My t-shirt clings to my body as I uncomfortably toss and turn in bed. A thick, sauna-like oppressive heat hangs in the air. Even though it is 10 pm, it is a hot 95 degrees. Inside our house feels like an infernal 120 degrees. I lay in bed waiting for the oscillating fan to hit my body, instantly cooling all the areas that are covered in sweat giving me a short-lived respite from the heavy heat. This cycle plays out over and over again until I fall asleep.
I will later, inevitably, wake up soaked in sweat. Every night, Dad would come home after his closing shift at a Chinese restaurant and turn off the fan in an effort to save money on the electric bill. And every night, I’d groggily get up, turn the fan back on and put back into motion the cycle of sweat, fan, relief until falling back asleep again.
There was no escaping the heat of the house. During the day, we’d sit in front of the fan or position ourselves in front of the in-window AC unit. No matter the time of day, there would be a damp layer of sweat on our bodies. At night, when we were really little, Mom would lay out onto the floor a large flat sheet that was the color of Chinese red envelopes. We’d lie down on our bellies, chins in our hands, looking up at the TV. The front door would be wide open and we would wait for the next cool breeze to hit us. Built in the 1940s, our house didn’t have central air. In fact, it wouldn’t until 2012 when my parents would be forced to rebuild the house after an electrical fire. Prior to that, all those years ago, the thought would never even cross my parents’ minds when their most immediate concern was making sure there was food on the table.
The visits to the mall must have begun in these hot summer days. The practice would bleed into all seasons and visits to the mall became an integral part of our routine all year long. So frequent were the visits that I can still feel the electric static shock in my fingertips from the metal handrails charged up from walking the carpeted Montebello Mall. I can see the frothy foam and taste the creamy Orange Julius from the West Covina Mall. And I remember thinking it was such a treat to go to Brea Mall because it was so much fancier than our neighboring malls.
Mannequin came out in 1987 when I was four. It would be years later when I’d finally watch the movie. But once I did, I became fascinated with mannequins. Did they all come to life? Dragged through the Robinson’s May, I’d name each of the mannequins, strike up conversations, hold their hands and become best of friends. You could also find me in the clearance rounders, the only product Mom could afford, weaving in and out of swaths of fabric. The occasional light would peek into my dark hiding place as a shopper picked through the fixture.
I attribute much of my love of retail to these frequent visits. One of my earliest fashion memories was the acquisition of a yellow denim jacket from The Limited Too. The layering piece went over a pair of purple denim jeans and a dark hued, rainbow striped long sleeve bodysuit (also from The Limited Too). I loved this outfit. I can still see myself in the grey-carpeted dressing room, twirling for effect feeling so shiny inside and out. This delight of clothes and how they made me feel would seep into the weekends with my cousin. We would raid our parents’ closets putting on fashion shows, forcibly gathering the adults to witness our cat walking skills.
As I was interviewing for my first professional job in my senior year of college, I didn’t consciously connect my love for retail and the job I ultimately ended up securing. I was a Classical Civilizations major that spent most of my college years memorizing Art History facts, tackling Latin conjugations and writing papers. As much passion as I had for the arts, I was practical. We spent too much of my youth scraping by; I couldn’t possibly fall into a career that didn’t have a demonstrated growth path to financial success.
As I look back now, I had been building a life in retail since I was able to work. I first tackled the Customer Service component, working at KFC and Baskin Robbins taking orders in Spanish for pechugas and piernas. I learned nuez meant Butter Pecan in Spanish, a favorite of the 31 flavors for our customer base. In college, I’d further my Customer Service craft but add in Store Operations working at the UCLA Store all four years of undergrad. It was here that I’d develop a love for process and people development. I’d also come to the realization that direct customer interfacing was not my forte. I can't count the number of times I'd be put in the Customer Service window and stare blankly back at the customers who would appear asking for a gift box size between A and B.
As fate would have it, I’d end up building a career in corporate retail starting out at the department store I spent so much time in as a kid. Robinson's May hired me into their Executive Trainee program. Though my place of employment would change over the course of the last fourteen years, the one thing that stayed constant is the passion and love I have for retail. I spend most of my days engulfed in numbers and live in spreadsheets. Probably not what you imagined and it doesn’t sound glamorous at all. But all that data helps drive processes, builds out stock strategies and influences product assortments, marketing campaigns, promotional cadences and pricing decisions. Those hot summer nights were miserable but I’m thankful for them. They helped fan a passion that turned into a career I love.