I watched the training video at a desk wedged between two metal racks of summer sweaters waiting to be tagged and taken to the floor. The store room was cold and dark in contrast to the fluorescent lights out front that sparked the chrome fixtures and suggested to potential criminals they were being watched. Just old enough, at the age of sixteen, to have a job, I had never been officially trained to do anything before. Now I was being taught to sell clothes. The woman on the television, dressed in a tight fitting mauve suit that hit below her knees and a cream-colored blouse adorned with a floppy bow, stuttered in her delivery of information, a result not of a speech impediment but of the quality of VHS tape and the number of times this particular video had been played.
Floppy Bow Woman had already addressed the fact that while Brook’s Fashions did not work on commission per say, it did track and value each retail assistant’s efforts to achieve her personal best. “To help you reach your Daily Sales Total, your DST, we at Brook’s have created a way to remember the steps to a successful sale. It’s called GET SALES!”
Two weeks earlier, I had listened to my mother and worn a skirt, blouse, hose and heels to the nearby shopping mall. Even though I was just handing in my resume or asking for applications, I was told by her, “You need to look like you’re already working there.” Thin pile of resumes in hand, I had walked from one clothing store to the next asking if they had any openings: Merry-Go-Round, County Seat, Brook’s, Ups & Downs, Casual Corner, Contempo Casuals. The summer was fast approaching and most of the managers were happy to take my application. A few even asked me the hours I would be available. “Full time once school is done,” I responded, just as my father had coached me the night before.
I knew nothing, including what it meant to stand on your feet for eight hours, or to work forty, or how minimum minimum age was, or how the twenty-percent discount offered to employees would take from my paycheck whatever taxes hadn’t already. I knew the least, it seems to me now, about fashion itself. For the previous five years, I had attended a Catholic school in Hawaii and worn a uniform. Outback Red, Guess, and Benneton meant nothing to me. Arriving in wealthy northern Virginia after back-to-back tours of duty on Oahu where we lived in military housing and wore shorts and flip flops all year long, I had only recently come to understand that labels even existed, that you would, for example, wear them on the outside rather than tuck them under the collar of your shirt. For the past six months, after our return to Virginia, I had worn what was on sale at Kmart, all my parents could afford given the cost of living near DC. My clothes were ill fitting and without shape, the polyester slacks and acrylic sweaters akin to what a geriatric would wear. And, more to the point, I didn’t really care. The distance between me and the cheerleaders bounding down the halls on game days was so vast it never occurred to me that the space could be traversed. Only now do I wonder why I had chosen to apply for apparel jobs that spring, rather than, say, the Hallmark store where I would at least be working with paper and words, materials I understood. Perhaps, on some level, I recognized my ignorance and my need to catch up to those who not only wore Forenza sweaters but knew to wear them backwards. Or maybe I was influenced by the novels I read where characters had adventures while life guarding or working at the local ice cream shop. Or maybe I thought a job in clothing could eventually transform me into the kind of girl that floated through the halls of Oakton High with boys like bobbers in her wake. Whatever the reason, I only walked into clothing stores that spring, and, of those, only Brook’s called me back for an interview.
The move to Virginia had been hard. Oakton High burst at the seams with close to 3,000 students. And when I wasn’t navigating the endless intestines of its giant brick body, I was outside in the damp cold, trying to find a stretch of sky amid the relentless press of oak, ash, and maple. Gone were the bright colors of the islands, the salt-softened air, the long afternoons spent riding high in the boughs of mango and plumeria. Gone were my friends, my bike ride to school, weekends at the beach floating in water warmed by the sun. Now I rode the bus to school every day, sitting at the front and by myself; every lunch period I would take my sack lunch and find a table filled with the few others at Oakton who also seemed content to read their way through high school. I was lonely and unmoored.
Every morning that first fall, I walked down the hill from my house to the bus stop on busy Nutley Street. With each passing week, the daylight decreased, and the mornings were often foggy and thick. A kid from across the street, Ross, also caught the bus. He would arrive at the stop minutes after me, having timed the departure from his warm house perfectly so as to arrive just when the long yellow bus did. We were the last two on the route to be picked up, and, after we found our seats, the bus would drive another block before making a U-turn and heading back toward the school along the other side of the divided highway. Just as I watched the cheerleaders swivel in their chairs so their hair swung just right, I watched Ross and did whatever he did. I stood where he stood and moved when he moved. Because I knew I would never fit in, my goal was only not to stand out. To be invisible.
One morning, I arrived at the stop before Ross. When I looked back up the hill toward my house, I couldn’t see his rounded shape anywhere on the street. Usually he wasn’t far behind. Even in the gray light of morning, though, it was clear he wasn’t coming. The air around me, the birds, the traffic, all seemed to quiet. Even the acorns did not fall. Standing in this vacuum of silence, I realized I had missed the bus.
The panic that rose in me from knowing I would have to tell my mom, witness her anger, and hear about it in the car on our drive was short-lived because within seconds I saw the bus on the other side of the road, having already made its U-turn and heading back to school. Seeing me, the bus driver opened her narrow window and yelled across the highway, waving her hand and nodding vigorously.
“Just stay there,” she called. “We are coming!”
Soon the giant bus lumbered to the curb, stopping the traffic behind, so that I could climb the stairs. Kids opened their windows to cry down to me,” Special delivery! Special delivery!” Even though the fall air was cool, my face grew hot, my hands tingled. I entered the bus, the giant heater blowing air at my feet, and climbed the stairs into the ruckus. Kids were laughing. In my memory, they jeered and pointed from behind cupped palms. I was anything but invisible.
From that day on, I took to hiding behind the bushes every morning until I was sure I had not missed the bus. Only when I saw its grilled yellow snout barreling toward me would I step from the leaves.
Amanda was the manager. Tall and thin, she kept the store keys on a neon telephone cord coil that spiraled around her bare bicep. At Brook’s, keys gripping your arm were what separated the managers from those on the floor. Otherwise, there was very little difference. Everyone who worked at Brook’s was white, young, female, and passing through.
“Imagine you’re going on a one-week cruise,” Amanda told me after she had clicked through my barely-a-page resume, tapping her pen next to my high school, the honor roll, and my two-year stint as a paper carrier for the Navy News. She wore a bright turquoise sweater dress with yellow plastic beads knotted at her heart. “I want you to go through the store and find the items you would take. Then bring them to me.”
I had never been on a cruise. In the military, ships were for war. I had toured submarines and Navy destroyers, had sat on the shores of Pearl Harbor to watch frigates and tugs move up and down the channel, stood beneath aircraft carriers that could block the sun, but I had never cruised. I had no idea what one would pack, though I noticed almost immediately that Brook’s Fashions did not sell bathing suits or beach towels.
I spent the next half hour poring over the racks of clothes like they were holy scripture: pale yellow Bermuda shorts, and slightly longer capris that buttoned at the knee, polos in every pastel shade possible, earrings and silver bangles, knock off Wayfarers. A white sweater for the evenings on the imaginary ship. Another pair of shorts. Another polo. I debated over color combinations, sensing on some level that one wore light colors in the tropics and that cruises went to tropical places. I channeled my mother who had preached the gospel of layers that first winter back on the mainland when the weather grew wet and cold and the skies fell leaden and gray toward the ground. Each outfit I laid atop the rounders, the metal clothing racks in the center of the narrow store, trying not to bother the actual shoppers. In the late spring of 1984, the look was preppy, with turned up collars and layered polos. Above me, Dead or Alive’s, “You Spin Me Round,” played from unseen speakers. Shoppers filed through hangers next to me, holding the occasional skirt to the light in appraisal. Finally, after excruciating consideration, I hauled my cruise line wardrobe to the counter to show Amanda. Another manager, band of keys around her elbow, looked up from where she was untangling hangers.
“Are you ready to check out?”
I explained that I had my clothing choices ready for Amanda.
“She’s at lunch.”
When I asked what I should do, the second manager told me to leave the pile on the counter and someone else would put them away.
“Julie,” she called to a teenager no older than me who was racking cards of earrings, “Can you restock these?”
I left the store masticating the missed chance to explain my decision to go with the white sweater even though it risked soiling because it matched both the shorts and the denim mini. Plus my mother always said vinegar could get anything out.
The following day Amanda called and offered me forty hours a week at minimum wage starting June first. Two weeks later, I sat in the storeroom where another Jennifer, one who could wear jeans and t-shirts because she “worked the back,” unpacked cardboard cartons of tank tops. A clothes steamer stood near me, burbling plumes of vapor that rose to the ceiling before turning into a crowd of water droplets.
I have been a worker my entire life. In the third grade, I became a mother’s helper for the woman down the street; in the fourth grade, I tried to sell my poetry to classmates who preferred buying rock candy. In the sixth grade, I learned from my friend Suzette that I could deliver the Navy News on Wednesdays to the military housing areas near me. On those days, I would come home and shed my plaid uniform skirt, shorts worn underneath to keep anyone from seeing my underwear, and roll papers on the lanai. My palms would turn black from the ink, cover my white uniform top, mark my knees and shins. Once I had folded and rubber banded a few hundred papers, I would pile them into the red wagon and take them around Maloelap and Catlin-Halsey. When I started the job, I had to run each paper to the door, but my throwing arm developed and soon I could fling each paper from the sidewalk, listen for the satisfying smack when it met with concrete.
Once a month, I would “collect” the voluntary donation of $1.00. Even though I rarely crossed the transom of anyone’s home, collecting for the Navy News provided my first lessons in humanity. I learned that old people were lonely by the way they kept me at the door, offering me cookies or pennies; that mothers were overwhelmed and often brought lids from pans or long wooden spoons to the door with their dollar bills; that fathers, on the rare times one of them answered, never understood why I was there. “We don’t subscribe to The Navy News,” they would say. “I deliver it to your house every week,” I would respond.
And I learned about class, though I could not have articulated this at the time. My route included an officer’s housing area and a larger enlisted housing area. And while today I understand that the same things were happening inside both houses, the officer’s families hid it better so they always seemed quieter, cleaner, and more refined. If I was going to receive a tip, though, it would be from someone in the enlisted housing. That I learned as well.
Brook’s Fashions was my first full-time job, and I took the training seriously. “GET SALES. This is all you need to know,” Floppy Bow assured me. “Look at your training materials and find the pamphlet that reads GET SALES. Press pause if you need more time to locate your pamphlet.”
I waited for her to continue, smoothed the skirt my mother had insisted I wear again, pamphlet in hand. I had already marked my other training materials in ball point pen, underlining the requirement to carry all personal belongings in a clear purse and the need to respect the two fifteen minute breaks and the half hour for lunch, punching in and out. The yellow time cards stood like soldiers nearby, and I had punched the one with my name on it for the first time that morning. “You will be paid for training,” Amanda had assured me, while I tried to keep the shock off my face when I realized one could be paid to learn. That morning, I hovered at the black time clock until the time read exactly 10AM, having already been told I could punch in neither early nor late. My heart had tightened with the need for exactitude. Even after working at Brook’s for the entire summer, I would stand at the time clock, just waiting for the stamp that affirmed I had measured perfectly. That I had done well.
“We begin with G. Greet every customer. Everyone who comes into the store. Welcome to Brook’s, we might say, or ask if they are looking for anything special. You can give them your name. First name only. We want everyone to feel welcome at Brook’s”
I thought of sullen Julie, the one racking the earring cards. How she remained near the registers and chatted with the managers as one customer after another came into the store. I would not be Julie.
“Then E, engage in conversation,” Floppy Bow continued. She suggested a comment about weather or complimenting a customer’s clothing or purse. To this day, I remain baffled at what kind of conversations they imagined their salespeople were having with their customers. In the years I worked at Brook’s, I rarely engaged these strangers in any real conversation. I would ask if they needed help and they would say they were “just looking.” Then I would hover nearby and straighten racks.
But I did have long conversations with the other sales girls on the floor, mostly at closing when we would have to move through the store from front to back and make sure all racks were even, the clothes well hung. Julie proved to be the most willing to share. A fan of Duran Duran, she wore her bangs long over her forehead and lined her eyes in black. Her pale white skin was accented by leather cords and necklaces puckered with silver studs. While I stayed home on weekend nights and played board games with my family, Julie went to parties, drank too much, and passed out regularly. She rolled her eyes at me a lot, but since we were often the only two on the floor, she took it upon herself to educate me rather than ignore me.
“The sweeter the punch the more Everclear in it,” she told me one day as we madly untangled the vacuum cleaner cord in an attempt to close on time.
“Is that a good thing?” I asked.
“Well, duh,” she said. She wore a white t-shirt that slid off her shoulders every time she moved and a black-checked mini skirt. Most of us wore the clothes we bought from Brook’s. We each had hangerfulls on “layaway” in the closet behind the register. When payday arrived, we would blow our checks on the same jeans and skirts we spent our days trying to convince customers to buy with the promise of what was hot or, better yet, just trending. Julie rarely put anything on layaway. Her clothes seemed to come from the rag bin, tattered and mismatched. The one item Julie bought by the dozen where the colored “Madonna” bracelets we sold. You could not see her forearm through the stacks of black and silver and neon.
“And what is Everclear again?” I asked.
“It’s what they drink at college,” Julie reminded me. “You get higher faster.” She then told me about the party she had gone to the night before from which she could not remember how she got home.
As she talked, she slowly worked on unwinding the vacuum cord.
“Here, let me do that,” I said. I would get the entire store vacuumed while she was trying to recall how it must have happened that she made it to her own bed.
“Next, ‘T,’ make a tag-line statement like ‘Tanks are hot at two for $10.90’”
In that first summer, that would become my tag-line, mostly because I understood how to wear a tank. I had studied the girls at the high school and seen how they wore them under their Forenza sweaters and mint-striped blouses. Flashdance had been released almost exactly a year earlier, and my dad had taken me to my first R-rated movie where I sat uncomfortably by his side as water fell from the ceiling onto a thinly-clad, Jennifer Beals. She played Alex, the strip dancing, deep feeling, steel worker whose torn sweatshirts set off a fashion frenzy. A tank strap across a bare shoulder was a look I knew and could suggest to my recently-engaged customers with some sense of authority. I sold a lot of tanks that summer. They were, it turned out, hot.
Floppy Bow pointed back to the pamphlet, having reiterated the G, E and T, and moved to S. “Show and suggest multiple items,” she continued. “The customer doesn’t know what she wants and it’s your job to show her. You know your merchandise. Keep the suggestions coming, even if she says she’s just looking. Offer to start a dressing room for her. Don’t make her carry the clothes around the store.”
Brook’s had three dressing rooms, all at the very back of the store. They did not lock, but the doors were solid and the walls without advertisement or message. Floppy Bow suggested that the dressing room was where it all happened. You wanted to get them to the dressing room.
I wrote down “Dressing Room” at the top of the pamphlet.
Jennifer had moved from unboxing tanks to steaming Gunne Sax-like dresses. They were all strapless and floraled with thin wires than ran up the bodice. My stomach rolled over. I knew I would never be able to sell those dresses because I couldn’t wear them. I didn’t have the chest necessary to hold them up. What did I know about pouring yourself into those wire-filled cups?
It turns out, though, that you didn’t need to actually wear or even like what you were selling. That first summer, I sold more black leather skirts and tiger-printed t’s than imaginable, even though my parents would never have let me leave the house wearing either. Within a few weeks, I began to understand that I wasn’t selling customers what they already had. I was selling them what they wanted to become. They came in wearing a pastel oxford, but they left with a chain belt that slung perfectly over a leopard top. We kept the leather locked, with thin gold chains that ran through the sleeves of the jackets and attached to the rounders. I think this was more for show than anything. Nothing at Brook’s cost more than a hundred dollars. But customers loved buying anything that was locked up. It made them feel superior to those other shoppers who were content to buy what could be freely lifted from the racks.
The leather rounders sat near the registers, and I had to ask the manager for her elastic key chain whenever a customer wanted to look at the minis. Whole days would pass when I would just keep the keys glued to my own bicep. I wore them like a badge.
“Accompany them to the dressing room,” Floppy Bow intoned for the A in SALES and then, she paused, looked directly into the camera, and “L, Leave them undressed.”
I stopped writing. Leave them undressed?
Floppy Bow continued, discussing the importance of vulnerability and nakedness in making a sale. “Ideally,” she said, “you want them naked the entire time, while you keep bringing them clothes.” She stopped short of suggesting that we hide the clothes they wore into the dressing room, but burying them beneath hangers of skirts and dresses was not a bad way to go. “Just keep bringing them more and more.”
If I knew nothing about fashion, I knew even less about being naked. At the age of sixteen, I had never been kissed. I had never held hands with a boy. I wore a one-piece bathing suit to the pool and preferred a cover-up over that. The idea that you would want to leave someone undressed in order to increase your daily sales horrified me, but Floppy Bow was telling me to do it. It was very clear: get them naked. Because I could only see the customers from the shins down, I made it my goal to keep those shins bare as long as possible by bringing as many options to them as I could. And I got good at it. “This will look adorable on you!” “I found this top on the sale rack.” “You must have missed these new prairie skirts. Try them with this web belt.” Because Floppy Bow was right. The more you kept them naked, the more you sold. After all, they were basically trapped in a closet. Just never let them put on shoes.
When they would crack the door, maybe to look for a friend or a mother or consider the walk toward the full-length mirror, I was there ready with compliments. Customers wanted to like their clothes. They wanted to buy something new. They wanted to be whatever that bustier dress suggested or that Laura Ashley-like skirt or that bleached-out denim torn at the knees. Trapped and naked, they really just wanted some clothes.
The rest of GET SALES passed in a rush. End the sale with a coat or leather try-on and Say so long. I stayed in the store room, dressed but exposed, the cool air piped through the ducts above circulating.
“All done?” Amanda asked me. I am not sure how long ago the tape had clicked off.
“Great! If you don’t have any questions, then you can start tomorrow.”
I nodded again and gathered my belongings, which included a new clear bag with a zipper across the top. The next day, I greeted my first customer. My DST was always the highest in the store.
In the three years that I worked in apparel, I embraced GET SALES. I liked the orderliness of it, the memorability, and the fact that it resulted in just what it promised: sales. Each day, I would add up my DST and feel a sense of accomplishment. I had sold all of this. But in all that time, I never really considered what was being sold, the cost, and to whom. I’m a writer now, one who hawks the value of vulnerability to her students and seeks it in her writing. I am forever telling students about the etymology of the word—that it comes to us from the Latin for wound and that memoir, in particular, demands a kind of nakedness on the page. It’s not the deep dark secret kind of nakedness either, I say to them. You don’t need to write about trauma or abuse. Rather it is the revelation of the ordinary ways our humanity gets revealed.
As a salesperson at Brook’s, I always thought it was the customer who was the naked one, the customer who was in need, but I realize now how much of myself I sold, how hard I worked to follow others, watch them, never disappoint. Floppy Bow told me to leave them naked and I did. When denim jackets returned one fall, I bought several. When the western-look became the rage, I wore cowboy boots even though I lived on the east coast and had never ridden a horse. I clocked in and out perfectly, never took another’s sales, and kept my clear plastic purse where everyone could see it. Vulnerability of the body was something to be leveraged, not something to honor.
I undress for the reader now. No one has to lock me in a room or offer me a different size. I do it willingly, and I try not to reach for my pants by hiding behind the tiger-print of metaphor or the denim of fact. To be naked in writing is not sexy. True vulnerability does not result in sales. As anyone who has seen a lot of naked bodies will tell you, naked isn’t often pretty but it is always real. Floppy Bow Woman wanted me to leave customers naked in the hopes that their exposure would cause discomfort, enough discomfort that they would reach for every available shield. In writing, I have learned that the more we can reveal our humanity, strip away the various outfits we so often choose to wear, the more readers will recognize themselves in the story we tell. After all, we all arrived in this world naked and we all know the desire to hide in the bushes.