Working at the mall can drain your brain

Like most people, I bargain with myself all the time.

Everything from what I'm eating to how much I'm spending to how many times I hit the snooze button in the morning is carefully balanced in a constantly shifting game of give and take.

A homemade cookie binge means extra time on the treadmill. Five dollars spent means three dollars saved. Hitting the snooze button four extra times means ... well, I'm late. But some bargains exist on a larger scale than others.

My most recent contract with my more pragmatic side allowed me to splurge on a new digital camera for photography class ... provided I find a job fast, and keep it (not that I really had a choice -- after I made the purchase, there would be no more loan money left to buy groceries).

So far, I've limited my movement on the career ladder to one direction -- upward. But after landing "the perfect job" this summer interning at The Bee, I knew this wouldn't be as easy as it's been in the past. So if I couldn't score better work here in my fancy new urban digs, I at least wanted something different.

So I started at the mall.

I spent my first week in Chicago applying for jobs on Michigan Avenue. I expected to compete in group interviews with droves of bubbly, gum-chewing teenagers, each trying to outshine the others and willing to cut throats to do so. But job hunting this time around was surprisingly easy. It was only a few days before I was actually fielding job offers, and I accepted the one with the most pay and the best discounts -- at a mall clothing store.

I was excited getting ready for work my first day. I was making out like a bandit, I thought; I'd just show up, smile a lot, fold some clothes and wait while the wallet in my pocket got thicker and thicker. I didn't even have to worry about creativity or intellect -- I could forget my brain back at my apartment and still perform brilliantly, as long as I remembered my fall fleece and wore seasonally appropriate footwear.

But I now fully understand that for all its material perks, retail work has its psychological consequences:

1. Constant public humiliation: When I work in the front of the store, it is my sole responsibility to meet each customer who walks through the door with a personalized greeting. Mine is "Hihowyadoin?" (with varying points of emphasis) and I am required under threat of termination to extend it to everyone who enters my sphere of permissible communication.

That's all fine by me, but the problem is that in my capacity as "greeter," people seem to think I don't really exist, despite the fact that I'm speaking directly to them. Each time I look someone dead in the eye and say, "Hihowyadoin," and that person completely ignores me and pretends I'm just Thomas the Friendly Robotic Mannequin, another unit of my self-worth melts into a glob of regret and self-consciousness.

My advice: When someone greets you at the mall, at least acknowledge their existence as a carbon-based life form. It won't hurt you, and it will make everyone feel better.

2. Professional life-ruiner: While terminable offenses seem to be hidden like land mines behind every rack of antique rustic wash denim, none is quite as heinous as not meeting the daily credit card quota. Each day, we as a team of employees are supposed to hook a certain number of unsuspecting strangers into a credit program with astronomical interest rates and piddling incentives that nonetheless seem more tempting than the forbidden apple itself. (As my managers say, "It's all about illusion.")

So it becomes my job to approach vulnerable customers, who may be shopping only to escape from their already unhappy lives, and try to con them into taking another small step toward self-destruction. I literally feel dirty doing it.

My advice: Don't open a credit card, no matter how appealing I'm paid to make it sound.

3. All bad music, all the time: My first day, I enjoyed the music the managers played in the store. By the third day, I had become slightly disenchanted with it. And by the end of my first week, I would have sacrificed an appendage if it meant I never had to hear Lilly Allen's voice again.

My advice: Don't turn your back on the retail associate -- he could be on the brink of a psycho meltdown.

4. Never awkward enough: Just when I thought my nerves couldn't withstand walking in on another unresponsive shopper behind a fitting-room door, it will happen again (it always happens again). Or someone will ask me what size I think they should try and I, being completely ignorant about women's clothes, will guess way too high (I guess a 26 means something different for women than it does for men). Even more uncomfortable is when men come into the fitting rooms with an armful of low-rise hip-hugger jeans and halter tops, look me dead in the eye and ask to try them on. (This has happened to me twice already, and while I can respect individual choice, it still always comes as a bit of a shock to the system).

My advice: Try to go easy on us, and please don't be offended if we don't know what to say when you ask if those jeans look good on you.

5. The brain drain: At the end of an eight-hour shift of all of this, I'll have been standing in virtually the same spot the entire time, straightening the same pair of jeans on display, staring at the same window across the hall. Between infrequent eventful swells, I find myself struggling in a deep, almost out-of-body kind of boredom that seems to push the boundaries of cognition. I almost feel like I've lost a bit more brain function for good each time I finally get to hang up my lanyard and head home.

My advice: When and if you think it's safe, carefully wipe the drool from the retail associate's mouth when he or she gets that vacant, glazed-over expression that usually indicates a vegetative state. I'm sure they'd thank you.

But like all the unpleasant parts of our lives, the workday does eventually draw to a euphoric close, and it's back to the good ol' wheel-and-deal once again.

Another long day at the mall means a nice long midday nap, punctuated by a few homemade cookies (and later, per my agreement, the treadmill) for good measure.

A deal is a deal, after all.

Davis High School graduate Thomas Pardee, a member of the Teens in the Newsroom journalism program, is a sophomore at Columbia College Chicago.