From Benjamin Kissell:
Picture it: Autumn 2015 …
“Boy! Boy, c’mere!”
I look up from my crouch, a box-cutter in my hand; it’s 9:04am on a Monday morning – we’ve barely been open long enough to clear the boxes we’re stocking from the truck into a passable path for shoppers and now? This?
A tall, inelegantly draped woman in polyester and rayon – her wish-it-were-ash-blonde hair thrown into the laziest of chignons – snaps her fingers impatiently from eight aisles (some forty feet) away. You have got to be shitting me.
“Ma’am?” I slip the cutter into my vest pocket and stand up. I’m also trying to keep my tone neutrally audible, non-confrontational but hearable from SUCH A DISTANCE as I begin to pick my way towards her. I’m also trying to avoid the natural impulse to snarkily raise an eyebrow and lower my lips into a disapproving scowl. It’s not easy right now. There isn’t enough coffee coursing through my veins to cope with this for long today.
“Boy,” she continues, snapping again, as I cautiously approach. Custys, and especially entitled ones, in the wild are easily spooked and tend to go immediately on the offensive. Also – ‘boy’? Really? I’m a dark-haired (usually kempt, but not always), bearded gay man very obviously in his 30’s (despite my best efforts to appear otherwise), and not (generally) easily confused with a diminutive form of a tow-headed youth … even from ruddy forty feet away.
Bless this entitled wannabe rich bitch’s heart.
“What can I help you with?” I ask, as placidly kind as I can muster, approaching her as she stands in the middle of our Fall Seasonal Valley which is filled with faux pumpkins and maple leaves in bright oranges, muted reds and brown-toned golds.
“Do you have any more of these,” she thrusts an ad copy in my face – our Sunday ads often vie with magazines for their heft and abundance – and points to the Christmas trees display. The photo features a large, pre-lit and flocked tree photoshopped into absolute (unachievable) Winter Wonderland perfection. It also has a bright red-and-white bubble declaring ‘Introducing our newest tree, coming November 1st’: today is October 19th.
“No, ma’am – I’m sorry,” I try and have a kind tone and apologetic smile as I look her in the (obviously contacts-because-that’s-not-a-natural-shade-of-blue) eyes. “We don’t have those trees in yet – we’re expecting them on one of the coming trucks; either next Monday or the Monday after.” I pause, then continue, “I’m sorry about that,” just to drive home the retail-politeness they brow-beat into us.
You’d think, from her expression and shift in demeanor, that I’d just slapped her or stabbed her firstborn in front of her before bathing in its blood.
“Ex. Cuse. Me?”
“Ma’am?” I’m reeeeeeeally hoping that my irritation bubbling beneath the surface isn’t readable because this woman is working my nerve.
“It’s right here – in. Print. – That you have this tree. Why would you advertise it if you don’t. Have. It?” She speaks in clipped, slow tones as if I were an errant toddler who had just soiled the rug with a mud pie.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but if you look closely at the ad,” I try to keep a non-toothy smile pasted on my face as I meet her steely, rather inhuman gaze. An old manager drilled into our heads that ‘showing teeth is a form of aggression in the wild; always smile with your whole face, instead’, so I try to smile with my eyes and the freckles and dimples above my beard.
“See, here? There’s an announcement bubble,” I point to the bright spot of color hoping the heat in my cheeks aren’t two more bright spots of color for her to see. “Coming November 1st. We won’t be putting up the Tree Forest until at least next week – we still have so much Fall around,” I gesture to our surroundings with a deferential – and hopefully amused, not irritated – look on my face. “But don’t worry, Christmas is coming.”
She makes a sound that can only be described as a strangled, bitchy sigh.
What in gay hell? Really?
Did this Soccer Mom Custy in wish-it-were-Pashmina with badly-dyed hair (yeah, I said it, so what?) just roll her gotdayum eyes at me? SMIZE Benjamin – like Tyra says. SMIZE.
“Ma’am?” I try and edge concern into my voice, as if I truly care about what’s bothering her; instead of mentally shoving her rude ass off a cliff in my imagination. See, if you aren’t abruptly rude for no reason, retail workers don’t have to fake caring/being nice to you; we actually will be. Instead, we have to fake it for so many, many rude Custys like this – air quotes – ‘kind soul’.
“Let me speak with your manager. This is some false advertising bullshit.”
So that’s how this is going to be, is it? Okay.
“I’m so sorry you feel like that. Let me see if our store AGM, Ms. August, is free,” don’t show teeth. Don’t show teeth. Don’t show teeth. Don’t show teeth even if you want to yell at her dumb ass so loudly she cries and curls into the fetal position. Don’t. Show. Teeth.
“August,” I press the microphone on the radio earpiece I’m wearing. “Would you be able to meet a customer at the Fall Seasonal Valley? She has some …” I pause, searching for the right word. “She has some concerns regarding the promotional ad and our Christmas trees.”
“She does know that they don’t go out for another two weeks, right?” August’s sensible and naturally polite voice, thankfully, can’t be heard outside of the crackling earpiece by the Custy.
“I do believe that that may be the root of her concerns – she wanted to speak with you.”
Despite the years of training and her generally sweet nature, I can picture August rolling her eyes with exasperation – I’m pretty sure I can hear the eye roll, actually.
“A-and it’s already one of those days, isn’t it? Of course it is. Let her know that I’m on my way,” her voice takes on that strained, false chipperness retail workers have ingrained and branded onto our souls.
“Ma’am, Ms. August is on her way; I’m sure that she’ll be able to answer your concerns,” I smile and turn away. I’m pretty sure I bared my teeth just as I said that, despite my best efforts, but my giveafuck is suddenly broken.
And it’s not even 9:15 in the morning.
“Well, that was a giant timesuck,” August quietly mutters as she joins me in the Floral Department almost ten minutes later; I’ve done my best to be as far-as-possible from Can I Speak to Your Manager in the vain hope I won’t slip up and tell her to sod off.
“That fun, eh?”
“How hard is it to read the bold print superimposed over the picture you’re obsessed with?”
“Judging from that wonderful Custy’s demeanor, I’d say selective literacy is her superpower.”
“With a bonus talent for being both condescending and incredibly obstinate.”
“Wow – we hit the jackpot with her, didn’t we?”
“Yeah, totally,” August starts as our earpieces vibrate.
“I need a sign check,” the nervous voice of our morning cashier carries over the radio, Lily is sweet, but oh-so-young (I guessed her at 12 her first morning – I was only 5 years off) and still easily intimidated by the hellacious attitudes of the Custys. “A customer says that Fall Baskets are supposed to be 50% off, but, it doesn’t ring that way when I scanned it.”
Both August and I turn and look down the adjacent aisle at the display of Fall Baskets.
“Want me to answer or do you?”
“I got the last one, it’s your turn.”
I stick my tongue out, cheekily, at her before answering (as August stifles a giggle).
“I’m over here and the signs say ‘Buy One Get One 50% Off’ – did she get two or just one basket?”
“Okay, hold on,” she’s still holding her mike button down as I hear a tinny, angry voice declare that ‘that isn’t what the sign said’.
“If you want, I can grab a second, cheap, basket and bring it and the sign up to you?”
“Um,” I can hear the indistinct voice of the Custy in the background being abrasive and impatient.
“Just to be safe, I’m on my way,” I roll my eyes to August as we exchange a world-weary look. Okay, not so much world-weary as Custy-weary; asshat-weary; rude-as-all-get-out-people-weary.
In other words, retail-weary.
I pass several milling customers as I make my way up to the front of the store, all smiles and determined shopping; they’re in their own worlds and happy to be there. Although, I almost stopped in my tracks when I saw the sticky-with-candy toddler holding one of our foam model kid displays – the Haunted Mansion – his mother had pulled down for him to drool and possibly chew on.
Eww. Just plain eww.
“Here you go, Lily.” I set down both a small basket and the sign at her register as I pass behind her doing my best to not catch her rude Custy’s eye.
“Oh, of course you’d be the one.”
The way she said ‘you’d’ makes me look up – oh.
That makes sense, doesn’t it?
Don’t show teeth.
It’s the only thing that comes to mind that isn’t a biting retort or scathingly-delivered, profanity-laced rip. So, I continue on past Lily, offering a quick (and hopefully reassuring) shoulder squeeze as I step up to the counter to type my codes into a register.
“I’ll help the next guest on five,” I loudly proclaim and get lost in the queue and shuffle.
If I can ignore her, and the other rude Custys who seem to emerge from the circles of Retail Hell, today, perhaps I’ll make it through this morning and escape without snapping. I’m on autopilot; smiling, scanning, smiling, faux small-talk, smiling, bagging, smiling, and wishing customers a good day out there in the real world when a sharp intake of breath breaks my lack-of-concentration as the last of my customers walks away.
“Excuse me,” a woman with hair the color of sallow dishwater and a sour expression on her face – like she constantly was getting whiffs of sour milk or burnt hair on her upper lip – suddenly stood in front of me. She appeared, like a badly mimeographed apparition.
“Yes, ma’am? What can I help you with?”
“That young lady,” she pointed at Lily. “I want to complain that that young lady said these copic markers weren’t on sale, and yet,” she pauses and suddenly glares, all beady eyes and pursed lips, to gesture emphatically with the tin in her hand. “When I went back there, the sign clearly said that the packs were indeed eight dollars and not seventeen.”
She thrusts the package at me.
“Oh, I’m sorry, ma’am – let me scan it and see what’s going on,” I pull the scanner and watch my screen to see what it says.
“Ahh, here we go,” I point to the large screen above her head where the results are displayed. “On our side of the screen, until we hit ‘TOTAL’ it won’t show the sale price, but if you look at the price as it shows on your side, it has the sale pri-.”
“Well, why doesn’t it say that on my receipt?” She interrupts. “Eight dollars really is a huge difference in price. It really is – I don’t know why it wouldn’t; that’s such a difference.”
“Well, let me see – we can scan the receipt and return it so that-“
Her frozen movement reminds me of a computer locking up – she was halfway to handing me the receipt when she simply stops.
“Well then,” she reboots. “It says right here on the receipt the sale price.”
Of course it does.
I really must not show teeth.
“As I was saying, she probably could only see the screen on our side of the register which shows the-“
“See, you were wrong,” she interrupts (again); this time waving the receipt at Lily – her hand inches from Lily’s shocked face. “You said it was full price and it wasn’t. You were wrong.”
“Ma’am, as I was trying to tell you-“
“She really doesn’t know what she’s doing,” she turns back to me, her beady gaze boring into me. “She needs a LOT more training.” If her puckered face could look more like an angry dog’s behind, I don’t want to know.
“As I was saying, she could only see-“
“Eight dollars is really a big difference,” she waves the receipt at both of us as she turns towards the doors.
The line gone, and the queue empty of customers, all we can do, Lily and I, is stare at her as she triumphantly waves the receipt while she walks out into the parking lot. Neither an acknowledgment nor an apology would ever pass those puckered lips.
“You have that right, Lily – just another fun day in Retail Hell.”
read more tales from Benjamin Kissell here