Monday, September 3, 2007


I have certainly felt like a laborer lately. It feels like my life is conspiring to prepare me for parenthood by parading before me an endless array of challenges that feel just a little bit out of my comfort zone. Today I didn't do much of anything, and that was good.

I remember my first real job, as a 16 year old clerk at a now-defunct department store called The May Company, on the East Side of Cleveland. (The store, shown above, is now a Macy's). My parents were pretty terrified of the world, and unsure of its limits, and I too was terrified of doing something wrong on the job and getting fired. I never did get fired, but I witnessed a lot of things I remember, and that convinced me of the idiocy of working for any kind of for-profit business. The funny thing about that was that I wasn't really aware of what one could do besides work at a for-profit business, so I just filed it under my general conviction that the world was a stupid and hypocritical place.

I'll share a few May Company stories, in honor of those who still labor in retail today:

Racism on the Sales Floor
We were trained by a middle aged woman who had an unpleasant schoolteacherish air; in fact, I think she had once been a teacher. During the training, one of the other trainees asked what to do if a customer acted racist towards an employee. Well, the trainer said, it's just not worth dealing with a person like that, so just give the sale to someone else!

An Unfortunate Fainting Spell
One day, while working in ladies blouse department on the first floor (I was putting little size markers on hangers), I fainted, and threw up simultaneously. When I came to, I was sitting at the employee exit on the second floor. They had called my dad, and he was on his way to get me. As I sat there, it came to me that they had carried me upstairs so I could leave via the employee exit. As my father arrived, the owlish HR clerk rushed out with my schedule, saying "It's a good thing you don't have to work tomorrow!"

Grooming on the Job
For the last few months I worked there, I was a stock assistant in the ladies' shoes department. The shoe salespeople were the most exalted line staff in the store, because they got commission, and probably made a salary of something like $35,000 per year in today's dollar. One of them was a young man named James, who loved heavy metal. He was rather sallow, gaunt, had a long ponytail, and was a very successful salesperson. At some point, the powers that be decided that long hair was not permitted. Rather than give up the job, James began wearing a wig to work, which made him look like a cancer patient.

My department store experience, coupled with my father's leftist tendencies and hatred of his job, drove me toward a happy future of nonprofit work. But it also left me with another strange trait: an affinity for department stores. I have a Macy's credit card, and I find myself drawn to the downtown Macy's at least once a month, even though I like very little of the merchandise in the store. In fact, I went there today, and bought a little baby outfit. The staff at Macy's San Francisco is one of the few at any department store in the U.S. who are unionized.


Margie in Oakland said...

Awesome stories of dept store life.

My first retail experience was at 16 years old bagging bean sprouts at a store called Horse Feathers. I lasted one day.It was really boring. Neither of my parents had "real" corporate type jobs so I luckily never knew that pressure. Until now.

Linda said...

Ha! Maybe they should have set you up with a summer job at a car dealership when you were young...