Friday, July 17, 2009

A Country Boy: Part Three, or "The Cigarette Czar"

This is an auto-post. I will be away till later this month, but have scheduled a couple of posts to entertain you while I’m gone. Enjoy and I’ll be around to visit everyone next week.

"My Life as a Country Boy: Part 3," or "The Cigarette Czar"

Bert called me into work early. Coming into the store, tying my tie as I walk over to the time clock, I see Bert talking with Ed, one of the two brothers who owned and ran the store. They called me over and tell me they need me to participate in a lie detector test. I was a bit shell-shocked and didn’t have time to object before we were in the office and there was a man with a machine. They had me to sit down and the man, whom I’d never seen, explained a bit how the machine worked and said he’d ask me questions abou. All I could think about were the few bananas or grapes that I’d eaten while mopping the floor at night. I was sweating. Bert and Ed left the room. If I remember correctly, the man put clips on my fingers, much like oxygen sensors used in a hospital. He asked me a bunch of easy questions and then the big one came.

“Have you ever stolen anything from the store?”

I was nervous and decided that my goose had been cooked. I admitted to have eaten a few grapes and a banana or two while there late at night mopping. I tried to rationalize saying there was no one to pay and pointed out that other times I had weight the fruit and left the money on a cash register. The man asked more questions about stealing money or about taking things out of the store. Finally he got to cigarettes and spent some time asking if I or if I knew of anyone who’d stole cigarettes. My answers were honest. I knew of no one who’d stolen money or merchandise.

I was sweating like a pig when he finally finished. Thinking that I was in trouble for my petty thief, I asked him how I did. “I’ll make a report, but I don’t think you have anything to worry about,” he said.

That night, as we were closing, Bert told me what was up. In one of the other stores, they’d discovered a regular criminal ring. The guy who handled the tobacco products was ordering more cases than needed. As this was back before barcode scanners, the only way to know how much product one sold was by home many items were missing from the shelves. According to Bert, the guy would order extra cases and leave them behind a dumpster instead of putting them into the tobacco storage room (which was locked). Then at night, he’d put the cases in his car. He’d been skimming off five cases or so (30 cartoons a case) a week, and selling them to someone who resold the cigarettes up north. When they discovered the ring, they decided to have all key employees (those who handled lots of money like the cashier supervisors as well as those who handled tobacco products) take a lie detector test. I had no idea whether or not it was legal, but I was glad to have survived and to know that I wasn’t going to be fired for being the great grape thief.

About six months after I started working at Wilson’s, the guy who’d handled the cigarettes went off to college and Bert asked me if I’d be interested. I’m sure he was hoping he’d have me for several years in the position, which turned out to be the case. Furthermore, I was a good candidate because I didn’t smoke. At that time, it was legal to smoke in North Carolina when you were fifteen, but the store’s policy was to use non-smokers to handle tobacco products. This was in the fall of 1973 and at that time, in North Carolina, a carton of regular cigarettes (ten packs) sold for $1.89. Do the math. That’s about the 1/3 of the cost of a pack today. If you wanted the longer cigarettes, it was a dime more for a carton. By the time I left the store in the summer of 1976, cigarettes had jumped to $2.39 and $2.49 a carton.

Every day I worked, I spent about half an hour filling the shelves with tobacco products. This also meant that I had to work more days in order to keep the shelves stocked. On Wednesday, it took me several hours as I first helped unload the truck, rotated the shelves and fill the depleted ones, straighten up the tobacco room in the back and then make the order for the next week. It was fun to project how many you’d think you’d need and people were mad when you didn’t have their brands. We sold lots of Winstons and Salems and Marlboros. If my memory doesn’t fail me, it seems I generally ordered 30 cases of each of those brands. We also sold a fair number of Camels as well as Virginia Slims which were become the cigarette of choice for women. In the summer, we sold more as tourists would stock up before heading back north. There were a number of smaller brands that we might only sell a carton or two a week. As you wanted to keep your product fresh, we’d only have five or six cartons in the store at any one time. Occasionally a tourist would come in looking for some old brand, like a Chesterfield, and buy us out.

In the summer of 1976, between my freshman and sophomore year in college, I took a job at the bakery. Bert asked if I’d like to stay on and continue to do the cigarettes and I agreed. At the time, I thought I’d be back at the store in the fall, when school resumed. Bert and Ed were talking to me about becoming what was known as “the third man,” in a new store they were building. When the manager and assistant manager were off, I’d be in charge and would have to close up the store a few nights a week. It sounded good to a college kid, but then at the end of the summer, Don, the Production manager at the bakery, asked if I’d like to stay on through the school year. He assured me that they’d keep me on second shift so I could attend classes in the morning. They were paying me more than the grocery store was offering and Don even hinted that I’d be in line for a supervisor. I agreed to stay on at the bakery and right before school started back, I trained my friend Tom to take over the cigarette business at Wilsons. Two years later, I became a supervisor at the bakery.

Other stories about working in the grocery store: Part 1, Part 2
Stories about working in the bakery: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6


  1. How times have changed! Today if a boss did that to an employee, they would probably be facing a hefty lawsuit.

  2. I'll never forget being given a psychological profile test to work at the second supermarket which employed me. It included questions like, "Everyone steals occasionally. How much have you stolen from your employers?" It then gave multiple choice answers, none of which was "zero."

    I scribbled on the score sheet, "I disagree with the premise to the question. I don't steal from employers."

    That and other answers, I guess, didn't prevent me from getting the job.


  3. Hi Sage, I like these chronicles! It was a clever policy to hire non-smokers to handle the tobacco products. My dad used to smoke Chesterfield. Marlboros are very popular here too, it's the main competitor to the local brand, whose name is Fortuna (fortune, in English).
    I've never been a smoker, but I know nowadays a Marlboro pack costs 3.20 euros = 4.5 US dollars. So you see, smoking is bad for your lungs but also bad for your pocket!

  4. I enjoy your stories, Sage. I was working at lunchtime in a hot-dog shop across the street from my high school when I was 15, and selling cigs, along with the hot-dogs. That was probably against the law.

  5. I can relate to being nervous when questioned by people in authority, even knowing I've done no wrong. Thanks for sharing your story, and I hope you're enjoying your time away.

  6. That's a great story, Sage. I'm sure they never expected anything but your passing with flying colors.

    Cigarettes cost a fortune these days. That in and of itself should be reason enough to quit smoking. I'm certainly glad I did years ago!

  7. No way was that legal. Wow. Times definitely have changed.

    I always used to get annoyed that smokers get more breaks than the rest of us. How about a "fresh air break" or something?

  8. I remember your mentioning that job at the bakery in the past. I wonder if there's another post where you focus more on it...not that I didn't like the tabacco story.

    Your interrogation reminded me of the day I took my polygraph test; I was just as nervous as you were!

  9. I'm back home--will have to try to catch up with everyone...