Five years later the expression “Black Friday” still strikes terror into my heart and sends me down alleyways of painful introspection.
Half a decade ago I had just arrived in the USA and was still adjusting to the emptiness of not getting on the tube every morning and going past the security guard into the heart of government: from grabbing a coffee at the chic outlet in Portcullis House or taking my Members of Parliament out for drinks at a Japanese restaurant to get the scoop.
Instead of pigeons and red buses circling outside my window and the high towers of Westminster Abbey, I found myself staring balefully through crepe myrtle trees, listening for the occasional passing truck.
From being in demand I was a nobody in small town America who couldn’t even get the editor of the local paper to take much interest. My interviews with Kate Winslet, Tony Blair and Hugh Grant didn’t interest him at all. He wanted someone who could trot along to a board of education meeting and report on the date of the next one.
By November unemployment in small town America was getting to me. I inquired about a holiday job at a local clothing store and was taken on.
I still remember my interview with the sallow woman who would be my supervisor in a room full of surplus coat hangers. Brushing cigarette ash off her jacket Linda (not her real name) said I’d have to shape up and make my quota of selling customers sky high interest store cards, or I’d be fired. Employees didn’t have many rights, although we were allowed a 10-minute break if our hands started to bleed.
My first day of work would be the day after Thanksgiving – known as Black Friday. I had no clue what this entailed, but I was told to arrive early, about 5 am.
Even today I can recall the feel of the parking lot when I drove in out of the darkness of a North Carolinian morning. Not even a bleak, windswept morning in the wastes of the Gobi desert or the Siberian steppe can feel as empty as the acres of rotting concrete behind a shopping mall in the American south.
Forlorn and lonely employees huddled in cold corners waiting for the lights to come on and for Black Friday to start in earnest. I played it cool and realized too late I was trying to get in the wrong door. By the time I arrived at the correct one I was already tardy on my first day. Unsmiling Linda opened the door and met my blabbering explanation with a stare that would have frozen the Polar ice caps at 20 miles.
“And I thought you guys were meant to like Brits,” I felt like blubbing.
Soon I was put into the frontline on till 2. Fortunately they had not had time to train me in the higher academic arts of cashiering, so I was left to bag up purchases for the masses and I mean masses. For hours during the morning they came at us like a tsunami. My rudimentary bagging skills weren’t up to the task but were probably equal to the salary of $7 an hour.
But after a few hours a strange thing happened. I was marooned in a regressive part of North Carolina in a low paid job with a boss who had all of the social skills of a cadaver; I was adrift in a foreign country with all those myths about an English accent opening doors shattering around me, and yet suddenly I started to have fun.
My fellow workers in purgatory turned out to be an eclectic bunch. It took me about 5 seconds to deduce Marc was gay due to the conversation he launched into about Boy George and Madonna, Rachel turned out to be as funny as she was acerbic; she was fiddling on the tills while making an application for a criminal justice course and Denise – well Denise, kept passing gas. This had the double effect of sending us into convulsions of laughter in front of customers as they reacted as if they had hit a brick wall at the till.
We all crowded round one till because the veteran shopworker on the other – Miss Shirley, was too much of a “witch” for anyone to work with. Eventually we drew lots for who would go and work with her.
Over the next few weeks the mall started to enter my soul. Hanging out in the mall burger joint with my store name badge hanging to my shirt like a moniker of shame, I would wonder what had happened to my life. Miss Shirley would berate me and call me “Bubba,” Linda would harass me about those elusive credit card sales. I realized society never realizes the plight of the humble shop worker who is forced to see the worst side of humanity with little support and spend hours on his or her feet for meager pay.
There were some fun times stacking jeans while Marc bitched about everybody in the store and Rachel ridiculed people. It was nice to find black humor in the most unpromising part of small town America.
But in the end Marc was let go. Linda explained to me he was “a bit funny” which I took to mean homosexual. Some of the others drifted off too and I got a call from a newspaper.
I left the store and those hours of loneliness beside the Izod shirts to someone else, I left the garish strip lights and cheap jewelry to Linda who was half dead, partly because her husband had run off with a Canadian, and Miss Shirley who was three quarters poisoned and one quarter mean as a raccoon in a trap.
But I can never see Black Friday in the same way since and that canned Christmas Perry Como stuff sends a shiver through my soul every time I hear it. And not in a pleasant way, either.