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My first real job was during my sophomore year in high school as a lifeguard at the Nomahegan swim and tennis club, the place where I had spent all of my summers up until then lounging and playing games with my friends. Everyone told me how important my job was and how grown up I was. I was about to be responsible for the lives of all the people who dared dip their big toe into the pool. I could be the difference between life and death for any kid who wandered into the deep end and forgot to blow his bubbles and kick his feet. And, I would get a tan while doing all of that; I was about to be a big deal. My first day on the job I met my boss, he gave me my whistle and suit, I changed, slid on my sunglasses, checked myself out in the mirror, and knew I was ready. I got up on stand with my head held high and began to scan the pool just like the Red Cross taught me to. About an hour later, after watching the same five kids play the movie game in the same spot I realized it was going to be a much longer summer than I was mentally prepared for.

On my first break I got to meet some of my co-workers. A lot of them were kids from my school, most of them older and already worn down by many years spent lifeguarding. It was the first day of the summer and they were already complaining about the members, the heat, and worst of all, the “extra” duties of the lifeguards. As they explained to me that we also had to help vacuum the pool, clean the bathrooms, and take out the garbage at the end of every day, I began to dread the summer ahead. My boss wasn’t any better. If anything he complained even more on that first day. The members were the focus of most of this complaining and I soon learned why. Along with saving lives, I was also responsible for the toys kids left behind; the towels they invariably forgot at the end of the day; the mozzarella sticks and french fries that littered the tables all around the pool. I was responsible for entertaining kids while not on stand and watching them while they were in the water because their parents were too busy chatting at the edge of the pool. My lifeguarding gig soon became a babysitting gig for which I had to pay taxes.

I work at the pool every day that summer and yet, the next summer I signed up to be a lifeguard again. Along with the hours spent sweating on stand and yelling at all the kids for running, I also crushed my coworkers in four-square, spent hours doing arts and crafts, and ordered way too much with my employee discount at the snack bar. The complaining of my boss and my coworkers that first day was simply banter to pass the time and although most of it held true, we also talked about how funny Patience, the little girl who sang show tunes, was and Andrew, the six year old ping pong prodigy. The kids at the pool hang on every word the lifeguards say and follow us around. I soon realized that I felt grown up and was able to tolerate my job not because of how responsible I was being by saving lives (which I’ve actually never had to do), nor how cool I looked with my suit and tan, but instead because of how much these little kids looked up to me. It didn’t matter if I messed up at my job or acted like a kid sometimes with them, they thought I was the coolest thing ever because I wasn’t in elementary school and because I had my own money. I realized that even though the actual work was horrible, the feeling of having a job and having people look up to you is enough.

Take Your Licks—From a Dog

 

For the past five summers, I’ve ridden my bike to work every morning. On third avenue and ninth street, I pull into a deli, exchange marhaba’s with Akhmed and grab a coffee. I pass through the projects and park inside the barbed-wire fence of the kennel. Deb and Britta, my bosses, are usually dressing their kids for camp, so I open up the kennel, feed the dogs, spray down the yard, and feel the pulse of red hook: the emphatic honks of departing cruise ships, the constant bustle of the criminal processing station across the street, and the rumble of semi-trucks thundering down Van Brunt. Brooklyn moves.

I met Sadie for the first time when she was barely a year old. She had soft brown hair and an ASPCA ad-worthy whimper. Even in her youth, her eyes were sad. By five she was ready to give in, ready to lie down and call the game. She has cancer now; a small tumor has attached itself to her liver, ferociously reproducing, slowly killing her from the inside out. She has no idea. She doesn’t understand. She doesn’t know what cancer is. After all, Sadie is a dog.

Sadie was the third stop on my route. The other two dogs inside the hulking van—as I had been warned earlier—were incessant barkers. I had a headache within fifteen minutes of starting my shift. Sadie lived on the top floor of a four-story brownstone on Pineapple Street in Brooklyn Heights. I left the barking van by a hydrant, prayed I wouldn’t get a ticket, trudged up the stairs, beaten and broken, painted a wide smile on my face, and unlocked the solid door, expecting the classic, worried thirty-something, fretting over their Pomeranian as I quickly introduce myself and get the hell out. The apartment was dark; clothes and papers littered the floor. Hidden in the corner of the living room was a dog bed. Sadie was curled up in a ball fast asleep. I tucked her under my arm and as I walked out, the door to a bathroom opened. It’s important to understand that a dog kennel worker is an anonymous person—it’s rare to meet your client’s owner, and surprisingly, your dogs don’t rave about you once they’re home.

So, I’m leaving the apartment, when this woman steps out of the bathroom in a towel and screams. I mean just screams her head off. I try and calm her down, showing her that I’m just there for the dog, that she scheduled a pick-up that day, that she had given my boss a key. But she kept on screaming. Finally, I stuck my hand out and introduced myself. She stopped screaming. Her name was Darby.

After two months, we had set a routine—she would bring Sadie downstairs in the morning, I’d try very hard to make more than small talk, she would feign interest for a while, and then she’d jokingly remind me that I had other dogs to pick up. Every evening, while she was still at work, I’d walk Sadie up to the apartment, open the door wide enough for just Sadie to fit through, and leave. I like to snoop. A lot. I let Darby have some privacy.

Deb changed my shift at Dog Abby, took me off pick-up and drop-off and moved me to the daytime shift out in the yards (6AM-12:30PM). On most summer days, we’d reach up to sixty dogs out in the heat. I’d set up sprinklers and hoses for the dogs, while Sadie slept in my lap all morning.

At first, I only worked at Dog Abby for two summers, but the summer job quickly became a steady year-round gig (working late nights during the week and the morning shift on Sundays), and five years later, graduating high school, I helped Deb and Britta pack up Dog Abby and move upstate for a larger property.

This summer, a couple of weeks after Dog Abby had moved, Darby called. I assumed it was a butt dial, so I missed the call and kept riding my bike. It rang again, so I picked up, and Darby’s parents were on the other line, frantic as hell. Sadie wasn’t getting up and Darby was on a business trip in London. Sadie wouldn’t get up. Apparently, she had left my number with them to call if they had questions regarding taking care of Sadie. When I got to the apartment, the grandparents were with Darby’s babies watching T.V, while Sadie lay in the corner. She looked up at me, then closed her eyes as if to say, ‘I’m done.’ I picked her up and carried her to the vet on the next block. They did an MRI and found her body full of cancer. Tumors on their way to organ size;, bones were cavities. We had had no ideaShe had slowed down quite a bit, but no one had any idea.

The doctor said that he had to put her down. I said ok and waited with Sadie while she heaved her last breaths.

I kissed Sadie on the nose as she went. Darby rushed home from London when her heard. Her children are too young to remember Sadie later, and are too young to care now. The kennel teaches you about loss—some customers stop coming, and soon you realize it’s because they have no dog to bring anymore. But losing Sadie was different, for me, for Darby. She lost part of her life—losing the connection to her twenties, to her independence, to reckless behavior because the only one watching was a Vizlu. She had Sadie before she had a husband, before she had kids, and that whole history, captured through the eyes of a dog, is gone.

The dog kennel is not generally a rewarding place. Owners are rude. Dogs bite and fight and piss. But sometimes dogs can touch your life. I didn’t realize it was ok not to work at Dog Abby until Sadie died. She closed Dog Abby for me better than any move could have.

That early, daily wake up call came when I heard a scratchy, sleepy whine over the monitor. “Meeeeeg. Meeeeg. MEEEEEG.” Maybe it was 5:00 A.M., or maybe it was 7:30. Either way, Charlotte’s day had begun, so mine had, too. A diaper change, a new outfit, some bows in her hair, a breakfast of O’s and fruit, and she was off to the races. A little, two-year-old ball of energy, Char was laughing or bawling, running or falling. She was my responsibility, but also my best friend. We did everything together, from grocery shopping, to walks on the beach, to trips to the playground, to reading on the hammock. As the days came to a close, we would wind down together. I’d make her dinner while she played with her babies. We’d have bath time as the day ended and the night set in. When Char was finally in bed, although it often took lots of coaxing, I’d sing her to sleep. She was like my own child for our three months together, and I loved her like I imagine a mother loves a daughter.

Now, don’t get me wrong here, for Char and I had our bad days, too, just like any other pair of best friends. Rough mornings with loud refusals to eat more fruit, rainy afternoons stuck inside for hours trying to stay entertained, disagreements on which coat was appropriate for the weather; these moments were all part of a typical week for us. We had our bad moments for sure.

But there was nothing quite like walking into Charlotte’s room after her afternoon nap and seeing her face light up as soon as she could see me, or lifting her from her crib, feeling her tiny, warm, still sleepy body clinging onto mine with all the power her tiny muscles could muster. There was nothing like hearing her tinkling laugh echo throughout that giant house, and there was absolutely nothing like hearing her spontaneously say, “I love you, Meg,” in the middle of the day.

And here I am now, a college student, with just pictures of what was once my little girl scattered throughout my dorm room. Sure, I’ve seen Char a few times since I moved out from the Southampton abode, but they’ve been fleeting moments, nothing compared to our days spent entirely together.

And she’s different now; she’s being raised by a different woman, and my values are no longer as clearly reflected in her as they once were. I spent so much of my time during those three months shaping Charlotte’s values, trying to keep her as grounded and polite as a two-year-old could be. Please’s and thank you’s were a must. Whining was not tolerated. Ever. We played games, but there was never violence. Fruits and veggies were a priority at meals. Television was limited, and reading was glorified. I put lots of time into making Charlotte who I thought the best version of her could be. But now here I am; I’ve been separated from not only my project, but also from a loved one. It’s a strange form of alienation that nannies feel often. We learn to love a child, and put so much time and effort into them, as if they are our own, only to say goodbye and leave them for the next nanny.

A Family Affair

 

My sisters and I were probably the only teenagers awake by 7:30 on a Saturday morning during the summer break. After a quick breakfast, we would jump into our swimsuits, spread sunscreen on each other and throw over a tank top and some shorts. As the eldest, I would lift each one of our suspended bicycles off their hooks outside the kitchen, grab the bag full of goggles, swimming paddles and small kickboards, and then the four of us would finally ride together to the clubhouse, some 15 minutes away. By 8:00, some of the kids from our village or of family friends would arrive and we would gather everyone at the poolside for instructions before splitting them into groups according to their swimming ability. I normally supervised all the groups, stopping every now and then to give someone corrections to their stroke, add to their workout, or encourage them to finish their laps. I would assign my sisters their own students whom they would closely instruct throughout the program.

 

It was quite the family affair. My father started offering swimming lessons to children between the ages of three and nine (my age at the time), for an hour each day for twelve consecutive days. He developed his own program that would allow anyone to progress from being afraid of water to crossing the full length of the pool and sometimes, even to completing their first triathlon. My sisters and I would help him out and he would give each one of us a cut from the fee he received. Eventually, he turned things over to me.

 

For nine years, this was my summer job. The pay wasn’t at all a big deal but the job was ideal because it was close to home, swimming was something I loved and would have done on a daily basis in the summer anyway, and it was great practice in terms of leadership, teaching, and ultimately, discipline, at an early age. Of course, it was not always perfect. Some children were hard headed, had too short of an attention span, or disinterested in learning to swim and preferred to play with their friends. Nevertheless, the sense of fulfilment and satisfaction that came with watching a proud parent witness their young one crossing a 25-meter pool non-stop for the first time was more than enough to keep me motivated to offer the program one year after another. But perhaps the best takeaway from those Saturday mornings were the innumerable and memorable bonding moments I shared with my three younger sisters, which I look back on quite fondly as I think of my childhood and of home.

The first thing that struck me as I walked into Tabula Rasa Essentials for my first day at my first summer job was what a strange name that was for a gift shop that sells absolutely nothing essential. Our inventory consisted mostly of pretty candles and coffee table books, attracting a customer base of bored housewives and sun burnt tourists. In the summer months when I worked, I spent my hours on the job restocking shelves and perfecting my gift-wrapping skills, or chatting with hip moms about where to find the best organic vegan bar soap. For the most part, working at Tabula Rasa Essentials was pleasant and uneventful.

That all changed the morning of July 21st. I had finally worked at the store long enough to be trusted with opening on Sunday morning, and was looking forward to a quiet morning sipping coffee and catching up with my coworker, who usually ran about five minutes late. I reached for the doorknob and hesitated as it turned in my hand. I assumed the door was unlocked because my coworker had already arrived and opened the store. When she was nowhere to be found, I guessed that the owner had been in earlier that day and forgotten to lock up again. Then, the quiet, slow beeping I had heard when I walked in got faster and louder. Within seconds, a blaring siren ripped through the store and red lights flashed all around me. I dropped the stack of books I was arranging and spun awkwardly in circles, having absolutely no idea what to do or how to stop the incessant ringing in my ears.

I finally ran outside, shutting the door again behind me. Groups of tourists enjoying their morning beach walks stared judgmentally at me, and I could see the accusation in their eyes.

“I work here!” I tried to tell them as they passed me, glaring. The siren continued, only slightly muffled by the closed door behind me. Finally, my coworker arrived, quickly dialing in the code to shut off the security alarm. Before she could ask what happened, a police officer walked into the store, asking if there had been a robbery. After explaining the situation, I collapsed onto a stool behind the counter, my ears still ringing and my face bright red.

I continued my job at Tabula Rasa for the rest of the summer, and had a wonderful experience. Needless to say though, I was never asked to open up the store in the mornings ever again.

Random House Audio Presents A Game of Bluetooth Phones Book One of A Song of Humidity and More Heat by George R. R. Martin, read for you by Roy Datrice.

Prologue:

I listened to a lot of the A Song of Ice and Fire (“Game of Thrones”) series on audiobook this summer.  Actually, I listened to so much that I wrote the above by memory. Each audiobook runs for about forty hours, I got through four. I recommend the audiobooks quite a lot; George R. R. Martin knows how to write a solid fantasy series, though I do typically prefer a few more wizards in the mix. Also, Roy Datrice really gets beneath the skin of the characters he reads for. Well, until you hit the fourth novel, then he starts to adjust the voices to better match the television series, but nevertheless it is a good way to pass the time.

I spent a lot of my summer figuring out how to make time pass with ease. This summer I worked as a landscaper at a small Orlando hotel, which will remain unnamed because they paid well. Now, landscaping does not sound like such hard work when you think of how much of an urban jungle Orlando has become, but I just so happened to be working in a urban rainforest. The hotel sits happily on Lake Lucerene (a glorified pond), adjacent to the towering I-4 ramp that would give even the most avid George R. R. Martin fan a spook when an ambulance blared pass. Across from its parking lot rests construction-filled Orlando, but within the hotel’s property rests a beautiful mismatched set of repurposed mansions (and one retro hotel building), all surrounded by a gorgeous cascade of greenery. It was my job to maintain the gorgeousness of this greenery, despite the fact that people often hold of on their marriages until fall in Florida, so that the bride’s face of makeup doesn’t melt off before the vows are over. Mulching, weeding, Christmas-light-stringing, and every kind of grounds maintenance you can imagine became my job. To make the moist Florida heat hours pass faster, I had my A Song of Ice and Fire.

Despite the unpleasant nature of my job, I actually had it pretty good. My job was solitary. Anything, literally any job, is better than dealing with summer Disney tourists. When it wasn’t solitary, it was filled with a very colorful cast of characters. Of course, there were the maids who would talk about me in Spanish; until they figured out I could understand them. They later accepted me into their culture because I could vacuum under the mattresses. The part-owner and woman who hired me, Paula, mother to a long-time personal friend, loves me so much that oftentimes I would just talk with her about life for an hour-or-so (on the clock). It wasn’t hard to impress my superiors because Paula’s son, who I replaced as he headed up to college, was always too high to mulch. Oscar, my direct superior and full-time custodian of the hotel, is a proud Puerto-Rican (accent included), sassy gay man, but from New Hampshire.  He loves to gossip; when he isn’t gabbing away on his Bluetooth, he likes to remind me that he’s gayer than the Fire Island production of RENT. The drama in this man’s life! If there wasn’t a new intimacy problem with his now ex-boyfriend, there was something even more ridiculous to be said about his club lifestyle. Not to mention, Oscar was a sworn nemesis to the once-a-week professional landscaper. Their rivaled past is a story worthy of Roy Datrice’s narration, but for another day. The people at my job made it worth the blood, sweat, and tears… of the fictional characters I listened to on my iPod.

Despite the blistering heat and mundane nature of my labor, I liked my summer job. It taught me a lot, exposed me to a new culture of people, and most importantly, gave me an absurd amount of expendable income

the devil wears american apparel

The Devil Wears American Apparel

Advertised as sweatshop free, fair-wages, medical insurance for all, made in the USA, American Apparel gives a minimalist, classic look to young and old. This company prides itself in being made in the United States, by legal workers who are payed no less than minimum wage to make clothing in their warehouse in Downtown Los Angeles. The factory is advertised to have a medical facility as well as a massage station for factory workers in need of a massage. The company’s image is of young, thin, girls modeling bodysuits, and often revealing clothes. It’s CEO Dov Chaney is a man in his 40s who avidly audits each of the worldwide stores. On Tuesdays there is a worldwide conference call which all stores much tune in and all regional managers are questioned to the last extent about sales and inventory numbers.

Living in New York City and going to an art school in the middle of Manhattan made some expectations for how people should dress. American Apparel offers a classic look, with their solid, vibrant colors and their clean, minimalist designs. Two of my friends found a job in the company during our junior year in high school. I applied through the way they recommend applying to their company, online. I submitted three pictures along with my resume. I never got a response back. One day, however, towards Halloween (the store’s busiest time of the year), I came into the store and I inquired about the job application they had a sign for, and to my knowledge later on, I spoke to the store’s manager. This store I inquired in was the flagship store, the store to represent all other stores in the city. The manager immediately gave me an interview without my resume and I got the job right away. Was it because I was wearing American Apparel as I inquired for the job? Maybe it was my outfit? Maybe they just needed more people? I wouldn’t know. I didn’t care. I was so excited to finally be able to abandon my job at a supermarket in Brooklyn for an elegant store. The look of the store and the tidiness that their employees always displayed sold the look and the appeal to work there. Not only was the look sold but also the motto of “Made in the USA,” which is a great contribution for a clothing market dominated by foreign importation. My experience working for American Apparel ranges as much as their management and professionally does.

As any new worker starting at the place they always wished to work, being payed much higher than minimum wage, I was very happy to start working at American Apparel. Not only was I already in a higher position than most people there but I quickly became friends with one of my managers because we had gone to school together and he had graduated two years before me. However, my experience with management in this store is perhaps the worst part of the job. Have you seen that movie, The Devil Wears Prada? Well, more like The Devil Wears American Apparel. I could talk about every single manager that I had while working there (There were six at all times, not all on the same shift of course), but it would take too long, so I will talk about just one. One girl two years older than me and already she was the meanest most condescending manager I could have possibly had. This was only juxtaposed with many laissez-faire managers who were easy going and generally nicer with their employees. Natison (not her real name), was a platinum blonde, size 0, girl who only wore black and sometimes white along with other shades of grey. Knowing that Natison was around made everyone so much more miserable to be working there. It wasn’t that she was so strict that made her a mean boss, it was how condescending she was. She was just not a nice person; I don’t know how to clearly explain it. Something that apart from her that made the job so intolerable after months and months of working there, was that managers came and went, and someone of them were so badly trained. I could have done their job much better, or at least I could have been more professional than them, until I got the chance to.

American Apparel thankfully has a young workforce (Child labor? no, when I was under age I worked no more than twenty hours a week, and no more than thirty-five when I was eighteen) and therefore their managers are only eighteen or nineteen if they start when they are sixteen or seventeen and show ample aptitude in how everything works or at least how everything should work, because let’s face it some of these managers where not capable of running a store, much less their employees. I think all stores where just so different in the type of training and policies that store wide managers imposed that no one really knew what was wrong versus what was right. Therefore, all lesser managers where unable to successfully train any employees and motivate any sort of store achievement, which the CEO imposed every month.

Retail is just not fun. There are many long hours where you just wait for a soul to come into the store and mess up the neatly separated hangers that you just meticulously arranged a thumb apart from each other. People would try to steal and it was just shameful. Towards the end of my career at American Apparel the store felt so claustrophobic and apathetic that I wanted to quit immediately and go home. I eventually quit because I moved to Vermont where the nearest American Apparel is about an hour drive from my school making the commute much longer than in New York City. I felt like I had so much more to offer the store. I learned everything I needed and had to know to be on the sales floor, while my unmotivated co-workers where lethargic to even talk to customers anymore.

Now, I look back at the times when I actually loved working there. The halloween season, where girls come in crazy looking for an outfit and ask you to dress them up. The times when I modeled the mens newest clothes for the store’s Instagram and corporate reposted it on their Instagram. The time when my manager friend and I would stand behind the cash register and talk to pass the time. The time someone called and asked what color and size underwear I was wearing. The times when we would laugh at the silly resumes we received and the times we knew exactly who was going to get hired when they walked through the door. American Apparel is modern chic and it gives the vibe of relevance yet in my opinion no on really shops there. I fell like more people should shop at American made clothing brands, be it American Apparel or not, but unfortunately it does add a monetary vacuum to your wallet. I miss working at American Apparel. If I ever do apply to work there again I would be happy to represent the look and perhaps also embody what the company stands for, sweatshop free, made in the USA, without being a terrible boss.

A Year in the Closet

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.

Dr. M.R. Edwards

I was 16 and a senior in high school. As the youngest kid in my senior class and even younger than most of the juniors, I was always trying to integrate into the community around me. A bunch of kids in my class formed “clans” and usually joined school-based organizations together as well; so, I was left there wondering what I should do with my free time. The only sport I’m relatively good at is swimming and that happens for a month-long period in spring. In my school though, having a paid job was very uncommon. Instead, students joined charity organizations. Although I was the treasurer of Operation Smile, that was not a time commitment. The only other big organization was Rotary International’s Interact and that did not interest me. I started considering doing absolutely nothing for the rest of the year when, out of the blue, my chemistry teacher offers me a job as his assistant.

Let me stop for a while and talk about Doctor Marc Rex Edwards. First of all, his middle name always reminds me of a go-to name for a dog: “Hey Rex, Come here Rex! Good boy!” He was the only teacher in my entire four years of high school that I always felt I would have a mental breakdown in the middle of his class and just stand up and leave. The worst thing is, I had two classes in a row with him: physics and AP chemistry.

The first day of classes, he made everyone stand up, leave the room, get in a line, and come right back in. Why? So that, according to him, we know how to “come into a classroom in a quiet and orderly fashion.” On that same day, he showed us a certificate from Cambridge which was his doctorate in crystal engineering. To this day I still do not understand how he got it. He might be extremely smart, but he certainly does not know how to teach, which is why I had to correct his mistakes numerous times. I started correcting him so many times that he yelled at me because I was humiliating him. I think this somewhat explains why I was surprised when he offered me the job. I just really needed the money, so I accepted.

Now the job was really not that hard, since it only consisted of grading papers and helping any student who came in after school with questions. I actually liked the alone time after school and the one on ones I had with my friends. The only thing is that I just didn’t feel like it was meaningful in any way. The only interactions I had with my teacher were him handing me the papers to grade and the schedule of the students I had to help that afternoon. After a couple weeks, I started resenting this demeaning job. I was basically his servant who had to do all his taks while he went back to his house. The only thing I got out of it was a few Dirhams to put in my pocket and a story to tell.

Although I didn’t like the job or benefit much from it, working under such conditions allowed me to understand that having an easy job does not mean it is a good thing. You get bored easily and you just have this feeling at the end of the day that you have accomplished absolutely nothing. However I still believe that this helped build my character since it taught me that I had enough pride to quit and that I deserved better for myself and for the community.

Leaving Tassajara

A little over a year ago, I worked at a Zen Buddhist center, Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, nestled in the Santa Lucia Mountains in between Carmel Valley and Big Sur. Unlike some of the other jobs I’ve had, this job was unique in that it encompassed not only the work I performed but also the lifestyle I was expected to conform to while I worked and lived there. Every morning I woke at 5:00, before the sun had even rose and the cold air seeping in from the screened walls. I was required to attend morning meditation and service everyday; which began promptly at 5:50.  Work didn’t last more than 7 hours a day, usually consisting of various tasks such as chopping fruit, washing dishes, or working in the woodshop.

 

But after a week and a half of waking up at 5:00, spending 3 hours a day meditating and participating in Zen services, I grew restless. I had no internet, no cell phone service. Letters were my only connection to the outside world. Silence stretched from 8:00 at night to 8:00 in the morning, when we finally broke the silence by chanting unfamiliar words.  I felt squeezed by the rigidity of the rules and I longed to have the freedom I gave up to be there.  And then slowly, I grew accustomed to the way of life there. I began to explore the surrounding area on my brief breaks and the occasional day off, eventually doing an overnight hike to a beautiful ravine with some of my fellow coworkers/students that remains to this day one of my favorite experiences of all time.

 

Though it was difficult at time, living and working in a Zen community was incredibly rewarding and allowed me to be truly happy without having everything I was used to.

I left Tassajara with a backpack slung across my shoulders, two gallons of water  in my hands, relieved to be out of there but also sad that I may never return again.

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