Grey conspiracy: We are in this Together

 by Alan Haskvitz

Harold felt old. The cold air dried his skin, ached his joints, and disgruntled his nature. Harold was old.

He pushed open the heavy door of the department store and felt the warm, gooish air envelop him. Once inside he stopped and slowly searched for the men’s section much to the disgust of the other shoppers who had to sidestep him he bent over to read the labels in the dim fluorescent light.

Harold walked, looked, and sensed an annoyance from others at his pace. He revealed in it a bit and wasn’t offended by the negative reaction to his actions. He had many younger driver try to cut him off on the highway because his speed wasn’t to their liking. He lived for the stoplights where he would catch them and give them the evil smile he had perfected  over the years. Having reached nearly 70 years of age he had developed a belief in himself that was  granitized by having survived. He may not be fast, but he was steady and reliable.

Ruth was looking at her watch yet again. It was her grandmother’s watch and it would be a prized possession of her grand daughter in a few years. She liked to stay busy working at the store as it made time pass more quickly. It also suited her ego as she enjoyed showing the younger clerks what a real worker should be like. Ruth was religious, took pleasure in the rare visit from her now grown children, and was described by others as warm and honest. They simply did not know her.

Harold viewed the isles of all department stores as gates that forced one into areas that he did not want to wander. One of his pastimes was to watch others being guided down the store paths that circled the store’s generous offerings rather than just walking through the smaller isles to the section of want. Watching is what Harold liked to do most. He wasn’t so good at participating.

Ruth saw Harold coming. She didn’t know him, but she knew the type. The gray hair, slow gait, and hardened eyes enlarged by glasses that had been upgraded yearly to offset the thickening corneas. To her he was not handsome or ugly. She had long ago banished such observations to those under 40. Now her labeling was simply based on the observer’s medical condition.

Harold saw Ruth and walked directly to her. He noted her appearance without prejudice. She was a salesperson. In his younger days he would probably have not been attracted to her, but now he saw someone he could identify with. Someone who wasn’t threatening or likely to ignore him.

“May I help you, sir?” Ruth asked with a self-taught smile.

“ I’m looking for some gloves. The type they used to make. They had a wool insert, were leather, and there was an adjustable strap on them. I need that kind. My hands are real big and they get cold in this dam damp weather, “ Harold asked.

“I have not seen that type in a long time. Maybe something over here would be satisfactory?” Ruth recommended as she slowly led him to a small selection of gloves near the belts and watchbands. She was hoping that the younger clerks would notice how she was willing to help this customer even when it would mean little to her sales commission.

Harold tried a few on while she watched. His hands were big, but what puzzled Ruth the most was the crooked fingers and scars that could not be covered by the stretched and thinning skin.

“What did you do for a living?”

“ Lot’s of things. Started on a farm, later worked in a junkyard, and after the war I got a good job making steel. Too bad the place went belly up. To much Chinese imports boss said.”

Harold liked to talk about the past.

Ruth listened carefully. Her husband had also faced a hard life and she recognized the need to be a good listener.

Her husband had died after a full life, but little financial success. She was the first man she had known and the last. Ruth took pride in that fact and kept it that way until she passed away quietly. Her family divided up her slim belongings and kept her memory alive, but not well.

Harold started rummaging through the pile of gloves.Near the bottom of the pile he found a pair of woolen mittens. He smiled to himself in self-appreciation.

“I’ll take these.”He dug into another pile and located a pair of large leather gloves. “And I’ll take these.”

She had seen what he had done and laughed.

“So you made yourself a good old pair.”

“Yep, and they fit darn well, too.” I bet “OJ would be proud.”

She couldn’t help but laugh. Not too many of the other workers would have even understood the sly joke.

She smiled as she walked back to the register. The word darn brought back memories. She remembered her mother scolding her father for using the term.

Ruth started to ring up the purchase. She looked at him again as he fumbled in his wallet. He had already calculated the cost and had opened an old coin holder to get the exact change out.

It was not a rash decision by Ruth, but one derived of camaraderie and a hatred of the corporate system that had chosen greed as its god and reduced human life to one of haves and have nots. She hadn’t acted on this impulse before, but, as she looked at this age-weakened fellow survivor, clinging to the edge of a society that tolerated him until his Social Security check was spent, she decided to act.

“That’s is $5.78.”

He looked at her.That was not the correct price for the gloves. He was puzzled. Had she had forgotten the second pair?

“Did you get these?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you having a sale?”

You might say so, Ruth said nervously. Her idea, so strong a few minutes ago, was weakening as it appeared that this might not have been the man to start her act of corporate sabotage.

“Okay, Harold finally answered, smiling at the bargain.

She handed him the change and watched him count it.


Ruth was not given to excessive talking, but this time she could not hold herself.

“We are in this together.”

Their eyes meet briefly and without a word they both knew that a good deed had been done.

Harold took the bus home, trying his gloves on, exploring their workmanship, and wondering, a lot.

The gloves went well with his security guard uniform and they were truly warm. As he wandered around the large discount store parking lot he felt stronger wearing them. Harold had worked this job for over five years supplementing his government benefit check and giving him a sense of existence.

Since the cold wave there wasn’t too much fooling around in the parking lot so he went inside. It was a lasting decision.

Instinct also was a strong point for Harold and as he walked to the change room he decided to stand there for no apparent reason. The woman was Mexican, old, and weathered. Harold knew she was stealing something and so he followed her. His walkie-talkie went off and he answered

“What’s up?”

“Harold, see that woman in front of you?”

“Of course.”

“We have her on tape putting something in her purse. When she goes outside check her out. Think your man enough?”

Harold did not answer. He was used to the jokes and jabs about his age, but the company knew he would be there Mondays and after long weekends and kept him on the payroll. They also knew he would be hard pressed to find any other job and so his position and salary remained at the entry level. It peeved him, but he liked the idea of moving around and the prescription discounts.

Outside, he asked the woman to stop. She was shaking.

Harold knew she was a shoplifter. He had done this many times before. But usually it was a teenager or a gang member and they seldom stopped. He just followed them at a safe distance copied down the license number of the vehicle and called it into the supervisor. This was different. She had stopped.

“Open up your bag,” Harold said cautiously.

The woman compiled. Inside were some underwear, a bra, and a pair of socks. He started to take them out and he noticed his own gloves. They were so comfortable he had almost forgotten he was wearing them. “What’s your name?” Mary she said softly, head down.

The well-worn women stood still before him, head down, ashamed, and yet cornered. For some reason Harold turned her against the car so that the video cameras could not record the action.

“What do you have in there, Mary? “

“I don’t have any money for new ones.”She was too embarrassed, even at her age, to name the garments in front of a man.

Harold looked at her and the conspiracy took it next victim.

“We are in this together.”

She looked up, her brown eyes misty and searching for meaning in his words. She had not noticed his face  before. It was not polite to look at men outside her family. She reached for his gloved hand and squeezed it.

A few seconds after she drove off the walkie-talkie squawked to life.

“What happened? Get yourself a date?”

“Better get your camera pointed at some younger women, “ Harold replied. He had done his job.

Mary didn’t speak English well. She had tried to exchange the items in her purse, but the sales clerk was on the phone and didn’t understand what she wanted to do. She had receipts, but no one seemed to care so she simply exchanged the wrong sized items for the correct ones.

Mary drove home. She went to Mass the next day and asked the priest what “We are in this together,” meant. He told her that it related to the Bible and it was all about God. Mary liked that answer.

On Monday,  Mary went to her job at the dry cleaners. It was hot and the hours were long. Everyone seemed to be in a rush and many times her boss would criticize her because a customer had said her work had damaged an old garment. Mary knew the drill and so did her boss. If he yelled at her the customer felt better and her boss would give the customer a free credit slip. Everyone knew the old garment was ruined before it was brought in, but business was business.

The old couple walked in with their yellow receipt and waited for Mary to find the dry cleaned items. There were ten of them. Mainly tattered shirts and blouses. But in the middle was a double hanger with an old wedding dress. She checked it and the heavily laced dress was part of the order. She decided to double check and took off the receipt and walked back to the front where the couple was waiting.

“Did you have a wedding dress? “

“Yep,” the gray haired man replied.

“My wife here wore it 60 years ago and now my niece is going to wear it for her wedding. Makes us proud.”

The woman was smiling as her husband  explained the gown.

“I’ll get it for you,” Mary said and went to back into the store to get the garments. The gown cost nearly $50 to clean and the other items came to about $20.

She brought the items to the front, hung them up, and called to her boss.

He came with anger in his walk. He had heard Mary’s call before and knew what it meant.

In Spanish she said that the customer was a regular and was very unhappy because the lace on the designer wedding gown was ruined. He glared at her, grabbed the receipt, and smiled at the customer.

“Thanks for coming here. I heard what happened and you don’t have to pay for the cleaning of the dress.”

The old couple was jubilant.

Mary took the money for the few shirts and blouses and handed them the change.

“We are all in this together, ” she said softly

Ruth meet her friends for coffee and told them what she had done. They were not all in agreement, but some  started to organize and the subversion spread.

The Grey Conspiracy it difficult to spot. After all, you are dealing with the most experienced workers in the world. They have built every company, built every road, and filled every position for decades. They knew how things were. That is except for computerization. But that hurdle didn’t last for long.

Ruth had small cards made up in large font that read, “We are in this together.” She even wrote out the rules. If you needed something, really needed something, you would show the card and ask the person if they knew what it meant. If they said, “We are in this together” the person in need would get a discount or the item for free, illegal or not.

The older generation was wrestling back control of their world.

Of course, it did not take long for management to notice something was wrong. Old people were coming in looking for older clerks. Everything was balanced, but something was wrong. How could old people be beating the system?

Elliott felt foolish working in the computer store. He could not keep up with the newest trends in technology. Everyday Elliott was ignored at work and his ideas shredded. He was trained as a computer programmer, but nowadays that was done by younger people. Elliott wanted to help people, but his pace was too slow. He restocked and occasionally reprogrammed a computer so that it worked a little more efficiently, but no one seemed to notice.

And yet,  Elliott ultimately saved the movement.

The old man came up to Elliott and showed him the card. Elliott had no idea what to say and so there would be no discount. But old people kept searching him out and giving him the cards. They were all looking for help fixing their computers.

“What do you people want with those cards?”Elliott asked in frustration as a customer holding on to a walker presented her card to him.

“We look after one another. Why don’t you come to one of our meetings,” she suggested.

There must have been a hundred people there. All old, and none looked rich. Ruth gave her speech, asked for their opinions, and sat down. There were no opinions until Elliott spoke up.

“I don’t like this, but I can see your point. The problem is with inventory control. How are you going to not get caught?”

Ruth explained. We just overcharge the young people. Sometimes they complain and we apologize, after all we are old. Most times they just sign and leave. We do have a problem with the inventory, though. The cash drawer always balances, but the inventory is off.  We say it is shoplifting.”

Elliott thought for a while and smiled. “I think I can help.”

It was not the greatest website in the world, but to conspiracy members, it was the best. Working alone in his bachelor apartment, Elliott would scan every bar code he could find. He the codes  on his site with a description. The conspiracy members brought him piles of bar codes and he worked long hours perfecting his program. It was a challenge and he loved it.

Meanwhile, no one ever looked twice at an old people looking in dumpsters and putting slips of paper into their Wal-Mart bags. Old people and dumpsters weren’t an unusual pairing.

The website went on line without any fanfare. It was a secret and by utilizing several servers around the world Elliott kept it that way.

Word got around in a slow, unhurried way. Old people would go to the website, find the items that they needed, and print out the codes. They would paste the codes to the back of the “We are in this together” card and go from store to store that handled that item looking for a member. They knew it was only to be used in extreme circumstances. No one wanted to ruin it for the others.

All they needed to do was find a member working as a cashier.  It was a simple matter to take the card, place it on the item, and let slide it across the reader so it would record the reduced price.

When the inventory figures came out they would match. If any problems emerged they would be recognized by the younger management team as a computer problem and phone calls would be made.

Over time the movement spread and vitamins, support hose, and even sturdy shoes and a suit for a grandson’s wedding were given these “senior discounts.”  It got so that when a gray haired individual walked into a store a gray haired clerk would often seek them out.

Now mind you, this wasn’t done at the small stores. This is a conspiracy against the sprawling, big box, impersonal ones. It exists today anywhere you see a survivor in need. A survivor who helped build a great country and who only wants to die warm and comfortable.

Harold and Ruth never meet again and never needed too.