“Do you have any retail experience?” the petite boutique owner asked, biting into a salami sandwich. “No, but I love kids!” I chirped. My interview took place in her office, which was stuffed with kiddie crack: unpacked boxes overflowing with brightly colored crayons, toys and plastic animals. Her phone rang ceaselessly, vibrating across her desk like a yappy dog. She looked haggard in a hot way. How hard can it be owning a store that sells kids clothes? I wondered. She gave me a once-over and asked, “Can you start tomorrow?”
I got there early, full of new-girl jitters, ready to fill a child’s life with store-bought joy. Half an hour later, a skinny brunette, wearing an embroidered denim top and bottom, jogged up. “I’m late!” she said. “I’m sorry! I’m always late!”
Four huge boxes waited for us inside the store – a wonderland filled with silk capes, soft lighting and pretend kitchen sets. The boxes housed high-tech ant farms that we sorted and priced. “Are the ants inside the box?” I asked. “Of course! You dump the prepackaged ants into the neon blue nutrient goo and they stuff their faces with it,” She smiled. “It’s developed by NASA.”
The next few weeks were an exercise in faking it. My job was to prove that loving parents buy $300 angora jumpers for their newborns, that children sleep easier beneath organic cotton starry night sheets. Each day I’d grab a coffee, unlock the store, pump some Enya, and adopt a soothing voice. It was nice in a way, all this trying to be nice. The better I was at feigning enthusiasm over wooden food, swank ant farms and pricey bikes, the more I sold. But I couldn’t help feeling weird about it. I don’t have kids, I’d think. I don’t have a mortgage. I have a bottle of cheap wine waiting in the fridge at home. I steal internet from my neighbor. I don’t know the first thing about what babies need to be happy.
Soon, my all-denim cohort moved to Long Beach with her bodyguard husband and the “warm, calm environment” Craigslist promised became a sea of after-hours sales meetings, screaming children, imported infant kimonos, and one dying cat (the boss thought it should die there, with me, rather than at home, where she would torment the family). The perks of working alone were swallowed by an endless flow of UPS boxes to unpack, inventory, sort and price.
Before I started the job, I imagined the customers would be well-dressed stay-at-home moms with interesting academic careers, good hair and timeshares. I fancied small talk circling around the latest fiction in The New Yorker.
“Oh, what scent am I wearing? Why, that’s just some soothing lavender oil,” I imagined myself saying. “It calms the babies.” What I didn’t expect were teams of nannies with lists, passive-aggressive couples who wanted their baby to slobber all over something hand-carved from organic wood, and the baby-talkers: “Oh, Shannon, isn’t this the itsiest, bitsiest, wootest, widdle onesie?” Then there was the strangest breed of them all: the parents of baby models. “Our little Tyson is the face of Baby Gap! Have you seen his pictorial in Cookie?”
Sales were important, and I came to love the parents of baby models and to tend to them with sick, cunning glee. Here were the high rollers, easily dropping thousands in a single afternoon. I’d snatch the Polaroid camera from their manicured hands and together we’d fancy little Sophia and little Vince in slimming jeans.
“Oh, yes, those jeans look fabulous!” I’d coo excitedly, an actor playing a familiar part. Inevitably, a situation would occur. Could these models have a diaper change in the middle of the store? “Of course! Can I get you a warm towel for the little angel’s bottom?” I became an expert at manipulation, the secret to closing sales: organic clothing, Swedish toys, ergonomic high chairs. I could convince parents they needed anything. I could sell it all.
It wasn’t hard to put myself in the kids’ shoes. I was one of those spoiled only children with a toy-packed playroom. I built my own three-story, lighted dollhouse with my grandma. So why did I feel guilty pushing thousand-dollar strollers and slimming baby denim on loaded parents? They could afford it. The kids couldn’t care less, but so what? The parents wanted it. My boss wanted to make the sales. When I talked parents into buying bedazzled onesies, no one lost.
Of course, when they didn’t buy stuff, I got in trouble. During the summer months, when families vacationed, business slowed. My boss panicked and sales reps were ushered in to impart exciting new product knowledge and help us sell, sell, sell! Oddly sexy, leggy and exotic, those stroller reps showed up full of information, like how to transform the carriage into an off-roading force easily bypassing snow piles and sand dunes.
“Are you writing this down?” my boss barked. “I just ordered a ton of these.”
I developed a berserk vocabulary. The holidays were a different kind of hell: a season filled with anger, thieves and gift-wrapping. It was our busiest time of year, and sales meetings were replaced with frantic calls to suppliers: “More Imps and Elves!” “More BoBo Brooklyn!” “No, I haven’t heard back from Kiwi Industries. I’m working on it.”
I developed a berserk vocabulary, and once prevented a man in a sweaty, sauce-stained shirt from pocketing all the tiny shoes lining the shoe display. It was exciting, even as gift-wrapping proved to be a new form of torture.
And it was the holidays when it dawned on me – midway through bastardizing the wrap job on a silk infant’s cape with my dry, paper-cut hands, in the middle of an overheated crowd of angry shoppers – that I had to get out. Suddenly, it had all started to seem kind of sordid. The sheer amount of money being spent on things that weren’t remotely necessary. What happened to rain puddles, and sandlots and recklessness? I thought, looking around at the hundred-dollar teethers. What happened to cheap clothes – and childhood?
I looked out from behind the register and saw the UPS man struggling through the front door, wheeling in – yet again – four huge boxes. I saw a toddler stomping excitedly towards the display potty – that never ended well. A young dad was checking me out while his infant son bounced and slobbered in a Baby Bjorn across his chest. Like someone midway through a Big Mac suddenly deciding “no more meat,” mine was an instant realization. If I stay here, I realized, I’m never going to want to have kids. And I do want kids. At least, I want to want kids someday.
It struck me that the world of frantic parents and model babies and miniature slim fit had nothing to do with the happy parts of raising children. Who wants the have a food fight in dry clean only? At that moment at the gift table, I resolved that the next infant crying and pulling my hair would be my own.
And then I went back. A few months later, a friend announced her pregnancy, giving me a chance to put my encyclopedic knowledge of children’s apparel toward styling her offspring. My shower present included a tattoo-print swaddling blanket and socks that looked like Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Looking around at all those dresses, shirts and shoes, I was surprised by how much I missed it. From the outside of the industry I could again see the clothes as simply small, delicate and cute. And so on the outside is where I’ll stay.