Sunday, September 23, 2007

Diary Of A Retail Slave

Diary Of A Retail Slave
Have you ever found yourself at a point in your life where it’s either time to start completely over or just fucking kill yourself? When I arrived back in San Francisco a few days after all the new millennium hype had finally waned, that’s exactly where I found myself. My twenty year career as an underground freelance journalist and fashion troll had finally caught up with me and I had woken up to the fact that the chance of my getting a decent paying mainstream industry job was about as likely as a herd of monkeys suddenly flying out of my ass.
I had just escaped the modern vacation tragedy known as the Pocono’s and was living in the Chase hotel at 9th and Market. I had been unemployed for almost a year, my cushy editing job at an alternative magazine based in L.A. mercilessly ripped from me out of the blue (but saving me karma points since it was a thinly disguised marketing tool to get cigarettes into the hands of underage ravers. Anyone remember Sweater?).
Anyway, I had spent the past year wandering aimlessly, doing everything from harvesting kind bud up in Willets to waiting tables off the books at a mountaintop restaurant for summer tourists in Pennsylvania, all the while cashing my unemployment checks and sweating bullets over when my totally taxable $6,000 stipend would come to a grinding halt. I made the decision that if I was going to have an unsecured future, it might as well be spent someplace that I could actually tolerate and get maximum visual stimulation. So I moved back to San Francisco for the fourth time in five years. Face it, San Francisco is like a drug habit you’ve had for so long it’s become more familiar than your family. It’s impossible to escape.
After about a week of getting nowhere with dropping off my resume or cold calling prospective employers, I had a nagging hunch that it was time to shift my game plan. That is how I found myself at the age of thirty-five doing something I swore would never happen to me. I was about to become a sales clerk. Another cookie cutter attired, yes sir/yes ma’amer with a name badge and a permanently frozen smile etched onto my face like some left over Ibiza loser on his two thousandth hit of e……Welcome to the diary of an eight-day retail slave.
I just happened to be walking through the Levi’s store on Union Square, checking out clothes that I couldn’t afford (and wouldn’t be caught dead in anyway) and basically killing time, a habit I was becoming rather adept at. A cute little blonde salesgirl, who looked as if she’d be more comfortable in an Old Navy commercial, started chatting me up about my tattoo’s (something that happens on a daily basis, since I have fifteen neon colored bug eyed characters going down each sleeve). Before I knew what I was saying, I had mentioned that I was unemployed and the girl had a job application in my hands quicker than a friendly appendage at Blow Buddies.
After filling out the application, I left it on the counter and headed towards the exit. A voice called out my name and I turned around to see yet another shiny, happy Levi’s employee running after me. Would I mind being interviewed now, she asked? Why not, I thought. After a quick tour through the "super store", we settled on the top floor, which serves as a kind of high tech gallery/chill room. If you’ve been to the Levi’s store then you already know that it as an ambitious ode to the future of retailing, although instead of attracting a steady stream of hip young trend setters, it mostly fills up with tourists in search of ever elusive sizes and jean styles that seem to have come out of their imagination.
After about forty-five minutes of being asked to describe everything from my personal style aesthetic to preferred work habits and environment, she thanked me and told me they’d let me know in a few days. It took two weeks, during which time I considered every other career path that had previously alluded, even my warped imagination. I still couldn’t get a single writing job and was starting to feel as if I had developed freelancer’s Leprosy and would never be published again. Waiter? Gardner? Latte boy? Rolo sales troll (Market store, not Castro)? Bud runner? The possibilities were endlessly stifling to my inner need not to work nine to five (except the latter) and I was about to answer an ad for a crisis help line center operator when the phone rang. Levi’s wanted me!
The initial excitement dimmed a bit when I heard I would be making $8 an hour, no commission and was required to work one day each weekend and close one or two times a week. For anyone who has ever worked in a store, the thought of working on the weekend and having to close the store can fill you with a sense of dread only compare-able to suffering a bout of Ebola virus. But $8 an hour, without commission when you’re expected to "sell those jeans and sparkle Neely!" is a bit insulting not to mention nervy. Then again, I was coming from an industry where they pay you $1 a word to write about crazy fashion shite that nobody fucking cares about anyway. I couldn’t figure out which reality was worse.
However, it was better than having to tell the manager at my hotel that I didn’t have my weekly rent, so I said sure, why not and was told to report at 6:00 AM the following Monday. As I hung up the phone I actually started to get excited, the thrill of finally getting a job over-taking my mood about what kind it actually was. Yeah, sure. I was about to step into the surreal reality of retail hell and I knew it. I didn’t even like to shop. In fact, the last time I had bought something in a clothing boutique was a camo belt at the army navy store on the upper Haight for $8. Now I could afford a belt an hour!
On my way to work that first morning, I rode the F across market and tried to wake my ass up by pumping a deafening mixed tape on my Walkman and took stock of the early commuters on the way to their day. Sometimes I feel like the only person who doesn’t own something regurgitating from Banana Republic. Stonily silent black clad career types on their way to some short-lived Internet job surrounded me. At least I got to work around clothes all day, I thought to myself, but as I entered the store I took a look behind me at the rising sun and promised myself that this was only temporary and I was going to make it as positive an experience as possible. Problem is, I’ve always been full of shit and deep down I knew I was getting myself into something that was going to annoy and bug the hell out of me. On those two counts, Levi’s never failed to disappoint.
Very first thing I get outfitted with this Madonna/Janet in concert looking headset and mike situation that allowed me to contact and talk to any other employee in the store. They are also so the sales clerks can call the endless stream of "runners", the guys who find your jean sizes in the back and then literally run them out to you. Brilliant idea you’re thinking. Great way to speed things up. Trouble is, it’s also a great way for everyone to hear every word, breath, burp and sigh that comes out of your mouth. With the loose cannon I have attached to my face, this proved to be a problem since I started bitching from the minute I got there. Luckily, there were plenty of disgruntled fellow employees to shoot the shit with.
They clued me in on how to lower the volume on my mike so the managers in the secret control room wouldn’t hear me. Secret control room, you’re thinking? Well for lack of a better word, that’s what it was. Here the managers convened in private, listening to every word we said and watching our every move on a Sliver like video monitor deck. To be honest, it felt creepy. I always thought someone was watching me pick my nose or scratch my ass. I wondered if there were cameras in the crapper to? Just to make sure our toilet technique was up to snuff.
This created a paranoid edge amongst most of the employees, many of whom were Mexican and Spanish. Those kids were lucky, though. If they wanted to talk shit about some uptight manager, they could just speak in their own language. That stopped once a memo was circulated stating that employees are only to speak English with each other while working on the floor. I was also constantly reprimanded about having the volume on my headset set down. After a few monotonous hours hawking 501’s, 505’, 0005’s, whatever, I got to take my first break, which was when I was introduced to the break room.
Whereas on the selling floor, my fellow employees were expected to behave maturely, the break room was an all access excuse to let loose and become equals. The managers tended to avoid hanging out there, preferring to miss out on the day’s gossip about who showed up to work cracked out from last night, or didn’t show up at all. The employees were mostly bright, very young and pretty things more interested in they’re plans for the weekend, how much studying they actually had to do and did anyone actually think they might be cute. Kid stuff. This is the kind of job you get when you’re on your way to the next step in life. Hopefully a step up. For some though, retail becomes a trap they will never escape. It creates bitterness in those who assume they have a better place to go in life and since that’s the majority of the human race, this is why jaded, bitchy and hating the whole word retail slaves abound.
I would encounter Damien, a vampirish looking young man who seemed to have written the book on evil retail queens. An ex Diesel, Rolo, Aveda and Macy’s Mac counter diva in repose, I ran into his bony ass as I was getting off my break and returning to the floor. He was hardly a new specimen since I’d seen his pasty, more make up than Lil’ Kim, Mac highlighted face out at Fag Fridays forever. Word in the break room had it that he made almost double what everybody else was because of his long retail history, but what nobody knew was he kept moving from job to job simply because he was afraid they might catch on to how much he was stealing. Stealing is a big concern in stores, bottom line and all that crap.
He was also a super tweaker, which didn’t seem to register with anyone else but me. I guess talking a million words a second, twitching uncontrollably, neon booger dripping inflamed nostrils and generally resembling something akin to a zombie extra in a horror flick appears normal these days.
After a few forced pleasantries ("What are you doing here?" "I’m working." "No, I mean, why are you working here?") Damien cued me in on the bag search everyone was subjected to before leaving work each day. I shook my head incredulously, but Damien snapped his fingers and told me to not do anything shady. I wondered how he had managed to get around the shady part himself and why he assumed I was big on shoplifting? Before I could escape, he winked at me and made a gross little horse snort with his nose, then tapped his shirt pocket.
"If you need a bump later, let me know. I’m closing with you tonight and I’m sure you wouldn’t mind something to distract you from the thrill of refolding five hundred pairs of jeans."
Luckily, the manager that hired me interrupted us, telling me she needed to have a word with me. What the fuck had I done? I had only been there for a few hours. Turns out I was guilty of a dress code violation. A dress code violation at Levi’s, the original be yourself and fuck the rest of the world rebel? Unbelievable, I thought, as she chided me on my vintage Harley Davidson t-shirt that I thought looked pretty damn good when I put it on with the one pair of Levi’s I actually owned (you always had to wear a Levi’s bottom, to which I often wondered, just what constitutes a Levi’s bottom and where can I find one that likes Russ Meyer flicks?).
In the future she said through an obviously forced smile, I must wear shirts with no other logos or words on them except of course for good old Levi’s. I nodded yes and in my head began assessing the true reason she was so uptight and willing to enforce something as silly as a t-shirt. Hemorrhoids, I reasoned and returned to the floor, ignoring her as she reminded me for the tenth time to keep my volume up. Girl, if she knew how up my volume was getting, she would stay clear.
The rest of the day dragged, although a temporary respite was provided when a very large German woman got stuck in the shrink to fit hot tub that allows customers to sit in a tub of water as people mill about them in the store. After several thwarted attempts by two tiny sales girls who couldn’t stop giggling if their life depended on it, the woman’s husband finally came to her rescue, simultaneously dropping an armload full of clothes into the water. After that, refolding jeans for the next two hours was about as exciting as Damien said it would be. No wonder so many retail slaves get high at work. After a while, I guess there’s no other way to deal with the boredom. I mean, you can only say "Hi, welcome to Levi’s" a few hundred times before the thought of slitting someone’s throat begins to settle in.
The bag check was a bit more than I bargained for. This one particularly anal manager had the task of looking through everyone’s things and I had already clashed with her several times that afternoon for "running" my own jeans and not waiting for the runner. As I watched her search each person, I noticed an alarming trend. Whereas most of the boys and white girls only had to open up their bags to be peered into, most of the black and Mexican girls had to endure every single pocket and flap, even the most miniscule ones, being explored as well as opening up their jackets.
I mentioned aloud that I didn’t recall Levi’s producing a Barbie doll sized line, since that was the only logical thing that could fit into a pocket so small. Without even stopping, she told me to mind my business. When my turn came up, she just gave me one of those; your days are numbered looks to which I simply smiled and said, "Have a good evening" and then under my breath, "ass-wipe". I knew she heard it because I heard her calling for another manager the second I walked away. It was the end of my first day and I had already left a good impression. Well, maybe not good, but an impression at least.
That night I came down with a hella bad flu and had to call in sick to work. I managed to make it back for a few more days, but was still so sick I could hardly make it to the bathroom before puking on the merchandise. After a few projectile vomit incidents, it was decided that I should go home. I didn’t make it back for three weeks, during which time I got so dehydrated, I had to check into a hospital for three days. Nobody could figure out what was wrong with me until my blood test revealed I was HIV positive. It wasn’t two minutes after getting that news that my pager went off and the number of the Levi’s store popped up. They had been endlessly nagging me about when I was coming back, threatening termination and all that crap.
I ended up getting better and went back to work once I had started my cocktail. I didn’t let on why I was gone for so long, but from what I could gather, most of the store just thought I was off getting high somewhere, especially the managers who noticed my ten-pound weight loss. One even went so far as to tell me that employees with crystal habits would not be tolerated. I just smiled at her and wondered if she even knew that at least three of her star employees were keying bumps in the toilet every break they got.
After a few more days of never ending tourists, snotty twenty-three year old managers telling me that my jeans folding needed polish and even bitchier trolls from corporate who loved to stroll around the store "working" while sucking down Starbucks and clutching their Fendi bags (which, I’m sorry, do not work with Levi’s no matter how bourgeois you are), I finally reached my breaking point. It was about an hour into closing when the evil, bag searching manager sauntered up to me and dourly informed me that my jeans wall was crooked and looked sloppy. I’d have to take down every pair and refold them.
It only took me a few seconds to figure out if my jean folding expertise or my pride mattered more. Pride won out. I asked her what her problem was and what the point was of taking them all down instead of just straitening the stacks. She got really red and silently screamed, "the point is that you need to stop asking questions and do what your told." I just laughed at her and replied, "The point is of no return…and I’ve just reached it!"
Then with a dramatic flourish that even the jaded retail queen managed to note with glee, I ripped the entire wall of jeans down in one fell swoop, getting bug eyed as I stared at the mess I had made. The manager freaked and told me I’d have to stay until every single one of the jeans was picked up and refolded. I just walked away, retrieved my bag from the break room and slowly tried to walk past her as she attempted to block my way. If this nut job thought she was searching my bag, she must be losing it.
"Fuck off, I quit," I said and then left the retail world behind me. I had had it with being treated like a child by those who were not much more than children themselves. I was tired of being spied on and given the same instructions a million times a day. But the thing I really couldn’t take anymore was how the majority of people tend to treat those who are serving them. Like shit on a stick. No more smiling at people who would look blankly at me, then turn away. Sure, not everybody is rude, but plenty are and they can make those of us with a unabundance of confidence feel like total losers.
After a few pit stops in Latte land and the inevitable Internet start up (and subsequent failure), I’m finally back to just being a freelancer. This time around though, I plan on keeping it together. After all, I had burned my only pair of Levi’s bottoms after I quit and without those, I could never work at Levi’s again.

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