Conventional--mainstream--traditional wisdom argues that the personal perspective of a writer has no place in a news story. But in a world where we've been down so long it looks like up to me--in a world ruled by people who wield concepts like sabers, I must tell the truth and shame the devil.
When I fled academia because I finally had to admit that my willing embrace of a fantasy paid my mortgage and guaranteed that students who had studied with me would be working minimum-wage jobs after graduation as they searched for stardom--I'd been a theatre professor, after all--when I woke up with a grand hangover after over twenty years teaching acting, I was still addicted to life as myth. I still thought that my belief in a fanciful reality could make it real both to myself and to others with whom I spoke. In other words, leaving academics had not completely cured me of my taste for imaginary versions of reality.
A case in point: who else but a theatre professor would imagine that she could have a good time working as a sales clerk for Jo-Ann Fabrics? But that is exactly what I convinced myself I could do. In retrospect, I now think of my year at Jo-Ann's as real-world research. What I saw and was required to do at this store also feels like a 21st-century form of penance. Sheltered within a university's walls, I had no real understanding of what sales clerks across our country must cope with every single day. At Jo-Ann's I experienced first-hand what students holding undergraduate degrees, in a field that offers no paying jobs, will encounter when they accept retail jobs to pay off their college loans. I think of my year with this company as a sobering graduate-school experience in which I came to better understand how many, many people in our country are forced to spend their working hours.
In March of 2013, wearing my friendliest smile, I walked into the local Jo-Ann Fabrics store, identified the most mature, knowledgeable-looking woman on the sales floor, and asked if she would take a look at the samples of sewn, knitted and embroidered pieces I'd brought in for her to see.
Though she seemed the most likely candidate for store manager, and though she admired the tailored jacket, knitted pullover, and needlepoint pillow (the one pictured is from a kit created by Ehrman Tapestry: http://www.ehrmantapestry.com) I'd brought in to demonstrate my handiwork skills, she told me two things that--if I'd really been listening--I would have considered very deeply. One, she was not the store manager. The twenty-one-year-old who looked frazzled and uncertain was, as the older woman termed it, "manager of the day." MOD, they call them at Jo-Ann's. And two, applications for sales positions are not filled out in the store; they are filled out on line using the Jo-Ann Corporate website. I thanked this friendly woman who had steered me right, and then went home to apply for a sales position at Jo-Ann's using their on-line site. I should have been paying attention to the corporate philosophy inherent in these details.
You see, when I was twenty-one I'd worked for a fabric store and really enjoyed the experience. Now at loose ends, and needing a little extra income before my retirement kicked in, I thought I'd employ my crafting skills by working part-time at a fabric store in 2014.
I had no idea how much working retail had changed. But, because the store manager did hire me, I spent the next twelve months learning exactly how selling fabric to American women had embraced the most ruthless of corporate strategies. What I experienced was a huge departure from business practices of 1978.
So What's Jo-Ann Fabrics?