Last month I decided I had to find a part-time job that would bring in a guaranteed income, never mind that it wouldn't bring the occasional big checks free-lance writing sometimes does.
From all the help-wanted ads in the paper, I chose gift wrapping. I chose it because it was an ad for a very nice department store and I chose it because, well, I like gift-wrapped packages.
I should have known something was wrong when I went in for the interview and the nervous woman in charge asked me when I could start. I said, "Oh, anytime," and she replied, "How about right now?"
But I chose to be flattered, and after I told her I really needed to leave, she said, "OK, then, tomorrow night."
And I said, "Great."
Never has a part-time employee been more enthusiastic, optimistic nor more prompt. I arrived ready to learn.
And I did learn, not really about gift wrapping, but about life on the other side of the counter.
"Mary will show you how," the nervous manager said, disappearing into the back room.
Mary showed me how to fold the tissue paper, to line the box, to square it off and put a silver sticker on top where the tissue overlapped. She showed me how to measure a package, to unroll the heavy silver paper from its roll by hand, since it was too big to fit on any of the rollers. She showed me how to hide the edges of the paper by folding tape over and how to loop ribbon around the corners of the box and tie it off in a bow. She told me she was going to interview for another job.
"This is no good," she said. "They make you work crazy hours. I go to school and they know it, but they don't care."
"But the manager seems nice enough," I ventured. "Why don't you ask her?"
"She's been here two weeks," Mary said. "After this week, she'll be gone."
"No kidding?" I asked.
"Manager before her only lasted two weeks," Mary said, twisting a loop of ribbon around her fingers. "You better learn this--twist, twist, twist. But I can't teach you because I don't know how to do it."
She twisted the ribbon unmercifully and then threw up her hands as it fell on the counter in a heap.
Mary left for her job interview, leaving me to the mercy of the customers.
The sum total of my knowledge was how to (maybe) do a complimentary wrap (tissue, a box and ribbon) and that I had better learn how to twist, twist, twist.
The first two customers wanted complimentary wraps. The third, bless him, only wanted a box.
I know that years from now I will wake up in the middle of the night remembering his face and knowing, almost for sure, that I gave him two lids. But I get ahead of myself.
The first customer brought in baby gifts. Baby Dior gifts. I winced as I removed the price tags.
I got the box out, folded each part and hinged it together. The woman was watching my every move.
"This will take about five minutes, if you'd like to browse outside," I said smiling at her.
"I'll wait," she said.
She waited while I grabbed at the tissue paper, finally dislodging a sheet of it. She waited while I creased it and placed it in the box, the Baby Diors on top of it and she waited as I folded the tissue over, seeing to my horror that a good eight inches separated the two ends.
I did the only thing I could think to do. I grabbed another sheet of the flimsy stuff, creased it and stuffed it on top, carefully placing the shiny silver sticker right in the middle of it all and smoothing the bulges with a flutter of my hands.
I swallowed hard, mashed on the lid and finished off the job with a ribbon.
It didn't bother me, really, that she didn't even say thank you. But it did bother me later on when I saw the same thing happen to Karen, a gift wrapper who had a full two weeks' experience and who put her soul into every wrap she did.
"Never mind the way they say it ought to be done," Karen said to me. "Everybody will tell you something different. Just do it the way you think it looks good and it will be good."
Karen told me dozens of things. "Didn't anyone tell you to log in every complimentary wrap. . . . Didn't they tell you to get a badge. . . . Didn't they tell you about time cards?"
No one had told me anything. Karen shook her head.
"Don't let them get to you," she said. "Or the customers either. Some of them are real nice and some are real snobby. But it isn't you, it's just them. Just make something for them that is good and don't worry about it."
If it wasn't for Karen I might have left midway through the evening. But I stayed. I did complimentary wrap after complimentary wrap. I smiled, I nodded. I did some things wrong, but they looked OK so I just logged them in.
The capper of the evening came at 8:45 when an employee sauntered in, hoisted a huge bag on the counter and said to me, "Complimentary wrap, please."
It was a magazine rack.
Karen shook her head.
"Good luck," she said. "Only place you can find a box for that is in the back."