I clock in at 9:53 and drop into a wobbly chair in the break room (I’m not getting paid for those extra seven minutes anyway), barely suppressing a shudder at the reality of what my life will be for the next eight hours; a sales shift on a weekend during the holiday season (no such thing as "pre" anymore). The large table in the center of the room is adorned with a seasonally appropriate plastic tablecloth, but the snowman and reindeer seem to mock me, smiling and prancing about, knowing they will be safe back here all day.
I check the schedule, not quite ready to brave the salesfloor. My favourite manager is in today, so are Jeremy and Drea. Drea and I are reading the same book right now and it’s always fun talking with Jeremy about horror movies. Peter’s in, too. We don’t usually work together but he’s funny in a dry, sarcastic, quick wit kinda way that I will appreciate in the latter half of the day. It’s a good group to keep the spirits up. A few others will swap in later, relieving us from our posts so we may shuffle back home and recuperate in quiet darkness. At least, that’s what I plan on doing.
By 9:57 I am standing at the registers. Someone turned on the music over the loudspeakers, and a jingly holiday tune drifts through the aisles, a soft prelude to the oncoming cacophony of early Christmas shoppers. I can already see them shuffling outside the locked doors, pale faces nearly mashed against frosty glass, eager to burn some hard-earned cash on the pre-pre-pre-Boxing Day sales. It’s mid-November and the roads are already icy, but that didn’t stop these deal-hungry customers from braving the early Canadian winter.
My eyes bounce around the department store, catching on all the festive displays. There are plastic pine trees wrapped in lights and heavy with ornaments, a Christmas village complete with bank and ice rink, snowflakes and stars hang from the ceiling. Part of me recalls the joy I have for the holidays, for the bits of sparkle that are added to everyday life.
That is until over the walkie I hear someone say they’re unlocking the front doors. The lurking crowd seems to have doubled already. Any moment now they will descend upon the store, flooding the aisles and snatching products from the shelves to smuggle home. I take a deep breath, summon my chipper-est customer service aura, politely pitched voice and all, and prepare for the hoards.
Minutes later, the first customer approaches my till. He is utterly average looking, and I will forget his face long before the day is up. He silently drops his items on the counter, and as I scan them through, I begin to recite the words drilled into me from my very first shift.
“Hi there! Are you a part of our rewards pro—”
“No.” Short and dismissive. This guy came prepared, early in and knew exactly what he was getting, cash already in hand, the goal to get in and out as quick as possible. I relent on the upsells, not willing to go down bloody in this battle.
“Okay! Did you need a bag—”
“No.” He thrusts a handful of green bills at me. I take them, clacking away at the magic buttons of my register, and the drawer pops open to a chorus of mechanical clanks.
“Here’s your change! Have a nice d—”
And he’s already walking away.
The next four customers in line are cashed out about as smoothly as the first, albeit occasionally with a touch more small talk, though none of it is worth remembering. The digital clock in the corner of my screen reads “10:14 AM”.
I sigh. Barely a dent made in the day, and my lunch isn’t till noon. There is no reprieve on the horizon. The store is still filling with customers. They browse and ponder prices and bump into each other. I know many of them are here to get their Christmas presents early, and I can’t fault them for that (despite how badly I want to).
To pass the brief lulls, and maintain any sort of mental presence, I like to try and guess which of them will ask for gift receipts before they end up at my till. I’ve discovered there are three types. Like that young man heading over to dishware is one of the first. He’s got the confidence of a boyfriend who knows he can’t go wrong with a cute dog pun mug and a nice bag of loose-leaf tea. He’ll probably even remember to get a card. He won’t need a gift receipt and he knows it. These types are the assured long-term partners, the all-knowing best friends.
But that woman, drifting back and forth between the scarves and candles, she’ll ask for one. She’s grabbing something for a new friend or a family member she sees only a few times a year. She’ll pick out something nice, a quality item, but she isn’t totally sure it’ll be the recipient’s style. Still a considerate move, in my opinion. There’ll be no hard feelings if it’s returned or exchanged for something else.
Then there’s the third type who comes into a place like this, a nice department store with a near paralyzing amount of choice; gift card people. I hold nothing against them. In many cases it is the safest, smartest choice. I had one pass through my till a few customers ago, a grandfather. He certainly wasn’t skimping out on the grandkids, picking up five gift cards at a hundred bucks each, but he just can’t keep up with the trends these days, how swift they move. Fair enough.
The swarm of customers is unrelenting for the rest of the morning, and I am unable to continue my private game. When I finally get the chance to check the time, there are only three minutes until my lunch. Nearly there.
I call out for the next customer in line and a moment later a stuffed penguin pops up at the edge of my counter. It slides across the shiny surface and two small hands appear on the ledge, and the top of young boy’s face peers up at me, a green bobble hat resting loosely on his head.
I smile at him from behind my mask. His mother is standing close but at a respectful distance for this little shopper who can clearly handle this transaction all on his own.
I scan the toy through and tell my young customer his total. He backs away from the counter and pulls out a tiny, dinosaur dotted wallet. His mother leans over and together they count out the exact change in loonies and toonies and quarters. He lifts them onto the counter and when I scoop them into my palm, they are slightly sticky.
Little hands crest of the edge of the counter once more and I slide the penguin back.
“And here’s your little penguin friend,” I say.
“He’s not for me,” he says, voice high and with just the slightest lisp. “He’s for my brother for Christmas.”
I smile wide behind my mask. “That’s so sweet! I’m sure he’ll love it.”
“Yeah, he will,” he says.
The boy trots away, his mother trailing behind. She and I share a knowing look, both smiling at the surety of this kid and his gift-giving skills. No gift receipt required for this little man.
Like fresh logs on a fading fire, a bit of warmth is rekindled in me as I watch them go. His mother pulls his hat down over his ears and when she takes his hand he pulls it back up again, penguin swinging in his grip. Occasionally there are customers worth remembering.
My pocket is buzzing, alerting me that my lunch break starts now. I slip away from the registers as Drea arrives to take my place and I hunker down in the breakroom with a muffin and thirty minutes of quiet.
They pass much too quickly, and already I am back out on the salesfloor, now patrolling the aisles to assist customers in need. That quiet joy from that sweet kid with the penguin fades as fast as fresh snow on asphalt.
I tidy displays, point a customer in the direction they need to go for pajamas/stationary/snow globes, I check the time.
Tidy displays, direct a customer, check the time.
Tidy, direct, time.
These tasks are Sisyphean.
I feel a madness creeping in, but occasionally sensory stimuli will jolt apart the monotony in the form of Christmas music. I’m not afraid to admit that I am in fact a fan of the genre. However, I do have my limits. A classic carol will play, sung by 1950s crooners and I’ll tap along to the jazzy tune. But only fifteen minutes later, it’ll be the indie-pop version, strung out by a singer-songwriter duo on acoustic guitar (sometimes with a lyric change in attempts to “better suit” modern audiences). Not long enough after that, it’s the instrumental piano version. I swear these corporate approved holiday playlists are only an hour and half long and consist only of variations of the same five songs.
I check the time and see I still have a full hour until my next and final break (that’s at least three “Baby, It’s Cold Outsides”, two “Santa Clause is Coming to Towns”, and four “Jingle Bells”). A child is wailing over in the kid’s department and all I can think is I get it, kid. I, too, am overwhelmed and tired and would like to be at home taking a nap right now. We’ll make through today though, I promise. I do not envy Jeremy and Peter, currently posted in the department, trapped between chattering dolls and firetrucks with working sirens and children strung out on hot chocolate and candy canes.
There’s a tap on my shoulder, and I turn to find a graying, bearded man much too close to my face. I jerk back but he doesn’t seem to notice. He asks me to show him where the wrapping paper is, and I oblige. He’s older and a little chatty, and when I show him the foiled paper and shiny bows, he asks my opinion on the quality and styles. I don’t truly register the words that escape my mouth, but he seems pleased with my answer, smiling and grabbing a bundle that comes with three styles of paper and six ribbons.
After I direct him to the checkout line he says, “Merry Christmas!” but he has this smug look on his face that sends a dreadful chill down my spine and adds, “Op! But I guess we’re not allowed to say that anymore, huh? It’s ‘Happy Holidays’ now, right?”
I can only blink at this man as he walks away carrying his Christmas themed wrapping papers, shuffling past the Christmas tree covered in tiny Santa hat ornaments, next to a display of red and green striped Christmas stockings, all the while “Holly Jolly Christmas” (the Michael Bublé version) plays in the background.
Yeah. Sure. Whatever. I forgot to mention a rarer fourth type of shopper earlier; the people who think they don’t need a gift receipt, but absolutely, positively, most-certainly do. Like this last gentleman, the cocky, arrogant, believe-they-know-best types who will end up buying something simply to passive-aggressively communicate with the recipient (like an aunt who buys a sweater two sizes too small for her niece “because it’s a goal to strive for!”). That man reeked of the fourth type.
The rest of the day continues like any other during the holidays. I maneuver my way though the swarms, survive encounters with harried parents desperate for the hot new toys of the season, and answer the phone to assist elderly people with navigating our website.
It takes me a moment to register the buzzing in my pocket again. Break time, finally. It’s only fifteen minutes, but it’s fifteen minutes off my feet and away from the sounds and smells of the season, and it’s fifteen minutes closer to when I can clock out.
When I enter the break room, Drea has already claimed the seat furthest from the fridge which has been emanating a unique, indescribable, unfindable funk all week. Our breaks overlap only for a few minutes, but it’s so refreshing to have a real conversation with another human being, no customer service etiquette expected. We swap fresh war stories we survived just this morning, and she updates me on her Christmas shopping.
“So that’s my parents and friends covered,” she says, counting off on her fingers. “Just need to pick up something for my boyfriend, but I already know what’s he getting.”
Definitely not a gift receipt person.
We gush for another minute about the latest chapter of our book, but all too soon she is up and headed back to the floor. I pull out my phone to mindlessly scroll for the last ten minutes of my break. There’s a little green notification on my home screen, a text from dad saying he’ll be ten minutes late picking me up tonight. I can’t stop my forehead from falling onto the face of a snowman, wrinkling his cheery pebble grin, or the groan that rises from the depths of my chest. Despite all the good, and especially because of all the bad, I just want to be at home, tucked into my favourite chair, cupping a warm drink, a 90s Christmas movie playing on my TV.
Soon, so soon. I’m back on the floor and in the home stretch. Nearly there. Keep it up, we’re almost at the end.
The minutes crawl by and the critical mass of customers seems to be dwindling at last. I can finally take a breath between the borderline frenzied interactions, but I know this sense of peace can’t last forever. And there he is, shuffling his way over, some random stocking-stuffer in hand.
He asks me some question about the price, the sale, the expiration date, the whatever, and I respond with something helpful and accurate.
But this encounter is far from over.
He’s looking at me, an echo of that look that “happy holidays” guy had in his eyes. He scoffs. “They still making you wear those masks? Don’t they know…” and he goes on and on, chirping away about this, that, and another thing.
When he’s done with his little speech what I want to say is, what I yearn to say is, “No, not anymore. I just feel more comfortable with it on right now, especially as I work in a place where I interact with dozens and dozens of people a day, multiple times a week, many of whom seem to take great pleasure in venturing out into the world, into public, crowded spaces, and open mouth coughing like badly trained toddlers, projecting spittle as if they were a world renowned opera singer giving their final show their greatest performance yet, determined to gift every inch of audience in this glorious stage that is the candle aisle a healthy dose of the majesty that is their DNA.”
And though I cannot say this, I have figured out that the most effective way to disarm these department store warriors is with apathy, utter disengagement from the noble battle they foresaw.
So instead, I give a dry, “Haha, yup,” followed by a “anything else I can help with today?” that is as gray and cold as an early winter’s morning.
It works. He mutters a no and shuffles along on his way.
The time tick, tick, ticks away, and finally, I am done. Clocked out, coat on, ready and raring to go.
But I still have ten minutes to wait out, not enough time to check out any other stores in this mall, but too long to wait outside, so I must wander these aisles once more. Yet, with the unshadowed gaze of a customer, in my wandering I happen upon it, like magic, the perfect gift. All shiny and new, an elegant blend of pop culture charm and practical usefulness. With a happiness that borders on giddy, I hold it close and carry it to the checkout line.
Peter greets me from behind his register with no faux customer service kindness. Exquisite.
He efficiently scans my precious cargo, clacks away, and asks me the question of the hour, “Did you need a gift receipt?”
“Nah.” I smile. “I know he’ll love it.”
With a branded bag sagging from my fingertips, I step outside for the first time in eight hours into darkness. The night arrives swiftly in these winter months, but I like looking at the stars. It is snowing, and the tiny flakes glitter in the glow of display Christmas lights.
The van waits for me on the curb and I can see my dad’s face lit up by the light of his phone screen. I fold the bag over itself, careful to hide even the shape of the object from him as I climb into the passenger seat. He asks me about my day, and I tell him it was nothing special.
I buckle in, turn the radio on to hear “Last Christmas” playing (one of my favourites), and tuck my dad’s Christmas present into the dash as he drives us home.