Stopping The Smearer’s Winning Streak

The problem with working in a bookstore is that you can’t audition your customers.

Things would go a lot smoother if you could line them all up at the door and give them little exams. “Okay, you! Do you promise to put the books back where you found them? You do? Fine, you’re in. And you, ma’am: Do you realize that asking ‘where the non-fiction section is’ marks you as a complete and utter bonehead? Good, good. Enter, won’t you?

“You say all you want is the latest John Grisham novel, sir? No, I’m sorry. You failed. Go away.”

But alas, that’s the problem with retail – anyone who wants to walk through that door, can. Which means that as a bookstore clerk, you have to make the refuse of life, the halfwits who think that “The Jerry Springer Show” speaks to issues that touch upon their own lives, feel welcome.

And at one point in my career as a professional asskisser, I had to deal with a clerk’s worst nightmare, the Keyser Soze of customers: A mysterious man with stained hands known only as… “The Smearer”.

Now let me set this scene for you. The Borders I worked at had once been a grocery store – Borders HQ had simply bought the building, refurbished it, and opened it up again. But there was one major hitch which nobody was aware of until after the building opened: A grocery store, by and large, does not have people hanging around for two to three hours a day reading books, sipping espresso, and chatting.

If the problem doesn’t seem obvious to you, well, join the rest of the free world. But the flaw in the building was this: People don’t poop at a grocery store.

Oh, occasionally you’ll get the desperate customer who’s willing to ask where the bathroom is, but then you have to walk through a back room so filthy it makes a gas station restroom seem like an freshly-scrubbed operating room, a ghastly place filled with old soda cans, splintered pallets, and – for some reason it’s always there – rotted lettuce leaves trampled into the concrete floor. It is in bathrooms like these that you discover your hidden talents at hovering. The sewage traffic at a grocery store is minimal.

But Borders is truly eglitarian when it comes to evacuations. Not only is it a much cleaner bathroom, but you can relax and read a magazine on the can! And so it was, much like Lucy and Ethel desperately trying to keep up with the conveyor belt full of chocolates, the pipes at the newly-refurbished Borders could not handle the additional traffic. In any case, at least once a day there was some backup straight out of G.G. Allin’s wet dreams, spilling sludge and soaked toilet paper all over the floor.

And then I, as the Assistant Manager Of Store Operations, would have to clean it up.

Oh, I’d delegate it occasionally, but I tried to be fair about it. This was the most disgusting job in the store, and the poor line clerks got paid less than I did. Why burden them? And so it was that this was my personal cross to bear. If I was on-duty, I’d get the mop and the boots and GALLONS of bleach – we went through bleach like a hollywood cast party goes through cocaine – and mop up the mess myself. No problem. Wasn’t my definition of an ideal job, but it paid the bills.

Until The Smearer.

As I said, I had no idea who he was. All we knew is that about once every two weeks, some guy walked in and smeared his own shit all over the bathroom walls, then vanished without a trace.

I was good about it the first time. Held my nose, muttered “sicko” under my breath, and wiped the walls clean. Job over.

The second time I was starting to get a bit peeved.

By the seventh or eighth time I was facing open rebellion from my staff as I tried to delegate the job – and whereas they’d gladly, almost eagerly, run in to clean up the usual overflows nowadays, I could not get them to step into a Smeared bathroom if I’d held them at gunpoint. It wasn’t their job.

Only two people would brave the Smearer’s evil defacement to clean it up – Peter and Mike. Peter and Mike were of such differing personalities that they would have been perfectly cast as assigned partners in a Hollywood cop movie like Rush Hour or 48 Hours or some other cop movie about hours, maybe Lunch Break or Half An Hour… except at the end of a movie, Peter and Mike would have discovered a whole new respect for each other and found that their differing personalities really did work well together under stress.

In real life, Mike just wanted to punch Peter in the mouth. Hard. And Peter never noticed.

Now let’s delineate the personalities: Mike was a New Yorker, and that’s all you really need to know. I think he was Italian, but if he wasn’t he certainly grew up around them, because he had that Italian attitude of, “Yeah, right. Okay. Don’t bullshit me, huh? There’s a job to do, you want it done, I’ll do it.” He’d scrub the washroom after a Smearing and do it well, but also like Italians he swore lifelong revenge against the bastard who did this to him. To quote Harlan Ellison, Mike was heavily into revenge. Mike was efficient, he was a great person to have at your side when you were dealing with idiot customers all day, and he was a good friend of mine.

And then there was Peter.

Now, the nicest thing anyone ever said about Peter is that he meant well. And he did have good intentions – but in his enthusiasm he always got something drastically wrong. Peter was the kind of guy who would break an old lady’s hip hustling her across the street. Peter was the kid who got kicked out of the cub scout troop because his attempt to get the Firemaking, the Heroism, and the Interpreter badges simultaneously caused an international incident when he accidentally set the British Ambassador on fire.

Peter was the sort of guy who all the managers knew you could never leave behind the cash register alone, because Lord knows what helpful thing he’d fuck up if you weren’t watching him. One time he rearranged the entire special order shelf – about five hundred or so books – and then forgot to tell anyone about it before he left, leaving many confused clerks behind the counter saying, “Now, I know this is a strange question, Missus Granwhistle, but you don’t happen to know the color of the book you ordered, now do you?”

Peter would clean the bathroom efficiently as well, but then he’d go outside and talk about the mess in such detail that you wish you’d never sent him in. “Boy!” he’d say, his eyes glittering with mayhem-causing excitement, “Who would have thought that a guy could leave shit stalactites on the ceiling, huh?” And everyone would move away from him.

Now if the Smearer had had some style – some elan! – to his work then I might not have complained as much. Okay, maybe the cleanup still would have been a bitch, but if I had walked into the bathroom and found authentic reproductions of Neanderthal cave art drawings done in poo writ large, I might not have minded. Or if I had walked in and found, “SMASH THE STATE! THE REVOLUTIONARIES OF THE AILIMENTARY CANAL DEMAND THE HEAD OF TOM BORDERS!” then I could have understood.

But this guy was just your basic pervert – well, maybe not a basic pervert. Anyone who got off fingerpainting with his own freshly-made feces in public had graduated to the Advanced Studies Class of Pervert U. The plain truth was, tossing Mister Hankey against sparkling-clean tiles was what floated his boat. It was irritating.

And he ate a lot of corn. This was more information on the guy than I wanted to know.

Pretty soon we thought we had the guy. A big fat guy – well, if we were being nice we might have called him “Rubenesque”. Or maybe “Bilirubinesque”. He was there at all the right times, seemed antisocial enough to do it… so we went to the cops.

No luck. They said, damn their eyes, that they needed proof. “Proof?” said Mike in disbelief. “Have you seen what this guy does? Clean up our bathrooms after this guy hits! You’d lock him up in a heartbeat!”

Alas, we discovered the justice system is not really prepared to deal with fecal terrorism…. So we took matters into our own hands.

Not the feces. The revenge.

We needed proof. That was the weak spot. So Mike concocted a scheme to catch the smearer. Now, this scheme was a little bit kooky, I admit, but you have to remember that Mike was from New York and he…

…oh, fuck it. The plan was mine, okay? Mine! This cockamamie plot to catch the Smearer was completely, absolutely, utterly and irrevocably 100% pure Ferrett.

The plan, such as it was, was this: The bathroom also had a closet to hold the mops and such. When the suspected Smearer walked into the store, we’d all go on alert, watching him carefully for signs of going to the bathroom. When he headed towards the men’s room, one of us would issue an announcement over the pager system:

“Manager, call extension 40. Manager, please call extension 40.”

– which was clever because there was no Extension 40. You see the Machiavellian nature of our plotting? –

– at which point Mike, wielding a Polaroid camera, would bolt to the men’s room, hide in the closet, and wait for the smearer to do his fiendish work and come out. When the Smearer exited the stall, Mike would burst out of the closet, yell “BORDERS! HANDS UP!” and snap a picture of the Smearer brown-handed.

I have a friend who works in the Human Resources Department of Borders and he shudders whenever I tell him this. Mutters something about breaking every Borders policy known to man. And yet I digress.

So we were ready. Set for the Smearer. And the day came when he was in the store and Mike, Peter and I were all on shift.

He walked in, four hundred pounds of filthy lard topped by a greasy haircut that looked like the drain in a deep-fat fryer. He shuffled around the store aimlessly, picking up a book with his grubby little paws (leaving visible smudges), wandering back towards the café, up towards kids, over towards references – and all of our hairs stood on end. We were ready.

Peter, working the cash register, watched his every move – and the Smearer took a turn for the lavatory.

At which point Peter picked up the phone and paged, screaming at the top of his lungs in a state of hysteria not seen since Beatles fans openly wept in 1966:

“MANAGER! CALL EXTENSION 40 RIGHT NOW! MANAGER! MANAGER! EXTENSION 40! YOU HAVE TO CALL EXTENSION – FOUR – OH – RIGHT – NOW!

So much for subtlety.

Mike, hearing the noise, abandoned a customer in mid-sentence and leapt across the stacks of books like a gazelle, heading towards the men’s room. Along the way he grabbed the Polaroid. He burst through the doors, and seeing that no other people were in there, barricaded himself in the maintenance closet. Slam.

Unfortunately, the Smearer – possibly tipped off by our stealth alarm system – had turned left and was now hiding out in the K-M aisle of Fiction.

Instantly, the flaws began to show in my grand plan. What if some other customer walked in and used the men’s room while the Smearer browsed the Fiction aisle? Oh, I could see the lawsuits a-forming in my head. We had to get Mike out of there. So I raced back to the bathroom and opened the door.

A customer was in there.

Oh, but thank God he was only peeing in the urinal. We had to keep a low profile, so I stood around casually pretending that I, too, had to whiz. We studiously avoided each other’s glances in the way that only men jockeying for a single urinal can. Within a minute or so the customer was done and went to the sink to wash his hands. The sink was two feet to the left of the closet, but I had to give Mike credit – he was as quiet as a mouse. I didn’t hear a thing. I stepped up to the urinal and unzipped to give the illusion of urination.

The customer was about halfway through washing his hands when Peter crashed into the room.

I was trapped at the urinal, naked schlong hanging out. Peter nodded happily at me, walked up to the closet door – and opened it wide, exposing a very surprised Mike, clutching a Polaroid camera in his hands.

The customer, who most assuredly hadn’t had the slightest idea that there was a man hiding in the closet with a camera two feet away from him, stopped washing his hands and stared.

Peter held a finger to his lips to indicate silence. “Not yet,” he whispered, then shut the door on Mike and exited the bathroom, whistling obliviously.

The customer looked at me and I did my best to pretend that I was just some poor schmoe off the street, but it wasn’t working. He stopped – opened his mouth like a fish eating Tetra fishfood – then shut it and walked out of the room, hands still wet. I guess he was curious, but decided it was better not to get involved.

I looked for the next two years: Every time a customer walked into the store, I’d check closely to see if it was this guy. It never was. I never saw him again.

I opened the closet and with misplaced rage, Mike and I stormed out of the bathroom to find the Smearer. Oh, we knew whose ass we really wanted to kick… but Peter meant well. We cornered the Smearer in the mystery section, right in front of the cash registers, and said in a tremulous voice far louder than we had intended:

“Get out! Get out of here right now! Get out before we kick your fuckin’ ass!

“But – but what did I do?”

You know!” A crowd of people was starting to gather. The entire store had heard us. “Ya fuckin’ pervert! Leave! Get out and if you show up again we’ll stick your head in the toilet and drown ya!”

Other customers were starting to exit the store at a record rate as well.

The Smearer stopped, considered his legal rights, then looked at the red-faced burly men standing in front of him with the veins popping out in their neck… and left. Slowly. Pendulously. By then the entire store was pretty much deserted except for the remaining employees, who stared at us with horror.

Nobody said anything. They knew what we’d been through.

Slowly but surely, Mike and I were left alone in the middle of the store.

Hoping, of course, that the guy we thought was the Smearer was the Smearer.

Fortunately, as the weeks went by we never had another attack and our scorched earth strategy had apparently worked. Either Mister Lardbutt was, in fact, the Smearer, or he had happened to be in the store at the time and we had scared the living shit out of him. Or, as may be more physically accurate, scared the shit into him. On the one year anniversary of the Great And Noble Plan, I sat down and had myself a fine glass of champagne. We had rid the store of dungish dread. No more bad art projects on the wall for us.

But occasionally, I think of the horrified expression on that customer’s face… before he had walked into the bathroom at Borders Store #38, he probably never gave a thought to urinating in a public place. Now for this poor man the paparazzi lurks in every bidet, waiting to spring out on him at the wrong moment and immortalize him in all the wrong ways. He probably gives a little knock on every public closet door before doing anything intimate in any way… I’d be surprised if he wasn’t opening and closing the cabinet doors repeatedly at work, a stout cudgel in his clenched fist, shouting, “Come out of there, you rapscallions! Is it time yet? I’m ready for ya!”

Whoever you are, sir, I’m sorry.

It was fucking Peter, okay?

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