Existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre is famous for coining the phrase “Hell is other people,” and no one knows this better than those of us who have spent time working in retail, food, and other front line customer service jobs.
I spent a great many years fighting the good fight as both a music store and book store employee, and while most of my customers were decent people, there were those that made me consider learning how to use my price gun as a deadly weapon.
There was the woman who was looking for a particular book, but all she could tell me was that it had a green cover – or maybe the cover just had a lot of green on it – and that it was about “love.” She didn’t even know if it was fiction or nonfiction. Then there was the surly, delusional homeless guy with a Yosemite Sam beard and an enormous hole in the seat of his pants: he wore panties. Black satin panties. Oh, and the shoplifters. Hordes of them. I chased several of them down and managed to detain – or at least, distract – them long enough for the police to arrive and arrest them. All I had to show for it was a stack of letters of commendation from the home office, each of which spelled my name wrong in some insultingly novel way, every new variation different from the last. There was also the “Sweet Pie Jesus” guy, a presumably insane messenger of God who left index cards scrawled with that phrase shoved into nooks and crannies all over the store. I never managed to identify him, and in my idle moments I always imagined him as a bearded anchorite, John the Baptist with a Sharpie, a pilgrim on a solo crusade to spread the good news of redemption via delicious baked goods.
Throughout my entire retail career, one single phrase drove me absolutely nuts: “Do you work here?” I heard it day in and day out, no matter how painfully obvious I tried to render the reasons for my presence. It became a code phrase, a mantra and a password all in one: a ritual call and response that preambled the eventual exchange of goods and currency. But more than that, it was an idiotic question that seemingly could never be escaped.
When I saw that Peter Simeti, owner of indie comics label Alterna, was publishing a new book called Hello Do You Work Here?, I knew I had to have it. Hello Do You Work Here? collects twenty true stories of workplace desperation from comic book writers and artists. It’s not exactly a graphic novel, more like a short collection of illustrated vignettes. These stories of suicidal cat ladies, lecherous fast food customers, conspiracy-minded copy store clients, sadistic bosses and alcoholic coworkers will strike a chord with anyone who has ever done a stint in customer service, and be a real eye opener into the particular despondence of that world for anyone who hasn’t.
Hello Do You Work Here? features an introduction from Alex Robinson of Box Office Poison fame, himself a former bookstore employee of many years. Speaking of his own time in retail, Robinson wrote, “I’m very pleased that I was able to harness that anger into something positive (creating a book) instead of resorting to heavy drug use and possibly murdering the next person who asked me if I worked there.”
While not everyone working a customer service job will get an opportunity to channel their experiences into creating a hit comic book, they at least have Peter Simeti’s Hello Do You Work Here? to help them laugh away some of the stress.