So what's the subject I'm strangely fascinated by?
It's retail. Or, as a close second, food service. I will read anything about the retail environment, even fiction, which is how I found myself with Caitlin Kelly's journalistic memoir titled Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.
Since the majority of my working life has been spent in jobs where I waited on people, I'm always fascinated to read other people's takes on that subject, and about the service environment in general. One of my favorite nonfiction reads is Paco Underhill's Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping--Updated and Revised for the Internet, the Global Consumer, and Beyond, which is a fascinating exploration of how people shop (I read the previous edition, so I may have to check this one out again). In Kelly's book, her take on shopping is a bit more personal: she spent more than two years working in a North Face store.
In a way, this is one of those "year in the life" books; Kelly took the retail job purely to supplement her journalism income and worked only two shifts a week (eventually downsizing to one shift). That's part of the problem here. Normally I enjoy these types of books, regardless of whether they're memoirs or investigative titles (this one is a mix of both), but this one feels phoned in. And I'm sorry, but if your entire service experience is comprised of two shifts (and then one) per week for a couple of years, you have not been a true service worker. Work a few service jobs at the same time, which is invariably what you have to do to make any money, and then come back and talk to me.
Kelly's day job is as a journalist, and she freely admits she got the job just to help supplement her paycheck and to get out of the apartment a couple of times a week. All I can say is: ho-hum. I was no huge fan of Barbara Ehrenreich's similar (but full-time, and more muckraking) title Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, but at least Babs gave it more of a college try than this author.*
The writing wasn't terrible, but a lot of times I felt I wasn't getting the whole story. This is the story she tells of how she was hired: "The money, of course, was sobering, stunningly low. It was less than I had earned as a teenage lifeguard in the 1970s--$9 an hour for part-timers, $11 for full-time, with no commission or bonus, but with a healthy discout on company products. And I would have to pay $8 just to park in the mall's lot for my shift--in effect losing the first hour of my labor. I asked for $11 an hour, working two days a week, Tuesdays from one to nine p.m. and Wednesdays during the day..." (pp. 16-17).
Huh? Never have I worked a service job where I didn't just take the pay they were offering. Are you telling me I could have asked for more? Does that work? Well, we'll never know, because Kelly never finished that story, so I never learned how her boss responded to that request. She also periodically alludes to challenging customers, but she never really describes any of her encounters with either scary or demeaning members of the public (and trust me, there's plenty of them around).
So yes, due to its subject matter, I read the whole thing. But did I enjoy it? Not really.
*By the way, a REALLY good title of this type ("I worked a shitty job to see what it was like") is Gabriel Thompson's Working in the Shadows: A Year of Doing the Jobs (Most) Americans Won't Do.