Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Boot

... and I don't mean, Das Boot.

Today marks the end of my second week at LL Bean's behemoth Return Center, where we "seasonals" learn  the finer points of refunds, exchanges, and dispositions. The latter is not, as you might imagine, a study of outdoorsy people's moods and character qualities. Rather, it describes what the heck you do with all the items from the Bean catalogue people send you when you have an almost No Questions Asked returns policy.

Though I'm still getting up to speed on the various computer--Windows, Ack!--systems and acronyms, known charmingly as Beanspeak, one thing is clear. If public schools fail because we don't do as the corporations do, I'll eat the next gnarly 27 year-old Bean boot that tumbles off the conveyor belt. 

With a dozen people in the newbie section of our class--those of us who have never worked in Returns--we have somewhere between three and five trainers, two will eventually be our supervisors. If public schools reproduce this corporate 12:3 student teacher ratio we would 12 times as many teachers. 

The trainers spend much of their time going over OSHA rules like how to exit the two-story, football field-sized building in an emergency. Sadly, some seem to want us to see OSHA as an onerous overseer rather than a lifesaving entity. In a long and tedious series of PowerPoints, no one mentions the context for these rules. I suggest the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, or say, the Bangladesh factory collapse this spring where over 1,100 people died. In fact, there seems almost an aversion to context.

Although we work in a giant Returns center, made necessary by the company's famous 100 percent guarantee, little mention is made of this anomaly. I wager that the returns center at comparably-sized companies pale in comparison. No one makes even an oblique observation about class or history until we discuss monograms. When a newly-minted high school grad in my class asks why the initial of a customer's last name goes in the middle of a monogram, the answer, instead of a history of monogramming, the trainer starts to give a non-answer like, That's the way it is, when your resident know-it-all pipes up. "It dates back to Greek and Roman times; then it became a mark of aristocracy." The teenager looked interested or at least polite; the trainer, not so much. Making friends every second, right?

The last time I went through this kind of training was in 1984 when, fresh out of NYU, I went to work for British Airways in NYC, as a reservationist. An avuncular, though tough, Welshman led us through three weeks of hard core computer and geography work. It was unsentimental, challenging, and extremely competitive. Ninety seconds of inattention could cost us our jobs. If, by the end of the first week, we didn't know 98 percent of the hundreds of cities BA served, we heard a polite "Cheerio." Good-bye to practically free flights to practically everywhere on earth. Good-bye to excellent union-supported benefits. Good-bye to a living wage in freaking New York City. Partly because we had been screened by an employment agency, and partly because the rewards beckoned, no one washed out. No one.

At the Boot, so far, the OSHA standards and several other skills, require only that we sign ourselves off. Students sign sheets of paper that say we have seen the documentation and can follow company policy, though we need prove that we understand neither the policies nor their origins. We sign not because we are confident that our skills have reached some measurable standard, but rather because we like and respect our "trainers," because we know that they know way, way, way more than we do about how to process the vast number and variety of items from the Bean catalog, and we understand that they too must get credit for providing us with this critical information. Though the real test comes "live" on the floor, we have at least three shots to demonstrate acceptable speed and accuracy.

What is mostly missing from the Bean scene is a sense of humor about the Bean brand. No one seems to find the uber-class-centric nature of the catalog ironic or even interesting. My friend Philip's friend Gail MacColl helped write "Items from our Catalogue" more than 30 years ago. Original copies of this terrific parody now sell for more than 60 dollars. I can't find our family copy and wish it were back in print so I could at least amuse myself.