Nonfiction | September 01, 2001
Counter Culture: The Hard Work of Selling Myself Short
The same day I was officially put in charge of shoes and used clothing at Store 5, I came home to my run-down apartment in northeast Washington, DC, to find my first grad-school rejection letter. I thought I was going to be stuck in retail for the rest of my life. The soles of my feet were expanding with a new ridge of calluses. I’d dropped enough weight that I worried that people would think I was bulimic when I scuffed my knuckles at work. I now looked upon short acrylic nails as an investment. When another manager got a new tattoo, I began to jones for another one, too—on my left hand. I found myself cashing my entire paycheck and “banking” out of my top dresser drawer. I carried fifty-and hundred-dollar bills for the first time in my life—and understood what breaking one first thing in the morning entailed for a small establishment. I paid my rent with money orders. I caught myself considering district manager as an aspiration. I was a full-time, fifty-hours-a-week member of retail management. Power dressing was jeans and a tiger-print tank top.
Instead of going to law school or getting another government internship when I graduated from college in Washington, DC, I had started on my applications for graduate writing programs and taken a shit job at a trendy clothing and housewares store on M Street in Georgetown. It was the fifth store of a nationwide chain; we called it Store 5.
I had tried to get a real job at first, but it hadn’t worked out. I went to the career center on campus, but all they had were binders full of out-of-date advertisements for unpaid internships. I didn’t know anything about recruiters or placement firms or résumé-posting websites; I didn’t know that the better positions are rarely advertised. I applied for some Capitol Hill jobs without any luck. I read through the classifieds in the Post, but nothing looked interesting, and I didn’t have any specific experience or business-writing samples. I sent in some résumés, but when I tried to follow up, I would find that the phone numbers of the places I’d applied to were unlisted, or I would be transferred among departments until I was cut off. I ran into a former classmate who gave me a good lead on a company housed in the Watergate. I was a shoo-in, he assured me; they hired lots of Georgetown grads. They didn’t hire me. It took them a month, three interviews and a take-home test to decide that they wanted a candidate with more business background, a conclusion they could have reached in the two seconds it took to scan my résumé.
I had every superficial sign of capability. I had been valedictorian of my high school class and graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from a top-25 school; I was considered a success. But I felt as if I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t deal with what I thought of as the “real world,” couldn’t navigate its economic system, manage the basic obligations of being an independent adult and a real person. After realizing that I didn’t really want any of the serious jobs I’d thought I wanted as a kid, and after a month of unemployment following my college work-study summer extension, I was completely disoriented. For the first time I could remember, I wasn’t a student. I didn’t have a job, so what was I? I had been living on Pop-Ice and cans of corn, waiting for the Watergate gig to come sailing in with its promised good money. The day after I got the Watergate “no thanks” phone call, I walked into the store on M Street and filled out an application on the spot.
I knew I should be worried about what was wrong with me, but I had been secretly and dreadfully curious about a counterculture career ever since my disappointing, disorganized semester as a White House intern. With all the lackluster time I’d logged in internship and work-study office jobs, and in light of all the depressing statistics I’d heard about women in the workplace, I was beginning to think that holding out for good jobs was a waste of time and aspiration. If a job wasn’t going to get me what I wanted—achievement, recognition, immortal glory in the collective consciousness—then maybe I should concentrate on living my life in the time outside work, on wearing whatever I wanted and going out and having a good time collecting experiences. Maybe I should get a fun job, an easy one, and write on the side. The store on M Street was part of an $8 billion corporation that encouraged facial piercings; it seemed a slacker’s dream come true.
I was hired: full-time sales associate in the Menz department.
By then, I had a butterscotch version of the chunky plastic frames that made glasses acceptable counterculture club attire, and the bleached-blond section of my hair started on either side of my side part and splayed over the rest of my darker tresses. Upper management expected employees to have some sort of look. That my style had been a consideration in hiring me was mentioned in my training session. It was a trendy, trying-too-hard, laughably adolescent store, but I was happy: for the first time in my life, I had passed an alterna-hip look test.
I didn’t even compare to the Menz manager, with her Bettie Page bangs and tattoos all over her forearms and fingers, but I soon wore a lot of bracelets with my tiger-print camisole tops and Rancid T-shirts and wasn’t too fanatical about keeping up my roots. The store was the sort of place where employees acted as if the clients were not cool enough to shop there, while flaunting their own piercings, tattoos and personal style. The company did not advertise. Instead, we were on display through the store’s huge plate glass windows, on its wideopen floors and behind the circular cash/wrap.
Working on the sales floor was like being on stage. Store 5 was one of the chain’s biggest stores physically. A few of the New York and California stores would outsell us with less space, but we were also number five of the thirty-three stores in terms of sales. It was a wide store, with wooden floors that creaked all day long; downstairs, you could hear every step. Upstairs, the glass windows took up most of the block, and the front doors opened onto a view of the cash/wrap on the right, with the Women’s department spread out behind.
I was accustomed to attending small classes, studying alone and working in office jobs where I encountered a finite number of people during the day. In the past I’d sneaked off to the bathroom if I wanted to redo my lipstick. I’d fretted all day if I didn’t like what I was wearing and a couple of people were going to see the outfit. Now I made decisions, held conversations, carried boxes, collected trash, climbed ladders, constructed shelves, arranged displays, moved hardware, fought with customers, checked prices, swept up shattered glass, screamed over the intercom and gave instructions in the middle of a crowd. After a while, I got used to doing everything, even busting shoplifters, while people watched.
Retail Economics: If you are an inexperienced associate at Store 5, you will start at $6.30 an hour, which is $5 after taxes, which is $400 every two weeks, which means you can afford to pay $375 in rent, which means you live in northeast DC.
I worked in the good part of town, in a store that was security-paranoid, but I lived a block from the projects, in an apartment with a flimsy wooden door that any of the neighborhood children could have kicked down. It was the sort of neighborhood in which all business was conducted through a Plexiglas window and empty liquor bottles littered the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the curb.
Economic Theory: If you can save half of each paycheck so that rent comes evenly out of each, you will have a $100 a week to live on. Plus that extra $25 to throw away.
If you leave your apartment in DC, you will spend $100 a week. Somehow, and no matter what. Because I lived in Northeast, and sometimes commuted during rush hour, it cost me around $15 a week to go to and from work on the Metro. Breakfast/lunch (depending on my shift) was between $2 and $3 and lunch/dinner, to be any good, was going to be $5 or $6 and some change. Sometimes you couldn’t forgo that Olympic Carryout chicken shish kebab plate any longer, and then you spent $7. Plus there was vending-machine junk at work. Although I sometimes brought lunch and skimped, it was easy to spend $10 a day on food, especially since it was Georgetown, where Dean & Deluca was the grocery store and there was only one cheap place to eat. So I was up to $65 for five work days of expenses. This left $35 a week for groceries, toiletries, utilities, the third meal, the days-off expenses, laundry costs, household needs, the phone bill, student loan payments, postage and other frivolities.
This is a workable budget, as long as movies, CDs, new clothes, hairdressers, drinks, shows, restaurant meals, plane tickets, cab rides, one-hour photo developing, greeting cards, books and prescription medication become luxury items. And your father makes your $180-a-month student loan payments. And your mother pays to keep you on her health insurance through COBRA. And your ex-boyfriend helps with the long-distance phone bills that rival your rent. And your parents pay the grad-school application fees.
Experienced associates or register aides made $7 an hour. When I was promoted to manager-in-training (MIT) after four months, my paycheck jumped to $600 and I still never had enough money.
Store 5 was part of the M Street/Wisconsin Avenue Georgetown shopping nexus. With items ranging from 75-cent postcards to $300 Diesel leather jackets, it attracted the masses. The year before I started, Store 5 earned $7 million, and when I left in 1999, we were on our way to $8 million. The store made more on a slow Saturday than I grossed all year as an associate. Once I was a de facto manager, it was not unusual for me to count $12,000 in cash, mostly by hand, at the end of the night and then have to stop by the ATM to withdraw enough money to get home after work. Touching that much money made your hands feel really grimy. You became desensitized to its worth.
We used to pop open a safe that held thousands of dollars just to break a dollar bill for the vending machine, but no one ever walked off in the middle of the day with a couple of hundred stuck down the back of her pants. Someone could have done it if he or she were careful; the money in the safe was counted only twice a day—three ttimes, tops. But everything was initialed or numbered; there was always a paper trail. Every manager who didn’t transfer left under the suspicion of criminal wrongdoing. At least one left the country suddenly. I found it strange that such an “unimportant” job entailed such serious responsibilities, with severe consequences for abusing them.
The basic message to new employees was: wear whatever you want, but don’t fuck with internal security. The place had a million and one rules—yet still we failed our regional security audits. If you were an associate, you had to have two doors unlocked for you to go to the bathroom, and you weren’t allowed to make or receive phone calls. Only managers had keys to the sales floor’s back doors—which led to the break room, water cooler, lockers, bathrooms and offices. And only managers had keys to any of those rooms, or to the drop safes at the registers. Managers were allowed to unlock and enter the store only in pairs. MITs weren’t given the front-door key or the code to disarm the overnight motion detectors. No one was allowed in Receiving (where merchandise wasn’t yet security-tagged) without a background check, and red pens (used for markdowns) were locked inside the main office. Everyone had their ankles, pockets and bags checked every time they left the store. Some stores made employees raise their arms and pull their shirts tight across their backs before they let them leave. Needless to say, the deposit money was double-counted and no one went to the bank alone. And those were just the rules to prevent our own employees from stealing.
It wasn’t until I worked in retail that I learned how or why to alter the micronumbers on a check—and how to look for it; how to check for remagnetized credit cards, photocopied travelers’ checks, stolen checkbooks and credit cards, backdated checks, switched tags on merchandise or receipts and just plain shoplifting. We checked every credit card signature and ID’d people constantly. Whenever someone was really suspicious, I used to hope they would pay with cash—though we even got some bad money.
Sales associates counted the number of items going into and out of fitting rooms and checked fitting rooms thoroughly after each use for concealed tags or other evidence of shoplifting. They were also supposed to pat down pockets of clothes going in and out and make sure nothing had been clipped between clothing on pants hangers. Women’s accessories, men’s accessories and housewares were not allowed in fitting rooms. There were also rules about letting friends and parents into the fitting area with patrons, but those kept changing with the company’s new drive to be friendlier to customers. Even the “be nice” policies had security angles; shoppers who have been greeted are less likely to steal because they know you’re watching. In general, the staff did not sell to customers; we monitored them instead.
Most employees had a security role as well a retail one. There were receivers, merchandisers, display artists, managers, MITs, associates and ringers (register team).
The receiving manager unloaded up to 150 boxes of clothes and housewares a day, from the back of a truck in the alley behind the store. Receivers tagged the clothes as they came in. We had soft tags, hard tags and ink tags; only two of the tag types set off the door alarms. Receivers also disposed of a lot of damaged items, which is where more sophisticated scams often start, and for this reason there were a lot of inventory rules, and only managers could take out the trash, which was collected in clear bags.
The floor supervisor (a job that rotated throughout the day among the managers on duty) brought boxes of merchandise and hangers out to associates at the fitting rooms and change to the ringers behind the registers. Ringers were supposed to drop any bill over a twenty into their safes, and to drop all twenties once they had four in the drawer. (It was not unusual for foreign tourists to break their hundred-dollar bills first thing in the morning with an $8 purchase.) No change was traded between drawers. The ringers’ job revolved around security regulations, since they handled payment, were authorized to detag and answered the door alarm all day (they were stationed near the entrance). They prided themselves on catching scams and shoplifters. Of course, ringers were also disciplined for accepting bad checks, cards or money; managers counted out their drawers at the ends of their shifts and their cash overs/shorts were tracked.
Besides making the shipment and change rounds, the floor supervisors took trash from the fitting rooms and registers, let associates into the back for breaks, lunches, etc., responded to security calls and answered pages, all while fretting about the work they weren’t getting done in their own departments.
All of the security rules added a lot of work to a job that was already physically demanding, especially since we were understaffed. As an associate, you were always trekking upstairs and down, looking for a manager to let you into the back. As a manager, you were always running up and down the stairs, unlocking doors for associates who couldn’t get into the back on their own, or disarming the high-pitched alarm after an associate forgot and pushed the door. The back locks and alarms were added halfway through my time at the store. Even before that, I got plenty of exercise.
Transportation Item: Georgetown refused a Metro stop long ago and continues to resist one to this day because it might bring down the property values. This meant the closest stop was a brisk ten-or fifteen-minute walk away.
Exercise Routine: Walk to the Metro, walk to work from the Metro, jog up and down stairs and circle store throughout eight-hour work day, run to answer pages, lift full boxes of shipment, carry boxes to destination and repeat, walk to lunch, walk back, build some shelves, dismantle some shelves, move piles of folded clothes, move ladder, climb up ladder for customer, move ladder back, fold clothes, walk to Metro, walk home.
Because each store received and processed shipment five days a week, the positions of merchandise on the floor changed almost daily. Unlike similar retail businesses, each of the stores in our chain had its own floor plan and merchandising; bigger stores had their own display staff. The chain did not backstock; an item came in all at once, and it was all put on the floor. Once the receivers had sent out samples of the new arrivals, merchandisers and department managers placed shipment on the floor according to certain aesthetic guidelines as well as space considerations. In addition to monitoring fitting rooms and customers, associates swept the floors, cleaned the mirrors, completed markdowns, folded or hung the clothes and finished floor moves made necessary by the new clothes. Sitting looked unprofessional, so it was banned. When we got a new district manager, she wanted to rip out the candy and pop machines from the back hallway and replace the loveseat in the associates’ break room with metal stools; the room was too small for a couch.
By the time I commuted back home across DC, I had been on my feet ten to eleven hours. It was more like working in a warehouse than selling clothes, and in the six months I was there, I worked so much and was paid so little that I lost twenty pounds. My ribs began to show; I had visible biceps when I lifted my arms to pull back my hair; my pelvic bones stuck out for the first time since my fresh-man year in high school. I was soon so skinny, and the dress code was so lax, that I could wear tight and tacky clothes to work that would once have given me pause. I began to wear anything I thought looked cute, like a thin white wife-beater stretched over a hot-pink bra with my furry tiger-print belt, cuffed jeans and combat boots. Meanwhile, my skin felt foreign, when I had time to think about it.
My coworkers didn’t believe that I wasn’t normally that skinny, and a couple of them looked anorexic in their own right, although they were wolfing down the same quantities of cheese fries and burgers that I was at lunch. We burned off everything on the floor.
Time Management: If you get two days off a week, it is possible to work ten days straight if your days off are at the start of the first week and the end of the second. In reality, this hardly ever happened at Store 5 because we rarely got consecutive days off, though store policy said we were supposed to. You were more likely to work six or seven days in a row, have a day off and then work one or two—unless you were a manager and behind in your departmental projects, in which case you worked unpaid overtime and came in on your days off. You were guaranteed to close some nights before opening the next morning, which meant a maximum of five hours’ sleep if you commuted from Northeast and went to sleep the instant you walked in your door. You often closed and opened on either side of your nonconsecutive day off. You spent most of your day off sleeping.
Not surprisingly, on my day off I never wanted to make the round-trip, twenty-block walk to the laundromat or the equally long trek to the Safeway. If I were completely out of clean underwear or really hungry I would consider it—if I had the money. It is hard to convey just how uninteresting the concepts of food and clean clothing were in comparison to sitting still and saving some money. Besides, my day off was the one day I didn’t have to deal with or be seen by anybody.
We were open for business eighty-three hours a week and had thousands of customers. I wondered if people were more likely to notice me than I was to notice them; I encountered hundreds of people a week, while they saw only a few Store 5 salesgirls. Just when I’d convinced myself that people in the service industry are invisible to customers, a stranger would recognize me on the sidewalk in a different part of town. Sometimes someone would tell me I was new, or comment if they found me working in a different department than the one I’d been in the week before. People felt as though they knew you if they’d observed you often enough.
When my ex-boyfriend flew out from Kansas to visit, he would come to the store, stand outside on the sidewalk and watch me through the glass. He told me afterward how I looked walking across the floor or behind the register.
“You can tell that you’re in charge,” he would say, “by the way other people look at you when you talk to them, by the way they act when you’re around. You say something, and they all stop to listen.”
“They do not,” I’d say. “You’re being silly.”
I had always hated hearing a lover say my name because it forced me to think of myself as an entity seen from the outside by others. Now thousands of people had an image of me based only on my outside, and I knew for certain it was inaccurate. Every once in a while, I’d feel a tiny bit indignant at the assumptions I knew customers made about me and my life—that I wasn’t well educated and didn’t have high expectations, perhaps that I wasn’t even aware of how subservient a position I was in.
Mostly, though, I liked the assumptions that were made about me. My coworkers thought I was older than I was and went out more; it was probably assumed that I’d dropped out of college, and I didn’t mention that I had applied to grad school; we all talked about leaving one retail job for another, as if that was the only realm in which we could work or exist. It felt more rock ‘n’ roll than the real me, as if my life was riskier and I was less worried about it. It was a role-playing game that was new to me and offered a certain kind of freedom. If no one knew about my Phi Beta Kappa membership and my honors thesis, then no one knew that I was failing to live up to my potential.
And while I occupied a lowly position, I actually felt more powerful, more in charge in it: I was managing systems of business. The store might have had a million and one rules, but I was steadily learning them all. There were all kinds of codes to look up and memorize, and I had always had a good memory for numbers. New employees were surprised when they found out I’d been there a matter of months; the way I reeled off the class codes for different articles of clothing, they assumed I’d been there for years. I finally had a system that I could become part of, could learn and master and move up in; unlike other jobs I’d had, there were opportunities to apply my new knowledge on a daily basis, and I was excited by my newfound ability to handle five crises at once while making change. Maybe my college roommates had been right when they labeled me an extrovert. I didn’t mind making decisions, answering questions, explaining procedures or showing new employees how to scream into the intercom to be heard over the obscenity-ridden, butt-thumping music we played overhead. I was good at my job, as fast and accurate as I’d been as a data-entry typist; my arms were lean and muscular from lifting stock, my fingertips usually coated with the grime of money. My father was a farmer and construction worker, and I began to wonder if manual labor were in my blood.
When exactly I had become an adult was unclear to me. I still wasn’t sure that I was one. But here I was, thousands of miles from home, and I’d found a job and an apartment and called the utility companies myself, and I paid the rent and went to the grocery store (every once in a while). I was functioning, getting around and along in a strange city on the East Coast all by myself, without a family or anything. Who would’ve thought I could just move away and live on my own? I was secretly thrilled with my life. Even my loser job was a satisfying proof of competence for me.
But I soon gave up on any fantasies of limiting my goals to a life on modest means—to an apartment, a pop-artsy job and an active nightlife. It seemed so simple: pay the rent, go out and let retirement and unexpected expenditures take care of themselves. A good job will just take up all your time, and plenty of people get by on bad ones. The guys I always saw at the punk record store and the Black Cat gave the impression that their lives consisted of going out, with work interspersed, but really it was the other way around. They worked seven days a week, some of them, and had nothing to show for it. At least one lived off his mother, I knew. I decided that if I ever tried living on nothing again, I’d do it where the rent was cheaper. Life wasn’t easier when you didn’t take it seriously; being poor made all the problems more serious. I wasn’t free; my bank book didn’t allow me any options. With my schedule, I couldn’t even get to the bank. That was why I cashed my paychecks rather than depositing them. Besides, my paycheck wasn’t worth depositing; I would have had to withdraw it immediately. I didn’t carry large bills because I had a lot of money but because that was what the bank gave me, and after counting out so many other people’s fifties and hundreds, I didn’t find them so strange.
When I got into Columbia’s graduate writing program, I didn’t tell anyone at work. I planned to work at Store 5 until it was time to move to New York for the fall semester. I had accepted my promotion to management as if I were going to be there for a while, and it seemed snotty to admit that I had long-term options beyond a career in retail. Besides, I couldn’t give in to the job; I couldn’t admit that I wasn’t tough enough or smart enough or Zen enough to handle it.
From the beginning, I hadn’t had the money or energy to go out when I wasn’t working, and I never had time to write. But my experience at the store had steadily gotten worse once I was promoted to management. It wasn’t enough to know the system; the managers’ motto was, “Everything’s a judgment call—and you always judge wrong.” Of course things went wrong, since we were chronically understaffed, mismanaged and overworked. We were made to feel as if everything mattered and everything were our fault. I had been a superstar as an associate, and the associates still loved me as a management trainee; it was the store manager who had something against me. I was too young, too bright and too threatening for her to stand me, and my judgment calls were always wrong in her eyes. I never got any support from the other managers, and all the advice I got suggested it was my fault, one way or another.
But it was the same for everyone. We all blamed ourselves for letting the job get to us, for not being tough enough—and when something happened to someone else, we were just happy it hadn’t happened to us. The pressure was much worse than it had ever been at the White House, and with one day off at a time, I never got a break from it. It had gotten to the point that I was tense my whole day off, worrying about the shoes I hadn’t had time to out-stock the day before. Some mornings, I would walk in, look at the break schedule and be mad all day, convinced that another manager knew she was screwing me when she marked down her lunch at 2:30 instead of 3:00. It was time to get out.
On the evening of a dreary, early-April day, I closed the store and caught the last Metro home. One of the girls at work had been talking about quitting, and it sounded like such a good idea that, walking down the dark sidewalk in the rain on the way home to my dirty apartment, all I could think about was which store I wanted to apply at most.
It was 1:00 A.M. I was sitting on the soggy, separating couch that had been found in my backyard, eating a bowl of plain spaghetti and watching VH1’s Behind the Music—where everyone gets famous eventually—when it hit me that I could move. I could go home for the summer; I could visit the ex-boyfriend I kept calling. If I were going to find employment for only a few months before I moved to New York, then I could hate a new job in Kansas as easily as a new job in DC.
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