The Customer Is Always Wrong: My Life in Retail

Friday, September 19, 2008

A while back, I was asked to contribute to an essay collection with a wonderful concept: Authors writing about their experiences working in retail.

The book, entitled "The Customer Is Always Wrong: The Retail Chronicles," will publish October 1 from Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press, a smaller, independent press. I contributed to the book not only because it featured a wonderful concept and great group of contributing writers (T Cooper, Colson Whitehead, Po Bronson), but it was also my understanding that a portion of the proceeds would go toward helping independent bookstores, an incredible cause, to say the least (contributors, btw, received no advance and will receive no royalties).

I was asked to contribute by editor Jeff Martin, who is (steady yourself here for the biggest irony of all), a bookstore clerk in Oklahoma. Jeff contacted me because he had read my first memoir, AMERICA'S BOY, and was taken with my experience working in retail at Sears. As a child, I was a Winnie-the-Pooh clothing model, before ballooning into a Husky's kid and college student, whose first real job came, more irony here, working at Sears. In AMERICA'S BOY, I wrote about how I told my supervisor at Sears -- after witnessing an endless army of effeminate chubby boys march through the Husky's corridor crying -- that I truly felt a therapist should be stationed in the section along with a clerk. My suggestion was not heeded.

For "The Customer Is Always Wrong," I wrote an essay entitled, "Sears, Sbarro's, Sayonara," which told the full story about my returning to Sears, the Husky Hell of my youth, as a self-hating, not-yet-out-of-the-closet college kid who only wanted a summer job in order to stay at my frat house and earn enough cash to buy Ramen noodles and cases of Meisterbrau. The point of the story was to provide a nostalgic trip down the '80s retail lane (Units, the Go-Go's, Orange Julius) and cast a light on my shocking lack of self-esteem. I was a catty, bitter bastard at the time, and I was an awful employee (I didn't lay away the layaway, I pulled down the tops of mannequins to reveal their plastic breasts to shocked shoppers, I was rude to customers). But the main point of the essay was that I although I was incredibly immature I learned a great many lessons from my retail experience, which I still carry with me today. In the end, I was fired ... and I deserved to be. That was a hard, but necessary lesson, to learn early in life. And, ironically (yes, more irony), all of that coalesced into my second memoir, CONFESSIONS OF A PREP SCHOOL MOMMY HANDLER. Ahhh, self-esteem ... or the lack thereof.

I was thrilled to get an e-mail yesterday from a friend in Boston alerting me to the fact that the Boston Herald had done a piece on the essay collection. It deserved the attention, I thought.

"Just brace yourself for the bit about you ... " she wrote gingerly.

I slugged my coffee, and braced.

Darren Garnick, aka "The Working Stiff," who, it seems, writes a business-y, working-man's column for the paper, remarked about the book (and me), "Thus, there is no shortage of whining about customers, co-workers and bosses - some of it totally unjustified. Sears exile Wade Rouse seems surprised he was terminated for scaring a young child for knocking dresses off a rack and getting candy-smeared fingerprints on the clothing. Given they weren’t his dresses, why not outsource the outrage to a manager?"

I must say that after I screamed, like Sarge in Beetle Bailey, "YOU @#$!*^!", I managed to chuckle.

First, what he writes is true ... it happened. And, I still think, it's funny as hell. Have you ever re-hung hundreds of little girls' dresses, fluffing the ruffles, re-ballooning the arms, knocking out the wrinkles, only to have a little girl with M&M fingers run through like a tornado knocking them all off and soiling them? While her mom chuckles at her "energy"?

And, btw, I was 19 and hungover. So I did hide in a rounder and screamed "Stop it, little girl!" before she and her mom pointed out "the bad man" to my manager. I was, of course, let go. But my boss told me, and I will never forget, that I was a good person, but a terrible employee. He told me to grow up, to find myself, to take pride in myself and what I did. Cliches, right? But I listened. And I did. And I still try to do that, every day.

To miss that point I so clearly make in my essay baffled me. As did the sentence, "Given they weren’t his dresses, why not outsource the outrage to a manager?"

Outsource my outrage? Hello! ... it was the '80s. I mean, I took business classes. We didn't even use those terms back then.

Still, I respect everyone's opinion. To some, the '80s seems lightyears aways.

But one of the things I learned in retail (and from my mom) was that respect goes both ways: Customer to clerk, clerk to customer, person to person. I still try and treat every clerk I encounter with respect, because I remember how I acted. I still stand up for baristas who get abused, still re-fold any sweaters at Banana Republic I hold up to my torso.

We were all young at one time. We all did jackass things. And then we grew up. Or pretend to, at least.

Which is why I must admit that, even at 43, I know I would still crouch my bad back down in the middle of a rounder and scare the bejesus out of that little girl all over again.

Talk about a lesson she probably never forgot.

For the entire Boston Herald article, please go to:

Tales from the Green Room

Monday, September 15, 2008

So, a large part of any writer's life is shilling his work.

Or it should be anyway.

I hate it when I hear writers say, "That's not what an artist should do. I'm above that."

Well, I ain't. And I don't know many writers who are. You have to be willing to tell readers about your work. You have to spend time letting readers get to know you, on a personal basis. You have to sell yourself, and your wares.

Some shilling can be very glamorous; some is shit. I've appeared on a lot of radio shows at 6 a.m. where some dumbass morning DJ from some station with KISS in the title asks me, over and over, why I don't like, and I quote, "to bang chicks."

"'Cause my equipment's not wired that way," I once responded.

"Well, then, somethin's wrong wich'ur equipment."

Mass hysteria ensues from the "Morning Zoo."

I've also been on a number of TV shows, mostly local city shows, like "Hello, Topeka!" or "Good Morning, Butte!" But I'm willing to do it, because I believe in my work, and, I have to admit, I always have a good time. I think these shows give a good pulse of the city. And I like to mimic the local accent when I leave. It's an obsession.

So, I appeared this morning on "Take Five," a live, local morning entertainment show on the ABC affiliate in Grand Rapids, MI. And it was a blast ... a really good show.

But, for the second time in my life, something happened while I was waiting in the green room to go on air.

Background: Before any live show airs, all the sound guys come back to mic the guests up (clip goes on the waistband, wire runs up your shirt and you clip mic on lapel). Since the mics are always black, I usually wear black, so it blends. Then the producer comes in and ask if anyone has questions, which no one ever does, because you don't want to sound like a jackass.

I had mainlined a Starbucks, so I did have a question. I wanted to know where a bathroom was, but it was too late, since I was the second segment, so I prayed to June Allyson that I wouldn't piss myself on live TV.

So, today, before the sound guys leave, they turn and survey the room. They look directly past me, at two other men sitting toward the back, and ask, "Which one of you is Dr. MacGruder?"

I look at them, blinking. I have to ask.

"Umm, so how come neither of you thought to ask if I was the doctor?"

And the guys look at me, from head to toe, and I can read their minds: "No doctor gonna stack his hair two feet high, wear a skintight black BR lycra shit and a choker with a silver hoop, mmmmkay?"

Got me.

But I like to look pretty on TV.

And I think it's up to an author to AT LEAST resemble their author shot. I hate when I go to a signing, and I discover the photo was taken just after D-Day, and I'm like, "Hello? You don't look anything like Jude Law."

Which is why I guess I should be flattered that the only time I was ever mistaken for another guest was when a producer walked into the green room, tapped my shoulder as I was applying my lip shimmer and asked: "Bethany?"

I turned. Although my hair was in another stratosphere, and I was wearing a skintight blouse, I was not the 17-year-old champion fire baton twirler.

She arrived a few minutes later.

In a glitter leotard.

I even thought, right before I went on, "I wonder how I would look on-air in a sparkly unitard?"

But I'll save that for The Today Show.

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Signs the World Is Coming to An End

Thursday, September 11, 2008

My attempt to help save the world, one cultural tidbit at a time:

Sure Sign the World Is Coming to An End and Our Children Are Doomed-(From Publishers Marketplace) Star of MTV's reality show The Hills, Lauren Conrad's three-book YA series, inspired by her own journey, "about a girl who moves to LA and stars in a reality show," to Harper Children's.

Words & Phrases That Need to Come to an End in Order to Save my Sanity-
McCain: "My Friends ..."
Obama: "Lipstick"
Weather Channel: "Category" Whatever
My Partner, Gary: "Guuurrrrlll!"
Me: "Dillhole" ... as in, "You're a complete dillhole."

Suggested Names to Help Hurricanes with Their Poor PR Image:
Zac Efron

Sure Sign the World Is Coming to An End/Part 2-I have the exact same eyeglasses as Sarah Palin.

Sarah Palin's Hair & What It Says About Our Country

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Like much of America, I was riveted by Sarah Palin's speech last night.

I expected her to knock it out of the park. And she did.

This is America. And what happens after a media figure is trampled, crushed and humiliated under the media's hot lights? They are redeemed.

Sarah Palin is, momentarily, redeemed.

And isn't it ironic that, in her moment of glory, she finally -- literally and figuratively -- let her hair down.

It was a bold move. It was a bold image.

Sarah standing there, in all her conservative sexiness, her hair finally down, the RNC delegates worked into a frenzy.

"I am woman, here me roar."

Image today too often defines people, defines politicians: Reagan's dyed Hollywood glory days 'do. JFK's sexy pompadour. Clinton's healthy greying mane. Hillary's transformation from hideous hair to powerful locks.

Until last night, Sarah Palin's up-do, with highlighted bangs, was the latest in a long line of strong Republican woman. See for yourself:

Wilma's updo and Barbara Bush pearls defined her as a Stone Age Republican, a woman who wore the loin cloth in the family, no matter what Fred said or did. Wilma was prehistoric Hillary, or Sarah. Your pick, depending on your party.

Oh, and who can forget Phyllis Schlafly's updo, under which hid more self-hatred than any hairdo in history. Anti-ERA. Anti-woman. Anti-anything that wasn't Wilma prehistoric.

And along came Sarah. And her hair.

Don't hate me. I know hair doesn't define a woman any more than -- dare I say it -- my sexuality defines me.

But we are a nation dead set on a course of division and hatred, based on how we look, or who we love.

Let me be clear: I am a Democrat. As a gay man, I feel I must vote with my heart, my emotion, my life. I (figuratively speaking) have been put under the media's hot lights the last eight years, just like Sarah has been the last few days, and, I, too, have been trampled, crushed and humiliated.

Ironically, I grew up in a Republican family (still so today) where the GOP was viewed as "government that stayed out of your wallet and your home." Well, they have lately taken residence in both.

Sarah Palin gave a rousing, populist speech. She let her hair down. In fact, I even felt like cheering a few times, despite the fact that this is a politician who is pro-gun, anti-choice, anti-gay. Despite the fact that this is a politician who governs by how she believes the rest of the world should behave, but has too many skeletons in her own closet.

And, hear me on this: Skeletons are OK.

That is life. Life is not -- as Republicans have made it seem these last eight years -- black or white. People are imperfect. Life is filled with varying shades of grey.

The hard thing to do is admit that. To tell the world, "Yes, I am a flawed human being. I make mistakes. We all do."

The hard thing to do is pay attention to those issues that truly matter -- the economy, the war, health care, respect for others -- and stop dividing our nation -- one state, one person, one vote at a time -- based on how we look, who we love, or, God forbid, how we wear our hair.