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David Yen's memories of retail pain

  • David Yen.

As we stagger to the finish line of December's grueling shop-a-thon, pity the poor retail clerk even more. And show mercy.

David Yen certainly does. The Rohnert Park actor for six seasons has performed “The Santaland Diaries,” humorist David Sedaris' memoir about his excruciating gig as a Macy's elf. The one-man show hits a nerve with audiences and Yen himself. With 10 percent of Americans working in retail, odds are most everyone has worked in a store.

Yen still feels the pain of holiday help, 25 years after several seasons at a national clothing chain, including the retailer's two-story temple in New York City at Christmas. His soul-deadening task was to fold and refold and fold again. As soon as a neat stack had been properly replaced, someone would yank something out. “It was,” he laments, “like fighting a battle uphill in the mud for people whose sole job was not to help customers, but just to walk around folding all day.”

The managers were trained by the “Cool Hand Luke” playbook. “They were serious about making everything look like it just came out of the box,” he remembers. “It was all done by eye and feel. You would get them done and two would be sticking out a millimeter further and the manager would come by and say 'You've got to fix that.'”

The directive to clear the dressing rooms was the cruelest. Each stall was like the Christmas package from hell. He never knew what horror lay within.

The only reward to the job, he says, was a rock-hard pint of Haagen Dazs ice cream he'd grab at the end of the day — a day that ended only after another 90 minutes of folding and hanging. That was a trauma akin to “rewrapping all the gifts under the tree after they had been already been opened.” “To this day, whenever I go shopping, I put everything back on the rack or shelf exactly as I found it,” says the forever humbled father of two. And sometimes he hands out candy canes to beleaguered shoppers at the mall who appear “at their wit's end.”

“I say 'Merry Christmas. You're doing all right.' And sometimes,” he admits, “I just walk around taking in all the energy. For all the craziness, there is something nice about all those people out there trying to do something good for someone else. That's what Christmas should be about.”

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