I work in retail, therefore, I hate Christmas. Yes, that's what I said: I HATE CHRISTMAS. People often cluck their tongues and shake their heads in appalled disbelief when I tell them this, and then they often follow up the shaking of their heads with the same response: "I love Christmas because people are nicer to each other."
Obviously these people do not and have never worked in a grocery store during the holiday season. Wherever these kinder, gentler folk are, they definitely aren't anywhere near my place of employment. Of course, I work at the customer service desk, which on any given day, is over-crowded with pissed off patrons demanding refunds and making general threats in order to get free food. During the holidays, this volatile behavior inevitably increases twofold, only to be compounded by the insane repetition of the Muzak in the background playing the 975th version of "White Christmas."
This is how the scene plays out. Generally, my customer is a middle-aged woman, holding her crumpled receipt in one hand and an even more crumpled plastic bag full of some unknown substance in the other. As she waits for her turn at the counter, I can sense her trying to get her story straight, playing out our impending interaction in her mind, attempting to contrive that interaction to result in her favor. Most of the time, she has a look of guilty determination as she stands there behind an 80-year-old guy playing his fat stack of lottery tickets.
I will say that for the most part, many people are patient and tolerant. The majority of the population would never walk up to a complete stranger and start screaming at them, unless of course, you throw in the added pressure of the Christmas Countdown. I can see this in the woman's face. She's trying to prepare for the holiday festivities, and in the final hours, her time has become far too valuable to be standing in line behind some old fart, waiting to replace some product that she desperately needs immediately.
In an attempt to diffuse the inevitable, I hurry the old guy aside and say those damning words, "How may I help you?" Immediately, she launches into a tirade. However, from the moment I spotted her, I began initiating my defense mechanism. By the time she starts speaking, I'm able to block out 90 percent of what she's saying. Her lips are moving, but all I hear is "blah, blah... spoiled meat... blah, blah... valuable time...." I just nod and wait for her to take a breath, which should be pretty soon since her face is getting red from spewing epithets. When she pauses, I launch into my scripted speech: "I'm very sorry. Would you like a refund or an exchange?"
For some strange reason, my speech doesn't work. When I offer my assistance, the customer is supposed to be happy. The customer is supposed to relax and be thankful that I didn't make her jump through hoops of fire in order to get her three dollars back. Instead, she becomes outraged and her whirling obscenities take on a life of their own, climaxing in a feverish, whining pitch that could break glass. She starts in again with, "I can't believe... blah, blah, blah... incompetence... blah, blah... I'm going to e-mail your corporate office and complain... blah, blah."
In the end, she gets what she set out for--an exchange AND a refund. She could have just said that in the first place. Hell, I would have given her the whole damn cow just to avoid listening to her sailor's mouth. Maybe the shitty Christmas music is getting to her, too. Maybe I didn't sound like I genuinely cared about her problem. I'll have to work on my acting skills. My boss is putting up a sign for our benefit which reads: "Think Before You Speak." I think that sign should be double-sided. Better yet, it should be posted on a billboard and surrounded by flashing lights.
The scene I just shared is a dramatization of a real encounter with a real person. This is my life November 1st through January 2nd. While this sort of person doesn't necessarily make up the majority of our patron base, I would have to say that she only misses it by a very narrow margin. It is an undocumented fact that the season of "peace and good will toward men" turns normal citizens into raving lunatics. They get so caught up in rushing around frantically spending every spare dime they have to provide their families with a joyous celebration that they leave their civility behind somewhere.
While it's true that many more donate to charities like Toys for Tots this time of year, they seem to forget that one day in the near future, that "tot" who receives his thoughtful gift from a stranger will likely grow up to fill my spot in a job that's very similar to mine. His fond memories of the kind person who pulled his wish list off of a Christmas Tree in the mall will be replaced by the impending dread of hearing that first version of "White Christmas" being piped in through the ceiling.
I try not to be too cynical. I still believe that the holidays are about sharing with family, friends and strangers alike. I guess the difference between me and the rest of the population is that I also truly believe that the rest of the year should reflect the same attitude.
When I picture a Christmas day, I think of that movie, "A Christmas Story," when, after the neighbor's hounds break in and ruin the turkey, the family ends up in a Chinese restaurant, which is empty except for the employees, giggling over a roasted goose, which still has the head attached, while being serenaded by a group of waiters and cooks singing "Ginger Bears."
In the end, I guess I'll leave you with this: If the holidays stress you out so much, maybe you should just skip them. I know I am. I'm gonna be at the movie theater with all the Jews and the Atheists for Christmas.
About the author: Renee Lee is a contributing editor for the Capital City Free Press and former features editor for the AUMnibus, the student newspaper of Auburn-Montgomery. This article was originally published in the December 2002 edition of the CCFP.
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