Around this time last year, I was still working in retail. It was still cold, and I could get away with some layers, which apparently is the only way I know how to dress.
I got angry with a customer (though, of course, only on the inside) because she took one look at me, decided I was too dim to understand what she was looking for, and spoke to me slowly, to make sure I grasped every single syllable present in the word “vest.” It makes me angry thinking about how many people presume to be smarter than people who don’t look like them, when they already have the advantage of knowing more than one language.
Around this time last year, I also went to a gallery in West London for an interview for a residency. I didn’t get it, got the sinking feeling in the middle of it that it wasn’t going super well, but getting that interview made me feel like I maybe could. These days — and I understand it’s perhaps due to the precarity of everything, though maybe because I’m just not cut out for stuff — I feel lucky to even be called back for an interview. Sometimes, even a rejection email (especially when they’re well-written and nice) is better than the alternative: nothing at all.
I don’t know if I’ve officially shared where I used to work on here. I was a sales advisor at COS, at the Regent Street branch, which turned out to be the global flagship. I didn’t know this at the time, but I quickly found out soon after. Foot traffic every day was insane. The product pushed on the daily, even more so.
Because Regent Street is basically flocked by tourists who have money to burn and, presumably, no COS stores where they lived, it wasn’t a surprise to see hundreds of British pounds worth of clothes leave with just the one customer. I became a master at folding, working the stockroom, managing the cash register, sizing and spacing, and smiling at customers even though I couldn’t feel anything except how numb I felt. Retail is hard, laborious work. It’s doubly hard when you’re expected to be nice to everybody. It’s borderline unreasonable when you don’t even get the London Living Wage.
It triggered my anxiety disorder a lot. Whenever I was stationed at “A” which is the front of the room, I’d stand by the wide post towards the back of the section, mime the action of tidying up, just so I could have a few seconds to myself. I’ve willed myself not to cry in the middle of a shift. I’d explained my situation to several managers. Some were sympathetic and understood. Others gave less of a shit, and although at the time, it drove me to quit unceremoniously (both to take care of my mental health and to focus on my final dissertation), I do understand why they reacted the way they did. In the end, a job is a job is a job. Because everything is driven by sales and performance, you cut away what’s not working out. I get it, I know this. But, still, I left because I was told one thing by a “nice” manager and made to feel like shit by another one, for the same thing. I’m sorry about being vague, but it’s not a very interesting story.
Because I could only work two full shifts (16 hours/week) on my visa, I didn’t really bond as much with my co-workers. I’m still in touch with a few of them, and I genuinely would have liked to have hung out with some of them. But the way I left feels like there is no room for me to do so. It is what it is. It’s weird to see how much has changed since then.
I’m unemployed (self-employed?) right now, but trying. It’s hard to keep trying in the middle of a pandemic. But I can’t do nothing. The idea of nobody wanting you or seeing your value takes a little bit out of you every day, every rejection. It’s hard to explain to people why I feel like I need to be here, to prove something here, where I am nobody, when I have been working on and being fairly successful with my work and practice back home. It makes no logical sense, but I know that some people understand. Saying things like “I need to do this for me” is so lame and flimsy, but at this point, I feel like it’s the only true thing I know.
I do know that I want to keep making things. And that I hope these things make people happy or think about something meaningful in their lives or make them want to make things, too. It’s so discouraging to feel like the world I have to move in is a game, and I don’t know how to play it. Or that how I’ve been playing it is wrong and won’t lead to a win. I’m not too tired yet to try, though, and maybe that counts for something.