The Dollar Tree Chronicles

That morning when I woke up, I did not expect to feel like another cog in the machine. I took the cardboard box that was given to me and sat myself on a shelf. They told us that it would be a competition and whoever was fastest would be awarded “bragging rights” for the rest of the day. I really wondered who was crazier; myself, for signing up for this or the people hired as managers for Fortune 200 companies.


Everyone had 400 pieces in their cardboard box, 200 metal pegs and 200 plastic hooks. The hooks had to be slid into the metal pegs and snapped into place. As I put the pieces together feeling exposed and pathetic, I decided that there was certainly more suffering happening at the factory where these things were made. And that there would always be someone, here or in China, to put two cheap things together for someone’s small profit. The rough metal tips of the pegs scratched at my skin and made my hands black, like I had been holding a piece of graphite. With each snap the nail of my left thumb folded into my skin and became nothing but a flimsy shutter on the face of a dull house. My reward would be chewing it off in the bathroom where no one could watch me groom myself. I was the last to finish and the girl next to me had to come over and help.


We were a group of ten, led by the peculiar woman named Jennifer. Her hair was thin, oily, and dyed jet black. She wore a neck warmer over her mouth, which sometimes fell below her ears, exposing them. She refused to wear a proper face mask like everyone else and she said she couldn’t wait to get the damn thing off. There were rules she mentioned and things I could not understand. She spoke using words I had never heard before like “OEB”, “end cap”, and “mondo.”


Jennifer traveled the country setting up stores in new locations. She spent two weeks at each and only six days a month at home with her family in Pennsylvania. I pictured her husband to be a brunette that had probably already cheated on her a couple times with the neighbor. She said a lot of funny things along the course of the fourteen days and I wondered if she could see that I was laughing at her through my mask. But I actually wasn’t so concerned. I liked her.


As the project manager, she always stressed to us the importance of company values, primarily, uniformity. And she was never afraid to mention more than was necessary, to be candid in her explanation of the corporate situation. “I make more money than Joanna, the store manager here, I make three times the amount she would make in a month, let’s say, and she will get penalized by corporate if things are not kept up to standard so please don’t take breaks over 10 minutes and meals over 30, okay?” It was her honesty that made me like her. Even when she said she didn’t need a food break because she could “survive on caffeine and nicotine all day.” No, Jennifer, you couldn’t. But it is sweet of you to prioritize us, in this harmful and naive way. Perhaps in another part of my life, the one in the past, I could have shared a cigarette with her. When she took her mask off, a small black mole was revealed, sitting at the edge of her face, below her nose and above her lip. It contained something womanly and beautiful, a dormant charm. My gaze bounced between her blue eyes and the black dot. Her face was very pale.


On the second day I decided I would ask her the questions that had been piling up. I could now accept my role as a little monkey in the big machine. But I needed some verbal confirmation about where the products were being made even though I already knew. It was a question asked out of spite for the cheap fixtures and shelves that we assembled the previous day. And I wanted to hear it from her mouth. “So, yes, 99% of our products come from China but some are made in Thailand and the Philippines.” I nodded my head. “You know it’s a way for them to reduce cost, they can make something for so much cheaper there, than over here, but products are changing all the time.“ I only said, “Right, of course.”


I waited until after lunch to ask her about the sound system. “Is there a company radio station that plays the same music across all of the stores in the country?” This made her and another co-worker laugh. “No!” They said almost in unison. “Actually no, there is no music. The music that you will hear will be the voices of customers. And don’t worry you will get used to it. Specifically during the holidays you will be thankful. They say it’s to reduce theft and burglary but it’s just another way for them to cut down on costs, yeah.” “Oh.” I said, acting surprised. I actually did know the answer to this as well, but I had forgotten when I saw the massive sound system in the office. And then I remembered the automated message that played every time I walked into the Family Dollar that was just a few blocks away from my apartment; “Welcome to Family Dollar. This location is being monitored and recorded for your safety and convenience.” And then a similar message played when leaving the store; “Thank you for shopping at Family Dollar. This location is being monitored and recorded for your safety and convenience.” I bet we would have one of those too. Her and Norma went on about the music but I shut them out to listen to the whirring and humming of the coolers and freezers. Then I convinced myself that it would definitely be possible to meditate during my shifts, as long as I focused my eyes deeply on a product’s packaging. In that moment, Nabisco’s Nutter Butter Bites had never looked so good.