I have a working theory that everyone should, at some point in their lives, hold a retail job.
Nothing really calibrates you to the full spectrum of the human experience like being tasked with providing smiling service, preventing theft and cleaning up after others, all while earning commission-free minimum wage.
Retail was my go-to hustle in between semesters of college. For several years, every summer and winter break, I would be folding Polos, making change and politely helping customers in the suburbs of Chicago.
During this time, I encountered some flamboyant characters and learned some lessons, which I feel continue to serve me well to this day. But my biggest take-way was how beneficial it was for my mental health to have a certain amount of distance between myself and the proceedings.
For example, one day a customer decided his preferred method of shopping was perusing rows of neatly folded shirts and tossing the ones he wished to purchase over his shoulder into a crumpled heap on the floor.
When he was finished, he snapped in the general direction of an employee and asked that someone to haul his six-shirt pile to the cash register so he could check out.
That employee happened to be me, and I wanted to tear a strip of material off one of the shirts to fashion a makeshift garrote, do the world a favor and choke this walking waste of vital organs.
Instead, I picked up the shirts and walked toward the register.
Sensing that maybe I wasn’t thrilled about him going full Daisy Buchanon on the shirt display, the shopper said, “Don’t worry bro, I’m breaking a hundo today.”
I then realized that somewhere in the cavernous vacuum between this man’s ears there was a ludicrous thought ricocheting around. This man thought spending more than $100 justified his abhorrent behavior.
Being an anchor store in a suburban mall, transactions topping $400 weren’t totally unheard of, so knowing a budget of $120 was the fuel for this gentleman’s rampaging ego was kind of funny and kind of sad.
I had a moment of empathy. This guy was incredibly incorrect in his reasoning, but at least there was reasoning, and I realized he had to go through life with the same pigheaded not-quite-logic that probably made being a functioning member of society difficult and being truly loved an unrealizable pipe dream.
Picking up Polos off the store’s floor wasn’t my favorite experience, but this man is probably going to rival Ty Cobb for the least attended funeral of all time, so I found myself indifferent to his awe-inspiring lack of social grace.
I scanned the guy’s purchases, put them in a bag with his receipt and sent him on his way knowing the man was a found $5 bill away from declaring himself some type of mall monarch and shrugging it off.
The guy wasn’t actively trying to make my life more difficult or intentionally antagonistic. His whole frame of reference and method of thought were just deeply flawed.
Taking a deep breath and reflecting for a moment led toward a certain level of empathy, which allowed me to stay sane, and I think that’s a good practical lesson.
Of course, there were plenty of customers I learned absolutely nothing from.
Once, an older gentleman was browsing through graphic T-shirts. He asked me to help identify the color of some of the shirts.
I did, and as I did, I asked if he was colorblind to make small talk. The man replied negatively before adding context.
“I’m not colorblind, I just did all the drugs in the ’60s,” he said.
I said, “Oh.”
Perhaps I did not respond with appropriate awe to his pharmaceutical ingestion, because his gaze narrowed and he looked at me sternly before adding, “ALL of the drugs.”
I just nodded and helped him shop, because, well, at least he wasn’t the lady who tried to smoke crack in our changing room, or the guy who vomited under a clothes rack before promptly leaving the store.
And really, that’s what retail allowed me to see — and something everyone can take away from this column — unless someone is actively trying to smoke crack in your general vicinity or actively attempting to vomit in my place of work, there aren’t that many things someone should be able to do that are truly upsetting.