(The Job That Almost Broke Me)
I was so excited when I started my courses to become a wine sommelier. I had literally changed career paths and wanted immediate wine retail experience! So I did what I feel anyone would have done. I looked online for wine jobs available in my area. This local franchise wine shop (which will only be called the ‘wine shop’ throughout this series) kept popping up with availabilities in different locations around my area! Down at the very bottom of the Google page was a job opening at a franchise store in the dreaded McLevin Mall. I was not surprised to see the job posting had been up for over 7 months.
This was the kind of mall you went to as a last resort, when all your other options were closed or burned down to the ground. It had odd, unknown stores and the crappiest of franchises within. And despite its questionable location, the prices of items found in these stores were either the same or more expensive then you would find anywhere else. In a nutshell, McLevin Mall was in the heart of the one of the shittiest areas in Ontario and one entered its doors at his or her own risk. It was an unspoken rule that you didn’t walk in and around that place after nightfall, for goodness sake!
“No way will I be applying to that location!” I said smugly to myself. And so I applied to the wine shops at all the other locations. “Having sommelier training on my resume should guarantee me a job, right!” Wrong. I waited for weeks with no responses from any of them. I went so far as to call two of the stores only to find out they had already filled the position weeks before I had even applied. But I refused to be down about it, and continued applying. And every time I would Google ‘Toronto Wine Jobs’, that little posting in McLevin Mall would appear… mocking me… willing me to send my resume. After a month and a half of no luck, I finally broke and applied. Have you ever have a moment where you hope they don’t call? So you can say “Hey, I tried. But thank FREAKING god they didn’t respond.” But of course they did. The very next day. I was asked to come in for an interview at my earliest convenience, aka immediately. “I’ll just go and see what it is like…” I said uncertainly to myself. At that point, my phone bill was growing larger and the last of my funds were paying my student loan. I needed the money, I tell ya! *feels dirty and ashamed*
Anyway. I remember walking in through the doors and feeling a panic attack coming on. I pushed that feeling down as I muttered “It’s not so bad, I suppose”. I entered the wine shop to find a woman standing at the counter reading a book. This told me two things; a) the manager was relaxed and b) it can get very boring during shifts here. Her name was Maria, and she was very nice. I took advantage of her presence once I found out the manager was running late by asking her how it was working here at this location. She went on to say things like “It is not so bad” and “quiet sometimes”. Then she mentioned “We sell a lot of this cheap sherry”, which I didn’t pay much attention to. Little did I know this was foreshadowing for something quite horrible.
My soon-to-be manager finally arrived (15 minutes late but who is counting). We walked to the food court and I was able to take a good look around. People walked through the halls similarly to those old school zombies; glazed looks on their faces, a lot of them missing a bunch of teeth, a general stench clinging to them as if they hadn’t showered in a while, and a sadness about them which made the whole place feel as if you were trapped forever within its walls. As we sat down and started the interview, he told me about a test I will have to take in 3 months. You have to pass the test in order to stay employed with the wine shop and if you fail, you are not allowed to retake it. Apparently, the last 4 people he hired failed the test at McLevin Mall… I laughed and told him not to worry about it! I told him that with my extra training in the sommelier courses and my general brains would equal a guaranteed pass!
I got the call 4 hours later saying I was hired. And so began my employment. I have always prided myself on being a good employee. I try not to be late, I am respectful to both customers and co-workers, and I put effort into my work. So it was not unusual for me to walk in on my first shift looking good and feeling ready. My very first customer was a gentleman who wore a beanie hat and a black sip-up jacket. He was tall, about 6’2 I would say, with serious bags under his eyes. He was very polite when he asked for a bottle of the Pale Dry sherry (click here and scroll to the fourth one down for full explain).
I remember taking a deep breathe and feeling a lot better about the situation after that guy. I remember saying to myself “well that wasn’t so bad!” Then another customer came in asking for a bottle of Pale Dry. And another… For the rest of my shift, I sold bottle after bottle of cheap, dirty sherry to the public. My last customer of the day was a guy who was buying his second bottle of (20% alcohol) cheap sherry from me; my shift was just 4 hours. The trend showed itself pretty easily; the wine shop was there to provide cheap alcohol so the neighbourhood could get drunk.
For some reason, it was mostly the men who purchased this stuff. There were regulars who came in 3 or 4 times a day to purchase their sherry. It was the alcoholics who stopped me in my tracks first. I hadn’t even thought about dealing with alcoholics at this job (or in the wine business in general). Some people can deal with it, others can’t. I was part of the latter group. It was hard.
We had people come in so drunk they couldn’t even ask what they wanted. I was also privileged enough to witness a man go into shock on our store floor because he had woken up late and missed his morning sherry. He started to shake so hard from alcohol withdrawal that we had to call an ambulance. Then there were the customers who tried to pretend they weren’t drunk so you would sell them more sherry. This one particular guy always made me laugh. He would pop in front of the entrance dramatically and say something like “Ah! Having your lunch break, I see?” Yet you would have no food in front of you to indicate you were on a break.
But there were also customers who would make you feel uncomfortable and perhaps even unsafe. Like the one who came in reeking of alcohol (most of the regulars general stank, but you get the point) and asked for a sherry. When I told him the price he said “You look expensive *stares me up and down slowly*, buy it for me.” Needless to say, I felt very uncomfortable and wanted to leave. Too bad I was closing by myself that night! Or how about the guy who tried to get into the store after we closed because he wanted to buy booze. After informing him that it was too late, he stared at me with intent to kill and slowly put his hand into his jacket pocket like he was grabbing his gun. He continued to stare at me with his pocketed hand for 30 seconds before finally leaving. Fun, right? The best part of that story was seeing him look for me at the entrance of the mall afterwards.
And remember that first customer I spoke about? The one in the beanie hat? There were other customers like him who were very polite and nice at first. Until one night they come into your store plastered out of their skulls. The beanie-hat-man came in one night (baggy eyes and all) and bought a bottle of Pale Dry. After purchasing, he started talking about nonsense. I couldn’t make out what his point was, but I did grasp that he was incredibly drunk. He started to hit on me. And when he felt it wasn’t going in a positive direction, he got weird. “You don’t know me…you don’t know why I drink this stuff”. You are right, I don’t know you. But I also know I don’t care. Get the fuck out of my store and leave me alone. He would later go on to harass me verbally for a while and even grab my arm once.
Since I was in training to become a sommelier, I was pretty knowledgeable on everything to do with wine. Perhaps it gave me a sense of superiority when it came to answering questions, I can admit that. It didn’t help me build patience either, I can also admit that. But there were some questions I was asked by customers regularly that really made me scratch my head. Some of my favourites were:
“Do you have any red wine in the fridge?”
“Naked Grape is, like, grape juice right?”
“What cheap wine do you have? What do you mean $7.99?? That is too much, anything cheaper?”
“What wine is good to get a girls pants off? Naked Grape?” (Yes, I was really asked this a few times.)
I realise this post is getting long, so I will try to wrap things up nicely. The people who came into my store were horrible. I wish I could say there were an even number of good customers, but there really weren’t. I was bullied, intimidated, threatened, verbally and mentally harassed, disrespected, weirded out, grossed out and generally left feeling pretty beaten down at this one job. I have never, in my life, hated a place so entirely that having to go in for my shifts caused anxiety issues. Remember that test I had to take to stay employed? Those 4 people who came before me failed it on purpose so they wouldn’t have to work there. I should have done that…
I have only scratched the surface with customer situations but I hope you now have an idea as to the atmosphere surrounding me at the wine shop. One would feel incline to ask “But didn’t your co-workers or boss help?”, but that answer comes to you in Part 2.