The Smell of Evil - A personal narrative

This was a narrative essay I wrote in college about an experience in retail. Originally a classroom assignment, this paper was eventually published in our college's creative writing journal at the persistent insistence of my professor. The assignment itself was a study in sensory memory; the teacher passed around several items and had us touch, listen, see, or smell the items. The memory written of for this essay was a smell.

They say that “hate” is a strong word.  I suppose the strength of a word is dependent on both the force it is delivered with and the natural inclination of its recipient to perceive the strength in a word.  I could say, “I hate working in retail,” and I may be able to say it with sufficient force.  However, the natural perception of the word “hate” wouldn’t even begin to convey in the proper detail the level of utter disdain I feel for working in retail.  It would be far more accurate to say, ”I loathe working in retail with a passionate fury that burns brighter and hotter than streams of balefire produced in the furthest depths of Hell by the wailing of ten billion damned souls chained to their torments for all eternity.”  However, this is a very long replacement for “hate” and would maybe lose some of its impact with repeated use, so we will simply make that description as the rough definition of my usage of the word “hate.”  With all that in mind let me say again, I hate working in retail.

Of the retail stores I have worked at, Kohl’s was the worst.  One strange aspect of Kohl’s is the smell.  It’s not necessarily a bad smell, but it is a smell unique to Kohl’s that has been present at every location that I have been to.  I know this smell.  You could lead me into a Kohl’s blindfolded and I would know where I was.  The problem for me is that the smell triggers memories of working there and I must fight the urge to knock over clearance racks and start fires.  I’m not sure where the smell comes from, but I have ideas.  The most likely is that a breed of subterranean Kohl’s demons makes its home beneath the stores where it releases an evil pheromone composed of concentrated rudeness to inspire the shoppers to be as terrible as possible.  That or it could be the cleaning chemicals.  I’m pretty convinced it’s the rudeness demons though.

Kohl’s seems to be a place where people forget everything they were ever told by their mothers about picking up after themselves and being considerate towards others.  I worked in the understaffed and overlooked shoe department.  We were the farthest away from the offices and due to some profound laziness this meant we were largely unsupervised.  I enjoyed the frequent breaks this afforded me.  The irony of the situation was that I wouldn’t have needed the extra time to relax if there had been more supervision in the first place.  Those breaks were really the extent of any pleasantness in my job.  It happened far too often that a conversation similar to this would occur:

“Bobby, why aren’t all these shoes tagged?” an ignorant managerial-type would inquire.

“Because,” I would begin, confident in my answer, “there were too many customers to help and they come first.”

“Right, but the shoes need to get tagged.  Also, organize clearance better.”

Crestfallen I would respond, “But there isn’t the time or manpower to accomplish these impossible tasks!”

“Make sure you get the Night Owl sale tags in there too, that’s starting in thirty minutes.”

“But it’s 1:30PM.”

“Right, so get a move on.”

My descent into bitterness and suppressed rage should start to become clear by this point.  My anger did not come from management alone though.  Customers in any profession seem to be bred to make life miserable.  Retail customers are a special variety of evil.  They can conjure up infinite amounts of tissue paper from shoe boxes for one.  They also have an inability to remember where anything they are holding came from.  The best (read: worst) ability of the retail customer is the power to visit a clearance rack or shelf that was meticulously cleaned and organized and somehow leave it looking like it had been bombed.

The best example of a customer making my life miserable happened one summer afternoon.  I was doing two jobs that day.  I was in shoes of course, but the Men’s department employee had called in sick so I had to cover that too.  A woman, aged mid-40’s, came up to me.

“Excuse me, could you help me in the fitting room?” she asked, perfectly innocently.

“Sure!” I replied.  It was a perfectly common request.  I would get asked pretty frequently for things like different sizes, opinions on color coordination, or even to measure them for a pants size.  I’d gotten pretty good at those things and so it was with the utmost confidence that I turned the corner and strode into the Men’s fitting room.

It occurred to me later that I should’ve asked what I was to help with.  “Look before you leap,” or so they say.  None of my previous experience had in any way prepared me for what I had been called for.  What I saw the moment I walked into that room was a pants-less 90-year-old man standing next to a pile of liquefied feces large enough that I suspected it could have come from a sick camel.  Immediately I spun back around and walked out.

I don’t recall telling myself to leave the room.  I am under the impression that the olfactory center of my brain temporarily grabbed control of my motor functions and guided me to fresher air.  The smell was absolutely overpowering.  I like to say, “She could have warned me!” but I really don’t know if it would have helped.  We got it cleaned up and afterward I spent a good deal of time in the bushes outside dry heaving.

So the smell of Kohl’s is very powerful to me.  With that scent I can recall mounds of shoebox tissue, clearance racks that refuse to stay organized, and managers who very likely couldn’t logically think themselves out of a paper bag.  But, it also calls up that other powerful odor, liquid feces, and it is for that reason that I have a problem walking into a Kohl’s store.

I no longer work in retail.  I have a job in an office where I don’t have to deal with any customers.  It’s just my computer, my papers, and me.  I hate retail.  I can tolerate this.