From Each According to Ability (Part One)

This is a story I wrote for my Senior Thesis at the University of San Francisco.  I don’t think I was ever so profoundly glad that I had chosen to be a Writing Emphasis major as when they told us we could write fiction for our final project.  The Literature Emphasis English majors had to write analytical papers.

For my last semester, one of my classes was a Senior Writing Seminar, where we only met a few times but were supposed to be “living and breathing” our writing project the rest of our time.  Don’t tell my writing professor, but that semester, in between writing this 20-page final project for him, I also wrote the 250-page first draft of my novel.

I was already pretty sure that a story about fairies and dragons and glass slippers was not quite what the English department was looking for, so instead I gave them a story set in the sometimes no less bizarre world of retail.  This is one of the rare times in my life when I decided to “write what I know,” as I spent several summers working in a very similar store.  I do want to say, though, that while the store is modeled on the one I worked on, the characters are fictional, and Carin, my narrator, is not me.  We share a love of musicals, but not all of her experiences or personality traits are mine.  And the store I worked for (which I will leave nameless…) was actually pretty good to me.

I hope you enjoy Part One, and Part Two will follow next week.


            Bad things happen when customers aren’t greeted as soon as they enter our store.  I was submerged in medium-size jackets and tangled in tags when a new customer strode in the door.  All I registered was that she was wearing a sweater with too much embroidery; it looked silly but probably cost a fortune.  She went past me, coming through the front entrance at a steady pace and heading directly for the sale section in the back corner.  I hurriedly abandoned the clothes rack I was sorting by size and followed her at something between a walk and a trot.  You can’t run in a high-end women’s clothing store; sometimes I sorely regretted that.  It would make catching customers easier, and that was something management firmly expected me to do. 

            Once I was within range I fired off my usual greeting.  My line for this situation was, “Hello, my name’s Carin.  Looking for anything in particular today?”

            “Fine, thank you,” she responded and kept walking.

            I watched her continue her straight line to the back corner. 

           I had followed her far enough that I was now midway through the store, relatively close to the currently over-filled go-back rack near the fitting rooms at the rear.  I debated the possibility of continuing the rest of the way to the rack, collecting a pile of clothes that had been tried on and rejected, and setting out to return them to their appropriate places.  The trouble was that I was very clear in my mind that putting clothes away would be the most productive use of my time right now; I doubted the management was so clear about that in their mind.  They wanted me to stand in the front and greet customers.  You never know who might be a Secret Shopper, itching to report to Corporate that they were in the store for fifteen minutes and no one spoke to them.  Sometimes I suspected that Secret Shoppers deliberately evaded us; that would explain how we greeted very nearly every person who came in, yet half our Secret Shoppers swore no one spoke to them.

         I wasn’t exactly sure what the actual consequences of a bad Secret Shopper report were, except that management went into a furor and Corporate became upset and none of it was pleasant to be around.  I wasn’t sure whether anything besides everyone growing anxious happened, but either way they drilled us about Secret Shoppers with the insistence of paranoia.  So I appreciated that management was concerned that I be at my greeting post.  But I also appreciated that no one else had time right now to clear the go-back rack, which was only going to get fuller.  I hate watching things that need to be done go un-done, putting things away was marginally more interesting than continuing to greet customers, and I told myself I could probably still catch any new ones who came in, if I kept an eye out.

         Putting clothes away wasn’t what I wanted to do, of course.  What I wanted to do was to sit down on the Husband Couch—so-named because that’s who generally sat there—and abandon clothes and customers entirely; the simple act of sitting becomes very desirable midway through a shift.  I’d been bored often enough during classes when I was in college, but at least there’d been chairs then.

          As if chairs were what I missed about college.  There were other things I missed, sure, though I also couldn’t work up a lot of urgency over the question.  When I was there I had been a politics major.  I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do with it.  Save the world, run for president, maybe.  I thought about that, but more likely I was thinking law school and from there…all I had been sure of was that I didn’t want a job that was soulless.  Non-profit, for-profit, either way, I just had wanted to do something that felt meaningful; I was open to possibilities about what that something might be.

            That had been the plan, at least.  Right now I was on my second “semester off” and hadn’t exactly filled out the papers to go back in the coming fall.  I’d been telling myself I would go back.  Eventually.

            But right now there were clothes that needed to go back to their places.  I went to the go-back rack.  I pushed aside the four shirts that had been sitting at one end for my entire shift because no one currently working knew where they belonged, and poked through the new clothes that had piled up in the last hour.  I gathered up an armful and then scanned the store.  I wanted to see if there was anything else that should be getting done.

            I was supposed to be at the front.  Anything else that needed doing was, in a sense, not my problem.  Responsibility can be an annoying habit.  I blame—or thank—my parents for that one.  They’ve always wanted me to do my best at things and then left it mostly to me to go ahead and do it.  If they had nagged me like normal parents I could have rebelled like a normal teenager, but when they just told me to live up to my potential and then sat in silence on the subject, smiling, any whining or complaining just made me feel stupid.  This happened all through high school—I’d want to watch TV instead of studying for a test, they’d silently not nag but expect, and within two commercial breaks I had slunk upstairs to open my textbooks.  I’ve heard of guilt complexes.  This was like a responsibility complex.  I did know what I was capable of, and I felt like I had to live up to that.

            I’ll admit that it got me good grades through high school—very good grades, solid A’s all through.  That was easily good enough to get me into college, where my sense of responsibility kept me getting A’s there too.  Most of the way through, anyway.

            It was my sense of responsibility that was now prompting me to do a quick (I hoped) circuit of the customers nearby, making sure each had been asked if they needed assistance.  This was another thing required by Corporate, and for which Secret Shoppers watchfully waited.  The first few customers I asked declined assistance and then I moved towards the sale corner.  There were half-a-dozen customers fetched up there, like bits of debris that had drifted with the current and all caught in a particular eddy of the stream.

            I made my approach, trying not to sneak up behind anyone.  It was harder to avoid than you’d think, with everyone facing into racks of clothes.  “Hello, is there anything I can help you find today?” I asked in my perky retail voice, with my perky retail smile.

            If I had a dollar for every time I asked that question, I would be much better paid than I was.  It must have come out a hundred times during a five hour shift.  You’re not a person when you work retail; you’re an automaton with a limited range of vocal programs.  You get a limited range of responses too.  The vast majority all give the same answer to offers of help: Thank you, just looking.   I was intensely hoping that I’d get that response from them all.  Then I could get on with putting clothes away.

            One woman turned away from the rack of skirts she’d been rifling through and deigned to give me her attention.  It was the Embroidered Lady, the same one I’d chased down a few minutes before.  I recognized her only by her shirt; she looked like any other customer, middle-aged with graying hair, and I hadn’t had a meaningful interaction with her.  I doubted that she recognized me at all.  She had already managed to select four items, which she had jammed under one arm. 

           “Yes, I have a question,” the Embroidered Lady announced.  Now she had time to notice me, now that she had a question.  “Do we have to ask at the register for the price or is it 70% off the price written here or…?”

            “Actually, the sale price is the price written on the tag in red ink,” I explained, still outwardly perky, and reached for a tag on the clothes hanging from the nearest rack.  I glanced at it, and reached for two more before I found one I could actually use as an example.  We were supposed to have every sale tag marked but…we just didn’t.  “See, the original price was eighty-nine dollars.  The sale price is fifty-nine dollars.”  That tag belonged to an extra-extra-large; I swear it wasn’t deliberate, though the Embroidered Lady was, shall we say, on the plump side.

            I think her attention was more on the price than on the size.  I could almost see her doing the math.  “That’s not 70% off,” the Embroidered Lady said.  “The sign over the rack says 70% off.”  No, it wasn’t 70% off; it was one-third off, a little over 30%.

            My perky smile got tight around the edges.  This is why I hated working during a sale.  I hated it because of the way everyone clumped—it became painfully obvious that I had limited vocal programs when they were all standing next to each other—but mostly because I hated having to explain this to customers every day. 

           “Actually, the sign says ‘Up to 70% off on selected merchandise.  So not everything is 70% off.  It’s just up to 70%.”  I pointed to the words on the sign as I said them.  Just to make sure it was absolutely clear that we weren’t bound by our advertising to give her 70% off the original price.

            Most women smiled and laughed and maybe shrugged resignation at this point.  Then I’d ask if there was anything else I could do and they’d say no and we’d both move on with our lives.

            A few, like this one, wrinkled their noses in disapproval and said, “That’s very unclear.”

            Customer service.  That was our rule, our highest law, our prime directive.  Also profit, of course, that’s the ultimate goal of every company in our fine capitalist society (I studied all this in a Macroeconomics class), but customer service was what they talked about.  It sounded better.  So much less mercenary.

            I smiled and said, “I know.  It’s a little unclear.”  It wasn’t unclear.  I mean, sure, the “up to” was considerably smaller than the “70% off” but it wasn’t that small and it was there on every sign, plainly legible if you took the time to read it.

          “That’s an interestingly arranged sign,” the Embroidered Lady said, one hand on the sign as she looked at it.  She had six rings on that one hand alone, and they all sparkled in the light from the dozens of bulbs in the ceiling.  I had a feeling she was one of those customers who ring up more money in one purchase than I earned in an entire week.  This was more reason to be polite but not necessarily more reason to feel good about it.

          I shifted the considerable armful of clothes I was dragging around and answered, “Well, you know, we don’t make the signs, unfortunately; they’re sent to us by some corporate office somewhere.”  When in doubt, blame Corporate for everything.  I always did.

            Nearly every woman moved on after that.  But the Embroidered Lady said, with her tone frosted over in disapproval, “I think that’s terrible—the way they’re luring people in with the big 70% off signs.” 

            Well, yes, that was the whole point, wasn’t it?  It went back to that profit motive.  I hung onto my smile by my fingertips, and added a bit of a helpless laugh.  “I guess so, but almost every company does that.  I mean, that seems to be the way it works, doesn’t it?” 

           I wasn’t saying that it was good.  Off-duty and out of my vocal programs it was the kind of thing I might slide into a rant about with a friend.  But I didn’t hassle innocent sales associates about it, and she didn’t need to talk like we were the only ones who did it.  I was twenty and I expected this kind of thing.  I wanted to know how she had reached the more advanced age she was without developing a filter for “previously owned cars” and “buy two for five dollars each” and “up to 70% off.”

            I really didn’t have the faintest idea what she wanted me to do about all this anyway.  Maybe nothing.  Sometimes they just wanted to rant to someone, which was all well and good for them but not the easiest thing for me. 

           “That’s very deceptive, really,” she pushed on, “to put such misleading signs up.”

            I had certain lines for approaching customers, others for handling frequently asked questions, and some for this particular issue.  With this woman, I was frankly out of things to say.  And patience…I ran out of that a long while ago.

            So the signs were deceptive.

             “Well, I guess that’s just the evils of capitalism,” I said in my sweetest tone.  “Can I put your items in a fitting room for you?”

            The Embroidered Lady stared at me for a moment.  I had a feeling that she’d never heard a sales associate use the words “evil” or “capitalism” before.  Maybe she’d never had one who’d once taken a college course called The History of Communism.  Privately I felt that Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin wrote theories that were illogical as well as impractical, but sometimes they were useful theories nonetheless.  For that matter, it was more interesting than sizing clothes.

          The Embroidered Lady never did find anything to say in response.  She handed me the clothes she had, I carefully draped them over the arm not already occupied and gladly exited.  Sometimes offering to take something to the fitting room was the only way to escape—and I usually had a considerable feeling of escape as I walked away, this time most definitely.


Carin isn’t me…but I did once tell a customer that our “Up to 70% off” signs were just the evils of capitalism!  For me, that was the end of the story.  But in the wonderful world of fiction, the story goes on for Carin next Friday.  🙂

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