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.
Here is a reprised rendition of that experience, with the usual “revisiting adjustments.” Retelling this memorable anecdote, I feel like an old uncle: “Tell us the ‘Harrods’ story!” Except nobody asked me to.
Anyway, here we go.
After a month’s vacation in Canada, I returned to London to resume my extended departure, 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. (Clarifying Note: I’d started off as a substitute teacher. But the school’s headmaster, Mr. Kinsman, taking an inexplicable shine to me, engendered my full-time employment.)
Two days after the school year started, caught in a brutal dispute with the Teachers’ Union, the British government announced that all the substitute teachers in England were fired. Including me. Though I now technically held full-time employment, the British government, lacking the requisite sensitivity for the “Gray Area”, summarily sacked me as well.
Having returned to England with expectations of year-long employment, I was now suddenly out of work, in dire danger of floating into oblivion or back to Toronto, neither prospect offering inordinate appeal.
What do I do in a crisis?
I endlessly whine and complain. And, invariably, it works. Someone around me comes up with a solution. Mainly to stop my whining and complaining.
In this case, however, innate kindness was a definite contributor.
There was a beautiful (groomed and coifed, as well as structurally assembled) woman in my acting class named Belinda Rokeby-Johnson. I was instantly entranced, having known no one with a “hyphenate surname.” I knew Liebowitzes, Friedmans and Devors. I knew no Liebowitz-Devors.
Without a whisper of condescension, high-born Belinda Rokey-Johnson behaved in a manner commonly characterized as “Noblesse Oblige”towards “The Little People.” Which most assuredly, meant me.
(Illuminating Side Note: Once after dinner at Belinda Rokeby Johnson’s (upscale) Eton Square townhouse, her husband Ralph (pronounced “Rafe”) drove me back to my hovelly hostel in a red Aston Martin convertible, where, before dropping me off, he gave me a crisp ten-pound note. Although I strongly objected to this charity, in the end, the proffered “Tenner” wound up in my pocket.)
Mid-October. Having been workless for over a month, my Pomerantzian “Complain-O-Meter” pointing excruciatingly towards “Stop it!”, Belinda Rokeby-Johnson proffered an ameliorating suggestion:
“Why don’t you get a job at Harrodsfor the ‘Holiday Rush’? A lot of my friends do that and they love it. Because they can get seventeen percent discounts on their chinchilla coats.”
(Note: I can attest to the fact that, during the “Holiday Rush”, there were dozens of super-wealthy young women working at Harrods, their chauffeured Rollses and Bentleys delivering them outside the building, where their jobs as “Sales Personnel” paid approximately fifty dollars a week, before taxes. (Though they saved “a packet” on fur coats.)
“Upper Crust” seasonal “help” proved a mixed blessing for their employers. Though having the requisite “manners” for fancy-store “Sales”, they were awkwardly unable to make change. (As they had never seenany before.)
I have no recollection of applying for the job, or the subsequent interview. But somehow, I got hired, assigned to Harrods bustling (during the holidays) toy wrapping department.
What I do recall is my First Day – arriving at the Harrods “Employee’s Entrance”, located across the street from the actual store. “Punching in” (after being shown how to do that), I was directed downstairs, where I followed the trail of Harrods employees through a dimly-lit tunnel, passing under the road, before emerging, blinkingly, inside the brightly-lit building.
Harrodsemployees were forbidden to use actual store entrances.
I then took the stairs – Harrods employees being forbidden to use the store’s elevators or escalators – to Harrods’ sumptuous “Toy Department”, where I was escorted to a dank and windowless (more on that later) back room. There, I would wrap toys for the wealthy through the “Holiday Rush.”
I felt nervous but ready to begin.
A ten-week adventure, for which I was dangerosly unsuited.
Coming Up: My toy wrapping troubles and travails, including an overseer from Glasgow, whose accent was so thick I had no idea what he was talking about.