Illustrations by Jennifer Xiao
John spread his arms like a tent revivalist and addressed the 50 of us standing in the subterranean concourse of Philadelphia’s Jefferson Station. John, the hiring manager for the temp agency, was a tall man with a big belly, a nice smile, and 10 drops of sweat perpetually shining on his pate. “Good afternoon,” John said. John had zeal. “We are today creating an atmosphere of fun, and crowds, and happy shoppers.” John explained that street construction had decimated walk-up traffic to a department store down the street. A client had hired the temp agency to turn that around: People would peer through the scaffolding and jackhammer dust, see a Fun Crowd of Happy Shoppers inside the store, and thus be compelled to join in. John looked around at us in the dank gloaming of the train station and beamed.
Things had gone belly-up for me in Philadelphia. I’d moved to the city from across the country two months prior, with no plan at all. I was 25 and restless after years of one-off jobs managing theaters and film festivals. I was convinced that a cross-country move was a shortcut to poise and direction, but I had no concrete sense of what would happen once I actually made the move. I knew only two people in the city. I rented a sweaty little student apartment near the University of Pennsylvania, and spent aimless days firing off job applications, wandering parks and museums, and going broke. I applied to work at Legoland, at the Philadelphia Flower Show, and the largest funeral home answering service in the world. Nothing worked out. When I found myself in the Shop N Bag trying to figure out the most calories I could buy for the $10 left in my checking account, I called the temp agency. John called me four hours later. “Do you have kitchen skills and your own knife kit?” he said. “No,” I said. “How many bartending references can you provide?” he said. “None,” I said. He smiled, and anointed me a Happy Shopper.
The department store’s plan wasn’t a bad one, except that my fellow temps and I didn’t look much like a Fun Crowd. We looked like a pack of people eager to make $40 in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon. It was close to 100 degrees outside, and all of us sweated profusely. The crowd comprised a handful of a retirees, a lot of young people that looked liked me (furtive, underfed, confused, jilted), and several men who wore waistcoats with their jeans. The men in waistcoats were the only ones who seemed eager to be there, and they gave me the willies.
“No one should think for a second that you are not a real shopper,” John said through his smile. That was why we were meeting in the train station. “Imagine you are on a break from work, maybe for lunch, just out to do a bit of shopping.” When he said this, he made a little rectangle with his hands, like a director coaching an ensemble cast. “We will not reimburse you for purchases,” John said, “but if you want to buy a hot dog? Sit down and eat it right outside the store? Knock yourself out.” Two of the waistcoats next to me nodded to one another, as if we’d been negotiating, and the opportunity to eat hot dogs on the clock sealed the deal. John warned us we would be supervised, even if we didn’t see them coming, and dispatched us to the store.
The destination was a discount department store called Century 21. It really was a shame that it had scaffolding all over its front: Inside it was a cool, clean dream of a place, newly renovated and full of cheerful encouragement to empower yourself through its deals. Mirrors and lights suggested abundance, and mural-sized posters featured perky models doing things like lounging in vintage kitchens or scampering through fields of alfalfa. The store was completely empty. Our hiring made more sense now: It is hard to maintain the paradox of bargain luxury when your store is entirely devoid of Fun Crowds and Happy Shoppers.
For a while I fake-shopped with Rhonda, an older black woman who wore a stylish purple cardigan-cape-vest hybrid. Rhonda was retired, and she explained that she took temp gigs just to get out of the house. “And you get lucky with the jobs sometimes,” she said, gesturing with a sweeping motion at the bounty laid out before us. “This is a wonderful store.” Rhonda was Century 21’s ideal customer, because she not only wanted everything in the store, but she seemed to already know its suggested retail price. She was the merchandise whisperer. “That is a $300 dining set,” she said, pointing across the Housewares section at a set of plates and cups trimmed in gold. She beelined for it and flipped it over. Retail $299.95, marked down to $105.95. Under her breath Rhonda said, “Fantastic.” I wished the person at Century 21 Corporate responsible for the markdown rates could have been there, just to see someone who truly appreciated their work.
We were having a good laugh when one of the supervisors cruised by and glared at us. John’s capos didn’t share his sunny disposition. They were scrambling up the temp agency’s ladder, and I imagined that there wasn’t much that distinguished a person in this line of work other than proof that they could crack skulls and keep temps in line. The supervisor kept her eyes on us until we hung our heads and drifted apart, chastened, one of the actors still wearing the Furby-skin coat.
Earlier that week, I had sat on a park bench about 10 blocks from the store and read Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City. It is an excellent book, a memoir of being abandoned by a lover in New York City, interspersed with essays about artists alone and adrift among thousands of other people. In it, I read a description of loneliness so apt that it frightened me: “Loneliness feels like such a shameful experience, so counter to the lives we are supposed to lead, that it becomes increasingly inadmissible, a taboo state whose confession seems destined to cause others to turn and flee.”
I read this and slumped over on the park bench. “Counter to the lives we are supposed to lead” slammed it home: To be without purpose and without means, in a city where I knew almost no one, was indeed contrary to the life I believed I was supposed to lead, a life marked by wild success in writing and in film and filled to the brim with friends and lovers. This life existed in my head, a fantasy masquerading as destiny. I had done very little to build this life, and I was ashamed to have created such a sad little alternative instead. I was terrified that people could look at me and tell I was falling apart. I was suspicious of my expressions, of whether or not I was making faces that matched my words. Small interactions, like purchasing beer or dental floss from a convenience store, became very important to me. I needed these exchanges to go smoothly; they were my chances to prove to myself and to others that I was still properly calibrated. Being broke complicated this, since I was running out of the means to access these little moments of affirmation.
As I wandered the men’s department of Century 21, I felt good for the first time in a long time. In Century 21, pretending to shop, I could get a facsimile of feeling like I had it all together. My brain squirted out streams of pleasant chemicals. I had no money to buy anything, but I had the agency and mandate to browse, fawn and dismiss. I took the bright fabric of silk ties between my fingers. Wallets and belts had the greasy touch and sharp smell of new leather. I picked up watches heavy enough to tone muscle and inspected some lovely, sturdy frying pans. I ran my hand over some pillows covered in gold sequins, which flipped over to reveal winking silver.
I reveled in the fantasy that I had the means to buy any of these things. I strolled through the department store scoffing at goofy, useless items, and nodding confidently at the purchases I would make if I had any money at all. Thus, I confirmed my personhood, even in dire straits. I leaned in to the good feeling, and into my role: I was the numero uno Happy Shopper, there to furnish my lovely life with deals.
While I looked at watches, I talked with a guy named David, who told me of his dreams. “I’m just doing this until I can get a nice position doing data entry,” he said. He proceeded to describe data entry work in terms so boring they made me want to slam my head into the wall, and he sounded smug about it. He took evident pride in his pragmatism, that his goals for modest advancement lined up seamlessly with the basic corporate opportunities available to him.
David reminded me of a baseball player I knew in college, a 20-year-old who liked to say, “A good bottle of scotch and a nice dinner with a pretty girl, well, that’s about as good as it gets.” We attended school on a campus dedicated to reaching new heights of carnal and chemical pleasure, and his statement struck me as a kind of defensive maneuver: He was safely drawing the lines of what he would allow himself to want. Whenever the baseball player said this, I wanted to grab him by his shoulders and ask him who taught him to say that, about the scotch and the girl, because I refused to believe a happy, healthy 20-year-old brain could have originated that thought. Here, surrounded by displays of bargain-priced luxury watches, I wanted to grab David by the shoulders and ask him who taught him to look forward to data entry.
I was devastated to discover we had not yet cleared the two-hour mark. I squatted down in the shoe aisle in the position of a child crapping his Pampers, not at all how a Fun, Happy Shopper should behave, but the store now struck me as unbearably oppressive. I had never shopped in a department store for even one hour before, and certainly never in the dissociative state that I now occupied: a shopper, but what is a shopper who cannot purchase?
I rode the escalator back down to Accessories. My mind raced. What if the salespeople didn’t know about the temp program? This was my third trip down to the watches in an hour. What if security dragged me down to a shoplifter’s cell, or threw me limbs-akimbo into some hellish Philadelphia alley? If they tossed me out on my ass, surely the temp agency wouldn’t pay me out. I really, really needed that $40. I tried to look at watches with a renewed air of earnestness. I tried to believe I was really there to buy a combination digital-analog Polo by Ralph Lauren wristwatch.
What kept me from fully losing it was that I wasn’t alone in my collapse. There are two couches in Century 21 Philadelphia, and they are the only places to sit in the entire store. By hour three, these couches were already full of temps slumped over in a loose-muscled posture that suggested deep exhaustion. Over by the cash registers, Rhonda had lost her mind. She had her arms full of at least $60 worth of picture frames, and two hours left to go before we finished $40 worth of work. The store was getting to all of us.
I wandered through the Men’s Bed and Bath section, looking at different implements for scraping hair out of my nose, until I found an abandoned kick stool at the end of a row. I sat down. From here I had a view down the aisle, and I could observe the handful of temps who were still making their rounds in earnest. “I just got a great deal,” bragged one of the waistcoated men to another as they passed by my aisle, “on new underwear.” He was grinning, a Hanes five-pack tucked under his arm.
Everything about the day was turning grim, but this young man’s alacrity made me the saddest of all. No one could ask him to do a better job than he was doing: He looked thrilled to be there, and had the stamina to keep shopping after the rest of us had fallen to our knees in the aisles. He was executing the role of Fun, Happy Shopper perfectly, but it was hopeless. Century 21 wasn’t going to bring him on full-time. There was no end to this, and no point.
Someone was under the gun to generate walk-in traffic for the store, so money was spent to bring in people who decidedly did not have money, who were then instructed to pretend that they happily, definitely did. I realized I didn’t even know who had hired us: The chamber of commerce? Someone at Century 21 Corporate? The vacancy of the exercise made my stomach hurt. It felt like we were waltzing with the employees, all of us keeping up appearances, mimicking the act of retail, but incapable of completing it.
At the three-hour mark, temps began to cut and run. The out-of-work actors did so first, and with braggadocio: “Fuck this. You know what? Fuck this. I am out of here,” said the one sloughing off the Furby-lined coat. The retirees waited a little longer, but they too drifted down the escalators, wearing quiet, drowned expressions. Then it was just me and the waistcoats. It was unclear if any supervisors were still in the store.
On one hand, I was horrified at the prospect that I might lose access to future temp jobs by leaving too early — the only thing worse than this sort of mindless temping was not having access to it when you needed it. On the other, my head felt as though the brains had been scraped from it and replaced with vanilla pudding. I was going to lose cognitive function if I remained here much longer. I hovered by the door, next to a perfume display. I looked about for supervisors that might still be lurking, waiting to report back to John on my delinquency. I saw none, and broke for it.
The chokingly humid afternoon felt wonderful. The grime, clutter and disgruntled citizens of downtown Philadelphia were a pleasure to encounter after the sterile and relentlessly cheerful atmosphere of the store. I didn’t know then that I was only at the beginning of a long, bad period that would include many jobs worse than this one — the brokeness and directionlessness still struck me as funny, a momentary blip in my trajectory, another amusing thing I could eventually look back on from the comfortable vantage of success.
I would work dozens more bad jobs before I understood that the cycle had its own inertia, and without extraordinary effort on my part, it would not stop. I would work many more after that, listening to the universe laugh at the fact that I thought I could stop the ride just because I wanted to get off. The job I would eventually land, which broke the cycle, an administrative position at a museum, was one that I once would’ve considered impossibly boring. I was exhausted, and I took it with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the luck that brought it my way.
For now, I had another temp job lined up for the next day, and nothing on my schedule until then. I decided I’d go spend 10 percent of my pretax earnings on a smoothie, and I took my time getting to the smoothie shop, sweating and smiling, pleased to have point A and point B mapped out for now.
Sam Dunnington is a writer from Seattle, living in Philadelphia. In previous lives he’s managed film festivals and worked at museums, and he maintains a deep love of movies and regional history. His writing appears at Hidden City and Billy Penn. He is currently at work on a book of short stories.