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Posted on Apr 14, 2011
Mr. Fish

By Mr. Fish

She extended her hand and introduced herself with a smile as Heddy Markel, chief of security, from the Barnes & Noble corporate office in Manhattan. I recognized her name immediately, having heard it spoken in paranoid whispers by fellow booksellers over the previous three years—ever since being hired, in fact, back in 1994—as if it were a rain forecast. I’d also remembered seeing it mentioned occasionally in the Barnes & Noble weekly newsletter, a stack of which was delivered into the employee break room every Monday morning and thrown away in a stack that was roughly the same size every Sunday night, although I didn’t immediately recognize her face. That would’ve been the case, I’m sure, with anybody from the corporate office, especially without seeing either her front teeth blackened in or a drawing of a cock and balls roosting next to her mouth like an oversized microphone. 

As a matter of fact, without the qualifying vandalism etched hard into her face I found her difficult to look at, sort of like seeing Quasimodo without the hump or Woody Allen in contact lenses. With her middle-aged face splattered with enough freckles to suggest a stain consistent with carnivorous animals and an orange, topped by a Dutch boy haircut complete with the fascist bangs of Moe Howard, there was something impolite about looking directly at her. It was as if her attempt to maintain a look that she should’ve given up when she was 11 years old would eventually become so extreme that, in 15 years, she would be just as pitiful to look at as Harpo Marx was when he was nearly 70 and trying to be childish on the “I Love Lucy” show, his gray and sagging skin set beneath a brand new wig that was so dense with shiny synthetic curls that demonstrated a contrast so violent it made one’s teeth hurt to look at it. It was pedophilia somehow without the sex, just the telepathic groping and the desperate grab at happiness that was so indecent and clumsy that it came at the expense of everybody else’s.

I shook hands with her and bent my pity into a boomerang of a smile, just as embarrassed for her white-knuckled grasp on what little youth she had left as I might’ve been had she just come off stage at the Newport Jazz Festival after blowing into the wrong end of a trumpet for 45 minutes, and, following a gesture that she cast like an invisible Frisbee into an empty chair at the center of the tiny office, began to sit down as the door was closed behind me. 

“How long have you been stealing money from the registers?” she asked, as matter-of-factly as if she were asking me how many Polacks it took to recognize Adolf Eichmann. Having segued from such a cordial hello, her words fell slowly into my comprehension, like they’d entered my head out of order, as I lowered myself into my chair with all the deliberate confidence of a man being offered a cigarette and then asked if he minded smoking it with his hands bound while wearing a blindfold and hearing the Lord’s Prayer shouted at him from a safe distance.

“Huh?” I said.

“How long have you been stealing money from the registers, Mr. Booth?” she said again, attempting to bully me into taking ownership of her question’s content by attaching my name to it, her sentence spoken with just enough of a Southern accent to seem oddly adorable.

Not wanting to dignify her question with an answer, especially since I wasn’t entirely innocent, having been stealing magazines and newspapers, I said, as if reading from a cue card, my nervousness threatening to short-circuit my vocal cords, “What are you talking about?” I looked over at my boss, Alan, a sweet, thin, small-boned man with a strawberry blond complexion that was fair enough to freckle in candlelight and to burn under a rainbow, who didn’t look up from his desk, ashamed to meet my eyes. As usual, his mind was somewhere else, no doubt 20 miles away in his bedroom closet, and then under his bed, and then in his underwear drawer, frantically searching for his college transcripts to see if he’d taken enough science courses to be able to manufacture cyanide. I looked back at Heddy Markel and said again, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She smiled, picking up a manila folder from my boss’s desk and took out a cash refund receipt and handed it to me. “Does that look familiar to you, Mr. Booth?” she said. Twang twang went her accent. It looked like a cash refund receipt, complete with a list of three returned books, the customer’s name, the customer’s address, and the customer’s telephone number, plus, at the bottom of the receipt, on a line asking for a supervisor’s approval, my initials, and below that another line asking for a cashier’s initials, which, for reasons no more salacious than apathy, contained my scribbling of the cashier’s initials. In other words, I supposed that it looked as familiar to me as any small piece of paper meant to remind me of what a fucking bone-crushing waste of time my 20s had been, particularly the last three years spent working in retail.

“No, it doesn’t look particularly familiar,” I said. “Why?”

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proletariatprincess's avatar

By proletariatprincess, April 20, 2011 at 5:21 pm Link to this comment

There is a time for everything…now is the time to be angry and outraged.  If you aren’t angry, you just aren’t paying attention.
Also, there is nothing wrong with hatred either.  Hateing injustice and abuse is a commendable trait and without it, nothing improves.

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By Dar McWheeler, April 20, 2011 at 5:09 pm Link to this comment

Brilliant. Bravo.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, April 20, 2011 at 10:51 am Link to this comment

Hatred has its uses.  It’ll keep you warm on a cold night.

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Mr. Fish's avatar

By Mr. Fish, April 20, 2011 at 8:41 am Link to this comment

Zeya - the depth of your disapproval is the very measure of my success.  Thanks for the note.

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By Zeya, April 19, 2011 at 7:19 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Your pompous prose makes me want to puke, Mr. Fish, so please stick to creating (sometimes) clever cartoons which are much easier to stomach. I agree with kerryrose. And I would add that your cruel nature seems to be a serious character flaw.

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By BM, April 19, 2011 at 4:58 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

If you’re going to steal, think big! In New York City you can go into a high end fashion boutique and leave with a $10,000 item without much happening. NYC laws are very lenient on shop lifting so go for it. As for the story, I feel for you but wish you had been stealing from them.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, April 19, 2011 at 4:20 pm Link to this comment

I’ve read other stories like Mr. Fish’s.  Heddy Markel may well have been playing a part prescribed in some rulebook for getting after employees, but it seems more likely to me that her script came from police experience.  The police can get away with certain things, like bringing a target into a closed room for accusations, threats and abuse—even physical violence—which miraculously disappear once whoever is running the show loses interest.  The target may actually have been someone else, like the manager who was forced to witness the confrontation.

Recently, as I strolled through the nearly empty offices of the sinking corporation where I have been, from time to time, employed on a contract basis, I came across a pile of books which were to be thrown out.  Among them were half a dozen on how to surveille, control, and in particular get rid of employees, especially troublesome employees.  Naturally, I snatched these up, expect some sort of devilish Machivellian plots to be described.  But they were actually rather pedestrian and pessimistic.  According to one of the books, it is always a mistake to accuse an employee of something for which the accuser does not have solid, irrefutable proof, because when proof is lacking the employee can sue.  Many examples of the misstep and its consequences were given.  Had Mr. Fish recorded the interview (and fully concealable voice recording devices that will run for several hours are now available for less than $100) he might have had quite a case.  This is something to keep in mind if you find yourself low on the employment food chain, and many of you probably will.

Often, the big corps get rid of people they don’t want around any more in more anonymous and inscrutable ways.  One is transferred to a department or subsidiary which is then dissolved.  Or one is just laid off for obscure business reasons.  Or one is transferred to an out-of-reach branch office.  This is why I think the scene might have been set up to threaten or implicate Mr. Fish’s manager, rather than to get Mr. Fish himself.

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kerryrose's avatar

By kerryrose, April 19, 2011 at 4:07 pm Link to this comment

Mr Fish

You speak the language of cruelty, and I don’t find that amusing or brilliant or clever.  There is an ugliness and hatred in you that I detect.

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Mr. Fish's avatar

By Mr. Fish, April 19, 2011 at 2:46 pm Link to this comment

With all due respect, kerryrose, it is your responsibility to draw a larger connection about peons and petty power in the American workplace from the commentary you read, not mine.  My only responsibility is to be as disturbing and as adventurous and as penetrating as my energy and courage make possible.  If you’re offended by my personal outrage over the propagation of bullshit and require dissent to be well-mannered and academic and scentless (not a dig on my friend Chris, by the way, whose work is brilliant and, while aesthetically different from my own, no less outraged), you are precisely what I find abhorrent about the self-proclaimed progressives that dull real dissent in this country by abstracting the struggle.  Just as Lenny Bruce said: Take away the right to say ‘fuck’ and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government.’  Or ‘fuck Barnes & Noble.’  Or ‘fuck Heddy Markel.’  Believe me, it takes more moxie and a stronger moral constitution to criticize an individual than an amorphous corporate entity.

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By Voluptas, April 19, 2011 at 1:53 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Simply genius.

I’ve been looking for a new religion and, since I’ve now found the God to go with it, I’ll get my church started. Unfortunately, the fish icon is taken ... perhaps a sardine on a cross. We’ll call ourselves “sardonists.”

“If you have Mr. Fish inside your heart, you will be saved.”

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By kerryrose, April 19, 2011 at 9:22 am Link to this comment

Mr Fish’s cruelty is stunning in this blog.  His comments are vicious. 

Compared to Hedges’ social, ethical, and moral viewpoints about social problems, Mr Fish’s blog screams personal vendetta against particular people.

Sorry, can’t celebrate personal cruelty.  Draw a larger connection about peons and petty power in the American workplace please.

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proletariatprincess's avatar

By proletariatprincess, April 18, 2011 at 11:09 pm Link to this comment

I think I am in love with you, Mr. Fish. 
I have admired your art for a long time now but only recently have I come to read your prose on Truthdig. Now I see why you are called the resident genius.
But putting all that sloppy admiration aside, this particular essay had special meaning to me as a retired union rep. 
I have been in that room many times.  I know those charactors.  I know that hard assed woman from “security” who lives to belittle workers.  I know the woosey supervisor who is just so so sorry, but never speaks up for what is right and fair.
But how different that situation becomes when it is a union workplace and the worker has the right to a union steward at such a time.  Having someone there who is on your side makes a world of difference.
A contractural greivance proceedure disciplines management to treat workers with more respect and dignity.
But it goes without saying that a Union job is a better job than working at non union Barnes and Noble and that losing a good union job is a very serious matter.  Quiting out of principle is usually not something a union represented worker would consider.  Fighting back would be a more likely action.  And, sometimes, fighting back has unintended benefits…like better management and better working conditions.
Thanks for this article, Mr. Fish.  I enjoyed reading every line and look forward to your next contribution.

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By Wayne, April 18, 2011 at 8:52 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I enjoyed the read, but kept having flashbacks to a scene in a movie I recently watched on DVD. Can’t remember the name of the movie.

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By Adam Laceky, April 17, 2011 at 9:27 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

It always surprises me, the comments that make the cut and those that don’t. I posted a sympathetic reply, and it didn’t make it through the filter. Maybe it was the part where I offered what I thought was constructive criticism of Mr. Fish’s writing style. So, since that didn’t work, I’ll try this:


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johnnyfarout's avatar

By johnnyfarout, April 17, 2011 at 8:54 pm Link to this comment

something weird going on here.

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johnnyfarout's avatar

By johnnyfarout, April 17, 2011 at 8:53 pm Link to this comment

“speck” all night long if my partner was gear fab.

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johnnyfarout's avatar

By johnnyfarout, April 17, 2011 at 8:52 pm Link to this comment

I used to “speck” all night long if my partner was gear fab.

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Anarcissie's avatar

By Anarcissie, April 17, 2011 at 7:03 pm Link to this comment

I like ‘to speck’.

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By Adam Laceky, April 17, 2011 at 4:22 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Nice story, and one I can relate to. I quit a job at a top-40 record (yes, record) store because I was accused of letting someone steal a VHS (yes, VHS) of “Gone With the Wind.” I could go on, but what’s the point?

However, it would be nice if Mr. Fish would use shorter sentences. Not because I can’t parse run-on sentences with multiple clauses. Because I like Mr. Fish, and I hope to enjoy his columns even more. I’m just sharing some wisdom I’ve acquired while watching my hair turn gray.

OK, start the flame war. Another thing I’ve learned is that no criticism, however constructive, goes unpunished on the InterTubes.

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culheath's avatar

By culheath, April 17, 2011 at 10:24 am Link to this comment

“...she performed to speck…”

“...why the need to so thoroughly Lampoon the authoress of his

I believe it’s the premise of the “spec” and the resulting situation that’s actually being lampooned.

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By SoTexGuy, April 17, 2011 at 8:51 am Link to this comment

Fabulous read..

Yet there’s another take on the events so colorfully described by the excellent Mr. Fish.

The corporate hit-mam was there with the specific purpose of facilitating the exit of the young Fish. She did so with ease. Employing the simplest, hackneyed play list of questions and dramatic props.. the waving of file folders, ominous exits and re-entries.. Fish did all the work.. and his employers were left entirely without liability.

Whatever the real deficits of that woman’s appearance or personality she performed to speck and likely felt rewarded in her position both personally and financially. While the young Fish was on the street.

Certainly there’s no hint of lasting damage to the author from that experience.. and if it contributed to his talent and current career we are all beneficiaries.. But I suspect some understanding by the author of the events as I suggest they transpired.. else why the need to so thoroughly Lampoon the authoress of his


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By sarum, April 17, 2011 at 4:01 am Link to this comment

I am in love with everyone here.  Thank you thank you.

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johnnyfarout's avatar

By johnnyfarout, April 16, 2011 at 3:31 pm Link to this comment

I enjoyed reading through this confrontation and all the existential twists with this corporatist and her rather reflective prospective victim. A melancholy yet dark humor is all through the telling; appealing to us old 60’s radicals. I’m left with the impression that no monies had been stolen, just a few magazines and such that are worthless anyway. Barnes & Noble is in bankruptcy now. I’m sure many thousands are to blame, all outside of the corporate offices where the executives toiled tirelessly and passionately for penultimate and transcendent fiscal accumulation. One eye on the books, the other always on the drag-ass employees; those sad nerdy ne’er-do-wells who somehow got past the HR illiterates and were now keeping all the MBA eagles from soaring up out of their nests, which are once again cluttered with olde return receipts seemingly forever at the root of bookstore failings. Security cameras and Point of Sale investigations, ending with night sticks and flashing lights are the fantasies of capitalist enterprise collapse. Someday while she’s driving under an overpass, on her way to yet another managers desk and another warm cup of flavored coffee, a worn and thumb eared copy of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, just might bounce off her car’s windshield and there’ll be some ragged ex-employee of Barnes & Noble scurrying up the rocky scree to hide twitching in the paper littered shadows…

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By William, April 16, 2011 at 10:32 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

You are such an excellent writer….
William Brooks

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Mr. Fish's avatar

By Mr. Fish, April 16, 2011 at 9:47 am Link to this comment

Thanks, culheath, I appreciate it, truly.  And if you, or any of my other riffraffy fans, want an advance copy of my new book, Go Fish - How to Win Contempt and Influence People (, I’ll be in the Akashic Books booth at the LA Time Festival of Books signing books, kissing babies and being totally awesome.  Dig it.

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culheath's avatar

By culheath, April 16, 2011 at 6:27 am Link to this comment

Do thieves have a saint?

Jean Genet comes to mind, but he exited in ‘86, so the seat you could justifiably fill is open.

I never thought it likely that the clarity and depth of your writing would tickle me more than the liberating chuckles I got from your political cartooning. Major kudos.

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culheath's avatar

By culheath, April 16, 2011 at 6:22 am Link to this comment

Do thieves have a saint? Jean Genet comes to mind, but he exited in ‘86, so the seat you could easily fill is open.

I didn’t think it was likely, but I enjoy the clarity and depth of your writing even more than the deadly chuckles I get from your cartoons. Major kudos.

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By thethirdman, April 15, 2011 at 9:30 pm Link to this comment

I finished the last line, and immediately thought, “love it.”  Keepyourheaddown,
you beat me to the punch.

Mr. Fish (because I know for a fact that you read these), I just finished my oral
exams today, and you sir, nailed the master-slave dialectic in a way that is
relevant and welcome in this day and age.  You follow it the greatest tradition of
art: Make it new.  Thanks for making my day.

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By doublestandards/glasshouses, April 15, 2011 at 8:55 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Heddy didn’t stay with Barnes & Noble either.  Later on she became famous in the movies:

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By keepyourheaddown, April 15, 2011 at 7:28 pm Link to this comment

love it…

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