POSTCARD FROM DEERFIELD, ILL.: Bedding Down for the Summer

DEERFIELD, Ill.—Summers in deepest suburbia are not known for thrill-a-minute excitement, but mine is beginning to border on the absurd.

Case in point: in my friends’ eyes, the most salient aspect of my personality is now my sales prowess at the local housewares chain where I work. “This is Tom,” said one friend as she introduced me to her roommate. “Ask him to pretend he’s selling you sheets.”

Okay, so perhaps “absurd” is a bit harsh. That particular situation turned out just fine; my new acquaintance oohed and aahed as I discussed thread count, laughed as I dismissed cotton-polyester blends and smiled politely as I explained the constitution of a Sateen weave. I can only imagine how much she appreciated my candor about the beauty of lavender jacquard. And as for the job itself, it neither promises nor delivers the slightest bit of glamour, but it sure beats the great majority of ways I could be spending my summer.

In fact, my job also co-opts several of these possibilities. I often feel like a bedding salesman-cum-Wal-Mart greeter, as my employer believes strongly in greeting every customer who crosses an employee’s path. This is a wonderful policy, and most customers appreciate the gesture, though it’s a surprisingly difficult one to follow properly. First, there is the eternal question of what constitutes acceptable greeting range. I believe the official policy is a 10-foot radius, but its working definition is dependent upon a number of transient conditions—time of day, mood, the proximity of one’s lunch break, etc. The range must be large enough to comply with policy, and yet small enough to avoid confusing the customer. If the customer cannot immediately identify a nearby employee as the source of the greeting, he or she is left to worry that he or she has unwittingly ignored a friend, neighbor, or other well-wisher. Then, the customer usually spins around, peering behind pillars and free-standing display shelves in a last-ditch effort not to appear rude. I can pass countless hours imagining the scene that would result if I were to casually say “Hi, how are you?” over the store loudspeaker, setting every single customer into ballet-like motion.

On the other side of the warm welcome, the employee’s greatest fear is accidentally greeting the same customer twice. This is a perfectly understandable occurrence, especially on busier days. But while most customers are very patient with employee lapses, the double-greet usually results in an unsettling stare. This stare is more quizzical than disdainful, but it still strikes fear into the heart of even the most intrepid sales associate. Does courtesy, however redundant, warrant an apology? Would a rapid retreat into the camouflage of the throw-pillow racks be an act of cowardice, or one of judicious modesty? The implications are staggering.

Yet such perilous “busier days” come more and more often during the summer, as the overnight-camp and dorm-room markets constitute our equivalent of the Christmas retail season. It’s not difficult to imagine myself as one of the young men sifting through racks of twin-extra-long sheets; I distinctly remember taking it as a good omen that my sheet pattern bore the name “Harvard.” Now, aside from the “Cambridge” quilt pattern, omens of any kind are few and far between in the bedding department.

In their absence, the most fascinating part of the job is the new perspective it affords on a time so fresh in my memory. In the adventure and trauma of preparing for college, something as simple as a sheet pattern can seem to take on extraordinary importance. And in a sense, that impulse is right on target. Going to bed every night is one of the great constants in our lives; especially at an early age, it is also a great source of comfort. Outfitting a completely foreign bed, especially one five confounding inches longer than a regular twin-size, represents more than simple redecoration. It is a microcosm of the larger changes at hand, and in the heat of the moment, the choice among solids, stripes, and patterns looms disproportionately large.

The healthiest way to deal with most major transitions, though, is acceptance, and that’s exactly how I’m approaching my temporary shift from mild-mannered undergrad to bedding-retail superhero. The chain store in question has a Boston-area outlet, which I plan to visit come September. I might even take along my nametag and surreptitiously assist a few customers, if only for the sheer novelty of it all. And if you ask me to pretend to sell you sheets, I’ll certainly oblige. I hear it’s a great way to make new friends.

Thomas J. Clarke ’04, a Crimson editor, is a French and Francophone Studies concentrator in Winthrop House. When he isn’t working, he passes the time criticizing his friends’ taste in bedding ensembles.