My very first job was at a record store in the mall. It was the mid-90s and I just graduated from high school and it was the coolest. Back then we could wear whatever we wanted. We could also open up any CD we wanted to play in the store. If someone brought a CD to us and was unsure if they wanted to buy the whole album or just the CD single (ha!), we would just open the whole CD and let them listen to it on the overhead. That was the greatest summer ever.
When I went to college in Chicago, I continued to work at another branch of the record store part time. By then, uniforms had been adopted, but we still could open whatever CD we wanted to play in the store. The manager also played bizarre Hentai cartoon porn on the monitors after hours as we closed up, which was also awesome. There, I learned how to do returns and exchanges and that the Japanese really love tentacles.
I only worked at that location for a few months because unlike the suburban mall locations, we kept getting robbed at gunpoint and that sort of took away from the whole experience. I switched to working part-time at a local pizza place that was frequented by the police and got to watch a lot of old Shakira videos from before she learned English with the back-of-the-house cooks instead.
The summer of my freshman year I moved back home and got a job at yet another one of the record store’s locations. This time it was a free-standing store in a burb about a 15-minute drive from my house. The uniforms remained and we could no longer open whatever CD we wanted to play. Instead, we were treated to the corporate headquarter’s mix CD of popular songs of the day, played over and over and over and over and over and over again. We now had scripted dialogue and sales quotas to fill. How many cassette singles can one actually sell? Why would anyone want a cassette single to begin with? At $0.49 each on sale, a lot of people, actually. My High Fidelity job was slowly morphing into an uncool corporate lamefest overly structured by The Man. They probably don’t even listen to music! They don’t know, you know? They just don’t know.
One day, I was alphabetizing CDs somewhere between Kris Kristofferson and Talib Kweli when my co-worker John walked up to me. John was very tall and very blonde and incredibly even-keeled. His hair could have been on fire and he would have said, “My hair is on fire” in the exact way he would have said “It is 3 o’clock.”
John walked up to me and stood there, not saying anything. “Say You’ll Be There” played overhead. He stared.
“What?” I asked.
“Um. Did you see who I just rang up?” he said.
I looked toward the front where the cash registers were. There was no one there.
If you were born between 1930 and 1990, you probably have heard of Walter Payton at some point in time. If you were a football fan, you probably knew him as one of the most prolific running backs in the history of American football. If you were from Chicago and lived there during the 1980s, Walter Payton was a God. You know someone who has a story about him. The number 34 will always stand out to you. You know the Superbowl Shuffle by heart, with Payton leading the song with his first, awful rap. You swore by Ditka instead of Jesus. This wasn’t about sports, this was who we were.
“Walter Payton? Wait. You’re telling me you just rang up Walter Payton?”
I didn’t stick around to hear what John was going to say next. I dropped the Kajagoogoo and Kid Rock CDs in my hands and threw John to the floor in my effort to reach the front of the store. Throwing myself against the the window, I saw a black Porche backing out of its parking space. Its license plates read “SWEETNES.”
My mouth dropped open. I watched the Porche drive out of the parking lot and turn into the street. A group of teenagers that had just parked had noticed the Porche, too, and they stared at it as they entered the store.
“Was that–” one of the kids began.
“Walter Payton!!” I yelped. “That was Walter Payton and he was in here!” I hadn’t even seen the man but just the fact that I was breathing the same air that he had only moments before sent me into a frenzy. I had to call my Dad.
I picked up the phone and dialed home. John casually walked up to join me at the registers. I began to tell my Dad about the whole thing when John pointed at the window.
“Walter Payton’s back.”
I spun around. Sure enough, the black Porche was back in the parking lot, parking.
“OHMYGODWALTERPAYTONISBACKDADIGOTTAGO!” I slurred and slammed down the phone. John, the group of teenagers and I stared. There was silence except for “Return of the Mack” blaring in surround sound. The car door opened. A man got out. His image was obscured by the large stupid logo splattered on the store’s window. The door opened. Walter Payton walked into the store.
We were paralyzed.
Walter Payton walked up to the counter. He pulled out a CD from the store’s logoed bag and looked it over.
“Hey guys,” he said, “I was debating between two CDs and on second thought, I think I should have bought the other one instead,” he said.
We were statues.
The teenagers made their move.
“Sweetness!” they yelled, and Walter Payton broke into a huge smile.
“Hey guys, how’s it going?” He began to shake hands and slap backs and the kids asked him for autographs. No one had any paper, so he suggested we pull out some cash register printer paper for him to sign. Obviously he had done this before and was more than happy to do it again.
After he visited a bit with the kids, he turned to us again. I remember thinking that he was incredibly short. The CD he had decided against the first time was still behind the counter. John picked it up and handed it to him.
“This one?” he asked.
Walter Payton took the CD and examined it briefly. “Yeah, this is the one. I should have gone with this one. Can I exchange them?”
“Sure,” John said. He handed me both CDs since I was the one who handled exchanges. I took them both and looked at them.
They were “Slow Jams: The Definitive Collection,” and “Body + Soul Vol. 2: Turn Off The Lights.”
Walter Payton was looking to get it on.
I began to ring him up and do the exchange. When I was done scanning it, Walter Payton took his new CD and put it back in his original bag.
“Oh wait,” said John. “We have to unlock the security case on it first or else the alarm will go off. We wouldn’t want to have to frisk you!”
“Oh, I don’t think I’d let you frisk me!” Walter Payton said, laughing. “But I’d let her frisk me,” he said, looking at me with that 100 watt smile. “Hi Jill,” he said.
He said my name. Walter Payton read my name tag and said my name.
“Hi…. Walter Payton.” I said.
(Note: This would begin a freakishly coincidental theme in the few celebrity encounters that I have had, which will be discussed later.)
Though it sounds bad, it was totally non-creepy and completely funny and endearing, making him even more likeable, if possible. I completed the exchange, giggling like a moron and put his CD back into the bag. He signed autographs for us and said goodbye, smiling from ear to ear and left.
We watched Sweetness get into his Porche and drive away. I was so happy I was vibrating. I called my Dad and told him everything and spent the rest of the afternoon back in the K section floating on cloud nine.
At 9 PM the last customer left the store and we locked up the front door. We began cleaning and restocking for the night, closing out the registers and wiping down the counters.
There was a knock at the front door.
“Walter Payton is back,” John said nonchalantly, glancing up from sweeping.
I turned around to see Walter Payton again, waving in the darkness from the other side of the glass door. I unlocked it and opened the door.
“Hi again!” he said, cheerfully. “You accidentally put both the old CD and the one I exchanged it for back in the bag and realized it after I got home. Here you go!” He handled me the Slow Jams album and waved, walking back to his Porche.
“Thank you!” I called after him into the darkness. I couldn’t believe it. This super famous mulit-millionaire sports icon had taken the time to drive all the way back to a dumb record store to return a $14.99 CD that he accidentally got for free, something no one had or would ever have noticed due to our starstruckness.
I had heard many stories about Walter Payton, mostly testimonials from other famous people on TV, some from friends and family who also had run-ins with him out and about in Chicago. All of them painted the same picture of a genuinely warm, humble, funny man who always took time to talk to his fans. A class act all the way. We could now add “honest” to the list.
“That was awesome,” John said.
“Yeah,” I said.
I watched Walter Payton drive off one final time from the music store, me filled with an indescribable something that would last to this day, he only two short years away from his tragic and premature death. But that night, Walter Payton was ready to set the mood for romance with the most passionate soul songs ever written, gathered together in one tantilizing collection.
Images courtesy of: amazon.com/Slow-Definitive-Collection-Various-Artists, knowyourmeme.com/photos/164068-ive-seen-enough-hentai-to-know-where-this-is-going, chicagoparent.com/community/the-self-aware-parent/2011/october/sweetness-in-life-lessons-from-walter-payton and timelife.com/products/body-and-soul