Thursday, April 06, 2006

The Proverbial Rug

When I was in high school in the Midwest, I worked at a major discount clothing/accessories/housewares store. For two years I was the fitting-room girl, so I got to stand behind a tiny desk for five hours and button and zip the clothes other people had tried on. But, hey: It paid slightly more than minimum wage and allowed me some downtime, during which I wrote poetry on paper towels.

Mr. Durso was my favorite manager: He was a 45-year-old, 250-pound white guy with a salt-and-pepper Jheri-curl, mustache, and beard. He never yelled. He never made us stay late. He listened to all of us, even me when I was waxing poetic about boys I liked.

Mr. Durso left to move to California my senior year in high school, and the night he left -- I'll never forget this -- all the store employees were walking out to the parking lot after we closed the store, and I told him goodbye and good luck. He said to me, "Don't worry about the boys. Just study hard." I wish I had paid more attention to that.

I know I should focus on the good things I remember about him, but one completely silly incident pops into my head every so often and fills me with this vague sense of discomfort and regret. We were closing the store, and I was working in the housewares department. "Is it all clear?" he asked me, meaning were the rugs picked up off the floor? Were the towels folded? Were the picture frames aligned? I so wanted it to be good enough, so I hemmed and hawed. "Well..." I said, "I think so. What do you think?" He replied tersely, with staccato hand movements, "Well, is it or isn't it because we have people who want to go home." "It is," I said meekly.

I've always been too sensitive about comments like that -- about my work, my attitude, my appearance. And I wish that had ended at 18, when Mr. Durso left. But even now, I carry work with me. Comments. Suggestions. Indications that I'm doing anything less than an amazing job. My boss and I aren't getting along particularly well right now. My attitude is lackluster sometimes because he grates on my nerves, and I hate that I'm so transparent and that my behavior is so easily swayed by my emotions. So I carry that guilt with me on the subway home from work and when I'm walking down the street -- the thought that I should be doing much better than I am.

Sometimes I wish I could walk down the street without these strange waves of guilt and inadequacy washing over me constantly. I want to be like those girls I always see who are wearing sunglasses and flip-flops and talking on their cell phones or with their friends at brunch. They look like they enjoy life. I want to be able to enjoy being in New York without worrying about when the rug is going to be pulled out from under me: When I'm going to be fired or called out for the fact that I just don't care or that I'm not as capable as I've led everyone to believe. I think that I'm really worried that my New York life is hanging by a thread, and that thread is my job. I lose that, and I lose the city. So when my job feels like it's in flux, so does my identity. And that's a precarious way to live.


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