Monday, December 22, 2014

"The Discernible Perks Involved With Toy Wrapping At Harrods"

I do not recall spending a lot of time with my nautically displaced toy wrapping associates, sharing a lunch table with them, squandering my meager salary on a post-paycheck blowout at the local drinkery.  Although I occasionally may have.  You would have to ask them about that. 

(Try  Or the like.)

What I do remember was struggling to wrap toys just well enough avoid getting myself the boot.

As well as…

The bolstering sounds blaring from a co-worker’s portable radio.  This was the Golden Age of British pop music – “Penny Lane”, “Strawberry Fields Forever”, “Hey, there, Georgie Girl…”, “To Si-i-ir, With Lo-o-o-ove.”  For close to half a century, a catchy though less than chartbusting little toe-tapper has been playing in my head whose title I could never recall but whose mundane but evocative lyrics included:

I like my football on a Satuhday
Roast beef on Sundays is all right.

Only recently did my daughter Anna help me discover this irretrievable artifact to be “Autumn Almanac” by The Kinks.  

I loved listening to that music, as I substandardly wrapped Christmas gifts for the European “One-Percent.”

And I’m talking royalty!  Princess Margaret (Queen Elizabeth’s younger sister) was the recipient of my handiwork.  As was King Olaf of Norway.  That one received special attention. 

After wrapping His Majesty’s presents, I adorned the traditional Harrods-green wrapping paper with some personally handwritten messages. 

Referring to the classic I Remember Mama, whose central characters were all Norwegian immigrants, I wrote, in tiny print on various locations on the packages:

“Mama is fine.  Lars is back working again.  And Dagmar’s growing into quite a lady.”

I actually sent that to King Olaf Of Norway.  (Though, following routine, it is likely they rewrapped those packages down in the mailroom.  But that’s okay.  I had written that primarily for my own amusement.  Not dissimilar to this blog.  Though Oh Happy Day, should my self-amusing letters-in-a-bottle find themselves in appreciative hands.)

During our midday break, the store generously provided subsidized three-course lunches in the “Employees’ Canteen”, charging less than the equivalent of a dollar for the entire meal.  For some of us (Read: including me), this was the primary dining experience of the day.  (Taking full advantage, I would occasionally sneak out a banana or a bran muffin for later.  Hey, I was making a big thirty-five dollars a week!)

I looked forward to those lunches.  But my big treat of the day…    

Wait, first the setup.

In the opening post of this series, entitled “Christmas At Harrods”, I mentioned that the store had certain unwavering regulations concerning the deportment of its employees; to wit, no using the store’s actual street entrances (we’d come in via an underground tunnel leading from the “Employees’ Entrance” across the street), and no riding the elevators or the escalators.

You know I’m a rebel.  So I did occasionally ride the escalators.  (I get claustrophobia in elevators.)  My more flagrant gestures of subversion, however, were invariably more subtle and indirect.

Like this, for example.

After enjoying my subsidized lunch, I would not infrequently repair to the Harrods Smoke Shop, where I would purchase a moderately priced Havana cigar, a “moderate price” that exceeded the cost of my subsidized lunch.  I needed to show them I was more than some “faceless nobody.”  I was a faceless nobody with style!

I would then descend to the store’s ground floor “Banking Hall” – a traditional “meeting spot” for Harrods’ upscale clientele.  The hall’s most recognizable feature was a layout of plush and inviting Harrods-Green upholstered leather couches. 

It was there, amidst the chatter of the congregating “Ladies Who Lunch”, that I would plunk myself down on one of the couches, and then light up my expensive Havana cigar (you were allowed to do that back then), regaled throughout this enjoyable interlude by the sounds of a recorded Phil Harris warbling “The Bare Necessities” from The Jungle Book.  (Some kind of promotional “tie-in”, I suppose.  Anyway, it’s a classic.  And it went with the cigar, which, for me at least, was a bare necessity.)

Upon finishing my cigar, I would then slip off my sneakers, curl up on the Harrods-green leather sofa and surrender to a brief catnap, arising – miraculously – just in time to head dutifully back to work.

Even ordeals have their intermittent satisfactions.

The most delightful of which I shall tell you about tomorrow. 

In the meantime...

Friday, December 19, 2014

"Christmas At Harrods - Part Two"

I have no idea what I was thinking. 

I have absolutely no aptitude for working with my hands, and I had just taken a job wrapping toys at an upscale department store, an assigment where the use of the hands is exclusively demanded. 

I shudderingly recall my school experiences in “Manual Training” where in “Leather Shop”, the bar for my objective was progressively lowered from making a wallet to making a change purse to making an irregularly-shaped eye patch.  And even then, I required help. 

Now here I am, standing at a conveyor belt leading from inside the Harrods Toy Department to the dank and windowless storeroom that was our designated “Work Area” over which rolled oversized, wire carrier baskets laden with upcoming gifts for the holiday season.

The next wire that came through basket was yours.  You lifted it off the conveyor belt, and you carried it to your workstation, which was a bar-high, group table, equipped with a heavy roll of Harrods-green wrapping paper, a handful of “Cellotape” dispensers, a pair or scissors and a foot-round ball of medium-strength string. 

There, one by one, you dutifully gift-wrapped every present in the basket.  When you finished, you returned all the now-wrapped presents to the basket, which you then directed to the next stage of the operation, which was either a delivery truck area (for local destinations) or the store’s downstairs post office from which the purchased presents were airmailed overseas.

Finally, you took the completed “work order” receipt and you skewered it onto the large, vertically projecting nail that every toy wrapper was provided, the measure of your accomplishment being determined by the number of receipts on your nail at the end of the day.  You then returned to the conveyor belt for another basket. 

That was the “Game Plan.”  Here’s how it worked for me.


I was a terrible gift wrapper.  I wasted way too much Harrods wrapping paper, overdid it big-time on the Cellotape (three-inch wide Scotch tape that you peeled off a giant dispenser), and my string-tying left a lot to be desired in the tightness department.  (You could lift my efforts by their strings and the presents would fall completely out of them)

In my (at least partial) defense, the presents redirected to the mailroom, I was informed, would be entirely unpacked down there and then specially re-packed for overseas shipment.  When I was criticized for my strings being too loose, my inevitable response was,

“How tight do they have to be to make it all the way to the basement?” 

I was a terrible toy wrapper – Strike One.  I had a questionable attitude – Strike Two.  And I was excruciatingly slow – Strike Three.  A not entirely apt analogy, because, although it is traditionally “Three strikes and you’re out”, I was inexplicably retained in the lineup and permitted an unlimited number of swings.

To some degree, a respectable “receipt count” was the luck of the draw, your rate-of-speed depending substantially on how many items there were in the next basket, and also – no small concern – what exactly those items included. 

Best-case Scenario:  A wire basket containing a single item, that item being a rectangular deck of cards.  Even I could have handled that one.  In less than twenty minutes to boot!

On the other hand, if your next basket was stacked high with gift purchases, or, more frighteningly, one of those gift purchases was a tricycle…

How do you giftwrap a tricycle! 

It takes forever!   The handlebars.  The wheels.  The little step in the back.  The bell.  And why – you’ll love this! – was that tricycle not packed in the regularly shaped cardboard box it originally arrived in?  Because Harrods – in their wisdom and inexplicable cheapness – had removed the tricycle from its shipping container, which they subsequently tossed into the furnace to heat the building!  

“Who are these people who are ruining my life!”

I shall mention but one of them, as he was the only one with whom I was in immediate contact. 

That gentleman was my boss.

Imagine a squat, ruddy-faced fireplug from Glasgow, and that’s who I’m talking about.  A former policemen, he was now managing a less than “type cast” assemblage wrapping extravagant Christmas presents for overindulged rich kids.  (A number of my colleagues were temporarily furloughed longshoremen, whose suitability to this dissimilar arena was highly questionable.)

I dreaded this man coming around me.  There would be no pep talk or bolstering compliment, but instead, an always angry, indecipherable bluster.  “Indecipherable” because, well… have you ever tried to understand a person from Glasgow?

For ten weeks I was the regular target of his spittle-inflected diatribes.  And all that time, I had no idea what he was saying to me.

“Errrroll, yir sta-ch (a throat-clearing utterance)-rangs ah weetewlewse!”

“Errroll, yew goo ‘a git moor poor-ch (another throat-clearing utterance)-chaz ra-ch-(and yet another) cites ohnyirneel!”

(An inadequate representation of how distant his pronouncements were from decipherable language.)

It was only through careful consideration – and more importantly the proximate context – that I determined he was telling me that my strings were too loose, and that I had to get more purchase receipts on my nail.  Not that that it hanged anything.  I was abominable at the job.

Okay, so that was the bad part.

That I am everso skillful at delineating.

Tomorrow  (a considerably shorter post):

The Discernible Perks About Toy Wrapping at Harrods.

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.)



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.