December 28, 2013
by Michael Calvert
A job to pay for my education was my objective, but I learned some lessons as a janitor at the Union Department Store. I was a sophomore at Ohio State University in 1962. I needed money to pay for tuition, books and my modest expenses as a “townie” living at home.
I saw the ad for a janitor on the bulletin board at the Student Services Center. Back at the student union, I dropped a quarter in the pay phone and a voice cheerfully announced, “The Union Department Store. How may I direct your call?”
I was connected to the extension on the ad and heard a gruff “Shue, here.” Thinking I had been transferred to the shoe department, I stammered, “ Er… I was calling to apply for the janitorial job advertised at Ohio State.”
“OK, when can you start?” was the reply.
Startled and still confused, I said, “Well, anytime, I guess. Right away.”
“Can you come in tomorrow at 10? Just ask for Bob Shue. Everyone knows me. It’s the Union Department Store, Long and High, downtown.”
“Yes, I have no classes until noon.”
“ Good, just tell the guard at the front door, you’re there to see Bob Shue.”
I knew that the Union was a fancy downtown store. My family did not shop there, but I had seen the ornate, six-story building at Long and High Streets and the swank ads in the newspaper. As I walked to the entrance, I looked at the show windows that featured thin mannequins with what I assumed were the latest fashions in men’s and women’s clothing. I pushed the brass bar across the revolving glass door framed by dark wood and entered a brightly lit, high-ceilinged store with rows of glass display cases aligned on a shiny terrazzo floor.
As soon as I spoke Mr. Shue’s name, the elderly, uniformed guard nodded impassively and led me down the steps next to the elevator to the basement, and said to a dark-haired man in a painter’s white pants and shirt, “This kid’s here to see you.”
Shue ignored the guard and scowled at me for a few seconds, and said “You the college kid that called yesterday?”
He directed me to a small room near the loading dock. There was just enough room for a battered wooden desk and two badly scratched wooden chairs. When he shut the door, the office seemed even smaller. A single florescent tube flooded the room with light that made me frown.
“I was hired here as a painter when I finished my third hitch in the Navy. I had been around the world twice and I liked the Navy fine. I started as ___ and worked my way up to _____. Everyone told me to re-up and retire with a full pension after 20 years,” he began, “but I wanted to see what I could do in civilian life.”
I still handle all the painting, but now I’m also in charge of the cleaning crew and they want me to do security, too. I’ve got my eye on the box department. Catherine, the old woman that runs it, needs to retire.” He paused and sat up straight, “I plan to be taking on other responsibilities here. You know there’s five stores besides the downtown and they plan to expand. I aim to run a major part of this company.”
I was impressed with his ambition. I also had never met anyone who had traveled around the world once, let alone twice.
“When I took over the janitors, it was a sorry operation. We had all these … Negros, Kennedy says we’re supposed to call them. But, anyway, they called in sick half the time, hardly worked when they did come in, and they couldn’t finish before the store opened. Customers don’t want to see them on the floors. Hell, I caught some of them hiding merchandise in the trash for their buddies to pick up in the alley. I saved the evidence and was ready to turn them over to the police, but Mr. Robert said to just terminate the bastards.” He leaned back and crossed his feet on the corner of the desk. “I went to Mr. Robert, the owner, and told him I could save him money by paying college kids a little more, a dollar forty an hour instead of 75 cents, and this would cut down on the absenteeism, and probably eliminate the stealing. He thought that was a damn smart idea. He told me to work with Mr. Kahn, the personnel director, to get rid of them all except for old Mr. Dunn, a favorite of his father’s for some damn reason and Doug, Miss Bailey’s kid. Doug’s mother has been a seamstress in the Bridal Shop for years. Dunn is the goddamned slowest moving thing on two feet, but Doug’s OK and I needed someone to show the college kids what to do. I’m busy with other things Mr. Robert wants me to handle for him.”
I nodded sympathetically and gave Shue my earnest attention because I needed a job. I was intrigued with this glimpse into the world of work and business. My buddies in the neighborhood were driving late model cars and making good money driving trucks, working construction, and selling used cars. I had no idea what kind of a job I might get with a BA in a couple of years. I had thought of switching from the Arts College to the Commerce College so I could get a job in business when I graduate.
Shue looked at his watch, stood up and said “You can start tomorrow. We begin at 6 am and finish at 10. It’s $1.40/hour, every day except Sunday. Friday’s payday. OK?”
“Thank you. I’ll be here,” I replied as Shue opened the door. I was surprised that I had been hired so quickly, but delighted to have a job.
Early the next morning, I found seven guys just inside the entrance, some sprawled on the terrazzo floor and others leaning against display cases and columns and drinking coffee. Shue stood and leaned on a glass display case next to two round pots of coffee and a column of paper cups. He said to his crew, “This here’s Mike, another college guy.” He motioned me toward the coffee. He motioned to a young, attractive black fellow and said “Doug’s been around a while and he’ll show you the ropes. All these other guys, except Dunn here, nodding towards an older Negro, are new, from Ohio State.”
After 30 minutes and two cups of coffee, Shue stepped forward and said “All right, listen up. Doug, you and Mike do carpets on two, three and four. Pete’s on the buffer on one; Davis and Dye do the beauty shop and the lunch room, Broyles brothers are doing wastebaskets and offices. Dunn, shit houses.” I later learned that everyone’s job changed periodically except for Dunn’s. His never changed.
As Doug and I went to get the Hoovers in the farthest room in the musty basement, he said, “When we get up there, just look for dirt and bits of paper. Do the whole floor? Shit, man, shit. We’d never finish by nine when doors open.” We took the elevator to the fifth floor, and our Hoovers roared as we began with the beige carpet in women’s sportswear, went on to the black shag rug in lingerie and then the white carpet in the bridal department where heavy sweetness of canna lilies reminded me of my cousin’s funeral.
Just before 7:30 am, Doug turned off his sweeper, began walking toward the elevator, and said over his shoulder “Break time.” He led me to the restaurant on the mezzanine where the rest of the cleaning crew was sitting on the red swivel stools at the lunch counter, drinking coffee and debating OSU’s chances against the highly favored football powerhouse Purdue on Saturday. Shue was behind a glass case getting yesterday’s doughnuts and cinnamon rolls for everyone. After thirty minutes we returned to the floors and resumed our tasks.
A short time later, Shue came to men’s suits and outerwear, and told me to do carpets on six. Doug kept vacuuming without looking up. Executive offices were on six, the top floor of the building. I began in the receptionist’s area and moved into a large office with an oriental rug, dark wood paneling and old paintings in ornate frames. On the door, the nameplate said Robert H. Levy, President. I was startled to see five twenty-dollar bills fanned out on the corner of the large desk. I quickly realized that it was a test of my honesty, and kept vacuuming.
By 9 am when the store opened, we were all out of sight in the basement as instructed by Shue. We loaded trash into a large bin by the roll down door, emptied the Hoovers, stowed our brooms and wheeled trash cans in chicken wire enclosures, and continued the argument about the point spread in the OSU- Purdue game.
Just before 10 am, Shue came out of his tiny office and told everyone but me that they could go. When we were alone, he instructed me to go to the end of our equipment area and turn off the lights. When I made my way back through the dark to the lighted passageway, Shue said, “OK, you didn’t glow in the dark from those dusted twenty dollar bills on Mr. Robert’s desk. I’ve had some guys light up like a Christmas tree, but I guess you’re honest. I promised Mr. Robert that we’ll not have any thieves on our crew. I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
Wow, I thought, Mom would be proud of me. Dad would probably say you’d have to be a moron to fall for it. In any case, I was pleased to be learning something about business.
Shue was proud of his college boys, and Mr. Kahn, the personnel director, was pleased with the efficiency move he and Shue had recommended to Mr. Robert. The OSU boys were a little more costly, but they completed their tasks and disappeared into the basement every day before the buyers, sales associates, and customers arrived. This was accomplished on time even when two or three students did not show up. Half the crew could clean the store.
I had helped my friend Tim from the old neighborhood get on the crew. He was two or three years older and was about to be drafted when he enrolled at Ohio State. Vietnam was now a shooting war. In addition to a full course load, he was a bouncer at the Vogue Lounge, a Columbus night club. He was affable greeter at the foot door, had a lot friends, and at 6’ 4” , he looked the part, but Tim was not a fighter. His technique was to watch the crowd and spot trouble brewing. He quickly approached the antagonists and, if he couldn’t defuse the dispute, he pushed the guys toward the door as he told them to “take it outside.” His buddies often helped get them out the door, and brawls seldom occurred in the club. There were some good fights in the parking lot that brought patrons flooding outside. The relatively rare “girl fights” attracted the biggest crowds because, in addition to snatching hair and gouging eyes, they ripped blouses and bras off their each other.
I gave Tim a ride each morning and, more than a few times, he asked me to pick him up at the Vogue Lounge where regulars often partied on after the door was locked. With a cup of coffee in hand, unshaven and hair more disheveled than usual, Tim groaned as he sank heavily into the front seat. His account of the night’s highlights were probably exaggerated, but certainly entertaining. He rolled down the window in an effort to sober up, even on the coldest days, but was soon asleep as I drove downtown.
After we arrived at the store, Tim got more coffee, but often dozed as the crew sprawled on the floor near the store entrance. After Shue gave us our assigned tasks and concluded as always with “Dunn, shit houses,” several of us took Tim up the elevator to Ladies Coats on three where he crawled behind rack of coats along the wall. Shue was suspicious, and came prowling about to check on him, but we covered for him, saying he was on a different floor. We woke him at break time and he crawled out for the coffee break – a little more sober, but still as miserable as he looked.
We had plenty of time to get everything done without Tim. In fact, half the crew could clean the store before 9 AM, and we just puttered around in the basement until 10 AM. We were on the clock at 6 AM, but drank coffee for half an hour and then took another half hour for a break. Shue’s cleaning crew was hardly a model of efficiency. When one guy quit, I asked Shue if we really needed to replace him, Shue said, “ Damn right we’ll replace him. I got the money in my budget and I don’t want to ever have to explain to Mr. Robert why the store is not cleaned when we open.”
Early one morning as I was sweeping the beauty shop on five, I heard Doug shouting from the elevator door “Kahn’s here! Kahn’s here!”. A Paul Revere dispatched by Shue warning everyone to look busy since Mr. Kahn, the personnel director and Mr. Robert’s son-in-law, had inexplicably come in very early. Shue had convinced him that converting to college guys had been a successful efficiency move, and he now claimed it as his innovation. Fortunately Tim did not crawl out from beneath Ladies Coats at that time. Our break was very short, and Shue didn’t risk a raid on the pastry case that morning. For weeks Doug’s cry was a source of amusement and parody. Sometimes in the early morning we would call out to him, “Kahn here?”
We relieved our boredom with impractical jokes. One morning after the break, Doug and Bob left the restaurant a little early. We should have been suspicious because no one went back to work before Shue declared the break was over. When Tim and I walked past the perfume department, they ambushed us brandishing perfume bottles with atomizers and laughing fiendishly as they sprayed us with Chanel No. 5, _____ and other undoubtedly expensive fragrances. When the attack was over, Tim said plaintively, “How the hell are we going to go to class smelling like French whores?” More uproarious laughter. Shue came around the corner and everyone got quiet. He knew something was up, but just growled “All right, you guys, get back to work.”
Of course, we counterattacked on the subsequent morning and escalated by t removing the atomizers and dousing our opponents with open vials when they least expected it on other floors. This went on several days until the dour old woman who sat at the perfume counter became alarmed when she found the sample perfume bottles on the case missing in the mornings. She complained to Shue, and he went into action. First, he interrogated each of us individually like the “good cops” he had seen on TV. He solemnly pledged confidentiality and asked us to tell him who was smuggling perfume to a girlfriend, but he got nothing but shrugs and blank looks. His sense of smell must have been very weak, because some of those taken aside for questioning had been victims that morning. Shue then decided that shoplifters were grabbing the perfume at closing time. He positioned himself prominently at the perfume department each evening. No more empty bottles. He sternly reported to Kahn and Mr. Robert that he had put a stop to perfume heists by a gang of thieves.
Shue was rewarded with a new responsibility for security, particularly shoplifting. Wearing a dark suit, he announced to us at our break that “Shrinkage was growing, and Mr. Robert had named him Store Detective to put a stop to it.” He explained that the sales associates had been directed to broadcast “Code 7” and the name of their department if they suspected shoplifting.
Soon Shue would hear “Code 7” and hurry to the location, determine who the suspects were with discrete looks and nods between him and the sales associates, follow them out of the store and confront them. He had some success in retrieving merchandise in return for allowing frightened offenders, mostly kids and women, to leave and promise never come back under threat of arrest, prosecution and jail time. Shue regularly regaled us during breaks with his new role as Store Detective, a title we learned he had bestowed on himself.
As we were sitting in the basement waiting for quitting time to roll around, “Code 7, Jewelry” came over the public address system. Shue said sternly, “That’s my page. Probably a shoplifter” and he strode off, straightening his tie.
Tim and I waited a couple of minutes and crept up the back stairs next to Jewelry just in time to see Shue hurry out the side door and turn into the alley. We followed and watched as Shue caught up with a stout, well-dressed black woman wearing a hat with a fancy feather, and called out to her. She pivoted and swung a black purse by the shoulder strap in a high arc and clubbed Shue on the head. He staggered and she hit him twice again with the purse. Then she came at him with her fists pumping and pushed him to the pavement. When he didn’t get up, she turned and strutted down the alley, hurriedly but with her head high, and disappeared around the corner.
Tim and I stepped back as Shue slowly got to his feet holding onto the wall. When he came into the store, he said “ Goddamn shoplifter had two accomplices that jumped me, but I ran those bastards off. I told Mr. Robert that I need to be armed.”
“Hell, yes! These damn shoplifters are dangerous.” We sympathized with him, helped him to the restroom downstairs, and said we had to go to class. We barely got out the door before we erupted in laughter that lasted all the way to campus.
As I was emptying the wastebasket and ashtrays in the Men’s Footwear, Shue squatted behind the counter and said, “Yup. She’s shorted this one, too.” He stood up with a sly smile, and announced with evident satisfaction, “Goddam Catherine is not getting shoe boxes here and the coat boxes to Men’s Outerwear.” He made some notations in the notebook he kept in his shirt pocket and walked toward the Men’s Business Attire.
My last wastebaskets were in the basement where the Personnel Office, Merchandise Receiving and Mark Up, the Display Workshop, and the Box Department shared space with the boiler room, freight elevator, and equipment storage. Miss Catherine was at her desk beside the long shelves of stacks of white boxes embossed with The Union logo. Rectangular boxes of various sizes for customers and piles of white tissue paper were arrayed along with special boxes for umbrellas, men’s ties, women’s hats and many other purchases.
Catherine, a tiny slightly stooped woman with frizzy gray hair, presided over the Box Department. She cheerfully greeted me when I came for her trash and asked about my courses. She related that she had attended finishing school, but was unprepared to go to work when her husband died young. Over 30 years ago, Mr. Herbert had hired her to manage the Box Department.
Shue wrote out a proposal for using the cleaning crew to monitor the supply of boxes in the departments and to deliver additional boxes whenever there was they were short. He would not need any additional employees to take on this additional responsibility. He proposed that Catherine report to him until she retired, and there would be no need to replace her. This would be another efficiency innovation for the store.
Shue asked me to review the proposal he had his wife type on store stationery. I corrected some typos and crossed out a paragraph that had been duplicated. When I gave it back to Shue, I suggested that he change it to allow Catherine to continue to manage the Box Department with the cleaning crew monitoring the inventory on the floors and delivering boxes for her.
Shue snarled and said, “That old bitch needs to retire. I am sure as hell not going to work for her, and I’m not going to let her order my people around. Don’t they teach you about chain of command at the university?”
When I asked him about the Box Department a few weeks later, he muttered, “That goddam old woman has got to retire soon, then I’ll take over her department.”
“Was that Mr. Robert’s response to your proposal?”
“Not exactly. He said that no one has complained, and she can run the Box Department as long as she wants. For Christ’s sake, Catherine is his mother’s best friend, but Mr. Robert ought to run his business on the basis of efficiency. He should have the balls to be a real businessman. Anyway that old bitch Catherine will have to retire someday soon.”
I shook my head sympathetically, and said “You gave him a good proposal for an efficiency innovation. That’s all you can do.”
As I walked away, I took some pleasure that Shue’s takeover was rejected and thought about how much plotting and scheming was involved in business. Then an angel on my shoulder reminded me that I had just offered false comfort to Shue. Just business, I rationalized.
One morning as I was emptying a trash can in the millinery shop, Shue came over with his paper coffee cup. He leaned over the glass case and said in a conspiratorial tone, “ I think I’ve got the goods on that black son of a bitch.”
“What are you talking about?,” I asked with some alarm. I assumed it was Doug, a likable guy who had become friendly with everyone on the cleaning crew.
“It’s Dunn. He’s been stealing from the store,” he said grimly as he nodded his head to provide further assurance.
“Mr. Dunn stealing clothes?” I asked incredulously. Mr. Dunn, as we called him, was in his sixties and always wore gray work clothes and drab shoes.
“ Nah, not clothes, money! I’ve got it the proof right here in this notebook,” replied Shue pulling a small spiral bound notebook from his shirt pocket.
“Maybe you don’t know it, but there’s a silver box in every stall in the seven women’s shit houses. The ladies can open it and get a Kotex. Then they drop a nickel in a slot in another box. They’ve charged five cents since the store opened, probably because it says “”5 cents” on the box, but nickels add up. Dunn’s been taking some of that money. He’s a goddam thief!”
“I’ve got the number of Kotex that went into each stall and how much money was in the box every day for the last two months. It’s come up short. Got to be Dunn. No one else does shit houses.”
Shue just nodded affirmatively and said “I got the proof, right here in this little book, and I’m going to Mr. Robert today,” and walked away. I was dumbfounded.
I told Tim as soon as we were out of the building. “Nickels, for God’s sake! Goddam nickels! Dunn’s been at the store for more than 30 years. Cleaning johns and doing scut work here before Mr. Robert came to take over for Mr. Herbert. Shue’s out of his damned mind!”
I explained how Shue, the self-styled store detective, had counted the number of Kotex and coins and meticulously recorded the discrepancy. Shue was determined to get the hapless Dunn fired for stealing.
Tim erupted, “Jesus H. Christ, we can’t let this go down. Shue’s gotta be stopped. We can’t let him screw poor Dunn. All the OSU guys will support Dunn. Let’s get everyone to go by the coffee shop right after work tomorrow morning and plan to go to Mr. Robert as a group. All he can do is fire us from this shitty job. Hell, he doesn’t want to fire all of us.”
“I’m ready! We all need to stick together and go to the mat for Dunn.”
The next morning Tim and I took everyone aside and they all said they with us. Just before we went to the basement at 9 AM, Shue came up to me scowling and shaking his head. “I can’t believe it. Mr. Robert doesn’t want to can Dunn. I showed him the numbers for the last two months. It proves that the son of a bitch has been stealing from the store. He said Mr. Herbert would never forgive him if he let Mr. Dunn go. I don’t know what Dunn’s got on the old man, but … I just can’t believe it. Shit. After I did all that work to get proof positive.”
I found Tim in the basement and told him of Mr. Robert’s decision. Word passed quickly to members of the cleaning crew. Everyone had been eager to march up to Mr. Robert’s office on six and protest. I could see the disappointment in everyone’s face. No opportunity to be heroic after all.
The next morning at nearly 6:30 am, Shue went through the assignments, paused, glared at Dunn and said more emphatically than usual, “Dunn, Shit houses.
I gave no further thought to transferring to the Commerce College and a career in business.