When I was a senior in high school I had a crappy paying job during the holidays as a temp worker at Dey Brothers Department Store (extra points if anyone out there has even the faintest memory of this now defunct chain). First they put me “on the floor” in the sweater department where at all times you needed to look busy. Even if there was no one within 50 feet of you, you had to fold and refold the sweaters. Someone at Dey Brothers must have believed that in addition to selling overpriced clothing and household items, they were also growing acres of cacti. The air was so dry and hot that with each fold and fluff the sweaters crackled with static. I had just acquired contact lenses, which dried up the instant I started each shift, causing constant blinking and squinting and irritation. To make matters worse, the sweaters were near the holiday decorations and that year a new shiny bird ornament made its debut clipped to fake white trees and chirping annoyingly high-pitched Christmas songs.
So imagine me there, dressed in a wool skirt and turtle neck, twitching with each shock from the sweaters, eyes narrow and bloodshot, flyaway strands of hair standing straight off my head, beads of sweat on my upper lip, tight grimace plastered on my face wanting to rip every single bird off the glittery branches and smash them against the wall.
As you may have guessed, it wasn’t long before I was transferred. I was taken out of the public eye to the back of the store where people paid their bills, dragged their screaming children to the bathroom and if they dared, brought their newly purchased gifts to be wrapped. Yup, I was a gift wrap girl. And to tell you the truth there was something satisfying about it. I loved the paper. It came in huge rolls with a bar that let you pull and rip perfectly cut sheets any size you wanted. The ribbons and bows matched and there were little stick-on cardboard cutouts of baby carriages or wedding cakes or snowmen. There were all shapes and manner of boxes too, which we stockpiled for customers only, fitting in a tie or hand towels or a staticy sweater, using tissue paper the color of moth wings to fold over a protective, secretive layer.
I was good at it. I creased that paper like it was origami. I matched colors and designs in unusual fun ways and made cool bows that curled and dazzled and popped those presents like there was a Faberge egg in every box. Customers loved it. One guy tipped me $5 (a fortune at the time) for disguising his tennis racket as a kite. It was still like an oven back there, the pay still sucked, and occasionally a bird ornament malfunctioned and got sent back our way, but I was ok with it. It was work, but not torture. People walked away smiling. I was creating not selling.
Now, a million holidays later, I’ve lost my touch. I let a gift bag do the work for me, shoving in some rumpled tissue paper to hide the present and not even bothering to wrap. And in general, I buy gift bags like my wardrobe–basic neutral colors, interchangeable tops and bottoms, spanning across functions from work to grocery shopping to the occasional night out. It’s practical, efficient, economical. And dull.
Do stores even have gift wrap departments anymore? I know things are faster, our consumerism has ramped up and our time has become a commodity. But I think I’m missing out on something. I think I’d be better off without so many choices and so much stuff. I think I would like to make less and create more. This is not a plea for global Martha Stewartism. This is more along the lines of a longing to feel better at the end of the day. To feel tired not depleted. To feel connected not socially networked. Maybe my problem is that the majority of my life takes place “on the floor” and instead I should be down here in my basement in front of my computer where I don’t have to look busy if I’m not and I can control the temperature to some extent.
And I can write.
Now if only I can get some guy to tip me $5 now and then.