We Had the Tools

We Had the Tools

We have the tools.

Every time I hear this phrase uttered, there’s a mental image I just can’t shake. I see a bunch of tools - literal tools - piled against a wall. Hammers, pliers, saws, power drills, sandblasters, and the like. This visual comes from a real-life experience that is equal parts painful and hilarious for me to revisit. Come with me, if you’ve got a few minutes to kill, on a journey into my past where a juicy little metaphor for the mishandling of the Covid pandemic awaits us. This event lives in my memories as the Great Tool Dump.

The summer after I graduated from high school, I took a job at a hardware store to make money for my first year at college. I knew nothing about hardware but the guy who hired me - I’ll call him Tim - said that wasn’t necessary. I just needed to show up on time for my shifts and be polite to customers. Everything else I needed to know, I’d learn from my trainer, Liz.

Liz was in her 70s. She never smiled and wore thick glasses that hid any sign of emotion in her eyes, so it was hard to read her. She’d been a smoker most of her adult life, so when she spoke, she sounded exactly like Patty and Selma from 'The Simpsons.' In spite of the gruffness in the way she came across, Liz was one of the nicest people I’d ever met. She never had an unkind word to say about anyone. Not out loud, anyway. But when Tim would arrive for work (late most mornings, always carrying a bag of food from McDonald’s that left the odor of grease and onions lingering in the store), her eyes would narrow as they followed him to the General Manager’s office. It wasn’t until I had a shift with Jerry and Tony, real-life incarnations of Beavis and Butthead, that I was schooled on Tim’s reputation among the staff.

“He’s an asshole,” Jerry informed me. “All he does is hire and fire people.”

“And watch porn all day in his office while he eats McDonald’s,” Tony added.

As the weeks passed, I learned that all my fellow employees held the same opinion and had made the same observations about Tim. I tried not to let that influence my view of him, as he had come across so warm and welcoming during my interview. That all changed one day when a customer approached me to ask about a sale he’d seen in the newspaper. I wasn’t familiar with the promotion he was describing, so while he shopped, I grabbed a copy of the newspaper and thumbed through it in search of an ad from our store. That’s when Tim came strolling through the front door, characteristically late. He approached me and made a show of snatching the newspaper out of my hands. “I’M NOT PAYING YOU TO STAND AROUND AND READ THE DAMN NEWSPAPER!” he yelled at me, just before disappearing into his office to clock in for his busy day of eating fast food and watching porn.

Everyone within earshot stopped what they were doing and stared at me. The customer who had asked about the sale in the paper apologized for getting me in trouble and told me I should report that horrible man to my boss. He was shocked to learn that Tim was in fact my boss.

I mentioned Tim's outburst to Mr. Scruggs, the assistant manager. To this day I don’t know his first name. He was an old-school authoritarian who was all about formality and doing everything by the book. Mr. Scruggs hinted he was aware that Tim wasn’t worth two shits as a manager, but insisted we still had to respect his authority as our boss. He told me to let it roll off my back and not take it personally since Tim was an asshole to everyone, himself included.

A few days later, I recounted the episode to Liz while we were opening the store for the day. She shook her head in disgust. “You didn’t do anything wrong,” she assured me. “You’re doing a fine job and everyone else here knows it.” She patted me on the back and I felt better.

It didn’t last very long. Later that morning, a customer came in with a return. Liz and I were both standing behind the customer service counter when the customer pulled a well-worn power drill out of a brown paper bag. “I got this here last week and it doesn’t work,” she insisted. Liz picked it up, rotated it at different angles to get a full view, and pointed the bottom of the drill toward me so I could see the neon-orange $1 yard sale price sticker on the bottom of the device. We exchanged a smirk.

“Do you have a receipt or the original packaging?” Liz asked. The customer had neither and took offense at the question. She demanded that Liz exchange it for a new power drill. “Ma’am, I wish I could help you, but without a receipt, there’s not much I can do,” Liz explained. “The drill likely isn't working anymore because of regular wear and tear. It's had lots of use and it's an older piece of equipment. The brand was actually discontinued several years ago.”

The customer grew horns. She demanded to speak to the manager. Liz braced herself, then picked up the phone and called Tim.

A few minutes later, Tim emerged from his office, licking the grease off of his fingers before tucking his shirttail back into his pants. Without acknowledging Liz, he made his way directly to the pissed off customer to ask how he could help her. He listened, feigned concern, then voiced his appreciation to her for bringing this faulty equipment to our attention. He walked her over to the power drill section and told her to pick whichever one she wanted. Then he carried her selection to the cash register, shoved past me and Liz, and rang it up as an exchange. He apologized profusely to her for having had a less than satisfactory customer experience before he arrived on the scene, then thanked her again for her business as she strolled out the door.

Tim threw the returned power drill at us. We both dodged out of the way as it smacked into the wall behind the customer service counter with a loud BANG! A piece of the plastic casing broke off and hit Liz in the back, startling her.


A few customers who had witnessed the outburst were now staring at us in disbelief. For several uncomfortable seconds, we all stood frozen in place like deer in the headlights. I swallowed hard, feeling an unexpected lump in my throat as I choked back tears. Then I glanced over at Liz, unable to fathom the anger and humiliation she must have been feeling. In usual form, her face was flat. What she did next surprised me.

In her gravely Patty-and-Selma voice, she laughed. “Sorry about that, ladies and gentlemen,” she announced to the customers. “That was our manager. Hopefully you heard what he said. The customer is ALWAYS right. So if any of you have anything you need to return or exchange, and you don’t have receipts or packaging, or even brands of hardware that you bought at our store, that’s okay. We trust you because you’re the customer, and we’ll be happy to make an exchange or give you a refund on your word alone.”

The customers remained frozen, transfixed now on Liz. Finally, one of them let out a giggle. “Seriously,” said the customer, “are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

“You heard me right,” Liz assured him. “I encourage all of you to go home and round up any items you need to return and bring them in today so I can personally take care of you. And please, spread the word to your friends and neighbors. My name is Liz and I’ll be here till six o’clock this evening.”

Oh my God.

Liz hadn’t just kept her composure; she was suddenly, uncharacteristically cheerful.

She was SMILING.

It was crystal clear in that moment that she’d had enough of Tim’s bullshit, and she was done. She had snapped. That day would be her last day of employment at the store, and she was going out with a bang.

“What are you waiting for?” Liz asked the customers. “Go home, get those returns, and get back here ASAP!”

Giggles erupted among the customers as they made their way out the door.

Then Liz reached for the phone, dialing her husband. “Hi honey,” she said sweetly. “Guess what, we’re running a special today. Go into the garage and round up everything that doesn’t work, or anything you’d just like to upgrade or replace. Bring it in. No, it doesn’t have to be stuff that came from this store. We’re going to get you some new tools. Oh, and call Bob and Carol and tell them about it too. Hell, call the radio station to request a song, and when they put you live on the air, put in a plug for our special sale. Yes, I’m serious. Do it now.” One more Patty-and-Selma laugh. “Hurry. This special won’t last long.”

Within the hour, customers were lined up with ‘returns.’ Liz was happily exchanging every item dropped off at the counter with new merchandise plucked from our shelves, and liberally handing out cash based on the pricing of comparable items for those who opted for refunds. Behind us, tools of every imaginable kind were piling up against the wall. The word got out to Jerry, Tony, and other fellow employees, many of whom were generous enough to come into the store in solidarity on their day off, each with some returns of their own to contribute. It all came screeching to a halt when Mr. Scruggs walked in for his afternoon shift. When his eyes fell on all of the tools piled up against the wall behind us, the color drained from his face. I took over processing returns while Liz stepped aside and filled him in on what had happened.

He snapped into action, doing his best to shut Liz’s return-fest down. He stood in the middle of the store and announced, “good afternoon folks, if you’re here with a return, I just want to let you know that our store policy is that you must have a receipt for a cash return, and if you don’t have a receipt, we can issue store credit or exchange for the same item if your return is unused and in original packaging. We appreciate all of you as customers but we won’t be able to make exceptions outside of this policy.”

“That’s not what the manager said!” offered up someone in the crowd, who had been in the store earlier to witness Tim’s meltdown. “He said the customer is always right, then he threw a drill against the wall and yelled at the two employees behind the counter, telling them not to make him come out of his office again to deal with us customers.”

“I drove 45 minutes from out of town to bring my return in,” yelled another angry voice in the crowd. “You better not turn me away or I’ll be calling the corporate office to complain!”

When Mr. Scruggs realized the angry mob wasn’t going to let him off the hook so easily, he locked the front doors and flipped the ‘we are open’ placard to the ‘closed’ side. He pulled me and Liz aside, told us to finish processing returns for whatever the customers in the store had brought, walk them out, lock the door behind them, and not let anyone else in. When the last customer was gone, we were to report directly to him for next steps and not speak to Tim under any circumstances.

On the way to his office, he stopped in his tracks at the customer service counter. His gaze fell upon the next person in line, a kid named Josh who'd been a high school classmate of mine. Josh was holding a suitcase-sized tool case in his arms. “Are you here to return that?” Mr. Scruggs asked. When Josh nodded, Mr. Scruggs put the case on the counter and popped it open to examine the contents. “Where did you get these?”

“They were my grandpa’s,” said Josh. “He died and we have a bunch of his stuff in our garage now. These tools are pretty old so I want to trade them in for some new ones and surprise my dad.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” Mr. Scruggs cautioned. “This brand is one of the best. I know they look old but listen, these are top quality. I’ve been working at this hardware store for more than 20 years and I assure you, no one makes tools like these anymore. You won’t find anything of comparable quality here. Trust me, your dad won’t be surprised if you trade these in. He’ll be livid.”

If you’ve ever tried to talk a teenager out of doing something stupid, I probably don’t have to tell you how that situation ended. I processed the exchange for Josh while Mr. Scruggs watched in horror. When the last customer left the store, Mr. Scruggs scolded me and Liz for several minutes, then ordered us to start loading up the dumpster with the returns. Although most of the items were still in working order, he insisted on discarding them, citing store policy, but also hoping to get rid of the evidence before Tim found out what had happened. He’d mentioned more than once that he wanted to manage this situation carefully and didn’t want to see any of us lose our jobs over it.

Unfortunately, Tim emerged from his office just in time to witness the three of us frantically hauling returns away. When he took a look at all of the shit piled against the wall behind the counter, he lost it and threw one of his signature tantrums. He yelled at all of us that we were fired. Mr. Scruggs clutched his hand over his chest and melted into a chair. Liz stood defiantly before Tim. “You can’t fire us. We’ve done nothing wrong. We were doing exactly what you told us to.” She gave him a smug grin and pointed at the ceiling-mounted security camera aimed at the customer service counter. “Somewhere out there is a video from this morning that can refresh your memory,” she said, alluding to the footage that was stored offsite by some third-party retail security and loss prevention company.

Tim’s jaw dropped, but he couldn’t find any words to yell at her. After a long pause, he unfired us and told us to finish discarding the returns, clock out and go home. He mumbled some bullshit about needing to call the district manager and get that guy’s input before making any more decisions, but thoughtfully adding that he was disappointed in all of us for this stunt.

After a few days of silence, Mr. Scruggs called to share the news that Tim had been fired, and that he would be stepping in as General Manager. He told me that Liz wouldn’t be coming back, but he hadn’t made a decision yet about me. He asked me a series of questions, probing to know what I thought about what Liz had done. Did I think Liz was right or wrong? Had I tried to talk her out of it? Did I think it was funny?

I thought it was fucking hilarious, but I wasn’t about to tell him that. Nor was I going to throw Liz under the bus and suggest she was entirely unjustified in her actions. I simply responded that I’d spare him of having to make any decisions for me. I was resigning voluntarily. “I appreciate the opportunity but I haven’t found it to be a very healthy work environment for me. Even before having a power drill thrown at me earlier this week, I’d been mistreated by Tim. When I mentioned it to you, you told me it was something I’d have to accept. If that’s your belief about how the work culture should be, it isn’t the right place for me.”

And then things got weird. When Mr. Scruggs spoke again, he was choking back tears. He went from trying to make me beg to keep my job to begging me to stay in it. He told me he had a different vision for the store, he wanted to change the culture, and he needed good workers like myself to help him achieve his goals, even if I could only be there for another month or two before I left for college. I politely declined. He told me he was sorry about the way things had gone down and wished me well at college.

The following week, I went back to collect my final check. Mr. Scruggs himself was behind the customer service counter dealing with an upset customer. It was my former classmate Josh once again. “I just need my tool set back, PLEASE,” Josh begged. “My grandfather died. It’s all I have to remember him by. My dad is really upset. He thinks you did us wrong by taking those tools which didn’t come from your store and giving us cheaper tools in return.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Mr. Scruggs. “When you brought the tools in last week, I tried very hard to talk you out of returning them. I told you your dad would be upset–”

“I don’t remember any of that,” snapped Josh. “If you don’t give me the tools back, you’ll have to deal with my dad next.”

Mr. Scruggs handed Josh a business card. “I’m the manager here. Please ask him to contact me.” Josh burst into tears about how unfair the situation was and stormed out like an angry toddler, dismayed that his tantrum didn’t achieve the desired results. Behind the counter, Mr. Scruggs shook his head and sighed. He looked as though he might break down and cry again too.

The wall behind the customer service area was nice and clean once again. The tools were gone. And to wrap this long-winded story up, that sad, empty wall is what brings me to the visual that pops into my head anytime a government or health officials says we have the tools to deal with Covid-19.

No we don’t.

We had the tools. All we have now are the memories of those tools.

We (and by we, I mean collectively, societally we) blew it. We threw the tools away. We traded them in for something we believed was so much better.

Why? Because the very leaders we are supposed to trust to look out for our best interests, like General Manager Tim, told us to. They gave us permission. They told us it was more important to get back to normal than to rely on those tools.

So many who heard that message took it and ran with it. Like Liz, they twisted it into something much more extreme to fit their own agendas. Not only are masks not required in public anymore, they’re now banned in some places because they remind people that Covid is still a threat, and that’s bad for the economy. Wearing one has become so stigmatized it can get you harassed or assaulted.

And then there’s remote work. Not only is it discouraged, it is shamed. There are message campaigns circulating throughout the media about how remote work is bad for productivity, bad for teamwork, bad for the health of remote workers. Speaking of messaging, we don’t have ANY consistent, trustworthy messaging to inform our decisions about Covid anymore. We have ‘you do you.' Which is essentially the ‘customer is always right’ mantra in the world of Covid. Believe whatever the fuck you want, do whatever the fuck you want, and regardless of the consequences for yourself or others, no one can hold you accountable. No one can tell you that you’re wrong. This is now a DIY pandemic. Good luck.

When we discovered that there were consequences to shitting all over our tools and throwing them away, we wanted them back, like Josh. Covid patients who ended up fighting for their lives in the hospital would beg for the vaccine that they had loudly and proudly refused before they got sick. People who thought vaccines were all they needed to stay well refused to continue masking. Then they found themselves ill with Covid and begged for treatments like monoclonal antibodies, which stopped working a long time ago as variants evolved to escape them. We played dumb when reminded that experts had cautioned us this would happen. We insisted we did everything right. We pretended to be victims when we knew better. We can’t get a lot of those tools back now. It’s too late.

When I think back about the Great Tool Dump, I feel much more sympathy for Mr. Scruggs now than I did back then. I see now that whenever Tim’s shitty behavior endangered business, Mr. Scruggs tried, as best as he could, to do damage control. He tried to look out for employees and customers alike.

He also tried, rightly so, to hold me and Liz accountable. Liz’s reaction to Tim's outburst had been extreme. And young and naïve though I was, I had been complicit in not speaking up or attempting otherwise to protect the store from loss. Unlike Mr. Scruggs, who had tried his damndest to keep things from spiraling out of control. He begged people like Josh to hold onto their tools. He warned them they’d be sorry if they didn’t. Looking back, I think about how painful it must have been for him to see all those perfectly good tools sacrificed to the dumpster anyway. He must have felt miserable knowing that no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t win; that every good thing he’d ever done in that store could be undone in the blink of an eye by his man-child tyrant of a boss. He was stuck in a system that set him up to fail.

I feel like a lot of us are Mr. Scruggs in this pandemic. We’re holding on for dear life to the few tools we have left, and we’re pleading with others to do the same. We’re speaking unpopular truths and sharing warnings from experts so people we care about can make informed decisions. Meanwhile, everyone who holds power over us - our employers, our children’s schools, even our own healthcare providers - are doing all they can to shut all that down. There are real consequences for us when we resist. It’s fucking hard to keep fighting this fight and it’s wearing on a lot of us.

I sometimes wonder if quitting my job at the hardware store was the right thing to do. Maybe as the new manager, Mr. Scruggs did finally have the power to change the culture there. I didn't have the resolve to stick around and witness any big transformations, but I imagine he eventually turned things around. In spite of all the abuse he had endured from Tim, he still cared. He believed things could be better and he wanted to make them that way. I suspect he did.

For a short while I kept in touch with Liz, who kept in touch with Jerry and Tony, and through that grapevine, I learned that Mr. Scruggs had kept one thing from the Great Tool Dump. He’d pulled Josh’s deceased grandfather’s tool case out of the pile and kept it hidden in his office. When Josh’s father did eventually come by the store to have a word with him, Mr. Scruggs gave the tools back to him.

Even though that was against store policy.

Turns out Mr. Scruggs was a rebel in his own right. Just like those of us who are doing everything we can to resist the mainstream acceptance of living with Covid without mitigations, without concern for the consequences to ourselves and others. Some of you are literally risking your lives to protest the end of masking in hospitals. Others are sharing suppressed scientific findings on social media platforms. Some are collecting and distributing free N95 respirators to those who are willing to wear them. Some are using their own money, time and talents to build Corsi-Rosenthal boxes to donate to schools, hoping to God they’ll be used to clean the air in classrooms. Others are sharing templates for writing letters and scripts for making phone calls so we can make our voices heard to the decision-making bodies who keep getting it wrong. You’re making a difference. Slowly but surely, many of you are changing the course of this pandemic.

Don't give up.

I’m hopeful we’ll live long enough to see this pandemic come to a close. If and when it’s over, there’s something you should know about the tools, just in case I’m not around then to tell you.

They won’t be what saved us.

You will.


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In good humor and solidarity,

Guiness Pig