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I Don’t Regret My ’90s Barcode Tattoo Because It’s the Manager’s Override At CVS

Not many people still appreciate the tattoo they got at a friend’s kitchen table during a house party. My friend Itchy Phil brought a machine he ordered on eBay, and I had Jose Cuervo for the first time. Teenage impulsiveness, tequila, and a love of Neal Stephenson’s book lead me to get a barcode on my wrist. Somehow, with no training, experience, or reference materials, Itchy managed a perfect rendering of the CVS manager code completely by accident. It seemed like divine intervention running through his filthy hands.

That summer, I ended up working at the photo counter at CVS and one shift my friend Brown scanned it just to see what would happen. Shockingly, the manager’s menu popped up on the register screen. Now we could open the till with no-sales, override age restrictions, and apply discounts, basically, every simple thing a cashier isn’t allowed to do, without paging a manager.

At first, we just used it to shut up shitty customers whining about expired coupons, give some ExtraBucks Rewards to nice customers, and employee discounts to customers who looked like they needed it. And we got away with it! I wasn’t stupid enough to outright steal cash from the drawer and it didn’t work for the actual pharmaceuticals, but I did start getting bolder. When my friends came in for cigarettes, beer, or cloves I would card them in the sense that I asked for a “card,” but when it came time to enter a birth date in a wild coincidence, everyone was a bicentennial baby born on July 4, 1976. I did pretty well charging five bucks a transaction.

CVS was closing its photo centers by the time I went off to art school, but I still used the barcode as an underage customer. My schtick was to look for the friendliest cashier at the busiest time and chat them up. After scanning the alcohol, I’d do the, “You know what I’ve always wondered if my tattoo would scan, would you mind?” and I made their day and no one cares about age anymore. This wasn’t as lucrative in the art school dorms, but I did okay as the sugary wine and Robitussin connection.

It just got too complicated and I lived closer to a Rite-Aid until they brought in self-checkout and CVS became my grocery store, liquor store, toy store, and electronics store, all with a 20% discount! I was living in a rough neighborhood at the time, but I managed to make peace with my tweaker neighbors by keeping them stocked with Sudafed since I could easily override the five-box limit.

CVS has since installed cameras on the registers, so I’ve slowed down, plus I’m mostly buying baby formula and diapers there now.

I look back on that fateful night when my friends got alien heads and tribal bands inked into their skin and I know I made the right choice.