Nonfiction > Upton Sinclair, ed. > The Cry for Justice

Upton Sinclair, ed. (1878–1968).
The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest.  1915.
A Department-Store Clerk
(From “The House of Bondage”)

By Reginald Wright Kauffman

(American novelist, born 1877)
KATIE FLANAGAN arrived at the Lennox department store every morning at a quarter to eight o’clock. She passed through the employees’ dark entrance, a unit in a horde of other workers, and registered the instant of her arrival on a time-machine that could in no wise be suborned to perjury. She hung up her wraps in a subterranean cloak-room, and, hurrying to the counter to which she was assigned, first helped in “laying out the stock,” and then stood behind her wares, exhibiting, cajoling, selling, until an hour before noon. At that time she was permitted to run away for exactly forty-five minutes for the glass of milk and two pieces of bread and jam that composed her luncheon. This repast disposed of, she returned to the counter and remained behind it, standing like a war-worn watcher on the ramparts of a beleaguered city, till the store closed at six, when there remained to her at least fifteen minutes more of work before her sales-book was balanced and the wares covered up for the night. There were times, indeed, when she did not leave the store until seven o’clock, but those times were caused rather by customers than by the management of the store, which could prevent new shoppers from entering the doors after six, but could hardly turn out those already inside.  1
  The automatic time-machine and a score of more annoying, and equally automatic, human beings kept watch upon all that she did. The former, in addition to the floor-walker in her section of the store, recorded her every going and coming, the latter reported every movement not prescribed by the regulations of the establishment; and the result upon Katie and her fellow-workers was much the result observable upon condemned assassins under the unwinking surveillance of the Death Watch.  2
  If Katie was late, she was fined ten cents for each offense. She was reprimanded if her portion of the counter was disordered after a mauling by careless customers. She was fined for all mistakes she made in the matter of prices and the additions on her salesbook; and she was fined if, having asked the floor-walker for three or five minutes to leave the floor in order to tidy her hair and hands, in constant need of attention through the rapidity of her work and the handling of her dyed wares, she exceeded her time limit by so much as a few seconds.  3
  There were no seats behind the counters, and Katie, whatever her physical condition, remained on her feet all day long, unless she could arrange for relief by a fellow-worker during that worker’s luncheon time. There was no place for rest save a damp, ill-lighted “Recreation Room” in the basement, furnished with a piano that nobody had time to play, magazines that nobody had time to read, and wicker chairs in which nobody had time to sit. All that one might do was to serve the whims and accept the scoldings of women customers who knew too ill, or too well, what they wanted to buy; keep a tight rein upon one’s indignation at strolling men who did not intend to buy anything that the shop advertised; be servilely smiling under the innuendoes of the high-collared floor-walkers, in order to escape their wrath; maintain a sharp outlook for the “spotters,” or paid spies of the establishment; thwart, if possible, those pretending customers who were scouts sent from other stores, and watch for shop-lifters on the one hand and the firm’s detectives on the other.  4
  “It ain’t a cinch, by no means”—thus ran the departing Cora Costigan’s advice to her successor—“but it ain’t nothin’ now to what it will be in the holidays. I’d rather be dead than work in the toy-department in December—I wonder if the kids guess how we that sells ’em hates the sight of their playthings?—and I’d rather be dead an’ damned than work in the accounting department. A girl friend of mine worked there last year,—only it was over to Malcare’s store—an’ didn’t get through her Christmas Eve work till two on Christmas morning, an’ she lived over on Staten Island. She overslept on the twenty-sixth, an’ they docked her a half-week’s pay.  5
  “An’ don’t never,” concluded Cora, “don’t never let ’em transfer you to the exchange department. The people that exchange things all belong in the psychopathic ward at Bellevue—them that don’t belong in Sing Sing. Half the goods they bring back have been used for days, an’ when the store ties a tag on a sent-on-approval opera cloak, the women wriggle the tag inside, an’ wear it to the theatre with a scarf draped over the string. Thank God, I’m goin’ to be married!”  6

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