I have found that it’s difficult for people to be rude to you when you’re dressed as a 5’4” hot dog.
Desperate for cash like so many others in this crap economy, I took a seasonal job this fall working as a cashier at iParty, a party supply store that sells costumes by the truckload during Halloween season. One afternoon in early October, I walked into the store looking for a costume and left with a job. The assistant manager looked over my application, saw my degrees and my years of teaching and writing experience, and said, “Yeah, you’re way overqualified. You’ll start on Thursday.”
Yes, I was overqualified. And yes, I hoped that the manager wouldn’t actually call my references, thus informing these respected individuals that I was putting my master’s degree to use as an iParty cashier.
But the thing is, I love Halloween. Love it. I love dressing in costume, I love Halloween decorations, and I love seeing other people and animals in costumes: babies, adults, dogs. Perhaps it’s the escapism from reality that I enjoy, or perhaps it’s just that I get to be a kid again and make a justified ass of myself in public, but I love walking around as a cloaked witch or a giant fairy and just tooling down the sidewalk like it’s nothing. Back home in Minnesota, only children walk around dressed up for All Hallows Eve. Here in Salem, though, tens of thousands of tourists march through the city in tens of thousands of costumes during each October’s Haunted Happenings celebration. The city even holds a pet costume contest—in the morning for cats, and in the afternoon for dogs, so as to avoid a furry bloodbath on the Common.
So that’s why I took a job that severely underpaid me: I could dress every day in a different costume and walk around showing other people cool costumes. It’d be like playtime, like I wasn’t even working.
During my five weeks’ employment at iParty, I indulged in a prolonged Halloween celebration and dressed at work as an angel, a witch, a cowgirl, a Greek goddess, a hot dog, a giant chicken, a Saturday Night Live Spartan cheerleader, the Cat in the Hat, Tinky Winky, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz (complete with a stuffed Toto in a basket), the Scarecrow, Captain America, and Snow White.
Customers loved it. They joked with me. They laughed at my costumes. I flexed my foam muscles as Captain America and they giggled at my foolishness. When I rang their purchases and asked them, as instructed by my boss, “Would you like to donate a dollar to Boston Medical today to help kids in need?” they smiled congenially and said, “Oh, sure,” and, “Absolutely.”
The parents especially loved me. They told their children, “Look, honey: it’s Dorothy. Isn’t she pretty?” or, “See, baby, she’s an angel. She must have been very good today.” The kids dug me, too. They peeked over the countertop at me and smiled shyly when I asked them what they were going to be for Halloween. One toddler toddled up to me when I was in my velvet witch costume and started petting my dress. “You’re soft,” she said, and her mother, embarrassed, collected the little girl from my side of the counter.
But that was all while I was in costume. The glory days were soon to end.
Nov. 3: my last day at work.
When I walked into the store that Monday, I found that the weekend crew had gutted the place. The shelves and lowboys in the large aisle just inside the door were empty. The Halloween makeup and costumes had been put away or re-shelved in a smaller aisle to make room for Christmas décor. The glow-in-the-dark fangs, the false boobs, the trick-or-treat buckets, the sickles and swords, the naughty nurse kits, the Chuckey masks—all of it had been put away. Banished until next fall.
The reason I had taken the job in the first place was gone. No more costumes = no more fun. Now it was just an $8-an-hour job bagging paper goods and shower favors for people who were too busy or self-important to hang up their cell phones during checkout.
That last morning, I donned my purple iParty t-shirt and pinned the yellow “Laura” nametag over my left breast. I felt nude. I had always been in costume at this job, so without an alter identity, I was out of place. Devoid of personality.
On my way to the cash registers from the back room, I took a police hat off the shelf and slid it down over my ponytail. It was only a halfhearted gesture, though; fifteen minutes later, I took the hat off and put it over my register’s broken credit card machine. I would live out my last day at iParty costumeless.
Not long after I let go of my costumed identity, a blonde-haired woman with a doo-rag, cloth purse, and flowy cotton skirt stepped up to the check-out counter. She looked like a hippy, so I (mistakenly) assumed she’d be friendly. I was straightening out the front displays, so I had to walk around the middle bank of registers to get to my register in Aisle One.
I gestured to the check-out counter closest to the front door. “I can help you over here if you’re all set.”
The woman rolled her eyes, annoyed that she had to walk further to pay for her paper plates. She pushed her cart over to me, a scowl set firmly in her jaw. Only slightly miffed by her rudeness, I smiled at the woman and revised my first impression: she’s not a hippy at all, but a yuppie “slumming it” in a doo-rag on her day off. I, in my purple iParty t-shirt, am apparently beneath her.
“Did you find everything you were looking for?” I asked, still smiling.
She looked back at me like I was a spiteful spouse, taunting her with Round Two of an argument. She held my eyes but didn’t respond. She said nothing.
Now I was irritated.
“Your total today is $22.47.”
The woman sighed and raised an eyebrow. Were the plates too expensive? Was she bothered that she had to flip through her wallet for her credit card? Did my breath smell?
I took her Visa, slipped it through the computer, and snapped the receipt off before it stopped printing. I handed her her bag.
“And here’s your receipt,” I said. “Have a great day.”
She scowled at me one final time, took her purchases without any thanks or mutual well-wishes for my day, and stalked off through the front door, leaving her cart right in front of my register where it was blocking the next customer. Right there in front of me. It’s like when your dog craps on the carpet while looking you in the face.
When the other customers left, I stomped over to my shift manager, Tricia.
“No costume!” I said. “That’s why she was rude to me.”
Tricia looked up from her paperwork.
“This woman was totally just rude to me for no reason, and do you know why? It’s because I wasn’t wearing a costume!”
I knew my theory was right. I recounted to Tricia the yuppie/hippy woman’s scowls, her refusals to respond, and her crap-on-my-carpet final gesture of abandoning her cart in front of me, when the cart corral was only eight feet away.
“And do you know what?” I asked, not leaving Tricia time to answer. “That never happened to me once when I was in costume. Not once. I saw customers be rude to every single other cashier around me who wasn’t dressed up—even to Georgine” (who has the kindest grandmotherly demeanor and smile). “But no one was rude to me when I was dressed up. But now? I’m crap to them.”
“Jerks,” I added.
The good old days of being a giant chicken and the Cat in the Hat were gone. I was a lowly plebian again. Another cog in the service industry.
I finished out my shift halfheartedly, my ego slightly bruised, then turned in my purple t-shirt and nametag and punched out for the last time.
“You know,” I said later to a friend, still mulling over the woman’s rudeness, “I think we’d all be a lot nicer to each other if we walked around in costumes all the time. It’s like, who can be a jerk to a giant bunny?”
Many truths about human behavior elude me, but of this I am fairly certain.
Don your own costume and try it out. Go about your daily activities dressed as a hot dog or bumblebee, and just see how much levity you bring to the room, and how much kindness flows out from neighbors and strangers. Maybe it’s just a little dose of what we need during this tanking economy and the post-Christmas bleakness of winter.
And if you ever make your way to Salem and see a full-grown woman walking around as Super Woman when it’s not even Halloween, it just might be me. And you’ll probably see everyone around me laughing and smiling and sharing their nachos with strangers. Or finding homes for orphaned puppies. Or ending homelessness.
One can at least hope that a giant wiener could accomplish so much.