Jeff Phillips: Dells Mode

Happy Holidays from MJ (1)

On my refrigerator is a wallet-sized photograph housed in a clear acrylic magnetic frame. The picture is of myself and a former colleague, sitting in a hotel Jacuzzi, wearing goggles, proudly leaning over a lineup of empty Miller Lite cans. With photo editing software, we had written: Happy Holidays from MJ! This photo, without giving much thought, was once upon a time sent out by me in an email blast to upper management to wish them a happy holiday. An unprofessional click of a button. But there was no reprimand. We were an unstoppable dream team. This is the story of how this photo came to be. How a couple of Sales Associates rose to the top, and enjoyed a brief retail paradise, with some tinges of retail purgatory.

In the summer of 2006, I graduated college and after filling out countless applications, I was contacted to interview at a photography company where I’d get to take pictures of tourists at world attractions.

During my first summer I was scheduled primarily at Navy Pier, shooting and selling photos at the Odyssey and Mystic Blue dinner boat cruises. The workflow breakdown was: we’d take photos of passengers as they went up the gangway during boarding, then when the boat pulled away, we’d go off to a little closet behind some bathrooms, print the photos, frame them, take them back down to the dock to display on stainless steel racks, and try to sell them to the passengers as they came trotting back down the gangway, often intoxicated.

After only a week on the job, the big boss of our operation, Steve, came to watch us sell, to study our weak points. After the photos were set up for display, my coworkers and I waited as the boat was still in the process of docking. My boss pulled me aside and whispered into my ear. I didn’t hear him the first time. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind repeating. He whispered again, this time louder, but still garbled. It sounded like he said “you’re a supervisor now.” I said, “Oh cool, thank you.” I was a little confused. I was pretty new at the job, there was a lot I still didn’t know, and I think I was even late on my first shift. But I did just graduate college. I had a degree! Maybe this is what set me apart. I went back to the display racks and sold the hell out of those photos, flushed with the new pride of my seeming promotion. After the sell, my boss approached me again. “Jeff, did you understand what I said to you?” I hesitated. “I guess maybe I didn’t.” “I said, your zipper is down…I didn’t want to say it in front of everybody.” I guess he didn’t care so much about that now.

I thought that would be the end of me at that little photo company. But no, I soon did actually become a supervisor. After not even a full year with the company I was first put in charge of our location at the John Hancock Observatory, then after a few months I was relocated to take on the Museum of Science and Industry, where we had 3 separate photo locations for me to oversee. There I displayed my good guessing abilities at troubleshooting the wide array of technical problems that arise in environments with industrial chemical photo printers, computer networks, and tethered digital SLR cameras, and soon after that I was occasionally assigned to travel to some of our other locations in Boston and Washington D.C. to help train staff there to put out similar fires.

During my time managing the Museum location, I met Matt. Normally new hires would go through a two hour orientation at our main office, but due to scheduling needs, and timing, they needed him to start right away. I was asked to give him a quick rundown before the day got busy. He of course didn’t have a badge so I had to pick him up at the main gate, though he somehow found his way in through the side entrance by the loading docks. A skinny guy of moderate height, short light brown hair, he looked a little lost, but also at ease with it; a requisite for being able to do this job and not lose your mind during the process. During our abridged orientation, I pussy footed around telling him he shouldn’t wear a puka shell necklace at work. I didn’t want to be the bad guy dictating the minutiae of fashion to employees, but I also knew what Steve liked – and didn’t like – seeing in his employee’s personal presentation. I wanted Matt to last with the company, we seemed to hit it off. We bonded after many a hellish shift, where we’d be understaffed on a Saturday, Sunday, and even a Monday holiday. Loopy, at closing time, goofing off became an art.

Our company won a bid to take over photo concessions at the previously named Sears Tower. I was slated to manage this new mega location, which would be our biggest money-maker. Matt was doing good work. He was my pick to take over running the museum location.

I was out at a bar with Matt, about a month after the Sears Tower location opened, when he got a call from Steve. After he hung up, Matt had a big smile on his face.

“What was that about?” I asked.

“Looks like I’m going up to run the Dells for a week. They’re firing Stacy. ”

I was a little jealous at first. After my trips to Boston and D.C. I thought I was the big man on campus who got to travel on the company dime and shape up all of our operations. We had a location up at the Wisconsin Dells, the Army Ducks Tour, not to be confused with the original Ducks tour. Both were amphibious tanks that could drive on land and cruise on the water. The only thing different about the Army Ducks was that it was camouflaged.

Our Dells location was managed by Stacy. I had only interacted with her over the phone in our weekly management team conference calls, and she sounded like a snarly one.

One of the other managers, Robyn, once spoke of going up to the Dells to help them launch a previous season, and it sounded like a relaxing place. She had stayed in a Best Western that had a hot tub in the room. The work flow there was at a much slower pace than what we saw with the swarms of tourist families charging through our Chicago venues on a summer day. So not only did I feel like a protégé was rising above me, but I had been working 16 hour days for several months preparing for the Sears location, and then we launched and I was still doing 16 hour days, 7 days a week, to handle open to close. Going to the Dells would refresh my fried nerves. I needed it, why the hell wasn’t I getting to go?

Then a few minutes after his call to Matt, Steve called me to give me the lowdown that I’d be going to the Dells, too. He wanted me to work with Matt on turning around a venue. The boss knew Matt and I worked well together. He often referred to us MJ, or the Bobbsey twins. Relief was ahead, this would be as much of a vacation as I’d be able to get during the busy summer season. And, at the same time, I felt like I was being tapped for something important.

We drove up the next day and met Steve at the hotel. He would be going over to the venue to inform Stacy she was done. It was explained to us that the Ducks owners had allegedly seen Stacy pocketing cash from the register. Once she was off the premises, he’d call us to let us know to start heading over. Then the transition would begin.

We were first introduced to Stacy’s daughter, who wasn’t fired, which seemed to be a fair decision, since as far as anyone knew, she herself had done no wrong. Despite her being welcoming and understanding of her mom getting canned, we felt a palpable standoffish undercurrent from some of the other employees.

Our time there was a combination of retraining the staff to be pleasant to customers and not wander off in the middle of a shift for a random 30 minute cigarette break in the woods, out of sight. We taught them how to adjust the camera settings to maintain picture quality as the sun changed positions in the sky so half the day’s photos weren’t showcases of shadow.

Some of the staff quit in solidarity with Stacy. We had to do some hiring. One guy we liked and hired, but there was a delay in the return of his background check. Because of the urgent need for new staff we were told to go ahead and start him. Then our HR manager informed us he had previously been charged with child abuse. A family friendly venue wouldn’t hear of such a person being on staff. We had to let him go, despite him suddenly being our best employee.

We conducted an interview with a woman who came wearing cutoff jeans and a tank top. She brought her 8 year old daughter, and the daughter sat on her lap throughout the meeting.

We wound up hiring a girl we thought would make great management. But a few days later she was a no call, no show because she was arrested for a DUI after her van collided with a bicyclist.

A girl called off one morning. Matt and I listened to the voicemail she left telling us she was sick, which included a 60 second sound clip of her throwing up to round out the recording. The performance was over-the-top and unconvincing.

The Army Ducks were family-owned. The mom was in her late 60s, had hair dyed platinum, and notes of racism oozed from her mouth. Several times she’d wander over to me and Matt to complain about black people taking her tour. “They’re going to make a mess.” This woman would sometimes light off firecrackers in the parking lot and cackle. She complained to us about one of our female hires. “She has a dog face,” she’d quip. “No one is going to smile for that dog face.”

Her son was the general manager. His eyes were always bloodshot and he was often rubbing his face, shifting his jaw around, some signs he may have used some illegal stimulants.

Some of our staff were going out for pizza to meet up with Stacy one night after work. They were adamant about Stacy inviting us, really wanting us to come. We couldn’t help but wonder if we would be poisoned. If this was the setup of a coup. We pretended we had a conference call that night and couldn’t come. Matt and I picked up Wendy’s Baconators to eat at the Best Western. Then we went down to the pool, which was so heavily chlorinated, just being in the moist air surrounding it would make you temporarily blind. The next day we bought goggles.

The week we were asked to pack for turned into two.

We couldn’t tell if this was a reward or a punishment. Getting to stay in a hotel in the Dells with a per diem was nice. But on a good day, the total sales volume for our photo concession at the Army Ducks was close to 1K. During the summer, most of the Chicago venues would easily pull in close to 10K. As that dawned on us, our trip there started to feel like a demotion. We were talented employees designated to the least important location in the company. The overhead of running this place was probably not even covered by the revenue. But we also realized having a location in the Dells was possibly a portfolio builder, a nice asset for a CEO hungry to potentially open up locations in New York City and Hawaii. Things had gotten so bad up here that the owners of the Ducks tour looked down on us as a vendor. Contract negotiations were coming up. For Steve, to lose a venue would be a stain. He wouldn’t suffer the humiliation. We were important, dammit, we were corporate rescuers.

One night Matt and I got drunk, fired up the Jacuzzi in our suite, and took the photo mentioned earlier. We drunk dialed some of our co-workers, including our friend Josh, who was immensely proud of his muscles. He had once told a female co-worker that he couldn’t keep his arms down at his side because his muscles were just too big. Once, after I had started travelling to places like Boston, he joked about how he and I should go up and oversee things at the Dells. It was a joke he brought up often. He was actually on a family vacation when Matt and I were called up to go to the Dells. In the drunk dial I’d pump Josh up with fantasies, telling him, “if only you hadn’t been out of town, man, you’d be up here with me.” He died a few years ago, at the age of 24, after mysteriously collapsing. I can speak of him lovingly. He was like a little brother you had a great time kidding around with, and I hope he is resting in peace.

When things finally seemed to run themselves up in the Dells, Matt and I returned home to Chicago. But our cell phones constantly rang with new problems: no call, no shows, computer errors, printer jams. We had to each go back up there separately a few times to check in and retrain. It wasn’t the same without each other. We’d notice a shift in our own energy levels once we arrived back in the Dells. We’d feel instantly sluggish, exhausted. We’d eat lunch or dinner and would immediately feel stuffed, would feel like we needed to lay down. For years after, whenever we’d feel this way, we had a name for it. It was called: Dells Mode.

We eventually got through the summer, and I was tasked with going up to close down the Dells location at the end of the season. I drove up for just the day, leaving Chicago in the afternoon, and by the time I arrived, it was dark. As I rounded up our equipment to take back for the winter, not thinking this through, the Ducks general manager came charging in, threatening to call the police on me. He thought I was a burglar. Which made sense, it was dark and I was rummaging around. When I apologized and explained to him that we were taking our photo equipment back to Chicago for maintenance and to use for some seasonal Santa Claus photo ops, he told me that was stupid. “Steve didn’t know what he was doing,” he grumbled. “That ain’t gonna make him money. Santa ain’t no carrot at the end of the stick. He’s gotta focus on the carrot at the end of the stick.” He wandered off, rubbing his face. Little did he know that a slow Wednesday at our Santa Claus photo ops probably made triple what a gangbuster day at the Dells pulled in for us.

A few seasons later, we no longer did photos for the Army Ducks tour. The contract wasn’t renewed, and rumor has it the Army Ducks’ General Manager tried to buy our company out; his arrogance was deflated when he learned the price. And a few seasons later, Matt and I fell out of good graces with Steve, but that’s a different story altogether. In brief, I resigned to pursue other interests. Matt stayed with the company for a little longer. He was assigned to establish a new venue in St. Louis, and put in long days until it was clear the demands of, and the compensation for running such operations, didn’t compliment the needs and financial requirements of trying to start a family. The happy ending is that we now both work jobs where taking a summer vacation isn’t an impossibility. And we remind each other of that good fortune via random texts mocking the tone of messages we’d once receive to drop what we were doing and go put out a fire. “Matt. Need you to go to the Dells for a few days. Someone spilled Mountain Dew on the computer and now they’re non-operational. This is a red herring. Find out who caused the spill, off the island!” Even though these jokey exchanges sometimes conjure the old work dreams that took years to shake even after leaving, they’re worth the laugh. We sometimes wish each other a happy holiday and then tell the other they’re on call.

This story was originally published in the Self Publisher’s of Chicago December 2015 zine “Price Gun Warriors.” It has been revised and further developed for the current DWWP Chicago theme of vacation. Some names have been changed.

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