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I find sanity in selling sweaters

Something had to change. Working alone at home as a freelance writer, which many people dream of, wasn't working for me. The relentless isolation of connecting primarily with others online and by telephone was killing me.

I needed a steady, secure, part-time job, something I could leave behind at day's end, with lots of people contact. I craved a new challenge, a chance to learn and perfect some fresh, useful skills.

I applied for a job as a part-time retail sales associate selling a popular and well-known clothing brand in an affluent New York suburb. I would earn less than $12 an hour, no commission. To my surprise, I was hired, even though I had zero retail experience. Eighteen months later, I'm still there, working six to eight hours a week.

When friends, family members and colleagues learned of my new job, some were puzzled, some supportive. Many wondered: Wouldn't I be bored? Could I handle it?

My last full-time job was as a reporter for a major daily newspaper, but I'd given up sending out resumes. Two of my bosses had since been laid off, and in the last year, thousands of journalism professionals have lost their jobs — hundreds of them in New York, where I live.

Today, with any reliable job a precious commodity, I still show up every Tuesday at the store, even as I continue to freelance most of the time. I am now a battered veteran of two holiday seasons. I am 20 to 30 years older than most of my colleagues, twice the age of my assistant manager and more than a decade older than my manager.

Sometimes I feel like Alice slipping through the looking glass, toggling between worlds. In one world, I interview CEOs, write articles for national publications and promote my nonfiction book. In the other, I clock in, sweep floors, endlessly fold sweaters and sort rows of jackets into size order. Toggling between the working class and the chattering class has taught me a lot about both: what we expect of ourselves, how others perceive us, ideas about our next professional step and how we'll make it.

The contrasts between my former full-time job and my current part-time one have been striking. I slip from a life of shared intellectual references and friends with Ivy graduate degrees into a land of workers who are often invisible and deemed low-status.

In journalism, my workplaces often felt like rooms filled with balloons, enormous and fragile egos rubbing and squeaking up against one another until, inevitably, several burst with a bang.

In retail, divas are fired or soon quit. In journalism, I've had managers who routinely shrieked abuse. In retail, I'm managed by a man who served in the U.S. Air Force in Mogadishu and who wears his authority comfortably and rarely raises his voice. Even the most senior regional and national managers in my company who visit a few times a year know my name, say hello and listen to sales associates with respect. I never expected that.

In journalism, all too often perception helps people get ahead. One editor's star performer is another's nightmare. In retail, numbers win. I've become one of my store's top salespeople, and, for the first time in 30 years of professional life, I know my clear value to my employer. Our individual sales are posted on a wall for everyone to see. I like that clarity. Social capital means nothing here. Our retail sales floor is the levelest playing field I've yet seen.

It comes at a price. I enjoy this job, grateful to the company that took a chance on me. But I can't afford to do it full time. Only using my other skills the rest of the week allows me to meet my financial commitments and keep saving for retirement.

The hardest part? It's not scraping gum and food off the floor or standing for five straight hours. It's not refolding clothing so many times the skin on my hands cracks from dehydration.

It's some customers' stunning sense of entitlement, even contempt, for those — i.e., us — they feel certain are their inferiors. Expecting good service is fair. Treating hourly wage workers like personal servants is not. When you wear a plastic name badge, few bother to read it.

We, too, are intelligent and proud of our skills; many of us are college educated. Some of us travel often and widely, speaking foreign languages fluently.

Our employees include nationally ranked athletes, a former professional ballet dancer and a former officer in the French Foreign Legion.

Fortunately, just enough of our customers are pleasant and easily accommodated. They include jet pilots and surgeons, high school students and sanitation workers, and I enjoy their stories, whether of open-heart surgery or their Costa Rican honeymoon.

I love sharing my expertise and experiences. When customers tell me they're going to Fiji, Kenya, the Grand Canyon or Cuzco, Peru, I can offer firsthand advice from my own trips there. I know what they need to stay warm, dry and comfortable on the ski slope, boat deck, hiking or bike trail.

My retail co-workers have chosen this job for many reasons. Some are college students, some already work at two other jobs, and for top managers, it's a well-paid full-time career. It offers flexible scheduling, can be a lot of fun and — in an economy forcing millions to redefine themselves professionally — its expectations are manageable and clear.

With so many media companies struggling, hundreds of my peers are losing their handsome titles and well-paid jobs. Some of them, too, may have to redefine themselves, temporarily and part time, or permanently. Right now, at our store and for this company, I play on a winning team. It feels good.

"Are you still there?'' my friends ask me, month after month. Luckily, I am.

I find sanity in selling sweaters 02/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 21, 2009 3:31am]
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