I was only a week or two into retail when I had my first incredibly awkward experience with a customer. At the time the company encouraged employees to dress in the accessories in the store to make for a more immersive and fun environment for the customers. So it was common place to walk into one of our stores and find an employee dancing with maracas and a belly dancing sash, or a manager intently listening to a customer’s complaint while wearing a ridiculous crab shaped hat on their head.
Myself, I’m an on again off again type of personality. It takes a while (a double shot of espresso helps) to really rev me up to be to the point of ridiculous that I’m leaping through the store donning a tie-dye T-shirt with Fairy Wings and a glittery purple Mardi Gras mask. I leap and flip, while twirling a curtain rod (my wand) asking the customers what special wishes I can make come true for them tonight? But I digress.
I felt an anxiety over not participating as instructed in the handbook, and my team not being very into the outlandish gestures did not offer any sort of inspiration or drive. So after weeks of gazing upon it, I finally placed on a rice hat. I figured a straw hat was a good introductory step to the world of the whimsical. It seemed to hold it’s own unique pointed tip, just to really stand out, although I did grow in great concern that the wearing of this hat would be seen as culturally offensive.
I had only worn the hat for twenty minutes when an elderly man walked into the shop. He took a lap amongst the buddhas, bamboo, and Kenyan drums when we approached me upon noticing my hat.
“Was that made in ‘nam?!”
“No sir,” my colleague boasts as I stand in shock like a deer in the headlight, “I believe it was made in China.”
He continues without taking a moment to even hear my response. His voice turns from one of offensive stance to one of fright and panic. “You better watch it, that is probably laced with lead! You could be poisoned!”
“Thank you sir, I will avoid placing the hat in my mouth then,” I manage in my awkward practice of communicating with customer.
“In Korea we poisoned ’em all with lead y’know,” he started but his face fell with pangs of regret from PTSD. He starts to wander off in a muffled monologue to himself. He starts to complain about the hippies, as he stares at the peace sign jewelry, and the protesters that he faced upon returning home from the Korean War. And then he shoots back over to my vicinity, as if it had just occurred to him that he had not finished what he was saying. “I bet everything in this store is made in China. That’s what’s wrong with this country y’know, everything’s made in China.”
“Well no, actually, we have unique items from all over the world. There’s Bali, Kenya, Brazil, Mexico…”
“That’s what’s wrong with this country, I’m tellin’ ya, it’s all imports!” He then posed to me a question, “I bet you don’t have one thing in this store that is made in America do you?!”
At the time, being new to the company, I did not realize that the hookahs sitting right next to me or even think of the crabs in the entrance as being domestic shipments. Instead I offered an explanation, “no sir, that’s the point of the store, it’s an import shop.”
With that he turned to exit the shop, his shoulders sagging in sadness. It hurt my heart as I took off the hat and placed it back on the rack, never to wear it again.