Ann Hurst

I had just hit the highway when I realized I had put on my two-inch Bally heels, remnants of my former life. Too late to turn back. Oh, well. Today, this first day of the New Year, would be fun, and the workday blessedly short. Only seven hours. This, the first day of the new millennium, 01.01.01, seems the perfect day for the binary world of Silicon Valley. Yet my activity astounds me: I am hawking handbags in a department store. It’s all part of my desire to see the world from a different perspective than a newsroom during what I trust will be a short career hiatus.

Greet the customers as if they are your own special guests, the Human Resource folks had instructed during the training sessions. Indeed, during the New Year’s weekend, the store emitted a festive air, and customers seemed uncommonly patient, even appreciative of little gestures.

When I arrived at work today, the department manager was ensconced in the costume jewelry area, and as we straightened the stacks of 50-percent-off earring sets, she mentioned that we would be having an increased security presence in handbags. During clean-up from the previous day, a fistful of security sensor devices was found in one of the purses.

“How could that happen?” I asked. “We (sales associates) circle the place like hawks.”

“I know,” she replied. “Someone just snipped off the bands. They must have brought special wire cutters with them. As you straighten up the shelves today, look inside the handbags. There may be more sensors stuffed inside.”

So much for the festive party atmosphere.

New Year’s Day opens gently. First a return. Gradually the pace picks up. A few people just looking—for bargains, for fun, for just the right handbag to meet a specific need.

Carol loves the big, round brown Francesca tied with an orange-piped leather bow. But the bag has no tags, and I can’t sell it without the identifying SKU number. She plans to shop more while I research the price.

Another woman is drawn to an $11.99 black mini, decorated with brightly colored felt and beadwork in a floral pattern. The purse was originally $58, and she declares it perfect, even though she cannot fit both her wallet and her eyeglasses in it at the same time. A stray thread on a top leaf squelches the deal at the last minute, however, after I tell her I don’t know if the thread might pull free even more. (She presses for a guarantee, and, seeking neutral ground, I suggest she might want to secure the thread using a needle.) “I am hopeless with a needle,” she wails, clearly deflated. “You should see my pile of things waiting for hems and repairs … This is a signal to me that I shouldn’t get it.” She begins to leave and then retreats. “You should see the wonderful bargains I got for my table,” she says brightly, rattling them off. A tablecloth and four Christmas place mats reduced to $10 for the set. “I may give the place mats to my husband’s ex-wife,” she adds magnanimously.

Another woman is enamored with a fun fur handbag, painted in rich shades of chocolate with splashes of red and turquoise. “Do you think I can get away with this in politically correct places?” she asks, not pausing for a reply. “It’s much lighter than my (Louis Vuitton) feedbag,” she says, rummaging for her matching Louis wallet. It’s a steal at $135, down from $240, thanks to the year-end sale and a 20-percent-off coupon. Conspiratorially, she pays in cash, lest her husband discover her indulgent folly.

Near the end of my day, I make a final quick round of the floor, returning handbags to their places and taking a stab at cleaning up along my path. At the accessories counter, I drop off a returned velveteen shawl. The sales associate on duty is a classmate from pre-holiday training sessions.

“Guess what,” she says excitedly. “I caught my first shoplifter today.” She is thrilled.

“I know I should have called security, but it just happened, and I couldn’t stop myself.” She is beaming with pride. “I had just left the register for a minute and I saw a man pushing a scarf into his hand like this.” She places her left hand on the counter top, and with her right thumb, pushes a leopard-print silk square beneath the humped bridge of her left thumb and index finger. It is just like the old magician trick, pressing a thin silk scarf into a nearly closed fist. “I just went right over to him and I said, ‘Do you like that scarf?’ Well, he and his wife or whoever she was just tore out of here.

“A lot of people play with things,” she continues, still animatedly pushing the scarf with her right thumb into her almost closed left hand. “But they wouldn’t have shot right out of here if he hadn’t been planning to take it.”

She holds the rescued scarf in her hand as if it is a prized possession. It’s a modest, $30 Ralph Lauren square.

“I just saved (the store) $30,” she giddily pronounces. “Do you think I’ll get … ?” She lets the unspoken thought dangle, erupting in laughter.