Drapery Despots

Note: I’ve written a couple pieces about first job experiences. Here’s one of them.

“One should always play fair when one has the winning cards.” Oscar Wilde

“Vhat’s vrong with you? Can’t you add? Vhy don’t you know how to add?” Mr. M shouted at me, waving the offending receipt in my face. I apologized over and over for my addition error that had cost the store ten dollars, wishing he’d simply deduct the amount from my paycheck. But no. When his rant was over, he stomped away in disgust, leaving me to blink back tears.

At sixteen, I was fed up with fifty-cents-an-hour babysitting jobs that barely kept me in transistor radio batteries. I wanted a real job, not one that kept me inside on a Saturday night while my friends were at basketball games or sock hops. Then, Ford City, one of the first indoor malls, opened right in my neighborhood, and I applied at every store. After hearing lots of, “Sorry, but you have no experience,” I landed a job at Drapery Fair. There, I sold bedspreads, curtains, throw rugs, and fuzzy covers for toilet tanks and earned a dollar and twenty-five cents an hour issued in a bonafide paycheck.

Mr. M, the store’s owner, was a barrel-chested little man with a hair-trigger temper. With little provocation, he’d burst into thunderous roars, swearing and screaming in a thick eastern European accent. He oversaw his retail empire from his desk in the stockroom, up a set of stairs into a loft, where he peered through an opening cut into the wall. When he spied something not to his liking, he bellowed out orders – “You! No standing around!”– and sent everyone below him scrambling. He owned three stores, so he left ours in the hands of a mild-mannered manager most of the time, but when the boss was in the house, everyone was on high alert. “I’m not paying you damn girls to do nothing,” he said, so even if there were no customers, I scuttled about, folding rugs, straightening and restraightening shelves.

After my arithmetic error, I meticulously checked and rechecked my computations on every receipt. But before long I became the target of his wrath again. One evening, business was slow, and at the end of the night, Mr. M came down from his perch in the stockroom, grabbed the handwritten receipts from the spindle, and compared the amount in the cash drawer with the evening’s sales. Suddenly he was roaring.

“Ve’re short fifty dollars! Vhat happened?”

I froze. Don’t let him find a mistake made by me, I pleaded silently. He studied every receipt and grilled me and the other employee on duty, but we had nothing to say to solve the mystery.

“Did anyone get near the cash drawer?” he demanded. “Did you let someone steal from it?”

Then, I recalled that earlier a couple of guys had come in to buy a throw rug. Rarely did men shop here, but these two made a hasty selection, and I wrote up the transaction. After I figured out the amount due, one of them handed me some cash. The register’s drawer opened, I reached in to make change, the guy handed me two fives to swap with the ten he’d already given me, dropping the bills to the floor. I picked up the dropped money, gave them their change, and off they went. Now, it all seemed odd, and a knot formed in my stomach. Could this have been the cause of the money shortage? I told Mr. M what happened.

“Those bastards stole from you! They took money out of the register! You looked away from the drawer when it’s open! Vhat vere you thinking!” he bellowed. “Were they black? I don’t want any of them in my store! Go out in the mall! Find them!” and he pointed to the door, sending me scurrying to look for the bandits. I didn’t even get the chance to tell him that no, they were not black.

My face burning, my heart hammering, I darted around the mall. Certainly the culprits were long gone by now, and even if I spotted them, what was I going to say? After a while I slunk back to the store, fighting tears. Mr. M’s face turned purple with frustration, and I was sure I’d be fired.

“Never use the register again! You can’t be trusted!” he shouted, his voice now hoarse with rage. “Get someone else to ring up your sales. You’re too dumb.”

He continued to berate me, a stupid girl who had been tricked by these con artists. This was the oldest trick in the books. How could I have fallen for the dropped money stunt? Humiliated and guilt-ridden, I apologized and offered to pay him the fifty dollars, but he scornfully waved me away. “I don’t vant your money!” he shouted.

On my next work day, the manager assured me that the thieves targeted young, inexperienced clerks. But what the boss decreed was the law. He forbade me from ringing up transactions, requiring me to ask another employee to do it, while customers whom I’d helped with merchandise waited and wondered why I wouldn’t complete their sale. It was only when this system became inconvenient for everyone that Mr. M lifted the sanction.

Mr. M was a tyrant and a racist, but a part of me respected a man who’d built a business from nothing… an immigrant who peddled household goods from a cart on Maxwell Street before he acquired a store. This couldn’t be said for his sixteen-year-old son Richard, the heir apparent who often came in once in a while with his father, to learn the business. In black horn-rimmed glasses and with his dark hair slicked back, he swaggered around, berating employees young and old, issuing orders while he sat perched on the counter at the cash register. He bragged nonstop about all things Richard – his car, his girlfriends — while doling out disdain for everyone, including a fiftyish widow making minimum wage. All of us, even the store manager, were under his command. “I own this place,” he’d boast. One of his favorite rants was aimed at his “stupid” teachers. What a waste of time school was! After all, why would he, a business owner, need an education? While he sneered at my plans for college, I kept quiet while inwardly seething at his obnoxiousness.

Richard’s cockiness was one thing; his racism that mimicked his father’s was another. At that time, Chicago was a hotbed of racial tension. Schools were segregated, neighborhoods were white or black only, and protests and riots were often in the headlines. Ford City Mall rarely had minority customers, but one evening, a black couple entered the store. I waited on them while Richard hovered nearby, arms crossed, scowling. When the customer handed me a MasterCard, a relatively new method of payment, Richard took over. “Let me see that card,” he insisted, snatching it away from me. He then made a show of scrutinizing the card, checking it against the list of bad card numbers posted near the register, a list he’d never consulted before. When no number matched, Richard dialed the MasterCard help line. “I need to check to see if this is a valid card,” he barked into the phone. All the while he glared at the man and woman, who stood patiently at the counter. When he got off the phone, he demanded an i.d. Glowering, Richard inspected the man’s driver’s license. Finally, finally, he completed the sale and the couple left with their purchase.

All the while, I stood by and watched the couple endure this treatment. Why didn’t I speak up? Why didn’t I follow the couple out of the store and apologize for Richard’s behavior? Why didn’t I tell Richard what I thought of him? Why didn’t I complain to his father? My own humiliation at the hands of the store owner and his son seemed so trivial after witnessing what this couple sustained, but I didn’t say a thing.

Drapery Fair is long gone, and so is Mr. M, I imagine. The high school girl who wouldn’t speak out has developed as stronger backbone since then. But what about Richard? He’s far from young, and that big retail chain, his name emblazoned in neon, never materialized. Maybe he ended up selling curtain rings or tissue holders in a big box store, or folding towels in the back room of Walmart. Maybe he had a boss who mocked him because of his untidy mattress pad display or his inattention to toilet bowl brush inventory. Did he ever become a decent human being? One can only hope.

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