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:


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