Feeling the Pinch This Christmas? Earn Big $$$ at the Mall!

The Nightmare Before Christmas

An Unemployed Writer Pursues Good Gift Giving Through Seasonal Employment

by Mike Walsh (written in December 2002)

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Here's the problem with Christmas--people expect gifts. Plus, my Christmas buying list has about twenty names on it. And those twenty people prefer nice gifts, and nice gifts generally cost a lot of money. Now I wouldn't mind spending a lot of money on Christmas gifts if I were engaged in some form of income generating activity--like a job, for instance--but since I'm not, the Christmas season is one of mounting frustration and worry for me and not the joyous, happy season the marketers tell us it should be.

It's not that I'm completely tapped out. I've got enough money to live on for the time being. I even have a client who still owes me a check for a computer manual I wrote a few months ago. That's what I do--technical writing. It's not glamorous, but it pays the bills, when I can find the work.

The problem is, when you're self-employed and not working, you fear the endgame--that you'll never find another paying gig and that destitution is just a few short months away. Spending any money at all gives you the willies. As the weeks go by and your bank account slowly shrinks, you can't help but imagine what life will be like living in a box under an overpass. So prospects were not looking merry for me or the fine people who receive gifts from me on Christmas.

There had to be a solution, so I mulled it over and came up with a plan: Since all the stores need extra help during the holidays, I would work in a store that sells nice, expensive things. I would make a hefty commission selling those expensive things. When the store inevitably discounted its merchandise a few days before Christmas, I would scoop up about twenty swell gifts with my employee discount. Time things right, and I'd get at least half off on some very nice gifts. Then I'd see those smiles as my loved ones opened their gifts on Christmas morning, and they would thank me profusely and testify to my substantial coolness.

I'd heard that the only places to earn half-decent commissions in retail this time of year was at jewelry and watch counters of large department stores. So I got cleaned up as best I knew how and off I went to find that perfect seasonal job at the department stores in the King of Prussia mall, which is the largest mall on the East Coast--ground zero for the area's holiday shopping frenzy. Now I truly despise department stores, and malls make me ill, but I figured I could put up with it until the Christmas Eve storewide blowout.

My first stop was Bloomingdale's. I found the Human Resources office and went inside. I was given an application and sat at a desk to fill it out next to an acne-riddled teenager, who was doing the same. In the section for listing my past five employers I wrote, "Unemployed freelance writer looking for seasonal work," and left it at that.

It was a multi-sheet application, with several waivers granting permission to Bloomingdale's to investigate my past. The application also contained this question: "Have you ever been charged with a crime, even a misdemeanor? If Yes, please explain." The line below read, "A conviction will not necessarily disqualify an applicant from employment." I checked "No" and hoped that they wouldn't discover that DUI from a few years before.

While I waited for someone to review my application, I read the HR paraphernalia lying about the waiting room. It stated that sales people must be neat and tidy and professional-looking. Men must wear "a pressed shirt, tie, and dark blazer at all times." I thought about my shoddy, thrift-shop wardrobe. Even when I tried to dress-up and appear professional, I looked like I'd just been in a wrestling match. Wrinkled and rumpled--that's the look I've maintained throughout my career, despite my occasional, half-hearted efforts otherwise.

I read how employees were expected to have "an exceptionally friendly attitude at all times and under all circumstances" when dealing with customers. I searched my conscience for even a smidgen of friendly attitude toward Bloomingdale's customers and found none.

I imagined myself on the Bloomingdale's sales floor greeting customers with, "Welcome to Bloomingdale's. How can I help you?" while inside thinking, "Where do all these idiots come from? Why don't they go to a different store and bother someone else? Why do I have to work this shitty job? How did my life lead to this? Why didn't I get an MA in something like computer programming or accounting instead of english?"

The HR materials also explained that "selling is hard work." You're on your feet all day, you have to assist customers, straighten up merchandise, restock shelves, change ticket prices, and push the store's credit card. Not only that, but the store checked on you with "mystery shoppers." The flyer concluded, "Retail sales is not for everyone." I gulped.

I scanned the bulletin board and saw a job for a "folder and fluffer." Apparently, the person lucky enough to land that position is required to wander the aisles of the store looking for things that are wrinkled and flat and then fold and fluff them.

I was contemplating various suicide techniques when the Human Resources person entered the waiting room. I sat up straight and adopted a friendly smile. She was a heavy set, smartly dressed, twenty-something gal sporting lots of makeup and thick burgundy lipstick. Her hose swished as she shuffled about on black patent-leather heels. She also had a stern expression.

She ignored me and began chatting with acne boy. To my amazement, he was hired on the spot. Was he to be the next folder and fluffer? I knew I could fold and fluff circles around that dipshit.

To get her attention, I asked if there were any open "seasonal" positions. She impatiently took my application and asked if I wouldn't mind filling out a survey before I left. It takes about "45 minutes," she added.

"Did you say four to five minutes," I asked, "or 45 minutes?"

"45," she replied.

I politely declined and asked, "Any openings for mystery shoppers?" Working a job where you got to sneak around and bust employees when they sluffed off--that really appealed to me. Unfortunately, the Bloomingdale's woman didn't find my question worthy of a reply.

You really know how to turn on the charm, I thought to myself as I wandered out of Bloomingdale's and into the mall. I wondered if I had just lost a job because I'd been unwilling to fill out the survey or if I had just saved saved myself 45 minutes.

A few minutes later I was in Macy's HR office. I filled out another multi-sheet application, again signing waivers allowing them to investigate my past and again swearing that I had never been convicted of any crimes, "no matter how minor." The DUI of several years ago was suddenly weighing very heavy on my mind.

I handed in my application and met Mary. She smiled, looked me in the eyes, and held my hand for a second or two longer than necessary before leading me to her office. Was she being flirtatious? Was she hoping for an impetuous sexual encounter on top of her desk--like in the movies? Didn't she notice my wedding ring?

Mary then proceeded to offer me any open job within the store. Salary: $8 an hour, no commission. I made a few mental computations, which went something like this: 8-hour shift at $8 per grosses $64 minus taxes means I'm clearing $45 tops. Hmmm. It was beginning to look a lot like my relatives were going to receive gifts from the local dollar store this year.

The only open commission job was in Ladies' Shoes, and it was full-time. I thought of harried salespeople busting their asses for annoyed, impatient customers, running back and forth trying to find just the right size and color and then apologizing when they couldn't. I always felt sorry for those poor bastards, and I didn't want to become one of them. I wanted to work the expensive jewelry counter, gently encouraging the wealthy to make big money purchases. Was that so much to ask?

Of course, I didn't say anything like that to Mary. Even though we hadn't made love on her desk, I still felt close to her and I didn't want to hurt her feelings.

She assured me that there was lots of turnover at Macy's and that good positions opened up all the time. If I got my foot in the door, she pointed out, I would surely find a desirable position very quickly.

I saw myself moving up the Macy's hierarchy, being promoted every couple of weeks. Within a few months, I'd have an executive position with a generous benefits package. I'd wear impeccable suits, drive a luxury SUV, and elicit the awe and respect of my co-workers. Not that I'd be stuck-up about it. I'd still be the same down-to-earth, friendly, modest, people-person I am today.

I noticed that Mary was still smiling and gazing into my eyes. She was evidently imagining the same bright future for me as well as a more immediate future of she and I coupling on her desk. Or she was just daydreaming about her grocery list?

I took Mary's card, promised to call, and bid her adieu. We again shook hands, and I paid particular attention to the length of the handshake. It was normal this time. No funny finger scratching signals either. Mary had evidently caught on that I wasn't game to her come-ons. I can only hope she didn't take the letdown too hard.

My next stop was Neiman Marcus. The second I stepped through the door I was enveloped in a calm, regal elegance, and I knew I had found my new employer. I also assumed that a sales person could knock down some serious coinage in such a fancy joint. All the clerks were impeccably dressed and looked like they had been there since the Nixon administration. I was encouraged. There was only one problem--where were the customers? The sound of the escalators echoed through the place like a lonely heartbeat.

Out of nowhere appeared a short, skinny, balding Asian guy with a Fu Manchu mustache, long hair, and a Neiman Marcus employee badge. I could hardly believe my eyes. If Neiman Marcus would hire someone that freaky looking, maybe a wrinkled dweeb like me stood a chance.

He directed me to HR, where I filled out another six or seven page application in just under five minutes. I was getting very good at filling out applications. I gave it to a woman who smiled but stared at me with glassy eyes. Was she stoned or just afraid of me?

I told her who I was, the "freelance writer in search of" bit, and what I was looking for. She managed to nod her head and say, "Okay." Her dazed expression never faltered. She didn't say another word. Had I missed something? Had I entered a parallel universe where normal modes of communication did not apply? Was she attempting a mind meld on me? I couldn't stand the Stepford Wife routine any longer, so I bolted.

To say I was demoralized at this point is an understatement, but Lord & Taylor was right next door, so I figured, why not? Of course, I knew by this time that my quest for reasonably paying seasonal work was doomed, but I held out the irrational hope that Lord & Taylor would be different.

With my enthusiasm and energy level scraping the floor, I was barely able to fill out yet another multi-page job application. I was having serious trouble keeping my social security number, phone number, zip code, and drivers license numbers straight. I was feeling light-headed, my armpits were damp, and my hands were trembling. My handwriting, not good to begin with, had devolved to a jagged scribble.

The brochure on the side table announced, "Lord & Taylor--Be part of the success. Be part of our future. Join Us!" I couldn't even muster a sarcastic smirk at that.

A Lord & Taylor HR woman showed up and immediately asked if I could attend a training session that evening. Before I could answer, she proudly announced that they had several positions open at $6.50 per hour, and she wanted me to get started right away. "After all, the Christmas shopping season is upon us," she said cheerfully.

It certainly was. I mumbled an unintelligible word or two while backing out of the office and stumbled out of Lord & Taylor. I decided to get the hell out of the mall and as far away as possible while I still could.

I had to walk back through Macy's to get to the parking lot. I paused at a clearance rack and overheard two clerks arguing in hushed tones.

"I would never say that to a customer," the fat guy said.

"But why did two separate customers say you used the same profanity with each?" asked the skinny guy, who was writing notes on a clipboard. Neither of them looked a day over 25.

"The only time I would say anything like that is if a customer is incredibly rude. That's the only feasible explanation, Richard."

"Jeffrey, you know we don't allow that kind of language with customers under any circumstances."

When a customer interrupted them with a question, the fat guy answered with grotesque smiles and pleasantness and got right back to his denials and obfuscations.

"I thought you trusted me more than that, Richard. I worked my tail off trying to organize this department. I'm understaffed and yet you still--"

"That's not what this is about, Jeffrey. Everyone appreciates how hard you work."

"Well, it certainly doesn't show, Richard. Your accusations are very hurtful."

"No one is trying to hurt you, Jeffrey. Please don't change the subject."

That conversation sealed it. They may not have been trying to hurt one another, but they were certainly hurting me. I couldn't work in a place where people had such conversations. My career is seasonal retail sales had been a short one.

I beat a hasty retreat from the mall in my oil-leaking '89 Ford Probe. On my way home I made an important stop, one that would rejuvenate my spirits and lift my downtrodden soul--the beer distributor. I picked up a case of expired beer for $10. That's what you buy when the gift buying pressure is on, and you and your MA in English are out of work.

The absurd, soul-sapping afternoon did nothing but reinforce what I knew before I left my house that afternoon--I couldn't work in a mall department store. I'd probably have quit within a day or two. I don't have the temperament to work all day serving the holiday shopping hordes for $45 wondering whether a "mystery shopper" was spying on me. Instead, I did what comes natural--I wrote this article, and I feel a little better because of it. A few of those expired beers didn't hurt either.

So remember, if a relative of yours gives you a lame gift for Christmas, one that looks suspiciously like the candy dish Aunt Doris gave him last year, don't complain. Don't gossip about him. Believe me, he's no happier about it than you are. He probably debased himself more times that he cares to admit trying to find a way to make enough cash to buy a few smiles of joy and surprise on Christmas morning. And isn't that what it's all about?

By the way, if anyone needs a computer manual written and has an extra $10,000 lying around, you know where to find me--in a box under an overpass. Merry fricken' Christmas, everybody.


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