While driving home from the Apple Store today in Lincoln Park, I passed a Bank of America branch on Clybourn Avenue. Sitting in traffic near it, waiting for the light to turn, I was reminded that it wasn’t always a bank branch, and was in fact part of my early years in retail hell in Chicago. In the mid-90s, the building I was looking at was a now defunct “upscale” children’s toy store called Noodle Kidoodle whose motto was “kids learn best when they’re having fun.” (Based on their inventory, it should have been “kids learn best when they’re bored.”) Back then it had just moved into the Chicago area when I started there (followed closely on the heels by arch nemesis and demographic rival “Zany Brainy” whose motto was “we will eventually buy you.” The propaganda we heard about the competition was designed to dissuade us from defecting. I didn’t want the job I had. They were in no danger of my quitting for the same job elsewhere.

I was the “book specialist.” Unlike most of the other employees, I was full-time and dedicated solely to the book department. I didn’t have to float around to “Dress Up Land” with all kinds of costumes that inevitably ended up strewn around the section or “Let’s Build Something” which included Duplo blocks and something called Toobers and Zots. (WTF?) Like most retail situations, there were lots of nice, stable, dependable workers, and there were some big flaky messes. We were lead by the ineffectual manager who everyone suspected of having a drug problem. He was always broke, disheveled, and annoyingly called everyone “sweetie.”

One assistant manager–who seemed normal–stole a sizable amount of money while making a deposit, and was subsequently canned. Prior to this, she seemed pretty normal. After she was let go, she called me and left a message, saying she wanted to get together with me to explain what had happened. Considering we were just co-workers who exchanged pleasantries at work, I didn’t care. I remember shrugging while listening to the answering machine. The call went unreturned.

Another assistant manager (who I’d worked with previously and was referred to NK through her) developed a bitchin’ AOL addiction (back when they charged ~$4/an hour). Sometimes she would come into the store in the morning, looking like hell, never having been to bed, hiding $600 phone bills from her husband. We had been friends, but along with her marriage, our friendship unraveled with her unstable behavior as she chatted with men from around the country and arranged random hook ups. She took our friendship break up VERY badly, underscoring my decision to end it.

But along with the strange, there were also some sweet moments. It was at NK where I had some brushes with celebrity that still make me smile.

One day I was horrified at a co-worker’s behavior when she escorted a woman over to the book department for some assistance in picking out books for her kids to read on an upcoming vacation. My unwitting kidoodler had no idea this woman was soap opera icon, Taylor Miller, who played Nina Cortlandt (half of the Nina/Cliff super couple) on “All My Children.” She had left the show years prior, but had recently made several guest stints–one just concluding weeks before this meeting.

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[Taylor Miller as Nina Cortlandt Warner Warner Warner Connolly Warner}

I quickly shoo’d my co-worker away. I wanted Nina…er…Miss Miller…all to myself. I was a soap opera fiend, and thanks to my sisters’ stern loyalty to ABC, I’d been forced to get caught up in the goings on of Pine Valley, Llanview and Port Charles since I was a little boy. I asked the perfunctory questions about her children and the car trip they were taking, (wondered why they weren’t chartering a private jet), and tried to discern their interests. As I filled the basket with my recommended books, we moved on to games and toys. We were spending some quality time together, and I quickly felt like I was shopping with an old friend (who I idolized for overcoming all the obstacles she faced from her overbearing millionaire father to marry her young handsome doctor before departing the show the first time.)

Here are some quotes to her as I recall:

  • “You know the girl who replaced you was a terrible. She sure didn’t last long.”
  • “Your son turned out to be handful for Palmer (her on-screen father). Are you coming back soon to straighten him out?”
  • “I love your hair.”
  • “Why in the hell did you walk away from such an incredible gig as AMC’s first “super couple.” (I didn’t really ask that, but it was the biggest burning question on my mind. And she should have known that!

Only in hindsight do I know for sure that Taylor Miller probably felt stalked, violated and annoyed with me. But she was gracious and kind, and grateful for my recommendations–on the merchandise, but probably not so much on character direction and career decisions.

Months later, I turned around from behind the counter and saw Kate Collins standing there pleasatly. She played Natalie on “All My Children” sometime after Nina left. She’d left the show a few years prior to this meeting, was recast, but ultimately returned after I met her–probably thanks to my encouragement. I didn’t have as much time with her as I’d had shopping with Taylor Miller, but as I gift wrapped some purchases for her, I gushed about her performance on AMC, railed on her replacement (clearly, a theme with me), and told her I would look forward to her return to the show, should she ever decide to do so. (Since she did, clearly, I was responsible.)

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[La Lucci (left) with one-time nemesis Natalie Marlowe Hunter Dillon Cortlandt Chandler as played by Kate Collins (right)

NK was in the same neighborhood as Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre. I’d heard of some famous visitors stopping in from time to time. Laurie Metcalf. Gary Sinise. One day when I was working John Malkovich sauntered in. As you’d expect in the mid-90s, he was wearing a beret, a dramatic scarf thrown around his neck, and had a cell phone glued to his ear. Plebes like me–like most people of the day–didn’t have a “cellular” phone. As a future gadget whore, I envied him. He walked around the store, chatting away, denying every attempt each of us made at trying to help him. By the time he left, I really envied him. Every time I walked into that store, I wished I could have ignored everyone who worked there. Well played, Valmont. Well played.

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[My favorite Malkovich, sans beret and scarf]

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0 thoughts on “Dangerous Liaisons in Pine Valley

  1. What a great post! I worked in a toy store in NYC in the early 80s. It was a small, chic upper eastside place. The adults I loved. It was the snotty kids of the upper crust I wanted to smack. I’m slowly catching up on your older posts and enjoying the ride.

    1. Thanks, Matthew! I hated both parents and children at my store (except for the soap stars!) I don’t think I’ve yet written about my tenure at Toys R Us. I’ve blocked most of it out. I’m enjoying your older posts too!

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