Tales From A Hungry Life

August 21, 2013

Flying High

by Maria Schulz

My daughter just spent the summer working at her very first job. As we talked about all of the best and worst parts of working, it reminded me of my own jobs back when I was young.

One of my favorite early jobs was working as a sales associate in a department store. I was a regular in the China department, and since David Bowie had a hit song called Little China Girl, that’s what some people called me.

Lenox China

I sold expensive china, everyday dishes, crystal stemware, silver services, cake plates and accessories. I also polished, dusted, and learned more about crystal lead counts, the difference between porcelain and stoneware, and the patterns available in Waterford hand-blown crystal than anyone ever should.

I was happy in my little corner of the store, where I could spend entire evenings talking to my co-workers and helping customers. As long as the managers left me in my department, I was just fine. I loved working in China.

But sometimes, I would sign up for extra hours to make some extra cash. Since the two older women who worked in my department never, ever took off, you could rarely get hours there. So, I would have to work in other departments.

This forced me into the dreaded FLY ZONE.

While in the fly zone, you were called a “flyer” and you had to work in many different departments. Sometimes it was fun, and other times it filled you with a cold bolt of fear.

Just think of shopping at the Home Depot, asking for help, and hearing, “Sorry, this isn’t my department,” and you can imagine how popular I was when I was a flyer.

What do you mean, it's not your department?

What do you mean, it’s not your department?

It was almost as if Sister Clara, Sister Felicity, and Sister Margaret might show up at any time to box my ears because of my less than stellar customer service.

Here are some of the departments I would “fly” in:


Here was a department that I could really buy into. Chocolate covered oreos, white chocolate dipped pretzels, goobers, Charleston Chew bites, M&Ms, licorice, gummy worms, candy cigarettes. You name it, they had it.

The happiest place on earth

The happiest place on earth

The people who shopped there were always happy, like big kids who finally had enough money to buy anything they wanted. Since we were next door to a movie theater, lots of people would run in to buy candy before heading out to the theater. So every couple of hours you’d have a steady rush of happy people to make the day go by fast.

The only time I didn’t like Candy was when the full timer, Claire, was there with me. It was like being in Disney World and having Debbie Downer as your tour guide.

They're just happy because they're thieves

They’re just happy because they’re thieves

Claire thought everyone was a potential thief and she was convinced that our customers were ripping us off blind.

I know this because one day, as I manned the candy counter, an elderly woman holding towels began to walk towards me. Since the candy counters were near the door, Claire bolted towards her as if to knock her down.

“Stop! Thief!” she yelled.

I dropped the candy scoop and ran out to put myself between Claire and the woman.

“She’s not a thief!” I yelled.

“Yes she is, she’s heading for the doors!”

“No she isn’t,” I replied. “She’s coming over to kiss me!”

“Why would she kiss you?” Claire said.

“She’s my 85-year-old grandmother!” I said.

For a minute, I think Claire thought my grandmother and I were in on the towel heist together. But then she relented.

Thank goodness Claire wasn’t faster, or I would’ve seen my beloved grandmother go sailing like Betty White did in that Snickers commercial.


“To be or not to be. That is the question.” Unless you’re in the Luggage Department; then, the question is: “Why have a 10-piece set of luggage on display if you don’t have any of it in stock?”

It always made me think of that luggage commercial with the ape. Surely, the ape must’ve been picking up extra hours in the stockroom, destroying all of the luggage. Otherwise, why didn’t they have any to sell the customers when they came in?

I never did have the right answer for the angry customers clutching their circulars and saying, “But it was advertised! See?” I spent more time in that stockroom looking for luggage than some people spend climbing Mount Everest.

Part of me hoped to find what I was looking for; the other part of me hoped the customer I was helping would just leave before I came back out without any of the luggage they wanted.


Located just across the aisle from Electronics, Stationery was an easy department to work in. Once you were done dusting the picture frames and straightening the cards, you could get one of the guys in Electronics to turn on “The Wonder Years” for you.

Fun to watch while in Stationery

Fun to watch while in Stationery

The fact that everything had a ticket on it and there was no stock room (what was out, was out; no searching for inventory) made Stationery one of my favorite places to work.


The fact that NONE of the inventory was ticketed and it all looked exactly the same meant I would have to spend hour after hour folding towels since they’d put a department regular on the cash register.

Fold, fold, fold. Repeat.

Fold, fold, fold. Repeat.

The good news was I’d usually end up folding towels with a friend, and that meant I got to stand there and talk all night.


Do you know how angry women can get when they need a new valance for their living room—and you don’t know what a valance is? The answer is, VERY MAD. Draperies never had any of the displayed items in stock, and people would become incensed when you told them the thing they’d just spent an hour choosing was no longer in stock.

Great, right? It's out of stock

Perfect, right? It’s out of stock

This would result in phone calls to all 18 other stores, and WOE TO YOU if you couldn’t locate that valance.

If all else failed, you could take a special order for them, get their 20% deposit, and then run for cover when you told them it wouldn’t be available for another 4-6 weeks.

I think I would’ve preferred a shift in Hell.

I thought it was the worst department of all, until I worked in…

Gift Wrap

As some of you who have read my blog post, Christmas Wrapping, already know, wrapping presents was not one of my innate gifts. I think I would’ve had a better shot at replicating the Mona Lisa than I ever had at giving a customer “Gift Wrap #3.”

That’s probably because the display case over the Gift Wrap counter had been created by a gift-wrapping genius, or possibly a very talented lunatic with too much time on her hands.

beautifully wrapped gifts

You want me to wrap your gift like this? Not a chance

The two chain-smoking gift-wrap ladies would see me coming down the aisle towards them and abandon ship as soon as I got to their department.

“But I’m no good at wrapping gifts!” I’d wail.

“Don’t worry, it’s quiet at this time of day,” Gail answered, as she grabbed her lighter and a pack of cigarettes. “You probably won’t see anyone while we’re gone.”

“Even if someone does come, they’ll probably just want a gift box or a simple wrap job with the store paper,” Hilda chimed in.

Like this, only not as funny

Like this, only not as funny

Well, of course the minute they left, hordes of torch-bearing gift givers descended on me, growing angrier by the second as I wrapped their gifts.

By the time Gail and Hilda returned, they both reeked of cigarettes and coffee.

“Wow, there’s a line? We never have a line.” Hilda said.

Meanwhile, I was covered in scotch tape, gift ribbon, and fragmented gift boxes.

“You can go now, sweetie,” Gail said, with a pitiful glance in my direction.

It took a whole box of candy cigarettes to talk me down.

Pass the candy cigarettes

Pass the candy cigarettes


You know that recurring dream you have in High School about all the pretty, popular girls making fun of your clothes, your weight, and your slim-to-none prospects of ever having a boyfriend? Welcome to the Junior’s Department!

This was where the really pretty, rotten girls were sent (as opposed to me, who got sent right down to the basement to work with the dishes).

Make them carry clear plastic bags and this would be them

Make them carry clear plastic bags and this would be them

The girls who worked here did NOT like to include you (meaning, me) in their conversations or let you (again, me) work on the register. So you’d have to spend your whole day hanging up clothes or on Fitting Room patrol.

While posted at the fitting room door, you had to pick up and fold endless mounds of discarded clothing, only taking breaks to hand out little plastic tags to each customer. It was then your job, while cleaning up after these slobs, to determine if the number of clothes the customers went in with matched the number of clothes they came out with.

The only time it was amusing was when the numbers didn’t match and the formally anorexic customer would come out looking 9 months pregnant. Then you could call security and watch the person get nabbed.

Claire from Candy would’ve loved Junior’s.


The “sister” department to China, Gifts had knick-knacks, placemats, Lenox accessories, Lladros and snack tables. There was a lot of dusting in that department, but at least you could spend way too much time in the stock room looking for merchandise while visiting with friends along the way.

My favorite co-workers there included my friend John and his co-workers Florence, Sue and Lillian. They were all colorful characters that loved to talk and laugh.

Lillian was in her late 70s, married for over 50 years, and a fierce protector of her job. “I can’t be home all day with my husband,” she’d say.

“But you’ve been married over 50 years!” I replied.

“What do you think is the secret to our success?” she replied.

Lillian told me one day about some movie director and casting director who came knocking on her door.

“They said my house would be perfect for their movie about gangsters, and they’d pay me a boatload of money to use it.” Lillian said.

“So did you do it?”

“Nah,” she said. “I didn’t want to have all those strangers in my house, knocking over stuff and making a mess.”

“What was his name?” I said.

“Marvin…Marty…Martin. Oh let’s see. Maybe his last name was Scarponi?”

“Wait a minute. Do you mean Martin Scorcese?” I said.

“Yeah,” she shrugged. “He wanted to film a scene with his mother and Robert DeNiro and some other guys. It would’ve been a small scene though. I couldn’t be bothered.”

Not filmed at Lillian's house

Not filmed at Lillian’s house

That movie turned out to be Goodfellas. After it came out and was a big hit, I asked Lillian if she was disappointed that she didn’t let Scorcese shoot his movie in her house. She shook her head.

“Oh who cares? Let ‘em go ruin someone else’s house!”

What a wise woman.


chocolate covered oreos

White Chocolate Covered Oreos

I had never even heard of such decadence before working in the Candy Department. Now you can get them in the Supermarket. What fun is that? Here’s a recipe that looks delicious and easy.


So, Hungry Lifers: what was the worst job you ever had? Did you ever work in a department store? Do you like chocolate covered oreos? Please leave a comment below and let us all know. Thanks!



  1. I often wondered why Stern’s went out of business. I now know why! Actually I liked Stern’s better when they were replaced by Gertz. Gertz too is out of business. I no longer wonder why. As to my high school related jobs none was worse than what I call “The Spotter’s Assistant” in the dry cleaners store. This was a job that required someone to hand wash and water proof maybe 125 garments a day. These garments couldn’t be just be dry cleaned since they were filled with vomit, feces and the like. The boiler was close by the sinks and in the summer it was a thousand degrees where I worked, in the winter it was warm only 100 degrees. Customers were never told about the Spotter’s assistant since clothes were only supposed to be dry cleaned, never washed but the dry cleaning fluid didn’t work well on the items discussed above. I was sort of like the idiot brother that was hid in the attic, except of course I was in the basement. I was never allowed to be seen sort of like William Bendix in Eugene O’Neil’s “The Hairy Ape”. Good Post brought back memories.

    Comment by Bglou — August 21, 2013 @ 9:37 am | Reply

    • Korvette’s was replaced by Gertz, which was then replaced by Stern’s. It was a fun place to work and shop. I’m glad we didn’t do dry cleaning. Your job sounds awful!

      Comment by talesfromahungrylife — August 21, 2013 @ 11:00 am | Reply

  2. reminds me of my own wonder years working at macy’s in Roosevelt field.   this must have been sterns, gertz or korvetts??


    Comment by Diane Vitolo — August 21, 2013 @ 3:39 pm | Reply

  3. I am sure you had other jobs? Where did you work as a kid from 11 to 17? I bet those jobs would be “Blog worthy?”

    Comment by Chris — August 21, 2013 @ 8:01 pm | Reply

    • I did a blog called Summer Jobs. My other jobs are in my book– which should be out by Dec 1 (right in time for Holiday gift giving).

      Comment by talesfromahungrylife — August 21, 2013 @ 8:15 pm | Reply

  4. The closest I got to working in a department store was when I worked for Friendly Frost Garden Center. For a first time job it wasn’t so bad. The worse part of the job was when you had to bring in all the plants at the end of the day so no one would steal them overnight. During the summer months, it wasn’t so bad. The annuals were very pretty and they would be on a rolling cart. When it got to Winter, they carried pine wreaths, pine cemetery blankets and miniature pine trees as well as poinsettias, They had to be brought in one by one every night. This took a long time depending on the number of inventory we had. I started to bring in the plants when all of a sudden I started getting really sick. My headache and I felt shortness of breath. First I thought I was working too fast because I wanted to go home, but when I got home, I realized I had welts all over my arms and upper body. I realized I was allergic to the sap from the pines. Who knew. My co-workers were annoyed at me because I wasn’t able to bring in the plants any longer and they were stuck doing it themselves. I couldn’t wait for that season to be over. Great post Maria. I remember that candy department in Sterns though I am confused as to why the movie goers would buy the candy there. Sterns prices were just as high as the movie theatres. 😦

    Comment by Kathleen Lagalante — August 21, 2013 @ 9:53 pm | Reply

    • The candy wasn’t cheap, but you could get a whole pound for about the same price as a couple of candy bars. Plus the movie theater never had chocolate covered oreos or pretzels! Wow Kathie, you will really do anything to get out of work!

      Comment by talesfromahungrylife — August 21, 2013 @ 9:55 pm | Reply

  5. My worst job was working in a dry cleaning store when I was 10. My job was to empty out the boiler of the scalding hot water into the basement sewer. My brother Lou was my helper until he poured the bucket on his foot. It took about 30 to 45 minutes to complete the job and I got 50 cents for my work. I hated doing it but my mother went out of her way to get me the job so I stuck to it. I was fired when I asked for a raise of 50 cents more.

    Comment by Tony Lagalante — August 23, 2013 @ 11:05 am | Reply

  6. My Brother Joe got me a Job at “VIP FORMALS,” a Tuxedo rental place. The Manager in the store never let me do anything except vacuum. There was so much dead air between customers that I would try and start conversations and he would argue with me about everything I would bring up. After 3 weeks we are sitting in silence and he says, “After today, you don’t have to come in anymore.” I said, “So you are firing me?” He says, “NO, NO! What are you crazy? You just don’t have to come in here anymore.” More silence filled our conversation. I broke it with, “Ok, let me get this straight? I am not fired?” He said, “No, No!” I said, “I just don’t have to come into work anymore?” He said, “Yeah!” More silence filled the conversation. I said, “Ok, so when can I come over and get my check after next week?” He said, “What?” I said, “When can I come to collect my check after next week?” He says, “Why would you get a check if you weren’t working here?” I said, “Cause I am not fired!”

    I finally convinced this man that he did fire me. I spent the rest of the night consoling him.

    Comment by Chris — August 24, 2013 @ 11:26 am | Reply

    • Don’t you just hate having to console the guy who is firing you? I remember seeing you there…you looked SO bored. Thanks for making me laugh!

      Comment by talesfromahungrylife — August 24, 2013 @ 11:55 am | Reply

  7. another laugh out loud post! Worst job: working in a basement level copy center. Have a great last week of summer vacation!! Caroline

    Comment by Caroline Bock — August 27, 2013 @ 6:09 am | Reply

    • So happy to hear from you Caroline! What was so bad about the copy center? I’m glad I could make you laugh. Good luck to you and your family as the new school year starts.

      Comment by talesfromahungrylife — August 30, 2013 @ 11:02 am | Reply

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