You decided to work in a women’s department store because you were tired of working in restaurants, tired of dealing with men, and uninterested in phone answering or paper filing. And also because all of your shoes are the crappy Target kind. You figure that even if the job doesn’t work out, at least you’ll be able to buy yourself some decent shoes with your employee discount.
Your first day on the job is spent in a training session with other new hires upstairs in the HR office, which entails watching VHS tapes from the eighties and signing contracts you don’t bother reading. As the poufy-haired woman onscreen preaches about proper lifting technique, the girl next to you strikes up a conversation, asking what department you will be in. You tell her you’ll be working in women’s shoes, and she looks stricken. She informs you that the shoe department has a nickname: the “Shark Tank.” Because it’s so competitive.
You laugh at the nickname’s shades of hyperbolic doom, but part of you can’t help but worry. Are you really about to be thrown to the sharks?
* * *
For the rest of that first month, you live in the cavernous stockroom, where you spend every day organizing the thousands of shoes by color, heel height, and style. You make price stickers, detissue boxes, clean sale racks, and sweep the floors. After a week of this, you are dreaming about shoes, or having nightmares where you are chased by an unseen monster around the empty stockroom. When you tell one of your coworkers about the shoe dreams, he laughs and says, “Those go away after a couple of weeks.” You have never seen so many shoes in your life.
By the time you hit the sales floor, you’ve memorized everyone’s names, and most of them know yours. The rules have already been explained to you. Whether or not you make commission is determined by how much you sell, and your boss explains that every minute you aren’t selling will count against you. You choose to see this as a challenge. It’s like a game, and it’s run like one. Each day, you are ranked on a arcade leader board-esque dashboard that lets you see where we stand compared to your coworkers. Names aren’t posted next to their numbers, but that doesn’t stop people from gossiping about who’s in the top ten, or from spying over a coworker’s shoulder when they check their ranking. You are of course at the very bottom.
The customers are bored housewives, bored teenagers, bored retirees. They’re fifteen and looking for homecoming heels, which they wobble in like newborn baby deer. They’re in their early fifties looking for a shoe that’s sophisticated and flat, but “not too maw maw.” They want a pair of peep toe, slingback, lime green low heels trimmed in faux fur, and what do you mean, you don’t have anything like that? They want you to double check in the back. They want you to check in the computer. They want to speak to your manager.
There are unspoken rules and tricks that you quickly pick up. You watch everyone scatter when the other new girl can’t find a shoe, using the maze-like stockroom to their advantage and pretending not to hear her (Can anyone help me find this goddamn shoe? just over and over until you find it for her to shut her up). To help, or not to help. Those are the only choices. You always help, because you want people to like you, and it works.
You soon learn that everyone in your department draws their own lines to solve these moral dilemmas. You tell yourself that you would never intentionally lie to a customer (or even allow someone to buy uncomfortable shoes), but that you’re not above putting the sale display shoes on a harder-to-spot table, which everyone does. Every day, you watch your new coworkers circumnavigate their own moral dilemmas and think to yourself, We each create the rules of our own moral universe.
You come up with some witty lines. Every time someone says, “Good, how about you?” — in response to the standard sales opener “Hi, how are you today?” — smile hugely and say, “I’m good, thanks for asking!” This is incredibly manipulative and also possibly your most effective strategy. Every time, the customer will laugh, realizing that unlike most of the heartless plebeians who have brushed you off today, they belong to the select group of people who actually care enough to notice you. Why this realization is so funny to everyone, you will never fully understand, but what you do know is that you’ve just made them feel like someone who’s done their good deed for the day, and people who pat themselves on the back for good deeds are people who reward themselves with new shoes. People come back and ask for you, or they ask for the short-haired youngish girl who helped them last time (good enough), and pretty soon you’ve moved up to the middle of the dashboard.
* * *
After your first month on the floor, your coworkers have warmed up to the idea of you, especially since you have established that you are one of the good ones who won’t steal sales (or ask for too much help). They’ve noticed how hard you work, and they respect this.
You begin to learn their stories. All of them are talkative and outgoing — it’s why they were hired, probably. Their talking is a huge relief; you were beginning to get bogged down in thoughts about moral universes. The first time one of them asks you to join them for lunch in the food court feels just like being invited to sit at the cool kids table in middle school, and you gladly accept.
Your coworkers are from Mexico, Barbados, India, Afghanistan, China, Bangladesh, England, Nigeria, Persia. The sheer diversity of the group puts a college admissions brochure to shame. They are immigrants or the children of immigrants. When asked, Who was helping you? customers will mistakenly identify them by describing their presumed ethnicities, and you will all mock them for their ignorance. Ahleea, the woman from Barbados, has been called white, Indian, Chinese, Mexican, and even African American. More than once, your customers mistake her for you, despite the twenty-year age gap and the fact that you are the palest kind of white person. This is a source of amusement for your coworkers, and is ultimately attributed to your height and your short, dark hair.
You aren’t offended by the mix-up, because you know your customers aren’t looking too closely at you. You know this because they all start to blur together and look the same to you after a long day; more than once you walk out of the stockroom, shoeboxes in hand, only to realize you have no recollection of what your customer looks like, beyond that she was sort of blonde and maybe short? And you wander around in circles until you see her impatiently waving you down and she has black hair and is taller than you.
* * *
When you first started this job, one coworker could tell the size of a shoe just by glancing at it. It wasn’t the most impressive trick, but you still gawked at him like he was a magician. Six months in, and you can do the same thing, with startling accuracy.
You find yourself surprised by the number of women with toe insecurities. One day, you meet a woman who went so far as to have one of her toes cut in half so her feet could look better in shoes. It took her a long time to find a doctor who would agree to the procedure, and she says to you, “I don’t think it was right of him to let me do that.” Her mangled toe dares you to stare at it. Like so many of the women you help every day, she is in so much pain.
Day after day of seeing ruined feet (many ruined by the very products you’re trying to sell), and you buy a pair of expensive orthotics, which you cram into your stylish boots. When customers ask you if your boots are comfortable don’t mention the orthotic – just say, “If they weren’t, could I wear them at a job where I’m on my feet all day?” You sell a lot of boots this way.
Your own capacity for corruptibility no longer shocks you. You look out for women carrying designer handbags and wearing Tori Burch shoes, and bring them only the most expensive shoes they asked for.
You try not to think about the fact that you are now directly contributing to the consumerist culture you’ve spent years trying to fight. You become more materialistic than ever, and buy lots of stuff you don’t need. You start to think of $200 as a reasonable price for a good shoe. When you are at lunch with your boyfriend, you bet him a dollar you can name the brands of every shoe in the room, and he cuts you off before you can get ten pairs in. He begs you to stop doing this. You apologize, but finish the room in your head silently (Birkenstock, Steve Madden, Coach, Cole Haan, Ecco, Nike).
It becomes increasingly hard for you to convince yourself that you are providing a needed service. “People need shoes,” your boss likes to say, but your customers are largely people who don’t need anything. You talk them into purchasing things that they want to be talked into purchasing. You adopt the gibberish language of fashion magazines that you flip through in the grocery store to sound more authoritative: “dark brown is last season, but cognac is in right now.” You learn to transform these people’s deepest insecurities and fears (not good enough, not stylish, getting old) into an opportunity for a sale — Treat yourself every once in a while; you deserve it! Those heels make you look so stylish and young. Seriously.
For many of these women, you are (if only for a moment), a stand-in shopping buddy, a temporary trusted girlfriend. They will tell you how much they appreciate your honesty when you point out a shoe that doesn’t quite fit, or suggest something more flattering. And despite how hard you are on yourself by now, and how cynical, there are many times when you are really trying to help.
On your best days, you convince a woman she doesn’t need heels to be sexy. You tell another woman not to let her fiancé pressure her into wearing things she doesn’t like. You waste an hour of your time talking aimlessly to an elderly woman who’s not looking to buy, but who just really wants to be heard. At the end of these days, you feel less slimy, like you might even be making a difference. And maybe you are. You’re not saving lives, but not everyone can be the person running into the burning building. Your job is unglamorous, but it doesn’t define you.
Some days you’re not in the mood to sell, which is a significant obstacle. You need to be a cheery force of magnetic energy, spreading your infectious optimism in all directions. Happy people spend money. You train your resting face into a permanent semi-smile. You are the Mona Lisa, always barely grinning at some private thought. Selling is performance. Once, you walk into the bathroom and catch sight of your perma-grin, and it creeps you out a little— not because it looks fake, but because it looks genuine.
You mine every encounter for stories, hoping to justify the fact that you hardly write anymore (eight hours on your feet leaves you too exhausted, not to mention all the smiling you have to do). And you get your stories. One time, this 85-year-old lady came in with a walker, and wanted to buy heels, but of course I didn’t let her! One time, a coworker confided in me that he has psychic abilities and can read minds just by shaking someone’s hand! But no matter how many anecdotes you collect, you’re still a college graduate working at a shoe store. You still aren’t living up to what everyone thought you could do.
* * *
You were late to work this morning, and you’ve been in deficit for three months (meaning you’re due for a pay cut). Roshan comes up to you when you’re opening the register. You’re halfway through counting the nickels and you hold up a finger to keep him from distracting you. You finish and close the drawer, and Roshan starts talking about the girl he’s in love with but too afraid to tell. You are only half listening because the doors have just been opened and there are already customers on the floor. Mark is helping two of them, which irritates you.
You need to sell some shoes. Roshan, you say, you’re a great salesman. You pull the laminated card out of your pocket that says 5 STAR SELLING SERVICE and read it in mock seriousness: Are you PREPARED to ask her out? Have you DETERMINED her needs? Have you told her about your FEATURES AND BENEFITS? It’s a stupid joke, but he laughs anyway, for which you are grateful. You try to think of something clever to wrap up the conversation, but he’s already moving away toward a group of sorority girls, who will ultimately buy three pairs of Michael Kors boots from him, because some people get all the luck.
Today is the day that the CEO (who runs the department store chain alongside a brother he doesn’t speak to) is visiting your store, and everyone’s spent all morning dusting their tables and talking shit about the part-timers (“You’d think since they only have one table that they could at least put prices on all their displays, dios mio.) The sales floor is immaculate; all of the problems have been creatively hidden, but your manager is still running around in a panic. You don’t have a customer, you’re just buckling shoes, zipping them up, tying laces. By the end of the day, most of this work will be undone. You remember the stories Jan told you about her time in the clothing department, about the time she went to pick up the pile of clothes from a dressing room floor and felt that they were wet with urine. This happened more than once.
The CEO has nothing positive to say, despite the relative lack of silica gel packets on the stockroom floor and the fact that your manager finally succeeded in getting everyone to wear blazers. He blames all of you for the slow quarter. He doesn’t like the way you have displayed the shoes. “There’s always room for improvement,” says your manager at the next morning meeting. Did you see how fat he’s gotten? whispers Ahleea, leaning over her chair toward you and Jan. I swear to God that man gets fatter every time I see him.
* * *
One day, you’re at work early to clean the stockroom, which you volunteered to do. Hitesh is the only other person there. You both sweep the floors and straighten boxes over small talk until an urge strikes you, and you find yourself blurting out the very same question that you hate being asked. Why are you here? Why shoes?
And Hitesh explains it all to you — how he grew up in India and became a high school chemistry teacher there at a school he founded, how he loved the work and his students, how he eventually decided to move to America, how he found that his accent made it hard for him to find a teaching job, how he eventually left the profession after being told too many times his students couldn’t understand him.
You try not to think about this story too often. Yours is a job that necessitates, on some level, embracing your own selfishness, putting your own personal gain ahead of that of your coworkers, even those you have come to know and love. Never mind that Dawn is a single mom working to feed her sons, or that Roshan is trying to pay the mortgage for the new home that he purchased single handedly for his family of eleven. You need to make this sale. Or else you will go into deficit, get a pay cut, and get fired. Just like everyone else who works here. No one needs this sale, this customer, more than you do. Or at least you can’t keep thinking like that if you’re going to be any good at your job.
* * *
Every day, you wake up, drive to work, and spend ten hours being the person your gold nametag says you are. I am a cog in the corporate machine, you say to your customers. I am lining the pockets of a fat man and his brother who are both so rich and so hateful toward one another that they fly around in two separate $90 million private jets. They laugh at your recklessness, which only emboldens you. You lean in and lower your voice, like you’re about to give away all of your secrets. And those bastards cut my pay for not pushing enough overpriced shoes on people, you tell them. Some of the people who work here are willing to do whatever it takes to meet their quota, but it’s just shoes. I’m not going to compromise my ethics by lying to people. They tell you that you’re one of the good ones, and promise to send their friends to you. They slip you ten-dollar bills and tell you to hang in there.
You begin to suspect that Mark wears his back brace over his suit to gain sympathy from the little old ladies who spend $800 on expensive European comfort shoes. You wonder if you are actually a bad person.
Back in the stockroom, you decide to try on the new arrival shoes. There’s a pair of shiny black leather boots with a six-inch heel that come all the way above the knee and lace up the back. They are the trashiest things you’ve ever seen. Balancing on one leg, you pull the boot up over your ankle and wiggle your heel until it’s flush with the sole. There are no mirrors back here, so you can’t see how it looks. You walk toward the workbench, alternating between five foot seven and six feet tall with every step.
A weird feeling of power comes over you. Maybe you were wrong to think of Wonder Woman’s heels as sexist symbols of oppression, drawn on her against her will. You wriggle into the other boot. Ten feet below you, your calves are taught and glistening in the bleak fluorescent light. You walk — no, strut — a few feet and twist at the waist while pivoting on your toe, the move that all the teenaged customers attempt as they admire themselves in the store’s full-length mirrors.
Whoa, mama! You spin around and it’s Ahleea, laughing in your direction and clapping her hands slowly. Roshan and one of the part-timers appear from behind shelves to see what the fuss is about. Everyone is grinning at the sight of you, wearing hooker boots, and you try to picture what you must look like. To admit embarrassment would be admitting defeat, so you gamely smile and strike an ironic pose.
Those look so good on you, says Donna, who’s just walked up from behind you. Are you going to get them? From her tone of voice, you realize she’s not being ironic; letting her in on the joke isn’t an option. You smile and give her the same line you’ve heard customers use so many times: it’s not your thing, you’re just trying it on.