Thursday, December 18, 2014

"Christmas At Harrods"


Over the years, I have related a number of Christmas stories.  One of my favorites involves my experiences at Harrods Department Store in London, where I lived for a time in the late 1960’s.  Not in the store, but in London.

I shall not republish the original version of these recollections.  As usual, I have neither the patience nor the technological facility to resuscitate them.  And anyway, I obtain more pleasure reliving those experiences via the process of writing the stories over again.  I’m like an old uncle:  “Tell us the ‘Harrods’ story!”  Except nobody’s asking me to.   

Anyway, here we go.

After a month’s vacation in Canada, I returned to London to resume my open-ended hegira, an extended sojourn highlighted by three classes a week at the Actors’ Workshop and a full-time job as a substitute teacher at Saint John’s Church of England Infants and Juniors School.  (I had started off as a substitute teacher, but the school’s headmaster, Mr. Kinsman, took an inexplicable shine to me, and arranged for my full-time employment.)

Two days after the school year started, engaged in a heated dispute with the Teachers’ Union, the British government decreed that all the substitute teachers in the country would be fired. 

Including me, even though I technically had a full-time job, the British
government exhibiting a disturbing insensitivity for the “gray area.”

In just two days, my illusion of year-long stability had gone “Poof!  Having returned to England with a guaranteed job in my pocket, I was now summarily unemployed and in jeopardy of floating into oblivion, or back to Toronto, neither option appearing inordinately attractive to me.

What do I do in a crisis? 

I whine and I complain.  It works every time.  The people around me become so annoyed with my continual moaning, one of them inevitably comes up with a solution to my problem.  Not because they are necessarily compassionate.  They just want me to stop.

Although in this case, innate kindness was a definite contributor.

There’s was a beautiful (groomed, coifed, and facially assembled) young woman in my acting class named Belinda Rokeby-Johnson.  I was instantly enamored by that last name, having never known anyone with a hyphenated surname before.  I knew Liebowitzes, Friedmans and Devors.  I knew no Liebowitz-Devors.

Belinda Rokeby-Johnson was unmistakably of the “Privileged Classes.”  Fulfilling the responsibilities that this nobility of birth required of her, Belinda consistently, without a whisper of condescension, behaved towards “the little people” in a manner familiarly characterized as “Noblesse Oblige.” 

“Noblesse Oblige” is an Upper Class tradition that deems it the duty of its high-born members to give aid and comfort to the less fortunate in the world.  (Which inevitably included me.  Once after dinner at Belinda Rokeby Johnson’s townhouse in impeccably fashionable Eton Square, her husband Ralph (pronounced “Rafe”) drove me back to my modest apartment in a red Aston Martin convertible, and before dropping me off, he handed me a freshly-minted ten-pound note.  I heartily objected to this charity, but the “Ten-er” ended up in my pocket.)

Okay.

CUT TO:

Early October, by which time I had been out of work for over a month.  It was at this juncture, the needle on the Pomerantzian “Complain-O-Meter” having risen to the “Intolerable” level, that Belinda Rokeby-Johnson proferred this suggestion:

“Why don’t you get a job at Harrods for the ‘Holiday Rush’?  A lot of my friends do that and they love it, because they can get a seventeen percent discount on their chinchilla coats.”

(Note:  I can attest to the fact that, during the “Holiday Rush”, there were a number of super-wealthy young women taken on at Harrods.  You could see their chauffeur-driven Rolls Royces and Bentleys dropping them off outside the store, where their jobs as “Sales Personnel” paid the equivalent of less than fifty dollars a week.  (Though they did save “a sizable packet” on the coats.)  Such employees proved to be a mixed blessing.  They had the appropriate perfect manners required in “Sales”, but they were unable to make change.  (Because they had never seen any.)

Like the inevitable holes in a well-worn pair of undershorts, there are a number of irredeemable perforations in this narrative.  For example, having decided to follow up on Belinda Rokeby-Johnson’s suggestion, I must have called the Harrods Employment Office, gone in for an interview, and been told I was hired, and maybe even in which department I’d be working.  But I recall nothing about any of that.  The application process could not have been easy for me.  Which is probably why I have forgotten it.

What is now left is the indelible memory of my First Day – arriving at the Harrods “Employee’s Entrance”, located directly across the street from the department store, and being taught how to “punch in” – I had never seen an employee “Punch Card” before, my only previous employment experience being at summer camp where they worked you around the clock. 

I then descended to the basement, where, lemming-like, I would follow the other Harrods employees through a labyrinthine tunnel under the adjacent thoroughfare and into the building.  (Harrods employees were forbidden to use the actual store entrances.)

I then took the stairs – Harrods employees were forbidden to use the store’s elevators or escalators – up to the “Toy Department”, where, after reporting, I was escorted to a dank and windowless (more on that later) back room area where I would be working.

I was nervous, but I was ready to begin – a ten-week assignment, at a job for which I was eminently and prodigiously unsuited.

Tomorrow:  My toy wrapping troubles and travails, including an overseer from Glasgow, with an accent so thick I could never understand a word he was saying.    

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