is a writer in King of Prussia
The dream is always the same:
I am behind a cash register. A line of customers stands in front of me, stretching out of the entrance of the store into the main concourse of the mall. The credit-card machine is down. Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" is blaring over the store's public address system. A baby is crying. A middle-aged business suit tells me the line is ridiculous, slams his hand down on the counter, and storms out of the store. My cash register is out of $5 bills. A security alarm is beeping. A woman shouts into her cellphone. Someone spills his large peppermint mocha on the floor.
The store manager goose-steps across the sales floor, examines the line, shakes his head with disapproval, and disappears behind the secret door leading to his office.
I've been standing for seven hours. I haven't had a break. I am tired. I am hungry.
Screaming children run around, weaving in between customers and merchandise displays. Someone I went to high school with walks into the store. I hope he doesn't recognize me. I hope he doesn't engage. I don't want him to see me. I don't want to explain the life choices I made that brought me to this register.
One after another, customers take turns berating me for poor stock levels, product prices, parking, and about a dozen other things that are out of my control. I cash out as many people as quickly as I can, but the line doesn't get shorter. I try to find comfort in the fact that my shift will be over in two hours, but all I feel is dread because I know I will be standing in the same spot the next day.
I wake up.
I haven't worked retail for a few years, but I worked in the business long enough to consider myself an expert. I still remember what if feels like to work a nine-hour shift, being forced to smile at people who treated me as if I weren't a human being but rather some sort of service robot developed by Japanese scientists to fetch products and give exact change.
No matter how hard I try to forget, no matter how deep down I try to push those memories into the back of my brain, I will always remember.
My experience in the malls and strip malls of America had breadth and depth. I sold women's shoes. I worked in a tropical-themed bar and restaurant where the staff wore Hawaiian shirts and was forced to dance on the bar every hour on the hour. I stood in a kiosk in the middle of the mall and sold knock-off golf clubs. I was the general manager of a musical-instrument megastore that sold rock-and-roll dreams to wide-eyed children and balding men wearing tracksuits. I was the assistant manager of a store that specialized in selling faux urban fashions to upper-middle-class kids in the suburbs. I exchanged dollars for tokens in a video-game arcade back when a video-game arcade was a thing.
Black Friday is the WrestleMania of the retail world. There are two opposing forces that have been waiting to do battle all year. In one corner are the stores, and in the other we have consumers. Stores slash prices on merchandise and hold one-day-only, everything-must-go, no-holds-barred sales events. Shoppers work themselves into a state of frenzy over the promise of deep discounts. The thankless job of referee falls on the retail employee. And nobody likes the referee.
Retail employees have been conditioned to treat each customer like a king, even though the king is a tyrant who rules his fiefdom with impunity and an iron fist. This is something most savvy consumers recognize. Perhaps that is why, after spending 45 minutes looking for a parking spot, waiting in line for an hour, and coming to the realization that no matter how many iPads you buy you are failing as a parent, it is so easy to vent your frustration at the person standing on the other side of the cash register.
Sure, some people find joy in holiday shopping. They take pleasure in the long lines, the hustle and bustle. They treat people with dignity and respect. But there are others who have the absolute worst brought out of them during the holidays. If you want proof, look up Black Friday doorbusters on YouTube. It isn't pretty.
I believe the holidays can be a transformative time that brings out the absolute best in people. Listen to that song "The Christmas Shoes." The guy singing it is feeling beat down by the holidays. He isn't really in a Christmas mood. But when that dejected kid walks into the store and starts telling everyone his sad story about his sick mom, the man lays his money down to make that wistful waif's Christmas wish come true. Sure, some people become better versions of themselves during the holidays, but remember that Ebenezer Scrooge made a lot of people miserable for a long time before he cleaned up his act.
If you never worked retail, it may be difficult to sympathize. You can argue that where one works is a choice and that there are plenty of other jobs. I could argue that the decline of manufacturing in the United States, the economy, and our failing education system take choice out of the equation.
But it's the holiday season. So let's save the arguing for the shopping mall.