Wearing Sunglasses to the Hat Store
The summer before starting college, I worked at Lids, a hat store in the Fox Run Mall, a few days a week. My buddy Steve managed the place. He's a few years older than me, and we had become fast friends at a previous retail job. At Lids, he kind of got the band back together, hiring a handful of our old co-workers. This saved us from having to meet new people. It was a nice arrangement.
Lids was one of the smaller stores in the mall, probably measuring about 30 x 15 feet, with glass in the front so mall walkers could peek in, and racks for the hats on every other wall. There were periods that were very busy, and other stretches (especially since it was the summer) that were completely dead. I remember a few things from that job: how I quit (more on that another time); the afternoon that we changed the store's music to the Boy Meets World theme song on repeat for an hour ("When this boy meets world, Boy Meets, Worllllld..."); the fact that I was always supposed to learn how to use the embroidery machine, and pretended that I got it, but never really did; and finally, one particular, unfortunate interaction that Steve and I had with a customer.
A cornerstone of working retail is finding ways to amuse yourself to pass the time. And in a hat store, there wasn't much we could do to help the customers – they would grab a hat off the wall, we would say something appropriate to 2008, like, "That looks tight!" and ring them up. (I already told you I wasn't touching that embroidery machine, so that wasn't part of the equation for me.)
So on one lazy July afternoon, when we were far away from the sunshine and all the wonderful things summer had to offer, Steve and I started trying on some unflattering sunglasses from the spinning rack by the register, in an effort to make the clock move a little faster.
A few minutes later, a customer walked in. On the other side of the store and with his back to us, he was checking out some baseball hats. We decided to keep the sunglasses bit rolling, so we approached him, our sunglasses still on, trying to act unassuming while wearing the ridiculous eyewear. Weren't we so funny?
"Can we help you with anything sir?" Steve asked him, as the customer turned around. That's when we realized we had made a mistake. The customer was wearing sunglasses, too.
There were tens of thousands of people who walked into Lids at the Fox Run Mall during the summer of 2008. What are the chances that the first guy to wear sunglasses into the store (OK, maybe not the first, but you definitely stand out when wearing sunglasses inside a New Hampshire mall) comes in during that single 3 minute period that we were also wearing sunglasses, pulling this little joke?
Another thing...why did he want to buy a hat? He already had sunglasses. How much UV protection does this guy need? On second thought, maybe he hit up Sunglass Hut (just a bit south of Lids, at one of the mall's intersections), was looking to a add a hat to his ensemble, and was going to get something from every store in the mall, until he had a pretzel and candy in one hand, a slurp-ee and a slice of pizza in the other, rings on his fingers, a video game in his pocket, a new puppy on a leash, and so on. Really having himself a day.
This customer was probably 25 years old. He looked from Steve to me, and back to Steve, clearly embarrassed. "Oh, I get it," he said, taking the sunglasses off his face, as if he just pieced together The Da Vinci Code. We quickly took ours off too, the ruse blown, our guilty feelings growing.
You know the trope in television when a character is caught doing something that looks bad, but it's really not, and when confronted, they can never produce the right words to simply explain the situation, and the person doing the confronting storms off, and then we as viewers have to spend a bunch more time watching them resolve it? I hate that. And this wasn't that. We quickly and succinctly explained the situation. It just didn't work.
"No, no, no - we're so sorry, we were fooling around at the counter, before you even came in, and decided to be funny and just come over here with these goofy sunglasses on, but we didn't know you had them on too, your back was to us..." I said.
"Yeah right. Wait right here," he replied before walking out of the store.
Despite the temporary bravado in his ominous warning he seemed truly humiliated and not eager to talk about the subject any further. I didn't think we would see him again. I felt badly.
Steve and I put the sunglasses back on the rack by the counter and reflected on the unfortunate coincidence. The unspoken thing in the air after the customer's vague threat was that Steve had more on the line here – he was the manager of the store, I was just a part-time employee.
A few minutes later, the man walked back in our still-empty store, one hand holding an official-looking clipboard with an official-looking form, the other hand holding a pen — sunglasses nowhere to be found. "Hey. You two. Come here," he said, waving us to the front of the store.
We walked over. "I'm reporting you to the mall," he said.
Hearing his plans, I thought about how much this event must have bothered him, the ridiculous chain of events that had led us here, and all the bureaucratic middle managers who would now have to become involved. This guy complained to someone at the mall’s front desk, a desk that I didn't know anyone ever went to, and in the process, must've had to explain that he, like a weirdo, was wearing sunglasses in the mall. They probably rolled their eyes at him and gave him this form. With our cooperation, he'll fill it out. He'll return the form to the front desk, who will pass it along to some manager. Fox Run Mall, I imagine, will send it to their corporate office — they're owned by a company called Jones Lang Lasalle. It'll bounce around there a couple times. Someone at Jones Lang Lasalle will send it to Lids, Inc. It'll move from desk to desk, nobody wanting to take ownership of this inconsequential situation in Newington, New Hampshire. Lids will eventually send it to the relevant regional manager. And the regional manager will talk to Steve.
"What's your name?" he asked me first, embarrassment gone, happy to hold a little power over us. The Lids uniforms didn't have name tags. Actually, I think we could wear anything we wanted. This was Lids.
Before I tell you what I answered, remember, I'm 18 here. In that moment, I weighed my investment in this job versus starting college in a couple months and the other interests in my life, and the pebbles didn't stack up too heavily for my future at Lids. "Steve," I answered him, satisfied with how clever I was for giving the customer a fake name.
One problem with that plan, as you may realize by now: entirely by accident, the fake name that I thought of happened to be the real name of my friend and manager who was standing next to me. So as soon as I answered, the real Steve very slowly turned to me, like in a movie, in silent disbelief about what I had just done.
After a moment, Steve recovered, and turned back to the customer. "Alright," the customer said, having finished writing S-T-E-V-E on the form. "What's YOUR name?" he asked Steve, pointing the pen at him.
"Steve," Steve answered truthfully.
The customer paused, and looked up from his form.
"Oh. I get it," he said to us for the second time that day. "You're both Steve. OK. I'll be back."
So once again, he walked out of Lids and into the wilderness of the Fox Run Mall. But this time, there was no bigger form to get, no more important a desk to complain to, and so he never returned, having endured one small humiliation too many that afternoon at Lids.
Thanks for reading! This is the first of five stories I’m going to do between now and the end of June. If you liked this one, please subscribe below, and you’ll receive them in your inbox.