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Christmas in the department store trenches

How a retail newbie found a paycheck and redemption– just in time for the holidays.

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It’s shortly before 6 a.m. Cold air blows into the warehouse as the truck’s backdoor opens. Boxes are sent flying down the conveyor strip, the rollers hissing as they slide past. My eyes are bloodshot and my hands shake, a mix of nerves and too little sleep.

It must show. “Wake up! This is how your mornings will be from now on!” the red-shirted woman across from me cheerily booms. I smile and reach for my first box to sort, stack, and eventually stock.

It’s mid-November, 2014, my first shift for Target in Abbotsford. Retail at this time of year is pretty much the only job almost anyone can get, regardless of their experience or background.  I’ve been hired as part of the “seasonal” crew: short-term, part-time help meant to stem the Christmas rush. For some of the students and middle-aged moms I will work with over the coming weeks, this is part of their yearly economic cycle, a way to make a few extra bucks for tuition, beer money or their kids’ Christmas presents. For others, the hardcore retail lifers, it’s their job, and they’re determined to see Target succeed. It’s a big company with a solid reputation, and those who impress early could advance quickly.

The warehouse we start work in is freezing, and my hands will soon be dry and cracked from both the chill and the constant slap of cardboard against them. I am the newest member of the “flow” team, the people who unload merchandise from the trucks, organize them on pallets and flat-beds, and then roll them out into the store where the team organizes into a “wave” that sweeps through various store sections (Health and Beauty, Grocery, Toys, etc.), unpacking and stocking the products amidst a constantly growing pile of discarded boxes and the crackle of the “walkies” some staff carry to coordinate with other teams.

I don’t want a walkie. I didn’t even want one of the scanner guns (PDAs) used to zap a product’s barcode to reveal its price and location. Frankly, both seemed like far too much responsibility. I wanted to show up, do exactly what I was told while keeping my mouth shut, and get paid.

Lauren, my team leader, had other ideas. By my third shift I am a regular PDA guy. By my sixth I am helping break in a couple of 18- and 19-year-olds, the store’s final seasonal hires, as we were tasked with building and sustaining the toy department.

“How’s it going?” Lauren asked. Lauren had been at this location when it was a now-forgotten Zellers. Both her parents were dentists but, as she told me, she had no interest in spending the next 30 years staring into people’s mouths for a living. We had hit it off over a shared love of punk rock, Star Wars, and dark humour.

“I’m not leadership material,” I said. “And these Monster High dolls are freaking me out a bit.”

“You’re doing great!” she said, moving onto the next section. I wasn’t so sure.

*       *       *

The toy department at a major department store six weeks before Christmas is exactly the kind of mirthless, kid-swept wasteland you imagine it to be. By mid-December I will be seeing Elsa dolls and Tonka trucks every time I close my eyes to try and get some sleep, and I have the tinnitus of constant PDA beeps of price checks for eager children and their weary parents. Every morning I work, the stacks of boxes from the trucks grow higher and higher, a cardboard Stonehenge with one key rule: Open me and stock me — anywhere. We have been told, in no uncertain terms, there is to be no overstock of toys. In other words, find a spot on the shelves and stick it there.

The work is going generally well, and I am fortunate to be with some people who are very good at this, including Terry and Mike. Terry is tall, soft-spoken, and one of those guys you’d think was nice to a fault if you didn’t take the time to get to know him. Terry isn’t try-like-hell nice. He’s just a good dude, quick to pitch and smile while he’s doing it. Mike had glasses and close cut thinning hair, and was prone to occasional outbursts of profanity that meshed well with his constant manic energy. He was also one of the hardest working guys I have ever seen. I was pushing myself to carry more, cut open boxes faster, stack shelves tighter, but I couldn’t touch this guy. I told him as much.

“Don’t sweat it,” Mike tells me. “It’s just about getting shit done, yo.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, opening another box of Transformers with my yellow cutter.

“They put you here in toys ‘cause they thought you could handle it,” Mike opined. “You’re being tested, bro.”

I shrugged.

Aren’t we all, I thought to myself, collapsing the box.

*       *       *

Following one of my first shifts, Terry and I hit a nearby Tim Horton’s for a coffee (which he paid for, flatly refusing my money) and life-story swap as he waited for his girlfriend to pick him up. I’ve told him a bit about myself — a couple of previous jobs, a failed marriage, almost losing my house — as he nods, intently taking it in.

Terry’s story is remarkable, brutality tempered with perseverance: A tough mom, two marriages (one to a junkie), domestic violence, an attempted kidnapping, part of a childhood spent on the run in Colombia. My head was spinning a bit by the time Terry wrapped the story up with his first dad finally getting clean (albeit far too late to salvage the marriage).

“Of course, my stuff doesn’t really compare to yours,” he said. You need to know Terry to believe me when I say he was being completely serious.

Terry’s 24. He wants to work in home care, helping those who can’t help themselves. He’s looked at a few programs but like it is for a lot of these guys, it’s hard to make ends meet working retail and then find time to search out (and pay for) multiple college applications.

“What are you gonna do, brother?” he asked as his girlfriend pulled into the lot. “When this wraps up, I mean.”

“I guess I’m hoping they’ll ask me to stay in January,” I said, realizing I hadn’t allowed myself to plan anything in my life past Christmas. This was both liberating and terrifying.

“It’s not a bad place to work,” he says. This was a common theme in all my conversations with co-workers here, especially the retail vets: Target treats you OK. The money was slightly better than other places, but more importantly they never make us feel, for lack of a better term, small. Target never indulges in that late-capitalism trick of treating you like human garbage while reminding you how lucky you are to be there to take it. There is no rah-rah bullshit, no cult of corporate personality around these red shirts and khakis. The attitude from our managers was largely this: Let’s all get on with it, work hard, and try for a few laughs along the way.

There was a lot of optimism on the floor from folks I worked with who were seeking full-time employment after Christmas. We knew it wasn’t quite as busy as we had anticipated, but the store was still pretty hopping. Maybe we didn’t believe in Target, but a lot of us were counting on it.

*       *       *

Late November. Even though he has explained it to me many times, I still end up asking Mike every so often what box numbers I’m responsible for as they are rolled out to us from the truck. I can’t keep up with the number system, plus the boxes move damned fast. My first day was a nightmare, and I was admonished several times by more experienced colleagues for missing boxes. The second day I was merely terrible. By my third shift my eyes had just about adjusted to the pace and I estimated I was snagging over 90 per cent of my assigned stock.

“A-40 to A-50!” Mike yells over the racket of the boxes flying down the rollers. I nod my appreciation. I’m still shaking the pre-dawn fuzz out of my brain and I look over at Jackie, a recent high school grad with a weakness for Fall Out Boy, to say hello. She smiles sheepishly. She has a monstrous hickey on her neck, a bloom of purple on her slender throat.

“So, I had a good night,” she blurts out. I nod and smile, turning back to my boxes. Jackie, however, is eager to chat. I stacked some bleach on my pallet, wondering how I had become an 18-year-old’s work girlfriend. Later, she will tell me she is a Christian and keeps everything physical “above the waist.”

I was offered extra hours today, which I gladly took. The longer shift means, however, I now had a 30-minute lunch break. Dead time. Too short to go home, too long to sit in my car reading a pretentious magazine that I won’t bring into the building. With no other real options, I dawdle in the staff room and brew a pot of strong black coffee.

I look around for Terry, but he’s off getting proper java from the Starbucks downstairs. Mike’s already locked into an intense Batman and / or video game discussion at the head of the table. There is a row of fellow flow members, all women, chatting amiably and eating stuff ranging from Lean Cuisines to samosas. I tentatively take a seat a few feet from the ladies. They all say hi.

“How are you finding it, Seamus?” Pardeep asked. Pardeep is about five feet tall, somewhat bossy and, I had assumed, only knew who I was to yell at me when I missed stock on the rollers. I shrug.

“You only missed four boxes today,” she says, sounding almost proud.

“Thank you,” I say, then make some self-deprecating joke to deflect the compliment. The ladies all laugh. In my gut, though, I feel a twinge of gratitude.

*       *       *

Target has what they call a huddle every morning. Management uses it to tell us what’s new in the flyers, remind us of specials, and urge us to get customers to sign up for the Target rewards Red Card program. Phil, the 60-ish ex-con with a steel-wool brush cut and faded Navy tattoos on his arms, is the king of this. For Phil, it’s a simple numbers game: He just asks every single person he sees shopping in the store if they’d like to sign up. A lot say yes.

Huddle is also when staff members are given “recognitions” where we’re invited to acknowledge fellow workers for doing good work. It sounds silly, maybe even ridiculous. But it works. Morale is pretty good and we are happy to acknowledge the efforts of each other. They’re typically specific: “X helped me get something from the top shelf” or “Y stayed behind after shift to help a customer,” but sometimes they can be a bit broader in scope. I’ve been recognized for being funny, being chatty with customers, and helping the newer flow folks out with their questions.

Today ends up being tough, though. We are assigned to fashion duty, but the stock is all unmarked so our PDAs are useless. We’re grabbing clothes, finding where the biggest display of them is, and adding to the piles as customers grapple with each other over marked-down Under Armour tees. I’m working with Jeff, a fellow flow team member I’ve hit it off with a bit. We’re chatting political philosophy while trying to figure out where the leggings go.

“Read John Stewart Mill,” I say. “And Bentham. Some good starting points.”

“I’m more of an anarcho-Marxist myself,” he says. “But I’d say I have strong libertarian sympathies.”

Jeff is 23 and one of the best-read guys I have ever met. It’s like stocking shelves with a less-smug Stephen Fry. He grew up in a pretty tough household with a problematic extended family — there were problems with addiction and a range of criminal dabbling, and at least one is a dedicated con artist — and he has two young kids with his high school sweetheart girlfriend. He wants to go to university, but life is already pretty expensive — and complicated.

Jeff becomes one of my regular car poolers. I had a vehicle so I ended up giving him and a few other staff — Mike, Terry, Jackie, occasional others — rides to and from work. In the car, the dim pre-dawn or post-shift coffee, we share our stories: Abusive parents, anxiety meds, failing out of school, saving up to move out or maybe buy that girl a ring, sharing an apartment with a transgendered co-worker, too much weed sometimes, too little idea what to do next. Or maybe moving 8,000 kilometres to B.C. from Newfoundland to shake things up, and now celebrating up-selling a weary mom on a set of Marvel pint glasses. I’m still in touch with some of them. It’s also where Mike and Terry ask me what I’m going to do about Jeff.

“Whattya mean?” I ask.

“Dude,” Terry says. “He should not be working here. You gotta help him. He should be in school. He’s gotta do something else with his life.”

It had been a long shift. Getting closer to Christmas, nerves were fraying among our ranks. We were struggling to keep up with the demands from management to keep the shelves constantly full, and we struggled to keep up with the demands of a customer base going through its typical holiday spike in consumer anxiety.

I’m tired. I’m tired of getting up at 5 a.m., I’m tired of being broke and being afraid when the phone rings, I’m tired of knowing I can’t buy my folks decent Christmas presents, I’m tired of being older than these guys and them thinking I have anything figured out more than they do. Listening to Terry, I want to shout, We’re all supposed to be doing something else with our lives! I’m supposed to be doing something else with my life!

But I don’t. It’s pointless. It reeks of self-pity, and at that point, who was I to think it was even true.

“I’ll talk to him,” I say.

*       *       *

Huddle the next day. Phil, the Red Card master, cracks a joke and everyone laughs, some of the Christmas tension blowing away a bit.

Shortly before Christmas, Target has a big slap-up turkey dinner for us all in the break room and we all jump in during our breaks to partake. I’m going home for the holidays, so it’s a chance to say my good-byes and merry Christmases. In January, I’ll get an email telling me I made the cut for post-holiday employment. Shortly after, Target Canada will declare bankruptcy and shut down across the country. I end up taking a job for the local school district as a youth worker in a middle school. Someone sets up a Facebook page for the flow team, where people swap life updates and memories. There aren’t a lot of posts there anymore, but every so often someone has a baby or lands a new job.

I do talk to Jeff. We had become good friends and I even got him in to see a career counsellor, someone who could help him find some funding and take the next step. He would go on to do sales for a big furniture store for a while. We drifted out of touch but I still text him every now and then, let him know I’m still around.

I can’t remember Pete’s joke but I remember how I felt. I laughed with everyone in huddle and I realize now I was being completely genuine. I wasn’t laughing politely because everyone else was. I laughed because I liked being there, part of a team. I laughed because it was funny, and for something to be funny it has to be true.

I always loved Christmas, and like many who enjoy the luxury of a secure job and other trappings of alleged adulthood, I too would bemoan its ever-growing and crass commercialization. You could always count on me for an eye-roll when holiday music chimes into the local mall or decorations begin glinting throughout November neighbourhoods. I still hate all that, but maybe not quite as much. We have an idea of what Christmas is supposed to be — spending time with your family, finding the perfect gift for someone you love, watching Elf for the 87th time — but Christmas also represents a pay cheque for a lot of people, a cheque they are damn-well counting on. I’ll remember how it felt, sitting in my car and breaking down with relief when Target offered me that job, for the rest of my life — especially whenever I see a cashier getting yelled at for a missed coupon, or a kid melting down in Toys “R” Us as December 25th looms overhead.

I bump into Phil at Shoppers Drug Mart about a year later. He’s running the cash — still chatting to customers, still joking around, still asking about store cards — and we don’t recognize each other at first until I notice his old tattoos. We chat for a moment — how are ya, what’s going on? — and I ask if he’s in touch with anybody from the store. He swaps the odd e-mail here and there.

“It was a great place to work,” he says, sincerely. He hands me my receipt. “Take care of yourself, brother.”

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