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Holiday Retail Asylum: We're All Mad Here


Like so many, I'm spending my time this season in the retail vortex. When I heard that a local gourmet cooking chain store in the mall was hiring for the holidays, I applied on a whim. Working retail, for me an unexplored frontier, seemed like a lark--I'd spend time among the jolly holiday throngs and get some money in my pocket.

Ah, money. My naïveté was first stripped from me when I heard back from the store about my application and was told the wage. (Let's just say I made more as a laborer in a cornfield one summer.) I took this job anyway, because what I was after wasn't a fortune, but a chance to rub shoulders with cheerful throngs of humanity as we all relished the joyful spirit of the season. It's a wonderful life, and all that.

Anyone who believes that the holidays are about "peace" and "goodwill" need only get as far as the mall parking lot to be disabused of that notion. Holiday-crazed shoppers, fueled by double-shot-skinny-lattes and their kids' Ritalin, turn the already poorly planned lot into a battlefield. Five minutes of scrambling for parking bludgeoned to death any faith I had in human nature. I have this old-fashioned idea that anyone willing to commit vehicular manslaughter for a spot in front of Sears is a total craphead. I'm talking to you, Impatient Woman who whipped around me, heedless of the twenty cars in front of and behind us, careening your SUV where there's no lane and barely missing my bumper just to steal a freshly vacated parking spot. When you actually raised your arms in a celebratory cheer, I was the driver who, unable to contain herself, punched the horn in an outraged serenade. So lady, if you are reading this, I'd just like to say: you suck.

Having survived the parking lot, there are the folks inside the mall. It doesn't take long during the holiday shopping imbroglio to learn that people are insane. At a slightly chichi cooking store where people pay $21.93 per pound for handcrafted marshmallows, the rule is smile smile smile, no matter what. And we get all types. I waited on a woman who came in with her much older man to buy a black apron. "This is my Christmas costume," she told me with a giggle. I took it to mean that she did a lot of cooking this time of year, until she added, "Just this apron and a pair of black heels. See?" She exhibited one stiletto-ed foot for me while the man leered. I just smiled. Or there was the guy who, reeking of pot, spoke at a turtle's pace and couldn't find the measuring cups he came in to buy. Another customer, after taking advantage of the store's complimentary gift-wrapping service, forced the gift wrapper to unwrap the package, insisting that the contents were too light to be what she'd bought. She was wrong, but oh well. We smile until it hurts.

One of my first shifts was the day after Thanksgiving, known as "Black Friday," and not only for its volume of business. Several hours in, as I tong-ed out the hundredth shard of peppermint bark to yet another set of impatient fingers, I was finding a scarcity of holiday cheer. Where's the freakin' cheer? Why, I asked myself, am I doing this? It doesn't take long to realize that at the end of the day, this holiday retail racket isn't about a love of the season. No, I'm going home to spend Christmas with the new KitchenAid blender I bought with my employee discount. Isn't that what the holidays are really all about? ###