My Ten-Day Descent into Retail

There were so many red flags in those formative days it was like I was downhill skiing. The first was when, five minutes into the interview, I was gladly given the job. I had felt like saying, “But just moments ago, weren’t you telling me this gig – lugging boxes in a retailer’s warehouse in a shopping center (in other words, lugging boxes in a box in a box in a box) – has had one hundred applicants? And wasn’t there, while we descended the escalator to the food court, some furtive mention, over your shoulder, of a second interview, a second stage? But where have these hurdles gone? “Well, I never do this,” said ‘Maxxy’, “but I’m going to offer you the job right now.” I suppose that technically he wasn’t lying. Maxxy had never offered me a job before.

The second red flag came flapping into existence about a week later when I’d assumed my duties and was apprehended, like a shitting dog, squatting over a 20kg box by my flighty and potentially dangerous supervisor, avid traducer of co-box luggers and abuser of pharmaceuticals. This supervisor, ‘Terry Nobbins’, is a full-bred Yorkshireman, and often his utterances are as incomprehensible as redolent of malcontent. “AYE NOW,” said he, “YE BE AL-AWAYS WARY TA BE GETTING THAT DOOR,” is a kind translation of what he might have said, referring to the buzzer to the storeroom’s means of moving in and out our product. But this next sentence came through clear as a bell: “I don’t want another worker leaving this place and citing me as the reason.” With that, Terry Nobbins trailed off.

That first day, the only other guy rostered to work with me, ‘Charleton’, had called in sick, so the task of filling a smaller storeroom with merchandise, a two-man job, was left in my own callow hands. I got to work, and soon found myself surveying, from my precarious purchase on what looked very much like a plastic ladder, the cumbrous cargo I was meant to move down from a shelf about three metres high. At this vantage, the shelf looked about as high as my confidence in pulling off the task was not. The boxes were as good as rhinoceroses.

The room into which these wares were to be corralled is called, unaffectionately, The Room of Doom. This legend was written even on the tag that accompanied the key to The Room of Doom’s door. This door – and listen carefully now – can be reached only through the door whose buzzer Terry Nobbins had only just alerted me to. When buzzing, this door must be hastily opened. When not, this door must always, but always be shut.

Problem was, when I was ass-hauling these coffee-table-sized monstrosities through said door, no buzzer could light my way. I was up to pussy’s bow in organising the The Room of Doom – so named because its cinder-blocked, cell-like confinement induces, in even your seasoned boxadeer, keen thoughts of committing suicide – when Nobbins poked his druggy-eyed head inside to reiterate the importance of the door’s being shut when the buzzer wasn’t wheedling in your ear like a gnat. This I took in my stride, although fully aware that my routine trips with unweildy boxes would be rather impeded by my stopping always to stopper, with a smile, this infuriating passage.

But I’m nothing if not conscientious. Indeed, so good did I get at stopping and propping the latest Sphinx against the wall, shutting the door, turning and turning a key in the The Room of Doom’s door – which, as it turned out, needed also, when not being used, to remain closed – turning and hoisting Gargantua back onto my shoulder and moving it in, that Nobbins, his face unreadable but his intentions obvious, was soon gesturing for me to join him in quiet counsel. This was it. I was getting some recognition. I was getting the master’s approbation. “You need to remember to open the door when it buzzes,” he said, while a nearby deliveryman shook his head.

Things did not improve with the emergence of Charleton. I don’t know where you hail from, reader, but here in Sydney we have what is called the North Shore, and nested in the uppity North Shore’s breast is the epitome of the district’s insular elitism: the suburb they call St. Ives. (St. Ives is the patron saint of big ‘Lee’-brand T-shirt wearing law students whose faces are literal anathema). It was from here that Charleton no doubt drove his graduation present to work. He had a friend, a gangly cycling enthusiast and unwitting praying mantis impressionist, and this was the guy to whom Nobbins had alluded with his “don’ go leavun and citing me” plea. Together they were a sort of anti-comedy duo: all sinew, seal skin and ululating Ya Mum jokes.

Against this barrage of lols our increasingly sympathetic Yorkshireman’s punitive arsenal of yuks could not pass muster. His big gambit was a tap on the head with a rolled-up piece of paper. There I’d be, trying to figure out how I could keep the door both closed and open at the same time, when suddenly I felt the gentle tap, and I’d turn to see Nobbins, gigging away, his optics a riotous phamacopeia. I had no idea how to respond to this, so I went with an audible laugh.

But this is a bittersweet story, folks, because there was something in Nobbins – that impishness, an all-too-human gormlessness – that I was actually beginning to like, but which, on The Fateful Day I finally lost it, combined with my hatred of the job in general to cataclysmic effect. We’d had a tumultuous ride, Nobbins and I. We’d had much one-sided fisticuffs. We’d had a beer one day after work when I accidentally ran into him on the street. He had asked me to bend both time and space with his demands about the buzzered door. But above all, he had shown me, without making any concessions for my inexperience, how to do transfers and process the orders of some very pricey goods indeed. I suppose I was supposed to pick the processing up through some sort of idiot savant osmosis. I never did, and I never will.

I was standing on another plastic ladder, this time trying to lock a cage. While doing this, I was also expected to be processing transfers without further guidance. No, Nobbins would not oversee the transfers, but he would happily watch me lock a cage.

And I couldn’t. For the life of me, the key would not mesh. My body surged with a vertiginous anger. “C’mon mete,” I heard Nobbins say. But the key would still not lock.

Nobbins climbed the ladder and, in one fell swoop, the key had snagged and the cage had locked. “Don’t worry, mete,” he said, sealing our fate, “I’ll teach you ‘ow to use a key later.”

Terry Nobbins: it pains me to think of you mooning over your lonesome beer, your mind awash with the swirling conviction that yes, you’ve done it again. And the worst part is that you kind of did, you kind of are the reason I’m leaving. But it’s also Charleton who did it, and friend, and Maxxy; it’s also The Room of Doom.

And it’s me. I wasn’t ready for it. I wasn’t ready for retail again.

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