Monday, March 2, 2009


When I was 16, I landed a job in the lingerie department of a regional chain. This particular chain went bankrupt years ago. It was like a Macy's but the salespeople were expected to befriend customers trying to pass anonymously through the store.

Some of the employee rules now seem to be more reminiscent of the 30s than the late 80s and early 90s. Women could not wear pants. We had to wear skirts or dresses with hosiery. All employees had to use one particular door to enter and exit the building. We had to carry clear purses (what could a 16-year-old girl have to hide?). We were expected to wear make-up and buy clothes at the store. I loved every minute of it.

We were paid by commission on top of minimum wage. We befriended customers and got their phone numbers. We called them to announce the arrival of their favorite styles or brands. In the lingerie department, we also measured busts and delivered a range of bras, underwear, and lingerie to the dressing rooms with lots of encouraging feedback.

I kept my mouth shut as much as possible so most people didn't guess my age. I heard unnecessary details about the intimate lives of customers and co-workers. My manager told me she surprised her husband with the latest style of crotchless underwear. Believe me, if you knew my manager, you wouldn't be enthralled with that information.

There were some moments that are hard to forget. The time I walked into the dressing room to check on a customer to find her bent over, checking herself out in the mirror. (Maybe you need a little more time. I'll check back in a few minutes.) The time I sold close to $1000 of lingerie to a woman acting erratically with a constant nose drip. She had bras and lingerie on hangers hooked to her purse, her waist, her arms . . . she came back a few days later with dark sunglasses - very subdued - and returned almost everything. The time I fitted a crossdresser for a bra. I tried to play it cool but my hands shook a little when I measured him.

The only time I really hated working there was around Valentine's Day. Guys swarmed the gaudy lingerie section and when I offered assistance, they rarely knew the size they needed. Many of them said they were about my size. One guy actually cupped his hands to model his girlfriend's breasts in hopes that I could estimate her bra size. The men were noticeably uncomfortable; some acted like they were at a pick-up joint (nice touch when shopping for a significant other). The day after Valentine's, women lined up at the counter and returned most of the red lace and satin, garter belts and bustiers. Funny that almost none of them were about my size. Goodbye commission.

I kept this job for four years until I transferred to a college in a different part of California. Even then, I returned during the holidays to work. I gained a significant amount of financial independence by my junior year of high school, paid for two years of community college and accumulated spending money for when I transferred to a four-year.

In this job, I learned how to talk to the public, handle sensitive matters discreetly and be calm in the face of agitation . . . all good preparation for my eventual career in education. You wouldn't believe how many people get stressed out about underwear. I also developed the useless talent of being able to take a pile of bras from the dressing rooms and hang them in orderly rows on those little plastic hangers in minutes. If you think that's easy, I recommend you try it. Go to a lingerie store and take a bra off the hanger. See what happens when you try to get it back on neatly. There's a good chance you'll end up laying it across the display rack when no one's looking and backing out of the store nonchalantly.


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