I have been saying for years that I hate Halloween.
I realized recently that I’m sort of lying. I don’t hate Halloween. I actually kind of love Halloween. There’s apple cider and carved pumpkins and kids dressed as superheros and princesses and mermaids and Han Solo and lobsters. Weiner dogs wearing weiner costumes. Crunchy leaves. Sweatshirts. There’s a lot of joy there, actually.
I don’t hate Halloween. It turns out that I just hate Adult Halloween. I’m down with trick-or-treaters and babies. I’m less down with vomiting in the street dressed as a sexy grape.
Years ago, I had this job at one of those Halloween retail stores/rental houses. I needed work — badly — and the job posting seemed promising: Established Professional Costume House seeks artistic and creative person to work within many aspects of a busy costume shop. The post itself required working knowledge of industrial sewing machines, Adobe Creative Suite, Word, Excel, retail experience, customer service. Seeking “self-motivated individuals” who wish to learn in a “thriving artistic environment.” Resume and letters of reference accepted via email only, no phone calls please.
My interview felt good. Offered the job on the spot, after surviving a timed sewing test, a written exam (Question Three: Explain the difference between a Tailcoat and a Frock Coat) and an hour-long interview process, including a nuanced conversation about a “seasonal trial period” of “minimum-wage without benefits,” which I later discovered to mean, “This is a minimum-wage job, and we are definitely not going to pay for your health insurance.” The rental warehouse was enormous: cold concrete, security cameras, clanging metal rolling ladders, sequined spandex and water-stained petticoats jutting out from overstuffed racks. Disembodied mascot heads hanging from spokes, total nightmare fuel. The Easter Bunnies especially, but the off-brand Sesame Street characters somehow made worse by the close-but-not-quite nature of their appearance. We were trailed early on to answer calls about those characters with exacting and precise language.
-Hello, this is Katherine, how can I help you?
-Yeah, I’m looking to rent an Elmo this weekend.
-Our “Red Monster” is available for this weekend, ma’am.
-No, I said ‘Elmo.’ I want to rent Elmo.
-Our Red Monster is an excellent addition to many children’s parties.
-Yeah, but I don’t want … wait. Elmo. I’m saying Elmo. Can I please rent Elmo?
-Ma’am, you are welcome to come into the retail store and look at our Red Monster at any time.
-What the hell is a Red Monster? I just — Jesus Christ, Kevin, will you please talk to this woman? I swear to God I don’t have time for this shit today.
On my third day of work, I was officially introduced to Maria, a Sicilian grandmother with the hands of a tailor and the grizzled soul of the eternally disappointed. “This is Katherine, one of the new girls,” the manager said.
Maria sniffed. “Pffffffff,” she said. “If she is here in two week, then I remember the name.”
“Oh, Maria!” the manager laughed. “She’s always making jokes.”
“Pffffffff,” said Maria. “So many girls. They come. They go. I stay. Why? Who know. The boss? Hey — hey, new girl. You know the boss?”
“Rich?” I said. I’d met him in the interview. Rich: his name and an adjective, both. Fat. Nice car, loud talker. Your basic asshole.
“Pffffffffff,” said Maria. “That sonofawhore.”
“Oh, Maria! You’re so funny,” said the shop manager.
“Pffffffffffff,” said Maria, as she spat on the floor and turned back to her sewing machine, tufts of pink sequins and tulle wafting into the air conditioning duct.
There were too many new girls, and we bonded on a common front: we all couldn’t wait to leave at the end of the day. Fat Rich made periodic appearances to yell at his staff or show off a new toy he’d purchased for himself, but mostly the place was managed through a complex system of inefficient passive-agression. Brian, an obese drag queen, sat in the shipping department, chain-smoking, complaining, rearranging his desk, placing the occasional online order or packaging the occasional box. Angry Jessica: newly engaged, whose flares of rage could be assessed by the stomp of her heavy boots as she maneuvered from retail to warehouse to office, crashing and clomping, Why the fuck are we out of Spirit Gum again, god fucking damnit Brian, crash clomp. And Dave, shy soul of a playwright, occasional halitosis issues but a nice guy, doing his best to keep the peace.
I spent days running between them all. Helping customers try on endless costume after costume from the rental warehouse, mustering up the energy to say things like No, I think the Cleopatra looks really good on you, let’s try that with a belt, do you want to see something else, maybe a Sexy Pirate? Days of keeping a watchful eye on the giggling college girls, gentle and then not-so-gentle reminders that, for health code reasons, they were not allowed to try on the slutty lingerie costumes hanging in bags, even if it would hasten their endless, high-pitched debates between the virtues of Sexy Pikachu versus Sexy Meter Maid. Explaining to overeager dudes in their twenties that yes, we were sold out of pig noses, and yes, it was because “swine flu” was the headline of the week and no, we didn’t expect a new shipment before October 31st and no, I didn’t want to go out with them on Halloween, or any other day of the year, sorry.
Like all new jobs: the challenges become tolerable and the tolerable becomes irritating and the irritations become annoyances and suddenly you realize that you don’t hate the job, exactly, and you don’t hate the people, exactly, and you know that you shouldn’t complain, exactly — but there’s that moment where a local minor celebrity asks, smirking, if he needs to have his inseam measured for his costume fitting, and you’ve been on your feet for nine hours and you just took the blame for a misplaced order that never happened because Brian never placed it and you just caught Angry Jessica shoplifting lingerie which somehow made her hate you even more, boots crashing down stairs and out back for a cigarette, clomp clomp fuck you Brian, and you just can’t listen to one more person ask you if you carry lube (because really, the sexy costumes on the front window mannequins are a little misleading, you get it, but still), and you think, Boy, I sure am glad for that college degree right now.
I started to look for other work. We all did.
Maria grabbed my arm one day as I returned to the workroom, carrying an armload of top hats. “New girl,” she said.
I stared. “New girl,” she whispered, truly looking me in the eyes for the first time, a cloudy sadness I had somehow missed before. “You a nice girl. Hard worker.” She appraised me up and down, still gripping my wrist in her bony hand, finally releasing it, tiny bruises soon to appear.
“Run,” she said, and spat on the floor. “You don’t need this shit place.”
Time passed in a blur. Some of the new girls were fired, some quit. Some started shoplifting as a vigilante means of justice: I only steal shit whenever I hear Rich say anything super-racist or super-misogynist. I started to write down anecdotes to share with the hot bartender at Sugar Mom’s on Pierogie Wednesdays, where we would go after staff meetings to unload our anger over cheap beers, where the hot bartender took pity and brought us free rounds every now and again, occasionally joining in to offer his opinion about how fucked things at our workplace really did seem to be. Did you hear that thing he said about the earthquake in Haiti? Oh, yeah, apparently they “totally had it coming.” Right? “Where were they when Katrina happened?” He totally did fucking say that. Christ. I gotta find a new job.
The final straw was the photoshoot. The website was re-launching, and we were — in Rich’s words — “In need of some updated images for the site, something fun and sexy, using you guys as the models, we’ll make do, right?” In addition to minimum wage, no overtime, we would be compensated in pizza and garlic knots for the pleasure of posing in front of a makeshift paper backdrop, wearing wigs that we would carefully place back inside their pristine packaging and re-sell to unsuspecting customers. Rich had bought a new camera for the occasion, and blown a lot of money on Photoshop. He’d called me into his office to show off his new skills earlier that week.
“You can’t even tell!” he exclaimed, gesturing towards a photo where he had used the eraser tool to create a “thigh gap” in my co-worker’s legs.
We ate pizza like it was a last meal. Sweet, quiet Dave tried to give me a pep talk. “It’s honestly not that bad,” he said. “I mean, Rich did tell me the last time that I looked like a potato. I think he meant my face? But honestly I don’t really listen to him anymore.”
“I’m really, really not into this,” I said to Angry Jessica.
Angry Jessica asked if I was “really into keeping my job,” and handed me a stack of costumes from the warehouse to put on. Touché, Angry Jessica. Touché.
I changed. I put on a wig. Angry Jessica, sensing that she had somehow offended, offered to do my makeup. I was too afraid to say no. Lip liner and all.
Rich positioned me in place on the photo backdrop, his thick fingers on my shoulders, maneuvering pounds and pounds of heavy fabric that smelled like warehouse funk and thirty years of body odors. I braced myself.
“Make your face look different!” he cried, squinting at the viewfinder. “Jesus, Katherine, no offense, you are just not good at this. It’s okay, don’t beat yourself up, we can photoshop it all later. Try it with your hands on your head! Yeah, yeah, that’s it!”
That was not it.
Hours went by. Multiple outfits. I tried to wipe the lipstick off. Angry Jessica, ever thoughtful, made sure to let me know I needed to re-apply. “You’re doing great!” she said, uncharacteristically pleasant, clearly lying. “Don’t fuck up the wig. It has to go back into the package.”
“Is this one supposed to be a specific costume?” I asked.
“Actually, I’m like…. 90% sure that the last person to wear that one was into some, like, Eyes Wide Shut shit,” whispered Dave. “But I’m really sure we sent that one directly to drycleaning.”
The day before I quit, I snuck into his office and stole these off the hard drive, emailed them to myself before deleting them entirely. No one saw me in there except Maria. I’m not sure if she knew what I was doing, but my guilty expression might have given it away that I was up to something. It could be just wishful thinking, but I could swear I saw a tiny glimmer of a smile for one brief second, before she spat and turned away in disgust. “This fucking place,” she said.
When I handed in my two-week notice, Rich said, an angry blob of spit at the corner of his mouth, that I would “never work in this town again.” I rescinded my polite letter on the spot. Actually, Fuck you, Rich, I quit.
A sudden ignorant and glorious bravado overtook my body and my voice, a bolder, newer version of myself that now seems like it could only have happened because I was twenty-four and felt truly alive and felt I was destined for better things than wearing a Marilyn Monroe costume on the street and handing out flyers, destined for more than cleaning puke stains from the soles of the fuzzy mascot shoes. I punched my time card and grabbed my purse and sailed through that warehouse door, the watchful eyes of Maria and Dave and Rich and Brian and Jessica and Red Monster and Sexy Pikachu and all the others staring me down, my shoulders feeling suddenly light, my world seeming open and alive, thinking about the warmth of the sun and the joy of the day. I shifted my bag and thought, casually, grinning at nothing, about a world in which I never wore another Halloween costume again.