I recently wrote about one job I had in 1993, waiting tables at a restaurant/night club. I had many other jobs that year, though. I started the year working at Younkers, a department store in downtown Sheboygan. Socially, it was a pretty fun job. My best friend and roommate at the time worked there with me, and we made a handful of new friends there, too. I have never been a very fashionable person, but J was. He had that gay man’s touch when it came to clothes and hair. He could make rags seem trendy, and I became fully reliant on him to maintain a “look” after we became roommates, though I had never had a “look” before. When I had to start my shift earlier than his, or work when he had a day off, I woke him up in the morning so he could do my hair. He was such a good sport about it.
I still can’t do anything with my hair – every time I get my haircut, I walk out looking how I want to look, and every time, I go home and take a shower because I hate having itchy hair around my collar, and I am hopelessly unable to recreate whatever my hairstylist has done with just a few waves of her fingers through my short hair a half an hour earlier. The accompanying picture gives you an idea of what J used to do – remember that it was the early 90s, and we liked to think of ourselves as “alternative.” Not goth, not punk, nothing so specific – just alternative and definitely NOT mainstream. That was the thing to avoid. I am fairly confident there is little chance anyone would recognize this photo as me. As I said, the only time I had a “look” was when I had someone to put it together for me.
Younkers had an old-fashioned lunch counter. When I worked there, I could order a chicken sandwich pretty cheaply with my discount. I ordered a chicken sandwich with cheese every time I ate there – with mashed potatoes and gravy, of course. Even today, I have this puzzling tendency to eat the exact same thing day after day for lunch, but when dinner time rolls around, I’m rarely content with the options available to me in the kitchen. My current lunch streak consists of a turkey sandwich with a slice of swiss cheese on potato bread. I bring potato chips so I can put them inside the sandwich just before I eat it. I get an unusual amount of satisfaction from the crunch of potato chips inside the sandwich. I also bring a pear or a nectarine or some other kind of fruit. I bet you are picking up on the potato trend in my life. I blame it on my great-grandfather, who is rumored to have reached America as a stowaway on a ship carrying potatoes, which were all he had to eat on the way from Romania.
It was actually sort of an odd family affair to work at Younkers. My mom worked there part-time behind the jewelry counter for a while. My great-uncle also worked there. He was an interior decorator and spent some of his time selling expensive furniture to the handful of wealthy families in the area. He is also the only other gay person in my family that I know of, and the first time I ran into him at the local gay bar in Sheboygan, he was so thrilled he bought my friends and me drinks all night long. Even my great-grandmother worked at the store years earlier, before it was called Younkers. She sold fancy hats and china.
Younkers used to be called Prange’s back then. It was a well-loved local store because it was part of a regional chain that began in Sheboygan in the late 1800’s. The local store remained intact for just over 100 years before it was bought by Younkers. I remember going to Prange’s as a kid to visit Bruce the Spruce – a talking Christmas tree alternative to visiting Santa Claus at the mall. I was probably as scared of Bruce the Spruce as I would have been frightened by a strange Santa Claus, but as I re-imagine the past, I think Bruce was more welcoming.
There were plenty of negatives about working in retail, though, such as aching feet at the end of a day, utter boredom from wandering around the department and refolding every piece of clothing a customer picked up then tossed like a wet towel onto a table, and constantly reordering all the hanging clothes by size. I did leave the industry with fairly particular ways of folding clothes, though. My partner often marvels at my ability to quickly fold a shirt with the arms tucked in back and the front perfectly displayed, all without the use of a table or other surface. Such important things I learned in the jobs of my younger years.