Author: Cornish, Rick

Howard Long

Good Monday morning from Whiskey Creek, where, I'm ashamed to admit, the gutters only got cleaned out yesterday. This is after several strong storms have dropped countless inches of rain on our little mountain home. I hang my head in disgrace. But let me just offer one word of explanation...not an excuse, just an explanation--I have been working on my stone walkway every single day it that hasn't rained since mid-October (I’ve had to start over again three times because I don’t know what I’m doing). I have been obsessed with finishing it and everything else in my life has been put on hold...until yesterday. No, the walkway's not finished, though the end is in sight.

So then, on to my story about Howard Long, who last afternoon was briefly the subject of a twenty minute chat I had in the SavMart parking lot with a young ‘courtesy clerk’ named Jason. Actually, Howard was a minor part of the conversation; mostly what Jason and I talked about was the best strategy for him to get back into community college after dropping out three years ago, as well as what courses he would need to take to get on a vet school track. You see, there are few jobs I know more about than being a grocery store bag-boy…er, ah, bag-person. In addition to having spent my time in the courtesy clerk barrel, I go food shopping multiple times each week and have for thirty years since I do all the cooking at our house. And in those thirty years I’ve had many, many conversations with bag-people on the way to my car in the parking lot. No, I don’t often accept the offer for help out to my car…I’m able-bodied and able-minded for now…but I do on occasion if it appears to me the young man or woman would like to get outside. And having been a bag-boy for a year and a half while in high school, I’m pretty good at spotting them. So, here’s how the conversation always goes…

“You know, I was a bag-boy when I was your age and it was the single most important job I ever had.”

“Really why was that?” about seventy-five percent of them ask. (If they don’t ask, the conversation ends or takes another direction.)

“Well, it’s like this. I worked for Safeway as a bagger and I hated that job so much, and hated my boss so much, that I swore to myself I’d get a good enough education to be able to do something that I enjoyed for a living and never, ever take a job I dreaded going to.

Of those seventy-five percent of bag-boys and bag-girls with whom I get to this point, roughly half will ask another question or make a comment that keeps the conversation going and sometimes they can go five or ten or even fifteen minutes long. (Jason’, I think, was as record.)

Of course I have an ulterior motive for this decades-long practice, and that motive is to talk to these young people about their career plans and, more specifically, their plans for getting an education. I suppose if I’d spent my adult life as a shoe salesman I’d find a way to talk about footwear, but I didn’t. For forty years I was a public educator who loved and believed in what he was doing, and that, as I’m admitting to you, tended to spill over into all the other parts of my life, including trips to the grocery store. But, some of you may be wondering, if my reason for talking with these kids was ulterior, was the Safeway bagger story a a made-up one? Absolutely not.

In 1965, my junior year of high school, my parents signed for a car loan for me and that meant I had to get serious about a part-time job. Far and away the best-paying job for sixteen and seventeen year olds back then, and probably still, was that of bag boy, and that’s what I went for and landed. Howard Long, our store manager, was a severe, humorless man. A tall, paunchy Korean Vet with a prostatic right leg, salt and pepper flat top and a scowl chiseled to the bone, Howard was someone you wanted to be at the opposite end of the huge Safeway store from…Store #341...whenever possible. I made this my first and foremost goal from punching in to punching out. It was not so much a matter of whether he liked you or not but, rather, how much he disliked you and how, on any given day, he would let you know your current position on the official Howard Long Animus Scale. For me, there was never any question; I was off the chart.

At the top of the long list of things Howard didn’t like about me was my propensity for popping open ice-cold bottles of chocolate milk or OJ or whatever in the dairy walk-in and then stopping by for a couple of glugs whenever I passed that way. This practice was common among bag boys but I’m certain I was the most egregious offender given the fact that, as the store manager’s favorite target for retribution, I worked more Saturday and Sunday mornings than any of the other boys. Since Saturday and Sunday mornings always follow Friday and Saturday nights there was virtually never, ever a weekend shift that I didn’t come into the store with a fierce headache and a ferocious thirst. Frequent and covert glugs in the walk-in were, quite simply, one’s only way to rehydrate and hence survive an eight-hour shift. In a way, I saw my glugging ritual as a sensible way to improve my performance, and thus, my duty to Store 341.

One Sunday morning, after Howard and I had played a game of cat-and-mouse since I had punched in at seven a.m., I ducked in the dairy box and took a long, deep pull on a carton of Minute Maid orange juice. Two glugs went all the way down my pipes before I realized the boss had spiked the OJ with Clorox bleach. That morning, there among the pallets of milk and cheese and yogurt and eggs and sour cream, I learned the true, clinical meaning of the term ‘projectile vomiting.’ Somehow I got myself and the walk-in cleaned up and I made it through my shift, with Howard going out of his way to be pleasant and uncharacteristically cheerful. “So,” he would ask, “and how is YOUR day going?’’ “Headed for lunch, eh? Have a good one. Heard the Pirate’s Lair is doing a special on raw oysters on the half shell today” and so on. He knew I’d taken the bait and this was his way of letting me know that he knew. (It would be three years latter that I would take an upper division psych class until I had at my disposal the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual that allowed me to hone in on Howard’s precise disorder. By then, of course, it was only academic.

The Clorox experience was, for me, a profound one. I don’t know that I’d ever actually hated anyone in the true sense of the word until that Sunday morning. I knew I had to get out from under Howie, as I encouraged my fellow courtesy clerks to refer to him, but I also knew that if I wanted to hang on to my 1955 black VW with the red racing stripe I couldn’t walk away from the bag boy job. And so through the remainder of the eleventh grade and straight through to high school graduation the store manager and I did the dance of the cat and the mouse, he most often being the predator and me the prey…though I did get a few excellent licks in. And, yes, it’s absolutely true, Howard Long did play a crucial role in my formal education.

Posted:  12/10/2012

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