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Aisle Be Seeing You

It's 10 p.m. and two weeks from Christmas, and a father and his two young boys are standing before the monster-sized gumball machines at the front of the store. "No, you can't get any of that crap, goddammit," the man says through his teeth. "You haven't even bought your presents yet. You're not gonna have any money left over for that garbage."

A few yards away, a woman is shrieking at a customer-service employee that she can't find the receipt for the pants she wants to return for cash. "Do I look like a size three to you?" she yells. The employee looks at the buxom woman, whose flower-print polyester blouse is bursting at the buttons, and then sighs. "Ma'am," she says patiently, wearing the kind of smile that speaks volumes to everyone but the cause of it. "That is not my policy. It's the store's policy."

Meanwhile, another employee comes rushing up to the desk to make a breathless announcement: "We're out of the Giga Pets again. People are going to freak."

And so another evening of late-night Christmas shopping at Super Kmart begins.

At a time when most other stores of the "general merchandise" category are closing up, the town's three 24-hour Super Kmarts are welcoming a fresh wave of employees, the ones who work the 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift, the ones who unpack hundreds of boxes and restock the shelves and drink coffee until they start to get the shakes. This particular Super K, on Arapahoe Avenue in Greenwood Village--the others are in Thornton and Lakewood--gets the most overnight traffic of the three, according to night manager Teja Clayborn. "I think it's because we're right off I-25," she says. "It's so centrally located, so we get the late-night types."

From 10 p.m. until midnight, the crowd looks the same as it does earlier in the evening, only a little sleepier. Ten-year-old Evanee Schaeffer is rubbing her eyes and leaning against a display, waiting for her dad to decide if the Talking Water Bowl for pets ("A fun sound alerts you to fill the bowl when it's empty, and a light sensor keeps it from going off at night!") would be a good gift for her older sister, a sophomore at the University of Denver who's "kind of lazy," according to her father, David. "She's in a house with a bunch of other girls, and they have this dog, Brandy, and I'm a little concerned for whether that dog gets taken care of." He decides, though, that the bowl's "fun" sounds (a rooster, a tiger, a cow, a cat) are probably annoying. "Okay, sweetie," he says to Evanee. "Let's go look at the jewelry."

On their way, they stop at a display of pome-los. "Ooh, 89 cents a pound," David says. "What are they?" Evanee rolls her eyes. "They're like grapefruits, Dad," she explains. "Big ones."

You don't see pomelos at many Safeways or King Soopers, and that's just one of the reasons many people buy their groceries at the Super K. Another is the prices. "I think it's a lot cheaper here," says Brett Barnes, who insists on doing all the shopping for himself and his wife, Tracy. "She's a nurse, so I like to go late while she's at work. I can get food, and then if I need a pair of jeans, too, I don't have to get in the car and drive somewhere else."

It's after midnight that things at the Super K start to get interesting. At 1 a.m. the store still has several dozen customers, but as another hour passes, that number dwindles down to a handful. That's when Bob Jones--"That might not be my real name," he confesses--saunters in, weighed down with a serious-looking backpack, hiking boots and the need for a good travel alarm clock. "It has to be lightweight," he says. "But I don't want some cheap job that's not going to wake me up." What his wake-up needs are, "Bob" never reveals, but he does admit that he's from California and on his way to "somewhere." Somewhere warm, it seems, because he asks, "Hey, do you know where the bathing suits are?"

As he's looking, he passes by the Sunbeam Blanket With a Brain. "Whoa, 73 bucks for a blanket?" he muses. "It must be thinking some deep thoughts." He's cracking himself up as he walks off.

But Jared Thomas thinks the blanket might be a good gift for his mom. The nineteen-year-old clean-cut young man is clutching a Bible, a fuzzy green bathrobe and a popcorn popper, all of which are also for his mom. Jared lives in Highlands Ranch, and he's shopping at 2 a.m. because "that's the only time I can get away from my mom," he says, grinning sheepishly. "I told her I was staying over at a friend's house, which I am, but not until after we go to Denny's. He's over in the toy department getting something for his sister."

 

Night-shift stocker Kay Crabtree appears. "Hey, honey, whatcha lookin' for?" she asks Thomas. "That's a nice robe you got there." He looks at it for a minute. "Do you think blue would be better?" She shakes her head. "Naw, that's beautiful." A mother and grandmother--she watches her one-year-old grandson during the day after putting in a whole night at Kmart and before cleaning houses for a few hours before she returns to the store --Kay says she knows what moms want. "Sweetheart, she'll only care that it came from you, anyway," she adds. "Did you get slippers?"

Many of the Super K's overnight workers are mothers who work the shift because it keeps their kids out of daycare. "I go home at three in the morning," says stocker Vicki Uhlry, who not only has two kids at home, but is carrying her third. "Then I sleep for a little bit until my husband leaves for work, and I'm home all day with the kids. We save money and I make some money, so it's a good setup."

Cashier Shunn Ballard works 11:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m., goes home to make breakfast for her family, then spends the day napping during cartoons. "Yeah, I'd say I get a good four or five hours of sleep that way," she says.

Some employees, like Kay Crabtree, actually prefer the atmosphere overnight. "I asked for this shift. It's much more laid-back, and it's not so hectic," she explains. "Especially during the holidays, when people get weird. Speaking of which..." She walks over to a fortyish businessman who's been frantically flipping through the CDs. "Are you finding what you're looking for?" she asks. He gives her a wild look and pulls at the tie that's hanging loosely around his white dress shirt, which is wrinkled and unbuttoned past his chest hairs. "I'm okay," he says, and proceeds to look at every CD in stock, including country, rock and roll and the Christmas collection. He then stumbles away empty-handed and heads out the front door, without a coat.

"It's twelve degrees," Kay mutters under her breath. "Whew, I just don't know about some people. I think they need something they're just not going to get at Kmart, you know?"

When Kmart does have what they need, though, Kay knows where it is. "I live here, I swear," she says. "Sometimes I come in even when I'm not working and I'll help out. They'll say, 'Go home, Kay, you're not even working.' One time I helped this guy who had a list of twenty Christmas gifts he needed to get, and he asked me if I would help him find every one of them. We had a good old time walking all over the store."

But Kay and her fellow employees are nowhere to be found at 2:30 a.m., when twentysomethings Mike Wood and Shannon Snyder need to get a Nintendo game from the locked display cabinet in Electronics. "Sometimes it's hard to find someone," says Mike, sucking on a Big Gulp. He's just off the late shift at a nearby gas station. "Me and Shannon are in here, like, once a week to get something," he adds, "'cause it's close to where I work."

Shannon's hair is a shade in Crayola's yellowish-orange family, and she's wearing a gas-station shirt with the name "Sam" embroidered on it. It belongs to her brother's best friend's boyfriend's brother, or something like that. Whatever. "It's so cool that we can go shopping this late," she says. "I want all the stores in the world to be open 24 hours, so I could go shopping anytime I wanted. Wouldn't that be great?"

Not everyone in Kmart at 3 a.m. has come to shop, though. Four dudes with ill-fitting jeans are doing what can best be described as juking through the store, which they cover from one end to the other. They're high, they're hungry--evident from their constant references to having the munchies and then giggling for twenty minutes--and they're hilarious, at least according to them. And they're definitely not handing out names. "We're just hangin'," one says.

First they hang by Microsoft's $99.99 interactive Barney, which, according to Super K staffers, is one of the hottest items this year. The display dinosaur is stuffed and under glass, inexplicably sandwiched between an exhibit of toy handcuffs and Star Wars laser guns. When you push Barney's buttons, he says things such as, "I'm so glad to see you. Squeeze my middle toe and we'll play a game." Which is funny under any circumstances, but these guys are paralyzed by spasms of laughter. "Jesus," one manages, sounding like someone has squeezed him. "Do you believe that?" They force Barney to say more humiliating things, then get bored and move on.

 

The next item to catch their eyes: the Mr. Everett Green Singing Christmas Tree, also a big seller this year. "The cutest little tree you will ever see!" proclaims the box. It looks like Pinocchio at the age of eighty peeking out of a two-foot-high fake Christmas tree. The tree "sings" a medley of holiday tunes while its eyes move from side to side and its grotesque gash of a mouth flaps up and down. "Jesus," says another guy. "That is the ugliest fucking thing I've ever seen." He then claps his hand over his mouth as a family of five walks past. As soon as the family is out of earshot, the dudes burst into laughter. "What are they doing out with their kids this late, anyway?" asks the guy with the baggiest pants. "Those kids should be home and in bed."

The kids don't think so. Over in the luggage department, twelve-year-old Sonia, ten-year-old Maria and nine-year-old Jesus argue vehemently over which is better: Giga Pets or Tamagotchis. "They're out of Giga Pets," their dad yells from the aisle on the other side of luggage. "Shut up about them." The trio snickers and talks louder. "Boy, I sure would like to have a Giga Pet," Jesus says, trying for his most annoying voice. "They sure are cool. Don't you want one, Maria?" She tries to outdo his volume. "Yeah, I do," she says, but starts laughing too hard to continue. Dad comes flying around the corner looking really irritated, but he softens when he sees they're putting him on. "Hey, why don't you guys go over to the toys," he begs, "so I can concentrate over here?"

Sonia leads the way. "We like to come shopping all together after Mom gets off work," she says, in her best grown-up voice. "We fall asleep for a while before she gets home, and then Daddy wakes us up and we get something to eat and pick Mom up. It's, like, family time." When they reach toys, they find the baggy-pants dudes there, back for more Barney and again clutching their stomachs. "Those guys are on drugs," Sonia says, as the boys sing along with Barney: "If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands..."

"Hey, man, come over here," one of the guys calls out from a few aisles away. "Look," he says, pointing to The Clapper, one of the items on the "As Seen on TV!" display of infomercial products. "We could get that Barney and this thing and sing that song, and the lights would go on and off. Cool."

After spending a few minutes examining the Chip-O-Matic microwave potato-chip maker, the hair-removal kit that's "Made for women by a woman"--"Hey, can they use that anywhere?" a dude asks--and the Tap Teaser comb that all of them test to see if it "doubles hair volume," the guys decide it's time to get some snacks and head out. On their way over to the grocery section, they pass the Martha Stewart Order Center, complete with a picture of the Doyenne of Domestic hugging a pillow. "Hey, babe," one says. "Would you like to squeeze my middle toe?"

The first Super Kmart opened in Medina, Ohio, in 1991, and was so popular that 98 more have since opened across the nation.

For areas that aren't large enough to support a Super K, the Kmart Corporation has devised a merely Big Kmart--not as stupendous as the Super Kmart, but larger than the standard Kmart. Colorado Springs soon will get Colorado's first Big Kmart, according to Kmart spokeswoman Teresa Stephens.

But the Big Kmart won't be open 24 hours, so it won't serve the needs of people like Joey, who doesn't want to give his last name because of the reason he's at Super Kmart at 4 a.m. "My wife kicked me out," he admits. "I've been out driving around for hours, and I guess it finally sunk in that I gotta go somewhere to sleep. But she kicked me out with nothing." So Joey's buying some toiletries, some breakfast items and a T-shirt and boxers to sleep in. "Oh, man," he groans. "I forgot to take my watch." He also wants to look through the CDs to find something romantic he can take to his wife as a peace offering. "We don't have a song," he says. "I think we need a song."

On the way to music, though, he's seduced by Men in Black playing on a large-screen TV, and he stands there for fifteen minutes, eyes half-lidded, watching the movie. He trudges over to the CDs, looks at them for five minutes, says, "Aw, fuck it," then trips over an abandoned mop bucket and whimpers as the water sloshes over his feet. "Guess I'd better get some socks, too," he says. He looks like he's going to cry.

 

"Oh, yeah, we get those guys in here all the time," says Kmart front-end supervisor Sandy Watson. "They got kicked out, and they're buying shaving cream and pajamas and stuff. They're kinda sad, really. They always look so helpless."

Quite unlike the guy who comes charging into the store at 5 a.m. He's big and burly, in the biker beard/bandanna style, wearing a scruffy jean jacket, Harley-Davidson boots and a very focused look on his face. He's practically running. Without glancing around, he heads straight for the ladies' department, making a beeline for the spandex running shorts. He grabs a pair of size 6 in gray, holds them up, shakes his head and exchanges them for black. Then he rushes to the cash register--as much as someone weighing about 320 and wearing Harley boots can rush--pulls some money out of the wallet at the end of a chain and leaves. The cashier watches him go with raised eyebrows.

There are some things you just don't ask about.
Business executive Sharon Mills is running around, too, but that's part of her cool-down process. Every morning, Sharon leaves her house at 5 a.m., runs ten miles to the Super K, races around picking up items for her husband and seven--yes, seven--kids, gets herself a large orange juice and then runs back home to get ready for work. On Saturdays and Sundays she makes her standard run to Kmart, then goes home and cleans. She's talking to herself to make sure she doesn't forget anything. "Okay, I need to get something for Jill," she says, referring to her secretary. Gifts for secretaries--or, really, anyone you either don't know well or don't care to--can be found in the prepackaged gift section, where Tie-Matics, golf-ball monogrammers, swivel remote-control holders and 3-in-1 clothes brushes await, all in festive green boxes and needing little more than a red ribbon and a victim.

Mills decides she's not that desperate. "Maybe I'll get her some earrings," she says, and race-walks off.

By 7 a.m., Super Kmart has shaken off its sleepy quiet and is bustling again. Some folks are in for food, and cigarettes also sell big at this time of the day, but most appear to be Christmas shopping. Employees Jason Gammage and Audrey Lao say that the things everyone has to have, besides the Giga Pets, of course, are breadmakers, the interactive Barney, Snoring Ernie--this year's answer to Tickle Me Elmo--and that "godawful singing Christmas tree thing," says Jason. "I hate it when we have to tell people that we're out of the hot stuff," he adds. "They either get really, really pissed or they look really sad, like their kids aren't going to love them anymore or something."

By 9 a.m., the toy aisles are almost impossible to negotiate, since they're already packed with parents frantic to come up with the perfect gift. "What about this?" says Jamie Martin to her husband, Mark. She's holding up a Newborn Diaper Surprise Doll, which comes with its own version of the Diaper Genie. The box says, "Put in the old diaper, a new one appears just like magic!" Mark snorts. "Yeah, those diapers come with surprises, all right. Don't you think that's a little bizarre?" Jamie reluctantly agrees.

Mark is a little more receptive to the Take Care of Me Triplets, especially since his five-year-old daughter, Laura, has been asking a lot about the Iowa septuplets. He reads the description out loud. "Each baby will respond to only one of the accessories, so only mommy knows what her babies really need." He looks at Jamie. "Do you think it'll scare her out of having kids?"

An aisle away, Jeanie Gonzales is looking at the massive Barbie collection. "Groovin' Barbie, Barbie's Horse Nibbles, Shopping Barbie," she recounts. "Dentist Barbie? Who would want a Dentist Barbie? Ay-yi-yi." Obviously, she's not impressed by Dentist Barbie's "real brushing and gurgling water sounds!" Maybe a Bedtime Sabrina that "you can make magically levitate" would be better. "She does like Sabrina," Jeanie says of her daughter, putting the box in her cart. "Now I only have one more to go."

At 11:30 a.m., the Reynolds family is shopping together for toys when nine-year-old Ben pulls on his mom. "We have to go get in line for Santa!" he says. On Saturdays and Sundays Santa sets up shop in the Little Caesar's pizza shop located inside the Kmart. But when the family arrives at Santa's place, they take one look at the setting and emit a group groan. "Okay, this is getting out of hand," mom Emily says. Santa is perched on a gigantic throne made of Diet Coke twelve-packs, with a background of Coke and Sprite boxes and a Coca-Cola cardboard fireplace nearby. "Gross," Ben says, but he stands for a while watching other kids talk to Santa and get their photos taken. "I like Pepsi better anyway," he says as the family walks away.

 

They miss Santa becoming irritated with a boy who pulls at the boxes, pretending he wants to buy one of the Diet Coke 12-packs that's holding Santa up.

And so day moves on into night. No one buys the two-foot Online Santa with a cat next to Santa playing with a "mouse," nor does anyone seem to want the $10.99 wooden target range--perfect for those budding skinheads--or the armchair TV Guide holder shaped like a football, or the beer mug emblazoned with a hunting scene that comes with a matching set of playing cards. The singing tree, however, gets lots of attention, most of it not good. "That is so ugly," says Rosemary Brenneman, who's shopping with her daughter, Brigitte. They want everyone to know that they aren't buying one.

But the Edwards family thinks the tree's "a riot," says mom Sherri. "We're getting it for his mother," she adds, pointing toward her husband, Brent, who's wearing an industrial-sized tape measure on his belt.

A few minutes later a gaggle of women fresh from bowling night giggle by, too filled with the Christmas spirit--or beer--to notice the singing tree. They're wearing matching Christmas bow earrings they bought at a Diamond Shamrock, and the name of their bowling team is Four-Play. "That's because we have sixteen members, but only four can play," says Irene Holland. "Hey, this is the first time I've been to this Kmart before three in the morning."

The bowlers are here to buy a basketball hoop for boss Wendy Walberg's son--the women all work together--and Wendy also needs a Garth Brooks CD and nails for a school science project. "Oh, and we're getting some sleigh bells to wear around our necks," Wendy adds. They joyously carouse the rest of the store, laughing all the way.

By now it's 10 p.m., and Kay Crabtree is back for more. "I'll be glad when the holidays are over," she says, strapping on her back brace for heavy lifting. "I love 'em, but people get a little crazy." She smiles as a customer approaches and asks if she can be of any assistance.

Oh, please, the woman replies.
"Do you have any more of those Giga Pets?


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