I work in retail. But it’s not quite that simple. My situation is like Russian nesting dolls. I work in retail, within the confines of a four-star hotel, within the confines of a large tourist attraction. Because of these layers, it’s not just the place I work; it’s a culture unto itself. It’s also a hotbed for character study.
My main interest in fiction has always been characters, rather than plot. Before I turned to writing, I was an actress, and lived in New York City for many years pursuing that. “People-watch, people-watch, people-watch,” one of my professors would say. “Listen. Observe.” So I find that writing and acting are similar in the way that observations are processed and regurgitated in dreaming up characters and their motives.
Here’s a scene from my short story, “Please Come Back and See Us” (published in Sou’wester, Spring 2015). The main character Helen is an older woman in her 70s who works full time in a hotel gift shop. Here she encounters a Mystery Shopper who is there to report on her:
Last month, Helen was in such a rush getting to work, she forgot her name tag. It happened on a day she was Mystery Shopped. She spotted the Mystery Shopper immediately. Helen actually saw her take out a pad and scribble some notes. Amateur. Helen was keenly aware she’d lose points for the missing tag. “Good morning. I hope you’re enjoying your stay at The Chapelton.”
“I am. Thank you.” The Mystery Shopper’s eyes lingered on Helen’s lapel where the name tag would normally live. It was maddening.
When others exited, Helen approached her again. “I know who you
are,” she smiled.
“The pad, pencil, the notes. You’re supposed to hide it.” Helen winked.
The woman flushed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m writing down gift ideas.” She had big breadstick fingers, a cheap purse, and a rhinestone cat pinned to her scarf.
“I forgot my name tag today. I was running late.”
“I noticed,” the woman said, twirling her pencil.
“The last time I forgot was probably two years ago. Okay, I’m asking for a favor. I’ve worked here a long time. Can you not report this?”
The woman sighed, shaking her head. “I can’t not report it. What if someone already noticed? It puts me in a terrible spot.”
Helen stood a solid four inches taller than the Mystery Shopper, and looking down into her bovine eyes, Helen saw a glint of satisfaction, the drug of power seeping into the woman’s bones, veins, and outward to her chubby extremities. “I would appreciate it so much,” Helen said. “It was a stupid mistake. Hasn’t something like this ever happened to you?”
The woman stood fixed. “There are rules.”
“Yes, I’m familiar with the rules. We’re required to know The Mystery Shopping Standards list by heart. Number Three clearly states—Attire: clean uniform, polished shoes, maximum two rings per hand, one earring per ear no larger than a nickel, name tag clearly visible.”
The woman started writing.
“How would you feel if I Mystery Shopped your Mystery Shopping? I could write my own report, you know.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
Helen took a good look at the woman and guessed she was ten years younger than her. That would make her sixty, not quite retirement age. “Look, dear. Look at us. Two sensible older women—although I see I’m ancient next to you, dear. What are you, fifty?”
“You look well, dear. Very well.”
“I’m older, but we’re not so different. We work hard, and we’re just trying to make our way in the world. Do a good job and be compensated for doing a good job. But you’ll see. Over time they’ll take more and more away, value you less and less, and work you harder and harder, squeezing profits and making cuts from every angle down to the toilet paper in the employee bathroom. In the end, it’s only people we have. Community. It’s up to us to be good to each other. Woman to woman, I’m asking you for a break.”
“I can’t help you.”
“My report begins like this: Dear Mystery Shopping Police, I thought you should know some serious Mystery Shopping crimes were committed. The first being that one of your scouts arrived inappropriately dressed to the Chapelton Hotel wearing a tacky cat pin on a three-dollar scarf. This blew her cover in a matter of seconds.” The woman started walking away. Helen followed. “Secondly, she didn’t have the most basic sense not to take her notes in an obvious and obnoxious fashion in clear view of the sales woman.”
Helen watched as the woman marched down the marble corridor. At the end she stopped, fiddled with her scarf, and threw something into her purse.
Sure, I have fantasies, like most working writers, of winning the lottery, burning my polyester uniform in a bonfire, sleeping in and writing the day away. But the simple facts are that being thrust into life in ways that I don’t always choose, don’t have control over, and which can often be unpleasant, has given me a great deal of material.
The gift in it is that I have a front row seat to observations in character. The dance of the haves and the have nots, the obliviously rich and the local poor, the local poor together with the immigrant poor, the effects of monotony on the mind in small, windowless rooms, the unexpected kindnesses, the absurd dramas, the staggering wealth, bonding in the work place, fighting in the work place, the effects of corporatization on different types of people, the ridiculously entitled, the effects of loneliness on single travelers. You get the idea. I have access to an interstate highway’s worth of people. If you start to pay attention, there’s a lot to see.
And yes, taking the raw material, trying to turn straw into gold, takes countless hours. Years, sometimes. Finding time is something working writers have always struggled with. And there’s no short cut. We all know, you have to put in the writing hours at the desk.
As I’ve gotten older, I find my best creative hours are in the morning, so I try to prioritize getting an hour in before work. I’ll take pages with me to work and try to look them over at lunch. I always, always, carry a note pad.
I try to use some vacation time at writing residencies. I try to enjoy writing while I’m doing it. I try not to take people and situations around me for granted. And then I try to turn the work into something that’s uniquely mine, that someone might want to call art.