Forty years ago, my wife and I had been married a little over a year. We were living in Houston, and I was working for a big corporation downtown. My wife was finishing up her degree at the University of Houston, and we needed extra money for Christmas, so I went to work as a part-time salesman for the Christmas season in one of Houston’s big department store chains, at its store in the southwest part of town (for Houstonians who might remember, it was Foley’s at Sharpstown Mall).
I was all of 23 years old, still a brand-new Christian. I didn’t know I was going to play a central role in what today we would call a social justice issue.
It wasn’t difficult work, but it was tiring – two or three nights a week after working all day and then all day at the department store on Saturday. I was assigned to the men’s clothing department. The Christmas help was paid on an hourly basis; the regular salespeople were salary plus commission. It wasn’t unusual for the salespeople to elbow the Christmas help out of the way if the likelihood of a sizable commission was looming.
I quickly learned the ropes. The department manager was the czar; you did what he told you to do. But the department buyer trumped the manager; our buyer was known for rather imperiously walking into our department and telling whoever was closest to remove that display, change that mannequin, or immediately replace entire sections of clothing. And then he would waltz out, knowing his commands were being obeyed.
All the salespeople, and the manager, griped about the buyer.
Early one evening, when we were in something of a lull, a woman by herself walked into the department. She was in her 40s, well dressed, and looking, well, really poised. I didn’t immediately go to her, because I figured one of the commission salesmen would, or perhaps even the manager.
I saw that they had noticed her, and then turned back to the conversation they were having. She was looking around, clearly wanting to be helped.
They glanced again, and continued to ignore her.
So I walked over to her and asked if she needed assistance. She looked at me, glanced over at the group of salespeople still talking, and nodded. “I need your opinion,” she said, “I need you to hold some things while I look.” I told her I wasn’t exactly a fashion expert, but I would do whatever I could.
She laughed. “You’re about the same size at my husband,” she said. “I need to see if the clothes should fit.” She looked again the salesmen, laughing at some joke. “Are you a trainee?”
“No, ma’am,” I said. “I’m Christmas help.”
She smiled and nodded. And then she began to shop.
She would pick out a shirt, study it, and then hold it up against me, nod, and hand me the shirt. One short became two, and then three. Then she moved from dress shirts to sport coats, and then belts. She fitted a belt around my waist, and nodded. She’d ask a question, and I’d answer. She asked me several times if I like a particular shirt or jacket, and sometimes I’d nod and sometimes smile and then shake my head.
After 15 minutes, with my arms laden with clothes, we were suddenly approached by the department manager, smiling and saying he would be glad to take my place. She looked at him with a cold stare, shook her head, and pointed at me. “Him,” she said in her soft, upper-class voice. “He will continue to help me.” And from then on she ignored him.
My manager was not pleased. He was even less pleased when I rang up the bill. It came to more than $800, and this was in 1974 dollars. One of the biggest single sales of the year, and no one received a commission.
I carried her bags to her car. She asked me if I would receive a commission, and I shook my head. “I’m paid hourly,” I said.
She laughed. “Your friends learned a lesson today,” she said. “They cannot tell the difference between what they call a wetback and someone who flies with her husband from Mexico City on his private plane.”
She smiled again, thanked me, and then she was gone.
I walked back inside the store, where my manager was fuming.
“How did you know she was wealthy?” he asked.
“I didn’t,” I replied. “She was just a customer who needed help.”
Over at The High Calling, there is a community linkup of writings on social justice. To see the other stories posted, or write one yourself for consideration to be featured next week, please see Share Your Story: Social Justice at Work at The High Calling.
Photograph: Foley's Department Store at Sharpstown Mall in Houston the late 1960s.