A Recessionary Tale
By Mary Seymour '80
I started the day after Thanksgiving, known in retail as Black Friday; I arrived exhausted from my own anxiety. I spent the day gathering staggering piles of clothes from fitting rooms, then wandering in fruitless circles, trying to put them in their rightful places. After eight hours, I went home more tired than I’d ever felt.
Despite the downsides—$7.50-an-hour pay, perpetually aching feet—I enjoyed helping customers. With frantic open-mindedness, I decided my future might lie in retail. I applied for a part-time position at Anthropologie, a boutique chain that specializes in boho-chic fashion and artsy home goods. I became one of 25 new associates, winnowed from an astounding 170 applicants, with a starting pay of $8.50 per hour. To prove my can-do attitude, I cheerfully steamed clothes, strapped a vacuum cleaner on my back, Swiffered the fitting rooms, and cleaned bathrooms. The funky atmosphere of the store, I soon discovered, masked a Third Reichian corporate policy, which included inspecting employees’ purses whenever we left the store. A surfeit of tiny blond managers ruled with despotic efficiency, chiding me for leaning against the cash register counter and hanging a dress improperly.
Within a few weeks, in the absence of professional status and positive feedback, my self-esteem was in shreds. I noted my own descent with clinical clarity, registering how quickly 50 years of accumulated skill and experience could turn into rubble. Still, I stayed on in the belief that an unpleasant job was better than no job.
Craigslist ads that had seemed beneath me began to look better. I applied for jobs as a housecleaner, receptionist, personal assistant. Most turned out to be scams. For comic relief, I turned to the personal ads, fascinated by people’s bizarre predilections. Then I came across a listing that made me think about a new career direction.
“$eeking a cauca$ian female who would like to benefit from my company. Any relationship we have will be under your direction and at your convenience. Me: 46, professional, educated, hygienic, fit, non-smoking, financially secure. Yes, I’m married but enjoy the company of other women.”
A job that didn’t require being on my feet sounded good compared to long days in retail. It went against every value I’d been raised with, but these were dire economic times. I wrote a brief reply expressing my curiosity and interest.
DJ and I exchanged a couple of e-mails, in which I learned that he was an engineer with a small consulting firm and had a daughter in middle school.
“Been happily married for 18+ years,” he wrote. “Seems contradictory to have a happy marriage and place a personals ad at the same time. I’m just asking you not to judge.”
My inner judge was willing to leave the courtroom—at least until DJ sent me a photograph of himself. There he was, a dark-eyed, salt-and-pepper-haired man with a drooping chin. A Christmas tree stood in the background, while a woman’s cropped head occupied the left corner.
“Seeing a bit of what I presume is your wife’s head in the photo makes me wonder if I’m ethically capable of this,” I wrote. He was most understanding in his reply, and the possibility of a liaison ended as quickly as it had begun. I was back to being broke, but with a clear conscience.
Being a prison guard had never been a career aspiration, but desperation made me an out-of-the-box thinker. I filled out an online application for detention-services officer for Guilford County, trying not to blink when I answered “yes” to questions such as:
1) Are you willing to use deadly force, if necessary, to protect a life (yours or others)?
2) Are you able and willing to identify a dead person’s body or watch an autopsy being done?
3) Are you willing to inspect unclothed prisoners including looking into openings, using proper protection with exposure to body fluids, wastes, and possible contact with sick, infected, or dead people?
I mailed my notarized application and received a phone call a week later. The sheriff’s office needed a certified copy of my criminal record (or lack thereof), available for $15 at the county courthouse. I drove downtown and circled a cluster of grim gray government buildings, looking for a parking place. As I circled, I tried to imagine myself closing prisoners into jail cells. I thought about how trapped I felt, my life limited by external circumstances and a burgeoning sense of powerlessness. I could never lock anyone in—not now or ever. I drove home and threw out my application.
Recently I had coffee with an editor who’d quit her job at a publishing company several months ago. She’d started her own marketing consulting firm, but so far the work was nonexistent. Everyone was cutting budgets and making do with what they had. She’d begun looking for jobs online.
“I got turned down for a lousy $10-an-hour job,” she told me. “I can’t believe I’m being rejected for jobs I don’t even want.”
During the course of lunch, she was alternately angry, anxious, and gloomy. Listening to her, I realized how far I’d traveled emotionally since I arrived in North Carolina. It occurred to me that, like terminal patients observed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, I’d passed through denial, anger, bargaining, and depression, ultimately coming to acceptance.
I felt strangely peaceful as I listened to her roil in her anger phase. I knew that for both of us, certainty, security, and a large measure of self-confidence had gone out the window. What took their place, if we looked at it through an extremely rosy lens, were freedom, possibility, and an AP course in resiliency.
“I had no idea it would be this hard,” the former editor said.
“Do you wish you hadn’t quit your job?”
She paused a long moment, swirling her coffee with a spoon. “No,” she said. “I felt like I was dying. I had to leave.”
I gave her a big fellow-survivors’ hug when we said goodbye. “The right thing is just around the corner,” I said. “Believe in that and keep moving forward.”
I hurried out the door and headed to Macy’s for an eight-hour shift in the petites department, eager and anxious to find out what surprises the day—and all the days after—would bring.
Mary Seymour ’80 is a freelance writer in Greensboro, North Carolina. She works part-time at Anthropologie and Macy’s, shows her artwork at a local gallery, volunteers at a therapeutic riding center, and is taking coursework toward a master’s in counseling. This story originally appeared in the fall 2009 issue of the Smith Alumnae Quarterly.