Friday, April 4, 2008

Going on break

An e-mail from my friend Sara got me thinking of words from my retail past, when I would "go on break." I went on break at two discount department stores in New Jersey, Valley Fair (in Little Ferry) and Two Guys (in Hackensack), where I worked during college as a housewares stock-clerk. (To this day, I refer to an aisle of kitchen tools as "the gadget aisle.")

It was always "go on," never "take a." That's how I started smoking — on break, as there was nothing else to do, and everyone smoked, sitting in the store's snack bar with a Coke or a styrofoam cup of miserable coffee. The older ladies carried cigarette purses. The younger employees would usually have Marlboros in the box. I, going my way, had Pall Malls. I remember a co-worker demonstrating how to make a cigarette pack smoke, by pulling down the cellophane wrapper, burning a hole in the bottom, letting the open space fill with smoke, and pushing the pack in and out of the wrapper to puff smoke through the hole.

I remember just one Two Guys co-worker who spoke of "break" as her own: not "I'm going on break" but "I'm taking my break." We found her one Saturday in the garbage can aisle, hiding in a plastic garbage can, where, it seemed, she had been taking her break for several hours.

Sometimes all of Housewares would go on break together (a team-building activity, of course), and then we'd hear "Someone from Housewares to Aisle 12 for customer assistance" on the loudspeaker. And once, during the lunacy of Dollar Days (four rolls of Reynolds Wrap for a dollar!), we barricaded ourselves, along with our department manager, in our stockroom, where we ate Chinese take-out and let the customers figure things out for themselves. Our feast was interrupted by Mr. Miller, one of three store managers, who banged on the door, demanded access, and lectured us on our sorry ways. And then: "What've you got? You got anything good? Let me have an egg roll." Mr. Miller ate with us and went away mollified. He was by far the most decent of our store managers.

There are still few everyday realities sadder to me than a discount department store at closing time:

"Attention shoppers, that old clock on the wall tells us that another fine day has come to an end. We here at Valley Fair appreciate your business and hope to see you again soon. Until then, have a safe trip home, and good night."

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