I met Lauren (whose last name we are suppressing here) at a writing workshop in Provincetown almost fifteen years ago. She was shy, funny, brilliant, and very, very talented, and she dressed like one of those kids who had been to every show that Mission of Burma ever played. I was surprised, therefore, to learn that she worked in a very glamorous department store (not supposed to say which one!) selling shoes. I’m not sure why I was surprised, because people have to work, and so why not shoes? I suppose I just don’t know that many people who sell shoes. Inside information in the selling professions is always thrilling, though, and so I recently persuaded Lauren to answer some questions by e-mail. What follows is a generous helping of secrets of the craft.
The Rumpus: So what’s been happening at work this week?
Lauren: Today’s workplace tale of insanity: scrawnyskinny young girl with pockmarked face comes in very agitated and “looking for something special for my special outfit”. Unable to really describe what this ensemble needs to be complete, she shows me a picture on her phone. In it (seemingly taken in a motel ceiling mirror) the Juliette Lewis-lookalike is wearing a sequined thong and pasties, with feathers spread on the bed around her. Happy ending–we did find the perfect shoe for her.
Rumpus: That is so good, as workplace stories go, that it’s hard to imagine there was as good a story last week. Are there equally good stories frequently?
Lauren: Why, it’s funny that you should say that because I do happen to have another story from work. There is a very tall, very balding, very dented guy who comes in every other Friday night by himself. He scouts out the whole store and then puts several very sexy and expensive complete outfits on hold: dress, shoes, bag, sometimes jewelry. Then on Saturday he comes in with gawky young girls with lousy haircuts, cheap shoes, and language barriers. (Our guess is Russian mail order brides or Czech prostitutes.) They disappear into the fitting room and lock the door for about an hour. Often there is rustling and banging sounds, the occasional muffled cry. Then they emerge, his bald head sweaty and the girl wearing a new outfit (the old one is thrown into the trash), pay, and leave.
This has been his pattern for six months now. However, a few weeks ago he came in midweek and instructed the employees to not acknowledge him in any way when he returned the next day. On Thursday, he came in with a very soccer-mom-ish woman that he identified as his “wife” and asked if we had anything on sale.
Rumpus: Is it true that one of your clients invented artificial skin?
Lauren: One of my clients invented artificial skin. And the husbands of my clients have invented many everyday items: the little window on envelopes, TidyCat cat litter, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Rumpus: How did the artificial skin thing come up in the course of the sales conversation?
Lauren: Sometimes the topic of clients’ jobs comes up organically, i.e. “How’s work?” “Oh, pretty good, I invented artificial skin last week.” And other times the ladies mention it in context of their shopping trip “Oh, maybe you can help me with this. I am being flown by helicopter to a castle in Sweden to accept an award for work and I need a gown. Or pants. Can I wear pants in a castle?” And occasionally the client is so off the wall that I will run to the computer and Google them to discover their mental mystery. Usually though, I ask tons of questions, that are, surprisingly, answered. Generally, the crazier the client the more likely that person is a psychiatrist. And a med abuser. One doctor’s purse is stuffed with sample pills which she pops and politely offers to others, along with Nicorette gum.
Rumpus: How long have you worked in the shoe department? When did you start? And why not move into selling something with a larger commission, like photocopiers, used cars, or real estate?
Lauren: I started selling shoes in 1991. I had been a waitress for many years and it seemed a logical progression. (My waitressing job is fodder for another conversation. The restaurant was near the Bradley Field airport in Connecticut and many fascinating people passed thru–wrestlers from the WWF, tipsy pilots trawling for mile-high-club partners, fugitives hiding from the cops in the employee bathroom, etc). Shoes were not my first choice but they were my only option. After a few months of unemployment any job seems like a perfect match. Everybody needs/wants shoes, not everybody is in the market for a photocopier. And, as I am a very lousy driver, real estate and used cars were instantly eliminated. I also pursued a possible job training monkeys to be used as assistants for paralyzed people but it required too many shots (for me). During this time I also had a seasonal job testing Christmas tree bulbs. After all this, shoes start to look pretty appealing.
Rumpus: Is there no foot fetishist part of it for you? Do you have feelings of horror at the perception of people’s feet? Or do you become inured?
Lauren: No, I have no fondness for feet or shoes. In fact, I prefer handbags. However there are many people who love feet and many of them visit the store often. There are several men who come in and smell shoes and a handful who fondle them lovingly. Couples will come in and set up elaborate scenarios of trying on shoes (usually vertiginously high/sparkly) complete with fictious “events” and background information. It is a little entertaining to watch for a while, then quickly devolves into annoyance: these jerks are taking up your time and your couch space and opportunity to sell something, to squeeze in some foreplay before they run out (always empty handed) to have sex in the parking garage elevator. Most feet I see are ugly. Many are deformed. Clients feel compelled to explain their medical conditions to me and illustrate them by taking off their socks. The old ladies are the worse—decades of high heels have destroyed their toes. Also there are sad stories involving bone cancer; one lady had half a foot amputated and still tried to find sandals every season. And perhaps the most haunting episode was the teen-age girl who came in for prom shoes–she was Cambodian and had lost most of her foot in a land mine.
Rumpus: What kind of discount do you get? Has the job resulted in a particularly excellent collection of shoes in your own closet? Or are they not your kinds of shoes?
Lauren: The shoes I sell range from $595 to $2595. Even with my 30% discount, things are not that realistic. I do not have dozens of shoes; my size is rather large and difficult to find. Also I favor the Japanese and Belgian designers who are the most conceptual and, at the same time, oddly practical with their clothing and shoes. I am usually the only buyer for a shoe that the maker describes as “part gas station attendant-part Hogan’s Heroes.” Often these artists will be inspired by dreams and smells and song lyrics–a little difficult to sell to a client trying to impress a blind date or ace a job interview. Most of the department’s shoes are French and Italian, and very sexy. I am clutzy and cannot wear these shoes; any attempts have succeeded in my looking like a badly-trained drag queen. However the majority of the population wants this footwear. This footwear holds the promise of seduction and power. Several ladies insist on trying pairs on while wearing only thongs and bras, “so the clothing doesn’t distract from the shoe.” Growing several inches in height (and power) is an instant way for many women to feel more confident.
Rumpus: What is the most poignant thing that has happened at the store during your time there?
Lauren: Over the years I have become very involved with my clients and I consider a handful of them friends. I have been invited to weddings, graduations, christenings, lunch at the country club. I have been called to help kids with their homework and put together Halloween costumes. Seeing and talking and entering people’s lives is an odd thing. It is often easier to open up to a stranger and I would see many women several times a month for almost twenty years. So many confidences and secrets–alcoholism, adultery, bankruptcy, eating disorders, disease, reform school, rehab, even kidnapping (a Russian oligarch’s daughter). Even when you don’t ask or want to know, the stuff comes out. And it gives one a better perspective on the grass is always greener; even the millionaires have problems (though it is always harder to be sympathetic). But perhaps the most poignant thing happened maybe eight years or so ago. We had a client, S–, who was in her late fifties and in an unhappy second marriage. Her husband was a hoarder and her stepkids hated her. S–came in to the store everyday to escape her family, and always bought something. It almost didn’t matter what it was. Obviously we soon realized she was addicted to shopping. It got to the point where she somehow picked up a roll of those plastic dry cleaners bags and installed it in her trunk. S– would hang her purchases in the plastic bags and pretend all the new stuff was her dry cleaning. Dissuading and distracting her was pointless. She couldn’t stop. We soon learned she had cancer. She died shortly after, shopping until the very end. At the funeral, only we employees showed up–she had no other friends. And she was buried in the last outfit she purchased.
Rumpus: Would you say that selling shoes is a good job for a writer? Are you able to leave the shoes behind when you get home? Would you consider another job at this point in your life?
Lauren: I started selling shoes almost twenty years ago because I believed it would be an easy job to write around. My hours are varied. It combines my interests in fashion and, yes, psychology. It does not involve sitting at a desk or driving a vehicle. Dressing up is mandatory. Every day is structurally the same yet different. Thousands of new people enter my sphere every week and they all have stories, real and imagined. However there are drawbacks. While not hard physical labor, I have essentially been standing and climbing metal racks for twenty years. There are hours of boredom, walking in circles waiting for clients or the phone to ring. The pressure from management to sell is omnipresent. There are goals and statistics for everything, by hour, by day, by week, by season, by year, and harsh penalties if one does not meet these criteria. We have strict time frames in which to interact with customers (greet within thirty seconds, etc) yet remain natural. I have been sworn at, propositioned, proposed to, flashed, and stalked. I have also learned how to interact with Saudi royalty (do not attempt to chat with the armed and wired bodyguards, remember that the princess never touches cash or the black American Express card—the servant handles the transactions.) My job has given me so many ideas to write about but has drained my energy to do so. Sometimes I do feel a little reassured when I speak to one of my oldest clients, a writer who had a hugely successful book that was made into a movie. Her paralyzing writer’s block eventually manifested itself into physical symptoms that she cannot shake. That she included me in her circle of confidants, her peers “because you know how it is too” has given me entrance to a club, even if it is all in my head. It took me a long time to learn to leave my job at the store. I cope, in a way, by creating a separate persona when I am off the clock. I have an unofficial uniform I wear every day: dirty sneakers, jeans, black t-shirt from Goodwill, and a vintage army jacket. My one constant is always a wildly expensive handbag. Most customers do not recognize me outside the store and new people I meet refuse to believe that I work where I do because I look like a vagrant. At this time in my life I doubt I will change jobs, though I would love to become a magazine writer or a fashion stylist or a professional vintage clothing and furniture picker. In a way these are all the same profession—the profession of transformation.
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.