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It was a toilet, but it was our toilet

The Toilet is closing, and I’m a little sad about it.

The warehouse-sized Toys “R” Us store in Bloomington, MN – affectionately dubbed “The Toilet” by those of us who worked there in 1997 – was indeed very toilety. Every shelf had a layer of dust and dirt. The musty smell of water damage mixed with cheap plastic created a gag reflex for some customers. The 1970s speckled linoleum floors housed dozens of permanent stains and damage that had become as much a part of the store as the sign out front. The dark blue/bright orange paint scheme of the walls looked the way most employees felt when arriving each morning: Hideous.

When I was 16 years old, The Toilet was the only business that would hire me. They were desperate. The Christmas season was quickly approaching, and the increase in customers meant hiring an additional 15-20 temporary employees over a short period. They would literally hire anyone with a pulse. If you came to the interview with pants on, you got the job.

This was perfect, as I was also desperate. It had been five months since my sixteenth birthday, but even in the economic boom of the late 1990s, few people wanted to hire teenagers with a blank resume. When your professional references include your dad and your high school science teacher (who has no idea he’s being used as a reference), you don’t have a lot of clout.

It didn’t help that I was the anxious type, and had a tendency to blurt out the most awkward possible answers to interview questions. When the interviewer at Musicland inquired what I would do if my friends asked me to buy them things using my store discount, I laughed. Apparently, that was not the correct response. When the interviewer at Baker’s Square asked what my hobbies were, I said “I like to hang out at Baker’s Square.” This was the entirety of my answer. To this day, I still have no idea why I said that. When the interviewer at Rainforest Cafe in the Mall of America asked how I would react if I dropped a tray of food on the floor, I jokingly told him that I’d better get this answer right, because it would likely happen four or five times per shift. Self-deprecating humor, even in Minnesota, does not tend to serve one well in job interviews.

But fortune occasionally smiles upon even the largest of imbeciles. I showed up to the Toys “R” Us interview both wearing pants and visibly excited about earning the state minimum $5.15 per hour. They hired me almost immediately.

Some of the other temporary workers they hired seemed genuinely disturbed. One man, with neck tattoos and a beard that didn’t seem to have been washed in decades, proudly admitted to the rest of the employees in the break room that he’d been to jail “more times than he could count.” When asked what his crimes were, he would reply “Drinking, and things done while drinking.” He would not elaborate, which seemed odd since he literally brought up his checkered past every single day. We all feared him, yet were also terribly bored by him at the same time.

Another worker never spoke to another human being during his entire three month employment. He would work 8-12 hour shifts like the rest of us, and would spend that entire time straightening products on the shelves. He seemed genuinely angry at their disorder. Whenever a customer, co-worker or even one of the managers tried to speak to him, he would simply refuse to recognize their presence. He would keep intently straightening until the person gave up and went away. No matter how irate customers became, the company would never fire him.

Barring some sort of violent act or unauthorized sexual misconduct in the stuffed animal aisle, The Toilet wouldn’t fire anyone during the holiday season. For those three months each year, it was a home for people who were otherwise completely unemployable. This created an unusual bond between all of us. Sociopaths, recovering alcoholics and drug addicts, people who refused to bathe for months at a time. For a brief while, we were all like a family.

The Toilet was my first real job, my first taste of freedom in the real world. It provided my first friendships outside of my own school, where I felt invisible. It taught me that people can start anew and reinvent themselves. I fell in love for the first time there, fighting valiantly against another employee for the girl’s affections, only to lose. I was conned there for the first time, by a customer using a very old grift in which a cashier is tricked into giving too much change. I learned what really lies underneath that Geoffrey the Giraffe costume: A haggardly guy in his 40s who smokes Marlboro Menthols and says “Fuckin’ A, you got a glass of water or some shit? Fuck.” with a slight Boston accent.

But most of all, I learned that there was a whole world outside of the petty, useless cliques in my school. For that, I am grateful. Here’s to you, The Toilet, and your inevitable final flush.

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