The blonde lady dressed in fur approached the counter in a huff.
“Where is your Elf on the Shelf section?”
“We’re sold out, sorry. We have a wait list of about 200 people,” I said in what I hoped was a very grave manner.
She stepped back from the counter, eyes wide. “You can’t be serious! I left my daughter’s Elf in Texas. What am I going to do now?” She threw up her hands.
“Sorry.” It’s all I could offer.
For three years in a row, I worked the holiday season at a popular chain gift shop. Christmas was the peak of all commercial activity here, and extra hands were welcomed. I wanted to offset the costs of another year of travelling and personal indulgence, and the gig was great. The owner was a friend of mine, and honestly, I loved getting out of the house and working hands-on at something. It was the kind of job I didn’t have to take home with me in the evenings.
I decided not to ask for employment this year, however. The whole experience had exhausted me on the holidays. The materialism and the dim spirits of those rushing around completing their holiday shopping discouraged me.
I also hated that damned Elf on the Shelf. We answered about 100 calls per day from people looking for this little guy. After bagging one package for a happy mother, she gleefully headed for the door saying, “Finally, my daughter will fit in!” I don’t think I need to point out what’s wrong with that sentence.
On another occasion, I was busy calling people to tell them their Elves were waiting for pick-up. One mother informed me she no longer needed him, having bought him elsewhere. I hung up the phone and relayed the information to my colleague.
An elderly woman standing near the ornaments section overheard and turned to us abruptly. “I’ll take him,” she said.
“Sorry,” said my colleague. “But he’ll have to go to the next person in line on the wait list.”
The woman’s eyes were practically red with rage. “Idiots,” she snapped, and rushed out of the store. We stood there stunned, and a sour atmosphere plagued us for the rest of the afternoon. You just can’t help but take some things personally.
I remember ringing up a customer’s order of $900. She had swept through the store, not looking for anything in particular but snatching up everything that appealed to her. I mean everything — giant Santa Clauses, shimmering tree ornaments, expensive and elaborate miniature winter displays with those motorized spinning Christmas trees and ice-skating figures. It took three of us to haul her shopping cart to the car, and all I could think about was how the next year she’d be tired of such decorations and would do it all over again. Yet she, and everyone else, rushed around the store with the urgency of a house fire.
“I MUST have this singing snowman!” they’d say, picking up a popular decoration they didn’t know existed just two minutes before. The motion sensor on half these products meant that they’d break out into spontaneous song whenever someone picked up a dozen and turned on their switches, for fun. I suppressed a lifetime of rage while calmly walking over to the display and turning all of them off as soon as the customer left.
What surprised me the most, though, was the incredible hostility towards the staff. As employees working hard for minimum wage, we had absolutely zero say in the store’s policies and rules, like the restriction on returns and refunds a few days before December 25th. One morning a woman walked in with a bag full of holiday gear, looking to return it all.
“I’m sorry,” I said once again. “But our store policy says we can’t refund Christmas items after the 21st.” I pointed to the note at the bottom of the receipt.
The woman flew into a rage. She stormed around the store, shouting at me and the other women. I didn’t know what to do except apologize over and over. We gave her the manager’s phone number. She cursed us down, insulted us openly, snatched her bag, and slammed the door behind her. The rest of the customers turned and looked at us in pity.
And yet here it is, December 22nd, and I find myself missing the ladies I worked with for the past three years. They came from all walks of life — students finishing up high school, single moms, 20-something writers like me — and they were about as real as it gets. Hard working, honest, and a pleasure to chat with. I remember one customer laughing at us carrying on behind the counter. “You girls sure know how to have fun around here,” she said.
I remember the mother who came into the store with her two little girls. I handed her an Elf on the Shelf, and she turned to her children with it. They clearly had no idea they were receiving such a special gift, because all of a sudden pandemonium broke out. The girls jumped up and down and screamed, squealed, clapped their hands. They sat on the floor by the cash register and admired the goofy little Elf with his rosy cheeks and long lashes while their mother paid up. As they left, the older daughter turned to me with tears of happiness. “Thank you SO much!” she said. The whole scene tugged at my heart. The loving mother who wanted the best for her children. The appreciative girls who truly believed in magic.
The happy little girls made me understand that my own bitterness about materialism was misdirected. Sometimes a single 20-something can’t help the onset of loneliness after serving happy families, new mothers, and young lovers all day. My resentment evaporated upon returning to my parents’ house shrouded in snow, a hot pot of pea soup waiting on the stove for me.
So enjoy your glittery snowmen, your animated Santas, and your silver trays stacked with gingerbread. And offer your stork clerk a smile in return.