as the open-minded individual one likes to consider oneself, the modern reader has a tendency to reject stereotypes. for example, few people these days agree with the statement that "only creepy high-school misfits work in bookstores." don't be ridiculous, they scoff, rolling their eyes at you. life is not the movie Empire Records. bookstore employees are just your everyday working-class young adults, displaying the same amount of ecentricity as a duane reade cashier or mta bus driver (more on this later).
well, i hate to burst your modern, liberated, cliche-free bubble, but the modern reader is entirely wrong. life is, in fact, Empire Records. bookstore employment, doubly so. qed. no, seriously. i have worked in a regular office environment, and a regular store environment, and currently i am working a job at a well-known bookstore in manhattan.
i firmly believe that my coworkers hail from two foreign planets, these being neptune and mtv.
oh, i too was once open-minded. i remember showing up for my interview and being shown to the reception center, which was behind a closed door with the sign 'fire exit' hung on it, three flights of stairs up, in a two-walled cubicle. there i was, in my business sweater and skirt and heels and makeup, all set to beam professionally at anyone who looked like they might want to hire me. however, i was unsure where, exactly, the reception area was. i mean, i was standing under a sign that said 'reception area', and there were two chairs, but there appeared to be little else. just one desk sitting haphazardly in the middle of the room, behind which sat a man who looked and spoke exactly like charleton heston, only black. he appeared to have a thick five o'clock shadow and a hangover, and he eyed his coffee warily as he addressed the customer on the phone, in his slow, grim voice: 'so you have an isbn number, do you? G-d bless you; you're a gentleman.'
huh? i thought.
he cupped the phone in the crook of his elbow, looked up at me, and said: 'i suppose you're the fresh recruit.'
'yes, i suppose so,' i said.
he stared at me for awhile. then he said, 'by G-d, they are getting younger.'
i nodded. he stared for awhile longer.
'so young...' he said. 'i must be old now.'
he pulled a cookie out of his pocket and munched it absent-mindedly, talked to the customer on the phone, hung up and said: 'well, best you sit down. heaven knows when any of the administative officials will show up.'
'oh,' i said.
'i suppose i'd better share my cookies,' he said.
'nah, i'm good,' i assured him.
he looked at me a little bit longer, rubbing his temples.
'my G-d,' he said, 'don't get killed in there.'
this is not an encouraging thing to say to someone waiting for a job interview. of course, at that point, i would have been afraid anyway.
the people who actually inteviewed me and hired me were so corporate that i don't think there's much reason to describe them. my next encounter with the bookstore employee genus came from my first day on the job, when i was introduced to my supervisor, a cute gay guy in the process of adopting a kitten. his wardrobe consisted of different shades of pinks and bleached jeans, and he had a tendency to comment extensively on - of all things- kittens.
'they've got their litte noses,' he would tell me, 'and their whisky little whiskers, and their furry little paws and...ooooh look, it's shaniqwa! shani baby, welcome home!'
and there went my supervisor.
'he's like that,' a girl behind me said. 'you'd better just follow me.'
you all know this girl. she is probably someone who sat behind you in ninth grade history. she wears baggy jeans and a black sweatshirt; she has one nose piercing and two, but only two, ear piercings; she wears blue nailpolish and black eyeliner; she snorts when she laughs; and she approaches everything with the dry, biting enthusiasm of marvin, your plastic pal who's fun to be with.
'here comes another customer,' she said. 'G-d, spare me.' then she looked at me and said: 'ok, look, i'll tour you the popsicle stand, but don't get lost cause i'm not slowing down.'
'ok,' i said.
'ok,' she said, starting to walk, 'so first of all, know that nothing in the store is where it's supposed to be and nobody has any idea where it is supposed to be anyway. the computers lie to you so don't believe them. ok, second thing you need to know is, the employee bathroom is in the overstock room behind the medical bookcase on the third floor. NEVER use the public one. EVER.'
'are we not allowed?'
'no,' she said, 'but there are living things in that bathroom. it's not a sight for fresh eyes. ok, next thing you need to know about the third floor: greg is on the third floor.'
'who's greg?' i said.
'he's cool,' she said in a matter-of-fact tone. 'and he never has any idea what's going on. so if you ever get stuck with anyone you don't like, you can dump them on greg. he'll never catch on.'
'are you sure?' i said doubtfully.
'oooooooh yeah. when you meet greg, you'll be sure, too. now what else do you need to know? oh yeah, so see that girl in the corner over there?'
'is she another new hire?'
'yeah, but she's also psycho. i think she's on painkillers or something. if she starts saying things that don't make sense to you, just ignore her.'
'what kind of stuff is she likely to say?' i said, starting to become alarmed.
'she never really starts or finishes sentences,' my tour guide explained. 'she kind of wanders around in the middle of one long, never-ending sentence. it's disorienting. trust me.'
'also, look out for the cats.'
'the cats,' i said.
'yes. they're supposed to kill the mice. we let them out after the customers leave. but i see you like wearing long skirts and they like to sneak under there. just warning you, you know, so you don't start shrieking your head off when it happens.'
'thank you,' i said, heart sinking.
the work in the bookstore is pretty fast-paced, so you generally don't have time to notice when, for example, the coworker who never finishes her sentences (i have privately nicknamed her 'dory') darts past you mumbling to herself, or when your cute supervisor starts flipping through people magazine, etc. but due to Corporate Policy, we all take our breaks in the same room, and i have never felt so acutely as though i were sitting at the Unpopular table in the cafeteria.
the girl with the blue nailpolish and black lipstick was sitting with greg the space cadet, talking, when i pulled out my bagel and lox.
'so wait a minute,' the girl said, 'explain to me again what happened after she started getting paranoid.'
'i told her not to smoke english cigarettes,' space cadet said. 'i said, don't do it, phyllis, you don't know what they put in there...but no one ever listens to me...so she got very paranoid...'
'yeah i heard that part already. i want to hear about the part after she got paranoid.'
'oh...nothing happened. she was just paranoid.'
'that's really boring, greg.'
'i'm really bored today, tiffy.'
'you can't be bored, man. you got the sweetest job in the whole store. you just sit with the art books all day. nobody bothers you.'
'but i don't know what i'm doing.'
'dude, you NEVER know what you're doing.'
'well...yeah...i'm lonely without the cats, though.'
'G-D! if i hear one more word about CATS i'm moving back to brooklyn! come on, greg. let's head out.'
at this point she noticed me.
'dude, you're still wearing the shirt.'
'is that not done?' i said.
she looked at greg. greg looked at her.
'the shirt,' he said heavily, 'is a curse.'
he couldn't pronounce his r's.
'and you,' the girl said, 'are a newbie. don't worry, you'll grow to loathe its embodiment of corporate malevolence as surely as greggie and i do. all it takes is time. see you during clean-up.'
'tiffy,' said greg, following her, 'i don't think all those words mean what you think they mean exactly.'
i actually came to regard the cats as the embodiment of evil. to say that they liked my long skirt doesn't do it justice. i started to talk like yonina as i was shelving the books: 'ummmm well, could somebody come and make the cats go away? cause ummmm...i don't really like cats...i mean, in my skirt....errrrr, why don't you just....go away, mr. cat....since i don't like you....'
'you're a cat person,' tiffy proclaimed. 'they have annointed you a cat person.'
'here, kitty kitty kitty,' said my supervisor.
'i hate cats,' i asserted. 'i hate all living things which are small and scurry.'
'maybe that's why they like you,' greg suggested.
tiffy hit him with an economics book.
'don't talk anymore,' she said. 'your logic gives me headaches.'
'i'm very good with cats, you know,' greg told me. 'i can make the cats go away. i might even breed them when i finish school.'
'oh,' i said. 'are you in school to be a veternarian?'
'no,' he said. 'i'm an astrophysics major, but i used to live in peru.'
i looked at him carefully. he was perhaps the whitest, blondest, most american person i had ever seen, and he talked exactly like homestar runner.
'peru?' i said.
'yeah,' he said, 'and st. louis.'
'oh,' i said.
'i'm a good sheep farmer.'
'i believe you.'
'where are you from?'
'milwaukee,' i said.
'oh....i've heard they have good cows there.'
at this point never-ending sentence girl wandered by: 'the books are all put away and i'm going to look in my locker but i don't think we have anything about cows but maybe check the agriculture section oh no i don't remember where i put my keys....'
she stopped and looked at me. 'oh it's the new girl,' she said to herself. 'hi, new girl.'
'hi,' i said, overwhelmed.
she turned around and kept walking, mumbling, 'it's nice to meet all the new people in the store and...'
i shook my head, blinked the confusion out of my eyes, and said to greg: 'so you're an astrophysics major?'
he said: 'i was, but i'm thinking about going into cat-breeding.'
the only thing missing is the soundtrack.