Working at TJ’s is far from difficult most days, save for the occasional jar-of-salsa-explosion or Total Refrigerator Melt Down Disaster (sorry cows, looks like your death was in vain). There’s also a lot of idle brain time, as it turns out putting cans on a shelf and carrying on light conversations about the weather doesn’t occupy much brain activity, leaving about a good 97 percent free to window shop down the streets of your inner psyche, dropping change into the cup of homeless pursuits, or to traipse through the garden of imagination, willing new flowers to bloom at each turn.
The unshackled imagination is what helps turn the ordinary, and often quite repetitive, nature of the work into something fanciful, or at least a cartoonishly fascinating version of itself.
I quickly realized the nature of the work at TJ’s has the qualities and cyclical challenges of an 8-bit video game. You know the kind I’m talking about, the ones before cartridge memory was really available so the games forced you to relive the same tasks over and over again to varying degrees of difficulty simply because there wasn’t that much depth or range to the games (e.g.: Spy
Hunter, Donkey Kong, Elevator Action, Wrecking Crew, etc). The challenge becomes not in whether you can complete the tasks at hand — which are often ceaseless and without true terminus — but the efficiency in which you can complete them, the perfection of the process, and the stylized methods through which you can overcome the digital hurdles. There were no hidden bonuses, secret endings or completion percentages back then. It was up to you and your grade-school friends to continue to milk the enjoyment out of that cartridge of Dodgeball, because you knew your parents weren’t buying you another game until at least Christmas, and maybe not even then since you didn’t listen to them and refused to wear a raincoat over your mummy costume at Halloween because you were standing up for the realism of the outfit and they just wouldn’t listen to logic that no mummy, no matter how heavily it was raining in ancient Egypt, would have left the pyramid wearing a raincoat, especially not a Members Only raincoat.
ANYWAY … so you beat all the stages in MarioKart, then spend months or even years shaving off fractions of a second to claim the top time among your friends. You killed the levels in Snood but keep hoping for that ultramegasupercombo shot that will blow up the whole screen and give you just a few more points to beat your college roommate. Sure you beat Contra, but can you do it without the code? I’ve seen this done, once. Barry Schwartz, summer of 03. He claims he can replicate this on demand.
This is also why the Game Genie book came with codes to make some games harder than their original settings. When options are limited, we make due with what we have and find challenges where none were present before, just to keep our evolutionarily developed minds clicking away at problem solving and far from the perilous ledge of idle boredom.
In a workday haze of the 5-1 a.m shift, my eyes close sometimes and reopen with a newly installed 8-bit pixelated filter. Here’s the work day through that filter:
Task: Packing a bag, putting away back stock and building a U-boat or a flat cart
Video game equivalent: Tetris
This is the most-commonly used TJ’s video game analogy, and also the most apt. It is hard to deny that years of Russian-puzzle game mastery (and, I should add, Mario-administered pharmaceuticals) contributes to some of the most successful operations of the store. I often revel in successfully and neatly packing all of a customer’s groceries into a single bag, even if it does weigh 48 pounds and send them tumbling head-over-heels into the middle of Atlantic Avenue in an unbalanced wreck (Note: I will gladly repack your bag if you ask). That is, until that crazy shaped box of clementines comes in and fucks everything up and leaves air holes in the bag where none should be.
Occasionally the collection of cans, apples and cereal boxes align in complete congruity, forming a perfect block-stack of groceries. This worked well until onetime I put a long baguette into the open column of the bag, which caused four rows of this woman’s groceries to disappear. My score that day was off the chart, however.
Building a U-boat is a similar spacial-relations challenge, though one that is more open to obscene architectural aspirations. The trick is to pile boxes of similar size on top of one another, putting the heaviest on the bottom and getting progressively lighter on the way upward. Half-boxes are the tricky bits that can throw the whole operation into chaos, like the Z Tetromino of the grocery world.
The challenge: how much product can you get on the cart, saving yourself another trip down to the warehouse to reload, thereby getting the most product on the shelf and into customers’ carts faster?
Difficulty level: 5
Task: Front of line position
Video game equivalent: Tapper
The goal of Tapper is to keep your customers fed with beer and to collect their mugs that come magically sliding back down the bar before they hit the floor. It’s a steady stream of motion: load up the mug, throw it down, catch the mug, repeat, repeat. Constant vigilance and surveillance of the entirety of the screen are required. Turn away for a second and you could drop a beer or miss a customer. Then you’ve got angry customers calling for your head.
In front of line, the beer supply is your steady stream of customers flowing through the two lines. Your task is to dispatch them to one of the 21 registers as soon as it opens and the cashier waves their red vinyl flag. Constant vigilance and surveillance of the entirety of the checkout lane is required. Turn away for a second and you could miss a flag go up or send someone to the wrong register. Then you’ve got angry customers calling for your head.
In FOL, as in Tapper, you have to keep all the sides fed. The worst scenario is a misfire: you send a customer to a register that already occupied, then the entire lane backs up and the entropy of the whole system takes hold. Every now and then, an enemy enters the game who tries to foul up your score by going to a different register than the one you dispatched them to. Only the quick-thinking line tapper can restore order.
The goal in both games is to clear the screen of people. Occasionally when this is done at TJ’s, there is clapping and bell-ringing to celebrate a cleared-out line. In Tapper, dancers come out to celebrate.
Tapper is also the only game I know of to be endorsed by Budweiser. The Front of Line game, however, is sponsored by Simpler Times.
Difficulty level: 6
Task: Pulling pallets onto the floor
Video game equivalent: Desktop Tower Defense
While not a true 8-bit game, this time-wasting internet favorite a spiritual kin to the traditional simple yet enjoyable nature of the old school NES.
The placement of pallets onto the sales floor as the truck is being unloaded after-hours is a similar strategy based defense game. Pallets enter the store in varying order each night and the challenge is to place them with pinpoint accuracy at critical stations in the store to most effectively administer the breaking and staging of product cases. The front near the entrance is the first bulwark to load up. Pallets placed elsewhere near the back of the store or by the milk case would be disastrous to the flow of defense troops through the region, blocking off critical lines of support and not allowing crew members to wheel through with the appropriate hand truck full of armaments to refill the depleted tortilla chips cache.
Advanced level Pallet Defense includes staging support equipment at the necessary sites, including hand trucks, used to dispatch the goods with military quickness, and u-boats, for back stock to be sent to the subterranean armory. As in desktop defense games, the goal here is efficiency of space and resources: a beverage pallet placed in the dried fruits and nuts section sends the whole effort into disaster, forcing troops to crisscross each other in unnecessarily complicated patterns.
Sometimes a pallet will break on the truck and have to be split into two, creating an added level of difficulty for the pallet movers. In that case, the playing field shrinks by one pallet’s worth and the maneuvering becomes trickier. Poor pallet stationing design almost certainly allows the creeps to win their advance over the sales floor, meaning we will be stuck in the store long after our 1 a.m. finish time trying to fight off the stragglers.
Difficulty level: 7
Task: Walking through the line/a busy aisle with a cart full of product
Video game equivalent: Frogger
The checkout line often extends past the hallway that leads to the receiving area, the room where boxes are brought up on large u-boats in the freight elevator and loaded onto smaller carts to bring onto the floor. Criss-crossing this line involves amphibian dexterity and a willingness to make brazen leaps into a intense flow of traffic. Added levels of difficulty are encountered when a flat cart is piled so high as to block the player’s view of the aisle. Sometimes you have to cross the pond of the frozen aisle beleaguered by rotating lily pads of shoppers talking in their Bluetooth headsets, oblivious to your desire to get to the other bank safely. A rogue fast-moving cart can end your life before you can even move back a lane.
Difficulty level: 4
Task: Building cardboard piles (game only available when baler is broken)
Video game equivalent: Sim City
I’ve written about this one before, so I’ll save you the repetition. Here’s an excerpt:
Indestructible Level: +2
Armaments: Vast parapets of paper towel boxes protecting the north wall; back-up fortifications of toiler paper boxes protecting the inner cache; air pockets of soup boxes holding open the path to the Keep should the outer wall fail.
We continued the construction, higher and higher, altitude thinning all the time, until the threat of a scattering of the TJ’s languages seemed imminent, which would have further complicated the already indecipherable PA system echoing across a crowded 80-year-old bank building, and we stopped.
Estimated final construction height: 8 feet
Difficulty level: 2
Item: Locked door between break room and warehouse
Video game equivalent: Warp tunnel
The secret connection between the employee break room and the warehouse containing all of the TJ’s back stock is usually locked due to justifiable fears of theft from one side of the downstairs to the other. But on certain occasions, the lucky player will find the warp tunnel standing wide open, creating a convenient path to take the trash from the break room into the trash room without having to traverse the long and dangerous route up through the store and over to the regular warehouse access. No one is quite sure what button combination or point total leads to it being accessible, so stumbling upon this open warp tunnel is an opportunity too good to be ignored, much like the level-warp that mysteriously appeared during a game of Arkanoid. You can advance to the warehouse level without having to pass through the arduous upstairs level that will require battles with Bosses. Also through the warp tunnel, you can obtain the Mop Bucket power up, significantly reducing the completion time necessary for the Cleaning Breakroom level.
One day when I was spending hours in the freezer I needed to call in a Game Genie to unlock the warp tunnel so I could get my jacket from the locker room. The Game Genie = manager who had a key.
Difficulty level: luck
Person: Frankie, baler operator extraordinaire
Video game equivalent: Honky Kong
He’s going to get so mad at me for posting this on here. So mad that he might start throwing mini-kegs of Heineken down the stairs and absconding with a customer in a pink dress to the roof.
I’ll probably update this post with more video game equivalences as time goes on. Currently trying to figure out what would be the TJ’s equivalent of finding the Triforce. I think it probably has to do with free soy chorizo day.