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When I started working at Plato’s Closet I guess I believed it would be like any other retail job. Only I didn’t know what that entailed, since I had never worked any other retail job. I knew some girls who worked in mall stores and made a solid ten bucks an hour simply to fold clothes and point people towards the restrooms. I was jealous of them. Retail work was coveted among high school students, perhaps a rung below waiting tables. The alternative was food service—not a cushy, tipped waitress position—but flipping burgers and cleaning ovens and dealing with lunchtime rushes full of pushy businessmen and angry soccer moms. When I had the opportunity to fold sweaters for a living, I knew I would grab for it.

My chance came early senior year. My brother, Aidan, a year older than me, had worked in Boston Market for a summer alongside paroled convicts and fat, tattooed freelance strippers. He tired of food service and in the August of our senior year started working at Plato’s Closet, a teen and young adult resale clothing store in a neighboring town that elevated itself above typical thrift stores by emphasizing popular teen brands and recent styles. About a month later, the store was understaffed, and Aidan recommended me to his boss, and before I knew it we were co-workers.

The Plato’s franchise in Bridgeville was owned and operated by fifty-something Scott Carlen and his wife Tammy. They were objectively strange people. Tammy had no teeth—for one reason or another she’d had them all pulled out and gotten dentures. Her smile was eerily straight and white, like that of a ventriloquist’s dummy. And for someone whose daily emails urged us to pay attention to HOT NEW STYLES!!!, Scott sure wore a lot of jizz-encrusted cargo shorts and overtight Harry Potter T-shirts. He was just a tad too interested in our behinds—in the reflection from the store computer screens I’d caught him staring a number of times. But there was nothing to do about that—Scott had no superiors beside a distant corporate element, which was about as accessible as the inventors of clothing itself. It was his store and he could do what he liked. Besides, I liked getting paychecks more than I hated being ogled. And there was a lot more to do than gripe over objectification.

Plato’s Closet works like this: every worker is responsible for every task in the store—nobody is just a “cashier” or a “runner.” In addition to traditional maintenance, customer service, and custodial tasks, we were also responsible for all decision-making and processing of the store’s inventory. People bring in “buys,” sacks or boxes of their used clothing, and employees sort through them looking for items that meet a series of criteria—brand, style, condition, age, and how much of the item we need in the store. Then, a senior employee—a “buyer”—enters the passable items into the computer system, which generates a price for the item—typically 50-75% off original retail price, but often we mark items down 90% or more. The person selling the clothes gets about a third of what we’d sell the item for. For instance, if a pair of name-brand jeans cost $60 in the store, we price it at $18, and the seller receives about $6. But jeans were often the most expensive item in the store—it was common for sellers to receive only a dollar or two for a shirt that had cost twenty times that. And because the store standards are comparatively higher than those of a regular thrift store, we usually only take 5-10% of the items the sellers bring in, and often we can’t take anything—POA: Pass On All. Accordingly, a huge portion of my job was dealing with angry customers.

The average customer at Plato’s fell somewhere between “beleaguered mommy” and “cave troll.” I’m far from a country-club princess, but I found it impossible to relate to the people I served. Economically my family was lower-middle class but my parents had never skimped on manners. I, for one, would never dream of picking a fight with a store employee, even a foul one. But I was time and time again surprised to find myself cursed and insulted by total strangers because we had passed on their tatty circa-2004 day-glo sweatshirt. I adjusted pretty quickly to this abuse once I realized how fun it was to smile sweetly at someone as they called you a “shady bitch.” I’d let them embarrass themselves and then I’d chirp, “Have a super day!” as they stormed out of the store. I secretly hoped that someday a customer would get physical with me so I could watch them get arrested.

Surprisingly, the meanest customers were often the wealthiest and most educated of the bunch. Soccer moms, feh. But I’ll sing the praises of the strippers and small-time drug dealers who frequented our store—they cleaned up after themselves, made pleasant small talk, and were never unreasonable at the dressing rooms or the counters. One of our regulars, Megan, was a heavily-tattooed exotic dancer who sold club drugs on the side. She was in the store every other day. She was funny, she had a good attitude, and we liked her. In the winter she was absent for a month, and when she finally returned, we asked where she’d been.

“Jail,” she said. “But I’m out now.”

During my year at the Closet, the cast of workers was constantly changing but there were some definite stars. The supervisors—or “keyholders”—were perhaps the best embodiment of what three to five years of resale retail can do to a person. Thomas was a twenty-two year old stoner, living at home. He had previously been fired for stealing from the register, but Scott, needing Thomas’s expertise and popularity with local prostitute- and dealer-types, rehired him after a few months. But Thomas made most of his money not from his position at Plato’s but from selling weed and prescription drugs in his time off and sometimes in his time on. Security cameras caught Thomas selling pot to a customer behind the counter of Plato’s, but when another coworker, Amber, brought it to our boss’s attention, Scott simply warned Thomas not to get caught again.

Amber herself was the poster-child for uselessness. We had no idea how she was still employed. She was aggressively idle. Every shift, she’d park herself behind the register, sip an iced coffee and surf Instagram. If a customer approached, she’d stare at them wordlessly, until someone else (usually me) came to the rescue. My brother and I had marathon conversations about our disgust with Amber’s work ethic, bitching ourselves hoarse on the late-night drive home from the store. More frustrating, however, was how little Scott seemed to care. At least three girls had been demoted or fired for checking their phone on the job, but Amber, who spent entire shifts texting and tweeting about how much she hated work, remained untouched. By the end of the summer, so many complaints had been filed against Amber that Scott finally decided to move her to his other store, Clothes Mentor, on the other side of the shopping complex.

The assistant manager, Chelsea, was at twenty-three, the store’s only salaried worker, and since her contract did not include paid overtime, Scott made sure she worked overtime. It showed. She measured five-six and weighed ninety-eight pounds. She was constantly sick, and trembled like a Chihuahua in the slightest breeze. She assured us, like a veteran of war, that she had not always been the girl she had become—she had been a star track athlete in high school and had dreams of working in fashion merchandising. The job at Plato’s had seemed, at the time, a logical step toward that future. Everyone loved Chelsea. She was mild-mannered and intelligent and she had an incredible sense of style (at Plato’s, we had come to view people’s fashion sense as evidence of their personal worth). To me, she had become in equal parts a role model and a cautionary tale.

I fell into a solid routine at Plato’s, working twenty hours a week during the school year and forty to fifty during the summer. I liked my work. I liked being busy. And I was good at it—my coworkers acknowledged me as a hard worker, someone they could depend on to be speedy and thorough, to tackle special projects when the store was slow. Even finicky Scott valued me: I quickly got promotions with raises (albeit, they were from $7.25 to $7.50 and $7.75, but Scott was known to be miserly with wages). I didn’t quite fit in in high school, but here, of all places, I belonged.

My favorite part about the job was the stories I got to tell about it. Things that were horrifying in real time became hilarious a day or two later. For instance, the mound of human shit that appeared in a dressing room one day. We had no information besides the fact that it probably—hopefully—was the work of a child (our store sits right next door to a Chuck E. Cheese). I was not in charge of disposing of the actual crap but I did get to do the sanitizing afterward, pondering how I could possibly become an artist when my life contained moments like these.

My third week on the job, a middle-aged woman’s sun-wrinkled breast flopped out of her blouse while she was buying a pair of pants. Her sanity was questionable—she was one of those overly made-up collagen addicts you sometimes see on TLC specials. I had only recently mastered the cash register and now I had to grapple with whether to politely it out or pretend I didn’t notice. The woman noticed herself, and with zero reaction, she tucked the droopy brown banana back into her floral shirt. When she was gone I went into a corner and had a mini-freakout, but I realize that was because I was new. If that happened to me today I’d just treat myself to a miniature Milky Way from under the counter, my reward for remaining human in this fever dream of a job.

Toward the end of my time at Plato’s, Chelsea was offered an unpaid internship working for a local Pittsburgh designer. She had been gushing about it for weeks—it was her dream come true—but she needed money to pay rent and she would have to keep working. The time came to ask Scott for Saturdays off. I remember watching her march back to his office, through the racks of musty tank tops and crowds of unattended children.

He denied her the time off.

She quit.

While everyone was shocked and sad to see Chelsea go, we knew it had only been a matter of time. Scott had been taking advantage of Chelsea for years. Unlike Thomas, she had never betrayed him. Unlike Amber, she had always worked hard. And none of it had paid off. She was making less money than she would have as a hourly worker and her benefits were measly. When she finally left, she did so to follow a dream that had slipped away from her in the whirl of long hours amongst moth-bitten hand-me-downs and blood-stained designer jeans. I had always admired Chelsea for sticking it out, but her experience scared me. I was ever more grateful to be one of the lucky ones—I was going to college, when so many of my friends and classmates would be entering lives like hers almost immediately: working fryers, folding sweatshirts, dollying displays of novelty watches from one side of the dollar store to the other. My work at Plato’s was entertaining, even educating, but I knew I couldn’t do it forever.

On my last day of work before leaving for school, I hugged my coworker Hope goodbye. She was about to be a senior in high school, had just achieved buyership, and was the only part-time worker who had been with the store more than six months. Now she was left with a lackluster troupe of lazy supervisors and inexperienced, frankly irritating new hires. On my way out I told her not to take too much shit from Scott, and to never buy American Eagle jeans older than 2011. I’d be back to rescue her at Christmas.

When I got my college job—an office assistant position in the alumni office—I was baffled by my coworkers’ politeness, their patience, their commitment to their work. When I answer calls, no one yells creative obscenities at me through the phone. My desk isn’t mobbed with screaming children. I sit down and do my work and then head back to campus when the day is done. It is the simplest job I have ever had, and I don’t have a single story about it.

Six weeks from now I will be back at Plato’s Closet, making far less than I am making here and working far more often. I have seen the new employee schedules—there are many new names. Texts from Hope tell me they have changed the floor plan of the store—when I get back, I will have to relearn where everything is.

The HOT NEW STYLES!!! emails from Scott still come in—I am stunned to realize that the fashions that were all the rage when I started working there are no longer in vogue—neon tops and embellished jeans lie quietly in the “Do Not Buy” section; they’ve gone cold.

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