Shortly after fleeing the Hell Kill trailer, me and my room mate Jeff moved into a comparatively swanky apartment in downtown Houston. The new place was hardly a palace, but it had a definite charm – It had originally been a hotel built 80 years previously, and although it was in a cruddy area or town, and was pretty dilapidated, the place was still impressive. It had very high ceilings, hard wood floors, and oozed a kind of tarnished grandeur that had been absent from our shabby trailer.
The rent was almost nothing, and because this was long before the age of downtown Houston becoming hip and expensive, the whole building was inhabited by weird artists, musicians, and drug addicts – Our kind of people. Jeff and I felt immediately at home.
I had continued working at the movie theater, but because I was growing sick of tearing tickets and cleaning up spilled soft drinks, I had begun to casually look at other job options. I had been going to a comic book store to buy underground comics, and jokingly asked if they were hiring one day. To my surprise, I was told that I could work a few days for store credit, and if it worked out, maybe they would hire me. I was not exactly a comic book nerd, but this sounded like a dream gig compared to the movie theater job – I had long lost my appreciation for that profession’s perks… Free screenings off movies, and lots of leftover popcorn. I was eager for a greener pasture.
I worked for free at the comic store for about a month, mostly bagging huge piles of comics and cleaning up the back store room. Finally, I was offered a job. I happened to have Jeff along that day, and they hired him on the spot too… A success for the two of us, but I was a little pissed off that I’d worked for free, and he was offered the job without the spending the time and hassle I’d had to. In any case, it was good that he’d be able to contribute to our rent at the new place.
The comic shop was a weird place. It was owned by a guy in his 50s, that didn’t care about comics at all. The store had it’s original roots as a toy store at a mall back in the 1960s. Frank, the current owner, had managed that store for an older lady that owned it. Frank’s interest in the venture had been toy trains and old style war games , which were hobbies of his. The lady that owned the toy store eventually died, and somehow Frank ended up owning the place. By then, he had transitioned the place into a game store, and with the popularity of role playing games like Dungeons and Dragons, the store had become very successful. A year or so earlier, the store had branched into comics, because that industry was booming at the time.
In the 70s, Frank had hired a young guy named Dave… Sort of a drop out hippie kid, to work there. By the time Jeff and I got our jobs, Dave was a manager, and Frank’s daughter “Taysha” also worked at the store.
Frank the owner was a nice man, but like a lot of small business owners I’ve known, he had a mercurial temperament, and was a little bit crazy. He was a good enough guy, but looked like the living embodiment of a comic store owner – Fat, in his 50s, balding but with long hair. He would bristle anytime a customer would complain about a store policy, taking it as a personal insult, and I saw him throw more than one person out of the store for uttering a mild profanity, even though hardly any kids frequented the place, Frank himself would drop f bombs like it was going out of style, and we had an enormous selection of “adults only” material for sale.
Frank would occasionally get hopped up on something…. Maybe speed… Not sure… And he would stay up for days at a time growing increasingly nuts. It was during these manic periods that he would write his strange store policy handbooks. These were crazy and very lengthy in nature, composed mainly of rambling nutso drug babble, but with weird new store rules mixed in.The whole concept of an “employee handbook” fora tiny business with four employees including himself, was a little crazy anyway, but. Frank used these late night amphetamine driven sessions to take on his own personal list of work irritations.
One such irritation was our restroom policy. Frank didn’t want the customers to be able to use the store’s restroom. The only exception was for pregnant women, but Jeff and I would generally let regular customers use it if they wanted to. There was no really reason not to, and Franks mandate to tell inquiring customers that there wasn’t a restroom in the store was obvious bullshit that no one believed.
One morning Jeff and I showed up for our shift, to find a ten page manuscript forbidding us from allowing customers to use the bathroom for any reason. One page in the middle simply read:
“You two continually let people use the John, and some filthy motherfucker blew shit all in the toilet that no amount of scrubbing would remove!”
While we questioned the concept of indestructible blown shit, we had to give Frank credit for his determination to keep customers from using the restroom. We also both knew that the individual most likely to have created the blown shit episode was almost assuredly his right hand man Dave…. In any case, we continued to let regular customers use the facilities when asked.
Taysha, Frank’s daughter was also quite a character. I never figured out what the story was, but she’d been raised somewhere In Mississippi, and was very Southern, and also not very smart. She was probably thirty or so, and not attractive at all. We got along fine for the most part, but there was a weird disconnect there -She was nice to Jeff and I, and we were both strange looking weirdos, but when people came in that dressed similarly to us, she was rude and would follow them around the store to make sure they didn’t steal anything. She did this even if they were regular customers, or if Jeff or I were friends with them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she also had the same reaction to minorities that came in.
Taysha was very prim and proper, and one of those women that would openly call another woman a whore for dressing in any way attractively. She wouldn’t venture into the “adults only” section of comics and magazines, and would look at anyone buying that stuff like they were unclean, but her prudery didn’t prevent her from working at the store. One day Dave told me that Taysha would go back to Mississippi once a year for some sort of local county fair, and would hang around until she could hook up with a strange guy for a yearly sexual encounter. The idea of her actually having a sex life had never crossed my mind, and pretty much horrified me, as well as the “hanging out at a fair until a drunk carny took her back to his trailer” aspect of the whole scenario. It still creeps me out all of these years later.
The main character in the store was Dave. I say “main” because Frank was in and out a lot, Taysha only worked a couple days a week, but Dave was there seemingly all of the time.
Dave was probably in his late thirties when I met him, although he looked much much older. He was very tall and thin, with long stringy blond hair and an even longer beard. He was always dirty looking, and could have easily been confused for a homeless person. Dave was a serious alcoholic and drug abuser, and had the reddish complexion that years of serious drinking will give a person. He was also moody and irritable, prone to lashing out at people. Despite these characteristics, Dave was relatively intelligent, and had a lot of street smarts from years of living dangerously. He also seemed to have a developed hatred of women, although he also let many of them walk all over him. Both of those tendencies seemed intimately related.
Dave had a million stories about women fucking him over, and there were rumors that some coke addled stripper was sponging off of him and living at his dingy apartment for free… Or for whatever revolting domestic arrangement they’d agreed to… He seems to take in a lot of young runaways and women that had dropped out of mainstream society because of various personal issues. He would rant endlessly about these relationships while we were all at work. Dave distrusted just about everyone, including me and Jeff, so our work relationship was strained to say the least. In my case, he was also especially an asshole because he was jealous that most of the attractive young women that ventured into the store were friendlier to me than him, but there was nothing I could do about that… He looked like a scary old ex con, who could blame them?
As noted before, the guy was a little unstable and really weird. Once he announced that he’d been feeling “sickly” (A steady diet of whiskey and cocaine will do that to you) and needed to “power up”. This consisted of him walking down to a nearby grocery store and buying a raw steak, which he then devoured in our parking lot like an animal. Another time, he came to work looking dazed with a bunch of dirt, sticks, and dead bird pieces stuck in his beard. He had passed out during his nightly bender, and collapsed outside of his apartment, crushing a bird to death… And then come straight to work with parts of its carcass still in his facial hair. On yet another occasion, one of his live in coke head strippers had found a squirrel, and wanted Dave to take it for her as a pet. In trying to accommodate the ridiculous request, the squirrel bit his finger, and it got infected. Somehow he managed to keep it from falling off, but the wound festered uncared for for days.
At least a couple of times a week, I would go to a nearby drive through pizza place to grab lunch. I was a struggling vegetarian at the time, so I always got a slice of cheese pizza. Dave began demanding that I pick up a large meat lovers pie for him – He would eat half of it at work for lunch, and then take the other half home for dinner that night. One day I got him his pizza, and as usual he devoured half for lunch. When he came to work the next day he was angry with me… I couldn’t figure out why… And finally he told us that when he’d started to eat the second half late the previous night, he discovered halfway through that maggots had hatched – The meat was spoiled, and his pizza was teaming with the wriggling creatures. He had undoubtedly eaten many of the things by the time he discovered what was happening… He was shit faced drunk and in the dark at the time… And so Dave was convinced that I had somehow caused his horrible fate, and that he was going to die as a result. I told him it was extra protein and to get over it, but I half expected hum to burst open at some point so thousands of angry maggots could pour out of his carcass.
There are a lot of things that I learned working at that place. First and foremost was the sad realization that it was hard to relate to many of our customers. I been into comics as a kid, and I had played role playing games. Working in a comic store seemed like a dream job back then, and that had only been eight years earlier. I still read comics, but at that point only underground stuff… Nothing involving superheroes or typical fandom things. I was always friendly to our customers, but some of them made it really hard – like a drug dealer, the comic store provided those people’s “fix”, and it was hard to relate to people in their thirties that were really passionate about “Ritchie Rich” or “The X Men”. Nowadays, lots of adults are into comics and fantasy, but back then you were venturing into the land of “Never gets laid again” if you went to a comic store five times a week.
And that was another horrible aspect to the job. Occasionally… Really occasionally… A female would venture into the store. It wasn’t like it is now, where it’s relatively common for women to be into nerdy fan stuff as much as males. So this only happened a handful of times each week. Many times if the female was fairly attractive, she’d come in with a guy… She being the much suffering significant other to some lucky fanboy that wasn’t completely repulsive to women. Rarer still, were the attractive women that would come in ALONE, either to buy a nerdy gift for a boyfriend or because she herself was a fangirl.
Woe be to those sad females, for the minute they entered the store, half of the males shopping there would suddenly stop what they were doing and stare straight at her. In some particularly creepy cases, they would follow her around or try (And almost always fail) to chat her up. One regular customer did this often enough that we had to warn him to knock it off, as he was making the female shoppers nervous.
I spent a lot of time watching the social interactions of those folks. It was interesting, but also kind of yucky… There was one regular customer that was a cop. He would always try to talk to Jeff and I late in the evening… It was weird, because he wanted us to be his comic store buddies, but the same guy would probably have loved to pull two guys that looked like us over under different circumstances. He had this… “Opinion” that the comic store was a sanctuary of masculinity, and that we should ban women from coming in… He seemed to think our comic store was a mans club, not realizing that his desire was most likely illegal.
Then there were the super fans that wanted to open their own comic store. Sometimes these were father and son duos, other times just a couple of friends or a single fan with some money to burn… And burn it would, as comic stores were notoriously risky business ventures. Guys like that opened them all the time, only to shutter the windows within a year. Those folks always made me a little sad.
After a year of enduring my weird coworkers and watching our customers, I decided it was time to move on. The reality was that I’d decided to move from Houston to Austin, and I just didn’t see my future being as a comic book and role playing game salesman.
Some did though. Jeff still works there.