Department 9800: Part One

They enforced new zoning laws recently.

“Mel, it’s 12 o’clock, you’re not allowed to be dusting. You need to be in your zone.”

Nathan, my manager, does not stop walking as he tells me. Not allowed to dust? Am I robbing the Fairy Godmother of her income?

“What do you mean ‘zone’?”

“From twelve til 2 o’clock everyday, everyone will be in their zones. Make sure you greet every customer. I’ll get you to stand by the Riedel glassware near the escalators.”

“Oh, really? Okay.”

“Thanks Mel!”

I throw the dirty cloth back into its drawer underneath the register and wander over to the Riedel fixture—black, red and white cardboard boxes of four delicate red or white wine glasses for $79.99. I scan the floor—relatively empty, no surprises. It’s a weekday. An unmemorable woman glides up the escalator and walks towards me.

“Hi, how’re you going?”

‘Oh, good thank you,’ she laughs awkwardly and turns the corner. I always think most people don’t really like to be asked ‘how they are’ as they walk through a department store, but Nathan says it’s important for us to ask every customer specifically because they don’t expect it anymore.

Thea, a supervisor, sees me from her zone by the children’s books and walks over to me.

“How’s it going Mel?”

“Oh, you know, having a good time. What’s with this zoning bullshit?”

“I know darling, it’s ridiculous. We’ve got to stand here like a stuffed chook with a big smile.” With raised eyebrows she turns and walks back to her zone.

I swipe my index finger along one of the glass shelves. Dust. I use my thumb to rub it off. I look down at my feet and place them squarely within one of the tiles.

 

*

 

One day, they want me in the Gift Registry, in their despatch room. I am to be alone for the next five hours. No customers, just gift-wrapping.

I take the staff lift down from level four to the ground floor, then zigzag my way across the forever bustling Bourke Street into the Men’s Building. I go to the staff lift on the Little Collins side of the building, but it is still broken. Of course, I think. I walk back to the central staff lift and press the ‘up’ button. Wait for around four minutes for the lift to creep down.

Once on level five, I walk past Oscar’s marking-off room, past the storage aisles of men’s blazers and business shirts, past the broken lift, and past a dumpster to the despatch room. I key in the code and pull the door open.

There are packing beads on the floor and bits of paper strewn across the room. Microwaves and KitchenAids sit near the door, waiting to be placed with the other bulk items. Several gift-wrapped boxes sit in a cluster on the wrapping table, a white city held together with black ribbon. Blunt scissors and ballpoint pens lie amongst sticky tape, bonding tape and markers. I push the windows open and smell fresh sourdough from Phillipa’s Bakery in Howey Place.

I sit down at the desk and log in to JOLTS 2—a 1998 centralised merchandising system—and listen to the motherboard whir. Check the next occasion to be delivered to clients in the following week: it’s for KLOPPER / BARKOV. I grab a pile of Country Road placemats and lay them upon the wrapping paper. I read somewhere that someone said sliding scissors through paper in a clean run “is what heroin must feel like”. I cringe at the thought and begin to wrap.

I look out the window and think there must be asbestos in this patchy building. The silence strikes me suddenly so I switch on the radio and a bouncy indie-pop song from Triple J blares at me—Eva must have been in here last. I change it to one of the mainstream stations and let one of their dance tracks flood my mind.

 

*

 

Three casuals survive the last two Christmases here: Lucy, Ariana and myself. The department store was bought by its parent company for $2.1 billion last year, securing even unstable positions like ours a little longer.

Lucy is the martyred Greek girl, who never says no to a shift and panicked when told that her shifts were going to be cut, because how was she going to repay the mortgage, to a house in Reservoir her parents told her to buy, at the age of twenty-three?

Ariana is 21, the beautiful but lazy Lebanese darling who rarely shows up on time to a shift and leaves the selling floor every now and then to inspect Country Road Home up on the next level.

Then there’s me, the jaded Serb who is reliable and efficient but works hard to keep her mouth shut. Together we’re an interesting bunch—a group of first generation Australians. We gabble and gossip over coffee at Brother Baba Budan before 9:30am shifts begin, but I feel a shift between us after Ariana is offered a twenty-hour part-time contract.

I look back through my text messages: “Aren’t you girls part timers!!!!!!????????’ And: “They put me on part time starts in May !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!’ She adds too many question marks and exclamations, only emphasising what feels a lot like feigned disbelief. I resent my manager for not offering the position to me. Ariana sends through another text: “He said Lisa and Andrew looked at my status on cards and sales… I’m assuming it was cards.” As an afterthought I can’t also help but feel relief.

The cards, of course, seem to be the only things the merchandise manager and store manager care about. Ariana managed to sign up an average of three customers per month for store credit cards over the last year or so—a difficult task in stationery and glassware.

She did not manage this purely through exemplary sales skills, but through what I heard from Lucy to be simply walking up to unattended customers already filling out the credit card forms and processing their application under her employee identification number. This of course was hearsay, but not totally unbelievable. I suppose this is why Lisa, the merchandise manager, has always greeted her by her name, and me by none.

*

An edited version of this piece was published at Going Down Swinging.

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