About 35 miles east of New York City, on Long Island there’s a town named called Copiague. Chances are you’ve never heard of it and if you’ve been there you probably don’t remember it. While Copiague may not have a lot, it’s where I grew up and come late December I think about it a lot.
When I was 16 years old I got my first real job, stocking shelves and cleaning up at a store in Copiague. This was around 1990 and back then, outside of delis and body shops, there weren’t a whole lot of businesses opening in my town. Retail corporations looking to open new locations passed us by and so it was surprising when a regional chain opened a store in our town but it turned out to be sadly appropriate. The company was once a very successful regional chain operating over 1,300 stores selling affordable clothes, and household goods. Over time newer and better stores had pushed them out of the places where they were once successful so by the time they opened the doors on the Copiague location they were just a few years away from bankruptcy.
At the time we didn’t know that over a hundred years of retail history were coming to a close but we did know one thing, the place sold crap. By the time I started working there it was filled with cheap cosmetics, outdated clothes and miscellaneous junk. As far as jobs went, it wasn’t glamourous but it paid just above minimum wage and was easy work. Of course I didn’t tell anyone I worked there, no 16 year old wanted to be associated with Crap-Mart but I wasn’t worried about anyone finding out because no one I knew ever shopped there. You see, we were aspirational shoppers. We may have lived in a nondescript town but we drove to the nicer towns to shop. Conversely, people from places worse off than Copiague, mostly third world countries and prisons, came to the store I worked in.
By the time Christmas 1990 arrived I had lived at my father’s for about a year, and while we weren’t wealthy, we could afford to shop in slightly upscale neighborhoods. Still, I wasn’t so far removed from holidays with my mother that I forgot what it was like to have less and so when Christmas time came around I had no trouble going out of my way to help out the people who were doing their holiday shopping at our store. I’d like to say that I was kind and helpful because I was an awesome kid but in reality it was learned behavior, courtesy of the guy who managed the place. If you’ve spent time working in retail you’ve probably dealt with managers you couldn’t stand but my first boss was not that type; he was truly a decent guy who put everyone around him at ease and made showing up at for work as fun as it could be.
On Christmas eve he asked me to grab all of the layaway items from the back and bring them to the registers. For those of you who don’t remember layaway shopping, it was the opposite of credit. Whereas today almost anyone can go into a store and buy on credit, this wasn’t always the case, and among the our clientèle it was nearly nonexistent so shoppers would have items put aside and pay them off a little at a time. By the 24th of December most of the items had been picked up but there were still some items that hadn’t been paid for. I looked at the items sitting in plastic bags with names, addresses and balances due and suggested that we put them back on the shelves but he wouldn’t let me do it. As he explained to me; this was someone’s Christmas and he was giving them all the time they needed. I was skeptical but I did what I was asked to do and by closing time, he was proven right, all of them had been picked up…except one. Shortly after closing time, once the doors had been locked and the registers had been shut down there were just three of us left in the store; me, the boss and the woman in the back doing the end of day paperwork when there was a knock on the window…I mouthed the words “we’re closed” but the woman on the other side just knocked again. I went to the door and opened it a crack so she could hear me say that it was too late but as soon as I said it my boss stepped behind me and swung the door open. “Come on it” he said; “I’m glad you made it.” Looking at me he added, “he just wants to get home, I didn’t tell him you were coming…pull your car up, your things are ready for you.” I didn’t understand what was going on, we closed a half hour before and now I’m carrying bags out to someone’s car. After loading the packages in the car and sending her off I asked what had just happened.
“I told you everyone would show up.”
– “But what about….”, I trailed off but he knew what I was asking.
“I called her and told her to come and pick it up, she’ll pay us later.”
– “Won’t you get in trouble?”
“Only if you tell, and even if you do, I’d do it again. Sometimes it’s worth getting in a little trouble…don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”
-“OK, I won’t.”
“Good, you should be getting home, you need a ride?”
-“It’s OK, I can walk”
“Alright, have a merry Christmas Will.”