Friday, October 01, 2004

Sisyphus Does Retail by Kristine Eco

Sisyphus Does Retail
by Kristine Eco

Beside a pillar of books piled high like stalagmites, I unbuckled my belt, pulled down my camel-colored corduroys and took a squat. Warm pee, which moments ago had threatened to burst my bladder, now gushed down the side of my thighs and sank onto the pea-green carpet. Bill, a manager wearing a light-blue Banana Republic shirt and khaki pants who was escorting two customers to the newsstand, glanced in my direction, only to stop dead in his tracks. A look of bewilderment mixed with shock and embarrassment replaced his usually staid countenance.

“Charlene! What the hell are you doing?” he asked. He then turned his back to offer the perplexed customers around us an apologetic smile.

I zipped up my pants and pretended not to hear him, all the while ignoring the security personnel rushing to the scene. Removing my name tag from my neck, I dropped the would-be albatross in the soupy mess, and then marched unceremoniously out of the bookstore.


“Charles,” called a voice from behind the mountainous display of DaVinci Codes arranged in a pyramid configuration. “Hand me the rest of the books in that pile, will you?”

I snapped out of my reverie (Was it really only a dream?) and headed toward Mount DaVinci, which my co-worker Drew was constructing, as if he were 3 again and playing with Lego blocks on a Saturday afternoon. Perched atop a ladder, he was the avatar of fatigue—two almond-shaped sweat-stains marked the undersides of his white T-shirt. A lesson I learned while slumming it as a wage slave at Barnes & Noble was the art of time suckage.

We were both recent college grads who had narrowly escaped the plight of unemployment, but who had the misfortune of being underemployed in a very downturn economy. There were legions of kids like us. Only, we were more industrious and Horatio-Algersian than some, who in a fit of retro-cooing had groveled back home to doting parents when the man hadn’t knocked on their doors with a bid for their souls. Drew and I had opened our own doors and were sucking the marrow out of life, as Henry David Thoreau had advocated in his manifesto. At the dawn of a new millennium, New York City was our Walden, and tread water in the big pond like it was nobody’s business we would.

“Not bad for someone who would rather be directing films than shelving books,” he said, alighting from the ladder. I placed a black stool at the foot of the mount and sat down.

“Nicey nice,” I said. “You’ve outdone yourself this time. The pyramid over at Union Square may as well be an anthill. The last I checked, they only had 400-and-change copies in stock, while we—well, we’ve got Codes coming out of our cake-holes. And here they all are—all 1,000 of them, in time for the holidays.”

Drew had studied to become the next big thing in film, and like many a hopeful auteur he was apprenticing as a cameraman on the set of Law and Order. When plans to move to L.A. were nixed because his grandmother in Queens who’d raised him had suffered a stroke not three months ago, he decided to stay in the City for an indeterminate length of time. He moonlighted at the bookstore to pay off his student loans.
Drew pulled up a stray stool and sat beside me. In silence we contemplated the towering replica of the Egyptian monoliths. “If we sell out tonight, I’ll have to build another one tomorrow. And another the day after. Then another the day after that—”

“—that is, unless you happen to do something so completely outrageous, Bill would surely have to fire you,” I mused.

“Oh, yeah, whose turn was it?”

“Yours.”

“What was it that you would do again?”

“Pee on the carpet.”

“Right—good one.”

It had become a ritual of ours to play a game we liked to call “Canned.” Another bookseller, Ella, who’d quit a month before to go live with her Peace-Corps boyfriend in Romania, had conceived of it in an outburst of creativity incited by insufferable ennui.

“Let’s see. I would hide behind those mannequins up there,” he said, pointing to the ledge on the second floor, “and hurl water balloons at customers. But instead of water, I’d fill them up with week-old curdled milk.”

The store where we worked prided itself on its vast collection of fashion and graphic-design related books and periodicals. Earlier in the year, one of the managers had invited students from nearby FIT to clothe the mannequins on the balcony with their thesis creations. A few weeks ago, a PETA-activist armed with a can of spray paint demanded that the fur-trimmed coats, which some were wearing, be removed. As a result, all nine dummies were stripped of their fashionable rags the very next day. Word was they’ll remain nekked for the duration of the holidays.

“Ooh, I’ve got one.”

“Shoot.”

“Strip to my undies and streak past the exit after Bill gives the closing announcement on New Year’s Eve.”

“Extra points if you flash him on your way out.”

It was then that I laughed so hard I nearly peed my pants.

©Kristine Eco


Kristine Eco is living proof that "it's the quiet ones you have to watch out for." During her senior year in college, this Boston College alumna completed a semiautobiographical novella (disguised as an honors thesis) called "Between Desire and the Spasm." Several of her short stories and works of poetry have been published in campus literary magazines. Formerly an editorial intern at Paper magazine and a wage slave at a multinational bookstore chain, Ms. Eco currently provides behind-the-scenes editorial and production support for Interview magazine.

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