24 January 2009

Flashback I

To the tune of "We're Havin' a Heat Wave..."
I'm havin' a flashback,
A terrible flashback...
Yesterday, believe it or not, I went Christmas shopping for my wife. Over the past few years, we've been having a serious motivation problem with The Holidaze — the decorating, the doing the shopping, the wrapping the presents, the getting everything shipped in time, then the scheduling the visits, the making the calls, the whole mishegaas. Now my wife's a fantastic decorator, and when it comes to online shopping, she could be a consultant — hm, maybe I'll mention that... — but I'm a failure at all these things, which doesn't help in the spirit of the season department. Long story short, we don't shop for each other until after we've (read she's) discharged our obligations in the friends & family department.

So yesterday I'm in Macy's, which I haven't visited in the better part of a year, grimly cruising the fragrance counters for my darling's favorite (I gotta say I like it too), when I feel my neck start to tighten up, my shoulders lift in a protective hunch, and my ears prick up as if I'm about to get conked from behind. I whirl around, but all I can see are three very tired looking but well-dressed ladies chatting across the aisle between two make-up stations, one of them sitting on the floor surrounded by boxes she's unpacking.

I'm so relieved I blurt out something totally stupid: "Make me up!" — my arms extended, throwing myself on their mercy.

They all look rather startled, but one of them sees that it's a joke — not likely a portly gent in a baseball cap & a ratty sweater is there for a facial — and plays along. "Where've you been?" she asks. "We haven't had you in the chair for ages!"

I can't keep it up, of course, so I say something lame like "Sorry, long day" and ask for the fragrance brand my wife reminded me last week that she really likes. By now the other two gals are cackling, perhaps at the image of my stubbly face under their hands. But in the end they do have mercy on me and direct me to the proper counter, right by the entrance to the rest of the mall.

And there, after a relatively painless shopping experience, the creepy feeling comes over me again. I look out into the mall itself: the boutique eateries, the gussied-up dummies up against the glass, the weird counterpoint of too-loud, too-happy music that straddles the entrance to every store — and the terror rises exponentially. And I realize... I'm having a flashback.

Just before the holidays a year ago, I began what I now jokingly call my Misadventures in Retail. It was an odd year, 2007. At the beginning of it I went to work for a bunch of Aussies, editing an online arts journal that they were trying to take global, but my part of it was downsized six months later, and I got to be unemployed for the next six months while I scrambled to find something to do next.

Then I saw a posting for a job at a computer sales & service center in New York, and I thought — hell, I like helping people, I love computers (at least mine), and I need a job: what could possibly go wrong?

You never want to ask that question. It's like being disappointed in the results of the 2000 election but thinking, O well, how bad can it be? My friend Nemo did just that, and eight years later is still marveling at the humongous enormity of that particular failure of imagination.

I was hired as an intaker in the service department — in effect, a triage nurse at a computer hospital. I stood behind a horseshoe counter studded with cheap laptops and styrofoam pads, and did my best to counsel, console, and commiserate with folk who all too often had literally just lost their minds: it worked fine yesterday — a little slow, but it's been doing that, and now all I get is this black screen with a bunch of gibberish in different languages...

In chess, intakers would be pawns, the front line that absorbs the enemy attack. And some days it felt like that — people get really upset and irrational when you tell them that all their family photos are lost because the digital key broke off in the lock, or that their senior project for a bachelor's degree will cost them $1200 to retrieve (though it's free if we can't do it), or that their financial records for the past ten years are now totally toast.

It was harrowing, and exhausting, but I really enjoyed it, once I got the hang of the impenetrable intake forms and learned which technicians to bring the poor broken lambs to (and which techs it was best to cross the street to avoid). Sometimes there were miracles, sometimes disasters, sometimes things got worse the longer they stayed. But most of the time I could help, if only to help my customers learn the only real computer lesson there is: BACK EVERYTHING UP IN THREE DIFFERENT PLACES.

Trouble was, I was making more money on unemployment, and the two-hour commute (in the dead of winter) was just killing these old bones. So when a similar position opened up closer to home, I took it, even though it involved a 63-mile drive — not a great idea, given my tendency to act like the Avenger of Evil on the road (there's a reason for that: I am the Avenger of Evil).

And it's that gig that still gives me terrible flashbacks like the one I had yesterday at the Mall...

(to be continued...)

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