Ten years ago:
Life working at the mall is universal wherever you are. There aren't a lot of surprises to be had there. There are good customers and annoying customers. There are people happy to find what they were looking for, and people angry and berating whoever is closest. There are boxes coming in, and boxes coming back out again. The pattern is set before one takes a retail job, and continues well after they have left. In that respect, the first two weeks working at Westshore were mundane. To spice things up a bit, my first two weeks there were centered on Black Friday. This sent the sharks into the mall early, and resulted in a line waiting for me to finally throw the gate open and let the feeding frenzy begin. I have been through all of this before, so the sudden increase in volume and distress was not a surprise for me.
But being the new guy trying to throw a little weight at the part-timers was an added element that I'm not sure I could have truly prepared myself for. The kids were nice to me, but they were understandably skeptical of this New Yorker dropping out the sky and telling them to straighten shelves and get out from behind the damn counter already. I got a lot of blank stares the first few days, but eventually we worked out a detente of sorts: I would take care of the boxes and the numbers, and they would try and figure out just what the hell I was up to.
I don't blame them for that at all. I was relieved to be back in what I considered my natural working environment, so I was tearing the store apart and putting it back together again just for the sheer joy of feeling at home. I was breaking apart shipments like crazy and stacking up impossible amounts of inventory for them to shelve, waving around a box cutter in a spastic and menacing manner. All the while I was trying to endear myself to them with old-school stories about selling Virtual Boys to unsuspecting customers, and how the launch 3DO controller should actually be reclassified as a war crime. I was a jingoistic foreigner with his crazy plumage in full display, and they were pleading with the manager to change their schedules and avoid me entirely.
Eventually I would calm down a bit, and they would start the first tentative steps to accepting me as one of their own. But this was weeks away at this point, and while I was having fun, the isolation I brought on myself was not the best thing I could have done. For some reason I had diluted myself into believing I would be embraced there on street cred alone, and the luke-warm shoulder of those first few weeks there was a stabbing pain in the pit of my stomach that I couldn't quite shake off when I was done with work for the day. I would try and figure out what I was doing wrong, but was blinded by my preconceptions of the situation, and thus proceeded to sink further into the mud.
The attention that I paid to this problem was suddenly diminished by another problem which sprung up, this time on the home front: my brother's landlord had discovered my presence in the apartment. While this would not have been a problem for most folks, the apartment was under rent control, and thus was rather strict about the number of occupants that were allowed on the premises. I came home from work ten years ago today to discover that I had a week to find someplace to live.
I was justifiably terrified. While I could now afford rent and liked the idea of living on my own, my defaulted student loans and subsequent pile of overdue bills back in New York meant that I had very little chance of getting someone to rent to me. While I sank into a melodramatic haze, my sister-in-law did the practical thing and started looking at listings. Within an hour, she had already isolated three places to call, as well as an open house at some condo building to visit. If it was not for her practical nature that day I am sure I would have just pissed the time away until I was homeless again, or hid in their garage until I finally got my shit together enough to do it myself. I had spent the previous few years settling into a panic when these type of situations occurred, whether because of insufficient resources or lack of support. This burst of practicality in the face of adversity was a wake-up call for me, but it was only the first step in a longer struggle with such things.
I was also afraid of living by myself. The only time I had ever done this was for one week during college, when I negotiated my way into a clandestine week of living in the international dorm over spring break. I probably had other places that I could have gone, but I didn't want to leave the little nest I had built for myself in Cortland. So I spent most of that time hauling equipment between computer labs, playing on the suddenly decongested VAX network while no one was looking. But the room I returned to every night felt like a cinder box coffin, crammed with things smuggled into the dorm late on a Friday night. There was nowhere to prepare or keep food, so I lived off of items acquired at the convenience store down the street: pop-tarts, nutter butters, combos. I had no pillow, so I bundled my dirty laundry in a shirt, and tried to make the best of things. It was a prison that I had created for myself out of best intentions, and I hopped a train to Buffalo in order to escape the final days of that week. But that was an isolated incident, under exceptional circumstances. There was nothing that I could logically infer from that event, and I was almost assured that things would be much better this time around.
In the meantime, I started packing all of my things back into their boxes, in anticipation of moving once again. This was not a morale booster. I was hoping that this would be the last time I would see the boxes come out for quite a long time.
I had to go back into Walgreens to pick up what little pay I had acquired during that one week I worked there, so I stopped by the cosmetics counter really quickly to say hi to that woman I had talked to. During the course of that conversation, she once again suggested that we hang out sometime, so I agreed to meeting up with her after work.
Trying to come up with the right words to describe the situation is difficult. Awkward doesn't really begin to cover the depth of the problem. We were coming together from two different worlds, and there was very little middle ground for us to come together on. I have a hard time finding alcohol in public settings that I can stomach, so a sports bar in Holland wasn't exactly the right place to be met half way. She had invited two friends of hers along, and I was quickly an observer in a series of conversations that I couldn't exactly follow. When they did ask me questions, I found myself repeating a story that was becoming more and more depressing with each iteration, so I only served to bring the conversation down before it was mercifully yanked back out of my hands.
But in my head, this was still a positive experience. I was out with people in a social setting, and I was drinking to be sociable instead of drinking to maintain a facade. I was interacting with people, strangers even, and I didn't send them fleeing due to my own personal issues. I internalized the situation so much that I didn't actually think about the others that were there at all, and perhaps wasn't reading them as well as I should have. I counted the whole thing as a win. So when she invited me to her house for a party on New Year's Eve, I accepted without any hesitation.
That description probably sounds a bit disjointed, because I wasn't really taking it all in that well. But I was sure I had branched out. I was interacting with other people, and it was good enough for me.
Notes on a life in exile: A retrospective
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