Tom ’can I help you?’ Waters
I had a stark realization the other day that hit me like a lukewarm flounder across the face: Iíve been in retail for half of my life. Half my life. Letís think about that. 16 years of my time on earth has been spent touting corporate catch phrases, taking shit from a random sampling of the public, holding the first line of defense during the holiday season and breaking my body down piece by piece standing for eight hours a day and punching a register mindlessly like a bobbing bird with carpal tunnel syndrome. That should depress the hell out of me, but somehow it doesnít. 16 years in retail does sound like more of a prison sentence than a life well spent, though.
For me, there isnít a job in existence that I can see myself in for the rest of my life. Writingís a nice racket on the side, but the pay is shit and the gigs are fickle. My grandfather got an office job at some industrial paper factory and worked there for over forty years. My dad worked on a farm until the farmer died, took the farmerís advice and moved to the big city where he got a union job servicing elevators for forty years. I canít even fathom that. Taking a job as a young man and staying there until retirement. Iíve had seventeen jobs in the nineteen years since I got my working papers at the age of fourteen and got up to my knees in it. The longest job Iíve ever had is the one Iím in, but I still canít see myself retiring from it.
Now that Iím 32, Iíve hit some strange funhouse mirror segment of the business where I can no longer connect, relate or keep up with the majority of the kids that work for the company. The average age of our business is early to mid-20s and I feel like a fossil in a playhouse. Their values are not my values. Their music is not my music. And a night out for me peaks around eleven oíclock and I pay for it the next day. With interest. Iím at the five year mark and some change. I stayed at my second longest running job for five years and got the hell out. So what now? I get paid too much to job hop and itís not so easy when youíve got car loans, rent, consolidation loans and credit card bills to take a crippling entry level pay cut. The true bitch about retail is that one of the only things you can use it for is (you guessed it) more retail.
Iíve got no regrets. I couldnít stand college and a lot of my friends who went for the full four years or more are making less than me, working in a different field or theyíre saddled with student loans. I wish I saved more, but what are you gonna do? Retail really is as bad as everyone says, but Iíll still take it over a supermarket job, a straight sales position or a sterilized office position where you watch the clock and chart a Monday through Friday character arc. When I leave this job (whenever that may be), Iím getting the hell out, though. Thisíll be my last tour of duty. It could be another five years, it could be another ten years, but itís definitely not going to be another twenty five.
Retail can make you a cynical son of a bitch and you have to be semi-retarded, half crazy or completely around the bend to see it through for longer than six months on a full time pay grade. Forty hours a week plus spouting facsimiles of someone elseís success mantra absorbing the stupidity of the general public. Customer service can only get you so far. Sixteen years and change. Or no change at all.
There are a lot of unifying elements to all of the chains, superstores and specialty shops Iíve worked for. A great deal of customer traits that should be weeded out of the gene pool with a machete, too. Iím at a point where it no longer defines me or drives me as a person, and thatís probably what most people do no matter what job they have. You reach a station in life where family is more important. Iím not going to throw my soul into somebody elseís pocketbook or quarterly bonus. They get 95% on a good week for the forty plus hours Iím there and once Iím out the door my life is my own again. On either side of the counter, though, that knowledge has made me courteous at the places I shop on my days off.
First of all, I never show up anywhere fifteen minutes (or even a half an hour) before closing time. The whole staff is busting their hump to pretty up the place and get out on time so they can get on with their lives. If you show up at a store ten minutes before theyíre supposed to lock up and you think youíre going to dilly dally, window shop or wander aimlessly, you deserve a punch in the face with the business end of my fist. Most places are open eleven hours or more year round and twelve to twenty four hours during the Christmas season (which gets longer and longer every year). If you canít make it in during an eleven hour window, then youíre an idiot, plain and simple. Shop online for all I care. And showing up a half an hour before a store opens and staring through the window thinking that somebody is going to pop the lock out of the kindness of their heart to let you in ahead of time is an act of futility. The veteran retail heart is black, hollow, shriveled and pulsing with a blind hatred towards any random acts of compassion. The time before I open is my quiet time to get things in order and go at my own pace. I show up a half an hour earlier than I need to so that I can smoke a cigarette, drain my first urn of coffee and take my regularly scheduled morning dump. Unfortunately, that isnít posted on the store hours.
I donít even bother to call stores on the phone and I try not to ask for help when I go shopping. Iím in a similar pair of shoes at every place I go to, so I try to be one less pain in the ass. I am the anti-consumer. I know what I want, Iíll give in to an up-sell if I see it and I like the person helping me out, and Iím quick when I shop. And yes, YOU, the consumer, are a pain in the ass. If you think that your opinion is valued or that we want to make friends with you or that youíre not being a bother, youíre wrong. Donít bring a list during the fourth quarter and expect the help to do all the work for you. Donít show up and forget what it was that you were looking for. In the feverishly competitive, publicly held world that we live in, weíve got a million things to do and you my friend turn into a million and one. Make it brief and keep the chit chat to a minimum. When Iím buying books, Cds, groceries, games or anything else, I would rather look blindly for an hour than ask for help because I know what they go through and I can figure it out on my own. If youíre a reasonably intelligent person, youíll do the same.
As far as the phone thing goes, I get off my lazy ass and do my own shopping. Donít call and say íI have a questionÖí. No shit? You werenít calling to discuss economics? I get why radio talk show hosts have such a temper with callers who waste their time because Iíve had my time wasted. Donít repeat the answer I just gave you, you parroting piece of shit. There are only so many hours in the day and life is too short to give you the same answer twice. If youíre going to call, know what it is that youíre going to say when you call.
Soccer moms (all soccer moms) deserve a flaccid dick in the ear for what they put us through. You are the scourge of the earth. You and the wagon train of insipid offspring that tear through businesses like a cloud of entropy. You women are obnoxious, uncultured, impatient and overindulged. You are the worst kind of person in retail and nobody likes you. And hereís another inspiration breakthrough: I put things back where I found them when I go shopping! Itís a revolutionary concept, but try it some time. Every store sends their troops out throughout the day to re-organize, straighten and re-beautify their product. And without fail, most people wreck up the place again because theyíre incapable of putting things back where they found them. Itís not hard to do. If you pick something up and you donít want it, you put it back in the place where you picked it up. If this is too high concept, re-read this paragraph a few times and maybe it will stick. There is a layout and an order to every business you go to. Abide by that layout. Donít make more work for us.
And now that Iím in a position of power, I wonít cave for anything. There is a false belief in the service industry that you can get whatever you want if you throw a big enough tantrum. Iím the only line of defense on this one and I do not budge if Iím not in the wrong. I had a customer complaint for a pizzeria I ordered food from last week and I called them when I got home and calmly and politely explained that they botched my order. I didnít threaten a lawsuit, I didnít pretend that I had a lawyer, I didnít take it personally, I didnít use the incident to unload all the other grievances in my life, I just informed them that they had erred, and the manager told me that the owner would be sending me a gift certificate of some kind in the mail. That was it. Losing your shit in a crowd is not the way to get what you want. Maybe at most places, but never with me. Iím retraining my customers one simpleton at a time. Thereís been steady progress.
Donít get me wrong, Iím not a completely miserable bastard. Iíve been in the business of retail for so long that you wouldnít even be able to tell if I hated you at a molecular level. I treat everybody with respect until they give me a reason not to. Iíll go the extra mile for someone if theyíre polite and intelligent in turn. Any retail job wears you down by virtue of the communityís stupidity, though. A little consideration goes a long way on both ends.
You see an ugly, hideous side of the populace in any service industry. You realize just how half-witted most of the world is. Barely-cogent teenagers, menopausal divorcees, couples who still have one foot in the tar pits and old, incontinent men who make you wonder how theyíll find their way home. I could go on and on. Iíll go a little bit longer. Urban cliques who are so stoned and liquored up on cheap gin that they can barely stand up who smell like they walked out of a hydroponic forest fire, infants who wonít take no for an answer because their parents are completely unequipped at disciplining them or raising them with any semblance of values, fat white trash that didnít get the memo about mullets being on the endangered species list, college kids with the grammatical sense of a pet rock and the dress savvy of a blind cattle, third generation immigrants who speak less English than actual immigrants, and a sea of stupid, stupid fucking people. Think about how you represent yourself the next time you walk out of your house and interact with people. See if that changes your actions.
Iím cynical, but Iím not miserable. I feel sorry for a lot of these people because they have to go on being themselves for the rest of their lives and I only have to deal with them in fifteen minute snippets. Yes, I forgot to go to medical school but Iím not digging ditches, either. I make pretty good money and Iím very good at what I do even though itís not my dream vocation. In my experience, there arenít many people who know exactly what they want to do for the rest of their life as soon as they hit grammar school and even those people change their minds halfway through their careers. I may never make millions as a writer, but my job gives me the freedom to explore that market without falling flat on my face financially. Job interviewers love to ask you where you see yourself in ten years. I have no idea. I certainly donít see myself showing up anywhere around closing time, though.