Friday, December 13, 2013

Christmas in Gallisonland, Part One

Time for the annual contemplation of Christmases past.

Today we revisit the days when I used to work as a seasonal employee in various retail establishments. My very first job (other than babysitting) was selling glassware in a big variety store in Plainfield, New Jersey. The high school employment office arranged it. The tedium of the work experience kind of got to me, the music they played all the time over and over, not just Christmas stuff but pop music that couldn't bear quite as much repetition as we were forced to suffer. I can't hear The Great Pretender without smelling brown wrapping paper and store dust. Oh, oh, oh, yesss, I'm the great, prete-enderrr

Getting paid was excellent, though. I spent all my pay on presents, a pink sweater for my sister, a necklace of gold-colored beads for my mother, although my father warned me that I should get in the habit of saving it. My supervisor, a fusty old lady, used to be mildly annoying, but she gave me a handkerchief with purple flowers on it on my last day at work. I still have that handkerchief. It's strange what sticks to you and what slips away.

One thing I wish I still had was the training package issued by John Wanamaker's in Philadelphia the year I worked in their ribbon and button department, right under the famous Eagle. Three mimeographed sheets of do's and don'ts. Even the seasonal employees went through two days of training before they were allowed on the floor. They taught us to be classy sales clerks. Each morning just before the store opened we stood at our stations while the store chimes played a little tune, almost like the company song that everyone stands and sings in the Japanese factories.

Esprit de corps. We knew we were Wanamaker's clerks, there to serve the customers with as much intelligence and good humor as we could muster. Every day there was a concert of Christmas music on the famous Wanamaker organ, right over our heads, and huge crowds would jam the aisles so that we didn't even have to do any work, since the customers couldn't get to us through the crush. The music was a far cry from The Great Pretender.

Some years later I found myself, a young married person, selling toys in a now-defunct department store in Trenton. I fell desperately in love with a Madame Alexander baby doll they had for sale, so life-like, but at thirty dollars it was out of my price range. What I actually wanted, deep down, was a real baby, but that's a story for another day.

The fun of that job was finding just the right toy for fond parents and grandparents to buy for the little ones. Or it would have been, if the little ones hadn't been clamoring for a lot of dispiriting plastic crap they had seen on television. "I can make a better dressing table than this in my workshop," one father complained. "Don't you think she would like it just as well?" In thirty years, yes, when you're in your grave and she looks back on the work of your hands and all you did for her. Right now, though, she expects the overpriced Paint-me-Pretty pink plastic dressing table to be waiting under the tree on Christmas morning.

I had kind of a crush on the man in charge of the toy department, a good-looking guy in beautifully tailored suits, the son of the owners. Nothing like my feelings for the Madame Alexander doll, but still it made my heart beat a little faster when he gathered the salesgirls together on Christmas Eve and put his arms around us all. Until he gave his Christmas Eve speech.

"All right, girls," he said. "This is it. Christmas Eve. Anyone who comes in looking for toys will be desperate. They'll buy anything. This is our chance to get rid of all the dreck. Get out there and sell."

© 2013 Kate Gallison


  1. So, Kate, I write this sitting at my desk in the Wanamaker Building. There are many offices here now. Alas, I am on the wrong side of the building to hear the organ. When I first started my job here, I could see the Christmas light show on a daily basis.Given the sophistication of electronics today, it's amazing that the show still draws a crowd. Also, after September 11, the show ends with the appearance of a large American flag.
    Some years ago I sat around a large table in a conference room listening to a disgruntled customer screaming on speaker phone. At noon, the organ began to play and the angry customer started afresh, screaming, "Can't you turn that organ music off?" It was with the greatest satisfaction that my supervisor told her "No."

  2. Charming! I can just see, hear and smell the cologne of that guy on Christmas Eve! We've all known one like that! tjs

    1. Hey, how did you know about the cologne? I'd forgotten that.

  3. I recall all the hot men of that era wore Mein Sin cologne...tjs