In November 2009, I wrote an email to seven of my closest friends, the ones who I had, in years past, bought Christmas presents for.
Subject: A Christmas Apology.
Body: Dear Friends,
“I write this email with a heavy heart” is what I would say if I were an 18th century Dickensian pauper. Sadly, I’m not–I’m just a douchebag. Here’s the thing: as much as I love you all, cherish our friendship, and wholeheartedly appreciate and value everything you guys have given me over the past year, I’m afraid I must come clean and admit something extremely embarrassing: I am flat fucking broke and can’t afford to buy you guys any Christmas gifts this year. I know that everyone these days says “I’m so broke” but really–I’m broke as a joke. And not even a funny joke. A Carlos Mencia or Carrot Top joke. I hope this does not result in hard feelings. I’m really, really sorry about this and next year, hopefully, I will be back in better gift-giving financial spirits.
I had $126 to my name. I knew I needed a job. All money would go towards presents for my family. They had showed infinite patience with me since the stock market crash of 2008. My parents put me up rent-free and my brother spent hours giving me life advice. I wouldn’t let them down.
Within a week, I sat in a windowless room sitting across a table from a severe-looking woman named Dez. Dez spoke with an indeterminable accent, always wore stiletto boots, and peered quizzically over designer frames that were some hue of purple. I’ve developed a trick when it comes to retail job interviews: I use a lot of words that end with “ly”.
“How important is a shopping experience?” she asked.
“Shopping experience is completely important,” I answered.
“Would you describe yourself as a people person?”
“I am totally a people person.”
“Do you like working with others?”
“Absolutely. I am definitely a team player.”
I started training nearly right away. Amid the usual workplace safety videos and basics of register operations, I learned the Macy’s Star Service script which ends with: “Would you like to sign up for a Macy’s Card today? You’ll get special discounts on future purchases, including exclusive offers, tailored just for you. It’s our way of saying ‘Thanks for shopping at Macy’s.’”
Dez said that I’d get a Macy’s Buck, store credit, for each person I signed up for a Macy’s Credit Card.
Like Luke Skywalker staring at his own robotic hand at the end of Return of the Jedi, realizing he is slowly becoming Darth Vader, I realized that I was glimpsing into the dark side. I decided to just casually omit the part where I was supposed to offer people credit cards. Why? Because I was completely, totally, and absolutely terrified of credit cards.
When it comes to money management, my dad has the simplest advice: “As long as you have the money, you win.”
That was the start. Debt is my personal boogey-man ever since I watched a documentary called Maxed Out: Hard Times, Easy Credit, and the Era of Predatory Lenders. It tells personal stories attached to credit cards–cut throat collection agents who hound debtors; the misinformed public who think credit cards mean free money; and, finally, the college students who commit suicide over their mounting fees and balances.
I began to fear those Vikings in Capital One commercials as actual vikings, coming to rape and plunder my village.
My first day at Macy’s was Black Friday. I started work at 7 a.m. and Dez’s boots clacked across the home furnishings department as she showed me to my register.
My first customer of the day wore the telltale signs of Black Friday like someone who has borne the brunt of stomach flu for a week–grey bags sagged under her eyes; hair a tangled mess; skin vaguely clammy and discolored after spending a morning breathing recycled air.
She handed me her items and I did my best to follow the Macy’s Star Service script. The woman had a small yellow coupon that bragged: “Take an extra 20% off with your Macy’s Card!”
I rang her up, but gave the coupon back, which hadn’t done as promised.
“But I’m a Macy’s Card holder,” she said in an urgent tone.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I said.
“But I’m a Macy’s Card holder,” she repeated. “And it says to take an extra 20% off.”
“I’m sorry,” I said again. I found myself apologizing a lot at Macy’s.
She tried one more time. “I am a Macy’s Card holder.” It was as if the little piece plastic allowed her safe passage out of a war torn country. “Why would they give me the coupon if it wasn’t going to work?”
Dez swooped in, like a ninja in a pashmina. She took the woman aside and showed her the fine print.
The hurricane of Black Friday ended and the job settled into the normal retail drudgery. Working any retail job, I’ve always developed personal “white whales”: items that no customer ever looks at and the section never needs to be restocked because it’s so superfluous. That section becomes my personal Island of Misfit Toys and at Macy’s I made it a goal to sell someone a Cuisinart Popcorn Maker.
The energy I should have directed towards credit cards, I transferred to the popcorn maker. I pitched that item like it was a miracle elixir, learned every feature that it had, made its 59.99 sticker price seem like a steal in comparison to the lifetime of memories it would provide. Every Cuisinart Popcorn Maker pitch segued into a Norman Rockwell sketch: “Imagine the smell of fresh, hot kernels popping up as you settle in to watch A Christmas Story.”
Every morning, Dez would call together the home furnishings department to announce who got Macy’s Bucks for signing up customers for credit cards. This guy Diego, who always wore vests, he wracked up like 25 Macy’s Bucks. Dude was gonna get a free blender at this rate.
At the end of the morning meeting Dez reminded us, as she always did, that the person who signed up the most credit cards would be looked upon favorably for a permanent position.
I ate lunch in my car and listened to NPR and heard stories of the struggling economy, of a sluggish housing market, of food banks requesting donations. I started to understand that this was all caused by sub-prime mortgages–debt, in other words–and I felt proud that I wasn’t part of our nation’s credit crisis.
I wanted to explain to Dez that my lack of Macy’s Card shilling wasn’t due to laziness–I was trying to save the world.
By week three, I still hadn’t pitched anyone on a credit card. But, I checked my bank account balance. I actually had money. Not a lot, but I could afford buy from the dollar menu of any fast food place with wild abandon. I got my dad a wok and my mom a cookie tray. There would be modest presents from me under our Christmas tree and I emailed the same seven friends to tell them that while I still couldn’t afford to buy them presents, I would gladly buy them beer.
I realized: I wanted to keep my job. I felt like an adult. Maybe I could afford something really intangible–a life. And credit cards? Everyone has credit cards. One more won’t hurt.
So, fuck the popcorn-maker-that-could. Let’s get those applications out!
I maybe signed up 4 people. One little lady spoke broken English and smiled sweetly-if-blankly at everything. Her teenage son helped her fill out the form. She had questions that I couldn’t answer, because I didn’t know the answer, because I didn’t want to know the answer. I just kept telling her that she could pay her bill online or in-store and isn’t that convenient?
She carefully inscribed her social security number and I wished she would stop. I prayed that she would hand me back the form and tell me that she didn’t really need another credit card. I wanted to tell her that she should just take her crock pot and go, leave, flee this horrible place.
But I didn’t.
I betrayed my beliefs for a job that allowed me to learn about the intricacies of teflon.
“Hey, you got one!” Diego said.
Yeah. I got one. I had no idea if the little lady would be approved or not. I didn’t know her financial situation. I didn’t know anything. But I still I felt guilty.
I fear credit cards because I don’t really understand how it works. They represent the most intangible aspects of capitalism. I can’t tell you how a credit score is calculated. I don’t know why the national debt matters so much. Will China repossess Milwaukee if we don’t pay them back? What the fuck does “default” actually mean?
I kept coming back to: Whoever has the money, wins.
I felt dirty signing up people for credit cards. I avoided Rachel Maddow’s judgemental eyes every time she brought up the debt crisis. I love that bespectacled, erudite lesbian and thought she wouldn’t like my lack of conviction.
So, I went back to omitting the last line from the Macy’s script.
Towards the end of my time, I was folding pillowcases with Diego. I suck at folding anything and even sucked at making a smaller rectangle out of a bigger rectangle. I wanted to be better at it, though, and convinced that I would eventually unlock the ancient mystery of crisp corners and symmetrical angles.
It was then that we were told we were part of the worst, laziest, most disrespectful generation ever.
A middle aged guy in a Ducks sweater approached us. “Minimum wage used to be $6! 6! And everything was ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’. I was in Ross the other day. I asked the girl where something was. Know what she told me? ‘I’m on my lunch,’ she said. I mean, I’m a paying customer. Well, I left, didn’t I? There’s no customer service these days. That’s why we’re in the mess we’re in, you know. That’s why the economy is the way it is.”
When he finished, I wanted to tell him to go fuck himself, to tell him that it wasn’t my generation who bought a bunch of houses they couldn’t afford. I wanted to let him know that I lived within my means and paid all my bills and took this job for my family. I wanted him to know that I had done everything I could to provide for myself and really it was you, Baby Boomer, who is part of the worst generation ever, with your smug entitlement and longing of yesteryear. Your fault we’re in this mess, not mine.
But instead I looked at him and said: “Are you interested in a popcorn maker?”