Online Edition 04.12.06

Pilgrims | by Andrea Avery

Work | by Aaron Belz

Music Man | by Daniel Durchholz

St. Pete's | by Franklin Jennings

Left Bank | by Brandyn Jones

The Training Ground | Tony Renner

Shoe Jail | by Stefene Russell

Work is a Four Letter Word | by Brett Underwood

Print Edition   

Shoe Factory | by Andrea Avery

All Eyes: The Mansion Hotel | by Thomas Crone

Why We Never Leave South City | by Julie Dill

The Man Who Ran Corn for Mister Otha Turner | by Chris King

How I Became a Zackaroo | by Brian H. Marston

On Being Mr. Bibbs | by Michaela McGinn

Six Things About Barges You May Not Know | by Butler Miller

Businesses and Buildings | by Dana Smith

When The Honest World Has Passed Away | by Stefene Russell

My Road | by Tom Weber


Shoe Jail | by Stefene Russell

 Yes, I have owned ridiculous shoes. That includes a pair of wicker platform flip-flops and a pair of black witch boots so pointy I lost feeling in my toes when I wore them. And I have owned ridiculous amounts of shoes, too, so many pairs that I shoved them under the bed or placed them on top of bookcases, and some never saw a day of wear. But I'm not a shoe girl. Most days my feet are in Scrubby Dutch loafers, preferably vinyl, preferably under twenty bucks.

So I shouldn’t be well-versed in the science behind squeaking shoes. I shouldn't know that squeaking occurs when the shank, that piece of metal that runs down the length of the sole, has split in half. I shouldn't have received vocational training on how to match shoes and handbags. I shouldn't have ever found myself ripping open a manila envelopes stuffed full of used insoles.

But I became desperate and spent six months working as an email customer service representative for a local footwear company, a place I came to call "Shoe Jail." My brain is still marbled through with factoids about shoes and feet and the care of nubuck leather. Like I said, I'm not a shoe girl; the only skill I can really list on my resume with any confidence is typing and writing sentences. But the shoe company felt these skills were sufficient for what they wanted me to do, that is, answer a lot of email. They called me after I'd spent a year starving on unemployment checks and failing to procure even the simplest $6-an-hour temp gig. I'd forgotten about the resume I'd sent them, because they were only one employer among the million or so I'd solicited as part of the weekly quota required by Missouri’s Division of Employment Services.

The pay wasn't bad. The actual job—answering email all day—wasn't so bad, either. But the idea of being a customer service definitely was (that’s what studying literature will do to you). My stomach was grumbling, I was washing my socks in the bathtub, and our car, a '72 Mercury Monarch, had finally worn through the brake pads down the drums; I'm sure I left a comet trail of sparks every time I applied the brakes. But it took me three days to force myself to call the shoe company back and accept the job. Staring into a pantry with nothing in it but a family-sized box of generic oatmeal and a family-sized box of generic powdered milk, I realized I didn't have a choice.

Once I said yes, I decided I was going to do a good job. I wanted to be humble and happy and approach it with a positive attitude, like the women I worked with—and they were all women, except for the elderly guy working the switchboard. There was a tidiness about the way the office was run that appealed to me, too, from the expansive database that contained every answer to any question that anyone had ever asked by email, to the leviathan filing cabinet full of completed mail-in orders organized not only by last name, but month, year and probably shoe size. Rachel and Emily, the other two email associates, happened to be people I would have chosen to hang out with even if I hadn't been crammed into a tiny room with them answering email all day. Rachel chose not to have a car on principle, had graduated with a fine arts degree, and had a talent for drawing and painting, but felt too conflicted about her art to pursue it actively. Emily was one of those sunshiny bohemian types, a neo-flower child, the kind of person you describe as "nice" without meaning "sap." They were happy to see me; the workload had been impossible, they said. And Emily had been working every weekend for the past three months, a situation that would be remedied now that the email triumverate was complete.

My shift was from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., a rough change from Unemployment Savings Time. The first day, I was so tired I made my way to the company cafeteria as soon as possible to buy a 48-ounce soda, but it was not soon enough. I placed a monstrous Styrofoam cup on the far left of the tray, which tipped it sideways and sent a bucket’s worth of soda flying into the air to splatter everyone within 10 feet of me, including a call center floor manager, who'd only come upstairs to give me a ticket for my congratulatory first-day free lunch.

The first week was spent, strangely enough, training on the phone system. This was because, they said, I’d have to help out on the phones in emergencies. Whatever reservations I had about answering email for a living were quickly erased; I realized it could be much, much worse. I sat at the desk of a very sweet woman named LaVerne (I accidentally spilled a Coke on her, too) who gave me an extra headset and coached me through phone calls. Though LaVerne had been here for more than five years, she still had to flip though a binder the size of a phone book to answer a lot of the questions. I spent most of the week panicking, completely lost, blinking as LaVerne looked up the appropriate page in her binder and pointed to it so that I could provide the correct answer to the customer. The ordering system seemed to have a bottomless number of screens and froze up at inopportune moments; as soon as I thought I’d caught on, I’d discover some new caveat that would have LaVerne furiously shaking her head and flipping through her binder. At least when I was answering email I had time to think, without some lady from Baton Rouge screaming at me about how steep our shipping charges were, even though she'd just blown more on shoes than I made in a month. And, most importantly, we didn't have to look at the scoreboard in the little email room. In the call center, directly over the door, there was a giant LED screen that tracked how many calls there were, how long people had waited, and how long everyone was taking on their respective calls. It was adjustable, so depending on how the floor manager was feeling that day, it could be tweaked to bleat when five customers were hanging on the line, or only two or three. I felt grateful when they let me go back to my cubicle and the burgeoning inbox that never seemed entirely empty.

As the weeks went on, I began to hear murmurs about the dreaded "catalog drop." Every few months, a new catalog would be mailed out, complete with a special discount code near the address label. And so hundreds of shoe-crazy women, most with lots of money yet always grubbing for discounts, would begin to call. And call. And call. My first catalog drop was about a month after I’d started, at which point I'd just reached a state of equilibrium, crafting each of my little emails into a work of art, even if I was just instructing someone on where to find oxfords with plastic shanks that wouldn't set off the metal detectors in the airport. Rachel had gently suggested from the beginning that I use the form letters in the database, because they were proofed and the information was always correct (we got docked for every error and misspelling). But I'd decided that it was worth the risk, because the only thing that made the job interesting was trying to decide on the tone and approach of each email to best connect with whoever was on the other side of the screen.

That was a luxury that would quickly evaporate after the catalog finally, actually and truly dropped. I came in on Monday to see the board blinking and bleating and flashing like a Vegas marqee, and realized my languishing headphones would languish no more.

Hello, this is so-and-so, how can I help you today? I am afraid I can't do that for you. Your total is blah, blah, blah. Let me read that address and credit card number back you, ma'am, just to make sure I have it correct. I'm sorry, we no longer have that in a size 13. I understand why you find that unacceptable. Certainly you can speak to my manager. I'll transfer you right over...

After three weeks of spending four hours answering calls and then trying to cram eight hours’ worth of email into the remaining hours of my shift, I began to realize that emergencies were more common around here than I’d first thought. In fact, it appeared that there were a greater number of days that required emergency phone backup on my part than not; and the reason why the email associates were required to work on weekends was because many of these phone emergencies occurred on Saturdays and Sundays. Emily, Rachel and I had figured out how to spread out the weekend shifts evenly between us, but this meant one of us was always working eight days straight. After one Saturday where I answered 500 emails and answered phones too, I went home, filled a plastic bag full of ice and plunged my arm into it. As the ice melted, I realized how stupid I’d been to think I could answer these emails from scratch—and numbers aside, how I could sustain that inspiration after actually talking to these people on the phone. "How do you know I can't send these back?" one woman screamed at me. "You're just some entry-level loser who never went to college anyway!" I wanted to tell her well, no, actually that wasn't so. And that she reminded me a lot of a bitch I knew. But there was never any point; no one would have listened, except for the supervisors who tapped into calls and pulled you aside to counsel you at any hint of poor customer service etiquette (including a lack of "phone smile.")

I began to understand the necessity of the form letter database; if you don't give them anything human to grab on to, they can't attack you. Polite but cold, that was the best approach. Rachel was annoyed by most of the people who called up, too, but always managed to sound gracious. Emily somehow kept her good humor, for real, through some amazingly abusive phone calls. I decided that surliness was a necessary accessory here, as necessary as well-shined shoes (as silly as it sounds, people did raise their eyebrows at those who dared to show up with badly-groomed feet or crappy shoes). It didn't matter if you were naturally intelligent and good-natured. It didn't matter if you were pretty, like the former stripper who worked out on the floor who'd decided getting yelled at by shoe addicts was better than some dude grabbing at her T&A every night. You could be some radiant soul, one of that Bal Shem Tov, or a genius, or an adventurer who'd navigated a hot-air balloon across the Alps. No one cared. They just wanted their shoes. And they wanted a warm body to yell at, especially when that pair of shoes showed up and it didn't look anything like it did on the website, and anyway, there was a pebble rattling around inside the heel.

Though my charitable attitude towards customers began to sag as soon as I’d lived through a catalog drop, it wasn’t getting yelled at that finally destroyed my ability to conjure “phone smile”. At least once a week, some lady would email pictures of her mangled feet, usually with an anecdote about how she'd worn our shoes out of the store and then found her feet completely chewed up, forcing her to take them off, endure the humiliation of walking barefoot through the mall and then cross a burning-hot parking lot while shoeless. Other people reported that their gel insoles had exploded, or had spent a week with blue or red dyed feet after wearing our shoes out in the rain. Not only was I causing myself to suffer, but I was facilitating suffering all over the world. Not just in American suburbs, where embarrassed housewives pulled thick, opaque socks over their purple feet in the middle of August, but in the Chinese factories where young girls made pennies on the dollar to glue shoes together; and inside shoe jail itself, where I worked alongside single moms and women with cancer who came to work to be verbally abused for eight hours a day because they needed the health benefits or needed to work nights so they could pick up and drop off their kids from school or like me, just couldn’t find a job anywhere else.

I quit a month after it became known that a call center we’d outsourced to—one that employed a hundred people, as opposed to our fifty—was closing, and that we would be handling all of their calls. Now the odd week or two devoid of "emergencies" would evaporate, I knew. Actually, we were down to forty-eight: one girl had applied for a marketing job upstairs, and got it. Another was found dead on her bathroom floor after slipping in the shower and hitting her head. Bush declared war on Iraq, and I didn’t dare tell anyone but Rachel that I opposed it. Everyone else was wearing cloisonné flag pins on their collars or commenting that it was about time we bombed those fucking ragheads. My only solace during the day was hiding in the Monarch during my lunch hour to read Roque Dalton, though his fiery Socialist poetry did nothing to make me feel better about my job. The weather was warming up; the dogwoods and magnolias were blossoming, and I was inside a room without windows, where the only topic of conversation was feet and shoes.

I decided to quit on Independence Day, as my future husband and I drove through rural Missouri, watching showers of fireworks sparkle down on little towns between St. Louis and Washington, Missouri. The day before, we’d been in the City Museum, and I’d peered into the cobwebby interior of the long-empty fortune-teller's trailer in Beatnik Bob’s Café. It suddenly seemed like a great idea to wrap my head in a batik scarf and deal Tarot cards for a few bucks a reading. I stood up and sat down six or seven times before I mustered the courage to do it, with Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ playing in my head. I knew it was stupid; I would lose my health insurance, the luxury of pouring milk out of a paper carton rather than stir it up like KoolAid. But sometimes, I said to myself, my face all hot and my stomach sick, you just have to put on your shoes and go.


Stefene Russell was born in Salt Lake City, but will never leave St. Louis. She is working on a cycle of St. Louis poems that do not include any cameos of the Arch, though there are plenty of ghosts, attics, moss, rocks, cars and bricks.