Sometimes the spirit moves you, and when it moves you you'd better be ready to follow, because it's sure going to lead.
Black Friday. That used to be a secret term, sort of a Thieves Cant for retailers, right up there with terms like BOGO (Buy One, Get One) and roto holds and planogram. Terms that make up the secret language of retail employees. Not anymore, it seems; you can hear those terms bandied about all over. But it's true, what you've always heard. Black Friday is the day that most big box-store retailers finally make it into the black on their spreadsheets. Years spent toiling under the yoke of retail burned that into me, and damn near burned out any chance of me enjoying Xmas ever again.
It's gotten so much worse since I first started working in retail. When I was 19 or 20, working at KayBee Toys and later at The Tinder Box we never kept strange hours at Christmas. We never had people thronging into the store, and we certainly never opened at 4M on Black Friday to try and grab as much of the insane consumerism cash flying around as we could. I remember being righteously angry at the couple who wandered into KayBee right at 9am and didn't leave until 9:20, twenty minutes after closing time. I remember enjoying the Christmas holiday back then, too.
Then came the early 90s and Toys Backward R Us. Enslaved to the Giraffe. Six years of hell.
You know, it's funny but the military has it right--put a group of people together, no matter the mix of race creed or sex. Put them through six weeks of living hell and suddenly you've fused them into a group so tight you'd have to take a crowbar to it to find the junction between one and the other of it's members. That happened at TRU back in 1991. Several hundred of us laboured 24/7 in three shifts to build, fill and open the local store. Two thirds were cut, and the last third...it became an entity. We were the best, the blooded. Some of my strongest friendships come from that time, from that place.
And Xmas blooded us time and again, year after year. Black Fridays. Weeks spent dreading that time. Weeks spent getting more and more stock packed into the store until it seemed that the aisles were groaning under the weight. And business picking up, the tiny trickle of tide that warns the islanders that the tsunami is coming with a ferocity only dreamt of. Black Friday morning--store opening at 6am, closing at midnight. People piled up in the parking lot like sheep, blank faces pressed up against the glass for whatever was the Must Have Toy that year. Milling around like cows at an abattoir, and the employees inside; red-eyed, exhausted, dreading the frenzy to come.
Heaven forfend you had to close. Closing the store meant you wouldn't be home until 2 or 3am. Forget seeing your family until well after January 5th, you were a slave to the cash register. It pounded us. It broke most of us. And a few really stupid ones, like me, hung on, and on. Six Christmas seasons. Six tours through Hell's Toybox. Little did I know what I was trading in for that meager paycheck and the chance to say "I have a stable job." I was trading my enjoyment of the holiday.
I came to loathe Christmas, loathe it with every ounce of my being. I had left Christianity far behind by that point so I knew better than to think pious thoughts of saviour's births and such. I knew it as a time to celebrate friendships and family. And with the giraffe riding me worse than any drug I grew to hate it. I was sick to death of carols, hated the sight of a red suit with white trim. The very thought of The Season was anathema to me. My family wondered why I so proudly proclaimed "Bah humbug" every chance I got, why I refused to send cards, why the very idea of a tree in the house gave me hives.
I knew retail. I knew what the season was all about--spending money, money most didn't even have to spend in the first place. Toys made 80% of it's year's profits from Black Tuesday until December 26th that year and every year. It was expected. Black Friday was more than just a clever term for the season, it was reality.
We employees paid for that reality with our innocence and our mental well-being.
This Thanksgiving, some eleven years after my last year at that place I sat down that morning to watch the Macy's Parade. I reminisced about my childhood. Thought long and hard about the people I missed, and the things I used to do. And even though the weekend was rainy and overcast and cold, I packed my little family up in the cab of my truck and we drove to the Lion's Club Christmas Tree Lot and we picked out a 7' Noble Fir, brought it home, lovingly set it in the stand and began to decorate. And I enjoyed it. I tuned the radio to the station playing nothing but carols and I sang along to the ones I knew in my croaking, exuberant manner.
The spirit had moved back in.
I think it's been creeping around me the past few years but hasn't ever quite found the way in, or has only gotten it's ghostly foot in the door, unable to fit itself further. That's how tightly retail servitude had driven the nails in. But slowly, bit by bit the spirit has pushed that door, has worked the nails loose. And now? Now I find myself looking forward to The Morning. I look forward to making boot prints in the fireplace ashes and tracking them carefully, artfully onto the rug and toward the tree, implying to a certain skeptical 13 year old that maybe, just maybe, she's wrong about the whole non-existence of fat men hauled around by big deer. I look forward to making or buying (mostly online, I still hate the maddening crowds that lurk in town) presents for those I care for. I look forward to the Christmas Canon and The Little Drummer Boy and The Carol Of The Bells. I look forward to sharing family and love and goodwill.
Toys Backward R Us closed some ten years after I helped open it in 1991. Oddly enough, I still keep lines open to many of the friends I made there. I think about them at Xmas time especially. The times we survived. I can't point to the money I made. I can't name to you the people whose kids I made happier by having Tickle Me Elmo or a Nerf Bow And Arrow in stock. I can't even show you the store where I stocked shelves anymore--it's a medical office complex now, and the dark outline of the store's name and the gawping giraffe head on the bricks is faded.
I can, however, show you (in a way) what I took from that time in Hell: David. Vulgar Wizard. Random. Rainman. Tyger. Shao. Micah. And even some of the ones I haven't seen nor heard from in years but still recall very fondly: Sheila. Bobby. Baa-Baa. The other Richard. K2. "Manuel Labor". Heyward. Tigger. Stephanie.
The list goes on and on.