Wednesday, December 26, 2018

"Christmas Chestnuts - 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.

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.    

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