Screaming children. There’s always screaming children. And bouncing balls. Those are left abandoned in some of the oddest places throughout the store – resting of bottles of Ny-Quil, stuck in between carpets, snuggled between bath towels. Or there’s screaming children bouncing balls, largely ignored by their parents, hoping the kid’ll stop whining about not getting that ball, much less a new toy.
The child’s cry is familiar to anyone working retail, like me. It goes like this: I want a toy. [escalate volume] I. Want. A. Toy. [deep breath and LOUD] I WANT A TOYYYYY!!! Its shrill, piercing quality is enough to peel the lining of the parent’s, or anyone’s for that matter, ear canal. Pretty much every kid seems to screech that phrase when told they’ve come to Phipp’s not to shop for them, but to pick up a new laundry basket and some gym socks for the kid’s older brother.
Yet I go about my duties, silently and without complaint, doing the best job I can. Never mind I’m a highly-educated, highly-skilled, highly-experienced management-level white-collar worker. Or was. These days, the only place that would hire me was Phipps. I work for a bit more than minimum wage. So much for that $70,000 salary I used to earn.
You see, I’m one of those familiar middle-aged women who found themselves in unfamiliar terrain. Left my job to take care of my dying parents. Raised my learning-disabled teen who was anything but cooperative. Tried to be a good wife. In the end, I wound up losing my marriage and my ability to be taken seriously by the job market. Had to find a new home. And on top of that, my cat died. Oh, sure, I’m skipping a lot of details here. But those are the basics. I’ll work in the details later.
I can’t complain about Phipp’s. As far as big box stores goes, it’s civil. If you do your job, the management treats you well. I treat this position as sales floor associate as I would any position I’ve held over the years. I show up a few minutes early each shift, complete my assigned tasks, even do more than what’s expected of me. And I smile. Sure, I might be crying inside, but on the outside? You’ll be greeted warmly. I’m in a good mood all the time, as far as everyone else is concerned. It’s my professionalism that makes me behave this way. I’m doing the job I applied for, after all.
We dress uniformly, although we don’t wear uniforms. Clean blue jeans (no rips or tears, nor embroidery), black shirts (no tees, unless you work in the back) and comfortable shoes. We can throw on black sweaters or fleeces when it’s cold. No one from management cares if you have body piercings, pop art hair or illustrated skin. One is welcome to cross dress, if that’s how one identifies. This uniform helps to give the impression we’re casual and hip, yet ready to serve our customers wants and needs. It also hides smears, dirt and other grunginess one acquires from opening filthy boxes and screeching kids smacking into you with sticky, drippy snacks as they beg their parents for elusive toy bounty.
It’s January. Our particular branch of Phipp’s is recovering from the holidays. The decorations have been sold or salvaged. Valentine’s Day merchandise now occupies the real estate once occupied by menorahs, Christmas trees and stocking stuffers. And not long from now, Easter baskets will replace those, to be replaced by summer fun, then back to school, then Halloween, and once again, Christmas. It’s a familiar retail rhythm, setting out the merchandise months ahead of the calendar, so eager customers can make purchases well in advance to prepare for whatever they’ve got planned.
It’s also the time of year when our hours are slashed, and with it, take home pay. Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen my hours drop from 40 to 35 to 26 to 14. It’ll stay that way until about March. Since fewer shoppers are coming in, there’s little need for sales associates present on the floor. On my shift, I’m the only one covering a wide swath of territory. There’s only five of us in the whole huge store.
To accommodate my expenses, I save as much as I can during the flush times. This way, I can do such extravagant things as pay my utilities and buy groceries. But since there’s no other employers willing to take a chance on me so far, I deal with it. So far, I’m okay.
But each day when I walk through the doors of Phipp’s, ready to begin my shift, a little of me dies every day. I lose the woman who once seemed so confident. My faith in my abilities is questioned a bit more daily. My twenty-something managers are too involved with performing well at their own jobs to notice I’d be a valuable asset on their team if promoted.
As I stand amid the aisles, eyeing the shelves of rumpled towels, I swallow hard. This is my reality. This is my job. I’m stuck here until something better happens, if it ever does. But all along, I ask myself, Now, how did I get here?