Sunday, March 29, 2009

Le domicile du Pressing - Well!

It remains fascinating to learn from unpleasant experiences; who was the writer who once said? -- that all writers look at life from two angles, the normal everyday one and the one from which they think, this would be interesting to write about.

I work now in an all-female environment (that writer who waxed so philosophical about the double-angled uses of experience was a woman), and I find that although it's a bit viperish -- a true stereotype, unfortunately -- I learn from it. My coworkers have warned me from the beginning to beware of the wrath of Sarah, the owner. "She has made every one of us cry at some point. She says totally unnecessary things." And do you know, I was not such a fool as to dismiss their warnings, still less to assert that it would not happen to me. If nothing else, they would remember that.

So, when the telephone call came from her asking me to come and see her one day after work, I had some emotional shields at my disposal. My coworkers' warning was the prime one. For another, I have learned, somewhat a la Scarlett O'Hara, that "nothing's turned out as I expected, Ashley," is a mantra we could all repeat with justice practically every week. What did Sarah want to see me about? To tell me I'm the new manager and I can now force Marge to start working Saturdays after all? That I'm getting a raise? That Marge is going to be the new manager and that I'll be working a new midnight shift? That I've got to be let go, the economy being what it is? Who could know? I said as much to Joann.

The most important of the shields I had at my disposal, born from experience and useful I think for any woman to remember, is that above all things, women want to be emotionally understood. Half the trauma that my coworkers have spoken of suffering, in their dealings with Sarah, has come from their wanting to justify themselves to her, and from her not listening to them. Pam, my manager, simply states that Sarah is a liar, and the others agree that she has no understanding of the job and all it involves, but merely crunches numbers, harassing or caressing her staff capriciously as the profit and loss figures make her more or less happy today. I remember, too, a customer at the wine shop who once said that often "the slaves know more than the master."

So, off I went to see Sarah. "That's scary," said Joann as I reminded her where I was going straight after work. "I hope she doesn't make you cry." "I can see that she could be able to do that," I answered. Sarah has a piercing light voice, a bouffant blond hairdo, and piercing small eyes. Two little lap dogs sit, one in a cage and one on a cushion, in her crowded office. And women hate criticism. I also knew that from the moment I left the store, I would be item number one on the gossip list for all my coworkers. Bad enough that I arrived from out of the blue two months ago, and that within days of my arrival one of their loved coworkers was laid off. But I also haven't fully joined in in their rounds of talking and whispering in the back room, and of course there has not been time for me to grow comfortable enough to exchange confidences about illness, and turmoil among extended family. I'm a bit of an auxiliary.

When I arrived to see her, I do believe I actually caught a look of dread from one of the women in the office. Sarah and I sat down together and she explained to me that she was going to "hold off" on making me manager of the store, because my work there was so slow. And she was so surprised, she said, because I had done so well here while being trained at the plant! Why, one night last week, I did not punch out until an hour and fifteen minutes past closing time! I responded by saying that yes, on that night we had been swamped with customers and then had to finish processing all their orders after the door was locked for the night. She shook her head. "That's inexcusable," she said. And she further went on to explain that it would be bad for me to be the manager of coworkers who don't like me -- I don't mean personally, she said -- because if I remain that slow, they will end up feeling they are pulling my weight for me and will certainly resent things like instructions. (Or schedule changes, I thought. Marge is very fast. Maybe that's why she's valuable enough to get every weekend off.)

I nodded. "That's understandable," I said. In fact it's perfectly shrewd. And she smiled and said "I'm glad you understand." And that was about the gist of it, except that she also seemed to drop hints that perhaps I would not prove valuable enough to keep on the employment rolls at all.

The reader will be glad to know I did not cry, even though of course I would have much preferred a more ego-boosting conversation than this with Sarah. This is the thing when women deal with women -- or with men, perhaps. Come to think of it I have never had a man boss. We like to think that we are the special ones, really, who are operating on the same level as the boss and understand her, and will always do well and prove immune to criticism from her. To not measure up makes us so like everybody else. Who doesn't like to be the pet? The loss of emotional understanding, even if it usually is imaginary, is keenly felt. (They would have swooned at "inexcusable," and dined out on it, so to speak, for years.)

And of course, I learned my coworkers seem to have been right about one thing. Sarah is interested only in results, not in the nature of the jobs she oversees. The reason I am slow at my work is because I was trained in thoroughness at the plant, under her surveillance cameras; when I arrived at the branch store to work, I could not believe how sloppy these women were. But they are fast. I am lucky in that at least I do know how to be fast. All I have to do -- and I did it yesterday -- is follow my coworkers' example. Yesterday I bagged clean clothes orders without delinting them, and I tagged dirty clothes without looking at them very closely for the stains and tears that I often see have not been dealt with, when I have bagged clean things processed through their speedy hands. The young girls especially amaze me by their speed. Everything they do shouts I don't care. Emma, the fastest of all, is the one who is this close to being fired for past misdemeanors. But they never clock out at an hour past closing time. And they regard me as an incompetent burden? Perhaps.

(A humorous aside. I no sooner began work yesterday morning, bagging my first order very quickly, when I noticed tiny red spots appearing mysteriously on an order of white jeans. Where were these spots coming from? I realized that I had pricked myself with a staple on the top of my thumb, had not felt it, and had begun to ooze on clean things. Keep on good terms with your coworkers, no matter how viperish you occasionally think they are. Joann helped sponge it off and then she put a tag on it, which ought not to be put on anywhere but on the premises of the actual processing plant, claiming "we are so sorry we could not get this stain off." "You shouldn't cover up, but oh well," she laughed. "Better than calling Sarah." I, no longer the erstwhile manager, did not utter. Bagging that order took thirty minutes.)

I learned from this experience something else, too, or found an old lesson reinforced. You cannot change people. "People don't like change," someone once said to me, regarding another viperish situation. But that person was wrong. People like change. That's why they buy new clothes and take vacations. They don't like to change. If I had had my wits about me in Sarah's office, I suppose I could have asked her what the most important priority is in her stores when they are swamped with customers and the staff can either wait on them, or process waiting orders, but not both. I suppose I could have told her what goes on, really, and where speed comes from. But what would I expect from that? That after decades running this business her eyes would pop, and she would see a new light from interviewing me today? Did I expect emotional justification? Not to be approached as an employee, but as a friend? In the back room Joann and Marge and Pam always slam the phone down disgustedly whenever Sarah talks cheerfully to them. "Oh, she was sweet as pie today," they snarl. They can't or won't separate the woman boss who is not upset at them today from the woman boss who has been upset with them before.

And I learned that really, there must be very few circumstances in life which you can mold to your liking. A great deal of life is fitting in. I'm amazed dictators do as well as they do. People are stubborn, see wonderfulness in the mirror, and don't like to change. I at first had visions of changing the "culture" of the store, when I became manager, precisely because I saw the way they disregarded Sarah's instructions and assumptions and I wanted to perhaps bring it all back into line out of respect to her. The fast food lunches every Saturday ... the smoke breaks on the clock ... the speed. The carelessness.

Now, I think not. It's not pettiness on my part so much as a new common sense. New lessons learned. Sarah, too, has to fit into the culture she oversees, and she probably well knows it. The young girls are not going to start caring about the clothes they handle. They are going to be fast. Maria is going to fight tooth and nail for her weekends off or else quit rather than forsake them, no matter what arguments a future manager might bring to her. They are all going to whisper and buzz in the back room, and cover each other's blood tracks. (Good thing.) And Sarah is not going to start taking instructions from, still less ladling out emotional justification to, employees whose numbers startle her. If she spared time for that, who would run her seven stores and her statewide fire restoration service? What time would she have to spare for the memos on the necessity to empty pants pockets before sending things into production?

Sometimes you can't tell whether a situation is good, bad, atrocious, or indifferent until you are out of it and can look back. You put up with a lot when you need the paycheck. What's funny is that the day after our interview, she called me again and asked me if I knew computers at all. I said yes. So she has arranged for me to work at the office, with the dread-eyed women and the lap dogs and the surveillance cameras, a day this week. To learn something new. This leaves Pam, who has been trying to get out of being manager for months, scrambling to replace me next Saturday, just when she herself had planned to be out of town for the weekend. It leaves two "girls" in the store to handle all priorities as they come in, and still finish everything and punch out by closing time.

Yes, I will be away, learning something new. From what number of interesting angles, I suppose it is up to me to decide.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

"Or what about -- no presents, because of unemployment?"

I adore my beloved Mapp and Lucia novels, but it pains me to realize that the great and glorious Lucia would logically have voted for Obama. Her economic sense was non-existent. And her attitudes toward the masses precisely mirrored his: lordly, condescending, and damaging all at once, with that veneer of inauthentic noblesse oblige laid over. " 'We must help little lame dogs over stiles,' " she tells Georgie, who sensibly does not favor the higher taxes that will be needed to do all she wants to do for the lame dogs.

But even he doesn't always get it, either. When they get married, he encourages her to announce that they don't want any wedding presents, " 'because of unemployment.' " She agrees, but then picks up her pen to write a dress making order for " 'that good little milliner's in the High Street,' " to send business her way.

Ah well. I suppose this is why it's called escapism. Au reservoir.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Your quarter of a million?

A few days ago Rush Limbaugh took a call from a man who agreed that the bonuses paid to AIG executives were too much, and a misuse of "our taxpayer money." Rush is of course always trying to explain, first, that these bonuses were planned and known about a year ago, which makes outrage about them a deliberate class-war sideshow now, to explain further that they represent a fraction of the bailout money that went to AIG and which AIG then disbursed liberally elsewhere, and to explain still further that punishing the successful does not put money in all our pockets. He then led his caller to talk about what he wanted or needed to be successful himself -- since another of his constant messages is that "you are your best resource," that it is still possible to achieve anything in this country.

"What income level do you want, ideally?" Rush asked his caller.
The caller hesitated, not wanting to name a figure. Rush said to him, "Don't be embarrassed to name a figure."
So the caller said he'd like an income of $225,000 a year.

Rush struggled with the silence. You knew what he was thinking. Well, wouldn't we all like to earn that much. The figure was embarrassing, and the caller should have known not to aim so high. Yes, Rush earns far more than that, but he has been working for decades and is a force of nature anyway. It's not that $225,000 a year is impossible for anyone; but it is a very, very high figure for just anyone to quote, and this caller's voice and demeanor marked him as the kind of person who is never going to earn that kind of money. He's never going to deserve it; he's never going to be that valuable to anyone. Rush also spends time on his show explaining that, unfortunately, human beings are not all equal and cannot be made so. They can only be equal before the law, and equally free to make best use -- unpunished, in a free market democracy -- of what abilities and ambitions they have and are willing to use. This man's abilities were clearly not of quarter-million dollar caliber, unless by chance he was an athlete, and at his age (31) he was clearly past being a major athlete.

Rush struggled on, because he does want people to succeed, and because he is mannerly and obviously could not very well say 'I take it back. Not you. You're a doofus.' And technically, theoretically, nothing is standing in this caller's way. "That $225,000 is out there waiting for you," he still said. "The only thing stopping you is you."

Technically true. But the caller hung up on him. Rush acted frustrated but was undoubtedly relieved. That caller knew Rush was not being truthful, not for him personally. No, that quarter million is not out there waiting for him, but why not? In what way was our host, with his "talent on loan from God," not being truthful?

Is that $225,000 out there waiting for you, for me, for anyone? Am I the only thing standing in my way? When Rush asked this man his preferred income level, I answered for myself, too. Last year, at my part time job, I earned about $7000. This year I'll probably earn about $12,000. For years, I was a stay at home mother, earning nothing. I mused as I drove to work, hmm, I'd like ... $20,000 a year. That would be princely, and it's not asking too much. It would only amount to $10 an hour somewhere, full time.

Ah, but doing what? Am I the only thing standing in my way? It occurs to me that there are some things about life that Rush either does not understand or has not experienced, and pointing them out does not necessarily make me a whiner, no more than it makes him a liar or out of touch. These are the things that perhaps inspired our caller to hang up, inarticulately. I can picture him muttering bitterly to himself as he walked away from the phone. You don't get it. Man, you been lucky. We can't all be like you.

My first inclination is to say that Rush has no experience of making his way in the world as an artist. Assuming the point of a princely income is to earn it by doing what we love, as he does, he has been lucky in making a career out of not-art, a career such that his job is not dependent on pleasing gatekeepers who hand out piecework, piecework, at random discretion. Now, he would no doubt roar at this. He is the conservative commentator who has carved out a Grand Canyon-sized niche in talk radio, after eight or nine jobs elsewhere and despite the gates of the entire left wing media being shut as firmly as possible against him and anyone like him, for years. To his caller, he explained that success, his or anyone's, is not magic. He said (paraphrased) "you've got to work hard -- even for successful athletes, ten years of virtually unrecognized work is normal -- and you've got to do what you do better than anybody else."

All right, granted. And yes, he is an artist of a sort, as all performers are. But it is still very possible to do what you do better than anyone else, or at least absolutely as well as anyone else, and still scarcely be seen. Especially in the more traditional arts. His having been fired eight times indicates that he was at least hired eight times. He has earned a living, even under the thumb of superiors who both denied his talent and lacked it themselves. A radio microphone is already a very different and unique tool for its artist than a pen and paper, or a paintbrush or a guitar, are for theirs, and there are lots more people who try handling those. Sheer luck plays into it, sheer timing. There is the problem of people carving out niches when the niche was fresh. Join in, try for that portal yourself, and too many niches all together simply make a big hole in the ground. Is there a broadcaster out there somewhere today, a conservative, who is smarter and funnier than Rush Limbaugh? It's possible. I daresay, his chances of meeting that quarter-million-dollar salary are less, now. And how many bloggers are there, God help us? (In 1996 a couple of economists wrote a book called The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More than the Rest of Us, which I really must read next.)

And there is that other little problem involved in making one's way as an artist -- painter, writer, sculptor, actor, blogger, who knows, local radio broadcaster -- namely, that one can feel compelled to produce things for interior satisfaction, which the world does not feel compelled to pay for. Time is a problem. You can make yourself very unhappy by not producing what your very body tells you you must, in order instead to hold down a real job and aim for that quarter million that spells "success." On the other hand, in order to keep doing at least some art, you may opt for a job to live on which is not terribly interesting or lucrative but that pays bills and leaves you that precious commodity. Time. I'm not sure if that sounds lofty or whiny or both. But it happens. How many Victorian writers spent their days quietly managing bank branch offices, so as to plunge with ink-stained fingers into smoky Gothic mysteries by the fireside at night?

Then -- we jump around, but bloggers do -- there is the problem of illness. On the very day that Rush took this call from someone with big dreams of impossible money, he also told us that he had never filed a claim with his insurance company, which happens of course to be AIG. Never filed a claim. I take that to mean he has never been seriously ill, nor had a dependent seriously ill. He does not know, therefore, what illness does just for a start to the finances, the energy level, and the propensity for risk-taking of your average human being. He does not know how it affects what economists call the opportunity costs of any decision in life. You've got an illness, but you've got a job with good health insurance. You live in a state with a high income tax, and scheduled to go higher soon. If you had real ambitions for that quarter million dollar income, you would let nothing stand in the way of your picking up and moving to a state like Florida, where there is no state income tax. Think of the benefits. But think of the costs. Think of the stress, which is bad for your health. Rush did it, packed up and moved. Rush was never ill.

And there's family. I take it Rush has none. Wife and children are bound up in one's ambitions, success, plans to move, hell, -- in one's time and ability to make art. Not having them, for whatever reasons, opens up wider and fresher avenues, I imagine, leading toward that income. Not having them, for whatever reasons, also is a kind of choice, and I must say a kind of failure. You're free. But what matters?

There are littler things, blocking the road to "your" princely income. An unwillingness even to commute beyond a certain point. An unwillingness to pursue what seems a superfluous and debt-laden education. An unwillingness to lead a life without leisure.

Does all this and more, whatever you can think of, amount to standing in one's own way? I suppose truthfully it does, but then I ask, what is the point of that quarter million dollars, in the end? Oh, heavens, I won't insult anyone's intelligence by saying that money can't buy happiness. I like the delightful and wise quote from Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, when he scolds sixteen-year-old Scarlett O'Hara for "palming off that twaddle" on him: "Generally it can, and when it can't, it can buy some of the most remarkable substitutes." But the platitude writers are correct, too, when they announce you can't take it with you. Shakespeare was right when he noticed that in the end, we are all perforce satisfied with two paces of earth.

"Do what you love, and the money will follow." Another platitude writer wrote that, and I've heard it repeated by actual human beings. After more than thirty years' experience working, however clumsily, for success in arts more traditional than radio broadcasting, I can answer: It might. It might not. Add this. Amid all the little things standing in our way, most of them self-devised, sometimes history plays a trick on us and we get great big things standing in our way. Like a new president who is willing to destroy the foundations of the best wealth-creating engine in human history, because he's been taught that it doesn't work fairly and he agrees. It could be worse. Sometimes there were wars or plagues.

Are you, only, standing in the way of your success? Is success mostly wealth? It comprises a whale of a lot of it. But I suspect that Rush is himself the sort of person who would do what he does for love, regardless of income. I suspect he would staff a ham radio station of one and still talk about the Constitution and economic reality to an audience of three, if those were the only circumstances under which he could fulfill his vocation, which is fundamentally to teach. I suspect he may have asked that caller to phrase his ambitions in terms of ideal income level because he knew a dollar amount was how that caller would define success. (How predictable, really then, was the caller's wildly unrealistic estimate even of that. No, it doesn't buy all happinesses.)

What's your ideal of success would probably have been the more sophisticated question, and I'm sure Rush would have asked that of a more sophisticated caller. Whatever your answer to that, the proper qualifier is yes, given some historical luck, only you are standing in your way. It isn't all money. And what a good thing that we can work our way to this understanding, just at a time when we've got this new Lord President who so hates grubby, icky money. Well, hates yours, anyway.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Tudor year: March

Theme: law

photo source: UK Parliament

March 24, 1603: death of Queen Elizabeth
March 25: Lady Day

One of the absolutely "crucial fixed dates" of the Tudor calendar was Lady Day, March 25th. Named for the Virgin Mary, it was the Feast of the Annunciation, the start of a nine-month countdown to Christmas and therefore a fresh start to the familiar pageant of salvation. It was also the day to pay rents and sign contracts, and the day the secular year changed: Queen Elizabeth, dying the day before Lady Day, would be considered by her contempraries to have died on the last day of 1602. In London, Lady Day also marked the end of the first sitting of the Westminster Courts for the year -- official business had been conducted since January 13th -- and the beginning of a vacation which would last until Easter Term, when the courts next sat commencing on the fifteenth day after Easter.


David Cressy, Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989, p. 20 ("crucial fixed date"), pp. 10-11 (secular year, Westminster calendar).

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Hello, mom bloggers! Someone? Anyone?

Herewith, a deeply unscientific survey, and thoughts on women, and voting, and when or if they'll all wake up.

I still nose about the Mom Blog world, even though I stand in amazement at how gigantically dull most of it is. Bless their hearts, the mommies who blog are all so sweet, and so bland and so full of energy. They post pictures of their kids and their living rooms and their vacations, and sometimes are really funny. They enthuse endlessly over each other, and, good entrepreneurs that they all are, they pant to make money. (So did I, I've just decided all the networking is not worth the sacrifice of writing time. Then again ... you be the judge.) For them, it's contests and giveaways galore, and commenting galore on other women's blogs -- stopping by to say hi! -- in the attempt to Drive Traffic to Your Site. I'm still taken aback by how many blog about blogging about blogging about blogging. It's why I for all practical purposes unsubscribed to the Mom Bloggers Club, even though, being member #280 or something, you could say I was almost present at the creation. It seems to have become a pretty big deal.

The popular mom bloggers tell a good story, are indeed rewarded with a good amount of traffic, and can boast perhaps twenty or thirty regular and admiring comments per entry. These better ones all seem to have adopted a certain tone for their work: a faux-raunchy (or maybe genuinely raunchy) vocabulary, a sarcastic, sitcom-ready voice that combines bathroom humor with wacky revelations and scriptedly heartfelt appeals to the reader's understanding. My life is so crazed. Just a mom trying to make sense of it all. Smiling out loud. Speaking my mind (and getting whumped for it) since 1970. Wiping ass and loving it ....

And these women, who otherwise fixate on the personal for 363 days of the year, all love Barack Obama. Or at least they did, when he was in the news and they had reason to think about him. He still is in the news, you say? He's making news? What, you mean the socialist legislation, the half-nationalized banks, the nationalized health care plans? The returning of Winston Churchill's statue to the British ambassador? The secret letter to the Russian president, the $900 million to Hamas? The Polish missile shield? How about the string of Cabinet appointments gone awry? Oh. Oh, no. The mom bloggers who loved him really aren't interested in all that. They'll still carry his blue-and-red "Hope" campaign poster on their sidebars, but to them, Barack Obama has evidently not been in the news since Inauguration Day, and before that he was last in the news on Election Day. Remember when he won? Booyah! was the reaction then. It's a beautiful day!!!!! I am so friggin' HAPPY!!! Doesn't everything just seem better? Woo hoo!

My unscientific survey comes in here. I "lurk" in their world, and I watch and wait for some one of these fine women to say something about President Obama now. I don't even ask them to have second thoughts. Maybe they like the stimulus package, or all that money for Hamas. Even if they don't, it's only been six weeks or so since he took office. They may be giving him the benefit of any doubts. I just look for them to notice he's alive. To say something to each other. Anything. They shouldn't be afraid to mention him -- they all loved him.

They don't peep. Nothing. One mom blogger, one among thousands to be sure, said frankly in a post dated November 5th, "Thank God it's over. I'm BORED. And now for the important stuff: I need a new toaster." And below was a picture of her toaster. I'm sure she's a fine woman.

I'm sure she's a fine woman, and I'm frankly worried that she speaks for the thousands. I'm worried that she speaks for our future. If I am not mistaken, quite a chunk of Obama's voters last November answered to this, what I might call the "Woo hoo!" demographic: the white, middle class, middle aged suburban woman. Fifty-six percent of all women voters opted for Obama, white or not, middle class or not; seventy percent of single women chose him.

I see the mom blogger demographic inside that 56% as especially powerful and especially scary. These are women full of energy, interested in new technology, happy and vibrant people. These are the household spenders that marketers target, these are the moms running your kids' PTAs. (Don't forget where Sarah Palin came from.) Why they fell in love with Barack Obama I can't say -- novelty, symbolism, the fact that he talked about hope and moms hope for stuff for their kids, so he seemed right -- but I worry about the fact that he seems in turn to have so fallen out of their lives since he won. If this is the way these women approach the world, then Barack Obama literally can do no wrong. In four years, he'll be just as attractive to them again as he was in November of 2008. Why not? In four more years he will still be able to talk about hope and he'll still be black. His kids will be older, too, and that will help. Today they are adorable little girls; in four more years the older girl will be on her way to being a babe. Moms love that. If the economy is still in a sink, and with his policies running it it will be, he could be in like Flynn. Please, please vote for a better future. Four more years! Woo hoo!

It almost gives a bad odor to the whole concept of the vote for women. What a shocking thought. I wonder what the old rationale against it was? Why, of course. Do a penn'orth of research -- lookee-uppee, the mom bloggers would say -- and learn that one of the things men and women feared about female suffrage was that women would choose foolishly in the voting booth by heeding their emotions rather than by thinking things through and being logical. How absurd! As if men don't vote their emotions!

But men also don't fuel a whole world, a universe of dad blogs. Oiling crankshafts since 1966 .... No. So they escape my lurker's scrutiny and my lurker's worries. Maybe, in the days before female suffrage, men voters did the same, did whatever men do to make sure people don't know their emotions. Shut up, I dare say.

Strangely, the moms have shut up, now, too. They don't talk about him, they don't acknowledge his existence, his plans, his actions. Why? What's percolating, if anything? I keep my eye on one mom in particular, who for a variety of reasons is my barometer of the Woo hoo demographic's political mood. I wait and watch for her to quietly, ever so quietly, take down the blue and red "Hope" badge from her busy and ad-filled, award-filled sidebar. If she ever does, and for what it's worth, -- you will have heard about it here first. You be the judge.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Le domicile du Pressing: the diary

Such excitement. All are waiting with bated breath to hear what it was like to feel "the wrath of Sarah." I made a few major mistakes in one day, and they have warned me that my time will come. They have warned me to brace myself for that phone call.

The call came, and Sarah was quite pleasant. "That mistake is so easy to make, just be more careful," etc. Certainly. And as for the instructions on how to deal with high-fashion, expensive garments, well, simply hit the double-charge, High Fashion button on the computer screen, "and walk away. If they can afford $1500 St. John knits, they can afford the dry cleaning upcharge."

Certainly. Only as soon as I got off the phone with Sarah -- who signs the paychecks, let us not forget -- and answered Jorie's eager questions about the conversation, Jorie opened her large round pretty brown eyes and said, "Oh my God, don't ever do that. Sarah doesn't know what we do here. We never double charge customers for that. Just have them sign a release and treat the stuff like everything else. They don't want to pay that kind of money."

Really. "Oh yes. And if you do what she says, the next day you'll get a phone call screaming at you for that. That happened to me once."

Well. What a minefield. Shall I call Sarah again and tell her 'your employees here say you don't know what you're doing'? And then yesterday, another angry customer on the phone. "You never do a good job with our things. I come in and I joke about it with Marge and Joann. We get along great, but it's a joke. We all say, well, what special requests have been ignored now, and what designer clothes have they ruined now?" I called Sarah to tell her of the dissatisfied customer, but left out the details about how the employees joke with the customers about what a lousy operation the entire business is.

These women, I begin to think, have created their own little world here, and it's quite pleasant for them and especially for the favored customers who like to come in and visit and talk with Marge and Joann about their health problems. My position is peculiar as newcomer, as incognita potential manager, and as recent trainee fresh from the plant, where everything is done by the book and video cameras carry pictures and sound from the front desk area back to Sarah's office. No kidding. She makes it her business, literally, to hear and see everything.

She is the center of these women's world, even in a separate physical building miles away, without video cameras. Everybody was agog, half the week, to know what Sarah said to Nancy about those two Major Mistakes. It so happened that only Jorie was present when I received the phone call, and I never brought up the subject with any of the others. But they all knew it was coming. Marge forewarned me, in fact explaining all one afternoon as soon as I arrived and saying, purring, "Oh my God, get ready, this is like the worst thing you can do. I'm surprised she hasn't called already. Maybe she isn't there."

And they'll hear the details tomorrow, from another source. Pam asked me frankly about it yesterday. "Oh, it was fine," I answered, truthfully. "She just said it was an easy mistake to make, and to be more careful next time." Pam looked at me. "Oh, that's interesting," she said. "I'm sure it's because it was your first time." Yes, it probably was. And Joann was present to hear this brief little explanation. So tomorrow, Marge will hear about it. And the salivating and backbiting and eyerolling will continue, and the instructions "never" to do what Sarah says, because she thinks she knows what goes on, but she really doesn't.

Yes. Beware.