I’ve always worked in retail
I started during high school – eight hours a week at the Shoe Emporium. I didn’t get paid much, just gained experience that served me well when I graduated from City High and applied for a full-time job at J.C. Penney. That’s where I began my long career in ladies’ lingerie.
As a new saleslady I had to learn the stock – foundations, girdles, panties, garter belts, brassieres (simple cotton to strapless satin) and more. I was handed a measuring tape and taught to measure ladies’ cup sizes with great discretion and decorum. I soon knew my customers’ names and they knew mine. They brought in their daughters, and then granddaughters, for their first bras.
The years passed quickly. My auburn hair turned gray, then back to auburn with the aid of Clairol. I had security, wondered what I would do when it came time to retire. These thoughts melted away when the cement plant, our town’s major source of jobs, shut down. In the midst of such an economic crisis, J. C. Penney closed its doors. After twenty-three years, just two years short of retirement, I was in need of a job. How and where does a saleslady, with so many years in retail, find work?
First I went to the unemployment office – long lines, paperwork, few jobs to apply for, hopes raised and dashed. Then I saw an announcement:
This was similar to my old job, just in a much smaller retail establishment – one that would be in no danger of closing in the near future. I begin my new job tomorrow morning at Ye Olde Adult Shoppe. As I said, I’ve always worked in retail.
It began as a favor. The new English teacher looked harmless: short and plump, dressed plainly, wearing little makeup and no jewelry. I felt overdressed as I stood next to her, in my first-day-of school new outfit.
“I’ve heard so much about you, “she said sweetly. Everyone tells me what a veteran you are. They so love your courses.”
She leaned forward, hands clasped as if in prayer. “Do you think you could just let me sit in on a few of your classes? I’d love to get some teaching hints. I’d be forever grateful.”
So it began. Sharon came every day, sat in the back and scribbled furiously in her notebook. She diligently filed my handouts in a new-looking leather bag and occasionally offered some insights to our class discussion with a hesitant half-smile. After the bell she would linger at my desk. “It seems to me,” she would say, clutching her books tightly to her chest, “that you could have interpreted the poem a bit differently. But what you said makes some sense, too.”
At lunch, in the teacher’s lounge, Sharon regaled us with stories about her classes. “My girls just love what we are doing.” Turning to me she would add, “They also tell me they’re so glad they decided not to opt for your honors class. They can’t believe how much work you’re giving. And, Eva, why don’t you take this neater copy of the handout you gave out yesterday? Here, I retyped it.”
I heard from my students that Sharon’s classes were doing many of the same projects and assignments that we were doing. At breaks, she would share stories with our colleagues about her innovative lessons that I had spent years developing. Everyone seemed to like Sharon. Was I being paranoid?
One gloomy winter day during lunch, Sharon sat down next to me and started to eat. As she spooned a carefully made salad into her small, eager mouth, she swiveled her chair to face me.
“Eva dear, have you given any thought to your plans for next year? Do you think you’ll still be working? I heard you were thinking of retiring.”
She pointed to her briefcase swollen with papers. “You don’t have to worry. I’ve spoken to Mrs. Neustein. I could so easily teach your classes. When do you think you might decide?”
I looked at Sharon. She looked different. She moved with precision as she snapped her lunch container shut. Instead of her usual dull outfits, she wore a bright red top. Sharon turned to smile thinly at me as she exited the room but her eyes had lost their softness. “Oh, and I forgot to mention, Eva. I don’t think I need to sit in on any of your classes anymore. Thanks, but I have all that I need.”
Can You Imagine?
There was Dr. Sinclair standing on the high-diving board, getting ready to spring into the air and plunge into the cool blue water. Her diving class watched as she took her proud stance at the edge of the board, toes curled over the edge, arms pressed to her sides. She bounced one time, then performed the prettiest swan dive I had ever seen.
This remarkable woman was the Chair of the Physical Education Department, revered by all who worked with her. I was amazed that a woman her age could perform the physical skills she demonstrated each day.
It was 1960. I was fresh out of college and in my first month of teaching dance in her department at Madison College in Virginia. I was twenty-one. My two roommates were also in their early twenties and were teachers. That night, as we chatted about our day’s adventures, I told them about Dr. Sinclair.
“She’s incredible? Just think! She’s got to be at least sixty years old. At that age, can you imagine doing that?”
Fast forward to 2014. I am now seventy-five and still work. My college-professor mother and three teacher aunts are all long gone, but they were examples for the work ethic at its best: The four taught a total of 147 years – until they were well into their seventh decade.
I feel fortunate to have enjoyed all aspects of my long career. To me, “work” is a good thing. After over five decades as a dancer, teacher, choreographer, director, producer, head of a non-profit, public speaker and writer, I continue to relish and redefine “work.”
Last month, I spoke at a big arts event in Dallas. I tried to make the talk and delivery as light and humorous as possible. Thankfully, the audience laughed and applauded. Afterwards, as my husband and I were leaving the venue, we overheard two perky young women walking in front of us.
“I loved the speaker. She was SO funny. She said she had been working fifty-four years, so she’s got to be in her seventies. And to boot, she was walking better than I can in heels. Can you imagine?”
Consider this. When I was born in 1939, the life expectancy for women in the United States was 68.3 years. Today it is 82.2 years. When I reach that age, the life expectancy may be closer to ninety years.
God willing, I hope to stay fit and work until I am in my nineties … or until I drop. Yep … that’s my plan.
Can you imagine? I can.
Red and yellow M&M’s
in a Mickey Mouse candy machine
on a co-worker’s desk,
beckon me closer, inviting a taste.
Like slots in Las Vegas, they flash
forestalling the accumulated
pressure of days
in a seemingly endless world of gray
working high up on the 18th floor.
Like an addict, I approach the candy machine,
anticipating already the oversweet taste
of chocolate breaking through
red and yellow sugared shells.
And, oh! Those crunchy peanut M&M’s,
how they munch in the mouth,
on the tongue.
Sweets for the cravings
and hungers within.
Handfuls of candy
feeding chocolate desire.
A gnawing dulled into a sugary haze,
many have on those upper floors,
while working on projects,
producing reports, and
running a papered race none
will see through to its end.