Red is red. He has been standing in line for ten minutes now, watching the
lotto tickets print out and the big bites being removed from the rollers
with surgical precision and money orders being paid for with baggies of
change and scratch offs being replaced by more scratch offs and Jesus, he
just started looking at his watch two minutes ago, but he wishes that he had
been timing things from the very beginning because he knows that he has to
have been standing here for at least ten minutes, probably more than that if
he had been clocking it.
What the next customer in line wants is two packs of Marlboro Menthol
Lights. With the two-pack special, you save an extra twenty cents. The
customer is a little bit high and she accidentally asks the clerk for "two
pages of Marlboro Menthol Lights". No matter.
Selar's face is a study in concentration. He is trying to pull all
necessary meaning out of a mostly alien tongue. ‘Pages’ and ‘of’ are
immediately filtered out of the sentence. ‘Two’ is a universal word. Any
country, any language, you can always figure out ‘two’.
The customer is not quite as sure that two is easy to figure out. Two
might be difficult. She lifts her hand up part way behind her and forms a
lazy peace sign.
The next word is easy. ‘Marlboro’, that's day one lesson one in Seven
Eleven customer service training. The twelve major cigarette brands
constitute ninety-six percent of the market, and once you learn to match the
sounds with the packaging you are getting awfully close to being home free
on the smoking fulfillment task. Anyone foolish enough to smoke the other
four percent, the fringe smokers, can just point to their brands,
if they want to stick their heads up under the overhead storage racks
and twist their necks all the way around. Cigarette name recognition. Easy.
Lesson one, a lesson you must master.
Sometimes, although very rarely, a manufacturer will throw a wrench
into the works. Salem changes it's logo and packaging without warning, and
suddenly smokers and clerks alike are thrown into consumer confusion.
"No not those. Salems." These customer reaction, hurtful yet
predictable, leaves the clerk standing there speechless in their rejection.
Selar knows about these situations, he's been fully briefed, but he hasn’t
yet acquired sufficient vocabulary to explain the nature of marketing
campaigns, or even to elucidate the value added concept of the new sliding
One of the rackers had shown Selar the new Salem box on the very first
day of the design switchover, showed him how the pack had been redesigned as
a self-contained cigarette case that would easily slide open with a push of
the index finger. How unsophisticated the ordinary flip top box would now
seem by comparison. How dull and utilitarian. This was modern. This was
smoking convenience at its best.
God forbid you should have the soft pack and somehow it gets a little
crumbled - by the time you are down to your last three or four smokes the
whole thing is a mess, and to get at the last two smokes you literally have
to rip the pack asunder. So you might as well go ahead and smoke two in a
row so you can throw the pack out because Christ, you wanna put that raggedy
thing back in your pocket?
The racker had given Selar the open pack of Salems, and had shown him
that inside of each pack there was one special cigarette, a cigarette with a
deep green filter. The cigarette was special because it had a green
Customers, when they finally get it through there heads that these are
indeed the new Salems, and hey, this slide box really is pretty cool,
still remain confused about the green filtered cigarette. Many are convinced
that they have won a prize; they put the green cigarette in a special place
to keep it safe until they can locate the rules of the contest. Selar likes
the green cigarette; it looks pretty surrounded by all that white. Selar
doesn't smoke yet - a pack cost nearly an hour’s wages - but he carries the
pack of Salem around with him for several days, occasionally sliding it open
and easing up the green filter for a look.
Yes, that word was easy. ‘Marlboro’. The customer wants two packages of
Marlboros. Selar instantly has the section in his sight. It is a large
section. There are many types of Marlboros, different lengths and different
colors, categories inside of categories.
The next word is also easy. Menthol. Menthol is the English word for
green. Simple. Menthol = green. Brands have come and gone for lack of this
basic understanding. So now we have made it to the correct section, the
green section of Marlboros. Now Marlboro has made a major marketing blunder
at this stage of the game. The Marlboro Menthols package uses the same color
of green as the Marlboro Menthol Lights, the exact same green, and any fool
knows that the Lights should be a paler green, a less intense green
because they are the Lights. The workings of the corporate mind can be a
So the third word is, in theory, the most difficult word to deal with.
Unable to always rely on color-coding, Selar must identify the word 'light',
and this is not as easy as one might think. The words all look alike to him
for one thing, incomprehensible characters running together with no grace or
beauty. Selar would like to be able to read English, he very much misses
being able to read, but this written language is so angular and unappealing
to the senses. He greatly prefers the concept of speaking the English words.
The language feels amusing on his tongue. It is fun. He has already learned
quite a few words, and when he is able to speak to a customer, and when the
customer understands and says something back to Selar and Selar in turn
understands, he feels a proud glow, he is happy to be in America.
Selar knows a workaround for the current linguistic difficulty, a
workaround that involves seeing rather than reading. In cases such as The
Lights in the Marlboro Green section, the correct choice is the package that
has the writing beneath the logo.
Selar learned this on the first day, second hour. When Mohammed, the
shift manager, showed him this trick, it seemed so logical and obvious that
he laughed out loud with delight. In his first few days on the job he would
find many such solutions. These were the simple tools that he needed in
order to interact with this new culture, and each time he mastered a new one
he felt himself grow in confidence.
There is now a little conversation that Selar can have with the
customer. "Box or soft pack," Selar says with brightness.
The transaction is soon completed, and the next customer moves forward
in the line. Goofy looking sonuvabitch, Red thinks. Look at this idiot. He
wants to buy a twelve pack of Bud, two Virginia lotto random, a
quarter-pounder hot dog and a Doritos Big Bag. And two packs of those new
Salems with the side slide box. The fool is paying via MasterCard. Red
checks his watch.
The line is endless