While studying for my MA, I took a creative nonfiction class. This was the personal essay I wrote for my final project about being a part-time holiday gift wrapper after I graduated from college. Now, I mean no disrespect to Von Maur or their ways. This is meant to be nothing more than humorous. I hope you enjoy.
My grace period is over. And I have the proof in my hands. As soon as Dad hands me the letter I know nothing good will come of it. At my stage in life, all mail is bad mail. They write in bold, block text STUDENT LOANS right on the envelope. There are no surprises. No big reveals. Just an envelope reminding me how I have been a college graduate for 6 months. Meaning the honeymoon has ended. I am in debt to the United States government and now they want their cut.
On average, 20 million Americans go to college a year and of that 20 million, 60% borrow annually to help cover costs. Being a part of that 60%, when I walked across the stage for graduation, the University of Illinois handed me my bill instead of my diploma. Which was roughly $26,600. Interest not included.
Reading the fine print of my notice, I’m more disappointed in the lack of direction my life has already taken. But I mostly blame myself for majoring in English Literature. There are no job openings in discussing the absurdity of Emily Bronte’s “love story” of Catherine and Heathcliff. Believe me, I’ve looked. Instead, I am working part-time as a receptionist at our local country club. The only benefits I have are free membership if I work at least 10 hours a week, and the daily reminder that old money can rot people’s souls. And even with those paychecks I still cannot afford my payments.
I am afflicted. I am a statistic. I should get a newsletter or phone tree or something just so I at least have someone to talk to who is struggling through the same thing. There are enough of us out there. It’s called being underemployed. 37% of employed U.S. college graduates are working jobs that requires nothing higher than a high school diploma. And I have the lucky chance of being double underemployed because I just sent out an application to be a—wait for it—holiday gift wrapper for Von Maur.
Two weeks later I’m sitting in front of a woman’s desk, pulling at my skirt that I hate and wishing I had worn a different top. The woman introduces herself as Jane and tells me her title and responsibilities within the Von Maur Community. I immediately forget everything she says and instead, smile and nod at her out of politeness. Jane asks me the typical interview questions, but ties in gift wrapping. She asks me what it is about gift wrapping I particularly enjoy. I almost say how nothing brings me greater happiness than to meticulously wrap a gift only to watch it be ripped to shreds minutes later. Instead I tell her how I’ve received wrapped gifts from Von Maur before and always admired them. I also tell her how I consider myself to be an exceptional gift wrapper already due to the fact that my uncle pays me every year to wrap his Christmas presents for him.
She likes this example and even laughs. “Well training will be a breeze then!” For my final test, Jane stands up, handing me a Von Maur box, tape, scissors, and a strip of wrapping paper. “I have to take a phone call real quick,” she says. “Wrap this while I’m gone.”
Jane leaves the office and I stare at the materials. Well I can’t say this is a surprise, I think to myself. I pick up the box. It’s flimsy and the sides fall inwards with the slightest hint of pressure. She expects me to fail, I think. A sense of determination fills me. No fucking way. I measure the paper given, checking if I need to cut any excess. With my tongue poking out of the corner of my mouth, I take the scissors and slice through the crisp, overpriced paper. Happy with the piece, I begin carefully wrapping the empty box. I line up the pattern where both ends of the paper meet, making it appear seamless. Only using four pieces of tape, I examine my work. It’s not my best but I am happy with it.
While waiting for Jane to return, I do a bit of soul-searching. I am 21 years old, a college graduate from a good school, and after interning at Yale University Press for the summer I have fallen down the dark slope of retail. I have the chance to be the 1 in 4 retail workers with a college degree. I am in my best business attire and fiddling with a tape dispenser and empty box. But at this point, I can do nothing but accept this. My loans won’t pay themselves off.
Jane’s office door creaks open. She pokes her head inside, seeing how I did. “Huh,” she says, “That’s not bad at all!” She walks back behind her desk and picks up my box to further examine my work. “Oh well, here’s a problem,” she says pointing to the back of the box, where the two ends of the paper meet. “Here at Von Maur, we fold the edge of the visible side of the paper. It gives a cleaner look to it.” I nod, accepting the criticism. You won’t even see the edge of the paper anyway; a ribbon usually covers it. “And how many pieces of tape did you use?”
I clear my throat before I answer, “Four.”
She tsks at me, “We use three. Never tape the paper to the box. It might damage it.”
For fuck sake, it’s a present not a stack of hundreds, I think but dare not say. I nod in agreement instead. She then takes the box and begins ripping off the paper. I cringe to the sound of my torn work and unexpectedly become angry. Why couldn’t she at least wait for me to leave? The interview ends with me being hired on the spot. I sign some paperwork, probably pledging allegiance to forever use only three pieces of tape when wrapping, am handed an introductory training booklet and am told that training will be this Friday at 5pm. Dress appropriately, like you would for work, bring your social security card, now shoo.
I leave the office in a daze and find my mother shopping around. “I got the job,” I say, now unenthused about what I have signed myself up for.
“Terrific! Do you get a discount?” she asks me, eyeing a pair of shoes.
“I’ll find out on Friday.”
Training is a waste of time. But then again, I might be biased towards this because my entire family is at Red Robin having a birthday dinner for my brother’s 18th birthday reminiscing about their favorite memories of him while I am wearing pantihose, a dress I now realize is too low-cut for the work place and being lectured about the Von Maur Way.
I am mentally banging my head against the table. This is what my mother threatened would happen if I didn’t go to college. If I didn’t get the best grades in high school. If I didn’t involve myself in extracurricular activities. I would be working these types of jobs. But here I am, with a college degree and watching a training video on how to safely lift a box. It’s all in the knees in case you were wondering. I suffered through Dobbin’s pining over Amelia in Vanity Fair for this. For demonstrations on what is politically correct and incorrect conversation in the workplace.
The actual wrapping part of our training is the shortest and least put-together part of the evening. It is also the only time all the holiday wrappers get to socialize with one another. An 18-year-old college student giggles in excitement. “I just love Christmas so much! Don’t you?” She looks at me, expecting me to bubble over along with her.
“Not really,” I say. “I just really need the money.”
Her face falls in reaction and swivels to the other twenty-something-year-old next to her, making the same exclamation. The other girl gives her the reaction she is looking for and they both clasp hands, jumping up and down in excitement. I don’t mean to be such a Scrooge, but this is how I am. I don’t like the commercialization of Christmas and I firmly believe the correct way to torture a human being is to play holiday music on loop.
I become aware that I have nothing in common with any of these women. They all love Christmas and are doing this solely for hobby. I need this money. I picture the notice reminding me my first payment is due by the end of December. This is my loan-paying money; not my Christmas-appreciation money. While attempting to wrap the Von Maur ornament box—the hardest box known to gift wrapping, and mankind—I make a promise to myself to try and not be so closed off with the other wrappers.
When I get home my mom asks how training went.
“Okay,” I smile. “I get a 10% discount.”
She squeals in excitement.
“Oh, these are nice!” Suzanne, a holiday wrapper two stations down, pulls out a pair of black leather boots. She is supposed to be looking for price tags but turns her attention elsewhere. She looks at the inside of one of the boots. “And they’re my size!” Suzanne is older, in her late 40s-early 50s. I’ve never had a real problem with her, but she can be a bit odd and sometimes unprofessional. It’s obvious the training videos went through one ear and out the other with her.
Suddenly, she takes her shoe off and brings the box to the floor. I stare at her in astonishment. She’s really going to try them on! I look around to see if anyone else finds this completely inappropriate. Instead, the other women at her station are waiting to see if they fit. She unzips the side zipper from the boot and places her foot inside.
“Hrumph!” she tries squeezing her fat foot into the boot like an evil stepsister from a Grimm fairytale. I imagine her taking a pair of scissors and cutting off a piece of her heel to make the boot fit. After her failed attempts to put it on, she tries to save face by announcing how they are in fact ugly and far too expensive anyway. I laugh at her embarrassment while placing a Von Maur sticker over a price tag for $400 Cole Haan pumps.
Nobody likes Barb. Another holiday wrapper in her 60s, she is loud, messes up her wrapping paper, and can’t ever figure out how to use the scanners. Many of the other women will move stations if they realize they are to work next to her. She openly states how Von Maur is too expensive, and how some of the gifts she has to wrap are ugly. She sings made-up tunes and sometimes will implement sound effects throughout the day.
She is my favorite.
I always make sure I am stationed next to her. Her anecdotes are charming and distract me from the fact that I am in wrapping paper hell. She constantly forgets which ribbon goes with which paper and I am never annoyed to remind her. She tells me stories of her three ex-husbands and how each one was stupider than the last. When I ask her what made her decide to do this she tells me she needs the money to buy Christmas presents for her grandbabies. I find this endearing and it makes me like Christmas a little bit more.
She—and my pay check—is the only way I can tolerate coming to work.
There is a hierarchy here at Von Maur and Carol is at the top—of gift-wrapping at least. She is a year-rounder. She specializes in the houndstooth birthday paper. She walks the Work Room like Mr. Bumble, watching and waiting to pounce on us for making the smallest mistake. I picture her shouting, “MORE?!” if anyone uses more than three pieces of tape. If a Von Maur seal is crooked, she will rip your paper and make you start again. Once, I took a few seconds too long to tape the ends of my gift and she grabbed it out of my hands, quickly taped it on, handed it back to me, and walked away without saying a word. She has inside jokes with the men who come to empty our garbage bins. She is the woman all the holiday-helpers go to for questions.
She is the Spawn of Satan.
The people who get their presents wrapped here do it because they don’t want to do it themselves. Here at Von Maur, getting a gift wrapped is a free service so why not take advantage of it? Shoppers aren’t taking the presents we wrap and scrutinizing our work. “Oh, this ribbon is a bit off-center! I can’t enjoy these $200 Ugg boots now!” Instead, they are thanking God that another task can be ticked off their Christmas To-Do list.
It’s also a way for shoppers to show off how they bought a Christmas present at Von Maur. Seeing as it is a high-end department store, you must be pretty special to get a nicely wrapped Christmas gift from there. I picture Michael Scott from The Office explaining, “Presents are the best way to show someone how much you care. It is like this tangible thing that you can point to and say ‘Hey man, I love you this many dollars-worth.’”
Every time Carol comes over to correct my ribbon-taping technique, I mentally take a Von Maur seal and smack it over her big mouth.
The green Christmas tree wrapping paper is the devil’s paper. It’s too stiff and always tears at the corners. Even worse, the tape doesn’t stick and will pop off, causing the three-tape rule to be completely ineffective. The ornament paper smells weird and the silver of the paper stains your fingertips. The snowmen paper is the easiest to tear off and wraps the nicest. There is no such thing as a poorly wrapped snowmen present. The silver Noel paper is my favorite. It smells like glue and no matter what ribbon you match with it, it looks elegant. My favorite color to use with it is maroon.
I am alarmed that these are the types of things I now think about. But these are the things us wrappers discuss. Barb tells me how yesterday a woman wanted her paper wrapped in the Kwanza paper and the wrapper at the drop-off counter tried to talk her out of it. The station next to us is discussing how the reindeer paper is the most popular this year. It’s hard not to talk about these things when it’s all you have in common.
It’s almost closing time and I am working drop-off when a man comes up to the counter. “I’m so sorry, but apparently I was supposed to get the Santa hats wrapping paper and I stupidly got the Merry Christmas paper.”
I smile at him, “It’s an easy mistake to make,” I reply.
“Not to my wife it isn’t.”
“Well how many presents do you need rewrapped?”
He is silent for a second and is looking at the clock. It’s 9:40, and the store closes at 10pm. “Uh, well. Twelve.”
I look up at the man. He must be joking. There is no plausible way for one person to wrap twelve gifts in 20 minutes. He picks up on my reaction and gives me a waning smile.
“Well, can they do it?” I look over the man’s shoulder to see his wife. She is tall and resting one hand on her hip while the other is holding a jewel encrusted iPhone. Her body-language reeks of attitude. Not something I want to deal with right now.
“We’ll do it.” I state. “Before closing.”
The man smiles at me and turns to his wife nodding.
I grab the three bags of gifts and look inside.
Half of the gifts are ornament boxes.
I call out to Vicky, another wrapper, asking for help. We create a game plan of splitting the ornament boxes three apiece, and the rest we can just grab along the way. Ripping away work that must have taken at least 45 minutes, we begin. This is the Super Bowl of gift wrapping; and this cannot go into overtime. I’m thankful he needs the Santa hat paper because it’s easy to work with. As the minutes tick by, the pile of rewrapped presents slowly grow. By 9:57 we are scanning out the presents and handing them over to the man, who is grinning from ear to ear.
“Thank you so much!” he exults, taking out his wallet to tip us.
“Oh, that’s not necessary,” I say, because truthfully we are not allowed to accept tips.
“It’s the least I can do,” he counters.
“The pleasure is all ours,” I serve back. We cannot blatantly tell them we can’t accept tips so we must be as polite as possible.
“Okay, how about this,” he says. “This right here,” pointing to the name on his sweatshirt, “Is my restaurant. I own it. You two are invited to come with your boyfriends and have a free meal on me.” Grabbing a piece of paper, he writes down the name of his restaurant and the address. “Just tell the waiter you’re the gift wrapping girls and it will be taken care of.”
We thank him, as he grabs his presents and walks away.
“Well,” I say to Vicky, “not a bad way to end a shift, huh?”
By July I am sitting in the kitchen in my usual outfit of sweatpants and tee shirt. I’d like to say all of my debts are paid but that won’t be true for another 20 years. Probably more now. My dad walks into the kitchen with two letters in his hands. “You’ve got mail,” he says, handing them over. I rip one open and laugh. When he asks what it is, I show him the letter. It’s from Von Maur, asking me to reapply as a holiday gift wrapper. I place it on the counter and open the larger, manilla envelope.
“Now that’s more like it,” I say, thumbing through my newly issued blue passport. In two months I will be moving to London to study for my Master’s degree in Creative Writing. Although it seems I will be adding an estimated extra $35,000 of debt on top of the hole I’ve already dug for myself, I’m okay with it. I’m finally doing something I want to be doing.
I pick up the letter from Von Maur and hand it to my dad. “Garbage,” I say.