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Tuesday, 10 February
Can I Resent Helping You Today?

Like most people, I have worked my share of shitty jobs. I've talked before about my fast food experience, for example, but that was only for a month. What's inconceivably worse is, I (again, like millions of others) also put in my time in retail sales. Five years of it, to be exact.

Five years. Don't ask me how I endured it--and my heart goes out to those of you who are still doing it today--because it is, of course, fundamentally intolerable. I've never really met anyone who genuinely likes working retail, never, because the overwhelming imbecility of the job is truly taxing: most of it consists of selling (let's face it) generally tasteless, shoddy horseshit to avaricious shitpiles who are undoubtedly making more than you anyway. This, anyway, even if it happens to be untrue, is the mindset you will inevitably end up with after any amount of time spent working retail.

I used to wonder how I endured five years of this sort of awfulness, and I finally realized what I had done to get by: I lied to myself. Constantly. "Aw, it's not so bad. It's not like working at a steel mill or mining coal or something." Which is true. But it does not mean that it didn't suck, and wasn't a ghastly kind of way to spend eight hours a day five days a week. And when I finally quit--I had nothing else lined up, I just finally told myself that I couldn't do that any more--I looked back at those five years, and did some thinking, and realized, finally: Holy shit. I was fucking miserable for five entire years. And my brain--knowing this, and probably looking to stave off a host of pathologies--simply lied to itself, saying, Ah, it's not so bad. It wasn't until I finally quit that ol' brain finally relaxed and 'fessed up: Uh, sorry about this, but just so you know? That was a pretty fucked up five years, dude. Let's not do that any more.

Noted.

Anyway, here are some highlights. Again, I don't pretend that I'm unique in my special retail misery niche or anything; it's just stuff I remember. These experiences all came during my five years selling futon furniture/bedding/bath crap at an old place that used to be in the Broadway Market on Capitol Hill. It's not there any more, but they're still around somewhere.


THE CLOCK

This one is pretty bare-bones, but I recall with a strange clarity, because it was so goddamn odd.

Anyway, there I was behind the counter, more or less keeping out of the way of the customers roaming around. This would have driven the boss crazy--I was always supposed to approach each customer and begin some kind of greasy rapport, but this was a mall-ish kind of building, and of course most people were just moseying around. Plus, I learned early on to hate most people and avoid them assiduously. A woman stopped by the counter and said, "Excuse me, is that a clock?" She pointed behind me, where there was a clock on the wall.

I turned around to make sure there wasn't suddenly a dead body hanging on hooks or something I might have missed earlier. No . . . just . . . our clock.

"Yes," I said cautiously, suspecting a trick.

"Oh," she said, standing there, fascinated by our crummy plastic clock. I stared at her. Then she left.

(There are actually other similar iterations of this same story, but that one is my favorite. I learned to hate the phrase, "Is this a couch?" Invariably delivered by someone pointing at a couch. "No, it's a barbershop quartet! Hang on. If you kick it in just the right spot, it'll do a great 'Sweet Adeline'!" I don't know how many snotty retorts I bit back over five years.)

THE AMAZING BOSS-QUIETER

I worked for a volatile married couple who owned the place, but mostly for the extremely volatile husband, who at age 38 possessed the manic, purple-faced, prolapse-testing personality of a chimpanzee with a case of scorching piles. His long tenure at retail sales had also bestowed upon him a boundless supply of venom for the rotten bastards whom he routinely had to be nice to and from whose monies he derived a living. I was treated regularly to spittle-flecked rants about the "douchebags" who wandered into his store, "wasting his time" and generally just being dirty, cheap bastards who kept their wallets all shoved dismally far into their tightly locked asses.

One memorable time, in mid-rant, he wheeled on me with the look of the truly hunted, and half-screamed, "What the fuck is wrong with these people, huh? I mean, what the fuck do I have to do? Tell me what the fuck I have to do!" I made a terrible mistake and tried to employ reason: "M.," I said, "we're in a little mall in an urban center. Not everyone who comes in can afford to buy our stuff."

"They can fucking afford it," he hissed, "they just think they can fuck me out of a good deal." (This, I should point out, is memorable for me mainly because it was a sort of wake-up call: This is what I could end up being. Great.)

Some weeks later, a nice enough family came into the store while M. was there. I helped them for 45 minutes, plying them with catalogs, wood chips, finish samples, fabric swatches, the works. M. kept giving me the pisseye as he dealt with all the other customers, clearly not happy that I was allowing myself to be dicked around by Daddy and Mommy and their little brood. Finally, the family left.

"Thanks a lot for playing host to the yuppie fucks," he said. "I'm sorry, should I have brought you over some tea? Jesus Christ, they jerked you around for two fucking hours!" He was pissed off.

I said, "They just ordered three thousand dollars worth of cherry wood furniture for their den. Prepaid." M. looked at me as if I were some sort of terrible wraith who had erupted from the floor spouting netherworldly gibberish. I smiled placidy, waiting for his rat brain to process everything.

"Holy shit!" he finally said. "Let me look at that ticket!" I handed over the invoice and watched him scan over the unbelievable miracle of a purchase. Finally, he looked up at me. I waited.

"You sure let them fuck us on the delivery charge," he said dolefully.

THE BLANKET I'LL NEVER FORGET

I almost didn't write about this one, and you'll see why. It's just . . . oh, hell, you'll see. Just please realize, it really happened, and I don't intend it to be some kind of commentary or swipe or anything. It was just possibly the most surreal episode I experienced.

Okay. I was working, and the store was a fucking desert. Just nobody around. Finally, at some point, a middle-aged couple walked in, a nice black couple. They said hi, I said hi, and they wandered around, obviously just looking around. After a bit, as couples are wont to do, they started looking at different stuff. He ended up staring, obviously not giving a shit, at a bunch of pillows. She walked over to a wall display of many patterned throw blankets. Suddenly, she squealed.

"[His name, whatever that was], come over here! I want you to look at this!" He dutifully walked over to his wife to see what she was excited about. She was holding a Bob Timberlake blanket, with one of his folksy-as-shit designs on it. But not just any design.

The blanket depicted a garden scene. More specifically, a watermelon patch, rendered in dizzying greens and violent scarlets: a bunch of watermelons, sitting around in attitudes of pastoral glory.

"Look at this! Isn't this beautiful?" she exclaimed. And continued, "You know I love watermelons. Oh, lord, I love watermelons! It's so beautiful!" She went on in this vein for at least thirty seconds. "This is so beautiful. Oh, I do love watermelons. I surely do love watermelon."

I was, to put it mildly, paralyzed. I wondered if I was being filmed in some sort of malicious plot to make the leftie-leaning, filled-with-race-guilt white boy dipshit react in some deeply embarrassing way. I can't even begin to describe the awful feelings I was having: it was in one way a little funny (her reaction was so clearly genuine and felt deeply) and in another way horrible (she was unintentionally evoking a rather awful history of atrocious racial stereotyping) and in yet another way pretty revealing: Look at how little it took to instantly tie me into a bloody knotted mass of bullshit guilt and self-recrimination. I felt acutely rotten for having any of these thoughts at all. Not that there was anything I could consciously do about them. I think I lost ten pounds in that thirty seconds.

They kindly wished me good-bye as they left, and I wanly returned the sentiment, wondering yet again how I ever managed to get up in the morning.

I hope to hell I don't offend anyone with that story. I hope to hell I never have to work in retail again. And now that I don't, I can get on with better things.

Namely, I can hope to hell.


Note: Comments are closed on old entries.

Comments

I work in a music store - I think it's the only retail I could ever stand. Music's sort of my life in a way, so this is just supplemental income telling people about artists I love and listening to old ladies tell me "Oh how I love that Andrea Bocelli". The only downside is the pay, naturally, but I love it so much I'm too chicken to quit.
But I agree, I couldn't work any other retail. Especially furniture. Ugh.

Comment number: 004299   Posted by: Kat on February 10, 2004 03:45 AM from IP: 203.97.2.242

(This was about twelve years ago, so maybe things have changed)
As a female working in a comic book store I would hear *at least once a day* this statement posed as a question: "You don't know about this stuff, do you?" They were trying to find out, "if I ask you a question will I get an informed answer", or even "should I bother asking you anything?", and the amazing thing is none of them seemed to realize how insulting this was. I became a colossal bitch.

My favorite question from my next job, a used bookstore this time, came from someone looking up the stairs to the second floor. "Do these stairs go up?"

Comment number: 004300   Posted by: Barb on February 10, 2004 07:18 AM from IP: 68.157.41.14

I had a similar situation to Barb's. I used to work at a pretty posh restaurant as a host, and we'd be situated by the double set of stairs leading to the second floor. Many a time did someone come in, someone who probably had just come from their lucrative job as a lawyer or a doctor or some such thing to get a nice, expensive prime rib dinner, and ask which staircase went up.

Comment number: 004301   Posted by: Steve on February 10, 2004 09:19 AM from IP: 68.165.245.22

Not to one-down you, but I worked at a major commercial coffee establishment for 6 years (Not Starbucks). I don't have a specific story like yours, but I do have recurring instances that are worthy of repeating if only to illustrate why I fully understand the resentment and feelings you had in your retail experience.

I worked at a very busy cafe that served coffee drinks like lattes and mochas (I know I don't need to explain this, Seattle) often by the hundreds every hour. Without fail, just about every day, we would get the "clever" guy who would finally reach the front of the line literally oozing with pride over the amazing zinger he was about to unleash upon the poor unsuspecting coffee jockeys.
"What's your biggest size? Yeah that one...and could you possibly make it the leaded stuff?" As he beamed with pride over his amazing one-liner, the quip was always met by the coffee worker with the same bored look which only egged Funguy McJokerstein on even more (hmmm...maybe they didn't understand). "Yeah, just the high-test for me, I can't get going in the morning with the unleaded."
While this may seem like a small thing, if you hear it day after day for 6 years, you seriously start to lose patience with the human race as a whole.
Sorry for writing a novel, but I just wanted to let you know I feel your pain...

Comment number: 004302   Posted by: Jason on February 10, 2004 09:56 AM from IP: 206.16.5.38

Not to one-down you, but I worked at a major commercial coffee establishment for 6 years (Not Starbucks). I don't have a specific story like yours, but I do have recurring instances that are worthy of repeating if only to illustrate why I fully understand the resentment and feelings you had in your retail experience.

I worked at a very busy cafe that served coffee drinks like lattes and mochas (I know I don't need to explain this, Seattle) often by the hundreds every hour. Without fail, just about every day, we would get the "clever" guy who would finally reach the front of the line literally oozing with pride over the amazing zinger he was about to unleash upon the poor unsuspecting coffee jockeys.
"What's your biggest size? Yeah that one...and could you possibly make it the leaded stuff?" As he beamed with pride over his amazing one-liner, the quip was always met by the coffee worker with the same bored look which only egged Funguy McJokerstein on even more (hmmm...maybe they didn't understand). "Yeah, just the high-test for me, I can't get going in the morning with the unleaded."
While this may seem like a small thing, if you hear it day after day for 6 years, you seriously start to lose patience with the human race as a whole.
Sorry for writing a novel, but I just wanted to let you know I feel your pain...

Comment number: 004303   Posted by: Jason on February 10, 2004 09:58 AM from IP: 206.16.5.38

wouldn't you know it? karma.

Comment number: 004304   Posted by: Jason on February 10, 2004 10:00 AM from IP: 206.16.5.38

That's not offensive, man. Shit like that comes up, and you're just powerless to do anything but wonder in vain if they're doing it on purpose. Working at a call center crops up some interesting people that enjoy tormenting you.

Example: "Hi, I need to place an order for my boss." "Ok, what's her name?" "Jennifer WHORE." "Okaaay." That went on for about 10 minutes.

Also, if you think the people that work in retail are strange, the people that are forced to work in call centers are the dregs of humanity.

Comment number: 004305   Posted by: Shawn on February 10, 2004 10:04 AM from IP: 209.233.130.252

I had the misfortune of working retail in a department store through high school and the early college years. This was back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and cash registers were not yet computerized. That, in and of itself, was bad enough, but this particular branch of the department store (which no longer exists) was located in a suburban shopping mall in a part of the country known for its conspicuously excessive consumption of material goods.

One particular holiday season, I was stuck in the Juniors department. Although two of us were working the registers, ringing up purchases as fast as our fingers could manage, the line inevitably started growing as everyone and their retarded sister was making their last minute holiday purchases for little Janie who clearly had been so good she deserved an entire truckload of Junior fashions.

Most of the customers were understanding and pleasant enough when they finally reached the front of the line. They could see that we were doing the best we could, and it was the goddamn holiday season, after all, full of peace and good will toward men and all that crap.

The first question I asked every customer when they reached the front of the line was "Will this be cash, check or credit?" so I could begin the appropriate register transaction. One particularly memorable customer was so pissy that she couldn't even allow the complete sentence to escape my lips before hurling her credit card across the counter at my face.

I ducked to avoid losing an eye, and muttered "Oh, credit, I see," as I bent down to pick up the offending card from the floor where it landed. In my head, I finished "Like I'm a fucking mind-reader, you bitch!" She stood there, lips pinched together in a snarl the entire transaction, without ever deigning to say a word. Clearly, I was somehow personally responsible for the fact that there were other people doing their holiday shopping at the same time (you know, during store hours) and getting in her way, like I had called everyone I knew to rush down to the store because I knew she was coming or something.

"Happy Holidays and thank you for shopping at Woodward & Lothrop!" I chirped cheerily when finished with her transaction. She grabbed her bags off the counter and huffed out of the department. The next five customers on line who had witnessed her behavior commented on how rude she had been, and commiserated about what a hellish job I had. It was almost enough to make me believe in the goodness of people again. But not quite.

I would poke my eyes out with rusty forks before EVER working retail during the holdays again.

Comment number: 004306   Posted by: Suzanne on February 10, 2004 12:04 PM from IP: 63.187.243.254

I, thank heavens never worked retail. I count my lucky stars that I haven't had to (yet).

I have worked in the food service industry, marked notibly by the demanding 10 year old with her family in our town for a summer visit "to the country" from what I could only assume was NYC (you'll see why in a moment.)

Me, to father: Hi, what kind of sanwiches would you like (they were all made to order and all named after books or something equally silly.)
Father: Hm well, one Brideshead Revisited, one Scarlet Letter, and ...
Little NYC Brat: DADDEEE, I want LOX and CREAM CHEESE. I reaaaaly want LOX and if I don't get LOX this will be the worst day EVER!
Me: Well, we don't really have lox as a sandwich.
LNYCB: BUT I WANT LOX!
Me: We sell lox by the package in the deli, if you want you can buy a package and I'll put it on bread with some cream cheese for you.
Father: *weary look* That would be great.

$20 later, that brat only ate a third of her sandwich.

I won't even get into the stories from being a bank teller. Take the retail experience, add personal finances. Voila! Instant verbal abuse! :^)

Comment number: 004307   Posted by: One on February 10, 2004 01:04 PM from IP: 63.165.136.132

My ex worked for a long stretch at a used CD store in a dodgy neighborhood. Topping even the guy who walked in, looked around for a long moment at the racks of CDs, then asked "Where's the bread at?", the greatest customer EVER was the toothless hooker who came in at nine o'clock in the morning trying to sell a scratched Bryan Adams CD with no case. After being told it was worthless (used Bryan Adams CDs having, in Canada, the approximate retail value of pubic lice), she tried to bargain: "Come on. Five bucks. And I'll give you a blowjob."

Comment number: 004308   Posted by: Robin on February 10, 2004 01:37 PM from IP: 198.103.152.3

I think I need to put a tagline generator on this blog.

Izzle Pfaff: Come on. Five bucks. And I'll give you a blowjob.

Priceless.

Comment number: 004309   Posted by: Cat on February 10, 2004 02:23 PM from IP: 208.27.203.128

Lordy. Retail. I'm a wage slave in a grocery store, and looking at the people who have been there for twenty-plus years is absolutely frightening. I used to work in the deli, and I have never experienced the desire to get a degree so much as when I was being screamed at for not identifying a type of "salad" fast enough. Those three months there taught me more about empathy and compassion than a million Buddhist texts.

Comment number: 004310   Posted by: Alice on February 10, 2004 05:09 PM from IP: 63.191.241.254

To add to my previous (reply to Suzanne):

We always get people like that who just shove the CD and the money at you (or card) and stand there. If they don't say anything, I generally say, "I'm sorry, do you want to buy this?" so I can at least squeeze a word out of them. And I always say "Have a nice day" to each customer, even if they're shits.

Some people just think because we work in retail we're just minions who are so below them. Hell, I have high qualifications and could be working somewhere stuck in a stuffy office but I'd rather be SERVING YOU MUSIC.

Comment number: 004311   Posted by: Kat on February 10, 2004 10:02 PM from IP: 203.97.2.242

I know what you mean, Kat.

I think it was the fact that she actually threw it at my head (with force), as opposed to silently placing it on the counter or handing it to me that was such an affront. She was like a spoiled four-year-old throwing some sort of bizarrely silent credit-card shopping tantrum.

I've also worked in the food service industry, as well. Service-oriented positions just royally suck on prinicipal due ot the overwhelming number of people who seem to think that those of us unlucky enough to serve them are somehow sub-human and inherently inferior, not even deserving of the most basic decency or human respect.

The custimer is not always right. Not by a longshot.

Comment number: 004312   Posted by: Suzanne on February 11, 2004 12:00 AM from IP: 63.187.241.208

I know what you mean, Kat.

I think it was the fact that she actually threw it at my head (with force), as opposed to just placing it on the counter or handing it to me that was such an affront. She was like a spoiled four-year-old throwing some sort of bizarrely silent credit-card shopping tantrum.

I've also worked in the food service industry, as well. Service-oriented positions just royally suck on prinicipal due to the overwhelming number of people who seem to think that those of us unlucky enough to serve them are somehow sub-human and inherently inferior, not even deserving of the most basic decency or human respect.

The customer is NOT always right. Not by a longshot...

Comment number: 004313   Posted by: on February 11, 2004 12:04 AM from IP: 63.187.241.208

Sorry for the apparent double post. So much for the preview function...

You are now entering the Twilight Zone...

Comment number: 004314   Posted by: Suzanne on February 11, 2004 12:11 AM from IP: 63.187.241.208

I spent a year working in the
cosmetic department at Nordstrom
and women would come to my counter
at 8:50pm knowing full well the
store closed at 9 and demand a
FULL face of makeup and TPTB at
Nordies would keep our floor open
until I finished. 9 times out of 10
the makeup-ee wouldn't buy anything
just waltz out of the store
after demanding samples from as
many lines as possible.
Don't even get me started on
the nasty, dog-hair encrusted,
USED makeup people brought back
and got full-refunds for.
Such good times! I

Comment number: 004315   Posted by: anne on February 11, 2004 10:22 AM from IP: 162.84.128.230

i've waited tables at various restaurants for a combined total of three years. my favorite customer is the one who, when you come up to greet the table, reply with a drink order.

"hi, how are you?"
"iced tea."
"i'm feeling a bit iced tea today, too. can i get you something to drink?"

or, when you drop off the entrees and say, "does everything look okay?"
"ketchup."
"ketchup to you, too, sir."

Comment number: 004316   Posted by: alison on February 12, 2004 10:28 AM from IP: 64.219.196.199

I've been lucky enough to never have a job that I've hated yet (it will come, I know, I'm not that naive), but man oh man, I still get furious when I see people treating their waiters and/or salespeople like something on the bottom of their shoe. Especially considering the waiter can't help that your food sucks, and the person at the register can't help that the lines are long. They're people, for fuck's sake, not super robots with bizarre magical powers.

I've worked with small children, though. They're just as thankless and obnoxious at times. And just as irrational, often with a great sense of entitlement. So it's not an entirely foreign concept to me.

Comment number: 004317   Posted by: CG on March 8, 2004 11:32 PM from IP: 68.160.206.167

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