Monday, May 31, 2010

First sighting

The first time I saw her was a lazy Thursday afternoon. The place: Beachwood Mall. The time: 3:59 pm. Because you know, she could only ever show up for work the exact minute she was supposed to clock in. I was behind the till with M, and she was giving me some soap cutting tips. We hadn't had a customer in a good 30, or 35 minutes.

In. Came. KT.

I realize most of you have no idea what this means, but give it a few paragraphs, you will. You know that one co-worker we all have? He/she starts out cool, but eventually wears us down with over-the-top stories of wealth, sexual conquests, and supposedly being BFFs with Paris Hilton? Really, hun? In Ohio? No babe. Try again.

Anyway, she came in and we were introduced. It was a slow day, so we hung out behind the till, played around on the computer and got to know each other. She was another coworker who'd been away all summer in California, vacationing. I was still new and hadn't heard a lick about her.
Me: "So, you're really from Cali?"
KT: "Yeah, totally. It's great out there."
Me: "So, what, are you back for school?"
KT: "Classes start up in a few days. I'm in med school. I'm gonna miss Paris, though."
Me: "The city? When were you there?"
KT- exasperated: "Why does everyone always say that? No, silly, Hilton."
Should have been my first clue. I just moved right along, like a hungry bulldozer.
Me: "Oh awesome! What medical school are you at?"
At this point it's important for me to admit that the elitist in me was glad to be working with another college graduate. There were a few of us at our store, but each one assuaged my fears that I was quickly sinking into failure-dom because I had no idea what I wanted to do, and couldn't seem to get a "real" job anyway.
KT: "I'm at Case Western Reserve."
Me: "That's a great med- school. Congrats. Good luck."
The rest of our time together went pretty much that way. She talked about how her parents were split and the tragedy of it all: She was all alone in her father's mansion in Euclid during the school year, then all alone in her mother's mansion in Santa Monica all summer long. Tear. Me: "But what about Paris? Hilton, that is."
KT: "Oh yeah, I'll miss her and all, but what's more important than education? Besides, she can always visit me."
Uhhhhhhhhhh, yeah. Ok.
After two hours of slow, slow, soap-selling, M asked KT to go home, for the sake of labor costs. M: "You know, its just that Dennis is going to be a keyholder, and I'm training him to close tonight."
KT: "Oh, sure, I'd love to go home. Nothing much happening here anyway. I remember when they asked me to be a keyholder, but I just didn't want that responsibility."
Then she slapped her fake Gucci bag on the till and searched all up and through it for her car keys.
M: "Which car did you drive today? The Mercedes or the Land Rover?"
KT: "The Mercedes. I just love a big car, don't you? It screams affluence!"
OK crazy.
As soon as she left M got the most maniacal look on her face. This is where I learned a major life lesson, only the schooling hadn't yet started. Heed warnings people! Heed them! M warned me about KT, told me she was a pathological liar and she was right. Now here's my warning! Anyone who sells soap in a store that is made up of all women and one gay man, is probably crazy. Bat-shit. Oh, we play a good game, giving hand massages, exfoliating, explaining why a lavender face scrub can save your life, filling your nostrils with delicious scents, but when the doors close at night, and we start counting down the tills, more often than not, we want to rip each other's throats out. It could be a scene from True Blood! All the women are fighting and the resident gay is running around between them like a chicken with his head cut off, trying to appease them all so he can do to your wallet what the vamps do to their prey. On show-time that is.
M started telling me how KT was an extreme pathological liar, and I shouldn't listen to a word she said because she was talking out of her ass. That's an exact quote. Of course, little ole newly graduated me thought, "Oh, she seems like a nice girl." I figured they'd had some fight and M had hard feelings.
The only way I could have been more wrong was if I'd talked about how Glen Beck, Karl Rove, and I are all shopping buddies.
I call my stories with her "The KT Chronicles: A serialized account of the most bogus lies known to man." Because its just too golden to confine to one post!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Shedding Skins

One of the first things a new sales person learns is the heart of selling. No matter how much one loves what they are selling or who they work for, at the end of the day, selling is all about selling yourself. Sometimes that means wearing hot jeans, or booty shorts. Sometimes it means telling a little white lie, like talking about the time you had five giant Rudolph pimples, and how the "Divine" spot treatment made them all disappear in three hours. When customer service is the key ingredient to getting someone to "present their plastic", aka my best friend, Visa, the most critical thing is that they trust you to guide them in the right direction. The key word in that last sentence is trust. TRUST. In a world of bad skin and dry, cracked hair, it is most important to sell yourself in order to sell product. After all, no pizza-face wants to go from pepperoni to meat lovers! Sometimes, I felt like a chameleon, watching as one customer left the store smiling with a full bag of product, and another customer, with entirely different needs, simultaneously walked in, now attracting my attention. At the critical moment when they both crossed the threshold in opposite directions, another more important transition happened, invisible to all but me. I stood in place shedding skins, from one persona to another, carefully editing as I listened to each customer and tried to pay attention to their whole being, their body language, their words, their voices, and where their eyes went. If I was selling to someone loud, I became boisterous. If the customer was timid, I hushed up, trying to create an intimate space. It was always drawn from somewhere within me, but it was also often an exaggeration of myself. However, what has jumped out as the most interesting aspect of this portion of my experience is the way in which certain aspects of my life, which are normally considered disadvantages, were actually helpful in my professional pursuits, sometimes leading to the moment that, as I like to call-it, brought out the plastic. Time and time again.

Scenario One: Take the black woman that came into the store. Typically educated, professional, and financially stable. She was somewhat of a rarity in suburban Cleveland, especially when compared to the coastal cities of this great nation. Nevertheless, the coastal movements towards natural hair, natural and organic afro-centric body products were making their way inland, and this woman was not oblivious. Her hair was probably tightly wound in dread-locks that were meticulously maintained, and expensively so, in Cleveland. I was most likely the only black associate on the floor, so naturally, I was left to approach her, whether I felt like having a brother/sister conversation or not. The other associates probably looked away or busied themselves with soap cutting and wrapping, unconsciously unaware as to how to approach black customers. This was in spite of their increased presence in our high-end mall. We appreciated each other's natural hair, and in that moment of shared experience, I gained her trust. By laughing at her whispered comments that we couldn't possibly have good hair care for black people, and mentioning all our products with cocoa butter, I became her reference point every time I visited. Let me ask this: Is it Uncle-Tom-foolery if the person you do the jig for is the same color as you? A couple, "Girrl, you now it's" and I was good to go, had them picking out multiple moisturizers (because, you know, we black people are always dry- seriously, though).
Not only was I uniquely able to gain their trust, which usually translated to a pretty decent sale, but this became a common thing; it was understood that the black person on staff was there to bring in a more diverse customer demographic. And if I swore up and down that "Divine" products were great for my hair, supremely healthy in all its natural-ness, it made a huge difference in our ability to sell hair care products to black people. All it took was some feigned extra attitude, a hand on the hip, and me making a funny face. All of a sudden, my minority status became an advantage.

Scenario Two: This one is even more straightforward, ironically enough. My obvious gayness was an enormous advantage to my position as a seller of body products. Please, women only want to buy from gays (it's because they are so often in competition with each other; they accept that gay men are hotter, no contest). DNA. Anyway, this worked in a couple of ways. While I adore my former co-workers... if I were asked if there was ever any racial tension in our store, I would have to answer in the affirmative. These were women, and they took me under their wing. The young, cute, perky, gay guy who was probably too flaming to fight his own battles, I easily became a cause. They could become tigers at the drop of a hat, and I suspect that for the white women, I was gay first, black second. TRUMP CARD!!! I was harmless, as incapable of being forceful as the baby seals "Divine" fights so hard to protect every year during the Canadian Seal Hunt. So I was well-liked as a coworker and employee.

It was also this persona that allowed me to attract so many regulars, middle aged white women who'd loved Will and Grace, and who, somewhere down the line, eventually realized that their favorite uncle, dead now, was probably a closeted homosexual. Being that this is Ohio we're talking about, they were likely republicans who'd supported DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act), or who would have voted for Prop 8 had they been living in Cali at the time. These were often the same women who, if I dressed and carried myself differently, lowered my voice, and didn't sell bath products with names like Think Pink and Bumble Bee, would walk by me in this high-end mall, wondering if I were casing the joint and clutching their purses a little tighter. But in this space, I could play up the gay and take them for all they were worth. A smile, a gay joke, a flip of the wrist, and a compliment to a last-season handbag was all it took. "Divine" is a middle-aged women's wet dream, and they became puddy in my hands, especially when I proved knowledgeable about what I was selling. And boy was I selling. In retail, the bottom line is always the dollar, and lest we forget, that much like prostitutes, we retail workers get paid hourly. Only our pimps are nowhere to be found.
I actually remember a moment that shocked me above all others. It involves touching.
Me: "What do you think about 'Drop in the bath?"
Custie: "Ohhh, it smells great. Oh honey, come check out this bubble bath!"
Honey: "Hey babe, what's that? Oh yeah, makes you smell sexy. Wanna use it in the Jacuzzi?"
Me (turning away):
Custie: "Yeah, we can try it while your wife's away, Saturday."
Honey and Custie start making out. She puts down the bubble bath and they begin to back out of the store.
Me (wanting to keep our sales high enough) :"OMG, I LOVE your jeans!!"
They're hideous: dark wash covered in gold glitter, and random silver studs, making continuous circles on her butt-pockets. EW!!
Custie: "Thank youuuu!!!! My favorite part is the flower."
I nod: ME TOO!!!
Custie: "Yours are great, too!!!" --- and then it came, like an air-raid from nowhere and everywhere.

She slapped my ass.
The. B****. Slapped. My. Ass. I kid you not. Just because I know how to wear a pair of jeans.

But she bought the bubble bar, and a lip balm at the till. And at the end of the day, we'd made goal.

All in a days' work- And remember the next time you go shopping, guard your purse-strings carefully because we have bills to pay too. But even better, go on. Give in. Buy that extra bath bomb, lip balm, or larger cut of soap. You might make someone's day!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010


I think a little introduction is in order. You see, I like to believe that it all goes back to the economy, this sad state of affairs that everyone believes is the worst its been since the depression. Well. I don't know anything about that because I was born in 1985, but what I do know is that the first two years of my adulthood have been irreparably shaped by this recession, have molded me into a kinder, gentler, more compassionate soul, ready to take on the world and serve others who are less fortunate! The poor, the hungry, the destitute.....

Yeah. Right. That joke aside, 2008 and 2009 were so tough that everyone has been feeling the sting. Each year the wallet gets a little tighter, and the job market shrinks. Everyone is cutting back. Hell, I only go to Starbucks twice a day now, just to save a little extra cash. Which brings me to the purpose of this blog. Although I attended the college of my dreams, a small elite school with a five-figure price tag that has been described as "quietly prestigious" by the Princeton Review, my degree, a BA in English, was....... perhaps not the most astute decision I've ever made. The day after graduation, I was sitting back at home, in Ohio, with nothing to do, twiddling my thumbs and thinking about jobs. Ick. My mother insisted I get a job as soon as possible, so I applied for any and everything. Non-profits, retail stores, Dick's Sporting Goods; I tried everything I thought I was qualified for. It took two months before anyone would take a chance on this admittedly spoiled, somewhat pretentious, fabulously dressed English major from a tiny quaker college no one has ever heard of (Haverwhat?) That destination, which turned out to be a nearly two-year landing, was a cosmetics company that I will, from now on, refer to as, "Divine Cosmetics." As a manager, you ask? Some kind of copywriter, perhaps? Oh, maybe a product maker? No. I was going to be an apron-wearing, demo- doing, service administering seller of skin care, hair care, bath products and shower gels. Sales associate. Just above minimum wage. Not that there was anything wrong with this, but I had always thought this was the type of job to have while in school, not after graduating. Why else pay $50,000 a year for a degree from a school no one has even heard of?

It's true: I'm cute, bubbly, energetic, and enthusiastic. As I told a dear friend when choosing between this job and a more lucrative position with a non-profit (only slightly, btw), I admitted, "I don't like canvassing. I like skin-care products." The job was a perfect fit, and turned out to be an amazing roller-coaster ride of experiences, mostly good, a few not so, but all memorable. Working in customer service is a study in humanity. I am continuously shocked by the experiences I've had in this customer service position, both small and large, because each one says something about who we are as a species, as a culture, as a country. Fascinating! But more than the intellectual tidbits, which will show up from time to time, I remember with great affection the moments when customers were on their way out the door, completely unaware of the absurdity of their request, or behavior, or fashion, and waiting patiently for them to leave the view of the store so my coworkers and I could laugh hysterically at this wonderful thing called life. I learned to sell. I learned compassion (eczema sucks!). I learned how to use a cash register and re-learned basic elementary math skills. The ins and outs of essential oils. But most of all, I learned how to keep a poker face when I wanted to laugh so hard that I could have clawed my insides out, or slap someone across the face. I deserve an Oscar. Move over Streep. And I learned how to share these moments, these insights with my friends and coworkers with one flicker of the eyes, one tap of the finger, one nod, one frantic gesture. This blog begins the retelling, my chronicling, of just how absurd, how crazy, how..... interesting life is, from the perspective of the person behind the counter. I'll leave you with this tidbit, but please return, and happy reading!
It was a group interview. I stood in front of the bath bombs, the two other interviewees were next to me, slightly spaced out, so that the store was filled with our presence. The question was, "If you were a drink, what kind would you be?"

Girl One: "Coffee. I love coffee."

Girl Two: "Ummmmmm, I'm thinking a cosmo."

Interviewer: "Interesting choice. Why?"

Girl Two: "I really love pink."

Interviewer: "But a cosmo is red."

Girl Two: "Hmmmmm..."

Interviewer: "And you?"

Me, mostly thinking with my stomach: "A fruit smoothy, from the Tropical Cafe across the street. I'm smooth, creamy, and delicious!"