In my 1992 Toyota Corolla, I pulled up to the Kmart that I had been working at for 45 years. It would be my last day of work here, forcefully. Bright yellow signs that read “CLOSING SOON” and “EVERYTHING MUST GO” covered the store and it's coat of decaying tan paint. Thinking all those years back, I wouldn’t have expected to stay here so long but it was a job that was enjoyable, for its customers and coworkers. Putting all that aside, I entered through the electronic sliding doors to the vacant store that had been slowly emptying each week once the closing sales had emerged. Aisles were pushed to the far left of the store with leftover toys, women and men’s clothes, and cleaning products on the shelves. Surrounding the aisles were bulky pieces of furniture and my coworkers sitting on them.
“There’s Kmarty!” my coworker and friend Jane said as I emerged through the doors. Kmarty was a nickname I had earned a few years back because with about 475 transactions per register per week and more than 30 years of service, you’re bound to getting a nickname. “Always an hour early before her shift.” Jane said as she let go of the one thing on everyone’s mind. That was another one, I always came an hour early before one of my shifts just to be there on time.
“Sit in that green recliner, we were saving it just for you, everyone of your coworkers that came in went straight for the recliner and kicked back but I said “no, that is especially for Kmarty!”” my boss, Mr. Tone, of seven years announced while we all chuckled.
“We were just talking about where we all will be working at after this place closes,” Jane filled me in on what was going on before I came in. She was the second oldest at 57 as I was the oldest at 66 years old, she had come to work here 22 years ago so we’re good friends. “I was just saying that I’m headed for the Walmart nearby so if you ever need any help or want to stop by to say hello, I’ll be there five days a week.”
“Nice, I go there once in a while so I’ll probably see you there. I’ll be working at Greenview Mall’s Target as a cashier,” one of my teenaged coworkers, Connor, added.
“Oh cool! I’ll be working at Greenview Mall too but in a cell phone case kiosk,” another teenager, Anna-Beth said.
“Hey, do you think they have any cases for my old Verizon flip phone? A pink one would be nice!” I sarcastically replied earning laughs from everyone in the group.
“I don’t think so Marty,”
“Hey! That’s Kmarty for you!” Mr. Tone jokingly said. “On that note, where will you be working at? I know I gave you a recommendation letter to put in your resumè.”
“I-I haven’t actually found a job yet, no one wants to hire me,” I finally admitted. “I’m at retirement age so it’s a little harder to find a job, I had a 401k and pension with the company but in the end, that still isn’t enough to survive on and retire,” the store was now silent and gloomy, something I hadn’t been planning on.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Jane said, finally breaking the silence.
“There’s no need to feel bad though, I’ll find a way and see how I’ll work things out, please don’t feel bad,”
“Any company would be happy to have you. If only I was still staying in Clearwater and working for another company, in that case, I would certainly hire you. But I’ll be moving out of state by the end of this month to Georgia.” Mr. Tone said.
While this was the case at the moment, I had been looking at jobs since the start of last year and we were now in the end of the year, the warning sides were all there. I had come to the realization that eventually Kmart would go out of business and this was even before last year. When the garden section closed down and the deli, I knew the company would slowly start its decline. Looking years back however, I wouldn’t have imagined it to even be possible as sales were going very well and everything was operating smoothly.
“Unfortunately, the ways people shop changed over time and well, companies like us were pushed to the side for a more convenient way of shopping,” Jane expressed.
“I saw it all unravel but I still wouldn’t have thought it would leave us here, but it was predictable, it left us with enough time to find a job and maybe for others, age wasn’t there best friend in the time being,” I said, finally grinning.
“Well let’s try to lighten the mood a bit and talk about something else, better for sure, involving you Kmarty,” when Mr. Tone said this, I was glad. I didn’t want people to feel bad for me. “For 45 years, you have served Kmart and it's people, from what I know, it has been out of pure love.” When he started to say this, Connor began to pull out a cake box from the employee workroom and set it on one of the plastic tables that was left as Anna-Beth brought out the spoons. He lifted the lid and with balloon designs of different colors and text in blue that read, “WE LOVE YOU KMARTY!” on the white frosting. I began to smile and look at my coworkers as Mr. Tone continued with what he was saying. “This isn’t much but we wanted to show our appreciation for you in whatever way we could. I wish the best for you and hope someone finds the means to help you, truly and honestly.
“Thank you, it’s been a pleasure but please, don’t worry about me,” this hadn’t been the truth but at the moment, I did not want them to feel any sadness toward me. Anna-Beth began to cut the cake as I talked to Jane and Connor.
The day went on, we exchanged fun stories of our time working here ranging from a couple years ago to a few days ago. I was surprised when customers who constantly shopped here came to visit. It was difficult to see things coming to an end, I had spent my days here working shifts, trying to earn enough money. There were times when I thought of enrolling in college, hopefully leading me to get a better job but the money just wasn’t there. The bigger reason was also the job itself, I still liked it, for it's people. I did it out of love. I looked across the empty store once filled with aisles stacked with many different products. This is what the end of an era looks like.