A true story by Craig Mitchell, artwork by Randall Huiskens
In 1990, I was living in Chicago. I was twenty-one and having temporarily dropped out of college, I decided I would move north and take a shot at the Windy City, you know, to see what was out there in life. So to support my big city lifestyle and crash pad apartment, I had taken a job as Assistant Manager of a Coconuts Record & Video store on the north side of Chicago in the Lincolnwood Park neighborhood.
Coconuts It was a huge, brightly-lit chain store with a logo that featuring a neon palm tree. The front of the place was filled with compact discs, cassettes, music accessories and that sort of thing, and the rear of the store was all video rental. And the color scheme was a retail worker’s worst nightmare: aqua, orange, bright-pink. (Are you getting the picture yet? Have you ever stepped into one of these places? Generally your first clue is when the CD you want to buy costs $18.99 rather than the usual twelve or thirteen bucks.)
But anyway, one Friday night I had command of the ship for the evening. My friend and coworker Tom Potter had stopped by to pick up his paycheck and we were hanging out in the backroom joking around and discussing our plans for the weekend.
Potter Tom was a pretty cool guy, I could flatter him by saying he looked like a poor man’s Tom Waits or an American Nick Cave, or insult him by saying he looked like a twenty-one year-old bar fly. He had black greased-back hair, lengthy side burns, some nerdy specs and he dressed with an unmistakable hipster cool.
It was fairly obvious to me at least, that Tom considered himself too cool to work for a place like Coconuts. I mean, it was anything but cool – the color scheme, the neon colored signage and in-store sales with zippy names like “The Summer Music Meltdown Sale!” and “The Get Back to School Hot Tunes sale!” And as if that weren’t degrading enough, we had to wear nametags and ties. ‘Hi, my name is Craig. Can I help you find a CD? Gloria Estefan? Why sure! We have that.’ Hey, we have these great blank tapes on sale this week only!’
Tom was checking out the schedule on the backroom wall.
“I just got a letter from my friend Eric back in Lansing. Someone’s been telling all my friends back home that I work as a towel boy at an exclusive club for rich gay men called Coconuts,” he said.
I doubled over with laughter. “Heh! Potter… Well atleast they got the Coconuts part right. And I gotta say man, you do sort of have that towel boy look to you.”
“Fuck you, man. I hate working here! I should just quit. If it weren’t for these sweet paychecks I’d be long gone. Hey, look what I picked up next door,” he said, pulling a bottle of Jack Daniel’s out of his backpack. “The Arab next door had them on sale for nine bucks. I couldn’t pass it up.”
“Jesus man, that’s a steal,” I said. “He must be trying to recoup all of the business he lost because of ‘the Polish Frankenstein.’”
As a side note, ‘the Polish Frankenstein’ was a regular movie rental customer who came in on weeknights to rent action movies. He was 6’5 and if he’d had bolts sticking out of his neck, he could have made a fortune making guest appearances on TV shows and at Halloween Parties. Two weeks earlier, the Polish Frankenstein had shoved one of his big boots down on the gas instead of the break in our parking lot and had driven his Buick Skylark right through the front windows of the Arab’s liquor store. It was still boarded up.
“Hey alright!” I said, looking at my watch. “It’s 9:30! Thirty minutes until closing time.” I had to get moving and get some of the cash drawers counted down. I was supposed to head out with Tom and friends to see a few bands play at the Cabaret Metro later that night.
“Are the God Bullies opening for Jesus Lizard tonight or is it the other way around?” I asked him, wondering just how much of this particular Friday night I was going to miss out on.
“They’re opening, but I might be persuaded to wait up for you,” he said. “That is, if you can give me a ride down to Wrigleyville in your piece of shit rice-burner car. How fast do you think you can get this shithole closed down?”
“Well Potter, I guess that depends on how many shots of Jack I’ve had in advance.”
Yeah, yeah, I know that sounds really alcoholic. I’ll concede that. But you have to understand that this was the way Friday nights went down in Chicago. Drinks were so damned expensive at the bars it just made good solid sense to down as many of them as you could before you went out for the night.
Tom walked over to the door to the backroom and peered out onto the sales floor. “Let’s see, who’s working tonight? How many of our resident geniuses do we have on the floor tonight? Yeah, I guess they have it covered pretty well,” He said, turning to me. And then he started opening the bottle of Jack.
“Hey man, I’m supposed to be the manager tonight. We can’t just start doing shots right out here in the middle of the backroom. What if we get caught? Liz lets us get away with a lot of shit but if she happened to stop by while we we’re swiggin’ or someone from another store showed up…”
“Alright, alright, Mr. Assistant Manager, you little employee manual-lovin’ fucker. Let’s go sneak some shots in the john then,” he said. “It’ll be our own little private bar. What d’you think of that?”
“Suits me fine.” I grinned. I walked over and closed the backroom door and Tom followed me into the employee restroom with his backpack.
A record store bathroom is typically about the size of a broom closet and is crammed with posters, record flats, supplies and anything else that’s managed to get in the way elsewhere in the store. But since our store took up so much acreage and had apparently once housed a large department store, we had a huge full-sized bathroom, a long countertop, a row of sinks and four or five stalls.
Potter set up bar on the counter in front of the mirror.
I’ve always been a big believer in paranoia. My theology dictates that whenever you’re doing something you know you shouldn’t – and there’s even a remote chance you’ll be caught – take every possible precaution. I locked the door and bent down to peer under each and every stall door to make sure no one else was in the bathroom.
Precautions taken, we were alone.
“See anything good? Any pants and undies around ankles?” Tom said, giving me shit.
“Nope, just your mother and the half of the Bears’ starting lineup going at in the first stall.”
“Shhhhiiiiittttt…” he said, blowing off my attack on his mother. He took the bottle out of his bag, stuck a fingernail under the plastic seal and pealed it off the cap. “Here ya go Mr. Assistant Manager,” he said, pushing the bottle at me. “You have rank on me so you can do the honors tonight.”
I held the bottle up to the light and peered through the light brown liquid. We exchanged a conspiratal look and then I tipped the bottle back and downed a few gulps.
Argh! “Fuck!! Arghh. Ack! God that burns!” I said, grimacing.
“You can’t be gulping it down like that. You ‘hafta let it slide down your throat slowly – just like sex,” he said, grabbing the bottle away from me.
“Jesus, Potter.” I coughed. “It’s a good thing we have the bottle in here to keep things in context. I just hope no one’s listening outside the bathroom door ’cause they’d sure have the wrong idea by now if they’d overheard you saying shit like that.”
“Yeah, we’d have an episode of Three’s Company on our hands,” he said. “Jack Tripper and Chrissie would be in the bathroom installing a shower curtain and the landlord would drop by the apartment unexpectedly. Janet would let him and uh, what was the landlord’s name? Oh yeah, Mr. Furley. Yeah, Don Knotts.” He laughed. “So old Furley would be outside the closed bathroom door while they said things like ‘It won’t fit, push a little harder.’ And his eyes would be getting really big in that classic Don Knotts way. ‘Let’s try it upside down Chrissie. Here, hold my rod.’ And Mr. Furley would be goin’ absolutely ape-shit thinking they were having doin’ the nasty in there. Man, Three’s Company, those were some zany, wacky antics.”
“Yeah, he was pesky, always poking around for clues. But you can’t blame him,” I said. “Furley wasn’t stupid. He knew they were more than just roommates. What a scam. I betcha Jack and his neighbor Larry from downstairs were hosting orgies right under his nose for years. They just couldn’t show it on TV.”
Tom slugged a few more shots of whisky down and ran a backhand across his face. Then it was my turn again. I sat there looking at the bottle, not sure if I wanted another shot so quickly.
“Go ahead Chrissie, you can fit it in the hole,” he said mockingly. So taking the dare, I kicked it back and took another slug.
The bottle went back and forth a few more times.
“This is my last one,” I said, taking the bottle again from him again. “I can already feel this shit kicking in and that’s always a bad sign.” I tipped it up to my lips and was taking another swig when I caught a glimpse of movement above the stall to my left.
Tom was leaning against the locked bathroom door to my right so movement to my left could only mean one thing… we were busted. Someone was in the bathroom with us! Slowly I turned my head to the left.
Who was it gonna be? Our manager? One of the clerks who was supposed to be working the front counter? A staccato blast of guesses flashed across my brain in rapid succession in the second it took for me to turn my head to the left.
All of my guesses were wrong.
Face to face with me, not three feet away… was the biggest squirrel I have ever seen! And as I turned to my head to face him, he hissed at me from his perch on top of the stall!
Well I’m a guy, and guys don’t scream. So let’s just say I yelled really loud.
My heart dropped into overdrive. Jack Daniel’s and adrenaline drag raced through my veins on high-octane racecar fuel. I forgot all about Tom who was blocking the exit, and consequently, I ran right over him trying to get the hell out of there. (If there had been four of five of me in the bathroom that night, I have no doubt that Tom would have been trampled like some poor kid at a Who concert.)
I kicked the lock open and we fell through the door, landing in a heap of limbs on the floor of the backroom. Tom didn’t seem that phased by the squirrel at all. I think he was more phased by me steam-rolling over him than anything else… until he noticed the beast coming right at us again.
Then it was Tom’s turn to scream. (I mean yell.)
“THERE HE IS! Run!!!”
We went running out into the store with the squirrel right behind us. The squirrel looked pissed. He really did! I remember the look in his beady little eyes. This wasn’t just any random act of squirrel terrorism. He was after us! But by the time we had reached the front counter in the front the damn thing had disappeared.
“Where is he?! Where is he?!” I said, gasping for breath. My eyes darted skittishly left and right.
“Where’s the bottle?” Tom whispered, as customers and employees alike stared at us like we were completely insane. I looked down. It wasn’t in my hands.
Maybe the squirrel was drinking it.
“We must have left it back there,” I said, panting for breath. I retraced the events in my head, trying to remember what I done with the bottle. Then someone in the back of the store screamed and it was pandemonium.
Customers, employees – everyone was running in different directions, desperately trying to get away from the squirrel. It seemed like he was in twenty places at once. One moment he was running through the video aisles and the next he was bouncing off the glass in the front of the store and knocking down huge displays of CD towers and carrying cases.
“Here he comes!” someone shrieked.
“What the hell is that?” someone else yelled.
“I think it’s a giant squirrel!’ one of our frightened clerks said, ducking down behind the cash register.
Tom was heading for the front door when I grabbed him by the arm. “One of us gets that fucking thing out of here, and the other one goes back there for that bottle, alright?”
It didn’t take Tom long to decide on his part in the plan. “I got the bottle. I mean, as soon as that squirrel comes up front again, I’ll run back and get it,” he said corrected himself.
By this point, the squirrel had managed to get on top of the fixtures that held the cassette tapes and he was running back and forth, up and down the wall just beneath the drop ceiling. Customers scrambled to get to the other side of the store to get away from him.
How the hell do squirrels move so fast anyway? I think that is what makes them so terrifying. It’s one thing to see them climbing trees with that characteristic hyper-spastic, jerky movement but it’s another thing entirely to have them in close quarters with you and to know they might be hyper-spastically climbing up your neck in the next moment.
Luckily in any crowd panic situations, there always seems to be at least one person who manages to keep a level head about things and spots the obvious. I wasn’t that person. Neither was Tom. We were both silly on Jack Daniel’s and were getting sillier by the minute.
That’s when this college-aged looking guy approached me.
“Why don’t we trap him in the vestibule at the front door, and then someone can go out the back and let him out from the front door.” the guy said.
I thought it over. “Uh, ok. That sounds like plan. So are you gonna be the one to chase him in there?” I asked hopefully.
“Sure, prop the door for me. I need a weapon though…” He grabbed a long nylon carrying case full of blank cassette tapes from a display, swinging it like a sword to test its adequacy as a weapon. I ran up to the front door and propped it open with a stack of sales flyers that were sitting in the vestibule.
“Alright, it’s ready!” I yelled back to him.
“Go around front! Head out the side or the back and swing around the front!” the guy said, taking control of the situation. He swung the carrying case at the squirrel on top of the fixtures and the evil thing hissed back at him, edging backwards towards the front of the store.
I ran to the back, passing Potter in the aisles of movie rental department on the way. He had his backpack with him and patted it and smiled as I passed him. He had the bottle. Cool!
I unlocked the back door with shaky hands and ran through the alley back around to the front of the store. But just as I was turning the corner, the front door slammed open and the squirrel rocketed out of store. In my memory, he was a squirrel-missile rocketing off into the night on tail-fins with a fiery rocket exhaust.
There was applause from inside the store, and I watched through the front windows as the college guy took a bow.
“Thanks,” I said, walking back inside. “You really saved the day.”
I was truly grateful. Not only was that menace of the gigantic squirrel gone but we hadn’t gotten caught with the whisky. It all seemed like it happened so fast but in all the mayhem, the time had flown by. It was 10 PM and time to close the store.
“Hey, what kind of music do you like?” I asked. “I’ll grab you a couple freebie promo CDs for your trouble.”
“Thanks man! Whatever, I’m not picky,” the guy said. He followed me over to the front counter where we stashed all of the freebies. “Hey, something totally reeks in here!” he said. “It smells like a wino, or cheap booze or something.”
I glanced down at the front of my blue dress shirt and it was soaked with liquor. I hadn’t even noticed.
But in retrospect, being drunk, adrenaline-riddled and soaked in Jack Daniel’s wasn’t that big of a deal. Whenever something crazy like that happens in your life, the more perspective and time between you and that event, the more you realize it all could have been much, much worse than it went down.
We could have been bitten or clawed by the evil squirrel and spent the next four hours in some shitty Chicago Emergency Room getting rabies shots. We could have gotten caught with the booze by my manager or someone else from the company.
I could have soiled a different article of clothing with something other than whisky.
The last question to be answered was how did the squirrel get in the bathroom in the first place? There was a lot of speculation among my friends at the concert later that night as we told and and retold the story a few hundred times.
The manager called in some workmen the next day and had them thoroughly check out the store and roof. And they found a big hole that had been gnawed from the roof into a vent leading to the bathroom. No wonder the squirrel had hissed at me. He’d worked his ass off to make that bathroom his home for the winter and we’d ruined it. Or maybe he was really angry about the consequence of all the people who always seemed to be urinating in his winter home. And when two guys showed up with a bottle of whisky and started doing shots in his living room, well, that was the last straw.
Tom’s band, Bantam Rooster, came through St. Louis a year ago, touring with a few other bands front their label Crypt Records. He gave me call from the bar they were playing, and I drove downtown to see him play.
After the show, we reminisced a bit about those crazy days in Chicago. Tom reminded me of the time I puked on my shoes at one of his parties after my record store coworkers had fed me one too many shots of Jagermeister. And I reminded him of the time he’d dropped acid before showing up at my New Years Eve party. And when he tried to leave at the end of the night, he got lost in my fenced-in backyard and couldn’t get out for a few hours.
I forgot to bring up the squirrel story that night. But maybe Potter will read this at some point and get a chuckle out of it. Eight years later, I still think the whole thing’s pretty damned funny.