How to Be a Great Minimum Wage Retail Worker with Zero Sanity

So. It’s your first job, congrats. Retail—not so congrats. It’s a small party supply store. But the people seem pretty nice. It’s a laid back, easy-going atmosphere, Mark the manager says.

When you clock in at the beginning of the week, you straighten your spine and wipe the sweat bravely off your neck. It’s early July and quite hot, but to save money they don’t turn up the AC. You breathe in the peculiar dusty, papery smell of the place. The various paraphernalia rock and party on the shelves. You have to wince at the assault of restless shapes and colors on your eyes. But don’t worry, you can do this. You feel a tingle of nerves and stretch a smile on your face.

The first day, you spend four hours deflating mylar balloons. The process is ingenious: you stick a straw through the seal, and helium comes out. You work hard at it, of course. You set a record. You are the damn fastest balloon deflator the place has ever seen. You deflate twenty-three jumbo mylar balloons. You would have done more, but they insisted you take a ten minute break.

At the end of the day, the dark-haired supervisor—you’re pretty sure his name is Dennis—ventures forth from the office. He’s been playing spider solitaire all day long on the computer; you watched him through the little window as you killed the balloons. He smiles lazily and compliments you on your work ethics.

You pause for a second. You clutch the straw in your hand tightly. There seems to be a strange hissing rush in your ear, like you are releasing your own jet stream of gas.

But you pull yourself together and thank him, politely. It’s the first day of your first job—and it could have been worse. You suppress a shudder. In the end you can only laugh. Yeah, you go girl, you tell yourself.

You notice that in the parking lot, the workers’ cars peel away like the devil is chasing them.

*   *   *

All your coworkers are only a few years older than you, in their early twenties. Some of them you like, some you are more wary of. Lacey is sweet and she gives you help and a little advice here and there.  Luke, he is a nice guy who does more work in an hour than most people do all day. James has a foul mouth. You thought Gerry was just moody and quiet—a little depressed and embittered about being a chain smoking, minimum wage employee. But Lacey assures you that he isn’t depressed—he’s just hung over.

Other workers are neither hard working nor particularly smart. But they get on the good side of the supervisors, because they can kiss ass very well. They especially favor the dark-haired Dennis, who prides himself on being the most laid back of all the managers. The ass-kissers like to follow him around like he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. You laugh and roll your eyes. Don’t suck up. It’s bad for your health.

On your third day of work, James asks you if you want to see something “cool.” He shows you your first look at porn. You freeze. It’s an outrageous violation of the sexual harassment code they outlined in page six of the employee’s handbook (which you carefully read front to back, twice, the first night you received it). But the booklet doesn’t explicitly state what to do when you see a picture like that. After closing your eyes, you are too stunned to say anything. James shares the same picture, captured with absurd clarity on his cell phone screen, to the red head supervisor, Tom. They exchange website URLs. You sweep the floor in a determined manner and think fiercely about cute LOLcatz pictures.

But—because you keep the conversation strictly to work, you manage to get along with everybody. Good for you.

Unfortunately, Mark is different. As the head manager, he was the one who hired you. But you are convinced he was suffering from a delirious malady that fateful day. It becomes very apparent that he is a sexist jerk. He’s already fired four girls, changing the guy to girl ratio from 2:1 to 3:1. You overhear him saying that girls aren’t hard workers, anyway. You fume, about to burst into righteous anger, threatening lightening and terror like Zeus almighty on high—

Lacey comes to your rescue. She pokes you and shakes her head, making a face. Do you want to get fired? No. You are a feminist, but you are also a poor college student.

Tread lightly on Mark and don’t make it apparent that you want to squish him under your foot and wipe him off on the asphalt. Not on the dirt, where worms live—those poor creatures don’t deserve to be digesting his filth. Don’t listen to him spout junk.

Actually, don’t listen to what any of your supervisors say. They tell you to do things a certain way—but you just nod your head in agreement and make sure you do things the right way. You figure this out fairly quickly. For example, when they say that the best way to sort out the candy aisle is to go by brand names—nod very seriously in agreement. Make a face behind their backs. They are so, so dead wrong. The candy aisle is the worse aisle in the store to clean up. Little five year old kids like to get their hands into the tubs of sweets. They eat up the candy and leave wrappers behind. Or they mix up the candies. Or they play with the candy—in one tub, all the chocolate coins are stacked together in towers and M&Ms litter the bottom like bright pebbles. Cleaning is a hopeless task. You sort out the candy by color, and then by shape. It’s a slow process. By the end of the day, though, you have sorted out the worst of the mess. You are reasonably proud of yourself. But the supervisors don’t really care—they are far too busy playing the brand new set of Rock Band in the office.

All Tom says when he sees your work is, “Good job.” He takes the small mountain of candy packages that you have damaged out—all opened, no longer sellable—and hands them out as treats to the winners of the unofficial game tournament they have going on. As an afterthought, he later offers you a largely unmolested bag of mini snickers.

You sigh. You’re sick of looking at candy. He shrugs, unwraps a few and pops them in his mouth.

*   *   *

You clock in and clock out and you clock in and clock out some more. They are killing you. You work eighty plus hours the first two weeks (you also covered a shift for Lacey). It’s like party supply store boot camp. You have a big bruise on your knee from an accidental contact with a shopping cart. Your fingers swell and smell unpleasantly like latex: inflating helium balloons is a painful, popular business. Mostly, your feet throb from abuse. Every night you have to walk the aisles, reorganizing the shelves. Apparently people are so blinded by the bright colors that they can’t see to put things back in the proper place.

You are also attending summer school for the extra units to get ahead. You have never enjoyed sitting down at a desk so thoroughly. For a few hours each morning, your feet are not supporting the weight of your body. You mechanically take down a barrage of notes while you flex your toes. You arch your feet. You’re not standing up. It’s amazing.

* * *

Coworkers are only part of the job. Another aspect of retail’s manifold delights is the Customer. You have to be careful of this all-knowing and demanding entity. If you see one ahead of you, for sure there will be one behind you as well. They are an interesting brand of creatures. When you first get here, you aren’t quite sure how to deal with them.

There is a man who comes in for several balloon bouquets. When you ask if he wants boy colors or girl colors, he looks at you like you’ve lost your mind.

“This is for a woman, of course,” he says. He leans in closer. “If you ever see me come in here for a guy, please tell me you’ll shoot me on the spot. Swear it.” He appears totally serious. You hesitate. If you ascribe to the “keep customer happy” rule, you’ll have to promise to kill him. What if your coworkers overhear you threatening customers? But if you don’t, he might get upset and complain about your lack of satisfactory customer service. In the end you laugh and say you don’t have a gun, but you know a few quick and painless deaths. Your manager Mark passes by, of course. Oh lord. You smile weakly at him. You avoid him for the rest of the day.

But as well as talking to customers as sanely as possible, you have to keep an eye on them. Sometimes “suspicious” young kids come in. Then they send a worker to stalk them around the store. They don’t want any no-good, back pack-wearing young juvie to steal the precious, one-time use, flimsy party stuff that they sell.

One day, after you’ve been there a while, Dennis sends you after a guy and his girl who’s carrying a “suspiciously large backpack.” You groan silently to yourself, but you follow them around as they loiter in the aisles. They try on party hats, touch things and leave them on the wrong shelf, spin the noisemakers around and around in an irritating rattle. You want to kill them. Of course you are wasting your time. You are supposed to be resetting the boys’ birthday aisle, a task that will last forever. Now it will take even longer. You are not sure why Dennis has chosen you out of all people to stalk them, anyway. The girl you follow has thighs bigger than your waist. She looks like she could eat you up and spit out your bones for her guy, who will splinter your skeleton into toothpicks. They know you are following them, too. They loiter long and hard and good. They loiter like the loitering Lord and Lady of Loiter-effing-land.

After a while you wonder why the hell Dennis just can’t kick them out of the store, but they have not done anything wrong yet. In your head, you imagine that you’ve grown blades out of your knuckles, like a girl Wolverine, and you chase the idiot couple out of the store. You go back to the boys’ birthday aisle and you rip it apart and you get fired, but you have freaking Adamantium claws so you don’t care, you just rip your last paltry check up into a storm of glorious confetti.

In reality, the moron “suspicious” couple leaves after an hour without incident. You report back to the paranoid supervisors, who nod collectively and agree pleasantly that it was a good job you did, and would you mind working on the boys’ aisle very quickly tomorrow then, to make up for lost time.

You agree, your tone of voice just as pleasant as theirs. If you don’t, you’d get fired. The economy sucks and another job would be hard to find.

* * *

Another tidbit you learn: when customers complain to you, shove them at the supervisors. The first time you are put on register, you have a young woman that begins to argue about a price discrepancy. You explain that she’s not reading the fine print on the ad—it’s the cake plates that are 50% off, not the dessert plates. The customer doesn’t understand the difference between cake and dessert plates. You don’t either, to be honest. But you have to sound like you know what you’re talking about, even if it’s a bunch of BS.

Dennis comes to your rescue. He’s back from his lunch, and feeling good with food, and this is no doubt why he decides to take pity on you. He smoothly interjects a batty BS explanation about cake vs. dessert plates. You don’t even pay attention to his words. You watch him in astonishment: his voice is suave, his smile is bright, his eyes are the clearest blue you’ve ever seen. He’s a good-looking bastard and using it to his advantage. You look back at the customer, who appears slightly dazed. She nods in agreement and you are surprised the transaction ends without her asking Dennis for his number. You listen to Dennis wishing her a good day. Then he turns to you and says, “You shouldn’t try to handle the hard ones by yourself.”

You aren’t sure what to say, so you just nod. You still don’t forgive him for being a lazy ass, though.

You watch more interactions between supervisors and customers. Most of them end less than satisfactory and with elevated frustration levels on both parties. And at first it’s almost like sweet revenge—but you begin to understand why the supervisors might enjoy playing Rock Band all day long. You begin to understand why they play “paper, rock, scissors” each time the summons for a supervisor comes.

You learn that people, when it comes to parties, can be absolute fiends about getting everything just right. Be wary of the mothers with very young children. Especially the ones with a first birthday coming up. Be wary if you offer them help—they are like party-shopping savages. They scare you—you generally want to believe in the good in all people—so you chalk up the crazed look in their eyes as temporary insanity.

This kind of thinking is what helps you day in and day out of the store. Oh, there’s a customer who wants a 75% discount because there’s a small discolored spot on a party hat? Temporary insanity. That lady who wants you to blow up thirteen dozen balloons in the next half hour? Temporary insanity. Gerry is keeping a pet spider in his locker? Temporary insanity. The little kid throwing a fit down aisle five? He’s just caught the vibe of the place, he’ll be fine once he gets out the door.

To your embarrassment, this is what you actually reassure his mother with and she pauses to give you a bemused look. Either she really wasn’t listening to you, or she thought you were just being funny, or she thought she was being funny—but she buys fifteen sets of Thomas the Train plates and more than a hundred dollars worth of pretty disposable decorations. You don’t say anything further, but you know what you are thinking, loud and clear.

* * *

On one of your days off, you hang out with your best friend Martha. You love Martha, but you haven’t seen her recently. She’s been working hard on a robotics project and recently placed first in a competition. You’re proud of her—and you can’t help but feel that someone should give you an award, too. Surely you deserve something for the garbage you endure.

Martha is thrilled to see you, and you two spend a nice day walking aimlessly around the mall. You are too poor to buy anything—and anyway, you could never imagine wearing any of the bright, barely-there fabrics of the latest trend. Instead, you rejoice in the fact that you are the customer, the one who’s always right, the one who can complain and demand a price check, holding up the line gleefully like a malevolent witch, cackling as poor frenzied workers scramble to appease your will—

Oh dear. You see Martha put back a bottle of lotion on the wrong shelf. You are about to correct her, but she’s already skipped to the next aisle. She obviously doesn’t care. And why should you? Your hands start to itch, for some reason. Your fingers twitch. You stand in torment for twenty seconds, staring at that damn bottle of lotion. You hear Martha call your name from the next aisle over. Zombie-like, your fingers move stiffly of their own accord. The lotion is jammed almost rudely back into its old spot. You look around indiscreetly, but no one notices you.

You go back to Martha and pretend everything is normal, but there’s a funny feeling that you would like nothing better than to visit a nice ice cream place and wash away thinking with processed sugar, lots and lots of it.

* * *

Your coworkers are crazy as ever, but to your mild astonishment they’ve decided they like you. They are happy to help you out with things you don’t know. Lacey knows where all the pegs and labels are kept in the back. Luke can explain the difference between “sea green” and “mist green” balloons (the sea green is ten cents more than the mist green). Gerry, despite looking like he’s due for his next dose of Prozac, often gives out free balloons to little kids. And when you forget your lunch, he gives you half his food. Tom even offers you a go at Rock Band during your break.

But someone you’re particularly careful of is James, he of the porn and foul mouth. One day on your break, you walk into the break room during his lunch. He is lounging back in his chair like a brown Homer Simpson, bald and blubbery, slurping a Coors spiritedly.

You pause warily. Despite the rampant lack of discipline, alcohol is definitely not allowed. James looks at you and winks. He pulls out another can from a brown paper sack. “My last one,” he says.

“I’m underage,” you say.

He shrugs. “This little baby don’t discriminate, it will make you smile no matter what age you are. Seriously,” he adds, “sometimes you don’t look as happy as you should.” His voice is kind, his language devoid of flippant f-bombs.

You take the can. You know you are not going to drink it, but you trail a finger on the cold, smooth aluminum. It’s solid and crushable at once. You can feel the gentle weight pulling on you like a keystone, that intricate balancing force that holds arches and domes together.

You thank James and shove it in the farthest crevice of your locker. But you can still feel the sleek cylindrical curve on your fingers, the pull it offers you. It just won’t leave you alone.

* * *

By now you are getting better and better at your job. You’ve survived a year and two months of this. You can blow up two dozen twelve inch latex balloons in less than ten minutes. You can calm down the hyperventilating mother of soon-to-be-one-year-old triplets who’s crying because you don’t carry enough set of Sesame Street dinner plates. You get along with everybody, because you can laugh at everyone and everything.

You’ve got a good feel for the insanity of the place, but you don’t let it get to you.  You are young and strong and you endure. You let the nasty things brush off you. You find quiet satisfaction in finishing a project and starting another.  You let the happiness of lunchtime rise inside like a helium balloon. Then you clock out. Good job.

* * *

One day, after you finish putting up a display of piñatas, Mark and Tom and Dennis come up to you. Tom is holding up a box of party poppers. You are busy swiping off bright pieces of tissue paper from your shirt and you don’t notice them at first. When you look up, your mouth goes dry. Why are all the managers standing in front of you?

“Isn’t this exciting?” says Tom. He’s grinning. So are the other two. You don’t know if this is a good thing or if you should carefully back away.

Dennis grabs a party popper from Tom’s box and pulls the string at the end. With a cute, rather pathetic bloop, straggling streamers and two pieces of confetti float to the floor like dandruff. He smiles impishly.

“We’re going to promote you,” Mark says. “New supervisor position!”

Huh? But you’re a girl and Mark hates your kind. You can’t stand their stupid Rock Band, even if you did have fun on it once.

So don’t take it. Please don’t. You’ve only maintained your sanity this long because of your lowly position. No extra hours, no larger commitments, no continuous clashing with angst-ridden, party-pooping customers.

Your fingers flex in confusion. You suddenly see James, who is by your piñata display. He’s snickering and looking at you knowingly. He winks. You have the sudden image of an absurd exchange, a beer can that passed hands.

Something in you deflates like a mylar balloon and at the same time you feel as taut as the string on a freshly released kite. This weird sensation hurts worse than your latest bruise from knocking into a ladder.

Your mouth opens. You hear your voice say, yes.

There’s a funny silence inside your head for about three seconds. Then—

Oh my god. You’ve given your soul to Rock Band! You’ve stripped away any human decency you once had. The craziness of the place has finally gotten to you—

Once you clock out, you get into the parking lot and peel away like the devil is on your tail.

***

Yia Lee is a fourth year undergraduate at UC Davis, where she majors in English with an emphasis on creative writing. She enjoys reading voraciously—anything from cereal boxes to classics to manga. She began writing stories in middle school, and since then developed an unfortunate, insane ambition to become a novelist. Sliver of Stone is her first publication.

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