I was at a 21st once, chatting with a friend about his job. This friend – a clever, enigmatic fellow who was, like me, a couple of years older than the birthday boy – had been working for a union*. I told him it was kind of a weird job for an arts student and occasional actor to have, while also expressing the odd jealousy I felt – it was certainly more interesting than my retail gig. He shrugged and said, “Don’t take a job unless there’s a story in it.”
Sage advice, but the jobs that have stories in them are few and far between. The ones that inspire novels are usually either completely menial stuff that forces the mind to wander into greener, more interesting pastures, or the manic, surreal, life-altering Devil Wears Prada kind you simply must turn into a book as soon as you escape. If there’s a wonderful, funny, true novel about how working in suburban retail is shithouse and makes you hate people, please let me know, because I need to find out how its author managed to take years of being talked down to and insulted and abused and harassed and turn it into art instead of a rage stroke.
I always preferred bar work to retail – staff drinks often turned into some of the best nights I’ve ever had – but as an aspiring music writer, I needed nights and weekends free to go to gigs. After a couple of summers working at a clearance bookshop and a tiny Cotton On store that would make a coffin seem airy in comparison, I ended up working at a leathergoods and watch emporium in the glass behemoth known as Westfield Bondi Junction. There were good things about it – the pay, the staff discount, watching the Gruen Transfer happen in real time as people strode purposefully in the mall entrance before slowing to a glassy-eyed wander. And the women I worked with those first few months were fun, smart, interesting, strong and funny, and we were all in it together. The bad: how hideous 98% of the product was, the terrifying South African nannas who wanted exactly what you’d just put in front of them but slightly different and at 25% off, the tourists who tried to haggle, never getting a manicure because opening watch clasps all day means chips ahoy.
At one point, our manager was a strange being named Vernesa who, you might have tried to avoid knowing, was on The Shire last year. I recognised some of her catchphrases on the show (“Caitlin, babe, if you’re not born with it, buy it!” – it meaning anything from a tan to boobs to “class”); when the promos began and people made fun of her name, I actually spent energy telling them that it was Bosnian, not bogan. She wasn’t the best boss I’ve ever had but could always be relied upon to heap satisfying scorn upon whatever dude had wronged one of us that week.
The worst bit of the job was the gobsmackingly dumb, disingenuous, overwrought, oblivious corporate retail philosophy that came from the American head office. It was particularly noxious when filtered through the local HQ, which was full of semi-literate people who used to be the girl you hated most in high school (and called their children things like Jaxxon). The whole thing centred on two insufferable hypothetical humans called Mark and Julie, our “ideal customers”. Mark and Julie are stock-photography nightmares with busy modern lifestyles, an appreciation for the finer things in life and a finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist – without being fashion victims! They shop at Country Road (him) and Witchery (her), and remember a time when quality meant something – which is why they came to our store, one of hundreds in this shining shrine to shit we don’t need, decorated identically to the four others in Sydney. Our branding had the word AUTHENTIC written all over it.
Allow me to quote myself: “Even as I sell watches, smile all day long and remind myself that a girl’s gotta eat, I feel implicated in the glossy, superfluous world of conspicuous consumption – a world that lets me earn money, only for me to pour half my pay directly back into shopping on my lunch break.” That was in 2008, six months into the job, in a piece for the uni paper unpacking the self-loathing I felt working there – I framed it in terms of being party to said conspicuous consumption while the global economy crumbled around our ears, but I was also just mad I stayed so long when I hated it so much, and that I’d bought so many clothes I didn’t like at all at Country Road and Witchery.
Luckily, I was able to score a gig at a small indie CD shop, and left The Other Place after just under two years. The new job wasn’t always easy; there wasn’t much money, of course, and being in a suburban shopping plaza rather than a bustling main street, I spent most of my time selling pop compilations to young mums, sourcing obscure Elvis CDs for local eccentrics, and trying to Google out-of-print recordings and films as described by deaf Italian pensioners with a limited grasp of the difference between CDs and DVDs. But the soundtrack was so much better, the dress code far more relaxed, and I felt like I was on the side of right again – the scrappy indie underdog rather than the corporate behemoth. Even as I was packing the store up, sad and angry (after it had finally succumbed to the pressure of having a JB Hi-Fi up the road who could sell CDs at two-thirds of our prices) I felt better than I ever had when I had a secure job in the glass mountain. Knowing that about myself makes me feel rich – I mean, I’m a writer and a big old job snob, so I’ll be poor forever, but self-satisfaction really can keep you (slightly) warmer at night.
Writing started out as a thing I happened to be able to do, and has turned into basically the only thing I can do. I might end up retraining in a few years – go into teaching, or community work, or sell out totally and put myself back in a glass house – if the freelance thing ends up being all too hard, or if everyone but the three biggest publishers in the country stops paying writers to write things. I’m lucky enough to have built relationships with editors who trust and respect me and whom I trust and respect, and to have friends achieving incredible success who I then hit up for work.
My rent is cheap, but right now I’m paying it by writing and by writing only. Yes, I’m constantly sad that it’s not more like Almost Famous: expense accounts, going on the road with bands, sit-down interviews with every musician ever instead of anonymous 15-minute phoners. Yes, I’ve chosen to make a career in the meeting place between two shrinking, apparently doomed industries. But the difference between now and then is that I’m more confident in my vocation. If I have to go and get myself another retail job so I have space in my life to write for whatever I can get (or for myself), I’ll still feel comfortable calling myself a writer, and this time I’ll know to look for stories.
Caitlin Welsh is a freelancer based in Sydney but is definitely, definitely moving to Melbourne soon. She has written about music in street press around the country and online for over six years, and also specialises in rants about TV, film, culture and gender. She currently writes a weekly column about Game Of Thrones for Junkee, and tweets incessantly here (@Caitlin_Welsh).
* He was possibly working at a factory workers’ union? The details elude me now. I swam in my underwear later that night. Anyway, I pictured it as a huge, grey, socialisty sort of building, dozens or even hundreds of drones in identical puffy hairnets like Lego people, attaching one part of one thing to another part of the thing, with my chum in a dingy office in one corner, all broken cheap Venetian blinds and coffee rings.