[Today, I’m revisiting and editing (for the millionth time) an essay I wrote a long time ago. Partially, this is due to blog fatigue. Being unable to get out of the house to do anything other than run errands makes finding something new and interesting to write about every single day a special kind of torture. The other part to “partially” is that the essay fits nicely and neatly into the prompt, and comes directly after the revelations in the pervious Serial Killer post. Enjoy.]
The summer after my first year in college, I come back home and find myself working a temp job at Nordstrom’s Rack, a discount outlet that carries overstock and items that just don’t sell in the regular Nordstrom’s stores. Most days, I drag myself from the warm pocket of air between my sheets at about four in the morning, cram some food into my stomach, shower, and then get a ride to the mall, where I sit on the cold curb, watch the sun come up, and wait for the store manager to arrive and unlock the employee entrance. The work is decent—if a tad monotonous—and it allows me a regular schedule so I can plan outings with the girl I started seeing a week before I moved out of the dorms.
Because I’m just a temp and not technically a store employee, my duties include tagging and sorting clothes for the women’s department, while keeping my distance from actual women. During the early mornings before the store opens, I walk the floor with the regular employees, inflating balloons and straightening up displays that look as if they had been torn apart by rabid dogs. During the day, however, I am typically cast from the customers’ view and forced to set up shop in the stock room, where I organize and tag new arrivals. I fill rack after rack with blouses, sport coats, and slacks, all the color of unripe bananas. With a laser scanner strapped to my right arm and several industrial-size rolls of red, blue, and green dot stickers hooped around my left, I try not to let the hard fluorescent lighting rob me of my consciousness. It’s the kind of light that casts no shadows, except in the darkest loneliest recesses, way back behind shelves of lipstick and eyebrow pencils.
I have finally begun to have an interesting sex life, so it follows that fate, in its grand cosmic humor, arranges my singular instruction for the day: sort the children’s thongs. This means not just tagging and scanning, but putting the tiny thongs on the tiny-thong end of the rack and the itsy bitsy thongs on the itsy-bitsy end. This rack, like all the others in the stock room, is a three-tiered, two-sided construction of twenty-foot-long steel bars jutting out from the wall. It is designed to hold a few hundred thick parkas, but the thongs are so small and the rack so full that I am afraid to guess how many we have and why. As I look up at it, the twenty-foot expanse of frilly lace and string between me and the wall seems to stretch on to infinity. My supervisor suggests that the sooner I start, the sooner I’ll finish.
Three hours later, sitting atop a sturdy orange ladder, I have an armful of size extra-extra-small spaghetti-strap underwear, the smiling images of Strawberry Shortcake, Barbie, and Hello Kitty emblazoned on the triangular fronts. I find it is best not to let my mind wander during this particular assignment. If I do, I envision the nine-year-old girls who absolutely mustn’t have panty lines, and then the mothers, the purchasers of the Strawberry Shortcake thongs that now lie limply over my knee. And then I wonder if the girls really did want them in the first place. We have enough thongs to last us a year, so there must be demand. This Christmas, will one of these girls tear open a small soft package to have three or four of these pink lacy contraptions fall into her lap? And will she ask, noticing the dainty, floss-like construction, what in the world they are—or will she hold them up proudly like the Stanley Cup? Will she be asked to model them—or will she volunteer? These are dark, sinister questions best not asked, let alone answered; yet the thongs themselves seem to be questions without answers. Aside from the time lost to the unusually long breaks I take this day—sitting out in the relatively fresh air of the parking lot, watching the shoppers bounce from shop to shop, and forcing myself to think about anything but the frilly lace inside—I spend every minute of my shift sorting the questions, both on the rack and in my head, and when I finish I feel as if there is an indelible stain on my cosmic record. This can’t be one of those things that everyone goes through—one of those experiences that build character—can it?
One of the quirks in oral storytelling I’ve developed over the years is the tendency to start with a statement or question, often pointing toward some awful or perverted aspect of human life. But the trouble with oral storytelling, especially to a live audience, is that the story gets bogged down with skeptical inquiries. It’s like watching a movie with that one hyperactive friend who won’t pay attention, but still wants to know what we’re all laughing at.
Let me tell you: there is little else in this world more humbling and sullying than having to walk around with armfuls of tiny, size-zero thongs, especially when they have Barbie and Hello Kitty printed on them. This one time, I was home from college for a summer, and I found work through a temp agency. They shipped me out to Nordstrom Rack, where it eventually became my job to sort little girls’ thongs. And—what? No, I’m sure they were children’s thongs. They had cartoon characters on them, for chrissake.
Listen, the specific size isn’t really what matters, because sizes tend to differ with manufacturers, but let’s just say that they were so small I wouldn’t have been able to fit them on my head. No, it’s not a sexual thing. Haven’t you ever been tempted to put underwear on your head? Well, your loss. You don’t know what you’re missing. It’s actually a joke I played on a girlfriend once. While she was preening in the bathroom mirror, I dug around in her dresser, found a pair of smooth red panties, and put them over my head so my eyes were in the leg holes. When I jumped out of her closet, declaring, “I’m Spiderman!” it looked for a moment like she was going to cry or hit me. Or both.
So they were smaller than normal. Anyway, can you imagine a grown woman wearing a Hello Kitty thong?
At this point, I face a quiet room and a lot of worried stares. But these stares I actually find interesting, because it tells me who assumed I actually thought about putting a thong on my head at the time. I hadn’t. The Spiderman incident won’t happen until almost a year after my brief reign as Lord of the Thongs. I’ve done some strange, questionable, and potentially (and actually) reputation-damaging things, but I do them if I think I’m going to get a rise out of someone. The only thing I would have gotten out of my boss is a pink slip. Maybe I’ll get a reputation as a premature Dirty Old Man, but in the perilous world of storytelling, that’s an acceptable risk.