New Year – Old Habits

New Year's Eve: one final night to see the holiday lights this year.

New Year’s Eve: one final night to see the holiday lights this year.

Tomorrow, the holiday decorations will come down, and I’ll be finished with rich food, large portions and over-indulgence for a while. This is my last post of 2014, and as I reflect on the year as a whole, I believe that it was one of the greatest years of my life. I don’t like the term “New Year’s Resolutions,” but I do make a list, which I refer to as my agenda. For my 2014 agenda, I made a list of 30 things I wanted to accomplish. I reviewed them every few months, and this year I got 17 of them done. That’s more than half even though I’ve ended previous years with better percentages.

I have a few bad habits, but I’ve learned to live with the ones that I absolutely can’t get rid of like procrastination, which is the biggest one that affects the most areas of my life. Except for eating, I don’t over-indulge in any particular activity with any regularity. No one has ever said to me, “You need to stop exercising so much!” or “You’re becoming obsessive about cleaning the house. You need to take a break!” If things get too dusty, I close the curtains and try not to notice.

I’m fortunate that I never took up smoking if for the simple reason I don’t have to make a grand announcement at 11:45 every New Year’s Eve: “Attention everyone! When the clock strikes twelve, I’ll have had my last cigarette. The very last one. Forever. I know what you’re going to say, but I mean it this year. My final cigarette.”

If I’ve learned anything at this point, it’s best not to comment on these pronouncements made by friends. One woman I know made such a production for years, and two weeks later she’d be sitting outside her store having a smoke on a bench. She knew I’d been there when she claimed supremacy over her tobacco addiction, but when she saw me, she’d quickly extinguish and explain: “I received a spiritual message that it wasn’t time for me to quit,” before igniting another Daisy Menthol Light.

When I was a kid, there was an elderly couple that worked for my dad. When I write that, they may not have been all that old since I was seeing them through ten year-old eyes. They had gray hair, moved slowly and both, as my mother would say, were swarthy as pirates. Whatever their jobs were, the only thing I ever saw them do was sit next to each other and chain smoke. The husband was a crotchety old thing who wasn’t much interested in my conversation, but his wife Della appeared to hang on my every word whenever I came around. I doubt that now, but at the time, she always seemed willing to listen.

I found her equally interesting not because of anything that I remember her saying, but because I could probably count on one hand the number of times I saw her without a cigarette. Sitting with her was like watching a Lauren Bacall film in color. Della was always in “soft focus” with the swirls and graceful arcs of smoke framing her wildly patterned polyester clad body, which was incredibly thin. To say that she was malnourished would be an understatement. She lived on black coffee from a thermos, two Baby Ruths and a 4:00 Coca-Cola.

Except for the 10 a.m. candy break and the one that accompanied her Coke, her vermillion lips were always wrapped around the end of a Doral like she was sucking a milkshake through a short straw. The lung capacity on that skinny woman was incredible. She could take a 13-second drag, hold it for eight and exhale for seven. If you were looking at her, you’d swear the fog was rolling in from somewhere.

Della and her husband shared a single black ashtray that sat on the desk they seldom used. There were no papers laid on the desk to work on, and they never used the stapler or the calculator or any office supplies. They mainly greeted customers and answered the phones if no one else picked up. When they weren’t talking to each other about the things that people talk about after 40 years of marriage, they sort of stared out the window, and I always wondered what they were thinking as they puffed away with those vacant looks on their drawn faces.

I rarely saw Della light her own cigarette with a lighter. Her husband would light the first upon her late arrival to work, and after that, she would get the next one started by touching the dying one to the fresh one in her mouth. She probably never realized it, but there was a specific way in which she changed cigarettes.

As she neared the end of the one she’d been working on, she’d reach into her purse with her right hand and pull out another from the gold chain-mesh case with the clasp that was never closed. She would tap it just so, and then with her left hand, she’d pull the dying cigarette out of her mouth and place it on the edge of the ashtray. She would then move the new cigarette from right hand to left, and place it in her mouth where it stuck out with no other assistance. With her left hand, she would take the dying cigarette from its resting place, switch hands and light the end of her fresh cigarette.

The changing of the ciggy ritual didn’t stop here. At the point her fresh indulgence was lit, she would swivel to her left and extinguish the old cigarette with her right hand, swivel back, remove the new cigarette with her left hand, place it in the ashtray and get out her lipstick. She would apply a fresh coating of that red enhancement as if she were going out for the evening. She then placed the tube back in her handbag. Once she was ready, she retrieved her cigarette and smoked it down until she repeated all the previous steps.

I noticed almost immediately that she didn’t appear to have any lips at all without lipstick. She must’ve gone through the stuff like she went through those Dorals. If there was any benefit to the lipstick, it was that you could tell immediately which were Della’s butts in the tray, and which ones belonged to her grumpy husband.

A morning's worth of Della's  smoking, but hers would've had lipstick all over them.

A morning’s worth of Della’s smoking, but hers would’ve had lipstick all over them.

Since I would never have insulted Della and didn’t mind bothering the husband, I asked him point blank when we were alone one day if the smell of that stuff ever bothered him. “Well, as a matter of fact, Della got up early on Saturday morning. She lit one up in the kitchen, and I could smell it back in the bedroom. I thought it stunk, so I got up. Once I lit my own, I never noticed it again. So to answer your question, yes, it stinks, but as long as you smoke, it’ll never bother you.”

We weren’t all that chummy with them after hours, but on the evening of December 16, 1975, I needed a babysitter while my parents attended some holiday party for my mother’s office. I remember that it was a Tuesday night, and for whatever we were doing to amuse ourselves—me talking while they smoked with their eyes rolled up in their heads—all noise had to come to a complete stop at 9:00 central because Miss Angie Dickinson was starring in Police Woman, and they never missed a single episode. Research indicates that the December 16th episode was the 14th one of the second season. Up to that point, I’d never seen a single one, and I had no idea who Angie Dickinson or Earl Holliman were. Miss Dickinson was very pretty, but at 44, she appeared rather long in the tooth to be running around undercover in a halter-top.

At 9:58, we were finally able to speak about things unrelated to the plot just before we’d have to quiet down again for the local news. Thankfully, there was a knock on the door and my parents found me somewhere through the billowing smoke that was thicker than if the house had been on fire. Back in those days, they usually came home from restaurants and holiday parties smelling of smoke, but that night, I was the one who wreaked as though I’d spent a long night in a honky-tonk.

In recent decades, it seems like new anti-smoking laws have gone into effect every New Year’s Day. Della was fortunate to pass away long before that so that she didn’t have to see her favorite activity outlawed and banned from every arena. At this point, she would’ve been confined to some smoker’s lounge in a remote airport, but that would never do, for she believed that air travel was the most dangerous thing on earth.

© 2014 by Patrick Brown

My latest book, Tossed Off the Edge, is available at http://www.amazon.com/Tossed-Off-Edge-Patrick-Brown/dp/1495359875/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1416611647&sr=1-1&keywords=tossed+off+the+edge

The Retail Cost of Christmas

I was once in the stressful position of decorating a large department store for the holiday season. The task was not as impossible as it seems because the company I worked for had set various deadlines by order of floor and department so that the customers were not fully aware of the transformation until we reached the final stage.

I’d assisted with the decorating for four years before it was my turn to be in charge, and I was fortunate to have remained in the same building for all that time. My predecessor and I had kept very accurate notes, and in those days I was a lot more focused on the minutiae. I also drank a lot of coffee to the point that my heart acted funny, and with my ability to think fast on my feet, I was full of youthful attitude and could deliver a well-placed jab with remarkable precision when something didn’t go right.

There are people who spend their entire lives working retail, and they love it and are very good at it. They’ll sit around and tell you old war stories about how much they can’t wait for the excitement of the season with all its headaches. Even now, when retail people describe the upcoming holiday season, I tune out and get lost in memories of what it was like to endure Hell on Earth. There should be a PTSD group for former retail employees.

The first moment of the “season” began in late June with what felt like a hard blow to the stomach. That’s when my notice came to attend a workshop for “Trim-a-Home,” the name of the department within Housewares that was completed by Labor Day and stayed up in some form until New Year’s. Hadn’t we just done the holiday shopping season? I could swear it was two weeks ago when we put everything away as we continued on the endless cycle of Valentine’s, Easter, Mother’s Day, Graduation, Father’s Day and Back-to-School, which seemed to go up before Graduation came down. My seasonal clock was always out of sync.

A good friend's tree up close. He claims not to visit department stores for ornaments.

A closeup of a friend’s tree. He avoids department stores during the shopping season.

My holiday binder would arrive in July, and after the workshop, I’d have to go with colleagues from other stores to the “flagship” store in the region to assemble their elaborate “Trim-a-Home.” By mid-August, when I felt that somewhere in the world people were spending those last few days of summer at the beach or visiting some wonderful place on a great vacation, all of my time off requests were denied as a work crew gathered on the third floor to assemble the hardware that would serve as the framework to the year’s holiday decoration department.

None of this was rocket science, as they say, but when you let store managers get involved with department managers, there is second-guessing, third guessing and a call for market research. Since there were only two of us who had attended the workshop and had participated in the actual setup at the flagship store, one would think our opinions would’ve held some weight, but that was never the case.

While the world was celebrating Labor Day, enduring that feeling that summer was over, I’d already come to terms with the onset of winter by spending the day in my storage area dragging out tablecloths, greenery, ornaments and lights. One would think that I’d have a moment between Labor Day and Halloween to take a break from Christmas decorations, but things didn’t work that way.

When the economy was booming, we’d get up to four temporary workers to assist with installation. The year I was in charge, I got to hire one. He’d just gotten out of the Navy, and he clashed with my assistant even though he proved to be a hard worker with no fear of heights. He took direction well, and I could leave him alone at 6:00 in the evening, and for the next three hours he could stand on the top rung of a 12-foot ladder hanging garland and banners from every available spot in the building. I would arrive early each morning to find a section completely transformed as if Santa and his hardest working elves had been there all night.

The trouble started when I got a call, which I thought was going to be for doing a good job. I had deadlines to meet in each department, but apparently beating the deadline by two days was unacceptable. “Why are your women’s sportswear and men’s suits departments finished early? What did you forget to do?” asked the very panicked person on the other end of the phone. “Because we worked very hard, and we didn’t forget anything,” came my reply. She didn’t believe me, and showed up the next morning to find out that I was on track. “Don’t complete anything early!” she barked. “It causes problems for the rest of us!”

I see. Because Tracy in Orange County and Elizabeth in La Jolla, who had more staff and less square footage than I, were lagging behind, our diligence showed that something wasn’t going right. If we slacked off, they would look better. I smiled politely and ignored the command to pull back. That resulted in our finishing the entire store three days early, at which point I sat back to admire the work and give everyone a well-earned break.

I hinted earlier that department store managers are problems. Now, I’ll just state that bluntly. I’m not sure what they endured in early childhood or what deals they struck with the devil in regard to their souls, but most seemed to be in the wrong business. I’m a logical person, and while operations managers and merchandising managers seemed to be logical, the store managers I worked with were very emotional when they weren’t all out hysterical. Even the nice one who actually gave me a Christmas gift one year was no one I went out of my way to spend time with, and the brand new book he gave me was damaged in three places. The only thing I gave him was an invitation to my holiday party, which, to my surprise, he attended.

The party; that’s where my mind was after I wrapped up two months of decorating for six days a week. In addition to hanging 400 ceiling banners, painting a dozen walls red, completing 14 floor moves, hanging 48 oversized strands of garland and setting seasonal shops of outerwear, sweaters and evening gowns, we installed about 20 Christmas trees of varying heights. These trees had to be lit and decorated before being hoisted into position. I almost failed to mention the more than 160 red tablecloths and dark green overlays that had to be steamed or ironed depending on the availability and working order of our equipment.

When I went out on Halloween night, I left knowing that my store was set for Christmas. Our time for the next three weeks was in assisting department managers with the final staging of their selling floors. Our non-selling/merchandising tradition was to receive a four-day weekend at Thanksgiving, and the next month was spent off the floor organizing our workspace and planning our personal lives through New Year’s Eve.

Woe to any person who dared to page me before December 26. The trouble that began with the phone calls telling me to slow down continued when I was told that our annual four-day weekend was being cancelled. We would have to come to work on the Friday after Thanksgiving because it was only fair. Fair to whom? We had nothing to do with customer service, and I’d worked late nights and weekends in order to earn that time off. There was no point in my getting up early on Black Friday so that I could sit in my office, which in those days had no Internet. For that matter, I didn’t even have a computer in my office!

My mother once told the story of a woman who had called in sick so that she could go boating with her husband. There was an accident, and her husband drowned. As she told it, the story was in all the papers, and on top of being embarrassed the woman lost her job for being caught in a lie. While we can only hope that the life insurance allowed her to move far away and not work for the rest of her life, I understood clearly that you do not call in sick unless you really are.

However, when it comes to planning a holiday open house when you haven’t had a free moment for three months, you need that weekend to pull everything together. Learning of my rescinded holiday break a week early, I plotted a sound strategy. Since some of my co-workers were going to be invited to my party, I couldn’t fake food poisoning from Thanksgiving because they knew I cooked everything. They would be reluctant to attend my party and eat my food. I couldn’t fake a cold bad enough to keep me home from work when I’d see them in three days, so that was out. Thank goodness for my bad back.

You’d think after all that decorating that I’d just toss out some opened bags of chips and pitch some Oreos on a cracked plate, but I was very excited to entertain properly. I baked for weeks, rented equipment if I didn’t have it, and my good friend Lisa baked and assembled a chocolate yule log in her small kitchen.

Holiday parties are as much fun to me now as they always have been.

A more recent holiday party.

That Sunday afternoon came, and everything paid off. 90 people stormed the house, two of which were seen pocketing food at various intervals. My friend from Liverpool brought her parents, and they extolled the quality of my homemade shortbread as being better than any they had ever eaten in Scotland. They were also delighted to be drinking tea from china cups, as they had only encountered mugs in America. My seasonal clock was finally synchronized with the rest of the world. I wasn’t already thinking of Valentine’s before the Christmas gifts were wrapped.

The glories of the party quickly faded as there was more trouble at work. Shortly after the store manager handed me the shopping bag with the damaged book inside, he announced that he was leaving and the person with the worst reputation in the region was replacing him. The holiday season had been bad enough as it was. I couldn’t imagine going through it with this new person the following year.

I was determined not to be around, and to guarantee this, the takedown and storage procedure was more than lax. It was nonexistent. We’d always stacked, hung, covered and labeled as the space would allow, but that year, people kept coming in and asking me where I wanted things.

“Where should I put these 20 banners that are hanging on the rack?”

“Toss them on top of the other 200 or start a new pile,” I replied. “I don’t care.”

“Really?”

“Really. I’m done with Christmas. Maybe forever.”

I still make some effort to make the holiday season joyous, but not like I used to.

Still making something of an effort for the season with “brown paper packages tied up with string.”

That wasn’t quite true. After all these years I still make something of an effort, but never again on such a grand scale.

© 2014 by Patrick Brown

My latest book, Tossed Off the Edge, is available at: http://www.amazon.com/Tossed-Off-Edge-Patrick-Brown/dp/1495359875/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1415994293&sr=8-1&keywords=tossed+off+the+edge%C2%A0