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.

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