Maybe it's Covid-19, I'm not sure, but lately, I seem gripped by some kind of misanthropic anxiety attack whenever I make a trip to the grocery store. I go up and down the aisles of the local market as though I'm trying to escape a monster lurking in the frozen food section. I peer around corners looking to see if anyone is within 6 ft of me, and then make a dash for the items I've memorized in anticipation of this shopping experience. I know I'm supposed to follow the arrows meant to keep the flow of human traffic going in one direction, but sometimes it means going all the way around bread and cheese when the dog treats are right there! At check out, the woman in front of me begins to unload her cart. Twenty cans of tuna, seven boxes of pasta, eight jars of peanut butter, thirteen cartons of rice milk… I check my cell phone to make sure I didn't miss a news bulletin that we are under siege. I'm halfway through Pride, Prejudice, and Zombies when I finally reach the cashier. "I have my own bags," I tell her and prepare to shove my groceries into them like I'm trying to beat the clock in a video game. We are halfway through the ritual when she is abruptly stopped from serving me by some other customer who invariably says, "Hi, sorry to interrupt, but I have a quick question..." At which point, a long discussion about the price of avocados, the weather in Mexico, and the current refugee crisis ensues while my ice cream turns to glutinous mush. The twenty-four-hour news cycle, from which I've recently unplugged, would have me believe that my chances of survival these days aren't good unless I lock myself into a bunker. No wonder I'm stressed. Then I think of the cashiers. At the beginning of this pandemic, we heralded them for bravely going to work each day to serve us. But as time goes by, our patience, degree of empathy, and energy have waned. A sign at a local hardware store reads something to the effect of -
We are trying to serve you with respect and consideration. Please give us the same courtesy.
It strikes me as sad that anyone would even have to post that.
I've worked a number of menial jobs in my life. Any success I achieved in theatre came relatively late to me. I watched my male counterparts get work that I wasn't considered for until 15 years later, so I've had my share of minimum wage positions as a chambermaid, temp, gopher, and cashier. Mostly I worked menial jobs at the pleasure of wealthy people who were under the impression that the customer is always right.
When I was in my twenties, I got a Christmas job at a major department store in downtown Toronto. It started as seasonal but soon became my primary source of income for almost a year. The training session lasted a week. Ten of us sequestered inside a windowless room were taught how to handle everything from cardiac arrest to shoplifting. A humorless officer warned us that random searches often resulted in criminal records for staff caught stealing and that no pair of earrings or small electronic was worth losing your job and reputation over. Our cash register instructor looked and behaved like someone on Prozac. "Congratulations," she said, "Welcome to the wonderful world of consumerism. This could be the beginning of a very rewarding career." My heart sank. Career? I was already years behind where I wanted to be in my preferred occupation on the stage. And now someone was suggesting that THIS could be my career? I asked myself how many other losers worked in this building as I added cash register proficiency to my work resume.
I fancied myself lucky when they assigned me to the book department. If shoes or underwear had been my fate, I probably would have been fired after the first week. But books? I loved books. I imagined myself having deep discussions with devoted patrons over which Dickens novel I loved most or sharing my opinion on whether Winterson or Atwood was more enlightening?
The book department was tucked away in a small corner on the main floor where, if you stood in your tippy-toes, you could still see some natural light peeking through the aisles of the cosmetic counters. There were better book stores in Toronto at the time, but you wouldn't know it, by the way, the head buyer, Barb, and her associate, Larry, behaved. They discussed books as if they were part of the Algonquin table and constantly reprimanded me for not looking as presentable as befitting my stately occupation. No one ever saw my legs hidden behind the counter, but I was docked pay, even in the summer, if I didn't wear pantyhose. Once, during a heatwave, I challenged a manager to prove that my legs were bare. "They're super sheer," I said. What could he do? I applauded myself over this small victory for women everywhere.
Christmas was the only time we were ever super busy. Cards, bows, and wrapping paper were right beside us, so most patrons would collect those items first, then add them to their book purchases. And, as if the line-ups weren't bad enough, the store was honoring all kinds of coupons and discounts in an effort to increase sales and move stock. For me, this meant tallying the sale, discounting the coupon, and calculating the tax on every novel that was eligible. (Bear in mind that our machines were not computerized) Management encouraged us to process customers one minute at a time, but at Christmas, with all the added incentives, it could take as long as four. Hot, tired, and impatient, customers grumbled and yelled and then slammed their purchases on the counter, demanding I bow to their every whim. One woman threw her rolls of wrapping paper at me when I dared to mention that her coupon was no longer valid. Another man threw a book. My forehead was bleeding, but I was on the clock. Sell. Sell. Sell!
Barb spent most of her time in meetings or at luncheons. Her life seemed strangely glamourous in the way I later came to view the role of artistic directors. She was always running about operating somewhere between giddy and desperate. You'd think she worked for the library of congress the way she went on about the latest best sellers and agonized over books that should have but never did make a profit. I liked it best when she was away. “Try to look busy,” she’d say as she ran off to another meeting. And I did… busy reading secretly under the counter. This was strictly forbidden, of course, but most days, I'd average maybe 20 customers, and reading books stove off boredom. By March, I had made quite a dent in the library, being ever so careful not to bend a page too much lest it look used. Alas, as the months passed, no one ever asked me my advice on anything. By April, I was disillusioned. I noticed that almost all my customers bought either Harlequin romance novels or Louis Lamour westerns, depending on their sexual orientation. We carried a pretty good selection of classics, but I never sold one. We hardly ever sold a New York Times bestseller. Much to Barb's chagrin, our customers were mostly sexually repressed housewives using retail therapy and romance novels to fill some kind of void or laconic hegemonic males looking to reminisce over a past that excused sometimes violent but also chivalrous ways. Both customers bought books by the stack-full. Huge towering purchases included the monthly Harlequin western, Harlequin Historical, Harlequin romantic suspense, Harlequin dare, Harlequin intrigue--you get the picture. Once Earl Burney, the Canadian poet, came into our department, and I felt sorry for him when he strolled over to the poetry section and noticed that not one of his books had sold.
The book department felt like an anomaly amidst the densely populated retail neighbourhood of Yonge and Queen street. Wood bookcases and warm lighting made me feel somehow protected, even if my co-workers tolerated me and the wage was terrible. A passage in my journal at the time reads: "The name of the game is survival. I am walking around with 50 cents in my wallet. I had to steal a few dollars from the till to afford the subway this evening. I'll replace it when I get paid."
While working in the department store, I continued to foster my dream of acting. I'd slip out during lunch hours to audition for anything and everything hoping that this time I'd land the part of my dreams and break free from retail prison. Because I wasn't making enough to get an apartment in Toronto, I spent the four days of my shift crashing on three different couches only to take the bus back to Niagara Falls on Thursdays, where I crashed at my grandmother's house until the cycle started all over again the following week. I was constantly explaining to family members why I was still pursuing a life in the theatre when it was clear to everyone, but me, that I didn't belong. Many years later, after having established myself as a director, I would remember the lean, lean years and tell aspiring actors in University programs the importance of tenacity. When people say you have to really want a life in theatre, they mean you have to REALLY want it. Yes, some people are indeed luckier than others, but I was not one of them.
Summer came and with it nicer weather. Everyone was feeling optimistic. Books were selling well to customers with travel on their minds, and though Bleak House was still sitting all by itself in the classic section, I was ecstatic when someone bought A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. "Okay, it's not much," I thought, "but it's a start." I privately gave points to anyone who purchased literature, the New Yorker, or the New York Times. "Way to go." I'd think as I'd bag the purchases for even the semi-curious mind.
One day late in August, the store opened, and no one showed up to work. No one came in at 11:00 either, and by noon, I knew something was amiss. Barb finally arrived and called me into the back room. I'd never been in the back room, so there was no denying the gravity of whatever the situation was. It turned out that during one of those random searches by security, Larry was caught shoplifting a children's book for his little girl and abruptly let go. The whole department was in a state of shock, and I was reminded, for the umpteenth time, to act professionally and not read the books under the counter. I was quick to replace the $2.00 from the day before and uneasily thought of Larry. He'd always seemed like such a nice man. I was sure there had been some misunderstanding which would be cleared up in no time, thus heralding his return. That never happened. We became the scourge of the store. Soon afterward, the department was moved to the basement and became an afterthought.
Barb quit to take another position somewhere else and a selection committee replaced her job as the buyer stocking only commercial best sellers. A month later, I was stalked (no pun intended) by a strange man who would always show up to my shift and watch me for hours from the bedding department. When I ventured to complain to security, they told me there was no rule against loitering in the store, and I was on my own. Frustrated, frightened, exasperated, I finally confronted him. "What the hell do you want?" I asked. He smiled, "You can't talk to me that way," he said, "I'm a customer. I could have you fired." He then continued to leer at me for another two hours. The next day, I quit.
All in all, I'd worked there for nearly a year. I probably would have been there longer if it hadn't been for my stalker. I suppose I owed him some level of gratitude. Who knows, if it hadn't been for him, I might have made a life in retail my career of choice.