dignity at the time was awash in self-loathing.
My relationships at Pick ‘N Save weren’t all bad. I was the only person who talked to the mentally challenged bagger. He was annoying and a pervert. The managers told him flat-out that he was hired so they could hit their diversity quota. I took lunch breaks with him and listened to him talk about boobs. Hanging out with him didn’t help my social status, but he and I occupied the same strata, so it was more camaraderie than altruism. I made friends with a Filipino immigrant in the produce department. He spoke poor English and gave me a record player. I also made friends with another cart-pusher. He was a few years older than me, had a quick wit, and was legally blind. He was one of the few who took interest in the conversations I struck. He even came to church with me a few times, which I considered a massive victory. All the abuse will be worth it, I thought, if I can make a convert of him. That was the church rhetoric at work; Christianity is an economy and people are capital. Foster enough investments and that mansion in heaven will be yours.
I stayed in that job for three more years. When I quit I was making $6.85 an hour. I used the few thousand dollars I’d saved during that time to pay tuition to enter a Christian “discipleship school” in the northwestern suburbs of Chicago (another story for another time), because I was still committed to the cause. In fact, the bullying only made me more convinced of Christianity’s truth. It would be a few more years before I awoke from that dream.
I had a chance to revisit that Pick ‘n Save a few years ago. The frozen foods section still had the lingering smell of rotten milk. The tiles in the chip aisle were still warped. The bakery case still had donuts covered in moisture. But the best part was, many of the people I worked with a decade earlier were still there; some even standing behind the same counters and checkout lanes.
I didn’t recognize any of the management, but the men’s bathroom still had the same graffiti carved into the toilet paper dispenser: “John Blows Goats Hard.” It was written before my time by a employee disgruntled by squinty-eyed John. I remember the vicarious pleasure I took in the anonymous vandal’s rage. As a Christian teenager, it was as close as I could get to obscenity. But when I saw the graffiti again, still there after all those years, it all seemed futile; the bullying and harassment, my naïveté and self-righteousness, the slavish consciousness of my childish religion, the self-destructive method of my passive aggression, and the emotional vacillations of teenage-ness.
On my way out of the store, I bought a pack of Sour Patch Kids, for old time’s sake. I recognized the woman at the register, but she didn’t recognize me.