Trigger: The J.C. Penney ad in the Sunday paper.
1981, late summer just beginning my junior year in high school. My friend Stephanie (I think it was Stephanie, a little fuzzy on that, but probably so) had convinced me to join her on a mission to obtain gainful employment. She was headed to an interview, and I was basically along for the ride. Obviously, I was bored and in need of any entertainment I could find.
Our destination was Southland shopping center in Tulsa which, at the time, was still a fairly happening place, despite fierce, newer competition. It was a fair drive from our homes in east Broken Arrow to this part of the big city, so I didn’t have complete faith that my friend had applied any logic in deciding to pursue a career in this particular location.
Stephanie had an interview with J.C. Penney. I don’t recall what type of position this might have been, but it didn’t really matter. Stephanie always seemed to have about four different jobs going at any given time, and she always seemed to do exceedingly well at each of them until some mysterious thing would transpire where she would be let go. I would imagine the breaking point in each case involved her vocal cords. Stephanie completely believed in free speech, and did not have the time or patience for conversational delicacies
Anyway, Stephanie marched into the inner chambers of the J.C. Penney employment offices, leaving me to bide my time just outside the entrance. That was fine by me. I’m one of those people who finds amusement in people-watching, since it’s quite amazing what you will see otherwise decent people do in public if they think no one is watching. And considering this time frame in the early 80‘s, when half the country was still stoned and the other half was just discovering cocaine, there was plenty of colorful traffic to keep me occupied.
My little game, however, was shortly interrupted by Stephanie as she rattled out the employment door. “You need to go in there,” she announced, shoving some fresh paperwork into a pocket.
“Because they have a ton of jobs, on this board right when you go inside. All kinds of stuff. Surely you can do something.”
I didn’t exactly seize this suggestion with full joy and excitement. “I don’t know. I’m not even dressed for an interview.”
“You look fine.”
I did not look fine. I was wearing a form-fitting t-shirt and a pair of army-green cargo pants. Plus, I was experimenting with a new wind-swept hairdo that didn’t exactly speak highly of my professional skills. I wouldn’t have hired myself in that getup.
I opened my mouth to protest further, but Stephanie gave me one of her looks, which clearly indicated that she was not going to back down. She was always the one pushing me into things. Often times, her suggestions led to total failure and complete embarrassment, but just as often we would have a really good time as long as no one got permanently injured.
So I opened the door and went in, not because I particularly wanted a job, but because I didn’t want to hear about my failures as a human being on the long drive back to Broken Arrow.
Fifteen minutes later, I was in an interview with a short little man who cleared his throat a lot. He seemed to spend an uncomfortably long amount of time studying my application, which listed exactly one prior work experience. Because that’s all I had. I was 16 and directionless, not 35 with a master’s degree in Business Management. What did he expect?
He continued to study my paperwork. I continued to wonder why this was necessary. My former position had been in clothing retail. J.C. Penney was a retail establishment that sold, among other things, clothes. Either I was qualified or I wasn’t. I didn’t have anything else to offer.
Oh wait. Maybe I did. I suddenly realized that the little man was sneaking furtive glances at my chest. I glanced just as furtively, and realized that my nipples were on high-beam, accentuated by the t-shirt that was perhaps a bit snug. Maybe it was the air-conditioning in the office. Or maybe it was that being 16 thing again, where I was in a perpetual state of horniness. Granola made me horny. The wind blowing made me-
He startled me out of my thoughts by clearing his throat once more. “I can offer you a position as a stocker.”
A stocker? I was on the retail floor at my last job. I didn’t stock things. I didn’t have to do THAT unless the actual stocker didn’t show. (Yes, I had a bit of an elitist attitude. I believe it’s fair to say that I’ve had an attitude since I first shot out of the womb. No surprise there.)
Then he threw me off by announcing that my starting pay would be 25 cents more an hour than I had been making before. This was an amazing leap in earnings considering it was 1981. Any further whining at this point would have been deemed pointless, so my nipples and I signed on the dotted line and I became an entry-level employee working for one James Cash Penney. (Even though he was already dead at this point, it was still exciting to be in the family.)
And my career as a stocker lasted exactly two days before I was repositioned on the sales floor.
You see, the man who interviewed me turned out to also be my supervisor, which I guess put me on the inside track for advancement. While I was still toiling in the basement, loading carts with Levi’s for people who apparently had very big waists and very short legs, he would come down to see how I was doing. After about the third visit in an hour or so, it dawned on me that there might be something to make of this situation.
Now, I didn’t overtly do anything sexual, but I sure as hell did my best to appear charming, feigning amazed interest in anything he had to say. And okay, perhaps I did some physical stretching every time there was the remotest need for stretching. But other than that, no hanky panky.
By the end of the second night, he informed me that I could start the next day on the sales floor. Wow, this climbing the corporate ladder thing is pretty nifty. I really didn’t understand why other people were so whiny about it.
I was placed in the Menswear department, shoving the latest in reasonably-priced fashion into the arms of customers seeking validation via clothing. It really wasn’t a bad job at all. I enjoyed it most of the time, I met a lot of interesting people, and there were even a few regular customers who would come in just to chat and flirt a little bit. Who knew that working at J.C. Penney could prove to be so titillating?
The only real drawback to the job was that, after attending school all day and then working four or five hours in the store, I was faced with that incredibly epic road trip from Tulsa to the outskirts of Broken Arrow every night. It was brutal. It was all I could do to stay awake on that long drive, often times rolling down the window and sticking my head out into the cold air to slap some awareness into me. Other than that, I was a happy camper.
Until that fateful day.
I had just walked out onto the sales floor, thinking I looked cute in a new sweater and some old corduroys that had faded just right, when Kim, who worked in the neighboring Western Wear department, rushed up breathlessly, her eyes bulging with excitement.
“The mystery shopper is here!”
I eyed Kim with slight distrust. I didn’t really care for her. She seemed way too flighty, overheating about nothing, and she had a tendency to be a bit snooty. I didn’t understand the snootiness. She obviously didn’t come from money or she wouldn’t be working here. (The employee discount wasn’t THAT good.) And at times it was difficult to get her to focus on the task at hand. Like now.
She was already running back to her department, intent on some unfathomable task. I followed and cornered her near this vise-like contraption they used to cut customer names into western belts. “What mystery shopper?” I asked, as she shoved a belt into the machine.
She looked at me with astonishment. “The MYSTERY shopper!” she exclaimed. “Don’t you know what that is?” She shook her head and started fiddling with knobs on the machine, causing the thing to clank and rattle.
“No, Kim, I don’t know what that is. Or I wouldn’t be asking you what it is.” Clank, rattle, shove. “What is the mystery shopper?” Clank, rattle, shove. “Could you please let go of that damn machine for a second and talk to me?”
She paused and stared at me in horror, as if I had just rudely slapped her with my uncivilized paw. Oops. I had forgotten that Kim does not believe in cursing of any kind. Sigh. This was turning into a lot of work and I didn’t know if I had the strength. “Just tell me. Please?”
She relented, realizing that I was just another lost soul who hadn’t quite found Jesus. “She’s going to rate you.”
“Rate me?” (Looking back, I guess I was pretty clueless and naïve. You’d think something would have clicked at this point. But I’d never heard the phrase before.)
“She’s going to evaluate your sales technique. And it goes in your file.”
It finally sank in. Got it. Kim went back to fiddling with the belt machine. But I had another question. “Um, Kim?”
She gave me a look that clearly indicated it was about time for me to scurry back to my own department. “Um, if you already know who the mystery shopper is, isn’t that kind of cheating?” In other words, Kimberly the Good, aren’t you teetering toward a sin of some kind?
Her face hardened a bit. “It’s NOT cheating. Everybody does it. They always use the same lady, and as soon as you see her come in the store, you tell everybody else, that’s just what we do.” She paused, then added. “If you don’t want me to let you know, then next time I’ll just-”
“No, that’s okay, we’re good. So where’s she at now, the mystery lady?”
Kim snatched up the station phone, dialed someone, said “What’s the scoop”, then “Uh-huh” about 14 times, then slammed the phone down. “She’s in Hardware. We’ve got about 20 minutes.”
I sprang into action, briskly scurrying out of her department, then stopped. “Wait, what does she look like?”
Kim actually laughed. “Oh, you’ll know. Don’t worry.”
I wasn’t sure about that, but hightailed it anyway.
Back in the Menswear section, I tidied up the desk area as much as possible. I didn’t know if that would be part of my score, but I wasn’t taking any chances. On one end of the counter, there was a stack of Levi’s, probably the result of someone cleaning up the dressing room, refolding the merchandise, and then not bothering to put them back on the shelves. Slackers.
I grabbed the stack and headed to the back of the department, where we had all the jeans shoved into cubes on the wall. I distributed most of the pairs of jeans to their proper home, with one extra-large pair left over. The really big sizes ran along the lowest shelf of the wall. I squatted down on my haunches to park this last pair.
As I did so, there was a tremendous ripping noise, quickly followed by a burst of cool air where I shouldn’t be feeling any refreshing breezes. I had just blown out the seam of my previously cute but faded corduroys, with the rupture running from my lower crotch all the way to the waistband in back.
I stood up as quickly as I could, glancing around wildly to determine who might have seen what. Miraculously, there was no one around. Sadly, this did not remain the case for very long.
Kim come crashing through from the Western Wear department, practically yelling from the periphery of my section. “She’s on her way!” Then she vanished.
You have got to be kidding me. My ass is hanging out of my pants and I’m about to get evaluated for my job performance. How is this happening?
I raced to the checkout counter, telling myself I would just have to deal with it. I couldn’t just head downstairs and change. I was the only one scheduled, and it was absolutely verboten to leave your section unattended, you had to get someone to cover for you. Surely that would be part of the evaluation. Wait, maybe Kim could cover for a sec.
Just then, I heard Kim start speaking in an overly pleasant, chirpy manner to some unseen person, so the deal was already going down a few paces away. No time. I just stood there and tried to breathe, sweat running down my back. I just had to remember to keep my butt facing away from the lady.
Wait a minute. My stocker apron thing. That should still be around here somewhere. Maybe that would cover up some of the damage. In case Mystery Shopper asked, I could lie and say I was doing double duty tonight, short-handed and all. I dropped down and started shoving things around on the shelves under the counter. What IS all this crap down here?
“Have a GREAT day!” chirped Kim from the Western province.
Oh geez, I’m up next. She’ll be here any minute. Where in the hell is that apron? I know I left it here. (Is that somebody’s lunch?) Why can’t people just leave things where-
The voice came from just over my head and I leaped to my feet, barely suppressing a squeal and probably ripping out a few more threads in the widening gulch that used to be my pants.
Standing directly in front of me was the oddest woman I had ever seen. She was wearing a tightly-cinched black trench coat, with black leggings poking out from beneath the coat and leading to black pumps. (That outfit was all kinds of wrong already.) She had long black hair spilling down the front of her coat in an upside-down V formation, reflecting the light in a way that almost says “wig” but really isn’t.
Her face was extremely pale, and she had somehow managed an application of lipstick on her upper lip without any sharing of color with the lower lip. Her hands had been behind her back when I first gophered up from below the counter, but she quickly whipped her right arm around, with the hand encased in a black leather glove and brandishing an extremely long screwdriver.
“I would like to purchase this,” she stage-whispered dramatically, shoving the implement within inches of my nose.
Oh my God, this woman was out of her mind if she thought she was any good at being a mystery shopper. Did she seriously think she wouldn’t stand out wearing something like that, with the severe gothic drama? (Side Note: In my later years, upon reading my first Anne Rice book, I flipped to the author photo in the back and screamed “That’s the woman that shoved a screwdriver at me in Penney’s!” Some things you never forget.)
Luckily, her crazed appearance calmed me down just enough that I could fake it through the rest of this supposedly secret appraisal. It was clear that she was the mystery shopper, how could she not be, taking it so seriously that she went overboard and considered herself some type of espionage agent. Every employee in the store must be able to pass the test, knowing full well who she was. Anybody can be pleasant for five minutes. And I could pass it, too. As long as I kept her in front of me.
So I went through the motions, smiling so much my cheeks ached and pouring on the charm, making sure to suggest additional items she might be interested in and inviting her to “come back and see us.” Eventually she was satisfied with the surveillance and wandered away, snatching up something from a sale rack as preparation for her next victim in Cosmetics.
I let out a deep sigh of relief, relaxing my butt cheeks that had been clenched the entire duration, and then turned around, ready to initiate a speedy plan to find some new clothes.
There was a woman standing at the opposite counter.
I wouldn’t say that she was appalled, exactly. Instead, her expression was one of bafflement. Had she really seen what she thought she had just seen? She pondered this a second or two, and then decided yes, she had indeed seen exposed tightie whities. She had been clutching a dress shirt, which she gently placed on the counter, and then simply walked away.
The phone rang. It was Kim. “How did it go?”
“Get over here. NOW!”