Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…. Or not really; it just seems like that. I know that oh-so-grownup girl-child that I was better than she knew herself, and her memories are mine, and immediate, and somehow ever so distant. But this only obliquely involves her; this story is about Helen.
Let me set the scene. The Five and Dime department store, in the middle of a slowly deteriorating city center, many moons ago. The surrounding blocks included middle-income shopping, along with places like the Five and Dime for the lower-income folks, many of whom came by after visiting a nearby shrine. The clerks were young adults without much ambition beyond a weekend night at the local club, middle aged supervisors content to coast towards retirement, and an ever-changing cadre of those taking a stop-gap job while looking for something better. Pay was weekly, in cash, given in little manila envelopes stamped on the outside and with hand-written notations on gross pay, withheld taxes, and net pay. Full time work at minimum wage came out to the princely rate of $71.01 per week, and that penny was most assuredly tucked into that little pay packet, available to fetch after 3 PM on Fridays.
The lowest level of that Five and Dime was mainly women’s clothing, of all types. A central cash register station had the newest of register types; it calculated the change if the cashier entered the amount tendered. This confused many customers – especially the elderly – who got very upset when their $3 purchase showed on the register as $7. We spent quite a bit of time calming them down, telling them that amount was their change. To this day I can calculate the change on a purchase faster than the cash register can do it; it was my amusement and intellectual challenge at the register, in what was to me the world’s Most Boring Job Ever.
One day, a new employee was introduced into this little departmental world. Her name was Helen, and she was an older lady – perhaps in her fifties – who came to us on a special program. Helen was mentally retarded, and was taking part in a new program, living in a halfway house. She would never be able to live on her own, managing rent and electric bills and grocery shopping and all the rest of life’s chores. But she was capable of doing some things, and she had a great desire to be useful and needed and wanted. Somehow she made it to our little corner of the Five and Dime.
Helen’s first tasks were to keep the displays of folded items neat. I worked with her, teaching her how to fold the various items to display them properly. Sizes had to be visible, any decorations were folded out to be seen readily, they had to fit on the tables; it’s rather remarkable how many facets go into a proper display of clothing for sale, even at the Five and Dime. It was slow and painstaking work to teach all these nuances to Helen. She concentrated so hard on explanations and demonstrations, and could follow along reasonably well. But it took many teaching sessions before she could re-fold a display on her own. We had many opportunities to fold. The devastation one elderly woman can do to a table in her desperate search for a size and color combination, cannot be overstated. Helen loved to talk to the customers, and help them find what they were looking for, in the size they needed. In her eyes, every one of them was a delight to spend time with and to help. Anyone who has ever worked in retail will know how untrue that is! Yet for Helen, it was true. She truly was delighted to meet them all, and never became frustrated or impatient at re-folding the same table for the fifth time before lunch.
As she slowly became more firm in her skills, she was given additional responsibility. Helen got the key to the dressing room, and the number tags. Three items were allowed in the dressing rooms, and she needed to count the items being taken in, give the proper number tag to the customer, and re-count the items when they were brought back out to ensure it was the same as the tag stated. This really was the limits of her abilities and she worked long and hard on bringing her skills up to the level required, and the rest of us (mainly me) back-stopped her for several weeks until she was confident (and we also were confident) that she could handle the job correctly. Once learned, she did an excellent job, and eventually even juggled the dressing room tasks with the continual folding tasks, without getting flustered (unless it was really busy, which was rare).
I have been blessed in my life with a quick mind and strong intellect, with ability, with ambition, and with many skills. By any standard measures, I come out “better” than Helen. Yet it does not seem so to me. Helen had an inherent sweetness and patience about her that I treasured, and she saw every (cranky, irascible, fussy, rude, and downright mean) customer as a wonderful and precious person with whom it was an utter delight to talk. Every day when she came to work she was able to take pride in her ability to navigate public transportation on her own. She knew that every day would challenge her to the very edge of her abilities, and bring her the chance to meet those challenges and succeed. Her world revolved around the most wonderful co-workers in the world (no, we were not; trust me on this one) and the small world of the lowest level sales floor was a gloriously happy and exciting environment. She loved everybody, and her Savior most of all. And I knew, back then in all my youthful pride and stubbornness, that never in my life would I be able to understand her daily experiences. Never would I work with the world’s nicest people, serve the kindest customers in the city, and be challenged every day to reach the limits of my abilities in my work.
At some level, I envied Helen the niche she found herself in. I hope she had many happy years working there at the Five and Dime (I moved on, going off to college after a year of working and saving money at $71.01 per week). And I am so deeply grateful for having been given the gift of seeing the world through Helen’s eyes, and learning from her as best I could, to see challenge instead of obstacle, and opportunity instead of irritation. I was never as good a student of hers in these important lessons as she was of my folding techniques.