Wrapping toys at Harrods – London’s preeminent department store – during Christmas season, 1967. A stopgap moneymaking measure, necessitated by my having lost my job as a substitute teacher. I didn’t take it personally. The British government fired all the substitute teachers in England. It was unlikely that was a subterfuge to get rid of me.
“We’ll fire them all. He’ll never know.”
As flattering as that is…I don’t think so.
A room was allocated on the same floor as the Toy Department, but off to the side, hidden from view. This was the Toy Wrapping Room. My place of employment for the next nine weeks. The Toy Wrapping Room was large, poorly lit, and dusty. There were no windows and questionable ventilation, issues which would later cause me to lead my fellow toy wrappers out on strike. More on that later.
Extending down the middle of the room, was a conveyor belt. The conveyor belt rolled supersized wire carrier baskets filled with toys from the Toy Department, through an opening in the wall, and into the Toy Wrapping Room. Each basket contained a separate order of purchased toys, some containing many toys, others, orders of a single item. The toy wrapper would move to the conveyor belt, carry the next basket in line to their workspace, and wrap the toys contained in that basket.
An accompanying receipt informed the toy wrapper whether the order was to be wrapped for local delivery (by Harrods trucks), or for shipping abroad. We packed the local deliveries in cardboard boxes, wrapped them in the signature “Harrods Green” wrapping paper, then fastened them with string. The packages going abroad were just boxed and tied. They were then sent downstairs to the Mail Room, where they were taken apart and rewrapped for shipping.
Two points I never understood. One: I was informed that many toys, for example, tricycles, arrived from the manufacturer in cardboard packing boxes. Did the toy wrappers wrap the tricycles in the packing boxes they arrived in? No. Why not? Because, when they arrived, the original packing boxes had been taken downstairs and thrown into the furnace to heat the store.
I found this hilarious. An upscale enterprise, using cardboard shipping boxes to heat their building. But I didn’t laugh. I didn’t laugh, because, since the original packing boxes had been burnt up, it fell to us toy wrappers to re-wrap the tricycles. Not in boxes – we didn’t have any large enough – but in the signature “Harrods Green” wrapping paper.
Do you have any idea how long it takes a long time to wrap a tricycle? Plus, it was complicated. You never knew where to start – the handlebars, the little step in the back, the bell…?
Point Two. I quote myself, from four paragraphs ago. “The orders going abroad…would then be sent downstairs to the Mail Room, where they were taken apart and rewrapped for shipping.”
Why didn’t they just send the “abroad” parcels directly to the Mail Room? What was the point of having the toy wrappers wrap them, only to have them sent down to the Mail Room and taken apart?
There were three problems which kept me from getting satisfying answers to my questions. One, I was a nobody. A temporary employee at the lowest rung. Two, I was barely adequate at my job. Manipulative dexterity is not my greatest gift. I can tie my laces, but no promises after that. Putting it kindly, I am not a “natural” as a toy wrapper.
Every toy wrapper’s workspace included a large nail embedded in a metal base. When we completed wrapping an order, we would “crucify” that order’s receipt, meaning, we’d pierce it on the nail, and pull it down to the bottom. Through the course of the day, the nail would get stacked up with receipts. This was an irrefutable indicator of our efforts. The more receipts on your nail, the faster you were working.
My nail held, consistently, the lowest number of receipts. I was very slow. I tried to build up my receipt tally by choosing the carrier baskets holding the fewest number of toys. Also, the orders that were the easiest to wrap. A board game, like Chutes and Ladders – regular-shaped, and already boxed. A deck of cards. No problem. Couple of minutes – I’m done.
A giant stuffed animal could take half a day. Especially if it had antlers.
Whatever my strategy, I remained “the slowpoke.” My boss, a beefy former policeman from Glasgow was continually on my case. This produced a critical problem. Not because of my imminent danger of being fired, but because of the guy’s accent.
I speak English. I’ve always been able to understand other people who speak English. But I could not at all understand a man who spoke English in the indecipherable dialect of a person from Glasgow.
My boss complained that the strings on my packages weren’t tied tightly enough, especially the ones that were going to the Mail Room. (Why should they be? I knew they were going to be taken apart!)
“Errrrrrrol,” he burred, “yew goo’a puhl yer strayngs tayter.”
This is not even close to the throat gagging I actually heard. The man was of a nightmare of glottal incomprehensibility. He’d go on criticizing my work, and I’d stare at him, pretending to understand what he was saying.
“Yew goo’a gate moore racayts on yer neel.”
I worked at my pace, and I didn’t get fired. The highlights? Sometimes, I’d wrap presents for important people. Princess Margaret, Queen Elizabeth’s sister. King Olaf of Norway. There was an old TV show called, Mama. It told the story of a Norwegian immigrant family. I printed a little message on King Olaf’s parcel:
“Mama and family are fine. They really miss Norway.”
I don’t think he got it. It was one of those packages they rewrapped in the Mail Room.
As we got closer to Christmas, package delivery before the “Big Day” could no longer be guaranteed. The shoppers were therefore required to take their packages home themselves. This led to temporary reprieves from the dank and depressing Toy Wrapping Room. Now, after wrapping our packages, it became our job to walk them into the store to Harrods’ “Pick-Up Center.”
It was like being liberated from a dungeon. The comparative illumination made me shield my eyes.
I’m heading towards the “Pick-Up Center” when I pick up the bone-chilling sound of a female customer having a fit. Yelling. Complaining. Totally out of control. A flustered Harrods “Customer Service” official tries to calm her down, but nothing’s working. The woman is going nuts.
Without thinking, I walk up to her and say, “Lady, you’re giving me a headache.”
The woman turns and glares at me. There is a clear “Off with his head!” appearance to her daggers-staring eyes. For some reason, I wasn’t afraid.
“Tell me the problem, and I’ll see what I can do.”
She was young – maybe mid-twenties – luxuriously dressed (I believe there was a fur hat involved), impeccably groomed, and elegantly attractive. Other than “young”, I was none of those things.
It turned out the woman’s parcels had been mistakenly packaged for local delivery rather than for overseas travel. I told her I could help.
“Follow me,” I instructed.
I took her to the Toy Wrapping Room. I sat her down on a large roll of corrugated cardboard, where she remained as I rewrapped her presents. Then, I told her to get up and help me. As she held her finger on the knot, I fastened the strings. Tighter than I had ever fastened them before.
All the time, I talked to her. Nothing memorable. Verbal distractions. Anything to get her to relax. When the job was completed, I gathered her packages and walked her out.
We’re standing at the door leading to the street. The woman thanks me, and hands me a tip. Five pounds. (Close to fifteen bucks.) I’m taken by surprise. I thought we were equals. I didn’t want the money.
“Give it to your favorite charity,” she insists.
And then she was gone.
On my way back to the Toy Wrapping Room, I was suddenly accosted by a phalanx of high-level Harrods personnel, acting dithery and concerned. They wanted the whole story. So I told them. Leaving out the part about the tip.
The Harrods bigwigs shook their heads in baffled bewilderment.
“You took her to the Toy Wrapping Room?”
“She was making a fuss. I was just trying to help.”
I stood there, confused by the excitement. What’s the big deal? I helped a customer.
“Was she important?” I asked.
“She’s the princess of Luxembourg,” they replied. Or the “Duchess of Westphalia.” I can no longer recall. But it was definitely European royalty.
By the time our tour of duty was ending, every single toy wrapper was sick. It was “Cello-tape poisoning”, causing a permanent tickle in our lungs. As I mentioned, the room had questionable ventilation. Everyone was coughing up a storm.
We complained as a group, demanding healthier conditions. They fired us on the spot. It was December the twenty-third. Our jobs were scheduled to be over on the twenty-fourth. The insurrection cost us one day’s pay.
Decades later, on a trip to London, I made a point of visiting Harrods. I took the escalator to the Toy Department floor, told a salesperson my backstory, and asked if I could look in on the Toy Wrapping Room. She pointed the way. And off I went.
The Toy Wrapping Room was different. Smaller. And airier. The reason for the fresh air was immediately apparent. The room had an enormous window you could open.
A window in the Toy Wrapping Room. I'd like to believe I had something to do with that.