At the rate I’m currently going with this blog, I’m writing one piece a month and getting on average one comment per blog post. Just the way I like it — mediocre and unimpressive. You’d think since I’m job-free, I’d spend my days penning masterworks of stunning blogosity while intermittently thinking deep thoughts and rearranging my shoe rack. (Ed. note: my shoe rack is more like a shoe shelf made out of balsa wood and some Elmer’s glue by those Swedish elves at IKEA) Yet, sitting down to write profundities is hard when you land yourself a sweet part-time holiday job. That’s right, your best friend, ME, managed to fool some folks into hiring her to do retail for the Chrismakah season. And at about a quarter of the money I was making at my big-girl job. Score!
When the rent is due and you want to feel like an “equal partner” in your long-term relationship, you gotta go out there and make the dough any way you can. In my case that meant working at The Cheese, a store that sells a variety of fancy-ish cheeses, a handful of European specialty foods and a selection of canned goods that fell off the back of a truck. It’s not really called The Cheese, though if the owners would like to change the store’s name to that, they have my blessing.
Now, keep in mind, I haven’t worked a retail job since I was 16 and helped out at a bridal/fancy frock store during prom season. Basically, I assisted chunky girls into the prom dresses of their dreams by yanking real hard on the zippers. I popped a lot of sequins off those gowns, but it was worth it to see their chubby faces beaming at themselves in the mirror.
With that experience, I was clearly qualified to cut cheese (haha! Fart reference!) and make gift baskets, my two primary responsibilities there. When I began, I had to leave my ego at home, sulking on the couch, telling the dog how much better I was than this job. I have a couple of college degrees, including one that begins with an M and ends in “asters.” I shouldn’t be working retail for $1.67 an hour, and yet there I was cutting blocks of cheddar and wrapping them with infernal plastic wrap, which kept ripping, pushing me to the brink of insanity. (I’m pretty sure the tenses in those last few sentences are not right, but I don’t care. I don’t do this writing shit for a living anymore.) The takeaway lesson from those early days is this — Get over yourself.
There’s one thing you should know about The Cheese — it employs a number of refugees, people who have survived wars, religious persecution, U.N. bureaucracy. I worked with Tibetans who hate the Chinese, Turks who hate the Russians and Nepalis who hate people from Bhutan, who are supposedly the happiest people in the world. But it wasn’t one big hate-fest. They loved me! I was one of the few non-manager, native-born Americans who worked there. Basically, I was the lowest on the totem pole. Everyone got to tell me what to do.
During my time at The Cheese, I learned a ton about actual cheese (Gjetost is nasty, don’t be lured in by its silky caramel complexion. Blue/brie combos are unnatural and a sin against nature. Most gorgonzolas look like dog barf before they end up on your plate.) But more than that, I got a crash course in geopolitics. Or perhaps it was more of a world cultural education. And I wouldn’t trade that for anything. Except maybe some Double Gloucester. That shit is delicious!
Double Gloucester, after it’s been rolled down a hill.
My best pals at The Cheese were two Meskhetian Turkish women from Russia. Basically, back in the day, their Muslim forebears were forced out of Turkey and headed for the Meskheti region of Georgia, just south of Decatur. Anyway, they ended up moving around and hitting all the high points in the area — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Ubeki-Beki-Beki-Stan-Stan and Russia. But none of those places really wanted them, so they moved to Vermont. We want everyone, especially if you’re gay or rich or black.
So my best pals, D and Z, were a riot. Though their English was spotty, they managed to show me the ropes. It went a little something like this: “You, go do thing. No, do like dis. Stupid Lauren.” I came to learn that “stupid” is a term of affection. I liked these ladies very much, mostly because they didn’t give a shit about the petty things that most people in retail work themselves up into a froth about. And they had amazing senses of humor. They were always laughing. One had two gold teeth.
Here is a brief exchange between D and me:
Me: D, I’m working with you today. That’s pretty exciting, right?!
D: Maybe I like. Maybe I don’t like.
Me: (Dumbstruck, about to get pouty)
D: Ok, I like! (Then gives me a high-five)
In addition to D and Z, I worked with a handful of Asian teens, whom I called The Asian Teens. They were ethnic Nepalis born in Bhutan and ethnic Tibetans born in India. I liked working with them because any time I get to work with people a whole foot shorter than me, it’s a blast. I could eat beans off their heads if I wanted. They were giddy and silly and had a penchant for making fun of and slapping each other. I came to discover that this is typical of Asian Teens. What in this country might be construed as middle school flirting, in their home countries is just seen as playfulness. It was weird because at first I thought they all wanted to go steady with me, especially after one slapped me very hard on my bottom, until I realized they were just being friendly.
One of my biggest regrets at The Cheese was not nabbing an invite to the coveted Asian Teen Bollywood Movie Night. Apparently, on weekends, they would all go over to each other’s houses and watch Bollywood movies that they rented from an Indian grocer in town. They would eat curries and chapati and vindaloo and saag paneer and other things that sound vaguely East Asian and spicy. Then they would watch movies, which were always love stories, and titter over the sexy bits. Granted, the films are in Hindi, which is not my native language, so I probably would have been pretty lost. But dance, like Esperanto, is a universal language and I could have understood that, right?!
During my two months at The Cheese, I became quite good at making gift baskets. So good, in fact, that I was put on the Gift Basket Team. I rallied for matching uniforms, but my request fell on deaf ears. Not even a special Gift Basket Team hat? Cheapskates. Anyway, the team consisted of four people. I was told later that the real reason why I made the team wasn’t because of my skill crafting gift baskets that didn’t look like crap, but because I spoke English. Well, whatever gets you on the team. Some of my teammates I’m pretty sure were dopers.
How can they fit so much stuff in there?!
During my official Gift Basket Training Session, I learned the finer points of making a gift basket, such as how to correctly fill out a form and how to shop for items that go into a gift basket. I was also taught how to build a proper gift basket (apparently mine before had been a little slapdash and too horizontal). We were told to get height. It’s all about the height! No one wants a flat gift basket! You must get vertical! Those were our team cheers.
Gift baskets are actually, as I came to find out, incredibly complicated (cramming 92 items into a basket the size of a rabbit) and frustrating (think shrink-wrap and sharp angles) and full of artifice. The height comes not from the amount of stuff in the basket, but rather how much filler you put in. And I used a lot of filler. Because dammit, those gift baskets were going to rise like the Petronas Towers if I had anything to do with it. Needless to say, everyone in my family got a gift basket this Christmas. You’re welcome.
While I would like to once again have a “real” job, one that does not require me to twist-tie hundreds of bulk bags of rice and flour, wrap endless pieces of odd-shaped cheese or “fluff” merchandise, I am pleased I got a chance to work at The Cheese. Granted, I now weigh about as much as Val Kilmer in his bloated days, but I learned some stuff. And if you ever need a gift basket, I’m your girl.