I had a lot of jobs in a somewhat knockabout youth—waitress, clerk, temporary secretary, counter girl in a bakery (nice—no one’s ever sad in a bakery) and in a flower shop (hard—for hours I removed the thorns from the tough, gnarly roses we sold, which left my hands nicked and bloodied). All the jobs of my teens and early 20s were wonderful in the sense that I was lucky to have a job. Unskilled baby boomers were crowding into an ailing economy; they took what they could and did their best from there. I could earn a salary to buy what I needed—clothes, food, money to go to college at night, then during the day. But the jobs were most wonderful in that they contributed to the experience hoard we all keep in our heads.
The best was waitressing. That’s hard work too, eight or 10 hours on your feet, but you get to know the customers. People will tell you their life stories over coffee. There’s something personal, even intimate, in serving people food, and regulars would come in at 6 or 7 a.m. and in time you’d find you were appointments in each other’s lives. At the Holiday Inn on Route 3 in New Jersey, long-haul truckers on their way to New York would stop for breakfast. They hadn’t talked to anyone in hours. I’d pour coffee and they would start to talk about anything—the boss, the family, politics.
I learned from them what a TSA agent told me many years later: “Everyone’s carrying the same things.” I had asked the agent what she’d learned about people from years of opening people’s bags and seeing what was inside. She meant her answer literally: Everybody’s carrying the same change of clothes, the same toiletries. But at the moment she said it we both understood that she was speaking metaphorically too: Everyone’s carrying the same burdens, the same woes one way or another. We have more in common than we know.
Once when I was 18 my friends and I ran away. We pooled our cash, bought a broken-down car for $200 and aimlessly drove south. We wound up in Miami Beach, in what was then a fallen-down, beat-up area and is now probably a millionaire’s row. I worked at a restaurant whose name I remember as the Lincoln Lanes. Jackie Gleason did his TV show nearby, and the June Taylor dancers used to come in for lunch. They were so great—young and beautiful and full of tales about the show and about Jackie, who once drove by in his car. I thought of him when I first saw Chris Christie, years later. Mr. Christie on YouTube confronting an aggrieved constituent was sheer Gleason: “To the moon, Alice!”
The hardest job I had was working the floor at a women’s clothing store on Park Avenue in Rutherford, N.J. It was part of a chain. It was boring when traffic was light—clocks go slow in retail when no one’s there. There’s no stool to sit on during your shift: You’re working the floor so that’s where they want you, walking around, folding sweaters, rearranging hangers. You don’t have the same conversations with a harried woman trying on a skirt that you do with a tired trucker on his way to the city who decides to give you his philosophy of life.
One thing all these jobs had in common was something so common, so expected, that it was unremarked upon. You got holidays off. You were nonessential personnel. You worked at a place that didn’t have to be open, so it wasn’t. You got this gift, a day off, sometimes paid and sometimes not, but a break, an easement of responsibility.
I suppose the shops I worked at were unthinkingly following tradition. Thanksgiving, Christmas—these are days to be with friends and family and have a feast. Maybe if you pressed them they’d say something like: “This is what we do. We’re Americans. Thanksgiving is a holiday. We’re supposed to give thanks, together.” They’d never trespass on a national day of commonality, solidarity and respect.
You know where we’re going, because you’ve seen the news stories about the big retailers that decided to open on Thanksgiving evening, to cram a few extra hours in before the so-called Black Friday sales. About a million Wal-Mart workers had to be in by 5 p.m. for a 6 p.m. opening, so I guess they had to eat quickly with family, then bolt. Kmart opened on Thanksgiving too, along with Target, Sears, Best Buy and Macy’s, among others.
The conversation has tended to revolve around the question of whether it’s good for Americans to leave their gatherings to go buy things on Thanksgiving. In a societal sense, no—honor the day best you can and shop tomorrow. But that’s not even the question. At least shoppers were being given a choice. They could decide whether or not they wanted to leave and go somewhere else. But the workers who had to haul in to work the floor didn’t have a choice. They had been scheduled. They had jobs they want to keep.
It’s not right. The idea that Thanksgiving doesn’t demand special honor marks another erosion of tradition, of ceremony, of a national sense. And this country doesn’t really need more erosion in those areas, does it?
The rationale for the opening is that this year there are fewer shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and since big retailers make a lot of their profits during that time something must be done. I suppose something should. But blowing up Thanksgiving isn’t it.
There has been a nice backlash on the Internet, with petitions and Facebook posts. Some great retailers refused to be part of what this newspaper called Thanksgiving Madness. Nordstrom did not open on Thanksgiving, nor did T.J. Maxx, Costco or Dillard’s. P.C. Richard & Son took out full-page ads protesting. The CEO was quoted last week saying Thanksgiving is “a truly American holiday” and “asking people to be running out to shop, we feel is disrespectful.” Ace Hardware said, simply: “Some things are more important than money.”
That is the sound of excellent Americans.
People deserve a day off if what they do is nonessential. Selling a toy, a jacket, even a rose is nonessential.
Black Friday—that creepy sales bacchanal in which the lost, the lonely, the stupid and the compulsive line up before midnight Friday to crash through the doors, trampling children and frightening clerks along the way—is bad enough, enough of a blight on the holiday.
But Thanksgiving itself? It is the day the Pilgrims invented to thank God to live in such a place as this, the day Abe Lincoln formally put aside as a national time of gratitude for the sheer fact of our continuance. It’s more important than anyone’s bottom line. That’s a hopelessly corny thing to say, isn’t it? Too bad. It’s true.
Oh, I hope people didn’t go. I hope when the numbers come in it was a big flop.
I hope America stayed home.
And happy Thanksgiving to our beloved country, the great and fabled nation that is still, this day, the hope of the world.