In my twenties I worked in a sporting goods place literally bigger than a football field. Inside its cool walls you could try out a racket, club or bat in the cages. You could step into the tents we sold, test drive a bike, lift weights, or play pool. ESPN played on two jumbo screens up front, before widescreens were even a thing. One night, two guys walked through bug-eyed, taking it all in for the first time. As I passed, one said, "Dang! Y'all served beer, we'd have a REAL good time!"
Yeah, it was like that.
But even better than the goods were the people. Like my assistant store manager Pam. She was over clothes and shoes and I was her lead sales of clothing, a position I only got because she taught me. She'd been store manager at The Gap, had formal training in retail, and had a great eye for merchandising. She made merchandising the best part of the job. It's kind of like home staging, but for a store.
You want people to make multiple purchases so you group items as strategically as you can - by color, brand, price, or maybe type (shirts with shirts, hats with hats). It's technical, but also creative since the display has to be appealing enough to draw people to it in the first place.
Maybe you try a display one way, but you don't have enough of something to make it work. You keep working until it "makes sense." Until you have that right balance between "hey that's cool" and "take my money." It was art, and was changing the way I saw everything.
I went home and realized my closets didn't make sense. My life goals didn't make sense. Even some of my friends got remerchandized. All because of Pam. She taught me how to deal with irate customers (keep smiling) and how to make a schedule for a department. What she didn't tell me was how to do all that without her.
Pam got fired. On a technicality. By a store manager who didn't like her personally. Of course, you can't fire someone for that and her work was pristine. He had to wait until she did something small. Like leave a money bag on top of the safe instead of inside it, within a secure room behind two locked doors. There was no money in the bag. It was a procedural error. Her "offense" was so crazy that on subsequent job interviews, no one believed her. You couldn't get fired for that. But she did.
And to this day, I remember the exact moment I was told. The store manager came up to me breathless, like he'd just chased down a shoplifter and delivered the line, "Pam's no longer with the company." He kept talking, telling me I could take the afternoon off if I needed it, knowing I would. As he spoke, I was focused on his face, crushed by the glee he could not conceal, yet touched by the empathy he somehow lent my loss. He was glad to have her gone but wanted me to stay.
He'd done a lot for me. Taught me the corporate side of retail and got me considering it as a possible career. This is what a career would be like, right? People would come and go. I'd have to deal with it. But this loss was huge. And there was something about that moment that nagged me like a Gore-tex running suit hanging next to cheap velour.
It didn't make sense.
Soon enough, Pam began managing a kids' clothing store at the mall. I had no practical reason to follow her but there was an opening and my loyalties were torn. On paper, I should stay. I had good pay, a title, and the possibility to advance at a store that was a block from my place. The mall was 30 minutes away, and a demotion. But it felt right.
There were rumblings at the store that maybe the reason the boss didn't like Pam was because she was a woman, specifically an African-American woman. The official story had holes and speculation rushed to fill them. Pam would have none of it. She didn't challenge her firing. With kids to feed and no time for nonsense, she moved on. And made a place for me there.
I didn't know God back then, but came as close to praying as I ever had. One morning in bed I was still wrestling with what to do. I kept going back to that moment of impact, those eyes sparkling over a shallow victory, the vanquishing of a perceived enemy. A single mom of two made to regroup and go through a humiliating hiring process. Elisabeth Elliot calls wrestling like that "delayed obedience." I didn't have her vocabulary yet. I just knew I was supposed to leave. As soon as I made the decision, something like cool water rushed through my whole body. The knots in my stomach disappeared and I became completely alert, yet calm. Later I would learn that was peace, God's peace, a physical confirmation that you're doing what's best, not what's best for you.
Even with peace, it was tough to leave. The manager had been a genuine friend to me and I loved my job. But I went on to learn the culture of mall clothing. There's no creative merchandising at the mall. Everything's mapped out at corporate, even the soundtrack, which I loved. I remember two songs in that rotation. One was a mix that sampled lines from old kids' shows, like The Flinstones, The Jetsons, and Flipper. I wish I knew who did it -- if you do, tell me.
The other was a Stevie Wonder song I'd never heard called "Yesterme, Yesteryou, Yesterday." The more I listened, the more I realized the lyrics were giving words to my pain. I didn't know how to talk about injustice or grace back then. I just knew I'd witnessed something powerful watching Pam move through that firing. And this song about looking back on a loss somehow gave me distance from mine. The song assured me that in time, I could look back and it would all be healed. Even if it never made sense.
Do you have a song that brings one person to mind? Leave it in the comments below. Here's mine: