Super Creepy Handball Courts

This will probably come as a surprise to many, but off and on for nearly a year I worked at a gym.  A gym!  You know, where The Sports and stuff happen.

Now this was not some state-of-the-art facility full of the latest and greatest in athletic equipment.  No, it was Henry Crown Field House, the “new” gym at UChicago during my time there as a student in 1998-2001.  The “old” gym – Bartlett – had been completed in 1904.  Hence, Henry Crown – built in 1931 – was new…ish.  I just learned today that the second story was only added in 1976, as evidenced by the amazing photo below that shows a bulldozer going to town on what would soon be basketball courts.  Amazing!Henry Crown Field House renovation 1976Somehow I ended up applying for and getting a job at Henry Crown as an attendant or assistant or whatever it was they called the people who sat at the front desk and made sure no one entered without their university ID.  It was a pretty sweet gig all in all.  I almost always worked with at least one other person, some of them more entertaining than others, of course.  Friends would stop by and chat, we could work on homework during the slow times, and for the most part we got to sit down on tall swivel chairs, save for the times when there were towels to be laundered.  Plus, I think I made something like $8/hour, which was good money for a student in 1999 (and is still sadly only slightly less than the current minimum wage in Illinois).  Like I said, pretty sweet.

The only times that I somewhat dreaded were when I worked the closing shift which, once I became a supervisor, was probably a couple of times a week.  Closing the gym entailed making a sweep of the entire facility to ensure everybody had gone home for the night.  If memory serves me, we closed at 11pm on weekdays and midnight on weekends, so about 10 minutes before closing I’d start making the rounds and turning off lights as I went.  The other person would stay back at the desk to make sure nobody else came in.

The upstairs was easy because usually it was configured as one big open space and the light switches were all together in one corner.  Downstairs, however, was another matter, owing to the handball and racquetball courts.  Not all of them were used for those sports – the rowing crew had their machines in a couple of them and there was maybe some storage in another – but nonetheless I had to walk along a narrow corridor with eight little doors and check to make sure each court was empty before turning off the lights.  Some nights I was convinced that this was how I would meet my death.  You know, because crazed axe murderers tend to hang out in college gyms and then wait for unsuspecting attendants to walk along during their closing shift before jumping out and hacking them to pieces.  You know, like that dog in Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.

Clearly, nothing close to that kind of scenario ever took place, but I was still spooked for just a couple of minutes every closing shift when I had to walk that hallway.  Occasionally there would still be somebody in a court who didn’t realize it was closing time, but almost to a person the gym users were polite and quickly headed out into the dark night so we could lock the doors and go home ourselves.  Speaking of locking the doors, we did that from the inside using just a simple Allen wrench.  We’d check the doors one last time then part ways and walk back to our respective dorms.

I haven’t been in Henry Crown since 2001, but from the outside it looks virtually the same.  I’m sure the computers and washing machines and ellipticals have been replaced and updated, but I would bet money the doors still lock the same way.  Wonder if the students working there these days still get a little spooked by the handball courts.  I’ll be they do.

Salary: $8/hour (I think)

Hours worked: Early mornings and late nights, probably on average about 20 hrs/week.

The parts I like to remember: It was always a bit weird to see a Nobel Laureate from the Econ department pop in wearing a t-shirt and spandex in preparation for their racquetball game with, say, the chair of the English department.  My favorite person who stopped by, however, was a former professor of mine, Charles Gray, whose 11th Century Church Law class I remember as being way more fun than it should have been.  He’d wear shorts and a safety loop to keep his glasses on as he slowly jogged around the upper level for 30 minutes or so.  I don’t think he ever recognized me as having been in one of his classes (he was at least 70 by the time I even met him), but knowing that such a preeminent scholar was walking through the turnstyle always made me smile to myself.

The parts I’d like to forget: Towels on towels on towels.  And the smell of the chemicals we used to wash them.

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“Nordstrom Hosiery, Emily Speaking”

I said those four words in my dreams for years because I said them so many times over the course of the summer of 1998.

Circle_Centre_NordstromMy first real job ever was as a sales associate in the hosiery department at Nordstrom in Circle Centre Mall in downtown Indianapolis.  How luxurious!  Working downtown!  In a department store.  It was pretty much my dream job at the age of 18.  Oh how quickly reality set in.

I had been extremely fortunate in that my parents wanted me to focus on academics and extra-curricular activities in high school, which meant that I didn’t have to work on top of going to school.  The week after graduation, however, it was job time!  There was only one place that I considered working: Nordstrom.  From the moment that store opened in Circle Centre in 1995 I had been obsessed with it.  They originally had a Collectors department there that carried super high-end designers whose creations I’d only ever seen in the pages of Vogue.  That section became the St. John department after just a few months (apparently there’s a limited audience in central Indiana for Junya Watanabe – who knew?), but Nordstrom was still a magical place filled with shiny baubles, shoes in my size (11/12), MAC cosmetics, and an actual pianist!  I knew I had to work there.

I had dreams of evening gowns or maybe the Savvy department with younger designers but the only opening available was in hosiery.  You know, socks and tights.  Hmm…  Not exactly the glamorous entry into the world of fashion that I’d envisioned, but still I was going to be working at Nordstrom.  A real job, with a real paycheck, was mine.

I got lucky in that my manager, Erica, was beyond fantastic.  As an 18-year-old naif with little work experience, I could have easily stumbled, but she made sure I shined.  I quickly learned about deniers, control tops, and the power of selling in multiples.  We switched out displays on plastic legs, fluffed up socks just so, and generally did every imaginable thing possible to make hosiery look sexy and appealing.  The long hours on my feet were totally tolerable – the department was on carpet and I didn’t run around in high heels anyway – but the utter boredom of weekday evening shifts sometimes took its toll.  Luckily I still had plenty of high school pals around to stop by and a couple of my coworkers had friends who worked elsewhere in the mall so they’d pop in on their break.  On really slow evenings I’d wander over to the makeup department right next door to test out a lipstick or gossip with the Estee Lauder gals.  Sometimes I’d test out fragrances or just chat across the aisle with the women’s shoe salespeople, who were also next to us.  Overall it was a pleasant way to pass the hours as a first time full-timer.

Something else interesting happened, however.  I was recruited to attend the “Nordstrom Future Leaders” (or something along those lines) workshop, an all-day event in which we learned about career opportunities in the company and how those might fit into our professional development goals.  I’ll admit, there were times when I was tempted to think about fashion or retail as a long-term career option.  Those were the days when we were super busy (Anniversary Sale time, special promos) or when our buyers and vendors stopped by with new product. Those hours flew by in a snap.  But on the days where I had to slog through my customer book making phone calls about the latest new nude shade from Donna Karan, I was thrilled that I’d be heading to college in a few weeks.  For many of my coworkers, the Nordstrom hosiery department was the end of the line, not the beginning.  They were smart, hard-working women who had chosen their vocation but I’m sure still grew tired of the long hours and irregular schedules just as I did.

I learned so much that summer.  The first time a guy came in to buy hosiery for himself was a real eye-opener for me.  Turns out several of the well-known local drag queens would only shop at Nordstrom, plus we carried the widest range of sizes.  At 18 I just hadn’t considered that scenario before.  And I thought it was awesome.  I also learned how much it sucked when my paycheck was smaller because I hadn’t worked hard enough to earn a good commission, or realized the hit my paycheck would take when I took a couple of days off.  I had lived a pretty comfortable life and was still on my parents insurance and driving our third family car to work, so the true realities of what it meant to be supporting myself on my own were a few years down the road.  But still.  It was an amazing, life-changing experience to be working at Nordstrom.  I felt so grown up, so smart, and so in control, three things every teenager longs for.

I returned to the hosiery department over breaks and holidays in college a few more times before moving on to the lingerie department when Erica received a promotion.  But that’s a work story for another day.  Hard to believe it’s been two years since that Nordstrom store closed at Circle Centre.  It was a part of my history, a great part.  And I still miss it.

Salary: Around $7.25 hour + commission

Hours worked: Because I didn’t have anything else to do that summer besides pack for college (which, let’s be honest, consisted mostly of picking out which fall outfits to take with me), I worked nearly full-time hours, although only on a semi-regular schedule.  Unless there was a convention in town, the slowest days by far  were Sunday afternoons.

The parts I like to remember: A great boss and co-workers One time a classmate from high school stopped by to say hi and brought me a Godiva chocolate, which I thought was super-cool, mainly because I rarely at anything fancier than a Kit Kat at that stage of my life.

The parts I’d like to forget: Inventory!  In those pre-smartphone, pre-touchscreen days, inventory meant sitting on the floor and counting out every pair of socks and hose and tights.  We closed down early one night and everybody and their Mom (no, literally my Mom helped out, as did a couple of other coworkers’) sat around counting and recording for hours…and hours.  That’s an experience I don’t hope to repeat ever again.