I’ve been helping out at the heavy equipment rental store in town while the owner is in the hospital in Boston with a broken neck and his wife is there visiting him.
It sounded so easy when I offered to stand behind the counter from 8 to 5, answer the phone, and ring up sales. But it has been an extremely humbling experience.
I am not comfortable being a beginner at anything, being visibly clueless. In this job I have felt as if I were trapped in an episode of I Love Lucy, with myself starring as the foolish redhead.
When my friend D, the long-time mechanic, was there, I was nervous but OK. The phone would ring with a question, I’d ask him for the answer, I’d relay the information, and the call would be successfully concluded. However D was usually out delivering machines to neighboring towns.
The phone rang. “I want to rent the Ditch Witch for tomorrow.”
I looked at the rental sheet. Nothing said “Ditch Witch.” Oh dear.
“I’m sorry, may I take your information and call you back in half an hour?”
Ring. “Do you rent a brace for bending sheet metal?”
Ring. “Can I pick up banker’s scaffolding this morning?”
Ring. “Where is my floor sander that was supposed to be delivered at nine?”
Ring. “There is steam coming out of the forty-five-foot man lift. What should I do?”
Ring. Question after question, and most of them I couldn’t answer. I’ve looked at snakes with more warmth than I regarded that telephone.
Meanwhile men (it was usually men) would be walking in the doors. I grew to hate the sound of another truck pulling in.
“I need a 12-inch metal cut-off blade.”
“I need some chain and bar oil.”
“I need a round file and an eight-inch storm collar.”
At first my eyes would dilate with panic. None of these things were kept up front in the shop, but in the repair area in the back — essentially a large featureless warehouse. However soon I had abandoned all pride and dignity. “I’m so sorry, but you have a fool waiting on you today. I have no idea what that is, or where it is kept. Come help me look.”
The men would laugh at me, but I’m used to men laughing at me. Together we’d rummage through the shelves.
Then I would be stuck with the problem that no prices were marked. “I’m so sorry, but I’m going to have to write up a ticket for you and have you come back in to pay when the owner is back.”
The worst was when three or four men would come in, one after another, and I would be parroting these apologies over and over in their hearing as they all stood at the counter waiting their turn. However eventually I was so accustomed to appearing like an idiot that I hardly flushed any more, or got upset when the second phone line began to ring while I was answering the first and I accidentally hung up on both calls — or even when I realized I did not know how to open the cash register.
D knew I was in over my head. Several times I called his cell phone. He was driving but would ring back eventually.
“A man wants to rent a Ditch Witch?”
“Another guy wants banker’s scaffolding?”
“Baker’s. In the back shed.” And so on.
I did improve. D returned and showed me where the price sheets were kept and how to open the register. Chip came in and demonstrated how to run a credit card. Still, by five o’clock each day I was dead on my feet.
Retail. It’s not for sissies.