Saturday, June 27, 2009

Why I Wear an Apron

I wear an apron at work. I'm not required to, you understand. When I started at the bookstore where I now work, we wore lanyards that simply said "staff" or something like that. I honestly don't quite remember. There was some controversy when it was decided that one's actual name needed to be on the tag. Again, I may be misremembering this, but as I recall, a few folks felt the possibility of being too immediately identifiable as anything other than an employee was, well, dangerous. I have known retail employees who have been, if not stalked, certainly harassed by name, so I understood the hesitation. To my knowledge, no one has suffered anything as dire as all that since the name tags went on. When I worked stocking shelves and processing returns to publishers, it was not my name on the tag, but the damned lanyard that drove me crazy; catching on everything, whipping around my shoulder when I walked, trapping my name tag in every stack of books I carried... Generally, the only staff at this store who regularly wear aprons tend to work off the floor, in receiving, for example. But I've worn an apron at every store in which I've worked where they were provided. I like wearing an apron.

Doing used books, the chances of getting my clothes dirty are high. I am constantly amazed that otherwise perfectly nice, tidy people seem to have not the slightest embarrassment about bringing in bags all but rotted with damp, and still redolent of rotted groceries, boxes full of spiders and or those huge plastic storage bins -- always a very bad sign for the Used Books buying staff as good can almost never come from a bin -- crammed with the filthiest junk, and not in a fun way, either. For some, it seems, books are not objects worthy of the veneration some of us, most of us, feel. For some seemingly respectable people, their books deserve no more care than their kids smelly gym shoes, old newspapers or a defective garden-hose. A year or so ago, a woman brought in boxes of children's books and when the first box was opened, so many fleas leaped out as to seem a cloud of summer gnats. The strong odor of cat piss is not uncommon. Interestingly, the nice homeless fellow who regularly rescues books to sell us is invariably fastidious about the condition of the books he takes from dumpsters. It's obviously that he has carefully cleaned all of them before he tries to sell. By way of contrast, there are sellers who will ask for assistance getting the moldy, stained remains of dead books out of the trunks of their Mercedes. These last are the same people, by the way, who are always convinced they are being taken advantage of if offered a dollar for their one salable book. There are ways and there are ways to be besmirched by sellers. My apron can at least keep my shirt clean.

Wearing an apron also means always, or almost always, having a pen and pencil on me, having note-paper in the pocket, and a bone-folder for flattening the edge of a mylar book-cover. The big pockets on my apron allow me to never be without the means of pricing a book. Those pockets also mean I need never be without a convenient means of hiding the other half of my chocolate bar should someone pop up suddenly at the desk, as they do. (I don't think I've ever finished a candy bar without lint on it in all the years I've worked in bookstores.) My Irish great grandmother wore an apron every day of her adult life. According to family legend, when anyone came to the door, she dropped her pipe in the pocket. Don't know that she fooled anyone or that she didn't simply add to the confusion by sitting on the porch, chatting with the Methodist minister, while her lap smoked, but I understand the attempt at discretion.

Finally, my apron, being emblazoned with the store's name and logo, and being a bright purple, makes me, I should think, pretty immediately recognizable as an employee of the bookstore. This has allowed me to abandon the hated lanyard entirely.

Few of my coworkers on the sales floor would ever think to wear an apron. My example has not been imitated. That I wear it even out of the store, walking to the drugstore up the block, or when I step out to smoke a cigarette, seems to be considered very embarrassing indeed, though my fellow bookseller's have stopped flagging me down before I step into the street in my apron. I haven't the least self-consciousness about it. So I obviously work in the bookstore just behind me or down the block, what of it? Proud to do. Vanity is not among my sins anymore if it ever was. I yam what I yam, as Popeye used to say.

Just the other day, standing on the sidewalk, in my apron, enjoying a cigarette, I was accosted by a little gang of adolescents, begging cigarettes. These were not homeless waifs, mind, but thoroughly middle class brats; sporting iphones and expensive shoes and ridiculously large and complicated handbags. When I refused some puppy a cigarette, one of her friends, as they passed on, turned and sarcastically said:

"I want to work there just so I can wear that apron."

For once, my reply came in time, and through a cloud of delicious smoke I said:

"And I want to be 14 again, just so I can wear too much eye-makeup and be snotty to my elders in the street."

This almost never happens, of course, to any of us, but for once I had the satisfaction of shutting a teenager up.

It seems, besides the usual pencils and erasers, I had my wits about me, in my apron.


  1. "Just the other day, standing on the sidewalk, in my apron, enjoying a cigarette," You don't enjoy your cigarette, you only think you do as you're satisfying a chemical craving.

  2. Fair enough. But then, you only think you're being kind, pointing this out.