The first one, as well as the month that followed it, was fun. I spent nearly all of my time on the clock taking inventory from a store in one mall, loading it into my car, and sitting in gridlock for an hour to take it to a store in a second mall exactly half a mile away. This probably doesn't sound like much fun, and it certainly wouldn't have been, had I not recently blown most of my savings to install two 10" woofers in the back of my busted old Oldsmobile. Ten years later, I associate Outkast's Aquemini with Christmas more closely than most Christmas music.
That was the only fun one. Black Fridays are miserable for most in the retail industry, but in order to understand what made a Radio Shack Black Friday especially miserable, there are a couple of things you must understand about this company.
Firstly, those in the lowest tier of employment -- the sales associates -- live off cell phone sales. If I sold you a phone with a two-year contract, I made somewhere between $20 and $40, which was pretty big relative to the $6.45-an-hour pay. The setup process was pretty complicated and took some time to learn, and the problem with this was that those who had been around the longest -- eventually, me -- spent all their time assisting new employees without actually making any money myself.
Secondly, this happened all the time during the holiday season, when stores would go on a hiring blitz and double the size of their staff. The stores often over-hired, and the result would be a dozen employees taking up space without enough business to go around.
Which finally brings me to the reason I'm writing any of this: my final Black Friday. I was working at a Radio Shack in a dying mall in Roanoke, Virginia.
Tanglewood Mall was near death. It was made up of dozens of shuttered storefronts, and maybe about 10 stores that were actually operational. One was an Asian buffet, the owner of which once told me that he went four full days without seeing a single customer. It was in this mall that Radio Shack decided to expand a staff from its usual three-to-four employees to 14.
Coincidentally, in this same year, Radio Shack decided it was going to skip out on buying newspaper inserts in most markets. I can't remember the reasoning behind this decision, but by the end of the month they were profusely apologizing for it.
All 14 of us showed up at four in the morning. Our manager, a complicated individual who made a habit of hysterically (and falsely, of course) accusing me of stealing things from the store, fired one employee on the spot because her sweater was an improper shade of red. The remaining 13 of us stood at the front of the store, anxiously awaiting a legion of customers, and opened the doors at 4:30 A.M.
The first customer walked in at about seven. Before that, we had seen maybe five or six people walk through the mall, one of which began to walk in before seeing all 13 of us desperately staring at him, freezing, and turning a 180.
There's another thing I should explain. I don't enjoy speaking ill of Radio Shack, an entity that, after all, employed me for nearly four years. But when Radio Shack hired new employees, they lied to them. They told them that most employees made an average of upwards of $15 an hour. They told this lie every year when I worked in Louisville, and they told it when I worked in Virginia.
By around 10 in the morning, the store had seen four customers and about $40 in total sales. A couple of new employees confronted my manager regarding the things they were promised. She cursed them out and sent them home. We were down to 11.
Early that afternoon, a couple came in to return a cell phone they weren't happy with. I made a call to restore service to their old phone, and in the process, the person on the other end misunderstood me, cancelled their account entirely, and rendered their old phone number completely irretrievable. As I frantically worked to correct the issue, they grew more angry.
I explained the situation to my manager, and she exploded, shrieking at me, eventually welling up with tears and calling me an idiot and a moron and all sorts of things.
I looked down at my name tag, which boasted my name in my own handwriting on a slip of paper taped to the front. I looked at my hand. I am going to put this on the counter, I thought, and then I am going to leave.
My clothes were wrinkled and a little smelly, because I had used my laundromat money to buy peanut butter and bread. The sole of one of my shoes had become half-unattached, and made an extra clapping noise whenever I walked too fast. Out in the parking lot, my car's gas tank probably had enough gas in it to get me home. At home, on the coffee table, there sat a shut-off notice folded into an electric bill that my roommates and I were unsure of how to pay.
I turned around to look at the couple. They had watched the whole thing. They no longer looked angry. The woman mouthed, "I'm sorry."
For months, I had this fantasy of -- well, first of all, of there being a better job available to a no-college kid in the western Virginia hinterlands, and secondly, me landing this job, waiting for my manager to treat me like human garbage one last time, and then dramatically ripping off my name tag and leaving. The first part wasn't here, but the second was. This was it.
My name tag stayed. I stayed for the rest of my 18-hour shift, and then stayed a few months longer.
If you work in retail during this time of year, it's difficult for you to place yourself in Normal America. You get this feeling similar to the feeling experienced perpetually by servers, bartenders, nurses: that you, for reasons literal and abstract, in moments great and small, are not them. You think of the Americans you see in commercials, the ones who eat bacon and eggs on Saturday mornings, who invest in stocks, who are allowed to paint their living rooms. You are something, but whatever you are, you are not them.
Tomorrow morning, well over a million people will wake up unreasonably early to work retail. Many of them surely aren't living out the bummer I lived, but some of them -- maybe the ones laboring away in the malls -- surely are. These are the people I think of at this time of every year: living in shit, because it's the only place left to live.