A couple of nights ago on the bus I was at the nadir or apogee of being completely out of it (considering how you rate these things), I’d just started my period and my brain felt soft and soupy. One of those nights where I came home and took my thermos out of my bag and put it on the counter, and then tried to do it again a few minutes later, and wondered how I’d forgotten my thermos at work.
I didn’t expect to be alone on the bus; I’d forgotten that P. had a haircut so I left my book and mp3 player at home. As always it was crowded at first, and as it lurched on to my hinterlands, we were all able to disperse and get a proper amount of West Coast space bubble between everyone.
I moved to one of the high seats in the very back and center and stopped focusing on my cramps and tiredness. I stopped being cross that there was nothing to do but think, and remembered that’s a thing I like to do, even if I’m not always great at it. It was cooler in the back. The windows were closed, but the vent in the back was ruffling my hair slightly. I looked straight ahead out the front window and pretended I was traveling on some kind of crappy, noisy litter or flying carpet. I wondered where I (and my teeth) would end up if we stopped suddenly.
It made me think of all the time I spent riding the bus back and forth downtown six years ago, when I was working holiday retail. I had come to the hard decision of picking up some kind of retail work after a few months of looking for a 9-5 contract. I’d been freelance editing and writing, working for our preschool to cover tuition, and I had my tiny writing gig at Blogher, but it wasn’t really the same as 40 hours a week at a tech gig, or even something like retail or coffee, which is at least steady.
No one in the tech world was biting, and I was getting increasingly desperate. I got home from a trip to Fred Meyer and flipped over the receipt and glanced at it without thinking about it. “WE’RE HIRING FOR THE HOLIDAYS!” it announced, among the ads and coupons for local restaurants. I could do that, I thought. I hadn’t worked retail for over ten years, but it comes right back, I figured. Like a herpes outbreak.
I tried to be sensible about it and apply to places where I actually would appreciate a discount, which is why a department store like Fred Meyer made sense. Of course I was scouring craigslist at the time, and widened my net to include the retail help wanted section.
I saw Lush was hiring for Christmas. They noted they were having an open house in the store, bring resume. I quickly scrubbed my master’s degree off my resume and put on something kooky–loud jewelry, red Fluevogs, blue velvet blazer. I had been a customer there for over ten years, when I could afford it, way back to when they were Canada-only. This would be perfect. At least I could be surrounded by smells I enjoyed, and maybe score some discounted lotion and some free broken bath bombs.
I went downtown, clutching my resume, not expecting much. I figured I was five or ten years out of the age range they were looking for. I walked in and got verbally accosted by the shrill and peppy woman who was the assistant manager, Janelle. She was in full-bore weekend mode, which I would get to know well. This involved, in part, shouting at everyone who walked in, and smearing stuff on people. I’m pretty sure she was smearing a cocoa butter bar on a hapless customer when I met her, a popular trick she used to brighten up aged tattoos.
Janelle was one of those people with no volume control, which helps in a shouty profession like Lush’s desired brand of pushy, in-your-face retail. She had a hooked beak of a nose and no real chin to speak of, giving not only the obvious first impression of a bird, but after working for her for a while and seeing how she would go for days without washing her greasy hair, she looked more like a heron who had been caught in an oil spill.
I also met the top dog: the store manager, Lisa, who was able to carry on a conversation in a normal tone of voice, much to my relief. As a company, Lush is known for its sometimes extreme activist stances and funding fringe groups, like people who chain themselves to whales and whatnot. As a dabbler in nihilism, I knew my philosophy didn’t really line up with that face of the corporation, but I knew we had capitalism in common, so the marriage could probably stick. Lisa lavishly complimented my leather shoes when we met, so I was a little surprised later that she had somehow decided I was a fellow vegan, and amused when I found out it affected her decision to hire me.
I got a call back later from Janelle that was so loud I remember holding the phone away from my head. I forced myself to match her level of enthusiasm to accept the job loudly and gleefully. It’s just for Christmas, I told myself. Christmas, downtown. At one of the busiest malls in the city. It was better than wearing a Fred Meyer polo and nametag, if not as practical.
We were told to report somewhere for orientation, for which we would be paid. Janelle gave me the time, and the date, and a name: “The Moore.” I knew it as a music venue, which I thought was an odd place to hold an orientation, but the economy was in the pooper and maybe they were renting space during the day? I met another girl there, Gina, hanging around outside the door, and guessed she was a Lush temp as well because of her confused look and adherence to the dress code of black and/or white, which was already being enforced. She and I conferred and were both confused, and tried knocking on various doors and looking for signs.
A few minutes later I got a phone call. It was Janelle. “WHERE ARE YOU?” I cringed in pain and held the phone away from my ear, so it was effectively a conference call.
“I’m outside the Moore Theatre,” I said.
“Me too!” my new friend said.
“Gina is too,” I added.
“WELL GET OVER TO THE MOORE HOTEL, YOU SILLYS! GEEZ! WE’RE WAITING FOR YOU TO START!”
Having rarely stayed in a hotel in my own city, I actually had never noticed the Moore Hotel existed and was relieved to see it was catty corner from the theatre. As Gina and I were hurrying across the street, I realized was one of those moments, when, if I was younger I would have felt stupid for days and probably would have fallen all over myself trying to apologize, but I knew this wasn’t really my mistake. I think it also set up how I felt about the job in my time there, and set up my attitude about jobs like this in the future: I was going to hit the due diligence mark, but I wasn’t going to get too wrapped up in the job itself, either.
I walked into a room of about 15 women, as I recall, all in the proscribed black or white clothes. Mostly black, because what kind of moron wears white to work retail, let alone in a shop that is full of brightly-colored hunks of beauty potions that would explode when dropped or stared at too hard, or melt if exposed to the sun? I vaguely recall Janelle saying something awkward and shamey to we derelicts when we walked in, and Gina looked chagrined, but I thought that if Janelle could manage her way out of a tatty, repurposed bath bomb bag, she probably would have just started the orientation. I noted that Lisa the store manager was nowhere in sight, so we were at the mercy of Janelle.
We were informed about the structure of our day. For the first part, we would learn about the many products Lush offers, with an emphasis on limited edition Christmas product and gift boxes. We were hired right after Halloween, so we were to learn the theme for that year which tied back to Halloween (and moving leftover Halloween product). This year’s theme was: SUUUUPERNATURAL, Janelle intoned dramatically, writing it on the white board in the room.
It somehow reminded me of what I imagined summer camp was like when the crappy counselor was left in charge for the evening while the cool teens went off and got drunk: “Ghost stories, kids. SPOOOOOKY!” There is nothing like a watching a power-mad person finally getting that juicy leadership opportunity they so desperately crave, and then being captive audience to an entire day of their grandiose over confidence. I knew that we could expect a day of watching lines Janelle had practiced in the shower falling flat.
Of course I had worked Christmas retail in the past (Best Buy, Tower) as well as at Safeway as a checker during the holiday rush. I knew little enraged customers more than clueless holiday help who cannot answer basic questions about products or know where anything is, so I tried to really commit what Janelle was emphasizing to memory. The top enragers for customers were 1. waiting. For anything and 2. being told that something was out of stock. Dealing with bumbling holiday temps was often a precursor to a full-blown customer tantrum, because first they had to deal with a 19-year-old girl going, “Do we have face lotions…ummm…” before being told that the lotion they want is out of stock and then being made to wait in line to buy a second or third choice.
Once I got the basic product lines breakdown, it was pretty easy to think about how to sell the product. Lush follows the typical conventions of the world of product fragrancing, and you could chuck all the products into bins in your mind. The olfactory experience of walking past or into a Lush store is a lot like that of a perfume truck crashing into a whorehouse, but there are distinct categories. There’s my favorite world, which is citrus anything, especially bergamot. There’s kind of weird-fruity beyond citrus, like blackberry or apple. I thought of these products as being targeted at children and someone who never met a Katy Perry perfume they didn’t like. There’s the floral categories–rose, jasmine. There’s the foodie/vanilla/chocolate/honey products. Then there were “green” or herby-spicy concoctions that were meant to smell like you’d been rolling around in the woods making out with Stevie Nicks (SPOOOOOKY). These herby scents were especially emphasized in my Supernatural holiday season.
You can break all these categories down into further patterns. If rose is involved, you can be pretty sure that they are going to add some citrus or carnation to it, too. If there is jasmine, either vetiver or or ylang ylang will probably be involved. And so on. In spite of their we’re-so-wacky image, Lush usually sticks with the tried and true combinations, which is just good business sense. It’s incredibly convenient for me, too, because after working there and smelling, and smelling, and SMELLING vials of essential oils and all the products over and over again, it’s pretty easy for me to eyeball a “new” product via the site and immediately know whether or not I will like it.
This was just one facet of how we were expected to sell products. The other major facet was the benefits of the healthy and natural ingredients. It was distasteful to witness some of the regular staff selling products with purported anti-aging benefits with a touch of the “let us save you from disfiguring wrinkles” fear-mongering. I believe that sunscreens (which Lush products do not contain) delay the aging process and do cool things like reduce skin cancer, but beyond that wrinkles are inevitable, of course.
I avoided this tack all together, and even had some women try to suss out my beliefs about “anti-aging creams,” which I thought was interesting. I never once had anyone walk off in a huff after I said things like, “aging is inevitable, but this cream could make your skin type feel nicest on the long, drying march to the grave.” It always seemed like a test, and as soon as these rare individuals twigged to the fact that I wasn’t going to try to scare them into buying something with a bunch of anti-feminist claptrap they warmed to me and seemed to trust my opinions and recommendations more. It was a funny dance.
There was also a lot of beneficial factoid stuff we were supposed to spout about the ingredients of every product. Janelle recommended we memorize three facts about every product. A tall order in a store with dozens of product lines, with anywhere from two to thirty products in each line! But I had always been interested in fragrances and perfumes, and was actually looking forward to learning about essential oils and principles of fragrance composition, thereby sewing another badge on my World’s Dilettante-iest Dilettante sash.
The afternoon after lunch was spent focusing on gift boxes, roleplaying various customer needs scenarios, and being quizzed on products, scent families, etc. Then we were all given our individual first week schedules. There is no commission at Lush, but it was strongly implied that capable (meaning high-selling) and flexible workers would get more hours as the season wore on. Then it hit us, as we looked around the room at the new colleagues were had gotten to know that day: theoretically, there were slots available for all of us to work, but some of us would get more hours than others.
In the weeks before Thanksgiving, we lost some girls right away. I say “girls” because that is what most of us were: very young, and we were working in such a feminine environment. We pedaled flowery products that looked like cakes and hearts or bears or what have you. 99.9% of customers who walked in were women. We were always addressed as “girls” by Janelle, who was twenty-five to my thirty-one. I think the only people in their 30s were me and one other woman who thought everything was pretty much bullshit as well, but wanted to make a little extra cash over the holiday and score some cheaper Christmas presents. I rarely worked with her, because unlike me, she had a real-deal day job and was only available at night.
So, as I said, we began losing some girls right away. They couldn’t handle the high-pressure sales tactic style that was expected of us, or the kooky singing or dancing or yelling or endless product demo offers. We were constantly pushed by management to offer little impromptu hand treatments to anyone and everyone who walked in the store, and some girls shied away from that. There were some who had bad attitudes or problems or could not hide their contempt for Janelle, which was the death knell for any temporary clerk there.
Lush was at the end of the mall, sticking out into the public plaza adjoining the mall, and was always full of shoppers, protesters, proselytizers, hobos, criminals, police on horses and bikes, horse-drawn carriages, nut vendors, and assorted other rabble. The store really did jut far out like some kind of verruca of a weird architectural afterthought on the building itself, and was basically a glass-walled box on three sides and was nicknamed “the fishbowl.”
Occasionally men were attracted by the display of girls in tanktops and aprons, dancing around in the fishbowl like fools to Off the Wall or Lady Gaga. The ladies’ club atmosphere in the store would change very abruptly and clerks would try to dodge men who we all knew had no interest in actually buying anything. They used us as a captive audience to mack on. There was one guy who claimed to have xray glasses and could see us naked, and would chortle over the bath bombs and how they looked like “tittays.” Other men who showed up, thankfully, were either gay, and so were part of our clubhouse vibe since they were just there to smell good and feel nice, or they were husbands/partners and had been indoctrinated or resigned to coming along.
We were told over and over again than men were repelled by Lush because they had a stronger sense of smell than women, which never sounded right to me, and seems isn’t true anyway. I always thought it was, to oversimplify things, that women are socialized to fragrance their person, their home, their clothes, and have been sold things via fragrance for many years. Imagine these stock photos/ads with all men. Oh, I did that. Here’s men enjoying smells. Women enjoy the smell of cleanliness (which should really be the absence of smells but that is a rant for another day), fruit, flowers, food, babies. I think men are supposed to enjoy smelling meat, brandy, and pussy. Lush does not sell those things, and is indeed very PETA-friendly, so I think meat is out and maybe even pussy unless it’s being humanely sourced.
One night when we were closed, doors locked, I realized were were still a captive display even after hours when a man walked up to our doors that opened to the plaza and exhaled the most enormous lungful of pot smoke that I think I have ever known to come out of a human into the crack where the doors met. Was that harassment? Intended as a gift? A response to the fumes that were emanating from the store? I was irritated and hoped it wouldn’t make me sleepy, since I still had about an hour before I could even make for the bus.
There was a barista who worked across the way who liked to come in when the youngest, bosomy-iest girls on staff were working. He had what seemed to be a legitimate phobia of glitter, which is an ingredient in many Lush products. When we were slammed and I found myself alone on the floor, while watching him attempt to cadge an arm massage from one of the other clerks, I would approach them both, slathering a shimmer bar on my forearms casually. He always fled with a nauseated look on his face. I got to know him better when I picked up hours at his shop as well, in an attempt to patch together forty hours, and he confessed that glitter really made him feel like he was going to vomit.
The mall itself was a funny community, and I missed it when I left. There was a Waldo who walked through the mall regularly. There were bomb threats and fights and shoplifters being hauled out by bike cops. My barista friend would keep me in the loop about who was sleeping with whom, and what a creep the Rosetta Stone kiosk guy was. Sometimes he would take me to spend my paltry barista tips drinking at PF Changs, or I would stop at the Buckaroo on the way home, my children long asleep after my late hours, and spend my money on one beer.
In the food court, the bubble tea people got to know me because I would come for half price, day old banh mi on Sundays, which I also loved, because I would treat myself to free street parking instead of the horrors of the bus. They knew me at McDonald’s, too, because this was the only time in my adult life where I was that desperately in need of cheap quick calories. At first I often packed a healthy and thrifty lunch, but it would sit in the jumbled morass of the one closet in the store where we were allowed to keep our coats and bags, and by the time my break rolled around, everything tasted like perfume, which made it really hard to choke down. Far better to spend a dollar on a burger, which my body would rip through after standing for eight hours. Like the kids I worked with, sometimes I just said “fuck it” and had a bubble tea for lunch.
When I was really getting into the groove of working there, I remember being in the aisle popping and locking to Justin Timberlake or something when a group of ladies walked in. That thing happened where you are glancing at someone right before the moment of recognition and it happens slowly, because you are both out of context for each other. Then we had it, at the same time: library school. She had tried to help me get into the PhD program a few years before, and I knew she had dropped out of it herself since then, but was working as an information professional somewhere. People who did not think I was a chucklehead assbiscuit in library school seemed to think I had some kind of bright future somewhere (still waiting on that one, ha ha) so I wasn’t to surprised to see her look of total confusion as she took in my apron and my sick dance moves.
“SJ…what are you DOING here?” This was said politely but with a sense of genuine bewilderment, as if she had caught me clandestinely smearing myself with feces.
“I’m working,” I said.
“Oh,” she said. She literally turned kind of red and did sort of an awkward lurch-step backwards out of the store again, without so much as a “goodbye” or “I’m sorry.” Her friends followed her. It was like a Victorian novel, and not only was I smearing myself with feces, but I was doing that while being a disgraced heiress who was now a three-penny upright in an alley.
In order to avoid reminders like these that I once had had a promising future as a corporate drone, I aggressively lobbied for day shifts. A side benefit of this was that I now had ample opportunity to work with the regular, non-seasonal staff. I was known as a go-getter who could connect with people, was a hard worker, and could move a lot of product. All of the clerks liked me and a few decided to take me under their wing, which of course involved talking much smack about the other regular clerks.
My favorite clerk quickly became Aoife, who confounded some things I thought I knew about people. First, she was an African-American woman with an Irish name that was challenging for many Americans to spell, let alone pronounce. She was a single mother who spoke in a particular accent that I had previously associated with African Americans from the South. If I had to guess, I would have assumed she was from Georgia. Nope–Alaska. Something else unexpected, since a common American stereotype/belief is that there are no black people in Alaska. When I met her and she told me she was from Alaska, she said, “Yes, that Alaska. The state.”
Janelle and Aoife hated each other. Janelle told me Aoife kept a gun in her bag in the terror pit that was our personal belongs closet. Somehow I managed to tactfully ask Janelle what her opinion was on why Aoife carried a gun and Janelle looked at me meaningfully and said something like, “You know–ALAAASKA.” (Spoooky.) Whoever came in to work would stack their coat and bag in the closet, and by the time your shift had ended, of course a bunch of ladies had put their stuff on top of yours, so you had to fish your stuff out from the bottom, which would send everyone else’s belongings flying and shifting! Woe betide you if you’d forgotten to zip your bag all the way. Every time I had to get my things after clocking out, I thought of Aoife’s alleged gun shifting around in there and I hoped the alleged safety was on.
Aoife told me that Janelle had bipolar, and was on and off her meds, which she said explained a lot of her erratic moodiness and various states of hygiene competence. “That girl just smell sometimes,” she told me flatly, and I could not disagree with her. Janelle usually stank of old pot smoke or hair grease, which seemed to conflict with her forcing me to listen in great detail what bath she had indulged in the night before, using about seven different products. If only she would dunk her head. Janelle would prescribe me various baths and send me away with homework and a promise to give her a full report about exactly what bathing with an Avobath bomb AND a Sunny Side bubble bar was like.
The mall was a clusterfuck and my bus stop and bus was downright dangerous sometimes, but there was something that was working for me about the job, and it had one huge advantage over other, theoretical future jobs: I actually had it and knew how to perform my duties. I was surrounded by mostly women and the two delightful gay men on staff all day. I had whole weeks where I rarely interacted with any men at all, beyond P., which was exactly what I needed then. I would come home and rub balms and face masks all over myself and just relax and smell good, which was nice.
But the downsides (besides the customers, ho ho)…I took a LOT of inappropriate boundary crossing from Janelle, from hearing about her sex life and her finances. She touched me a lot, too. She was fascinated by my breasts too, and asked if she could touch them. They are fine boobs, but really, they are just boobs, not made out of powdered unicorn horn or anything. Aoife told me out of the blue that she thought Janelle “had a thing” for me. I prayed that “the thing” was a raise and some defective product. I don’t think she was into me.
One day I was working the register and she was admiring my chest tattoos, which, fine. “YOU NEED MORE!” she declared, and began drawing on me with a Sharpie to create a piece in the middle of my breastbone that would link the two flowers. It sort of looked like a constipated sun. I couldn’t really run off the floor and scrub this off in the bathroom, so I endured questions from customers about why I had let an uncoordinated child draw on my body with magic markers. It was ironic to me because I knew she fancied herself an artist and had previously worked as a sign painter, which I didn’t know was even an actual job anymore.
Janelle took credit for this masterpiece every time, and I think the customers saw the “dear god, help me” look in my eyes, but Janelle thought we were bonding, I think. She implied that the young girls were twits (they weren’t really twits, just young) and the older girls were trying to backstab her for her job (they were) and I was the only one who “got her.” It takes me a ridiculously long time to tell a person I like what I am thinking or feeling, or anything beyond the barest thumbnail of what my life is like (I think a nicer way to put this is to say I am a bit “guarded”) so it occurred to me that she, a real freakazoid, probably knew next to nothing about me, really. I just spent hours listening to her ramble inappropriately while keeping a poker face, something I learned from dealing with my mother.
I was still relentlessly applying for jobs anywhere, everywhere else. I had a promising phone interview for a taxonomy contract at Nordstrom that went nowhere, and a few other false starts. Christmas was right around the corner and I knew that we remaining clerks (there were fewer than half of us left) would be cut loose and let out to wander the world looking for the next horrible retail gig, unmoisturized and no longer smelling of ginger or lilies. I had heard a rumor that sometimes really good temp clerks would be invited to stay on and convert to permanent, but I have had my dick pulled with that one in almost every temp job I’ve ever had. It’s usually just something they tell you to entice you to behave, like “Santa is watching” or “the IRS still has enough funding to do audits.”
One night shortly after Christmas I closed with Janelle and after the last of the earlier-shift clerks had left (it was usually just two of us after seven or so, a key holder and a little minion like me, who was expected to do most of the stocking and cleaning). It seemed that most of my compatriots had been given their last week of shifts and would be cut loose before New Year’s Day. I had not been given mine. Janelle locked the doors and turned up the music. She seemed a little shakier than usual, but I knew she routinely stayed up for days at a time, so I figured she and her boyfriend had just been up on another one of their sprees, which would involve another horrifying story about his Burner friends or insinuations about polyamory while I just swept the floor going, “Uh hah. Interesting.” (Not pictured: My soul dying just a tiny bit more while the outside of me earns $9.25 an hour.)
But no! Tonight she was excited! She had very exciting news!! “WE’D LIKE YOU TO STAY ON AFTER CHRISTMAS!” All I had to do was sign the paperwork. I knew in my heart of hearts that this was not the end, that I could find a different job that paid better and didn’t involve doing the electric slide while wearing a blueberry face mask, but I still felt my chest collapsing a little. The store manager would discuss it with me during my next day shift and would have the papers.
Sign away I did. Later that day, I kid you not, I was cornered by two dogs, one off leash while I was jogging through Greenlake, and the other in the store itself, and I had a panic attack. This was when I developed my temporary dog phobia: the day I signed on at Lush. Of course I think it was more complex than that, and would not have developed if I also wasn’t experiencing escalating health problems (anxiety related to malnutrition, etc.), but it was interesting timing.
Things got very rote after the holiday madness died down, and there was surprisingly low turnover at that store, so I was the new kid for the rest of my tenure there. The other clerks were very welcoming, and even the ones I couldn’t read well confessed that they were very happy I’d been picked and voted for me. I stayed three more months at the standard 30 or so hours a week so they didn’t have to provide benefits, and then in March I found a tech contract that more than doubled what I’d been making at Lush. I hung on to a few evening shifts, just to keep my hand in and keep in touch with a group that had been a mini, temporary, very dysfunctional family during a very difficult period, but eventually it was all too much, working more than forty hours a week, and I gave my notice.
Every time I go into a Lush store and am assaulted by the rabid employees and I see the trepidation and desperation in their eyes I am reminded of my time there, as I gently tell them, “It’s okay, I used to work here. I know the deal.” The really jesusy ones push on anyway, “WELL DO YOU KNOW ABOUT OUR NEW SPRING LINE?” and remind me of the “pep talks” from the managers (“WE NEED TO MOVE 6K BY NOON LADIES!!!!”). The normal ones look relieved and say, “Oh, okay, have fun then” and leave me be. And I am relieved that I get to leave without clocking out, covered in stale sweat and glitter and regretting all my choices that led up to this point.