Retail Therapy


When I arrived in the United States back in the 90s, the US government didn’t quite have its luggage stacked up straight as it does today. I’m ashamed to say that foreigners like myself lived as free birds, not quite breaking laws, but not quite coloring in the lines either. In America today, it is just about impossible for an immigrant having been admitted into the country with a non-resident visa to work or even drive legally, thereby making it such a pain to survive – that most foreigners up and leave less than a year after entering the country rather than have to endure living illegally. The ropes were tightened after Bin Laden came out of left field, and literally stunned the government like a mullet.

All of a sudden, it came to light that hodgepodge government departments within the system that had been so laid-back for so many years, had loopholes so large that they had failed to capture undocumented foreigners, over-stayed visa foreigners, dropped-out foreign students and all manner of illegal ‘aliens’. In fact, now we know that the failure of the government’s working system was potentially the reason the 9/11 terrorists had come into the country, embedded themselves and – one of them had even gone as far as taking flying lessons at a flight academy.

Before you could say ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ G.W and his boys at the White House, had ‘Lego’d’ up a new system, one that was at first highly criticized but over time has left most of the country squeaky clean. Homeland, as the Department of Security is endearingly named, electronically links data between Immigration to other departments including the Department of Motor Vehicle. In that way, it’s impossible to apply for or renew a Driver’s License, if you are on a visa that does not allow you to work or reside in the US permanently, and that is about every visa except a Work Permit and a permanent residency visa, famously known as a Green Card. In some instances, non-residents might not be able to apply for a credit card, or any kind of loan, as banks have been required to take up the same vetting steps. Working on the sly is fully out of the question with companies so under pressure from the government to heavily vet applicants, and random raids done by Immigration Police in workplaces are not uncommon. In fact, these days, the systems are so synchronized that all it takes is getting flagged down by the State Police for a minor offense like running a red light – and if you’re not supposed to be in the US of A, chances are you will be on the next flight home.

During my years, things were simple really. We were not allowed to work on Student Visa, except on campus but that paid usually $6 an hour, only enough to buy toiletries. However, with creative elements learned from our predecessors, most or all of us got around to working outside college. Of course we were all felons at the time, but we were too naïve to care and besides, the government has bigger fish to fry – what with the Mexicans scrambling to make it across the desert to California or the hundreds of Cubans shipping in to Miami right?

 I had a few small jobs through college in California but my first official full-time job in America was at a French Connection clothing store in Boston, Massachusetts. I was told that I would earn $12 an hour and would have an 8-hour shift with a 1-hour lunch break. I was told that there was a specific discount for employees at the store, which seemed a good enough perk for me to take the job because the clothing was up market – not haute couture – but for me, a $200 pants suit was nothing short of Alexander McQueen.

I started the next day and learned quickly that retail was hard. There were only four tasks and one, working at the register, was off-limits unless you had worked at the store for at least a year, or were sleeping with the manager. Basically, you had to prove you could add up your numbers without being short, and that you didn’t have sticky fingers. The task I loathed the most was standing at the door wearing a clown face to welcome people who mostly walked in without even acknowledging my hard-worked smile. I was a ghost and strangers whizzed past me, through me, like I didn’t exist. Another tedious task was roaming around the store, endlessly folding the clothes that shoppers unfolded. It was scream-worthy. Nothing irks more than watching a bored woman who you know is not in to buy anything, come in swishing her Starbucks Iced Latte, and then slowly unfold t-shirt after t-shirt. Folding the tabletop clothing comes hand-in-hand with ‘sizing’ the hanged-up clothes. Nothing beats going around all the sections arranging clothes in order from Size 0 to Size 12 and then doing that over and over from 9 a.m to 1 p.m.

From time to time I’d lift my head up and there was my manager watching me all the way from the counter. As always, she’d wave at me, and wind up her hands around her mouth into a big C and then hush out in a loud whisper, “SMILE”. In that moment I wanted to cry.

I would tell myself that if I didn’t look at my watch, enough hours would have passed by and it would almost be lunchtime. I’d wait for what I thought was a long while, and then finally peek down at my watch feeling proud of myself at ‘not looking for such a long time’, but only 15 minutes would be gone by and I’d be so depressed. Not to be theatrical but if I had a shotgun, I’d literally have shoved it in my mouth. And then another hour would pass by and I’d be so bored that my spirit would lift out of my body and I would hover over myself wondering how I came to be this sorry person standing like a shell in this outrageous environment, and I’d be cursing this tormenting frozen smile that hurt my cheeks and made me look like I was related to the Joker. To this day, I hate to smile.

Retail stores have several tricks of the trade. The lights are always fluorescent in the display area to lighten the mood, but very soft in the dressing room to play down physical flaws. Stores use ‘skinny mirrors’ to give the illusion of thinness when customers try on clothes. Have you ever noticed that sometimes the clothes look fabulous on you in the fitting room, but when you get home, that black cocktail dress you purchased for your work dinner suddenly hangs off you like a muumuu? Another interesting trick is in goods placement. Some retail guru one day discovered that men tend to walk to the left and prefer to walk downstairs, while women walk to the right and have no squirms walking upstairs. That is why men’s and women’s departments are accordingly placed in the more sophisticated stores that take this into account. Not surprisingly, accessories like shoes, belts and handbags are always placed in the back of the store, to force customers to walk by all the buyable items. Plus, don’t ever let them tell you that ‘it’s the last one’. Even if a store has 200 copies of an item, they might put just 10 out at a time to make it look special. This is also done on sales racks – sometimes just one of each size is displayed so people will think it might sell out and they’d better get it right away. And finally, have you ever worked into a store and the music was so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think? Then walked into another store and the music genre sounded so classical you thought you were at the Opera? The volume of music is adjusted depending on the day and time. Head Office decides on the genre usually as a match to what they feel their brand represents. For example, a hip store like The Gap, catering to a youthful crowd will play music louder on the weekends to seem like a happening place to hang out.

 Head Office dictates what music albums are to be played for the season. And then maybe two are put on a loop. If you work at the store, it’s slow murder.

To this day, I’ll erratically start to screech, “If I could turn back time.” It happens anytime, anywhere, a totally involuntary movement triggered by a deeply embedded memory of Cher’s voice in my brain from the numbing loop. Psychiatrist I’m not, but I’m guessing it probably happens when the demons from my past are taunting meMy favorite job was working the fitting rooms. I enjoyed keeping busy clearing up the rooms, hanging up the unwanted clothes, and giving women my opinion. I learned during my time in the retail business that being blunt, my trademark character, would quickly get me fired. I also learned never to compare my body with any woman’s as a benchmark. Once a woman asked me, “What size do you think I’d be in this shirt?” Rather than wisely say, “Let’s try you on a 2,” I replied, “Well I’m a Size 0 so you’d probably be a 2.”  That day, I got my first warning.

The clothing retail industry in the US is a superficial industry. High-end clothing stores and accessory shops are the most notorious. If you’re ugly, if you wear braces, have acne, are overweight or look disheveled you’re not getting the job.

I watched girls come in and hand the manager their CVs, and she would smile and say that she’d call them if anything opened up, but as soon as they turned their backs, she’d hurl their CVs in the bin. A pretty girl would walk in, and the next day she’d have the job. It was predictable. Gays always got the job because 9 times out 10, they seemed industry-compatible; easy on the eye, well groomed, and enthusiastic about clothes, they saw retail as a starting point in a fashion career.

Retail managers can be cruel. My manager at French Connection, a tall, handsome woman with a short cut to the side Bieber-like coif, said to me on my performance review that she had only 2 issues with me. “One – I’m wondering if perhaps you’re deodorant is not strong enough. I’d like to recommend Secret. Two – I think you’re skin is beautiful but you’re going to need to get a proper facial regiment. You’re quite flaky. I’d recommend Clinique.” And after that harsh whipping, I was left scrambling over my lunch break looking for both ‘Secret’ and ‘Clinique’. The latter I may add, cost more than my bi-weekly pay.

 As it turned out, I ended up working in retail for a few years on and off as a tide to get me over the tough fiscal times. Even when I had a full-time career with a Masters degree, I still worked retail, because my work as a newspaper journalist living in one the most expensive cities in the US paid me the equivalent of the Vietnam Dong. As it turns out, malls in the US are open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., so there are a ton of collectable hours on the pay front. It’s also an easy way to get discounted quality clothing, handbags and shoes. In the end, I’d worked at a designer handbag shop, a shoe store, and two up market clothing stores.  Funny thing is, it’s only until you’ve had a dead end ‘job’ that you realize how much you want a ‘career’.



Out of Africa


San Diego, California

Sometimes when I catch my children walking through the world I think back to my first experiences in America. A mere walk through the mall has my kids enthralled. The taste of an ice cream is euphoric, and all the while time is of no value or consequence. Malls, parks, nature trails and pretty much any environment where a child can scour, stare, dig, chase, taste, and burn endless sources of energy are exhausting for most parents, but ironically, the joy of being a parent is in seeing how little a child needs to elicit such a heightened level of wonderment.

 Being in America for the first time was my first child-like experience as an adult and it’ll probably be my last. I have visited many cities around the world and been awed by the beauty of most, but I’ve never been enthralled as I was by America. I arrived in San Diego, California in the late 90s. It’s a breathtaking coastal city with a beautiful skyline and an East African climate; although most Americans would hardly believe it.

For a girl out of Africa, America was outrageous. The driver sat on the ‘wrong’ side of the vehicle. It was weeks, actually months, before I learned not to jump into the drivers seat every time I hitched a ride from a friend. I remember looking for zebras on the road every time the signposts read ‘Zebra Crossing.’ As it turns out, zebras are actually pedestrians.

Everything was large. The cars were monstrous. California highways can have anywhere from 6 to 8 lanes. I remember the day when I had to take my driver’s test I had a ghastly puke session triggered by nerves. It didn’t matter that I had learned to drive in a country where traffic laws are nonexistent and where I would actually be hailed a cowboy by any American driver, the fact was I had never had to parallel park, or navigate roads that wide, or Keep Right.

A few months after arriving in San Diego, I made friends with an out and proud lesbian college mate. In the midst of our budding friendship, she drove me to a popular gay and lesbian hangout spot where we browsed a niche bookshop, DVD store and explored other gems of a subculture that at the time was entirely alien to me. It later turned out she was ‘into me’ but at the time in my naiveté I genuinely thought I was gaining an education. I digress. On our way back to campus from so-called niche hotspot, we were driving in one of the middle lanes – perhaps third or fourth. All the cars ahead of us started to swerve right and left, and finally when we had full visual we realized we were about to eat an old couch that lay smack across the length of the highway. Problem is when driving at 100/mph there is not much reaction room when a piece of furniture suddenly appears right in front of the hood of your car. But Ally was able to wind quickly around the couch, and all the while other cars on multiple lanes were swerving around us. At that moment I realized those people who built the wide highways – hey, they are not so dim after all.

I was doubled over by the numbers of fast food joints. Every block I drove past had a different kind, and I couldn’t wait to try them all. Escondido Blvd: In-N-Out; Broadway: Jack in the Box; Eastlake Pkwy: Taco Bell; Magnolia Ave: Burger King; Olympic Pkwy: McDonalds; La Mesa Blvd: KFC; La Chula Vista Blvd: White Castle. It was endless. My first experience with an American plate serving was traumatic. The food served on campus was American, but I had been plating myself Kenyan-style, which in America is eating like a peasant. Upon seeing the size of my paltry tray and anorexic self, my roommates – a trio of American girls – took it upon themselves to induct me into the art of eating American. One Friday evening, I found myself, not at a fast food joint, but at another level of eatery, somewhat higher on the hierarchy. You can spot these on every block in the US by the numbers of Americans queued outside with buzzers while they wait for a table. And so it was, that at T.G.I Friday’s, I was attacked by a hamburger the size of a newborn baby. Stacked with blue cheese, and bacon, a side of potato wedges and a starter of onion rings, and a strawberry milk shake that was dinner itself. Outrageous.

After dinner we headed out to ‘How Stella Got Her Groove Back’. Before the movie, my friends ordered up a large tub of popcorn, M&M’s and Gummi Bears, and a large serving of Coke for everyone.  If I was going to survive America, I knew I hard to change my eating habits, pronto!