My Life as a Retail Worker: Nasty, Brutish, and Poor

Another loss-prevention irony: trash duty.  

Under Sporting Goods Inc.’s protocol, two employees, preferably male, had to take the trash to the dumpster at closing time. One handled the trash; the other stood guard at the open loading-dock door. The refuse was tossed into a dumpster protected by both a built-in deadbolt with electronic keypad and a combination padlock.

Although the dumpster was in an access-only area with security patrols and cameras on every corner, the trash team was expected to stand watch—for thieves, it was implied, or armed intruders, or perhaps crossbow-wielding Visigoths on horseback. But as one of us carried and tossed the garbage, the other had no weapon more powerful than a shoe box.

I imagine the unstated objective was to send another subtle message about employee theft: Someone is always watching, even when you take out the trash.

Perhaps the most vivid example of Sporting Goods Inc.’s obsession with internal theft was the fate of a friendly 20-something who’d worked at the store for two years. Even the managers agreed the coworker I’ll call Ike was knowledgeable, loyal, and dependable, the sort of employee who’d check out the competition on his own time and report on what he saw. As such, he was in line to become assistant manager, a promotion that would add a few dollars to his paycheck and more responsibility to his life.

One afternoon, Ike didn’t show up for his shift. At the same time, the managers held a series of closed-door meetings away from the staff. Word spread like a virus: Ike had been fired for an unknown offense. The store managers refused to discuss it.  

Rumor became fact about a month later when Ike came to retrieve some of his things. He told me that, before he got keys to the store, the personnel office at the company’s headquarters did the requisite background check and—bad news—found an old larceny charge from when he was a teenager.

“They checked and said I didn’t report it on my application. That means I lied to them,” he explained, chuckling sadly at the irony. “So basically, I got fired because I got a promotion.”

* * *

I knew I had to leave Sporting Goods Inc. when I realized I was turning into the sort-of overeager employee who is way too emotionally invested in a crappy menial job that does its best to devalue him.

Having once supervised an 80-member news division of a major metropolitan newspaper, the first weeks on my new job triggered a self-esteem meltdown. Flygirl, a supervisor half my age with a high school diploma, critiqued my shirt folding. I fruitlessly searched the shoe stockroom for the right size and style for an impatient customer. I silently prayed no one who knew me would come in during my shift.

As the learning curve flattened, however, my past life faded over the horizon and I gave up looking for an on-ramp back to journalism. Starved for approval after so much rejection, I started to take a weird, internal pride in my crappy menial job, almost against my will.

I felt a thrill when Stretch gave me a high-five for taking an online order from a customer without screwing it up. I quietly exalted when I correctly diagnosed that a customer needed stability running shoes and not the neutral ones he wanted. I congratulated myself on my work ethic when, instead of taking an unpaid sick day, I pushed through a Saturday shift despite a wicked, can’t-breathe bronchial infection.

More than once, I fantasized that if I quit—if I quit?—Stretch would dangle before me the promotion that had been destined for Ike, begging me to stay.

Reality struck one afternoon, however, when a customer I’ll call Jan came in for running shoes. Silver-haired, intelligent, and charming, Jan told me she’d recently retired from the U.S. Treasury, where she’d helped oversee the 2008 financial bailout.

As I fitted her for shoes and checked her stride, we struck up a conversation about politics, finance, and the fact that not a single Wall Street banker had ended up in jail. Then, Jan hit me with a question I hadn’t considered in the months since I hustled my way into a job I didn’t want, had to have, and had come to accept.  

“So, Joe,” she asked, “What is it that you really do?”

I paused, slightly taken aback. I sell shoes, I told her. That’s my job.

“Yes, I understand,” she persisted. “But what do you really do?”

By that point, it was clear what she meant: Why are you here?  

Three months earlier, I would have anticipated the question, and had some vague answer handy. At that moment, though—unable to return to my chosen profession, unwilling to start thinking of an alternative—I mumbled something about being a writer, and let the subject drop.

I wish I could say that was the moment things turned around.

In a perfect world, after talking with Jan, I would have ripped off my employee T-shirt, thrown it in Stretch’s face, and strode out of the store.  In reality, it took another month or so before I got the opportunity to leave Sporting Goods Inc. for a temporary job as a communications director for a Capitol Hill nonprofit, a gig that paid twice as much per week as I’d earn in a month at the store. That salary still didn’t come close to my Politico paycheck, though it was a step in the right direction.

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Joseph Williams is a writer and veteran political journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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