Radio Shack: “Is this stuff any good?”

My last two posts (skipping over the one regarding comics) mentioned Radio Shack in one form or another, so I thought I would complete the trilogy with this one.  As you may recall reading, I worked at Radio Shack in the early 90s.  It was minimum wage plus poor commission, so basically ended up being minimum wage — but it allowed me to play with equipment I could not afford at the time and buy some of it at a discount.  I learned a lot there, both about technology and people.  The particular Radio Shack in which I worked was across the street from a high school.  In fact, I believe I was still going to that school when I started the Radio Shack job, working weekends, then transitioned to fulltime-ish in the summer.  I think.  But my memory of such things is sometimes poor and I digress.

The Radio Shack sat in the back corner of a strip mall across from a high school.  Kids from the high school rarely ventured into the ‘Shack.  There was a great record store, a burrito place, a fast-food joint, and other less-nerdy things to keep them occupied in that very same strip-mall.  Occasionally, we’d get the nerdy kid in looking for a serial port adapter or pack of 100K resistors.  Sometimes the non-nerdy kids wanted what I might call party supplies: stereos, strobe lights, or if their family was rich enough, a fancy newfangled CD player.  But these were typically trips with the whole family, with daddy buying the products.  Most of the kids that ventured into the Radio Shack without adults were interested in two things.  And by “interested,” I do mean “interested in obtaining” and not necessarily “interested in purchasing.”  They wanted the blowtorch (or refill cartridges) or they wanted canned air.

I do have to admit that the blowtorch was pretty cool.  I cannot find a picture to convey the coolness of the blowtorch. It was little more than a feed-tube with burner strapped around a small metal cannister containing the gas.  The industrial design was raw, as if it took design cues from the International Space Station.  I had one (employee discount!), but never found a practical use for it.  The teenagers were always after those torches and refill cartridges. Come inventory time (a very painful manual process that we had to go through a couple of times a year), we would often find that lots of refills had gone missing throughout the year.  I have no idea what they did with those blowtorches.  Maybe they were just attracted to the power and coolness of the flame.  There were rumors throughout the Radio Shack stores that those torches were for crack pipes, but I lived in an area where crack was something you heard about on Public Service Announcements on TV.  Nobody even had a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend’s-former-roommate that had used it.  I think it was pretty much off of everyone’s radar.

Canned air, however, was something that apparently teens “did” instead of crack in my ‘hood.  That was the second product that they were after from Radio Shack.  There was usually a carton of canned air out on a shelf next to the various cleaning and soldering products.  As with the blowtorch refills, they would come up short at inventory time. Between the inventory loss and a corporate mandate that only adults could buy it, it got moved behind the counter and was only available upon request.  And this setup leads me into the title of this story.

One afternoon I was behind the counter and two kids came in.  I keep using “kids” even though I was likely about the same age, perhaps a year or two older.  I’m guessing that this was just after I had graduated and they probably had a year or two to go.  They were a bit grungy — a guy and, presumably, his girlfriend.  I was sure I had seen them a few times before.  Repeat customers.  Or possibly repeat thieves.  Of course they went straight for the shelves with the spraycans (where the canned air had formerly been).  You could see them get visibly puzzled.  Their regular stuff was not there.  They started going through all the cans, picking one up, looking at the label, looking at the fine print on the label, putting it down, going to the next one.  They slid a few cans out of the way, thinking that perhaps the canned air got shoved to the back of the shelf.  I think that at one point, they even sat on the floor to further ponder the selection of canned products.  There was some muted discussion that I was not privy to.

The pair finally came to the counter with an aerosol can.  The guy holding the can plopped it on the counter and asked in a slightly far-off voice “is this stuff any good, man?”  I took a look at the can labeled “Contact Cleaner/Degreaser” and had to struggle to find an acceptable answer.  Contact cleaner is nasty stuff.  I forget if it’s acidic or caustic, but it’s at one of the ends of the pH scale.  You would use it on things like rotary switches (remember when TVs had real dials???) to eat away any dust or grease that might have slipped between the contacts, preventing a solid connection.  Of course, the implied question was “is this stuff as good as the canned air, man?”  How do you answer that?  I assumed that huffing it would probably result in a trip to the hospital — but the teenage me had no idea how to convey that without sounding like a druggy or uncool-adult.  “Well, it’s a good cleaner.  It’s strong and does its job well.” What more do you say?

“Okay, man, I’ll take it.”

I rang up the sale and he reached in his pocket and grabbed a handful of change.  He counted out a few dollars in loose change and set it on the counter.  They walked off without the receipt.  Aside from the mumbled conversation, I never heard the girl say anything.  Although I had seen them several times in the past, I never saw them again.  I’m guessing that the cleaner/degreaser wasn’t any good.

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Brian Enigma

Brian Enigma is a Portlander, manipulator of atoms & bits, minor-league blogger, and all-around great guy. He typically writes about the interesting “maker” projects he's working on, but sometimes veers off into puzzles, software, games, local news, and current events.

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