Tuesday, May 12, 2009
My first job was in a clothing store. I was fifteen. My boss, a lady from Pakistan, hired me to tend to the cash register, clean the store and keep an eye on the customers. She was a shrewd, calculating businesswoman and my untrained eye was never wary enough to please her. I was her only assistant.
"Follow them," she would whisper when customers wandered in. I of course obliged, and with some measure of stealth pretended to dust the racks of dresses while the oblivious patrons explored.
My boss was, I suspect to an unhealthy degree, concerned about shoplifters, and she would prickle whenever the dressing rooms were occupied and she could not see what was happening to her inventory.
I drew the line at tailing my own neighbours. The clothing store was in a large city and my boss did not know anybody from my village. Still, I wager she ought to have listened when I protested that I knew those little old ladies and that I would not, could not bring myself to follow them. She flared up many a time and insisted that I did not know them so well; she insinuated that they were probably crooks underneath the cardigans and blue-rinse hair.
If I did step close to my neighbours I would gently whisper that I was being paid to observe, that my boss was watching me watching them, and I would urge the ladies not to take it personally.
There were a number of clothing stores in close proximity but they might as well have been hostile territories for the disparaging remarks my boss made about their presence. She wanted always to know details about the other stores which, to the best of my knowledge, she never ventured into: what new items were they selling? What fashion pieces were most popular with teenagers? At what prices were they sold? Were they busy at certain hours? Busier than her store?
"God forgive me," she would mutter, shaking her head in furious indignation at the audacity of another soul to set up a store that sold skirts and jumpers.
Once in a while a girl would come in for a browse, and I found myself subjected to a barrage of whispered comments.
"She works for such and such a store, I think she does. Her face is familiar. Look at her, she's scouting out our prices! She's working for them! She wants to know what we have and how we're doing! God forgive me!"
Faced with such soul-shattering double-standards I was further horrified when, some months into my job, she began a routine of propelling me into the street at certain hours: my sole objective was to visit the competing stores and surreptitiously find answers to the questions my boss posed. I was to return with news that she could craftily use to her financial benefit.
After weeks of shuffling in misery up and down the streets in the wholly unethical role of clothing detective, I hit upon a cunning plan that would make both of us very pleased.
"They're not as busy as you," I'd proclaim when I got back to the store, "and they don't have any new lines of clothing this week."
I would make my way to the back room to hang up my coat and bag and to take a fond glance at the fine selection of books I had just purchased; and nobody was any the wiser.
Posted by Phyllis Hunt McGowan at 7:19 PM