Working at JCPenney on Black Friday

A remembrance

Rick Wilking / Reuters

I just wanted to go to Greece. See the Parthenon and drink wine with my buddies in the Religious Studies department at the University of Oklahoma where I was in school. But I needed $1,200 to make that happen. Rather than ask my parents for the money, I applied to be a seasonal employee at JCPenney. They accepted me immediately—I’d just come off a summer stint working at another location. I was to work in the catalog department and my first day would be the day retail employees dread most: Black Friday.

The best thing about working in the catalog department is that you don’t have to deal with long lines of customers waiting to check out. Occasionally, some would trickle over when they realized we could perform the task as easily as any other checker, but mostly we only saw customers if they wanted to order an item or to get a free box. The latter was actually more difficult than the former.

Customers were allowed one free box for each item they purchased. There were three sizes: small, medium, and large. Small would fit a necktie. Medium would fit an average piece of clothing and large would fit a heavy coat or blanket. As you might imagine, medium boxes were by far the most popular. And soon enough, we ran out.

I was standing (sitting wasn’t allowed) at the desk when a woman approached and asked for medium boxes. “I’m sorry, but we’re all out of medium boxes today,” I said. “What do you mean you’re out of medium boxes?” she replied.  She wasn’t quite irate but she wasn’t happy either. “We just don’t have any more to give out,” I responded. I’d realized throughout our interactions that this woman looked somewhat familiar. Did she attend my church or work at a school I’d gone to? “What’s your name?” I asked. “What do you mean, what’s my name?” she said. “You look familiar. I think I may know you.”

She told me her name and I realized the connection immediately: She was a friend of my mom’s! I told her how I knew her and her entire manner changed. She smiled. She asked after my mother and my family and she stopped caring whether she went home with her medium boxes.

That one interaction changed how I think about class and what it’s like to work in the service industry. When I was a nameless 20-year-old at the JCPenney’s counter, a customer didn’t care how she treated me. But once I was a daughter of a friend, she was warm and perhaps embarrassed at her previous behavior.

I worked that job until New Year’s Eve. I made my $1,200. But instead of going to Greece as I had planned, I used it to attend the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women instead.