Life in retail is never really the way it's portrayed in movies like Clerks or Go. There aren't any smart young things with a stock of snide comebacks to the asinine things customers say. Most retail employees are not all that witty.
The cleverest thing I heard anyone say to a customer was "Fuck you," and that was under his breath -- though he did get a round of applause from some nearby customers who overheard.
The Zellers store I worked in was small and not very successful. We were always on the verge of closing, and as a result we always ended up with only two kinds of managers -- those on their way up in the hierarchy, and those on their way down.
In the years I worked there, our store witnessed a parade of managers and submanagers. The ones on their way down were generally the easiest to work for, being as beaten-down as most of the employees.
The ones on their way up were always looking to turn our store's lousy performance around. (How lousy? One summer our three-month profit was $60.)
Do everything My glorious position in the Zellers hierarchy was pretty much the very bottom. I was something called maintenance. This meant I was to do everything that was either too unpleasant, too hard or too dangerous for the other workers.
I was often told to help security follow shoplifters. On my second day of work (I was 15), I was told to follow a lady who was idling through the linens.
Not too much of a problem there -- until she went to the ladies lingerie section, where a skinny teenage boy will stand out a bit more. My surveillance technique was probably also a bit flawed, as it consisted of poking around in the bargain-bin bras, then staring at the woman, poking around the underwear rack, staring at the woman. (This is the same technique used by stalkers.)
The woman, whom I never saw take anything, had the good sense to complain to management about me. They ignored her, of course.
But the part of the job that left permanent scars on my psyche was being Zeddy Bear.
For a fee, and about 3 million Club Zed points, customers could get a shabby and decidedly unhappy-looking bear to show up at their young prince or princess's birthday celebrations. Inside the bear, usually, was a very sweaty Zellers employee who hadn't been able to hide from the store managers.
A few things about Zeddy. In the commercials, he can fly and talk. In real life, he can barely walk, as the only way to see out of the costume is via two small eye holes covered in black mesh. These are placed so high on Zeddy's enormous head that the only way to see the little munchkins is to bend his head straight down, which made him look clinically depressed. Countless children would come up to me asking, "Why are you sad, Zeddy?"
To look up meant exposing yourself to two risks -- trampling a child, and not seeing the little charmers do things like pull your tail (mine was eventually ripped clean off) or punch you in the groin (something all children seem to find endlessly amusing).
The Zeddy training one gets consists of "Put on the costume and go out there." No mention is made of the basics: stay away from the cake (especially while the candles are lit); stay away from babies, especially just after they've eaten; and always, always double-check to make sure the bottom half of the costume (the part with the tail) is not on backwards. I neglected this last rule the first time I had to be Zeddy and very nearly gave 20 children an unforgettable lesson in bear anatomy.
The parents were often so tired of keeping their overexcited children from killing themselves and each other that they were quite happy to turn them loose on me.
Once I had five children on me -- two pulling on my bear-paw gloves, one ripping off my tail, one jumping on my back and another gruesomely putting his finger through the mesh of Zeddy's eye.
In the end, it was a Zeddy party that finally led to my quitting. There were 30 children there -- 10 over the limit -- and it was my second party of the day. The kids were all pretty well behaved and were generally young enough not to be determined to maim me. The birthday girl was a sweet little four-year-old.
It went according to plan. I went out, hugged the kids, tried to put on a birthday hat, made them laugh, waved a lot. Then I went into the restaurant kitchen, got the special Zellers birthday-girl present and went out with a staffer who carried the cake. I gave the girl her present and prepared to sneak out while the kids were eating.
However, this time the restaurant staffer pulled me back.
Once in the kitchen, she told me someone was insisting that her daughter should receive a present, too. This woman hadn't paid for the party, and her daughter, I found out later, hadn't even been invited, but she was kicking up a fuss so we had to give in.
Pulled harder I went out again with a new present for the interloper. The four-year-old whose party it was thought I was bringing her another present, so she grabbed it. I gently pulled away. She pulled harder. I pulled back. A six-foot-tall bear and a four-year-old girl battling over a colouring book.
When I got it from her, she started to bawl. I gave it to the other kid, but as I turned to shuffle away, a boy of about five planted himself in front of me, fists clenched, chest puffed out, birthday hat askew.
He looked up at me as I loomed over him. Anger flashed in his eyes.
"Zeddy, you made my sister cry!" he said, outraged.
I quit the next day.