Yesterday I had errands; three stops from home east to United Grocers at 170th street. Mostly stuff we need all the time… toilet paper, Sharpies, hand soap, garbage bags; but there were a couple of other things on the list to finish up the office painting and clean-up project. I wanted several cork-surface bulletin boards so we wouldn’t have to stick pins right into our freshly painted polychrome walls. And Sally had asked for some new window blinds for her office.
I went to Office Depot first, then east on TV Highway to United Grocers, then back to Home Depot. I thought I’d go there last, so I could idle around and look at tools while my blinds were cut to size.
You’ve probably experienced a recent trend in big-box customer service – a virtual assault at the entry of the store by some well-meaning employee who demands to know what you wish to locate in the store, and sets out to lead you there. I resent this. I like to cruise around with my cart, reviewing the general inventory as I circuitously make my way to the wood glue or drill bits or window blinds. I know where everything is located in every hardware store with in a ten mile radius of my farm, and a few beyond, such as Winks’ – the Bloomingdale’s of Portland hardware.
Since I came to the realization a decade ago that I had enough fabric to last until the end of my life, any shopping inclinations I now experience are fulfilled in hardware stores. When travelling outside the US, I find them to be the best place to really get a sense of the country I am visiting. My very favorite is a hardware store in Sausalito, California, where I once travelled to sell my pottery. I believe that they have some kind of municipal ordinance there stipulating that no buildings can be enlarged or changed from what they were in 1964 or some equally arbitrary date. I have some pictures from within that very special hardware store; they would be worth 1,000 words in the context of this humble blog if I could find the dang things. I will tell you just one thing – there is more stuff hung from the ceiling of that establishment than many other stores might contain in total. Anyway….
Once I had shaken off my annoying personal greeter, I went directly to the area where the window treatments were located and selected the correct size, material, and color. Sally’s office is on the west side of the building, and the sun is bright and hot in the summer. We wanted off-the-shelf metal miniblinds that would better restrict the light. The blinds needed to have ¾ inch trimmed from each end, so I went in search of assistance.
The help wear orange aprons at the Depot, and a few aisles over I found an aproned and radio-bearing employee. I waited patiently for her to explain to two women – clearly mother and daughter – about their selection of cabinet knobs. To her credit she even told them how to get to Rocklers, a woodworking store in Beaverton. Naturally, I wanted to introduce myself and suggest that they go on line to www.anthropology.com for the really good stuff, or even make their own knobs in a variety of ways that I would be more than pleased to describe.
Instead, I just asked the employee to call someone to Window Treatments for me, and returned there to wait. Ten minutes passed; I was alone in a wasteland of Chinese goods just one decorating epoch from the thrift store. Despairing, I went looking for help again. Near the rack of rolls of floor coverings, there were three orange-clad employees fiddling around with the controls that move giant rolls of vinyl into a position to be cut. A young couple was making a selection; both of them were wearing work clothes splashed with paint. Hmmmm … a remodel, most likely. Perhaps their first home together?
I asked again, “Could you call someone to help me with blinds?” One of the three looked up. His apron was densely decorated with embroidered patches reminiscent of Scouting, and he said “I will be RIGHT there!” He said something else I didn’t quite catch, but his tone insinuated that it was very bad form to ask for help in Window Coverings more than once.
I stepped away, chastened, and watched the floor covering transaction conclude. I drifted back to the blinds section and waited my turn. Just as they came around the corner, another customer captured the attention of all three clerks.
He was a short but sturdy man, with a military haircut, maybe 35 years old. He was wearing the footgear known as fisherman’s slippers, which are mysteriously only worn by loggers in my experience. He also wore one of those hickory shirts – with fine gray and white stripes with a quarter zipper, that are also seen on men who work in the woods. The sleeves had been cut off, or “stagged” in the parlance of loggers and smokejumpers.
He was extremely distressed. He needed help, and his wife had sent him on his day off. She was frantic about their child and the terrible news that other children had died because blind cords had wrapped about their necks and killed them.
He repeated all that he had said about his wife’s fear of injury to their child, and asked “What should I do?” One of the clerks stepped over to some shelving and pulled out a small handful of plastic objects in tiny bags, and began to demonstrate their use. Homeowners were to cut the cords off near the top when the blinds were fully extended, and then clip the plastic thing onto them, from which depended a single nylon string with an oval bead at the end. The “thing” was designed to break away when a small amount of force was applied to the cord. These were free – a manufacturers’ low-cost acknowledgement of a tragic problem.
The distraught Father took all the packets – there were only three or four – and wanted more. He was trying to understand how they worked, and kept repeating that his wife had sent him, their baby was 18 months old, and the mother had seen him playing with the cords. But the clerks could not make them work… and they were hovering like hens. The Father with the packets seemed to be growing more and more agitated.
I tried to make myself small – stay out of the way – and knew that there was no hope for making it to the checkstand with the blinds until this storm of angst had subsided. At this point, the Father was striding back and forth down the aisle, with the three employees moving back and forth with him like flotsam. He bumped into me, and said, “Excuse me, Sir.”
It took a minute for this to work its’ way to my brain. I was carrying a purse, dammit, albeit a pretty practical messenger bag. In his milieu, it would have been a purse. I even have girly hair, for the first time in a while. How fast the mind can work! In an instance, there was an avalanche of thoughts and memories.
I turned to address him, as much because I felt that the three aproned ones – yes, still all in a little gaggle – were not really dealing with his needs. I said, “They’re expensive, but there are really nice custom blinds now that are completely cordless. Maybe your wife would like those? Maybe you could buy some inexpensive roller blinds to use for a few years.”
He looked right at me and said “But children have died, Sir!” and I knew from the way that Sir! was a staccato exhalation that something had damaged him; that he would never see me as I am, and that a truly frightening thing was lodged in his mind, and that everything in his present was shaped by something from his past. In that moment, I hoped more than anything that his child would be strong, and healthy, and lucky….
“But yes, that’s a good idea, yes, all the custom blinds are cordless…” said one of the three, and he and the Father were suddenly gone.. I was left in quiet with two Home Depot clerks, and without the moment of recognition where my dear feminine personhood might have been acknowledged.
After what had just happened, it seemed incredible that my attempt to have blinds trimmed could yet be thwarted. But then began a Stooges-like interchange, of which I was a part – bringing the number back to three – about how I had arrived at my 70.5” measurement. It became clear that one of the men was a trainer, and comically self-important, and the other was a trainee. Everything had to be stated to me, and then repeated nearly verbatim to the trainee. My measurement techniques were questioned. I was about get out pencil and paper and draw it for them when the trainer was called away again, and the trainee helplessly took my blind out of the cutter.
Miraculously, a fourth man appeared wearing the orange apron. He also had orange hair, and a black baseball cap. He methodically commenced to cut my blinds while the trainee dithered about him. He even took me at my word about the length of the blinds. When the trainer returned, the orange-haired one was done, and all the trainer could do was place the cut blinds back in their boxes.
I wanted to tell him, the competent clerk, that I recently learned that red-headed people are hardly ever committed to mental hospitals. I love bits of information like that, and sometimes share them. But just in time, I realized that I had read that assertion last night in “The Dog of The South”, and it was the utterance of a crazy person.
I couldn’t make this up.