By Kevin Derby
Word Count: 2657
Summary: Kevin recounts a story about working retail at Christmastime.
In its infinite wisdom, back in 1955, the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,” (don’t take my word for it, that’s from the First Council of Constantinople back in 381) declared May 1 to be the feast of St. Joseph the Worker. Of course, in doing so, Pius XII and the Church hierarchy tried to offer a counter to the May Day celebrations held by the Soviet Union and other Communist nations. After more than six decades, Joseph and his carpenter’s tools are still standing while the banners with Lenin’s face and statues of stylized, impersonal factory workers and machinists are resting squarely at the bottom of Marx’s dustbin of history.
Joseph the Worker faded from Catholic life, at least in America, after McDonald’s, Ronald Reagan, Madonna and TV soaps like “Dallas” crushed the Commie threat. Nonetheless, I think of Joseph the Worker often during December, especially as Christmas nears.
It’s easy to write off the Christmas season as simply a holiday. Certainly that’s how I saw it when I was a kid. A rush of excitement would surge through me when I walked through the gate that separated my elementary school and the path that led to my neighborhood where my mother was waiting to pick me up. In recent years, when I have worked in higher ed and covered politics, I’ve had the luxury of slow, lazy days to close out each year and kick off a new one.
Of course, plenty of people have even more work than usual around Christmas. We don’t think about the added efforts and extra hours people work around the holidays even as the malls and stores stay open later and more shoppers converge on the retail establishments.
For three and a half years in high school, I bagged groceries though I can’t say the holidays impacted me too much directly. Sure, Christmas was busy but so were most other holidays. Come to think of it, the grocery store I worked at was usually busier during Super Bowl weekend or when there was a major college football game in town.
Still, one Christmas in the early 1990s stood out. I worked from 7 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. Since I did not have a car yet, my plan was to run across the street and meet the rest of my family for the vigil mass at 5:30. Putting on an ugly sweater to replace the uglier red vest we few, we happy few, we band of baggers had to wear, I wandered around the strip mall that connected the grocery store where my older brother worked and the one where I toiled away.
I stopped at a fast food joint, eating a bland fried chicken sandwich and fries so cold they would have fit in at Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. Then I killed an hour loitering around the strip mall. Most of the shoppers had gone home but there were a few loitering around buying last minute gifts at the drug store and the mini-mart. I remember going to the convenience store to play the arcade version of Punch Out, burning through the quarters as I took on Kid Quick and Bald Bull. Running out of them, I crossed the store to spin through the comics rack, checking out the latest adventures of the X-Men and Captain America. An older woman asked for my advice since she wanted to buy comics for her grandchildren. I like to think I picked out some good titles for them.
Trying to kill the time, I kept walking around the shopping center, taking in the familiar storefronts: the Italian restaurant where I used to take girls on dates, the Persian rug store which hosted a “going out of business” sale for a decade, the video rental store where I spent countless hours staring at gruesome monsters that decorated the boxes of horror films. A few years before, when I was in junior high, I promised myself that I would see every single one of them. Thirty years later, I’m not doing badly in fulfilling that vow.
Moving through the shopping center, I kept bobbing my head and wishing “merry Christmas” to the familiar faces who worked at the assorted stores and restaurants. Some of them looked as dead as the zombies who inhabited those VCR boxes of the horror films I used to relish taking in. Black circles lingered under their eyes and they could barely grunt in response to my Christmas wishes. Others of them looked tired but happy, glad to be going home to celebrate with their families. All of them looked relieved after a busy few weeks. Of course, there would be returns on the day after Christmas, the feast of Stephen when Good King Wenceslas looked out, but, unlike today, there weren’t as many shoppers in the early 90s burning through gift cards. Regardless, the faces made an impression. Before mass, which I usually use as a time for reflection and prayer, I kept thinking about all of the people who worked at the stores and how Christmas wouldn’t be the same without them. It was one of the better insights I received in my high school years and one I would experience first hand.
A few years later, I became one of those bleary eyed retail workers after I was buffeted by the storms of holiday shoppers. As a snotty, annoying know-it-all undergrad and an even snottier and more annoying know-it-all grad student, I worked at a ham store over the holidays. Now ham stores can be charming and a good lunch spot on occasion but, for most of the year, they have few customers. The one where I worked did 90 percent of its business between Thanksgiving and New Years so it added staff during the holidays, mostly from the ranks of students looking to make a few bucks now that they were out of classes for a few weeks.
During those weeks, I learned more about ham than I would have thought humanly possible. I learned how to spiral cut, to glaze and, best of all, to section a ham. I learned hams lasted seven to ten days in the fridge and up to two months in the freezer as opposed to turkey breasts which I also learned to create. The turkey breasts lasted only five to seven days in the fridge and up to a month in the freezer. I soon learned that a half pound of ham is a good dinner portion but you can cut that down to a third of a pound if you are making sandwiches are having a buffet. When customers called in looking to reserve hams for Christmas dinner, I would lecture them on the differences between the butt and the shank end.
I also learned to ape the company line no matter how idiotic it made me sound. When asked about the differences between roast turkey and smoked turkey, I would answer, “The roast turkey tastes like turkey and the smoked turkey tastes like ham.” Sadly, after countless turkey sandwiches of both variety, I started agreeing with that absurdity. The smoked turkey did in fact taste like ham! I still stand by that conclusion.
Granted, there were some dull spots. Having a lively mind and a constant need to release my creative side, I found ways to occupy myself. This included writing haikus about ham which are, admittedly, not my finest literary efforts.
“Seven days have passed.
With anxiety, I watch.
Is my ham still good?”
When not trying to be the John Keats of ham, I was busy with other foods. The ham was not the only food served up at the store. The corporate office would demand we sample other items and try to steer customers away from buying just a ham. We tried to tempt them with turkey breasts and by reciting lush descriptions of frozen dishes in lyrical passages that were worthy of Thomas Wolfe. “Our broccoli rice casserole is made of thick florets of broccoli, covered in a hearty and rich cheese sauce.” “Ah, our sweet potato souffle. Yes, it’s a personal favorite of mine. We have whipped sweet potatoes covered with a graham cracker coating with a hint of almonds and pecans.” “I’m glad you asked about pies. Our pumpkin pie has a graham cracker crust and a light sprinkling of cinnamon that lingers after each and every bite.”
Of course our magical descriptions of amazing food crashed against the reality of what we were actually selling. That became obvious when we started sampling the various foods pushed by the corporate office. It also led to one of my best ham store haikus.
“Never, ever try,
Our cinnamon spice biscuits.
They taste like dog poop.”
Now that wasn’t worthy of Thomas Wolfe.
Around December 21 or so, the corporate office would freak out and urge us to stop pushing other items and focus on selling just the hams. We usually had no problem with that even if our paeans to cinnamon apples and potatoes au gratin came to an end.
To ensure we did not leave the store during our ten hour shifts and didn’t gouge on the samples (with the exception, needless to say, of the cinnamon spice biscuits which management knew we would not touch as they did in fact taste like dog poop), we were offered an endless array of ham and turkey sandwiches, bags of chips and unlimited soda refills. My growing addiction to caffeine was well satisfied with the endless flow of Diet Coke. The free food generally kept us from straying too far from the store.
In its own weird way, the ham store was a world of its own. You would enter into the lobby, moving through barriers and partitions until you reached the counter. There we would greet customers and get their hams for them, showcasing its features like the spiral cutting and the glazing. Strangely enough, the lobby was full of signs and placards offering a chronicle of the history of ham. There was also servingware based on a pattern the CEO discovered on a holiday in Tuscany. We would have to dust off the serving plates and pitchers that stole precious shelf space from garlic mustard and horseradish sauce. Most customers blissfully ignored all our condiments, chronicles, garland and signage.
Off to the side, away from the customers’ view, was the phone room where we would take customer orders, offer directions and inform shocked callers that we, along with most of the Western world, were closed on Christmas. Sometimes, the customers would get irate when told we closed at 4:30 pm–I usually added “sharply” after “4:30”–on Christmas Eve and insist we had ruined their Christmas. After being told that five times one busy Christmas Eve, I learned to shrug it off. The phones would start ringing around 6 in the morning the week before Christmas and linger well after we closed for the night.
The ham cooler was also hidden from customers. It reeked of ham and the racks holding the meat and the floor were covered in juice which would stick to your fingers and shoes. Strangely enough, during one of the holiday seasons, I found two of my fellow seasonal workers, a local girl and her boyfriend who was visiting from out of state, making out in the ham cooler. Being a gentleman, I was disgusted. When that same young lady and I made out later that holiday season, I had enough class to take her to my car in the store’s parking lot instead of the ham cooler. I can’t even remember her name but I do think of her when I bite into a ham sandwich and recall those stolen kisses from a December long since past. I don’t know if she would be honored or insulted; I hope the former.
Next to the ham cooler and away from fellow teens who could not keep our hands off each other was the freezer. While the pies and sides we offered lyrical descriptions of sold well, most of the food in the freezer never went anywhere. Who eats carrot cake for Christmas? Why did we have coconut cake samples from last Easter in the freezer? Should we put the hambones in the fridge or the freezer? Some questions only lead to other questions and no answers.
In the back was the preparation room. There we cut the hams, glazed them and wrapped them up. Over the mechanized sound of spiral cutters and the noises from the blowtorches as we glazed the hams, we would blare music. Despite the season, we never played Christmas music with the exception of “Christmas in Hollis” by Run DMC. The utterly absurd lyrics–“It’s Christmas time in Hollis, Queens/Mom’s cooking chicken and collard greens/Rice and stuffing, macaroni and cheese/And Santa put gifts under Christmas trees”–still make me think of ham despite that being one of the few foods not mentioned in that rap. Despite the jovial holiday atmosphere in the lobby, in the back, as we made hams, we listened to hardcore metal and rap. The more violent the lyrics and the darker the themes of the music, the better to make hams so people could enjoy a happy holiday season.
I would come home reeking of ham. My mother usually went out of her way to wash my black jeans (about the only thing we could wear outside of khakis) when I got home but, if I didn’t, our dog would grab them and run off. Christmas would come early for the dog who would lick the jeans, enjoying each and every drop of ham juice on my pants. One Christmas Eve, I missed the vigil mass at 5:30 pm since the dog ran off with the jeans and hid under my parents’ bed. The choice came down to missing mass or having my parents get home to find their bedroom smelling like ham. It wasn’t a hard choice even if I had to stay up late to attend midnight mass.
The long shifts and the many tasks eventually caught up with me. I woke up sore from unloading the freezer and carrying slabs of meat around. The sounds of Metallica, Tupac, Dr. Dre and Megadeath lingered in my mind even when I was away from the ham store. I would try to hum along with “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” but end up on the first bars of “Enter Sandman.” My siblings would ask what it was like working at the ham store and, after I answered them, promptly smacked the name “Hambo” on me, something it took years to shake. Eventually, I came to accept it. One Christmas, while the other seasonal employees wore Santa hats on Christmas Eve, I went with a striped elvish hat. Altering a line from Homer Simpson, I came home to declare myself “the smoked turkey fool, the Hambo jester.”
I certainly got a lot out of working at the ham store. Years later, I helped out a few months in a ham store before starting off working in higher education. I can still carve up a ham with the best of them as I insist on doing during many Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. More importantly, I came to appreciate the people who work in the stores during the holidays. As Black Friday creeps up a day early and Christmas songs start the day after Halloween, retailers are giving up their Thanksgivings for us. They are the unsung heroes of Christmas–kind of like Joseph was the unsung hero of the Nativity–and we don’t appreciate them enough. Even the ones who reek of ham and listen to Iron Maiden in the back of the store.