Friday, November 13, 2009

This American Life-ish

As a result of spending the majority of my New England life in the locus of all capitalistic evil (the mall), I have started seeing my workplaces as microcosms representing everything spiteful of American life:

Customers leaving their shopping carts two feet from the shopping cart receptacle = the American lack of motivation to complete projects (e.g. Barack Obama's failure to conclude his inauguration by ceremonially sacrificing George W. on the White House lawn, the Mercer Street exit).

Customers cleverly hiding items they no longer want, hoping no one blames them when I find all 15 on-hand Robinson Home whisks tucked under the basket weave place mats = the American bad habit of hiding bad things in seemingly good things (e.g. using the Spanish-American war as an excuse to colonize small island nations, hiding spinach in my younger brother's pizza when he was three).

Customers' tendency to describe books they want as, "That new book Oprah likes" = the American obsession with stardom (e.g. stick-on "soul patches" during the Apollo Ono rage, hanging out with tax collectors and loose women because Jesus did).

Customers who bring ten Danielle Steel books to my register and expect me to smile at them = McDonald's (e.g. McDonald's).

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Girl and the Pugilist: a True Story

A few weeks ago, while stirring a cauldron of boiling fudge, the word "pugilism" kept rearing its rather flatulent-sounding head, unbidden and flappy. The word wanted to come out of my mouth in a kind of involuntary linguistic ejaculation. I said it to myself. I said it to Hammer. I said it to the 22-lb. batch of chocolate walnut fudge I was making: "pugilism, pugilism, pugilism." I had read the word in a newspaper article shortly before but couldn't remember its contextual meaning. I asked my coworkers, texted my friends, but finally resorted to Googling the definition at home. Nothing excites me quite like learning a new word -- all that potential births a growing ball of pure nerdy energy bouncing around between my larynx and pelvis -- and using it in fantastically original contexts, usually involving fudge, alcohol or cigarettes.

But that ball-baby died pretty quickly when I discovered "pugilism" means, "n. the skill, practice, and sport of fighting with the fists; boxing," and stems from the Latin, pugnus, or fist. Thus, a situation as hopeless an anabaptist at sea: pugilism is, perhaps, the exact opposite of fudge, alcohol or cigarettes.

Words and/or phrases, like pugilism, often lodge themselves in my mind, staying with me for days or weeks, waiting to be spoken. Today, it's the phrase, "Nine times out of ten." A few days ago it was "solipsism," and before that, "effigy." Some words insist on permanent lodging: "brevity," "reify," "inextricable."

None of these words, though, seem appropriate in daily conversation, especially in my new job at Bed, Bath & Beyond; reification is entirely unnecessary and even insulting in the retail industry; brevity is on the cusp of archaism (probably salvaged only by merit of El Duderino); and no one shopping for 500-thread-count Wamsutta king-size sheet sets wants to hear about (or knows the definition of) solipsism.

For lack of an outlet, I have to ejaculate these words without any regard for context or audience. (E.g. At the top of a twelve-foot ladder in the center stock room, with three springform pans under my arm, the sudden urge to say, "Nine times out of ten," overcomes my concentration, so I say it -- this phonetically delicious sentence fragment, culturally poignant, floating in the air around my head -- and then I wonder, "Nine times out of ten ... what? What happens nine times out ten?" I don't really care.)

An obligation to communication faces all of us, and without our participation, beautiful words like "brevity" simply fade into the ether. (Oooo, another good/dying word!) I don't object to the evolution of language (thank Jesus, Mary and Joseph we don't use the words "clepe" or "puissant" any more), but I do object to the peril of Newspeak or a dystopia in which the only phrases that come to people's minds are, "Your mom," and "That's what she said."

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"Oh, heeeere are the coffee mugs."


While working at Bed, Bath & Beyond, I've learned several important life lessons: 1) Always call a manager to finish a task I don't want to finish; 2) Matching silicone grips on all my Oxo kitchen utensils IS a necessity; 3) My name tag gives me ultimate powers in all things decorative and utilitarian. I can defecate all this nonsense of the benefits of chrome electric mixers over steel electric mixers and they'll buy it, literally, and then buy one for their mothers.

The most gullible customers, not surprisingly, are men, usually between ages 45 and 65 -- men who wander in on impossible quests from their cuckolding wives, men who will stumble through our 4,500 square feet of merchandise wondering which circle of hell they're in, whispering repentances for every sin they think they've committed in the hopes of escaping this modern Cerberus (Bed, Bath and Beyond heads rearing for the kill). So, when I descend, little white name badge fluttering in the AC like seraphim's wings, my job is already done.

Just the other day, I approached a man in his late 50s.
He looked at me and said, "You HAVE to help me. I've been in here for an hour and a half!"
He needed a bathroom mat and a fitted bed sheet, which may sound like an Herculean feat if you're blind, illiterate and paraplegic. Luckily for him, he wasn't any of those, and luckily for me, all I need as a retail associate is a decent memory and articulation; I use soothing phrases such as, "I'll take good care of you," and, "I'll make you feel alright" (actually, I'm often tempted to sing The Doors at work, if only to drown out the Maroon 5 playing on the overhead speakers all day). Phrases such as "complimentary color scheme" for most women and "utilitarian" for men and dykes not only sells merchandise, but creates an everlasting bond between kindred spirits; "You have a need, and I have the power to meet it. After all, we're in this together." Such is capitalism.

My late 50s man bought a $50 Wrinkle-Free queen fitted sheet and three $25 bathroom rugs, and at that moment, I felt like Oprah Winfrey wielding her wand of consumer wizardry: I point and they buy. (Side note: every book Oprah recommends becomes a best-seller, she may have caused a $12 million deficit in the Texas beef industry in 1998 because of her personal refusal to eat beef during the mad cow scare, and she made the list of most influential people for CNN, Time Magazine and the American Spectator.)


Some day, I will rule the world, too. One 9" round Calphalon pound cake pan at a time.