’Tis the season . . . to not celebrate.
I’ve never been one for Christmas. Maybe as a child, I was. The tinsel-laden tree, the sparkly calendar with the pop-up windows counting down the days, the near-unbearable anticipation of the loot about to be delivered . . . yeah, I suppose as a child, like most children, I liked Christmas.
Something changed. I tend to date this shift in my attitude to my brief stint in retail. From working as a free-lance marketing executive/ jack-of-all-trades for avant-garde designers with serious cocaine addictions, as my business dried up in the wake of consolidations and the AIDS epidemic, I began working in retail outlets, an unbearable step down in my fortunes that preceded my ultimate fall from the fashion industry.
I tended to pick uptown boutiques that catered to a specific clientele, rather than gargantuan chains like Macy’s (though I did apply to be a personal shopper at Macy’s once, and was turned down. Must have been the discreet eyeliner I wore at the interview.) In any event, I became a retail bitch, and the months leading to the holidays — Thanksgiving being D-day — meant interminable hours on my feet, smiling in my vintage couture as harassed, anxious, and forever-short-on-time customers barreled into the store, grasping heaps of bags from other stores and breathlessly inquiring if we carried some obscure item that of course, didn’t exist. Clearly, these customers — or “clients”, as I was told I must refer to them —had already been to a hundred stores before they stumbled into my current niche, and hadn’t yet found that coveted obscure item. But it hadn’t daunted their quest. When I told them, no, we didn’t carry X but Y might serve, sometimes they rolled their eyes and stormed out, earning me a wrathful glare from the store owner / manager. Other times, they dumped their bags to the floor and allowed me to show them item Y, which they’d finger doubtfully, hemming and hawing until with a sigh, they agreed Y would serve because it was late, they were tired, whatever. I made a sale, which meant a commission, and an approving nod from the store owner/ manager du jour; and so it went.
My last uptown retail job was at a now-defunct boutique catering to professional women in the heart of San Francisco’s shopping district. It was called Hovis Court, for the owner’s last name and, well, you get the rest. I dubbed it Hovis Abort. The manager, Miss Marci, had been a former instructor of mine at the Fashion Institute where I’d earned my marketing degree. She eagerly hired me, citing she recalled my innovative approach to fashion as a student, although she did peer at me and remark that I was such a handsome man, why did I feel the need to use eyeliner? I didn’t recall her at all (must have been all the pot I smoked) but I was desperate for employment, so I assured her the eyeliner was negotiable and accepted her offer. Hovis Abort sold boxy women’s suits, sensible footware, and pleated button-to-the-chin blouses, with a commensurate high price tag. The fashion was hideous, but the price was all that mattered to me: my commissions depended on it, and I figured most professional ladies wanted to look like they’d never touched a vibrator or had discernible breasts.
To my surprise, at Hovis Abort, the owner and store manager conducted an inviolate three o’clock afternoon tea ritual. Yes, that’s right. While Miss Hovis sat upstairs in the gallery at her imposing desk stacked with professional women boxy-suit catalogs, Miss Marci climbed the stairs, bearing a tray of full service tea — porcelain pot, tiny cups, scones in paper doilies — and there they’d sit like madams, sipping tea and chatting while I minded the store downstairs. All very 19th century, and not without a touch of fin-de-siecle racism, as Miss Marci was African American and she always delivered and served the tea to Miss Anglo Saxon Hovis.
In any event, it took less than a month for me to detest the shop, the owner and the manager. But I’d accepted the job shortly before that particular season’s D-Day, and unless I wanted to fold identical mounds of sweaters at the Gap as temporary holiday staff, it was Hovis Abort or top ramen for dinner for the foreseeable future, with no hope of paying the rent.
Christmas was no exception to tea. Regardless of whether we had three clients in the store or fifteen, Miss Hovis and Miss Marci disappeared into the gallery as if under a curfew mandate. I preferred it that way; a slim gay man in vintage couture sans eyeliner must have been a welcome sight to the weary professional women coming through the doors. I was charming, helpful, and sold them more boxy suits and button-up blouses than they’d ever need or want. Not that my industriousness precluded the owner and manager from querying me mercilessly once they emerged from their afternoon tea, inspecting the sales receipts and counting the blouses on the shelves as if I might have let one of the clients purloin an additional item with their purchase. Miss Hovis and company were clearly searching for proof of my ineptitude; and as Christmas loomed, I feared I was doomed. From overseeing my sales tactics — “Did you offer her our latest lady bow tie from the Fran Leibowitz Collection?” — to numbering the inventory, they were on a mission.
Then it happened. On Christmas Eve. As I tidied up the store before closing, I was summoned to the gallery. I’d only been allowed up there once or twice; it was strictly off limits to the boy-help. I found Miss Hovis at her desk, with two stiff blouses still sealed in plastic and one empty plastic shell. As Miss Marci blocked the exit behind me, Miss Hovis pointed at the plastic shell and asked me where the missing blouse was. I was dumbfounded. Hovis Abort was hardly a bustling trade spot even at the height of Christmas madness, but we’d had clients. Sometimes, these clients, not wanting another bag to carry, asked me to unwrap the sealed blouses, discard the cardboard and plastic, and wrap the item in tissue so they could carry it out in their other bags. Miss Hovis narrowed her eyes at me. And proceeded to inform me that she and Miss Marci believed I’d stolen the blouse.
I burst out laughing, despite the sinking sensation in my stomach. I’d hoped to cling to this job until after the New Year, when the spring collections flooded the stores and I could apply for another job on my day off. Now, I faced ruin and no reference. I informed Miss Hovis and Miss Marci that I wouldn’t be caught dead in one of their blouses, so why would I steal one?
They fired me. They had my last check prepared in an envelope, and with an air of condescending disappointment, Miss Marci escorted me out. And there on a damp street in uptown San Francisco, on a damp San Francisco December on the very eve of Christmas, I faced the awful prospect that I had one paycheck to my name, no job, no career, and no pot.
I quit smoking pot. Eventually, I emerged from the stupor of my ignominious dismissal, applied as much eyeliner as I could muster, and prowled the Haight for a job in the second-hand clothing stores. I found one, endured a year or so of sprucing it up to a reputable profit while battling with its alcoholic owner, who was prone to either thrusting $200 cash into my hand as a Christmas bonus or berating me for taking too much time over the window displays, until I’d had enough of “fashion” and sought work as a grant-writer for non- profits sprouting up to care for people with HIV, as AIDS turned our city into a graveyard.
I never looked back. I still love fashion, but I never got over my distaste for Christmas. It’s like some bizarre PTSD; I hear a Christmas carol or see a display with elves, and I’m thrust right back to that mortifying moment at Hovis Abort, facing an accusing finger pointing at a plastic shell. I wonder if that missing blouse was ever found. Or if it was ever missing at all.
Whichever the case, now I simply try to bypass Christmas.