Editor’s note: Growing up in the Monmouth County town of Howell, where her father was in the boat building business and her mother was a successful fine artist, Chrissy Ott never thought of retail as a career. She majored in communications and journalism at Trenton State College, Class of 1992, and after a brief stint as a reporter became a production editor and desktop publisher.

But after her son was born in 2008, Ott’s business — like the economy as a whole — took a nosedive. Other problems had been mounting with a stillborn baby, the death of her mother, and then the break-up of her marriage. Unable to find work in her chosen field, Ott found a part-time job with one of the national big box retail stores. The pay was $11.97 an hour. With a combination of child support, another part-time job, and a patchwork of child care arrangements (“the cost of childcare is ridiculous,” she says), Ott has survived.

Prior to working at the retail store, Ott had written a blog at www.trentonkat.blogspot.com. While at the retail store, she posted to another blog, www.blogofott.blogspot.com, which has chronicled some of her experiences on the front lines of the retail business. Below are several excerpts from her blog posts.

I didn’t expect to like working at the giant home improvement store — herein known as the Project Store, because that’s what my preschool son Matthew calls it. But I do, at least most of the time; way, way more than I thought I would, and much, much more than many office jobs I’ve had in the past. I won’t be able to work at the Project Store forever because the hours are awful and the pay isn’t much better. But it’s OK for now.

My sister Karen has worked a retail job for the last number of years, and judging by her Facebook feed, I thought I’d be committing suicide by taking a job where I’d have to serve the masses. Early on I barely thought about the masses: I ached too badly. In fact, I thought I might die. Really. Delivering a baby is easier. There are some days, even now, a year later, if there is mulch or cement or bagged stone or large, wooden blinds involved, that are almost as hard as those early ones, but luckily, those days are not a given anymore.

In addition to the wear and tear on my muscles and joints (and the days needed to recover from working), I was faced with other issues I haven’t before had to worry about in a workplace. I’ve never been Ms. Fashion, but I take pride in my hair and making sure I’m clean, but when you work in the garden center at the Project Store, where the only environmental control is a fiberglass roof over part of the zone, you think about hygiene in a totally different way. You no longer worry if your ponytail is slightly crooked; you wonder instead why you haven’t already shaved off all of your hair. You also realize by June that deodorant doesn’t always work.

This job has been the first time in years I’ve had to work directly with other people — I had been freelancing from home for nearly 10 years, and my face-to-face interaction has been VERY limited — and I was pleasantly surprised to no longer feel the isolation I felt while working at home.

Mostly, my coworkers are more than OK, with a few exceptions. I found that almost all of my fellow coworkers at the Project Store don’t really like to train new employees; they don’t like to offer information about the job — it’s a trial by fire sort of place, and once I understood that, it allowed me to forgive almost all of my coworkers.

Despite the occasional power-hungry jerk, and the lack of desire to help new hires, most of my coworkers are great, and for a million different reasons. They’re all smart about something. Sure, we have specialists in the various departments in the store, which is really handy if you’re trying to build a cool toddler bunk/fortress in your giant closet.

So, in addition to all those folks who truly know their jobs — like the plant gurus, and the guy we call the Professor of Paint — we also have so many hidden treasures throughout the store. There’s the eBay and Craigslist expert; the former chemist who knows EVERYTHING about all things science-related. There’s the mommy-turned-plumbing-expert. We have a professional photographer in Receiving; a chef in Lumber; a couple of sports hopefuls; an old, discreet pervert/religious scholar/millionaire who can provide information and partners about any fetish you may or may not be exploring; and, of course, there are struggling artists all over the store.

In addition, there are a number of immigrants: there is a special spot in my heart for them, and I just love to listen to them talk. Once, the Liberian got into an argument with the guy with a speech impediment, and the chain smoker from London intervened. How awesome is that? There are zany, hilarious, dangerously inappropriate people all over the store, as well, and I don’t think I have laughed as hard in my life as I have in the last year. It’s an inspiring, eclectic mix of folks, and I’m glad they’re in my life.

Bonding with my coworkers early on was difficult. The challenge was, first, because I started at the beginning of the busy season and most of my time was spent assisting customers and downstocking merchandise; and also, I was really nervous about getting to know new people. But as time went on, I made some friends. Some of them are the first people I’ve informed about the more difficult details of my life, like the death of my daughter and the failure of my marriage. Aside from two “OK, about that Chinese buffet on the other side of the complex,” type of responses, I’ve been moved by the kindness of my coworkers.

Shortly after Catherine’s death, I joined a support group and one of the biggest complaints was about the insensitivity of coworkers. Granted, I didn’t have to go back to a physical workplace immediately after my loss, and it has now been just over five years since Catherine passed away, so I can only imagine how painful it must be to deal with thoughtless comments so soon after a tragedy.

Five years on, I guess I am saying that I’m proud of myself for being able to talk about some difficult stuff with people who don’t know me, without breaking down; and second, without breaking down after the rude subject change. Not that it’s all about strength, real or perceived. I’m not sure what it’s about, but I think it may have to do with grace and transformation, and the ability to incorporate challenges and loss into our life stories, and live better for that. I have been trying, and often I have no idea how I’m doing. These discussions with my coworkers have been a good gauge.

Grace and transformation have been in abundance in this last year, as well as motivation. Many of my coworkers have endured hardship, too: no one is really alone. I’ve heard some powerful stories from the customers, too, and for the first time in years, I truly feel like I am part of humanity again.

* * * * *

My friend Val briefly met Kurt Vonnegut several years back. She went home that night, angry with herself because all she could think to say to him was, “I like your sweater.”

It was a cool sweater at least, she said.

I never met Kurt Vonnegut, but I know how frustrating it is to come up empty at an opportunity to say something memorable or meaningful. I had my year review at the giant home improvement store in March of 2012, and the store manager asked me what I had done for a living prior to working for him. I told him the bulk of my career was spent in an office, behind a desk. He was visibly confused. But he’s a curious fellow, too, and he asked what that was like.

His question stumped me. I could have told him that I made a lot more money, for what I know now is a lot less work; I could have said it was nice to have a set schedule. I had gone into my review very recently after an assistant manager gave one of my colleagues an unfathomably hard time about leaving an hour early (an hour for which he did not get paid), so I could have said something about how, on occasion, I was able to take off (with pay) to get an oil change in my previous life.

But it was late Sunday afternoon — my Friday — and by that point, my feet were killing me, even while I was sitting, and all I could think to tell my manager was, “Well. Hm. Mostly we sat all day and looked at the computer, and I almost never had to work on the weekends.” At that moment, white collar work seemed pointless. And, really, it is for the most part.

My manager lives, breathes, and eats home improvement, to the point where I started to think that maybe he was a robot. But he’s also from the south, and there’s something about the slower-than-us way he talks, and the slightly musical drawl that helps him to seem human and genuine. “That sounds interesting,” my manager said, convincingly. But he couldn’t understand: desk work is a foreign concept to a man who spends 10 hours a day on his feet.

Overall, my review went well. I got a 3.6 percent raise, which under most circumstances, is not bad. But in my case, it means about $40 more a month. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take it. My manager also challenged me to get certified (store certified, not an official license) in flooring and plumbing in the next few months, which sounds insane now that I see it in print, but I think I might try it. I like a challenge. And, maybe I’m insane. It’s a shitty economy, and plumbers are expensive.

* * * * *

In the past, as soon as I discovered some sort of injustice or inequity, I pounced on it. I have mellowed a bit these days, and figure a bit of patience isn’t a bad thing. This is the philosophy I had when I saw Jake’s paystub earlier this year — he is a nice kid, and not stupid, but something is clearly wrong with him. He’s afraid of all the machines at the Project Store — he can’t even cut a key or mix paint; cutting a blind or a 2×4, or god forbid, a Christmas tree, is unfathomable to him. He gets anxious around the customers, except at closing time, when he’s very good at telling them they have to leave the store. He feels most comfortable gathering carts.

So he couldn’t print his paystub; computers and printers are machines, after all, and he asked me for help. I really, truly didn’t mean to look, but there it was. His rate was about a dollar more than mine, despite the fact I can use most of the machines at the Project Store, including some of the saws. I like the customers (for the most part), AND I’ve been there a year longer than he has. Also, I work in a department where my sales can be tracked, and I do very well considering I work part-time. (Since I posted this piece, there was one week I was #6 in sales in the entire store; I handily beat the specialist in my department, and I only worked part-time. That sounds braggy doesn’t it? I don’t mean it that way.)

I was furious, but told myself that my two-year review was a few weeks away; I would negotiate harder for a big raise. Prior to my review, I had to fill out a questionnaire to self-evaluate how I was doing. I gave myself kick-ass marks, because I work at the Project Store, and I’m completely overqualified to work at the Project Store, yet happily kick ass for them anyway.

The day of my review, Bill, the store manager, agreed with my self-assessment and was overall very positive; he encouraged me to learn more about Flooring and Plumbing in the upcoming year, and told me what my raise would be: I’m up to a whopping $13.07, which for retail doesn’t flat-out blow, but I sure as hell ain’t getting rich, either. I told him I’d like to talk to him about that. I told him how I saw — inadvertently — Jake’s payslip. I did my best to not say anything disparaging about Jake, but I was clear that I’m a valuable team player, capable of whatever the Project Store needs from me; I’m someone willing to push myself, not just carts. I said I’d like to negotiate using Jake’s rate as a base.

Bill said he wasn’t aware that Jake was making so much more than everyone else and said he’d look into it. But corporate recently changed its policy about rates and raises and it’s very difficult to make changes at this point. He said I should speak with HR and we’d go from there.

I work the weekends, which means I almost never see the HR manager. I sent her an e-mail immediately after my review. I didn’t hear back the following week. I mentioned it to Dan, in my department, and he called her extension and handed me the phone before I knew what he was doing. I was taken off guard, but simply asked her if she received my e-mail (she had) and if she had time to look into it.

There was an episode of “30 Rock” awhile back where Jack is negotiating pay with his daughter’s nanny. The nanny didn’t speak. She sat and ate a tangerine while Jack rambled and eventually caved and gave the nanny what she wanted. I kept this in mind with the HR manager, and stopped speaking. She, like Jack, rambled uncomfortably for too long about corporate pay structure, and how it’s not quite right, but should level out at some point; she blathered about Jake’s lack of work ethic, but how they couldn’t take money away from him; she said I am more capable than probably half the people in the store, and she would do what she could to get me an increase.

Another two weeks went by. There was a significant amount of bullshit from Bill the weekend of our follow-up, too banal to document, but suffice it to say, it WAS bullshit, and it WAS significant. He sat me down in the office, and plainly told me that he had examined where I was monetarily and I was where I should be. Furthermore, the Project Store will not give out-of-cycle increases, and I shouldn’t concern myself with Jake. “That situation will work itself out in the wash,” he said.

I wasn’t really sure what to do: I was annoyed and full of intense dislike for Bill, whose management skills are far more dubious than any manager I’ve encountered. I was mulling over the idea of calling corporate to find out more about this inflexibility, and to see how they could justify paying a cart herder so much more than other, more valuable employees. I was pissed that I was “out of cycle” only because Bill dragged his feet. But I smiled at him, and looked him square in the eye, trying to hold back the daggers in my gaze, and waited for him to speak again.

“I really think you could be a specialist in Paint or Home Decor, or even a manager of a department, without any effort on your part. You’re smart and outgoing. If you were to take the initiative and move up in the company, I’m sure we could find more money for you.”

I refused to speak, partially because I wanted to emulate that nanny in “30 Rock” but also because in the heat of a stressful moment, I don’t always think as quickly as I’d like. So Bill added, “Christine, I really need you to stay positive and focused.”

I nodded.

“Any other questions or comments for me?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

“OK then. I’ll see you soon. Please. Positive and focused, okay?”

I said, “OK,” and left the small office.

I went back to the Home Decor desk, and told some of my colleagues what had happened. Everyone was genuinely disappointed, but not surprised. I was relieved and somewhat liberated to just be done with the conversation, and to have an answer. My plan is to quit the Project Store at the end of the summer when Matty goes to kindergarten anyway, so now I feel a sense of peace about it. It’s time.

I decided to look at pictures of bearded dragons on the Internet, because one of the girls from the front end offered me one. Six or seven of my coworkers joined me, creating what’s known internally as a “strawberry patch” because of all our red vests. Bill appeared out of nowhere, and he looked pissed.

It was all he could do to hold himself together. He asked with forced calm, “Hey Team. What are we doing?”

I was ready to say, “taking care of my custom blind orders,” but Sam, one of my very tall coworkers, who is enduring his own crap with the Project Store, walked up to Bill, leaned down toward his face, and said, “WE are looking at pictures of dragons.” Sam walked away. Bill, dumbfounded, and caught between wanting (but always failing) to be cool, and his dictatorial nature, said, “I think we need to focus less on dragons, and focus more on selling, OK?” He repeated that several times to no one in particular; the patch had dispersed. And there were no customers around.

And I am caught between wanting to do my personal best, and wanting to follow Jake’s lead, which is the least amount of work for the most amount of money. I will probably do a little of both for my remaining time at the store.

Here I am on Friday night gathering carts. In the background is Dan, who is a specialist in Windows and Walls and one of the more highly compensated employees in the store. The Project Store recently opened up overtime opportunities to all of the full-time employees, and Dan signed up for every available slot, and is currently working from opening to close every single day until the OT opportunity stops. Friday night the geniuses behind the store’s staffing requirements did not have any young kids on the schedule to take care of the carts, or the mulch-loading needs of the customers. Dan and I headed to the lot, lest we get sent to the garden center. It was a gorgeous night, and one of our coworkers, heading out to dinner, offered to get us ice cream. I figure that was at least $43.07 an hour in staffing costs pushing carts.

* * * * *

Sometimes I am full of love for the Project Store, but I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a cheerleader. I don’t agree with everything the Project Store does, some of which affected me directly, like the corporate reorganization that took away commissions (I had just started to make a bit of extra money by selling custom window treatments).

I have no strong opinion on their decision to pull their advertising from that show that featured American Muslims. But, it did stink of ignorant, corn-fed stupidity. I suspect the company is struggling a little bit, based on my first point about the commission thing. Stores have closed and bigwigs in the corporation have been canned. So, of course, the company will cut its advertising budget, starting first with the shows the company — being a corn-fed, good-ole-boy shop from the south — can’t possibly understand.

I am in no way saying I think the Project Store will be closing its doors any time soon; I just think longevity in retail is very, very ­rare. My store did not suffer the fury that some others in my chain did after it pulled the ads. We only had one protester: a kid from Rider who had never even watched the show in question. The Muslims still come, too: I’ve helped three devout families, in great depth, since the corporate decision to not advertise on the TV show. So, maybe it was a stupid decision on the part of my employer. But TV is kind of stupid, too. So things even out.

The Project Store does a lot of things right, too, and I appreciate that. Some stores — like the arts store I worked for last year — toss their imperfect or slightly damaged stock. The rationale behind that, is that the arts and crafts store was very anti-employee, and management was certain that employees damaged things on purpose, just to get them at a reduced rate. The Project Store does not throw away its damaged goods. You can really get some awesome deals there, though it tends to be a right time/right place sort of thing.

The Project Store hosts free semimonthly clinics for young children. Twice a month, a swarm of preschoolers and young grade schoolers descends on the lumber department, where one of my more patient colleagues (and resident garden guru) hands out packaged kits and hammers. The kids get to build items like trucks, trains, birdhouses, picture frames, and dinosaurs. Wait. I should say that the parents often build those items and the kids sometimes whale their parents’ fingers with the tools.

After attending a certain amount of clinics, kids are awarded a toolkit, and apron and some goggles. Glen [my ex-husband] brings Matty in, and like the other parents, Glen builds the project while Matty plays with something unrelated on the table. Matty seems to like it, though, and now he has a year’s worth of projects on his shelves.

* * * * *

I am irritated with the Project Store. Management is trying to meet its financial goals this quarter, and to do it, they’re cutting the hours of the part-timers. I recently made a move that I thought was smart: I went from the Weekend Team — which guaranteed me 19 to 20 hours a week, though I was locked into working only on the weekends, AND many people in the store treated members of my group like the company’s bitches — to an official part-timer.

While I personally got kicked around a bit less than the young slackers on my team, I still ran into some serious power-tripping attitude from time to time. My part-time status offers me protection from getting rudely plucked from assisting a customer so I can stand at a register (and often do nothing — it’s been slow) while the attitude-ridden nasties from the front end check their Facebook and eat candy. On the flip side, official part-time status means they can cut my hours down to ten. Or six, if times are tough. I have six hours coming up this week, and I’m a little concerned about my rent. And everything else. It’s been a hot month and I live on the second floor.

But I’m not alone. A lot of my coworkers are suffering the same fate, and almost all of them (aside for a few) are great. This may sound conceited, but I don’t mean it that way, but I have found that most of the men will do almost anything I ask. Don’t worry, I use my powers for good (most of the time). I’ll say, “Let’s drop these buckets on the floor behind Herman!” Or, “Hey, why don’t you moon Tom?” Or, most likely, “Put this on your head and let me take a picture.” I will always get an enthusiastic, “Okay!” and sometimes even a, “Do you have your camera ready?” even before I let on I’ll be taking pictures.

I wish I knew I had this power a long time ago.

* * * * *

This may be an exercise in futility, but I’m going for it anyway. Maybe one of my readers can point me in the right direction. There’s a mystery afoot and I’m hoping to find some answers!

When I first started at the Project Store, I found out one of the guys from Lumber had diverticulitis. It seemed odd to me because he wasn’t 40 yet, and he’s in pretty good shape. My grandmother has diverticulitis. It’s not really a young guy’s disease, though the disease itself isn’t uncommon. But one guy out of 150 isn’t too strange, even if he doesn’t fit the description or demographic for the average sufferer. There are medical mysteries in the world, I suppose.

If you aren’t familiar with diverticulitis, is a painful condition that develops when pouches or sacs form in the inner lining of the large intestine, which become inflamed, and can cause all sorts of gastrointestinal nightmares. It can often be managed through diet.

Or sometimes it requires hellacious surgery. Several months after I found out about Lumber Associate No. 1 with diverticulitis, I found out about Lumber Associate No. 2 with diverticulitis. The second associate works only nights, and our schedules don’t have much overlap, so it took awhile to strike up a conversation, but when we did, I thought it was odd that the second young man — also under 40, and in shape — had the same condition, but in his case, much worse. He required life-saving surgery, complete with stoma and colostomy bag at age 37. He’s a really nice guy and his story is just horrible and it hurts to think about what he went through. He manages his diverticulitis through diet, and I suspect is far more vigilant than Associate No. 1 because his case was that much worse.

So that’s weird, right? Two young guys with a disease they really shouldn’t have. There are about 150 employees in the store; 2 out of 150 isn’t THAT odd. But it IS fishy they both work in the same department.

But the whole reason I’m writing is because last week, another Lumber guy was rushed to the hospital with severe gut pain. Guess what? Diagnosis is diverticulitis. He is about 40, and also fit. He came home for a day or two, but went back because the pain was unmanageable. He’s still in the hospital.

So we’re up to 3 out of 150. All in Lumber, not spread out all over the store; all outside the demographic (or on the young side of the spectrum) for the disease. All three men have worked in the Project Store’s Lumber Department for more than three years. The Lumber manager is new, and the store hires young kids to rotate in and out of that department depending on school schedules and extracurricular activities. Perhaps I’m twisting numbers, but to me that sounds like a 100 percent rate of diverticulitis in the long-term lumber associates.

That isn’t a coincidence. But I’m not sure what it is. The guys in Lumber handle and cut — you got it — wood. Some of it is raw; some of it is pressure-treated. Pressure-treated lumber is greenish; it’s soaked in a chemical brine that permeates the lumber, in an effort to ward off the earth’s smaller beings who are inclined to eat wood. I’m no scientist, but stuff that kills/repels insects, small animals, fungi, and other microbes, is never friendly to human flesh. And, over the years, the EPA has restricted the use of certain chemicals in treating lumber because of health and environmental concerns. Even though the current preservation soup is approved by the government, it’s still made with some bad ass chemicals. Humans are supposed to wear gloves when handling it and refrain from burning it. The dust is dangerous, as well.

There’s a vacuum attached to the saw in Lumber, but it still spews dust. I work in a different department with a modified table saw, which is considered enclosed, and therefore does not require the operator to use protective gear. Yet it spews copious amounts of residue, which gets all over my hair, and up my nose and into my respiratory system. Certainly minute particles could land in my mouth, working their way into my digestive system, as well. This may be the case with Lumber’s saw as well, which means maybe lots and LOTS of chemical dust is floating through the air in that department. So that’s why I think the wood cutting process might be the reason for the cluster of diverticulitis. But I really don’t know. Maybe the raw wood is covered in fungus? Maybe it’s the cement dust?

Something is weird, though, isn’t it? Any advice?

* * * * *

I spent most of my career behind a desk, and what happens in an office — any office — is, for the most part, insignificant. It can be mind-deadening, causing our inner beings to stagnate. Some projects — or situations in the office — stay with you, keep you up at night, nag at you for weeks. And what is troubling about this is that really, truly, so very little of what happens in Corporate America actually matters. No one’s life hangs in the balance if we miss a deadline by a couple days. Usually. I don’t mean to imply that white collar workers should disregard rules and deadlines. There is immense satisfaction in the completion of a project. Personal pride and accountability are important. But not life-or-death important.

Not that tasks at the Project Store are any more meaningful. Though, regularly, we help people gather what they need to rebuild after a tragedy or hardship. Or they’re entering a phase of their lives that requires sacrifice, change, optimism, strength, and need a bit of assistance gathering supplies. The work that happens in the Project Store appeals to our basic needs, I suppose, but it’s generally not life-and-death either.

But what happens after years of working in an office, versus years in retail? It’s hard to say, and I’m sure there’s a lot of variation, depending on the particular employer. I found after a day in the office, sometimes my brain was so fried that I had nothing creative left for myself, and that was frustrating. But usually, I had enough physical energy left to make dinner, do some chores, run to the store, that kind of thing.

After a long day at the Project Store, my body is so broken that no matter how much creative energy I have buzzing inside of me, I am often too exhausted to do anything about it, and my feet and legs ache, too. Picking up groceries at the store after work would possibly be the end of me. I am old and fat, so my experience may not be universal, but I’m sure it’s not abnormal, either.

The Project Store, as far as retail goes, is not a bad gig. The people are great. Really really great. The pay sucks, of course, but it’s not as bad as some other establishments.

I haven’t worked retail since high school, so I have no current basis of comparison, but compared to office jobs I’ve had, there are aspects of working at the Project Store that are outright insulting, like their new policy that employees must submit day-off requests 30 days in advance, even though the schedules are posted only two weeks out; even though management can change those schedules without any notice; even though the rest of society doesn’t give that much notice for birthday party invites, club meetings, Little League games, school concerts, and so forth. I could understand if they required vacation requests that far out — or even further — but 30 days notice for an occasional day off? Oy vey.

That’s really only a minor annoyance compared to the other kinds of crap that blossoms this time of year at the Project Store. Once the busy season ended, many of my coworkers were written up for punching in early, for calling out (and utilizing their paid time off), and of course, for tardiness, even though usually management doesn’t care about that. We have a relatively new HR manager, and she is a nice person, but she hired an unbelievably inept crop of seasonal help, resulting in their firings about three-quarters of the way through the busy season; she had to scramble to get 15 or so new seasonal people in the last month. Nearly all of them were unceremoniously unloaded two Saturdays ago, leaving the front end with one cashier for the rest of the day.

Dennis, a department manager on the other end of the store, lost his mother and his father in the last year, went through a divorce (he had to move because of that); and his kid was in a car accident. Like the rest of us, I’m sure he had other incidental crap along the way, too. He approached the store manager to ask if he should take a leave of absence to take care of his family, and the manager told him, “No. We’ll work with you, Dennis. We’re your family, too.” Dennis was written up last weekend for excessive absenteeism.

The Powers-That-Be in the Project Store family didn’t stop with Dennis, in bestowing dysfunction. I’ve grown fond of an elderly man named Bob who has worked for the Project Store since 2002. He’s experienced hardship and unimaginable tragedy, yet remains positive, grounded, and full of hope. I have such respect and admiration for him. He was sitting down in his department at the small desk with another coworker discussing the work that needed to be done for their shift. They were both written up. For sitting down.

He has also had two heart attacks in the last few years; the last one was in April of this year. I was so relieved when he came to visit me one Sunday after church; he told me that he doesn’t really know what to do anymore about his heart: he’s in great shape and he eats well, and has learned to manage stress. He just has a less-than-perfect circulatory system.

He told me, though, he’s ready to die if it comes to pass, and has been asking HR for fewer hours so he can spend more time with his family. He wants to work about 12 hours a week, but he is constantly scheduled for closer to 24 hours a week, and it’s too much for him. So Bob calls out frequently, which was never a problem until recently.

Two things happened: The busy season is over and management culls the herd, regardless of seniority or any kind of personal consideration, despite the fact we’re supposedly a “Family.” Bob had his annual review, and in the area where he was asked about his career goals, he wrote, “FULL RETIREMENT.”

His manager was not pleased, and he was written up a few days after his review. He cleaned his locker out and is hoping — with a huge smile on his face — to get fired soon.

Bob knows he’s just a monkey at the Project Store. He can, like all of us, be replaced by another monkey. We have lives and skills and intriguing stories; we have brains and hearts and souls. But, to the corporation, we are all monkeys.

We are all overqualified.

* * * * *

Earlier this month I gave notice and left the store. I went in to the job two years ago, expecting it to just be a way to get some money to help with my bills, but it became something more.

My first night was a Friday. It was pouring. I reported to HR, and was issued a red vest, a set of gloves, and a box cutter — one of the most pathetic knives I’ve ever used, by the way. My design work had dried up. I had gone through dark, dark times with the loss of my daughter, my mother, and my dog all within the span of a year or so. I had an incredibly fussy baby. I didn’t leave the house much. I was sedentary. My marriage had fallen apart.

I put on the vest — it was the first time in my life I needed a uniform, the first time I worked in the service industry, and I admit, my face burned. I hoped no one I knew would see me. I inserted my name badge, put the knife and gloves in my pocket, and followed the assistant manager to Inside Seasonal. He told me I’d most likely be spending the bulk of my time outside, but since it was raining and the store was slow, they would use me inside. I appreciated that. Or so I thought.

Inside Seasonal, as it turns out, it a difficult department to work, and it was staffed by a couple of the store’s bad boys who didn’t give passes to new people, who didn’t have sympathy for older, chubby ladies; ladies who obviously never worked manual labor in their lives. One of the bad boys, known as The Commander, climbed up a ladder and asked me to help him get some things out of topstock. Light stuff, he said, seed starting kits, mostly. There was a box on the ladder. He stepped over it, and, thinking it was empty, kicked it down to me, without warning. It wasn’t empty. There was a hose inside. My arms, unprepared for the weight, failed. The box hit me in the face, and my head buckled back. The Commander laughed. “Welcome to the Project Store,” he said. I would not react. I helped him finish with the seed starter kits.

Surprisingly, my face did not hurt too badly, but my neck was sore. I swept birdseed, and flat-stacked those huge bags; I helped the Commander downstock riding lawnmowers. I cleaned up the seed displays.

Tidying up the seed displays sounds benign, doesn’t it? It’s not. I’d rather help bring down lawnmowers. With the guy who laughed after kicking a box in my face. Every last aspect of that task sucked, and I saw the department manager smirking. But he called me over toward the end of the night, gave me a little pep talk, and asked me to water and prune the houseplants to wind down. This is not a difficult task, hauling the Water Buffalo, as it’s known, but the sprayer is not precise. I was soaked. Aching. Miserable.

I wondered what the hell I did — if there was one event in my life that set the stage for me breaking my bones and destroying my feet in my 40s, or if it was a culmination of a very bad run?

I made it through that first weekend. But I needed days to recover. The following weekend — the first weekend in April — there was a cold snap, and the assistant manager made the decision to leave the plants outside, rather than bring them in. Covering them with frost blankets, he reasoned, was less work than it was to roll everything inside.

It was already below freezing, and one of my coworkers and I rolled out the massive, unwieldy blankets, which needed to go up and over each display of hanging plants and then secured. There was climbing involved, lifting cinder blocks, good aim, lifting large bolts of protective fabric, freezing temperatures, wet plants, and tons of dirt. Within a few minutes, I could tell I’d need to stay beyond my scheduled finish time to get the job done; I needed permission. What a strange concept: needing permission to finish a task.

An aside: my relationship with the Project Store endured two major hurricanes and one notable nor’easter. On those three occasions, I was part of the crew that brought the plants inside. This was no easy task either. But it’s much easier on the body to roll carts of plants than it is to cover every single table and rack with frost blankets.

Gearing up for the busy season in the nursery is exciting! A large potted plant fell on my toe; pot nor toe shattered, but I lost the nail. I cut myself on hidden staples. A table fell on my shin. I still have a knob there, and imagine I will for the rest of my life. I’d brace myself against display racks while carrying large boxes and wind up with huge bruises on my arms. I went through many pairs of sneakers and boots. I did not lose weight, as I had hoped, but I gained strength, endurance, flexibility.

I stained all of my shirts with chemicals, dirt, pollen, paint, and occasionally, food. But the vest covered it all. The vest hid a multitude of sins: my boobs, my imperfect waistline, my stained clothing, my T-shirts. I noticed on my days off, I’d reach for my knife or tape measure in my pocket, in my phantom vest. How strange: the shameful vest was becoming part of me.

I settled in Home Decor after awhile, a department hit with periodic insanity, and at other times, it was so dead, my mind would unravel with boredom. It was located at the center of the store, so it was never boring for long. There was good energy with lost customers, looking for this or that; many of my coworkers used Home Decor’s computers to punch in and out, and they’d linger to talk.

Occasionally, they’d sneak a break, and sit in the window treatment display directly behind the desk. We’d talk. I made friends. I didn’t expect that to happen. There were so many college-educated kids unable to find professional jobs, working at the Project Store. For retail, the pay was pretty good, and as I came to discover, the people were great. There were retired folks, slowly dying at home, needing some purpose; people working only for the benefits. There were a lot of antics, a lot of laughter.

My friends lost loved ones (one lost his mother to a mass shooting in Florida); they battled cancer, diverticulitis, and other debilitating conditions; they endured damage from the storms, car accidents. Their hearts ached. They struggled to pay their bills; they yearned for love. My friends were there for me at difficult times, too, and I was happy to not be alone. So not alone.

And I found love, too: that handsome guy from Lumber who smiled when he rode by on the zamboni eventually stopped to chat one day. Oh, that smile! It brightened up everything. We talked for quite a few weeks in the two-hour overlap of our schedules, until one day, at the Home Decor desk, Jason asked me for coffee. Some months later, in the same spot, he told me he loved me. At the Home Decor desk. Wait. What? I didn’t expect to hear it. Not there. But it was spontaneous, and I loved him too, and told him so.

Me. In love. You can tell by the necklace. I’m smiling on the inside, I promise!

I dealt with more petty, punitive, and idiotic rules at the Project Store than I’ve had to deal with before. Most of the time, I was okay with it: I’m a good citizen. Occasionally, I caught the raw end of the idiot stick, but for a part-time gig for a transitional period of my life, I could not ask for a better scenario.

My last day was earlier this month; I wanted to spend the final few weeks of Matty’s babyhood with him before kindergarten. Besides, I have been working another job for the last year and half or so, and I’ll be able to pick up hours there. Good hours, that involve less dirt and sweat, fewer bumps and bruises, less ruined clothing, and feet that do not ache. I don’t expect any boxes to hit me in the face, or any tables to fall on my legs, either. I’m not used to my freedom from the Project Store just yet: my weekends are unsettled, directionless, but I am so glad to have them back. But I miss the social aspect of the store far more than I expected.

My coworkers sent me off with not one, but two parties. One in-house, and one at a local restaurant. I was scheduled until 6 that final Sunday, and at 4, the opening crew headed out. They came by to say goodbye and to wish me luck. I sobbed. Deep, full body, messy sobs that took me completely off-guard. I avoided customers, and the guys in Flooring hid me for a bit, and reminded me of how much better my life will be without the Project Store. The Flooring guys are awesome, but I didn’t completely agree with them. And I cried again when I said goodbye to them.

I go to work at my other job now — the one that involves the sitting — and I wonder every morning if this shirt looks okay, or if that blouse fits me well. I feel so exposed. I occasionally reach for my knife or my tape measure, which aren’t there, because the vest is gone.

I miss the vest.

I miss the people, too.

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