Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Bag Lady

© Linda Goodman, August 2013

 I was not doing what I wanted to be doing on July 4, 1975. I wanted to be sipping wine at the cookout that my boyfriend had invited me to attend.  Instead, I was working. 

July 4th is a big sales day for retail establishments, and the Portsmouth, Virginia furniture store that employed me, was no exception.  At 9:00 a.m., I and five of my co-workers stood at the front of the store, waiting to service the hoard of furniture shoppers who were sure to be coming through our doors soon.  We worked on the “up” system. Before the store had opened, we had drawn numbers from a basket. The sales person who drew number 1 would attend to the first customer who came through the door; the one who drew number 2 would attend to the second, and so on.  I drew number 4.

Sales persons one and two greeted customers almost immediately.  About ten minutes elapsed before customer number 3, a tired looking woman, walked through the door. This woman looked like someone who had been hit by hard times. She was wearing a ratty winter coat (even though the temperature was in the nineties), flip-flops, and a wide-brimmed straw hat. In her right hand she held a large brown paper grocery bag.

“Do I have to help her?” asked the salesman who had drawn number 3. “She’s a bag lady, for Christ’s sake!”

The store owner, Mr. S, scrutinized the woman before replying, “She’s probably come in to take advantage of our air conditioning.  Just ignore her. She’ll leave soon enough.”

She did not leave, and while I waited for customer number 4, she looked back at us repeatedly.

“Don’t you think someone should at least say hello?” I inquired.

“If you talk to her, she’ll never leave,”  Mr. S answered. “She’ll monopolize your time and you won’t make any sales.”

I knew he was probably right, but I looked back and her, and she was staring at me. The puzzled look in her eyes was clearly saying ‘why won’t you help me?’

She reminded me of my mother. Even after my father had gotten a job that paid well, my mother refused to buy new clothes.  “We never know how long the job will last,” she reasoned. “I aim to save as much money as I can for that rainy day that’s sure to come.” I used to wonder why the clerks in the stores where we shopped sometimes ignored her. Now I knew the reason.

I could not look away from this bag lady’s eyes. “I’m going to go speak to her,” I told Mr. S.

“Go ahead,” he sighed. “but don’t blame me when everyone else racks up big sales today and you end up with nothing.”

I nodded and walked over to the woman. “Hi,” I greeted her. “How can I help you today?”

“I’m looking for a new living room suite, a new dining room suite, and a new bedroom suite.” She asserted. “I just got a new apartment.”

“Very well,” I responded, “come with me and I will show you what we have.”

After walking through the living room section three times she finally stopped to ask questions about a royal blue velvet sectional that cost $999.99. She wanted to know what made that sofa worth that much money. I was well-versed on the strengths of that particular suite, so I quickly explained them to her.  She nodded, accepting my explanation.

“And those tables,” she asked, pointing to the set of 3 chrome and glass tables that accessorized the suite, “what makes them worth $300.00?

“They’re tempered glass,” I enlightened her. “They’re four to six times the strength of regular glass, and If the glass breaks it shatters into round pieces that can’t cut anyone. “ She did not seem impressed, so I added, “These tables are so strong you can stand on them.”

“I’m looking for tables that lamps can stand on; not people,” she informed me. She pointed to a set of wooden tables across the room. “I’ll take those,” she said.

By this time, I had been with the woman for forty-five minutes.  Meanwhile, sales persons 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 were closing multiple sales. I silently berated myself to not listening to Mr. S. He had been in this business a lot longer than me.  His was the wise voice of experience.

After similarly scrutinizing the dining room furniture, she selected a chrome and glass dining room table (“I might actually want to stand on that sometime,” she shared with me.) with 6 leather chairs. She took over two hours to select a bedroom suite, a French provincial set made of fruitwood. At $1,549.99, it was the most expensive suite we carried. I invited her to join me at my desk, but she insisted she needed to choose lamps for her new living room and bedroom suites first.

After another hour had passed, she was satisfied that she had everything she wanted. As I pulled a chair up to my desk for her, I glanced at Mr. S. He was shaking his head.  I knew exactly what he was thinking, “I told you so!” I did not relish the thought of the scorching lecture that would soon be coming my way; not to mention the beating I would be giving myself for offering to help this woman.

I took a blank contract from my desk drawer and began to fill it out. She supplied me with her name, address, and phone number (clearly, she was making this stuff up!), but hesitated when I asked for her Social Security number. “What do you need that for,” she wanted to know.

“I need your Social Security number to get your credit approved,” I insisted (like I actually thought she could get approved).

“I’m not buying this on credit!” she thundered. “I’m paying cash.”

Mr. S, standing behind me, actually giggled, prompting snickers from the rest of the sales staff.

I ignored them.  They could be dealt with later. I needed to get rid of this woman before she ruined my sales for the rest of the day.

“Very well,” I said in my most business-like voice, “your total with sales tax comes to $3,795.96. Since you are paying cash, I won’t charge you for delivery. I’ll write up your receipt while you go get the money.”

“I don’t need to go get the money,” she smiled. “I got it with me.”

She proceeded to open up that brown paper grocery bag that was in her right hand. After removing several layers of newspaper, she started lifting banded packs of one-hundred dollar bills and placing them on my desk. “There’s $3,800. You owe me $4.04 change,” she announced.

I wrote up a delivery slip and sent it back to our warehouse. Mr. S. was speechless, as the sales staff gasped in disbelief. I could hardly believe it myself. This had to be a dream!

But it was not a dream. I escorted her to the front door, and as I opened the door for her, I advised, “You ought to put that money in a bank account. It’s not safe to walk around this city with that kind of cash in a paper grocery bag.”

A sly smile spread across her face. “Don’t you worry about me,” she reassured me. “Everybody thinks I’m a bag lady.”

Author’s Note:  A year later, when I was promoted sales manager of the store, I used this story to train my sales staff not to judge customers by their appearance.  The really cool thing about this is that there were still sales staff members who had been present and witnessed my experience with this woman. When doubters scoffed, these staff members verified the truth of the story. “We know it’s true,” they insisted. “We were there!”

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Suzi Whaples Live in Jonesborough

CD Review

Written and performed by Suzi Whaples.  $15.00, plus shipping and handling, from Suzi’s website:

Reviewed by Linda Goodman

            As a native of Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, I truly enjoyed Suzi Whaples’ authenticity on this CD. A true Appalachian accent is hard to find these days, and as I listened to these original stories I felt as though I had been whisked back into my childhood to one of those big family reunions where my relatives strived hard to “out-story” one another.

            Speaking in her mama’s voice, Suzi begins telling I Hear Something, a story about vampires and other monsters that introduces us to a cast of eccentric characters, including the affable Dr. Slaughter, Boyd Polly (a connoisseur of fine grain), and hex specialist Elsie Mundy. Along the way, she dispenses homespun wisdom (“When you get old, everything either gets plugged up or leaks.”) and a dissertation on the history of werewolves.

            Chicken Man shares the story of the monster that terrified the holler where Mama grew up. A love story of sorts, this story blends humor and suspense to create a unique tale of growing up in the mountains.          

            Papa Can’t Read is a touching story about a man who fears losing his family’s respect and the sensitive daughter who discovers his secret and helps him get past his fears. AMAZING!

            I had to listen to The Thong twice because I was laughing so hard, I did not hear the whole thing the first time. Words change their meanings over time, and this story about a generational misunderstanding of a word is hilarious.

            Suzi’s adopted granddaughter is the star of Lydia, a sweet story that will put a smile on any grandparent’s face.

            Rarely do I hear such fine sound on a live recording. Doug Dorschug, the Technical Producer, and Brandon Ferguson, who edited the stories, did their jobs well.

This is a CD that should be played after one of those stress-filled days that we all dread, yet find so common. Laughter really is the best medicine for this ailment, and this CD is a super-sized prescription for just that!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Thoughts on the 2013 NSN Conference

Finances have been tight since our move from Virginia to North Carolina, prompting me to buy only the Performance Package for the 2013 National Storytelling Network (NSN) Conference -  themed “ Story: Seed of Creativity.” I missed the wonderful workshops, but there were performances of all kinds sprinkled throughout the schedule, so I still managed to have a delightful time.
Brief summaries of performances I attended:

Denise Bennett’s fringe, “The Heart’s True Scale” was gripping, heartfelt, and downright hilarious. I have seen this show grow from a seed to a glorious flower. Every time I see it, I find something new to admire.

The four story showcases featured tellers galore from all experience levels. All of the stories were well-told. The one I am best remembering is Miriam Nadel’s tale of her experience on the television game show “Jeopardy.” I just started watching this show a month ago, and I enjoyed hearing about the hoops one must jump through to be a contestant.  I am also remembering Fred Powers, who authentically portrayed a coal miner caught in a life-threatening experience. Gary Lloyd’s clever ode to chocolate tweaked my appetite for sweet treats. Arianna Ross broke my heart with her story of a woman living in a Bosnian refugee camp.

Diane Edgecomb and Margot Chamberlain once again wowed the audience with their brilliance and synchronicity in their Fringe “New Age Gawain and the Green Knight.” I never tire of seeing these two women perform together. Margot’s harp flows perfectly with Diane’s every move. Imagine the hours of practice it must take to work so well together!  Look for Diane at the 2013 National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, where she will be featured as a new voice.

Bernadette Nason’s fringe, “Tea in Tripoli,” follows the journey of a na├»ve young English Woman who takes a contract job to work for a year in Tripoli. Little does she know the complex and dangerous life that awaits her there.  I felt as though I were going through the experience with her.

The All Regions Story Slam – “Create,” hosted by the always witty and always captivating Kim Weitkamp was a hoot! Congratulations to winners Yvonne Healey (3rd place), Lynn Ruehlmann (2nd place), and Elzora Dennison Trimmer (1st place). Judges Sheila Arnold, Adam Booth, and Leeny Del Seamonds had a tough job, as there were many stories worthy of prizes. I enjoyed getting to hear my old friend Jim Harriman of Connecticut spin a yarn at the slam.

The members meeting revealed a board that has been hard at work to make NSN relevant, motivating, and financially sound. We learned that three cities are being considered to be NSN’s new home: Kansas City, MO (which has already made a nice offer), Pittsburgh, Pa, and Chicago, IL.  Board Chairman Alton Chung announced that next year’s conference will be held in July in Phoenix, AZ.

The closing ceremony featured the incomparable Latin Ballet of Virginia, dancing “The Legend of the Sleeping Princess.” This performance left me speechless! The colorful costumes, the grace and skill of the dancers (how do they make it look so effortless?), and the spellbound audience combined to create an unforgettable world where fantasy and music were braided together to hold us under their spell.

The NSN Oracle Awards saw many storytellers being rewarded for their years of service to the storytelling community. Lifetime Achievement Awards were presented to  Elizabeth Ellis, Syd Lieberman, and Diane Wolkstein  (posthumously). Lynette Ford, Andy Offutt Irwin, Angel Lloyd, Kevin Locke, Olga Loya, and Patricia Coffie received  Circle of Excellence Awards. Judy Sima received an award for Distinguished National Service. Regional Awards were given to Ellouise Schoettler, Jim Dieckmann, Judith Heineman, Alden (Joe) Doolittle, Karen Ferris Morgan, and MyLinda Butterworth. Congratulations to all!

Of course, being in the company of friends that I do not get to see often is the best part of the festival for me. Leeny Del  Seamonds, storyteller extraordinaire, was my roommate and was delightful company. I got to have meals with pals from all over the country. I even made a few new friends! I was sorry to leave Richmond, but I am already looking for to next year in Phoenix.