Friday, January 9, 2009

Cooking Shoes

There are worse jobs than selling shoes, but I've only had a few of them. Working at the JBL stereo speaker laboratory was one. The factory was managed by Japanese workflow experts. You had to be in your seat where you glued metal nipples into the center of speaker cones by the time the bell rang to start your shift or you were docked a quarter-hour's pay. Five minutes before your break, the bell rang to tell you it was coming. Then it rang to say it was time to take ten minutes off. Five minutes into the break, it rang again to alert you the break was nearing an end and to return to your station. It rang once more at the end of the break and if you were not seated, fastening nipples with glue that melted your brain cells, you were docked another fifteen minutes' pay. And so on through lunch and quitting time. I lasted two days.

In high school I fell prey to the CutCo Knife company scheme. You were driven into strange, dangerous neighborhoods at night to go door-to-door to sell cutlery. You carried a catalog but, strangely, no knives. They would have come in handy in some of those neighborhoods. I lasted one night.

I stuck much longer--three weeks--at the Lipton Tea Factory in Santa Cruz. It was a graveyard shift. Lipton bought these fabulous German-made machines to package their products. At the top of the behemoths, you poured in sacks of loose tea. Out the bottom came cellophane-wrapped boxes, each box filled with paper-wrapped teabags in neat rows. The machines did all but sweep the factory floor and clean themselves of the monstrous piles of tea-dust that settled everywhere. Our job was to don ear protection, goggles, and surgical masks and scale the towering gantries above the machines to blow the loose tea to the floor. We carried long hoses filled with compressed air. In all this gear we looked like trashtronauts. After blowing down clouds of dust, we formed moguls of tea in the center of the floor with push-brooms and filled plastic bags with the stuff. The work had to be done while production was suspended, so we worked through the night.

I could never get used to sleeping by-day, and so I fell into a coma during our breaks and lunch hours (around 3 am). By the third week I was living in a death-trance, scaling the long gantries with wobbly legs and bracing myself against the guardrail. The end. I had my last check forwarded to my campus mailbox.

Next, I worked the carousel and thrill rides at the Beach Boardwalk. I was a good fifteen years older than the rest of the employees who popped their pimples, talked in sentences spattered with "like" and "rad", and wore the same polyester blue and orange jumpsuits with matching caps. The carousel featured a ring toss game: you'd clutch a metal ring the size of a half-dollar and toss it in the gaping mouth of a huge wooden clown as you circled past. If you hit the bulls eye, the clown would light up. Stray rings that missed the target would clang and roll to the floor. Some of the teen-aged workers would ride the edge of the carousel, trapping a ring against the concrete floor with their shoes, superheating the metal so that kids attempting to grab an extra ring during a pass would burn their fingers. I complained and was summarily transferred to the house of horrors, where I hid in the dark with orders to bust adolescents who used the opportunity to neck or smoke dope. Instead, I sat silently and would leap out in front of a passing cart and scare the crap out of them. That job lasted less than a month.

I digress. I really wanted to talk about selling shoes, which I did for the summer between my junior and senior year. My boss was Mr. Smiley. I kid you not. Mr. Smiley weighed in at over 300 pounds and had the demeanor of a man who was deprived of a lifetime of sexual privileges.

I hated selling. You were expected to direct each buying customer to the cash register where you'd press them into impulse buying of polish, laces, hosiery, handbags, belts, and other nonsense that Mr. Smiley identified as "up-fronts". So I would hide in the back for as long as I could, filing stray boxes that had been left on the showroom floor. I'd climb up a ladder and stand there, meditating on my wretched lot.

Mr. Smiley had me sussed out to perfection. He'd come through the curtains to the rear, find where I was lurking, and say, "Hyman, there's someone out there looking for you." The first few times I fell for it, then I knew it was but a ruse to get me out on the floor. Often there were no customers out there at all. But when Mr. Smiley told me to go, I went.

I hated customers. Most of the women had no intention of buying. They would pick three or four pumps at a time, and ask for sizes that bracketed their appropriate size, so you'd end up with a stack of fifteen or twenty boxes of shoes when they walked out. I won't say I didn't enjoy fitting some of them, letting my left hand cup their calves while my right twisted the shoe into place.

I could catalog the behaviors of customers and often shared my findings with my co-workers. For example, Mexican men had an aversion to large feet. They would frequently ask to see shoes in sizes much too small, and I would comply, watching them wince as I forced on pairs with a shoehorn. We would "cook" their shoes. You cooked shoes by putting a wooden block into them and twisting a hand screw that worked like a reverse vice, planing out the width of the shoes. Of course, the practice ultimately weakened the leather, so the shoes would wear out quickly, so Mr. Smiley considered cooking a boon to the footwear industry.

Sometimes Mr. Smiley assigned you to a customer--male or female--who had no conception of proper hygiene. You did all you could to keep from vomiting into your nose. Once I thought a man was wearing grimy socks only to discover that he was barefoot. We all felt that we were owed for waiting on these customers. So we'd find shoes for ourselves and bury them in the trash, take them out to the dumpster during our shift, and recover them afterward.

When I quit the shoe business forever, I owned a collection of sneakers, boots, and loafers along with an "up-fronts" assortment of belts, polish, and socks. Amelda Marcos, in her glory, had never owned so many bowling shoes.


Rick said...

My favorite part of this is the fact that Mr. Smiley's name really is Mr. Smiley. It's perfect! He seems exactly the kind of character you'd expect to find haunting you in your nightmare of a job.

tangobaby said...

At first you really caught my attention with the metal nipples. But then we moved on to pimple popping and stinky feet and now I really don't know what to say.

ps. My mom knew an OB/GYN named Dr. Handy. No joke.