The Spirit Is Weary

The folks who work the holiday rush

click to enlarge SANTA, BABY: Adult emporium manager Tina - Mathey is gearing up for the Christmas rush. - LORI BALLARD
LORI BALLARD
SANTA, BABY: Adult emporium manager Tina Mathey is gearing up for the Christmas rush.

It's the day after Halloween, and South Tampa adult-lifestyle shop Priscilla's is still giving off an All Hallows vibe. On the store's multiple clothing racks, the always-popular black is accentuated with a healthy dollop of orange, and gauzy boudoir attire shares space with a dwindled array of costumes.But not for long.

"This year, for the first time, we're taking down the Halloween stuff and putting up the Christmas stuff [before Thanksgiving]," says manager Tina Mathey, "because people are already asking for it."

The diminutive Mathey is one of countless Bay area retail and service workers already looking toward the annual holiday-season rush — and the hours they'll spend accommodating frenzied shoppers while the rest of the world is wassailing.

Priscilla's is subject to the same massive upsurge in end-of-the-year business as more mainstream stores, moving lots of lingerie and "Christmas-style club wear" around the holidays. Mathey, who's run the shop for seven years, schedules accordingly.

"We're only closed three days a year — Christmas Day, Thanksgiving and Easter," she says.

Managing a sales-oriented concern is a challenge during the slowest of seasons. The period from November until February, however, is legendarily nightmarish, and always means longer hours, more customers and increased paperwork. But Mathey, whose kids have kids of their own to dote on this time of year, long ago grew accustomed to spending a lot of her holiday time at her job. When it comes to free time, she'd rather cede it to employees with young families rather than grab some for herself.

"I try to do the same thing with all major holidays — the people with the smallest kids get first choice when it comes to time off," she says. "Family is the most important thing to me, and I make sure my employees understand that."

For others, particularly younger members of the work force whose career aspirations might currently rise only as far as paying the rent, working the Christmas rush can be a more bitter pill to swallow.

"It just sucked, because it's a holiday. You didn't want to be working while you knew other people were somewhere drinking eggnog," says former bookstore employee Heather Long. "It makes your caste level very obvious. Working retail over the holidays, you're working so hard to just kind of get through it."

Though she's now a customer service rep for UPS, the 31-year-old Long worked at Borders Books & Music's South Tampa location for six years, until 2002. Books, CDs and movies are always big on gift lists, and large, well-stocked providers of all three such as Borders — a franchise that's always open late, and even later during the weeks leading up to Christmas — have become default last-minute destinations for shoppers, especially shoppers with no clear idea what to give some of the folks on their lists.

"You have to become an expert on everything, and you have to be everyone's personal shopper," Long says. "You have to recommend something for somebody's 70-year-old grandma."

Though she says she's not very close to her extended family, Long nonetheless found the seasonal retail blitz — with its juxtaposition of the frantic (assisting an endless stream of customers) and the stagnant (spending so many hours in the same location) — both frustrating and depressing.

"It kills the Christmas spirit for sure," she says. "Especially when you're forced to listen to fucking Christmas music all the time."

Thirty-five-year-old Dave Wood works nights at Pinellas County's main post office in St. Pete's Kenwood neighborhood. Even after a decade of Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve shifts sorting mail bound for points beyond the Bay area, he hasn't completely gotten used to it.

"No, it still bums you out a little bit. But it just goes along with the job," he says. "The mail never stops, man, you've just got to get it out."

The United States Postal Service is the only carrier that delivers packages on Christmas Day; Wood says drivers are encouraged to volunteer for that particular duty, but that not many do. Fortunately, as a clerk, he has that day off. And even more fortunately, because the coming Christmas Eve is a Friday, he'll have that day off as well, for once — because the holiday is on a weekend, he'll be allowed to take his paid vacation day the day before.

"But most every year, I work Christmas Eve," he says. "Last year I got out at 11. I normally get out at midnight. And New Year's Eve is the same way."

Wood's wife, Kim, works for a travel agency, and is also called upon to put in hours when other young families are engaged in more Norman-Rockwellian pursuits. Given the fortuitous circumstance of his having this Christmas Eve off, however, and the addition of an infant son to the household, Wood is hoping to take advantage of some extra family time this year.

"The way I look at it, life's too short to be working your whole life away," he says, adding with a laugh, "But I still do it."

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