R-E-S-P-E-C-T

29 Jan

Last night I wrote an entry about an encounter I had with a female patron who, for no real reason, told me to shut up.  Maybe she was having a bad night. Maybe she was just very cold. I don’t know. In the post, though, I found myself defending myself as a merchandiser and as a writer because of some comments that someone had made on Facebook indicating that perhaps I was the source of  a lot of the grief that I write about in my status updates and blog entries. I still stand by what I wrote yesterday, and I encourage you to go back and read it yourself, but it got me thinking about other examples of how my friends and I have been disrespected because of what we do and how people perceive us because of what we do.

Service industry workers have dealt with rude, thoughtless and hateful people from the beginning of the industry. I have visions of bar wenches being groped by drunk men as they fight their way through the crowded tavern with fistfuls of foamy beer steins. Anyway…anyone who works with the public has their fair share of stories. I have friends who are bartenders, servers, flight attendants, hotel concierges…we all have our stories. I remember my friend Brad, who was a server at a very nice restaurant in Columbus Circle in New York, telling me about guests who would rack up $300 checks and wouldn’t leave a cent for a tip. There’s a whole website devoted to the horrible and ridiculous things that people say and do to hotel concierges. What is it, though, that makes people think it’s acceptable to treat service staff as we don’t deserve the same respect as anyone else?

When someone approaches my booth and I say, “Hello! How are you tonight?,” the polite thing to do is to respond…or to even acknowledge my existence. Conversely, one should not march up to the booth and bark out, “MAGNET!” without the decency of a proper greeting. There was a time when, if faced with this situation, I would take a pregnant pause and look at the person and say, “
Hiiiii. How are you tonight?” Sometimes they would recognize that they’d just barked out an order at me, but most of the time they wouldn’t, so I’ve stopped that. Now I typically just keep my mouth shut, keeping the conversation at a minimum because they’re clearly not interested in small talk. It’s rude, but I can kind of respect that. I hate small talk, but I still think I deserve at least a “hello.” 

Then there are the people with no patience – the patrons who ask you a question but cut you off before you’ve had a chance to answer them fully. Or the ones who don’t seem to realize that cutting line “just to ask for prices” is still cutting the line. Everyone wants to know how much the shirts are – coming around to the side of my booth to ask me the prices while I’m in the middle of helping three other people will certainly not make you any new friends. And yet it happens all the time. Don’t be surprised when I direct you to the back of the line with everyone else.

Perhaps it’s just not something people think about, but I think one of the rudest things a person can do when making a purchase at my booth is to either hand me a wad of money or to toss their money on my booth, bill by individual bill. In Japan, the exchange of money is a significant action. When you hand a cashier money, you hold the money or credit card with both hands as you present it to them. They, in turn, will return your change or your card to you and you receive it in the same manner. This is to show that you are handling the money with care and that it is deserving of that care. It is done with dignity, which is something that I feel we often lack as Americans. Do not toss your credit card at me. Do not drop twenty-five wadded up $1 bills on my counter and expect me to open them up and flatten them out as you say, “I think that’s $25, but check to make sure.” I have been known, on occasion, to ask people to unwad their cash. It takes no more effort to hand me your card or your cash than it does to toss it on my counter, but it happens almost every night. Petty as it may seem, if you toss your money on my counter, I will toss your change right back. You get what you give.

But these complaints are really minor ones compared to the somewhat unbelievable personal digs people have taken on me and my friends.

I have been selling merchandise for a long time – I think it’ll be 8 years in April. I started out as a regular salesperson and worked my way up to management in less than a year, and I was actually really excited about the job when I first started and I was proud to be working on Broadway. It wasn’t long, though, before the ribbing started.

At Spamalot we had several t-shirt options, including one with the famous quote, “I Am Not Dead Yet” printed across the chest. Of all the shirts we had, it was my favorite, but I quit wearing it to work because I quickly tired of hearing, “You don’t LOOK dead!” Hardy har har. Still, that was all in good fun. It got old, but it was harmless.

At Mamma Mia! I became a rockstar at working the bag shift. I would go out into the outer lobby of the Winter Garden Theatre 15 minutes before the doors opened and I’d hawk CDs and programs – and I was good at it, too. There were some nights that I could bring in nearly $1200 on my own! I had my script: “Mamma Mia! CDs and souvenir programs!” and I’d hold a copy of the program and CD high above my head so everyone could see the product. Being a trained singer, my voice carried through that lobby beautifully and I’d often get comments about it – “Oh, are you a singer?” or “Oh…you sound like you should be on the radio!” I liked that, but sometimes someone thought they’d be “cool” and mock me from somewhere within the safety of the crowd, imitating the lilt of my announcement, saying things like, “Hot dogs! Peanuts! Getcha peanuts here!” In the beginning I’d shrug it off, but it still bothered me a little. What did that person get out of mocking me when I was just doing my job? I don’t go to stranger’s offices and make fun of them as their do their work, so why is it acceptable to do it to me? Develop a thicker skin.

I eventually became a manager and had to work the bag shift less and less. I quickly found out that the staff I had working the shows that I managed hated working the bag shift…mostly because they were embarrassed or uncomfortable hawking out on the street. When A Chorus Line closed, I was moved to the Broadway Theatre to assistant manage Shrek and once we had programs, I found myself working the bag shift again. I was happy to get back to doing something that I was really good at, and at Shrek we not only had programs and CDs to sell out of the bag, but also headbands with Shrek and Fiona ears on them, which I would wrap around my arm to make them easy to get to and because it was a cool way to display them.

I’m not sure what was so different about the crowd at Shrek, but any kind of mild rudeness I’d experienced up to that point in my merchandise career paled in comparison to what my coworkers and I would endure during the run of that show. My friend Rachel was working the bag one night, wearing her Fiona ears (which looked ridiculously adorable on her), when an older woman approached her and said, “Is this what you do?” Rachel replied that she was in school, but that yes, this was her job, and the woman looked at her and said, “It’s just a little pathetic, don’t you think?” The customer’s always right?

I was working the bag one evening, holding up a copy of the program and CD over my head with my arm covered in Shrek and Fiona ears, and a woman walked past me and actually shoved me in the shoulder as I heard her say, “God, what a terrible job.” On another occasion a woman looked at me and said, “Your mother must be so proud.” And I can’t tell you how many people came up to me as I held my wares above my head and “tickled” my armpit. If I were a doctor or teacher or police officer, would someone think it was OK to stick their finger in my armpit? Of course not. I have a freaking Masters degree!

Eventually we would also have Gingy hand puppets to sell out of the bag. That meant that I had a program and CD in one hand above my head, Shrek and Fiona ears covering my arm, a messenger bag full of programs and CDs across my chest and on the other hand I had a hand puppet. One group of tweenaged girls once commented, “It looks like your hand is up that puppet’s ass!” When I cautioned them to be mindful of the young children around them, their mother chastised me and called me an asshole. Welcome to Broadway, kids!

I don’t know when calling someone an asshole or telling them to shut up became acceptable social behavior, but I’m here to tell you it’s not acceptable. I don’t throw it around very often because, well…it’s kind of douchey, but I do have two degrees. I have dreams and aspirations and talents that reach far beyond the merchandise booth. I work a challenging, demanding job that most people can’t understand and I have a lot of responsibility. I am a person worthy of a simple “hello.” I am worthy of a “thank you.” I am worthy of your respect.

Take care. TCB. Sock it to me.

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One Response to “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. I See Your Schwartz Is Bigger Than Mine | Confessions of a Merch Whore - May 3, 2014

    […] worked with the public for a long time and I’ve had a lot of insults thrown at me in that time – it comes with the gig, unfortunately – but for some reason, I’m […]

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