Dust up at The Emporium

Front of the Emporium on Market Street at San Francisco in 1976/Barney Peterson

My days at the department store weren’t the most memorable, but a friend I knew briefly stands out, and the job had its moments.

Who knows who makes these personnel decisions. Some genius at store management had the brilliant idea of assigning me, at first, to women’s shoes.

It didn’t take long to realize that women, at least the ones who shopped at our store, were enormously interested in the shoes they bought, wore, and sometimes returned.

Returns on shoes. That was my job. Take them and take what came with them.

Want to learn about life? Learn about women’s shoe returns. For example, if a woman returned her shoes because “the color wasn’t right for my outfit,” it meant her significant other had a fit over the price tag.

They had a sticky, little return policy at The Emporium, where I toiled, a San Francisco Market Street icon from 1896 to 1995, when it gave way to a Macy’s and ultimately an extension of Westfield San Francisco Center.

They took all returns, no questions asked. In principle, anyway. The fact was returns negated sales profits and in women’s shoes, at least, were to be avoided at all cost.

That led to a bit of a conundrum. We had to be polite and ultimately, like a Donald Trump, fake negotiate through smoke and mirrors before giving in to the customer’s wishes. We also truly, truly did not want to take those hated bottom line-killing godawful shoe returns.

It boiled down to a North Korean or Trump sham border wall Mexican stand-off. Women returning the shoes desperately wanted their money back. Just as desperately, the junior executive from hell tried to parry that thrust.

“There’s nothing wrong with the shoes,” I’d say. “Color looks good, doesn’t even make that much difference anyway.”

Wrong answer. One particularly outraged old lady chased me around the department prodding me with the tip of her umbrella until I reluctantly recanted.

As fun as that experience was, not; the powers that were came up with an even more interesting proposition for the young junior executive who knew nothing, something simpler, yet no less elegant.

Small electrical appliances. It was considered the Outer Siberia of all department store assignments.

I went directly from the latest in women’s fashion to something more enduring: Electric juicers, toasters, irons. Soon found out I could relate much better to small appliances at their own level than to department store management at its.

My assignment morphed immediately into spending all day, every day, at the store’s giant warehouse, across the alleyway, later turned inside out into a Burlington Coat Factory.

Good times.

Basically, I performed triage giant pallets of small electrical appliances returned for various reasons at the entire Emporium chain spanning California and the West Coast.

Some appliances were fine and could be returned for re-sale. Others could be sent for minor repairs. Appliances that didn’t work and showed no promise would be sent back to manufacturers for final disposition.

Days consisted of eyeballing, testing and filling out paperwork related to the seemingly endless disassembly line of small electrical problem children.

And yes, confession time, more than a few reliably working or otherwise interesting objects not-so-mysteriously walked out the store with the properly credentialed junior executive.

As for girlfriends and others with the good fortune to attract my Oprah Winfrey-like affection: You get a juicer! You get a toaster! You get a deep fryer! You get a Cuisinart!

Somehow, however, believe it or not, that was not enough to grab my closest attention at the warehouse. A late 60-something Brit named Geoff did that.

Warehouse workers were unionized and fairly adamant about taking breaks when specified by arbitration agreement. Fine by me. Despite my nominal status as junior supervisor, I was all about appliances, not mankind.

Then came syzygy

A nice scrabble word perhaps, an astronomical term revolving around the moon’s position with the sun, syzygy’s secondary meaning is “a pair of connected or corresponding things.”

That single word changed my entire perspective about the warehouse world if not the world of interconnected small electrical appliances.

Geoff uttered it to me one random day as I wandered by the second floor bathroom where he smoked a cigarette on break, incidentally quite verboten but who was I to care.

Syzygy. How do you spell that, he asked. I know now, but didn’t know then. Mystery word solved, I threw out some dusty Turkish I knew from graduate school, Kapalıçarşında.

Geoff didn’t miss a beat. Ah, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, he said, been there several times actually, old chap.

A friendship was born.

Old Emporium warehouse at 899 Howard St. in its later transformation as a Burlington Coat Factory/File photo

Actually, Geoff was a very diligent worker when he wasn’t sneaking in cigarettes at the bathroom for break. We initially maintained a professional relationship during work in that I spent my time with my only other friends, the appliances and he did the work of several men on the other floors.

Every break, however, we hung at the bathroom. After a while, too, Geoff got me to sign him out to “help” with my department and then we’d spend many Scaramuccis together shooting the breeze and discussing what turned out to be his alluring, if to be believed, past.

Geoff said he had been a colonel in British Intelligence with assignments fighting in World War II, then against insurgencies in Malaya and Kenya with a side war in Korea. He ran a denazification camp. He traveled the world.

Having become tired of being “a hired killer,” he retired from the military with no basic skills aside from that of being a hired killer. A Californian he met promised him a job if he came over to the states.

Geoff made it to san Francisco only to find his friend had quit his employment and had no job to offer for his friend not mention himself. With no particular place to go, Geoff stayed at Baghdad by the Bay and found unsuitable employment, warehouseman for the Emporium. He said it was the only job he could find given his lack of a civilian skill set.

It paid the bills and being an eclectic, and interesting sort, Geoff apparently made a slew of locally social connections. He’d fill me in on his social exploits, classy girlfriends and jaunts through town and along the coast between his old war stories. He’d show off a new solid gold cigarette lighter a friend gave him, regale me with tales of drunk models diving naked into party pools.

Frankly, I started to live quite vicariously through this otherwise nondescript British warehouseman’s fabulous after-hours lifestyle.

Who knew?

Sometimes we shared incredible adventures. One that stood out came courtesy of a book sale gone stale. Geoff came running over one day with breaking news. Several carts of books turned up in the warehouse courtesy of a store literary adventure turned ugly.

Store management was unable to return the books to vendors for some arcane reason and decided to destroy the books. These weren’t shlock efforts either, but very nice works by the likes of W.H. Auden, Mark Twain and even Kierkegaard. Guess store management had misread its literary audience.

We triaged the great books much like we did the appliances, saving what we could before one day the carts went missing. Fahrenheit 451 in real life, I suppose.

Likewise, our relationship ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

My efficiency and diligence in clearing out the dozens upon dozens of small electrical appliance carts worked against my better self-interest. I cleared out the suckers, alright, every last one of them.

Despite my best efforts to hide that fact of warehouse life, the department’s très chic junior buyer finally took a break from her wonderful world of fashionable appointments to check out the busted merchandise.

Turn out the lights, the party was over.

When she saw what I had done, she immediately reported back to home base and I was done. The powers that were transferred me to women’s jewelry, a department in which I had zero interest and even less competency.

So, it went.

One day out of curiosity, I wandered over to the warehouse to see about Geoff. Lo, and behold, no Geoff to be found. Another warehouseman said he taken gravely ill and would not be returning to work anytime soon, if at all.

All she wrote, folks.

I left the “glamorous” department store life for a job at The Clear Lake Daily Citizen in the shadow of the Johnson Space Center. They were desperate for a reporter who could write and a friend from Rice working at a rival paper struck the match that led to my becoming an ink-stained wretch who later would go with the flow into digital journalism.

Which is where the twain has finally met, Geoff of The Emporium and we of the online journalism story set.

Peace out.

Smashed electrical appliances and dreams/File

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