Friday, November 11, 2011

Once, I Worked at Macy's on Black Friday

Hello friends!

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, and since the holidays are on the horizon, I thought I’d post these thoughts I had recently.

Two years ago, I spent the holidays working at Macy’s. I took the job because the only work that I could find was seasonal department store work. I’d graduated from college the year before, and the job market was grim (much like it is now, but since I have a better job now, things feel a lot brighter to me than they did back then.)

The season I spent working at Macy’s taught me a lot. There’s a lot of absurdities in department stores. Working in jobs like that can make you feel pretty blue sometimes. The feeling that if you have to bag another sheet set, you might just lose your mind. The feeling that you have so much more to offer the world than your ability to stock shelves or set up ceramic ware. The feeling that nobody else sees that.

Anyway, the following was inspired by that experience (get ready, it's a long entry.) Two years down the line, I am thankfully not in the retail industry anymore. I’m finding my path, and things are looking up.

And as much as I don’t like to admit it, that job at Macy’s helped me with that. I did a lot of thinking in those stock rooms during those late night hours.

So here’s to all of you holiday workers out there stuck in customer service jobs this season. Hang in there.

The cold snapped in your lungs those nights. It came out in slow wisps that hung in the frozen air like thought bubbles. The sky was red as I walked the short distance to the doughnut shop.

The doughnut shop. The place I’d spend my dinner breaks while working at the department store. It was connected to the storage room of the department store’s kitchen department, where I worked. The room where they expected you to climb tall ladders to reach beds in bags, sheets, comforters wrapped in thick plastic. Boxes of Martha Stewart plastic ware. The storage room where sometimes I’d steal a few precious moments to lean against one of the cold walls, trying to rest my swollen feet after hours of standing. A few moments when the managers weren’t looking.

And sometimes, at special times of the day, I’d catch the storage room just right to smell the aroma of freshly fried dough goodness, wafting in through the cold concrete walls from next door. 

The doughnut shop was brand new, and even though there were a lot of places to eat in the plaza, it was the only real option for food. Every other establishment being a family-style restaurant or the like.

The shop was all sticky fingers, and noisy tissue sheets, and plastic tables, and white walls, and sugary air. It reminded me of childhood. Of when we used to make the walk to a similar doughnut shop in our Northridge, CA, neighborhood. A place where sometimes, the old woman behind the counter would give my sister and me a fritter for for free. Just because we were local kids, and we were little, and probably sweet-looking.

But things had changed a lot since those days.

The family that owned the donut shop next to Macy’s was nice. The white-haired lady that worked there during the evenings was always friendly, but nothing beyond a stiff politeness. She’d get me my coffee, my doughnut, and smile.

She left me alone during my breaks. Didn't try and start small talk, even though I was the only one sitting in the small shop. Recognizing my black outfit as a uniform of the department store next door. Seeing the way I propped my feet up on the adjoining chairs as a tell-tale sign of being in the customer service industry.

During my breaks, I’d get an apple fritter and a cup of steaming coffee. I’d take a seat by the window, keeping my jacket on. The occasional headlights outside in the parking lot the only thing breaking through my reflection in the window. Seeing the utter darkness around it. Drinking the steaming coffee. Chasing the cold I felt inside away.

I’d pull out a beaten-up journal and make lists of ideas. High-minded ideas. Like making ornately-decorated Christmas stockings, and selling them online to old ladies. Of getting an internship at a local public relations agency, and turning into a high powered PR woman. Of going back to school and becoming an archaeologist in New Mexico, uncovering ancient ruins. Of teaching English for a year in Thailand, living without a stove.

I weighed costs and profits. Happiness versus progress. Sanity versus madness. I calculated, making long columns of numbers. Money made, money spent. The secret of my future buried in those numbers.

When the dinner hour was up, I’d throw the paper coffee cup and paper plate into the trashcan, and shout a ‘thank you’ to the white-haired woman with the kind smile and hesitant eyes behind the counter. And then I’d walk back out in the cold again. The fresh air a relief in my trapped lungs. And I’d make the short trek back to the department store.

And I’d put my name tag back on, and I’d help the customers, and smile. And pretend to be busy under the watchful eyes of the home department manager who had severely short blond hair and a tattoo of a heart with the name "Kevin" etched into the aging skin of her upper arm. And I’d help the customers order a $75 crystal ornament from the main headquarters, and I’d remind them that if they got the department’s credit card, they’d save 15 percent. And I’d restock the shelves with ceramic bowls and mugs, blenders and toasters, sheets and electric blankets. Everything smelling of plastic and cardboard. Everything stale and lifeless in the home department.

And when the late night hours rolled around. When customers stopped coming through wanting things, I’d sneak away for a moment into the stockroom. I’d lean against the cold concrete walls. And I’d inhale deeply. Trying to get a whiff of the delicious sugary fried aroma that smelled like freedom in those late, hopeless hours of the night.

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