The first confession of a Christmas elf:
I’m a bicycle mechanic. I’ve always been a bicycle mechanic. When I was seven years old, I got a new Huffy bicycle for Christmas, but it was still in a big rectangular box. We lived in an apartment above the old Mill Creek Inn between Greenport and Southold. There was no one around who knew how to build bicycles, so I found a pair of vice grips and a screwdriver and put the darn thing together myself.
Pieces of the bike flew off as I raced around and around through Southold Shores, dodging neighbor kids with their new transformers and big wheels and pogo sticks, flying through mud puddles, some of which were laced with $10 bills, which you could use when you rode your new bike up the Main Road to the IGA to buy cherry soda, or down the Main Road to Drosso’s for mini golf and hamburgers and ice cream cones.
When I was a surly teenager, I started wandering into bike shops professing my prowess with a wrench. I got a big “buzz off kid” wherever I went. It wasn’t until I was nearly 20 that the first bike shop hired me, and then I realized why I’d been told to buzz off all those years. Boy bike mechanics just don’t like to work with girls. It messes with their rhythm. Or something.
I’ve been a bicycle mechanic about half of the adult Christmases of my life. Whether in the bowels of a bike shop or in the back rooms at Toys ‘R Us, there’s just nothing like the feeling of tightening up all the bolts all the way and building something safe for kids to ride around on on Christmas Day. If you ever saw an adult elf gleefully pedaling a 16-inch Barbie bike through the Riverhead Toys ‘R Us at Christmas time, well, I apologize, but that was me.
Now I know what a lot of you are thinking. How on earth could a halfway educated nitwit work in a big box store, helping to further cripple the crumbling downtowns of America? My answer used to be pretty simple. I just thought it was downright fun.
This Christmas, I’m back in the workshop in an undisclosed back shop of a sporting goods store somewhere along Route 58. I spend my days turning wrenches, humming carols, waxing snowboards and answering sweet questions from anxious parents who want to do right by their kids.
My second day on the job, the storeroom manager came back to my workshop to tell me that she just thought it was pretty damn cool that there was a girl bicycle mechanic in the house. In all the years I’d worked in small town bike shops, I’ve never thought of my gender as anything but a drawback in the workplace. In corporate America, it seems, it’s suddenly a plus. I’ve gotta admit, that one little comment changed my thinking about a whole bunch of things.
Back there turning wrenches, you get to meet a lot of the stock room crew and the folks out on the sales floor. A lot of people I used to know in my former life as a journalist seemed to think of people who work in big box stores as a necessary underclass, people who might be good for a one-sentence sound bite or background color for a story about Black Friday sales. That’s just the way the media is.
I didn’t really get what was going on until halfway through Black Friday, all of us dragging from lack of sleep, half of the staff still in the store from 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. One of the managers had a crock pot of chili stewing in the break room, and there were pep talks and rallies in every department as we tried to survive through one big sale day. There was no backbiting or hard feelings. We were one team, pulling together, to make it through the day. Even some of the customers got into the game, wishing us good luck and urging us all to sleep well that night.
After work, I wandered into Best Buy and then Target and the Home Depot and Waldbaums with my work shirt on and my name tag pinned to its pocket. Seemed everywhere I went, it was the royal treatment for little old bicycle mechanic elf me. We were all cashiers and sales clerks, stockroom workers and bathroom cleaners, and we exchanged knowing glances and closing time details, tales of tie collections and glove racks ransacked by children, and we were all glad no one at Walmart died on Black Friday this year.
We all know our limits and we know what it will take to make each of us blow our top and walk out on the job without ever looking back. And we are all prepared to take that step, if necessary. I don’t know how much we all earn in a year, but I’m willing to bet it’s usually far less than $30,000. And we’re feeding our families on that kind of money. It can be done, even on Long Island, even if the newspaper reporters tell you that it just ain’t so. But it’s not exactly fun.
We also know other, simpler things, things I still remember from my first job at the A&P in Mattituck. When the sun is low and you’re working the front end on the opening shift in any store on the north side of the Main Road or Route 58, the light is so blinding that you can’t even see your register. And squinting, they say, makes you pretty darn angry.
One morning last week, I was chatting with one of the cashiers as we waited for the first customers of the day. Squinting in the morning sun, we got to talking about the Amazon warehouse in Pennsylvania where two years ago, during a heat wave, Amazon stationed ambulances outside the warehouse to treat heat stroke victims rather than air condition the building.
“If I had a job like that, I would quit,” she told me.
So, I guess, in this country we call America, despite the lousy economy, it’s not just consumers who vote with their feet. Workers do too. And so do the kids I know who are graduating from Riverhead High School this year. They’re all abuzz because the starting salary at the new Costco up the street is $11.50 an hour. If they’re not psyched about that, they’re thinking hard about the benefits of the United Food and Commercial Workers union at Waldbaums.
College? Yeah, that’s a nice idea. But that piece of paper doesn’t mean anything unless you know how to work. And elves, well, that’s just what we do. But we’re hoping you won’t ever see what goes into our elven magic when there’s no one around but us.
Have a Merry Christmas, all of you. If you don’t believe in Santa, please take the time to believe in the workers of the world, who brought you this year’s good cheer.