A Retail Christmas Story

The Christmas of 1984, I was bonkers. Not mildly zany, not overwhelmed by life, but so depressed I had been prescribed a cocktail of Elavil and Nardil to take on Friday afternoons to force me to sleep through the next 48 hours -- both to keep me from killing myself and enabling me to sleep, something I rarely did, along with eating. I had given myself pernicious anemia and ground my molars to dust, causing my druggie dentist to inquire as to whether I was snorting vast amounts of cocaine. I was not. I was grinding my teeth, starving and not sleeping because a speeding drunk driver had hit and killed my eldest sister 10 months before. She had died after a week on life support. Since that night, I had spiraled downward enough that various therapists whom my parents demanded I see had recommended I be committed. Instead, I got a job at a huge department store in downtown Brooklyn.

"You know nothing about retail and you hate to shop," my father said.

This was true, but I had utterly failed my interview at Macy's, where I had been interviewed along with a dozen other young people, all of them dressed to impress while I was sporting a long, Indian-print skirt and a faded t-shirt, a linen jacket and clogs. I looked like a hippie at a formal occasion, a wedding or a funeral. I did not look like a future Macy's assistant buyer, nor was I properly dressed for the 80s fashionista with shoulder pads and spiky heels or Miami Vice suits adapted to Manhattan in early November.

My buyer/interviewer was nice enough, said she liked my earrings and then asked, "Why do you want to be an assistant buyer?" The truth was, I didn't. But I had lost my job at the fancy squash club that paid my rent while I tried to be a commercial actress, fired for being so sad after my sister died. I had seen an ad in the paper that announced in all caps that Macy's was hiring. I needed something to help me get out of bed in the morning.

"It sounds interesting," was what I said.

They gave us a test that consisted of choosing merchandise that had been either a "loser" or a "leader" in the previous years. Everything I chose had failed to sell. I was not offered a position. Abraham and Strauss, on the other hand, hired nearly everyone. A&S was located on Fulton Street in downtown Brooklyn, and had fallen on hard times despite its claim to being a "flagship" store. I was hired an assigned to the cosmetic buyer -- an irony since I rarely, if ever, wore any makeup, and when I did I applied it like a hooker. My commute from Hoboken was long and frequently made longer by my habit of passing out or fainting while sitting on various subways or crossing the terminal in the World Trade Center.

The cosmetic department was in the back of the first floor, behind the cosmetic floor where tall women dressed in black stalked customers with perfume and makeup brushes, offering to transform them into sweet-smelling beauties. The 80s was a popular time for gift with purchase. You'd buy Estée Lauder eyeliner and get a box of 300 eye shadows.

The cosmetics buyer was a diminutive tyrant named Rochelle who came from Lodi, N.J. and thought I was an idiot. The first time we met she glared at me and said, "Put on some makeup! You represent the cosmetics department and you look like you just fell out of bed!" Well, I had just fallen out of bed and I didn't own any makeup. Rochelle threw one of the hundreds of sample kits at me, and that was that. My officemate was a blonde, exceedingly dim bulb named Debbie who worshipped Madonna. She dressed like the 1980s Madonna in fingerless gloves and layers of underwear, had her hair bleached like Madonna, wore black eyeliner like Madonna and constantly sang "Like a Virgin." Debbie's appearance was acceptable, while my depressed hippie look was not.

Not surprisingly, when the time came for Rochelle to choose an assistant, she chose Debbie. I was not terribly upset. The head of HR told me I would be asked to do something important instead, hire the temporary help for Christmas. "You were a history major at Rutgers, right?" he asked, as if this had any bearing on my ability to choose people to run cash registers, wrap gifts and generally be an asset to A&S during the Christmas rush.

"Yes, I was," I said. "Also, I was an actress."

He nodded. "Well, the acting might help with the interviewing," he said.

The next day I reported to the deserted 10th floor, where a temporary office had been set up with two cubicles and a huge waiting room. I put my coat down on one of the desks and walked back into the waiting area. A man came out of the other office. He was very tall, thin and wearing an old-fashioned suit. His hair was impressively curly and long. He wore wire-rimmed glasses and seemed completely out of place. I felt an instant kinship sealed when he grabbed me and said, "Thank God, I was so afraid you'd be one of those zombie gals with huge shoulders and hair! I'm Sean. Let's go smoke!"

When we returned 10 minutes later, all 100 chairs in the waiting room were filled. The potential Christmas workers ranged from men with tattoos wearing muscle Ts, punk rockers, the homeless, out-of-work prostitutes, artists who were failing at their arts and many newly-released prisoners. I had never seen less employable people. Sean looked at me and winked. He understood as I did that A&S had made a big mistake asking a deeply depressed would-be actress and an out-of-work social worker that had just lost six friends to AIDS to choose who would work their Christmas season.

We hired them all. As long as they had an ID and could fill out the application, and they were nice, we gave them a job. After six days, all the positions were filled. I had heard stories of dead children, lost dreams, foreclosed houses, false imprisonment and domestic violence. Every single candidate had suffered through extreme heartache. Until my sister died, I would not have understood. But I felt their sadness, and my sadness was somewhat alleviated by giving them a minimum-wage job with no chance of anything permanent.

When it was over, Sean was fired and I was transferred to personal stereos, where I worked for someone who embezzled the company out of millions of dollars while I blithely signed everything he put in front of me. The FBI found me incompetent, so I was released. But that is another story. My final memory of the Christmas of 1984 was witnessing our Christmas hires tossing merchandise down to their relatives and friends waiting on the street from the windows of the store. Briefly, I wondered if I was guilty of anything, but then I recalled the spirit of Christmas, which was to help the poor. In 1984, no one was helping the unfortunate. If you were suffering, it was your own fault. I hoped the lady living in the battered women's shelter had managed to toss down the dollhouse she wanted for her youngest child.