Since returning to NCSU in the fall of 2012, I have discovered many things about myself. Too much to tell in one sitting, and in order to save you from a very sloppy and erratic rehashing of my own life’s story (at least for the time being), I’ll focus on one particular epiphany that came to me within the last week or so.
We learn new things about ourselves on a regular basis because change is inevitable. It is the only thing that makes the universe particularly interesting, and, if we’re getting even more philosophical, the only thing which gives it any meaning at all. But let’s avoid exploring such grandiose ideas. I only mean to say that life will always be filled with little moments of self-discovery, that our “selves” may not always be so clearly defined, because change is inevitable.
After a lot of turmoil and struggling with school for reasons I won’t address in this post, I finally was able to transfer into the NCSU English department as an English Creative Writing major last August. Since then I cannot begin to count the number of times I have been asked, or that I asked myself, “What in blazes am I going to do with a degree in creative writing?” With nearly a year under my belt as an official English major, I have had one of those moments of self-discovery, and in that moment I came to a conclusion, not only about myself, but about American society as I know it. Here I will inform the reader that I have no more authority to write the following than your average twenty-something college kid. But don’t let that stop you. I encourage criticism and discourse. How else will I learn anything?
One of those things I’ve discovered about myself which has at least a little to do with this essay is that I am an introverted thinker. INTP is my supposed personality type according to many online Myers-Briggs tests and hours of Wikipedia research. I don’t want to romanticize the personality thing because I think no one can be defined by one of sixteen combinations of letters. What I know is that I am introverted and that my brain is stimulated by deep thought. I form logical conclusions about the things I see or experience. I have little patience for “the way things are” when the way things are is arbitrarily defined. What is more important to the story is that I work in retail.
I first applied for a position at a Gap outlet store in my hometown. I applied to work at Gap because I thought, “how hard could it be?” Little did I know, working in retail, especially for a popular clothing brand, would be one of the most difficult and incredibly annoying things I have ever done. Bear in mind, I am an introvert. I become exhausted when I have to interact with the world outside of my head for an extended time. In retail, especially at Gap, if I haven’t bombarded the customer with friendly greetings and information about our promos as soon as you set foot in the door, I’m not doing my job. If I haven’t offered you a great deal for signing up for the Gap Card at least three times, I’m in trouble. If I haven’t given you four or five tops to go with those jeans before you enter the fitting room, I might be out of a job.
As a frequent buyer of clothes, I am well aware how annoying I can be to the customer. But that doesn’t matter. Selling you as many pieces of generic clothing I can is all that matters. I expected a job folding clothes. I fell into a job running around like a chicken without a head asking everyone I see, “Do you have a Gap Card? Do you have a Gap Card? Do you have a Gap Card?” The answers, usually: “No, and I don’t need one,” or “Is that like a credit card?” or “I think so.”
After moving to Raleigh for school, I decided rather than look for a new job, I’d transfer to the Gap here. BIG. MISTAKE. (I say this, but most of the people are nice and I enjoy the discount on clothing). Having worked here for nearly a year I can safely conclude that I am only a tool. I am a tool for acquiring Gap Card enrollments and, somehow, magically influencing our often inadequate sales numbers. I get it. I get that I am supposed to show the customer something that he or she may not have previously wanted, and I am to convince him or her that they, in fact, DO want it. I get that I am supposed to make sure every customer knows they can come to me if they have any questions about what top matches these shoes or which denim cut fits their ass better. Unfortunately, and here is my big epiphany, I don’t give a flying fuck what clothes you buy or whether you get a Gap Card. I don’t know what top goes with these shoes because I can’t tell you what you want. I could give you a list of fifty things you could wear with those shoes, each item being something we have in the store. Here’s an idea: take a stroll around the store and find something that you think would go with your shoes. Because at the end of the day, what I show you will be the wrong fit, the wrong color, or too damn expensive (unless you get a Gap Card).
I understand there are people who love to build outfits and really enjoy working at Gap. I work with several of those people and I love them all. They really are brilliant at what they do, because they love their job. I can learn some routine phrases and pick a few outfits to show to anyone who asks, but I will never be great at my job because I cannot tolerate the silliness of it all. And this is fine. I can live with it. I’ll do the best I can, regardless.
When my best is unsatisfactory, however, and you, being my manager, pick a personal vendetta against me because you think I’m inadequate and/or too stupid to work a disposable job selling cheap clothing, I become infuriated. You are an assistant manager (in charge of deciding where to put the clothes) at The Gap. Your constant nagging and moaning that I’m not moving fast enough is beginning to be a bother. Every time you see me passing by in the store, and I’m not having an in-depth conversation with a customer, or I’m not refolding the same shirt for the twelfth time, I must not be doing a damn thing, so you should make sure to tell me to “do something, don’t just stand around,” as if I had decided to take a break standing in the middle of the sales floor.
And here we have the epiphany. I understand why my managers bug the crap out of me. It is their job. Just as it is my job to bug the crap out of the customers. Just as it is the general manager’s job to bug the crap out of the assistant managers. Just as it is the district manager’s job to bug the crap out of the general managers. And so on, and so forth. This is the world we live in. There are no exceptions. When money is on the line, we find ourselves faced with two things: the expectation that we are to do something we may not feel comfortable doing, and that someone with authority over us will see to it that we do our job as efficiently as possible. Unreal expectations will be set. We are never satisfied, because the game is never won. We strive to get better, never realizing we’ll never be the best. I am encouraged by this realization, and I am disheartened by it. It is easy to play the game when you finally know the rules. But I am not satisfied by the way things are.
I realized why I became an English major the other day when I was working at Gap. It isn’t about potential job prospects or money. I knew going into the degree that I was conceding any hope of a prestigious career. The skills I have developed are not in high demand. The pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge is asinine and foolish in our society. I’ve told you the rules. They’re simple. No where do these rules not apply. I’ve spoken about Camus before, that the inane monotony of human existence is tiresome and depressing, that it can cut to the core of a man. But it is necessary for going on. I’m reminded of one of the first stories I read in college which really got me thinking deeply about this thing called life: Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener”. In it the title character is faced with the very same qualms which I’m writing about here. Bartleby just cannot accept the brutality of capitalist society, that the only way of moving up is to feed on those beneath you and kiss the asses of those above. Poor Bartleby gives up and succumbs to self-imposed starvation: suicide. I choose otherwise.
I am an English major because I take pride in the intellectual pursuit of man. I value man thinking, as Emerson puts it. I will use my talents and skills to my own benefit, beginning with this blog. I write because I know no other way to share what I’ve learned with the world. I understand my voice is small, but it is not silent. I can survive the game, whether I think the rules are fair or not. That is not an issue. So long as I have my will to learn.