[Note: This story is still a work-in-progress]
It’s funny how everyone starts out working at Barrington’s by saying, “I’m not preppy and I’m never going to wear a polo.” But then that first shipment arrives, they discover the joys of sorting through the new stock, and voila, another Barrington’s prepster is born. My own personal fashion decisions have become incredibly limited after three years’ of Barrington’s employee discounts. I can buy brand new clothing for less than I’d pay at thrift stores, so I stock up. But now every morning it’s the same thing—do I wear the blue polo or the red?
Working at the Mall, even at a nice store like Barrington’s, isn’t how I envisioned my life. I had big plans after high school—attend the university, teach English, get married, have a couple of kids, maybe a dog in a nice little fenced yard. Didn’t somebody—one of the Beatles, maybe—say that life’s what happens when you make other plans?
Regardless, here I am, surrounded each day with the trappings of a rich preppy lifestyle that isn’t mine—folding polos, sorting argyle socks, and hanging up cable-knit cardigans. Working retail is more than a little monotonous. Day after day there’s more of the same that only really gets remembered in snippets. The high or low points of the day, usually.
* * *
This morning’s bus ride was quiet. It was still dark and starting to rain. The streetlights flickered by, illuminating circles of wet sidewalk. Other early risers were hunkered down under their umbrellas, waiting for the bus. For the most part, I enjoy public transit. It gives me a chance to connect with the community in ways I never did when I drove a car. But I especially enjoy uninterrupted time for reading. Lately I’d been working my way through Russian authors; Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were my favorites. My co-workers at Barrington’s often tease me about reading in the breakroom, wondering why I’m not reading People or Vogue like everyone else.
This morning, I was the first employee to arrive. I unlocked the chain link gate, turned on the lights, and headed back to the employee area. There was a handmade game board hanging over the breakroom table. Someone had evidently been feeling crafty. I glanced at the game’s details while I took off my coat and put my purse and novel in my locker.
In big red letters the game stated, “Be the First to Cross the Credit Card Finish Line!” There were a number of cartoon cars with everyone’s names on them. It was another stupid game our store manager was always devising to increase credit card sales. Oh, such fun. It was supposedly an encouraging activity to keep us motivated, but everyone knew what was really at stake. When these games are over, there won’t be prizes for the winners—whoever comes in last will be given a strong verbal warning. Or worse. I hate playing these “Who’s Going to Get Fired?” games.
Corporate must be coming down hard on our store manager to either increase sales or decrease sales people. It happens every February—‘tis the season for after-Christmas layoffs. Fa la la la.
* * *
It feels like the start of a horserace when the store opens in the morning. The gate slides noisily into the ceiling and we’re ready for business. There are usually a few customers waiting in the mall for our gate to open, and we joke quietly with each other through the employee headsets: “And they’re off! The woman in the green button-down is coming up on the left, passing the lady in the red vest. But wait, here comes a purple dress making a surprise last minute rush to the finish line! And she wins it all—getting the first look at the new Spring polos!”
Seriously, what’s the hurry, folks? It’s not like Barrington’s classic preppy stock was something novel or that we’ll stop carrying cardigans tomorrow.
This morning as I straightened the hangers on a round display rack, I noticed an unpleasant odor from the center of the rounder. Was that a diaper? Digging between the dresses, I found it. Yep, someone had dumped the contents of a diaper bag where they thought nobody would see. There’s a dirty diaper, an empty juice carton, a few stray wipes.
Yuck, yuck, yuck! People can be such slobs. Use the wastebaskets in the store next time, people. This happens all the time, even here at Barrington’s.
* * *
Back on duty after my mid-morning break and I surprisingly step in something wet on the carpet. Spilled coffee? An open water bottle? Oh! It looks like a child peed on the floor! I called the store manager on my headset.
“Lorena, we need to call for Mall clean-up. Someone peed on the carpet.”
“What?” she asked. “Again?”
Again? “I don’t know if it’s again or not. I just came back from break. I might be reporting the same incident.”
“Is it the urine in the front window display?”
“Um, no, this is by the handbags.”
Geez, who pees in a store, much less in the front window display? Restrooms, people. Use the restrooms.
* * *
A well-dressed older woman asked if we had the blue print dress in a size 4. She never quite made eye contact with me, but I told her I’d run into the back and see what we had in stock. She thanked me, still without looking at me, and continued shopping.
Customers seem to think the back of the store is a magical place where we can instantly press a button and whatever they’re looking for will wondrously appear in our hands. In this case, the dress she wanted had just arrived and all the stock wasn’t on the floor yet. I had to open several large shipping crates, digging through each one trying to find the elusive blue dress. Nothing. A co-worker thought she’d seen some of the new dresses on the top shelf, so I grabbed a ladder and climbed up precariously. I really hoped this lady liked the dress—I was literally risking my neck just to find her size. Oh, there it was. Blue print. Size 4.
I returned successfully to the costumer. Before I could open my mouth, she said, “Can you help me? Some lazy sales girl went into the back to find a dress for me and she never came back. She forgot all about me! I mean really, how long does it take to find a simple little dress?” She put her hands on her hips and sighed with frustration, looking at me for the first time. “You look much nicer and more helpful than that other girl. Could you help me find this dress in a 4?”
“Certainly, ma’am,” I said, trying not to laugh. “Did you mean one like this?” I held out the dress I’d just spent the last five minutes furiously digging through boxes and climbing ladders to find.
“Oh, yes!” She was beaming. “You’re wonderful! That’s exactly what I wanted—it’s like you could read my mind. Thank you so much! Really, I think that other girl should be fired.”
The woman wandered off to the cash register. I could hear her loudly telling Sara, the cashier, about how miraculous and wonderful I was, and about how that “other girl” was horrid. Sara caught my eye, and then shrugged and rolled her eyes, knowing full well that nobody but the two of us were on the floor this morning.
* * *
Later when working the cashier counter, a businessman in an expensive suit purchased a woman’s silver watch.
“Will this be a gift?” I asked. “We have gift bags, if you’d like.”
“Yeah, that’d be great.” He sounded tired and leaned his hip against the counter as he said, “You know, I really hate Valentine’s Day—it’s always too expensive.”
“Well, at least this watch is on sale. That’ll help,” I said cheerfully as I rang up his order and placed the watch in the gift bag.
He smiled. “Yeah, I really needed to find something on sale. I just spent over $400 at Victoria’s Secret.”
As soon as he said it, he flushed crimson and started shuffling his feet awkwardly, no longer making eye contact with me. I guess he felt he’d shared too much information about his personal life. He grabbed the bag from me, mumbled his thanks, and nearly ran out of the store.
I tried to keep the laughter out of my voice as I called after him, “Thank you for shopping at Barrington’s. Have a happy Valentine’s Day, sir!”
* * *
A woman stepped out of the fitting room and tried looking at herself in the three-way mirror. She was standing bent over with her rear end pointed directly at the mirror. She kept gyrating, contorting random body parts into awkward angles. If customers didn’t bend over and stick their butts out strangely at the mirror, they would all look much better when they tried on pants. But instead they always bend and stretch and deform themselves, thinking it’s the pants making them look strange.
“Excuse me, miss. Do these pants make my butt look big?”
For goodness sake, lady, stand normally, I thought.
In my most helpful sales girl voice I said, “Hm, let me see. Well, those jeans are cute, but I think a different style may be more flattering on you.”
In this business, honesty is never the best policy when it comes to butt inspections. Always blame the jeans.
* * *
I heard the store manager’s voice crackle over my headset, “Kendall, could you come into my office?”
“Yes, Lorena. I’ll be right there.”
That’s never good. Did she want me to work this weekend? Am I in trouble? You never knew around here. Every day was like walking on eggshells. The manager usually spent most of the day in her office doing crafts—in other words, making motivational board games and important signs that said things like, “Don’t forget to smile!” It was surprising how little she actually knew about the day-to-day workings of her own store.
I found her just as I’d expected, cutting heart shapes out of lace doilies and gluing them to poster board that read, “Valentine’s Day Means More Men in the Store! Look Your Best! And Don’t Forget to Smile!” Oh, goody—the yearly influx of creepy married men asking where I bought my pants because they want their wife’s butt to look as sexy as mine.
Lorena looked up from her glue stick, peering at me over her rhinestone encrusted glasses. She pursed her lips and said, “I was looking over the credit card sales for last month and yours were completely unacceptable. You’ve been here for three years so I expect more from you.”
It was worse than I’d feared. I debated quickly about whether to say anything, but decided it was best to stick up for myself given the fact that last month was unusual.
“I’m really not surprised my numbers were down last month,” I said. “I worked in the stockroom for January, remember? I filled in for Sue’s maternity leave and didn’t actually interact with customers because I wasn’t on the floor.”
“That’s really not my concern, Kendall,” she said, glaring primly at me from her doily-strewn desk. “And I don’t appreciate your attitude. Numbers are numbers, and your excuses don’t change the facts. Your performance last month wasn’t up to acceptable levels. You’ll be receiving a written warning and there’ll be a note placed in your employee file this afternoon.”
“No. There’s nothing more to say on the matter. Go back to work and think about how fortunate you are to have an excellent job working at a wonderful company like Barrington’s.” Her face told me I was dismissed but before I could move, she continued, “Kendall, why are you still standing here? Get back to work. And don’t forget to smile!”
I sighed silently and walked back out on the floor. I just couldn’t get over the fact I was being written up for something completely unreasonable. The workers in the back stockroom don’t even have credit card requirements—they don’t deal with customers. Lorena must think I have magic credit card selling powers that can work on customers through solid walls. That’s the last time I do Lorena a favor and volunteer to fill in for someone who doesn’t work on the floor.
* * *
I tried to keep myself from thinking about my uncomfortable meeting with Lorena, and I put on my biggest sales girl smile and greeted a well-dressed woman with perfectly manicured nails and hair that was too beautiful to be kept that way without continual visits to the hairdresser. She was intently studying a pair of men’s slacks, obviously wondering about something as she took out her reading glasses to get a better look.
“Can I help you find something?” I asked.
“Well, possibly,” she said as she kept eyeing the Barrington’s logo on the back pocket. “Do you have any casual dress pants with a larger logo?”
“No, I don’t think we do.”
She frowned and squinted again at the pants.
“That’s too bad. My husband loves Barrington’s slacks and always wants to wear these at church. But the logo’s so tiny, I’m afraid people won’t be able to see what brand he’s wearing. I’d hate for them to think he wasn’t well dressed.”
I pictured this nice little church family in designer clothes, trying to impress the Sunday worshippers around them. I wasn’t a churchgoer, myself, but I could’ve sworn the Bible said something about not dressing to impress others. Maybe I’m wrong. Anyway, I wondered for a moment if Jesus wore designer sandals or had a big splashy logo from Herod’s on his camel hair robe.
I could feel myself about to laugh and decided my customer would probably think I was a total heathen if I shared what I was thinking. Instead I said, “I’m sure anyone who’s familiar with Barrington’s will notice the distinctive cut and styling of our products. The logos are noticeable to anyone with a well-developed fashion eye. I don’t think anyone will think poorly of your husband’s slacks at church.”
“Well, if you’re sure.” She looked doubtful but decided to buy the pants. “I just wish Robert preferred wearing a brand with a bigger logo. It’s embarrassing.”
I wondered if Robert found her embarrassing.
* * *
As I headed to the front of the store to refold polos, a woman tossed a large armful of dresses and shirts at me.
“Here, carry these. I can’t hold them all.”
She turned away and continued shopping. Another shirt came flying my direction. I asked if she’d like me to start a fitting room for her.
“No, just hold those while I shop.”
Okay, now I’m a human shopping cart. But as Lorena says, “Always do whatever the costumer asks, as long as it’s not illegal.” Acting as a shopping cart was better than being asked to be a living mannequin. We regularly have male customers come in and ask sales associates—always the young pretty ones—to try things on and model for them. It was creepy. Or men would ask us to come into the fitting room to help with their shirt. Or married men would sit in the chair by the fitting room entrance, flirting shamelessly with the employees while their wives tried on dresses in the next room.
It was always worse in February. Valentine’s Day was a special holiday working retail.
* * *
Finally lunchtime arrived. I sat across the Food Court table from Randi as she filled me in about life. She’d been attending an out of state private Liberal Arts college for the past four years, and we always tried to meet up for a quick visit whenever she came to town. She’d talked for nearly the entire half hour about her upcoming college graduation in June. “And I’m glad I decided to get the double major. Having degrees in both Theater and Business should really help my job prospects. I won’t end up stuck in some dead-end retail job at the Mall.” She seemed to remember I was there and quickly added, “No offense, of course.”
Randi never meant to offend others—of course—but she often did. I think her rudeness came more from being self-focused and over-talkative than from any malicious attempt to actually harm someone. But, whether it was meant to hurt or not, her words cut deeply this time. I reminded myself not to forget to smile.
“Well, on that note,” I said in my perkiest voice, “I have to get back to Barrington’s before I get written up for being 30 seconds late from lunch.”
We quickly hugged, said our good-byes, and I headed back to my “excellent job working at a wonderful company like Barrington’s.” I could almost hear those words from my manager singing a duet in my mind with Randi’s “dead end retail job at the Mall.”
Hm. I wonder when Spring quarter classes start at the community college? Maybe I could qualify for Financial Aid.