Stairs, stairs, stairs. This is what I will remember of Paragon Sports, a huge shop at Union Square in New York, where I worked for about a month. I got hired, I worked, and I got fired on the stairs of Paragon Sports. All in one month.
“There will be a lot of stairs to climb,” said one young kid on that nice day in May, when three of us were in the process of getting interviewed for the job. He must be smart, because the ironic grin on his face showed that he understood immediately what Paragon is all about: stairs, climbing and falling, in every sense of the words.
I was introduced to the company by a friend and was asked to come for an interview with Mr. Lawrence. My first surprise, when I entered the shop, which I knew quite well as a consumer, was that I was not alone. I found myself in a small group that was going through the recruiting procedure. Initially, I expected some sort of conversation about my previous experience, for someone to ask me why I wanted to work at Paragon. I could explain that I liked the shop from before and that I needed to work part time in order to finance this newsletter. I did not expect a discussion about my previous academic and journalist jobs or writing experiences, but a question or two about my past work and skills, yes. There were none. I was asked to fill in an application form. Then Larry appeared without making a sound.
Larry is an elderly man with glasses and white hair, dressed in a vaguely recognisable British style. He does not walk, he glides through Paragon, observing, remembering everyone. He does not waste words. I liked his style immediately. He uses judgment and experience. Larry, officially Director of Warehouse Operations, is Mr. Filter of Paragon, I realized later. He is devoted to the company owners. He is like the white-headed bald eagle of the Paragon flag. But even he still walks the stairs.
He came down the stairs for everyone and led us one by one to his tiny office two floors higher. It resembled a working corner in some kinky pawn shop more than an office, just enough space for his desk and a chair for the interviewee. After few sentences with Larry, I was sent to Leslie, manager of the shop, through the entrails and back stairs of the shop. I was hired five minutes later with the minimum pay and for about 25 hours a week. But I was overqualified, I was told. On the way out of Leslie’s office, a protected space deep inside in the building and without windows, I was introduced to my future manager, David, who approached me in Chinese. His Chinese was elementary, but it made me think that Paragon had a nice group of people with all sorts of experiences. I was ready to learn, looking forward to enter this multicolored world. At the same time, I also felt that I was stepping behind the iron curtain of an American private corporation. But besides the course of orientation, a bland attempt to harmonize the language of the new hires with the spirit of corporation, I was thrown into the cage of lions and ordered to survive. I loved it. I was in and I could actually see how all this worked from inside.
I was working in the cycling department and the first thing I was shown was the stairway and corridor system, the paunch of Paragon. Running up to the fifth floor on the very narrow and dangerously worn wooden stairway where the bike assembly and repair shop was, we made it down and around the corner to find the buyers who actually decide what to put on the shelves and rack, who perhaps could tell us a bit more about the product. They were never found. Then lower again into a complicated labyrinth of the warehouses, all windowless spaces with shelves to the ceiling. In one of these spaces, which reminded me of a mine, our department had a big area for storing helmets, while biking shoes were in the basements. This was my first day of training, done in 15 minutes before the shop opened.
I soon realized that I sort of liked the job, but that it would be hard, since many of my colleagues – we were 10 in the department – were not interested in helping or interacting. They were defending their turf and had no desire to engage more because they were badly paid, I was told. However, there was a clear hierarchy and division of labor, achieved by experience and manipulation. For instance, controlling the phone and computer gave you more chance to do big sales like bikes, for which commissions were higher. I deliberately entered this little power game, because I wanted to know and to learn, but also because I could afford to put aside my ego. But after the first two days of learning, during which time I ran the stairs over 20 times, I went home with my back broken. I am a swimmer, a biker, and now a tennis player again, but Paragon stairs were the toughest exercise since my teenage years, when I worked in a huge hardware warehouse for my first pocket money.
But slowly, with more discussion with some people in the department, and especially with the customers – who were coming into the shop from Australia, South Africa, Israel, Scandinavia, Brazil, Mexico, Italy… – I was starting to enjoy the diversity between hard work and knowing new people and new stories for my writing. It was hard, but I thought that I was finding a balance.
To be continued.