I am working at a discount wedding-dress retailer in a strip mall in Chester County, Pennsylvania, a place located right on the border between the working-class world of Delco, where I live—the land of hoodies and plain black slacks, of Silver Linings Playbooks and Tina Fey satires—and the upper-class world of Chesco, where M. Night Shyamalan shares a country address with DuPonts.
I am 28. I am newly married.
The recession has not yet resurged; we are still at low tide. My neighborhood is sprinkled with For Sale signs. We have been living there for a year, my now-husband and I. Before we moved, I worked as a newspaper reporter. Now I go on interview after interview for entry-level PR positions, competing against all the recent graduates of Philadelphia's 40 or so colleges and universities, 10,000 un- and underemployed twenty-somethings. In the meantime, I stitch together a string of part-time and freelance and seasonal work into something that passes for an income.
I am hired for 20 hours a week.
Sometimes I open the store, and sometimes I close. Occasionally I am the first to arrive. Without a key, I sit in the lot below the curved red letters of the store's sign, the "I" dotted with a heart. A small crowd of customers—two or three—gathers outside, waiting for the store to open, peering through the plate-glass windows at the fairy-tale forms, the white trains cascading down hidden stepped blocks, like waterfalls.
I straighten the dresses on their racks. I vacuum the gray-carpeted floor. [End Page 59] I think, This is okay. I think, One day I will write a series of essays on all the shitty jobs I've had. The job dodging Philadelphia traffic delivering catered lunches to pharmaceutical meetings. The job selling admissions to a tiny arboretum. The one-day temp job admitting conference members to a golf club. And I will write about this one, selling discount wedding dresses to budget brides.
The staff wear blazers and nice shoes. We look professional. We make minimum wage, $7.25 an hour, and commissions if we can sell above a certain dollar amount of merchandise each week. Our hours, too, are determined by the amount of upselling we do. Can we affix our name to the extra bridesmaid dress, the mother-of-the-bride two-piece suit? Can we sell a tiara with our $200 princess A-line gown? Can we add a sash to the Grecian empire-waisted shift?
We sell off the racks. Racks and racks of white gowns that sell for $200 to $1,200, split by designer and then by style and then by size, each gown sheathed in a protective clear bag of plastic that hangs to the floor.
It is one year since the viral video of a bridal party dancing down the aisle to Chris Brown's "Forever," a song that plays at least once a day on the store playlist, as does Taylor Swift's "You Belong with Me." On tabloid covers only a few months past, Rihanna's face was a purple constellation of bruises.
When a bride comes in, we accompany her to the dressing room, help to enclose her in the heavy white fabric of each dress. We zip up backs, spread out trains. It is a time-consuming process. A bride can try on only four or five dresses during each hour-and-a-half appointment. Our employee manual tells us how to build a personal relationship with her in those few minutes in the dressing room, before she unveils each new look to her friends and sisters and mother, waiting in a row of chairs below the dais on which sit the dressing rooms and their mirrored outer walls. The manual tells us to ask about her wedding. How did she meet the groom? What are her hopes and dreams?
I have doubts. For one, I am reluctant to push extra merchandise on the budget-conscious brides who shop here, of which I was one only a few months ago. When...