It’s Monday morning. Ever since January, which is when I finally stopped sulking and found myself a job, Monday mornings find me at work. In addition to being a writer, I am a Sales Associate (soon to be promoted to Front End Supervisor, actually) at an arts and crafts shop in South Philadelphia.
On this particular Monday, I am in the framing department, re-shelving merchandise left at the registers by an entire weekend’s worth of indecisive customers, when a woman accosts me. “Excuse me,” she says, “Do you work here?”
Evidently my regulation polo shirt and name tag aren’t enough of an indication so I put on my best Sales Associate smile and say, “Yes, how can I help you?”
“Have you ever been to the shore?” she asks, except, being a matron of So’ Philly, she doesn’t say “shore,” she says “shooorh.” I imagine her pronunciation must sound quaint, even charming, to a native Pennsylvanian but I am not a native Pennsylvanian. In fact, I have just moved back to the US after spending a year and a half in London and as such, the So’ Philly pronunciation strikes me as just plain provincial, and not in the charming sense of the word.
Nonetheless, I keep smiling and shake my head. I have been to the beach (in fact I have been to beaches on both sides of the continental US and at least five European countries) but I think the “shooorh” is a specific place; only certain beaches count as the “shooorh” in the So’ Philly vernacular.
Convinced of my incompetence, the woman demands, “Can’t you go find someone who has been? I need help finding a frame for a picture I got there.”
“Well I can help you with that,” I assure her. “Do you have the picture with you?”
“No,” she retorts, “but it’s the kind you get at the shooorh! They draw you, you know, with a little body and a big head. It’s called a character.”
“A caricature!” I announce proudly. As per our Superior Customer Care standards, I am mindful to clarify the customer’s needs without actually correcting her, and I do my best to demonstrate extensive product knowledge while escorting the woman through the aisles of wooden, plastic and acrylic frames.
About halfway through our search (and halfway into my lunch break, I might add), she produces an orange sticky tab upon which she has written the measurements of her “character” from the “shooorah.” For some reason, (operator error perhaps?) they’re not of standard size. When I try to explain to her that frames only come in set sizes, she sighs. “You would know if you had ever been there. Can’t you go talk to a manager? Someone who has been to the shooorah?”
There’s no point in arguing with such reason, so I disappear into the wedding section where I know I’ll find my favorite of the Managers On Duty. The Shop’s leadership comprises a six-person pyramid. First, there’s the Head Boss (who has worked at The Shop for her entire adult life, except for two very dark years in which she was foolish enough to sign on with The Competition). Then there are the two General Managers, Good Cop and Bad Cop, and finally the three MODs.
“I’ve got a Stupid Sally over in frames,” I announce. Of course, we’re not supposed to call customers “Stupid Sallies” or “Pinhead Patties” but the Superior Customer Care Training Manual includes an alliterative list of “customer types” to help Sales Associates identify their needs. I’ve taken this general theme and run with it.
“What do they want?” she sighs.
“Someone who has been to the shooorh,” I reply. “And a 12.5 x 17 inch frame.”
“There’s no such thing as a 12.5 x 17 frame!”
“I know, so let’s just pretend I’ve consulted you on the matter and you suggest that she place an order for custom framing or-”
“Go to Walmart!” she concludes, which is exactly what I was going to say. We always send our problem customers to Walmart.
Returning to Stupid Sally, I smile and inform her that I’ve just spoken to a manager, who has indeed been to the shooorh and suggests she bring in her “character” for a consultation with our Custom Framing Specialist.
“Custom framing?” she cries. “That’s too expensive.”
“You can try Walmart,” I suggest hopefully, ignoring the rumbles of hunger coming from my stomach and the pang of guilt that tells me I am being a very bad Sales Associate right now (I know for a fact that she’ll never find a frame that size, even if she visits every Walmart on the Eastern Seaboard) but just when I think I’ve gotten rid of her, she reaches into her purse for a second orange sticky tab.
“What’s the next size frame after 4″ x 6″?” she asks.
“5″ x 7″ I reply automatically and reach for an example.
Recoiling as though I have just offered her a rotten vegetable, she exclaims, “That’s the wrong size! It should be bigger!”
My stomach is really starting to rumble now, and Stupid Sally is getting on my nerves. I wouldn’t mind helping her if she were a nice Stupid Sally, after all, we’re all a bit dimensionally challenged on Mondays, but she is not nice. Not at all. In fact, she is muttering under her breath about the fact that I have never been to the shooorh as though its tantamount to dropping out of high school.
“Would you prefer an 8″ x 10″?” I ask through clenched teeth.
The rotten vegetable look fades away as confusion takes over. “I don’t know. I need it for those pictures they take of you at airport.”
I rack my brains, trying to figure out what sort of picture she is talking about. Passport photos? Biometric imaging for flying internationally? Or is she talking about some sort of all-inclusive Disney vacation package, in which photographers wearing Mickey Mouse ears and welcome you to Florida with an explosion of flash bulbs (in which case they would surely offer a variety of packages ranging from wallet-sized snapshots to full-blown portraits, right)?
“You know,” she prompts, “those photographs you get when you go to the airport?”
I shake my head, wondering, as I often wonder on Monday mornings, what the hell am I doing here? When did it come to this? I went to college. In fact, I have a Masters degree. Granted, an MA in Dance Anthropology isn’t exactly a meal ticket (and don’t even get me started on my student loans, let alone what I’m paying for health insurance in this country) but it still seems terribly unfair that I’ve been reduced to working retail.
I know it’s no one’s fault but my own (well, I could blame the economy, and the fact that the arts are undervalued and therefore the first to go when money gets tight) but I used to have a life. I used to live in London! As a freelance journalist, I wrote stories for American magazines and as a grad student, I spent days in the archives, weeks conducting fieldwork, and months writing my 20,000-word dissertation on London’s rhythm tap community.
I dated men with fascinating accents, I drank Pimm’s alongside the Thames, I danced till dawn at the nightclubs of Piccadilly Circus, backpacked through Europe and jammed with jazz musicians at trendy Soho bars. So what happened? My student visa expired, that’s what.
I’ll spare you the details of my reluctant homecoming and how, clutching my worn passport, I bid my then-boyfriend goodbye at Heathrow Terminal 5 and basically wept my way through security and across the Atlantic. Long story short, I moved back in with my parents, moped around from Thanksgiving to Christmas and finally, as New Year’s approached, got my act together (sort of) and found a job.
Of course, none of this matters to Stupid Sally, and the Superior Customer Care I lavish on her, aisle after aisle, frame after frame, makes no difference.
Exasperated by my evident ignorance, she finally turns to me and says, ”I bet you’ve never even been to an airport, have you?”
“No ma’am,” I reply. “I haven’t.”
Welcome to my world.