Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Thirty Minutes of My Life I'll Never Get Back (A Look Back)

Scene: The Store's sales floor, August 2008


While I was restocking a table of women's sweatshirts today, I made the mistake of smiling at a seemingly harmless little old lady on the other side of the table and asking her if I could help her with anything. Here's the (mostly one-sided) conversation that followed:

"I don't want to buy something and then not be able to-" she starts and then stops.

I assume she's asking about the return policy and I get ready to explain that you can return any item to any store, outlet or otherwise. Her husband comes up and interrupts. She shows him the sweatshirt she's interested in. He looks at it and says,

"It's made in Singapore."

He walks away. She looks again at the sweatshirt and then looks up at me.

"I've stopped shopping at this store because the clothes aren't made in America anymore."

I decline to point out that by browsing in this store, she is technically shopping in this store. Seems rude.

"Everything's overpriced and everything's shipped from China and you know what they're paying over there."

I don't actually but I nod and smile.

"And everything has stretch in it. I don't like that."

She reaches across the table and pulls on my shirt.

"That," she says. "That's all right."

It's made in Cambodia but I don't mention that either. Always gracious.

"I have a sweater from this company that's fifteen years old," she continues. "Made in America. It says do not wash on the tag. Hand wash or dry clean only. But I put it in the machine."

Oh good. A rebel.

"Good for you," I say. Ruthie is making faces at me. Kind of a ha ha, you got the crazy ass customer and I didn't! sort of thing. Seems rude. Made In America Lady doesn't notice.

"Then I put in the dryer."

I can't wait for the terrific action sequence where she folds the sweater.

"I fold it and then I preserve it."

Preserve it? I smile and nod.

"I put it in a clear plastic bag that breathes."

She goes on. I keep nodding at regular intervals. I think Ruthie's doing a happy dance now. Made In America Lady is now explaining how she doesn't like to buy Canadian either. Apparently, it has something to do with her mismeasured drapes.

"Canadians," she says, "can't measure."

I tuck that tidbit away in my "pearls of wisdom" folder.

"They don't make anything like they used to," she says next. "See this jacket?"

I do, in fact, see her jacket. It's a brightly colored pink and white warm up jacket from the eighties.

"This jacket is twenty five years old," she says. "It doesn't look it, doesn't it?"

Except for the decidedly eighties look. I smile and nod.

"That's because I wash it."

Oh, is that the key?

"I wash it and I dry it and I wear it in the rain and the rain rolls right off. It's light enough to carry with me. I take it everywhere. It's light enough to wear in the summer and I take it everywhere."

"Well, it's a very nice jacket," I say.

Ruthie drops off a pile of sweatshirts for me. "I'm leaving the sales floor now," she announces.

Ruthie leaves the sales floor. I don't.

"See these pants?" Made In America Lady continues.

I do, in fact, see her pants. They're pink, very pink, polyester pants. When she goes outside, any plane overhead will change course.

"People ask me all the time where I got these pants. I tell them I don't remember; I've had them so long."

I can believe that.

"But they don't look it."

Because you wash them? I smile and nod and think how lucky she is that I left my boxcutter in the stockroom.

"And you see this crease?"

I do, in fact, see the crease in her pants.

"I put them in the machine, I put them in the dryer, and they come out like this. No ironing."

"That's the important thing," I say.

She moves on to tell me about these sheets she bought this one time from this one place. One hundred dollar sheets. Put them in the machine, put them in the dryer. Put them on the bed and they were all wrinkled.

"I took them back," she said. "I wasn't going to iron sheets."

"I don't blame you."

The story goes on. I'll edit it for you: Her mother used to make her iron everything. Everything. So she doesn't like ironing anymore.

"I don't blame you," I say.

"And you know what?" she asks.

I try to look interested. I don't think it's working but Made In America Lady doesn't seem to notice. Or care.

"I went back to that store and the sales lady there told me they sent back all those sheets because a lot of customers returned them because they were wrinkled. 100% cotton sheets. I have 100% cotton."

Between your ears? I smile and nod.

Her husband comes round again. I try not to look too hopeful. He says he'll wait for her outside. He walks away. She doesn't. Dammit. She looks again at the sweatshirts that started this whole mess. I start folding the pile Ruthie left for me.

"They just don't make things like they used to," she says. "I'll tell you-"

I brace myself. I've seen her jacket and her pants. I hope she doesn't want me to see anything else.

"I'm glad my years are numbered."

I honestly don't know how to respond to that. She's smiling so I smile back.

She then returns to the beginning of our conversation. Good God, am I going to have to go through the whole thing twice? I keep folding, hoping she'll take the hint and leave. Ruthie reappears on the sales floor and points and laughs. Not cool.

Made In America Lady picks up a light blue sweatshirt. "This is a nice sweatshirt," she says. "But what about returning it? I don't want to buy it if I have to worry about getting it back up here to return."

"You can return it to any one of our stores," I say. "It doesn't even have to be an outlet store. Any one. Just save your receipt and they'll be happy to do it for you."

Especially if you tell them the great story about your pants. And your jacket. And your bed sheets. And your mother.

"Well, you don't have it in small," she says.

I check. I check the shelves, I check the bins of new product I was working on putting out when she arrived. No smalls. You've got to be kidding me. I offer to go out back and check there for her, fully intending to go out back and never return.

"No, I don't like buying things not made in America," she says and leaves, muttering something about 100% cotton.

"Thanks for coming in," I say as I throw the remaining sweatshirts back in the bin and hightail it off the floor. Never to be seen again.

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