Still half asleepand partially shut-eyed, I stumble into work at a corporate coffee chain company— a little locally owned place called Starbucks—more than two hours before the sun rises. I am dressed to company specifications and immediately begin my opening tasks of putting food in the display cases and assisting the fellow opener by brewing coffee and teas. Regardless of how tired I am, when the doors open 45 minutes later and the day's first customers come in, the customer sees me as a ball of pep, excited about serving them their first jolt of caffeine. As much as I would love to be a morning grump and sluggishly reflect how most normal people are in the morning, I kind of have to uphold the company's mission statement and go beyond customers' expectations. Aside from a crackhead-lined alley, this is the only place you will see someone so chipper at 5:30 a.m.
I see a wide range of characters in a day's work—superrich white people, homeless alcoholics, cops, fishermen, punk-rock kids, religious types, aspiring rappers, soccer moms, senior citizens, cell phone–yapping yuppies (hang it up!). I expect to see the usual cast of freaks on any given day: Bunion Rocker who carts around a wheelchair and listens to a portable radio, the tattooed Purple Man, the Coffee Cake Motorcycle Dude, Mocha Methhead (normally when she's coming down), the Sandwich Ladies, Double Cup Breve Broad, etc. Because we have so many regulars, I know exactly what they're going to drink. The regulars are usually impressed with my memory—some even expect me to know what they're having. Starbucks has programmed me like I'm a fucking robot.
It's a fairly enjoyable job most of the time, but this time of year is the worst. It's Christmas. People are pushy and rushed for time. Their demands are higher—more questions, more drinks, more gift cards, more stocking stuffers, more, more, more!
To top it off, we have to hear Christmas music all fucking day long, mainly run-of- the-mill Christmas standards you hear on Warm 106.9 and yuletide originals by contemporary singer-songwriters. On the Holiday Grind CD, I hear multiple versions of the same songs by different artists repeating themselves endlessly. Ray Charles, Bing Crosby, Lou Rawls, and the Temptations each sing their renditions of "Little Drummer Boy," one of the most annoying Christmas songs ever. I hear that at least once an hour. "My Favorite Things," sung by Tony Bennett, is my least favorite thing. And what the hell is figgy pudding? This is quite possibly the worst lot of Christmas songs I've heard in the six-some-odd Christmases I've worked in retail and customer service.
I got my first retail job at a corporate mall-based skate and snowboard shop when I was 17. I understood what I was getting myself into and somewhat had a grasp on what came with the territory of working retail at Christmastime. When I walked in the day after Thanksgiving, I heard a familiar tune, but something was different. Christmas music set to punk rock? Huh?! My boss broke the news that we were supposed to listen to the compilation CD of punky Christmas songs the company made for all the stores. Well, at least it wasn't Kenny G.
It wasn't so bad at first. I was a newbie in retail, and Christmas music wasn't yet a dreadful thing. It came with fond memories of opening presents with my family and listening to Mannheim Steamroller, Vince Guaraldi, and all the classics on the stereo. But as soon as I began hearing punk and rock renditions of timeless classics—"Joy to the World," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Winter Wonderland"—and a few originals, on repeat, for up to eight hours a day, and humming them away from work, things began to change. I was slowly morphing from a cheery, holiday-spirited retail worker into a very spiteful scrooge.
Granted, retail has its perks—it pays decent wages, it's a clean work environment, and we get sweet discounts. I stuck with it through college, and pulled a few more Christmases working retail at a corporate electronics/music/movie store and a corporate bookseller. The stuff I heard at those places was pretty cheesy—the Brian Setzer Orchestra, the Chipmunks, Harry Connick Jr., and sappy smooth-jazz crap that made Kenny G. sound like Coltrane—but I guess a punk-rock Christmas song is pretty cheesy, too. (Whatever happened to punk's anticapitalistic ideals?) All in all, it grated on my nerves every day. Although I survived four more Christmas seasons in retail, all the spirit was gone. Christmas music, traditional or contemporary, was dead to me.
This Christmas season, I have found myself back in the retail vortex. Thankfully, I'm not working in a mall or a large department store. Been there, done that.
Everything was golden at work, however, until two weeks before Thanksgiving, when the store transformed itself from a neighborhood coffeehouse into a freaking Hallmark holiday. People gawked at the red, white, and green displays, saying it wasn't even Thanksgiving yet. One guy even sarcastically wished us happy holidays in mid-November. I knew Christmas was coming—the music, the gift cards, the eggnog lattes. I just didn't expect it to come so early. The day after Thanksgiving, I walked in and heard it: Dean Martin singing "Winter Wonderland," Elvis Presley singing "Blue Christmas," Burl Ives singing "A Holly Jolly Christmas." Oh crap. Christmastime is officially here.
It's been three weeks since that day. My entire discontent over Christmas music has resurfaced. To make matters worse, we're selling Christmas music in the store. When people inquire about Sarah McLachlan's new Christmas album, Wintersong, I do my best not to respond cynically. Seriously, if I have to hear her cover of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" one more time, I'm going to buy myself a gun and shoot up any Christmas decorations in sight, just to make a point. Happy Xmas, Motherfuckers! The War Is Not Over! I used to love Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," but even Jesus Christ has to be sick of hearing it by now.