Thursday, December 18, 2008

"London Times - Part Three"

I’m jumping around in the story, because this one is Christmas-related. After this, I’ll go back in order. I promise.

October, 1967.

I’m a Substitute Teacher. (Further details: To come.) Playing “hardball” during a heated dispute with the Teachers’ Union, the British government fires all the substitute teachers in the country.

I am suddenly out of work.

Belinda Rokeby-Johnson is a compassionate, porcelain-pretty girl in my acting class. (Further details: To come. Less about Belinda than about the acting class. Sorry.)

Belinda Rokeby-Johnson informs me that every year, during the “Christmas Rush” when a supplemented workforce is required, many of her friends applied for work at Harrods, a world-famous, upscale London Department Store.

The reason for her friends’ employment choice, she explains, is so they could take advantage of their seventeen per cent Harrods Employees’ Discount when they purchased their chinchilla coats. Belinda Rokeby-Johnson and her friends were extremely wealthy.

Here’s how wealthy. Every day, these supplemental employees, who would earn (the equivalent of) fifty dollars a week, would be dropped off for work by chauffeurs, driving Rolls Royces and Bentleys. Although these “Christmas Rush” recruits were highly competent in the areas of quality and taste, they were totally incapable of making change. They had never seen any before.

Belinda Rokeby-Johnson suggests (though chinchilla coats were beyond my budget range, even with the discount) that I ride out the school labor dispute by applying for “Christmas Rush” employment at Harrods.

I apply. And I get the job.

I would not, however, be a part of the impeccable Harrods “Sales Force.” I didn’t qualify for those positions, sadly lacking in the appropriate wardrobe – black-striped gray pants and a cutaway jacket. (I was more flannel shirts and jeans.) Understandably, I was designated for a “backstage” assignment.

I’d be wrapping toys for Christmas.

Before I get into the exciting specifics of toy wrapping, some words about the Harrods protocol. Harrods employees – even the wealthy ones – were required to enter a building across the street from the store, where we would “queue up” and “clock in.” It was my first “Time Card.”

The Harrods employees would then descend to the basement, where we’d proceed via a tunnel under the road, emerging across the street, inside the store.

Harrods employees were forbidden from using the Street Entrances. Harrods Employees were “Tunnel People.” Barring emergencies, Harrods employees were also prohibited from using the building’s elevators and escalators. Elevators and escalators were for customers. Harrods employees used the stairs. Hopefully unobtrusively and unseen.

Except for the tunnel travel, I never followed any of the rules. I was a “colonial”, untutored in subservience. Though my country, Canada, never openly rebelled like the Americans did, the two-tiered, class system, “Upstairs-Downstairs” and all that, it just seemed ridiculous. So I ignored it.

I more than ignored it. I turned it on its head. There was this meeting place at Harrods called the Banking Halls. You know, like, “I’ll meet at the Banking Halls and we’ll head off for a spot of lunch.”

The Banking Halls were fitted with a battalion of couches, upholstered in signature “Harrods Green” leather, and fastened with shiny, brass rivets. Customers would relax on these couches, awaiting their rendezvous.

I never met anyone at the Banking Halls. Employees lunched at the subsidized “canteen” on the top floor of the building, where generous, three-course meals were served, costing (in Canadian money) forty-two cents. (My entire weekly salary was a shade over forty bucks. I would have gotten less, but being a non-citizen, I was mercifully exempt from “withholding.”)

What I did was this. On a fairly regular basis, I would chow down at the “canteen”. I’m a fast eater; it didn’t take long. I would then head over to the Harrods “Smoke Shop” where I’d purchase a really good cigar.

Finally, I’d proceed to the Banking Halls, where I’d plant myself on one of the couches, light up, and smoke my cigar. When I was done, if there was time left on my lunch break, I would avail myself of the couches for a short but satisfying nap.

I’m sure a broke a number of employees’ rules on those occasions, but nobody ever stopped me. I guess I looked like a customer.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you more.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...



Please do.