Working in a Wicker Wonderland

Pier 1 frontI had a very lucrative summer during my third summer in college, working at Pier 1 Imports, before it became a “lifestyle store” with crazy Kirstie Alley hawking for them.

I had had a job that was clearly a scam earlier that summer. I had replied to an ad in the Village Voice under the heading Activism/Journalism. It was supposed to be something that would raise awareness about social programs and raise money for them. I quickly figured out that the only person making money was the man who ran the place. He lived in a dark studio on Lexington Avenue, and the ridiculous part was me taking the train to the Upper East Side, getting our assignments, and then all of us driving out to Long Island, going door to door, and then returning to NYC, and then me returning to Long Island.

Two weeks of that was enough. I quit, and immediately got a tw0-day job doing inventory at A&S, and then got a job at the new Pier 1 that opened quite literally around the corner from our house. My brother also got a job there.

Pier 1 Imports was in expansion mode then, and they were opening stores all over the area. We worked 12-hour days, because we had to put price tags on everything. The store was new and everything had to be tagged and then put on the shelves.

pier 1 backThen two guys from the corporate headquarters came up and had us change everything around, both upstairs and downstairs.

After a while, we got tired of carefully moving everything around, so we were just throwing wicker baskets and chairs to each other. By the time the store opened, and people wanted to buy wicker patio furniture, it was hard to find four matching chairs that were in good condition.

It was an interesting summer because most of my co-workers were my brother’s age. I also discovered that my brother was a much better co-worker than most of our other cohorts. We had to take a “psychological test” to get this job. Basically, the whole goal of the test was to see if you would snitch on your co-workers if they stole something and you found out about it. Anyone with half a brain could figure out how to answer these questions.

Back then, the store had more “imports” and there were more items that I found interesting then than I would now. A string of brass bells from India. Clay reproductions of pre-Columbian art from Mexico. We also had a LOT of wicker baskets. Even in animal shapes, like a wicker duck. My mother was a big fan of wicker, so she liked that we worked there.

This was also probably the first time I spent a lot of time with someone whom I would now figure out much more quickly was a big queen. Our assistant manager was  very relaxed. The polar opposite of our manager, who was always stressed out, and already spending too much time on the road, driving from Hauppauge to Great Neck. He later had to drive all the way out to Roselle Park in New Jersey.

Paul, the assistant manager, had a funny word for everything. The scissors was the “kashnips” and the little plastic string for price tags became “shpaghets.” There was a Friendly’s across the street, which he called “Happy’s.” Paul was all for taking breaks and we went for shakes quite often at Happy’s.

That was the summer of 1984 and the radio station the manager preferred played certain songs each and every hour: “When Doves Cry,” “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” and “She-Bop.” My brother and his friends finally turned it into a game to see who could predict the next song.

Great Neck is home to a celebrity or two , and the only one who ever came into Pier 1 while I worked there was comedian Alan King, who was cheaper than he was funny. He wanted to buy ashtrays for his poolside area. The cheapest ones we had were $1.50, so of course he complained, “Don’t you have any for a dollar?”

One by one, most of us left at the end of the summer. The first one or two people got gifts and a goodbye party. I got a rock. I was the fourth or fifth to leave and I think at least Paul said goodbye to me.

It was probably the first time I went out and got myself a job, though, which were easier to find back then. It also helped fund my LP habit, and trips into NYC to see a lot of films by the foreign directors I was studying at Hofstra: Goddard, Chabrol, Bunuel. New York had a lot of older cinemas that showed old movies in double features back then. So when I wasn’t selling wickerware, I was learning how to navigate the New York City subway system. The train cars back then were in really appalling condition. Graffiti everywhere and air-blowing fans without grilles over them.

Overall, it was pretty good summer.

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