Earlier in the evening, I met Danny for dinner at Chili’s — the frightening home of the mini-burger dinner platter. He is closing at the store tonight and, if left to my own devices, I would probably eat Ramen and microwave popcorn for dinner. Chili’s is, of course, in a strip mall, and as we were about to pull out of the parking lot, we both looked up and noticed Party City.
Danny stared into the the display window — the messy bins of tiki torches, the paper plates adorned with purple unicorns and starbursts, the half-deflated mylar balloons trying half-heartedly to convince someone that they would be missed by the whole gang. “I could never work there,” he deadpanned. “I could work a lot of places, if we really needed the money. But I could never work at Party City.” And we backed slowly away.
This morning, the newspapers proclaimed some very sobering statistics about the unemployment rate in this country. All of that is very sad and scary. As someone hoping to land a job out of grad school next year, it certainly makes me anxious. But I think everyone has a place like Party City — a place that is unthinkable as a workplace. Places that do not seem any more workable when you’re faced with eating peanut butter sandwiches three meals a day.
There are, of course, the over-the-top disgusting jobs that obviously fit into this category. I, for example, would prefer not to drive a truck around town, gathering Port-o-Johns (even if they are #1 in the #2 business). And despite the cutesiness Amy Adams lent to crime scene cleanup in Sunshine Cleaning, I would turn down a position to mop up the residues of violent crime.
But the position of sales associate at Party City is different. Its wretchedness is not immediately apparent. Party City may seem bearable, but truly, in the carefully calibrated hierarchy of retail, it’s ranked just below Build-a-Bear and The Mattress Factory. Stuffing fluff into a teddy’s limbs is preferable to stocking the shelves with a pin-on-the-bowtie bachelorette party game, and dying of boredom in a room of bare mattresses is enviable to, in a fit of uncontrollable rage, strangling that customer who insists on activating the talking pumpkin motion detector around Halloween.
But for me, it’s not the sights or sounds of Party City that are frightening, although it does have a sad tawdriness that reminds me of the tail end of a six-year-old’s birthday party. No, it’s the smell. Party City smells like the toxic inside of a Halloween mask made in China. It smells like the bottom of the popcorn maker at Walmart. It smells like the place where helium tanks go to die. And oh, it definitely smells like what the Bozo the Clown Show would smell like, if horrible 80s television programming for children had an odor.
Do you remember the Bozo Show? I spent part of my childhood in Illinois, near Chicago, where it was really a hit. I remember the thrill of the GRAND (pause) PRIZE (pause) GAME (raucous applause). How I dreamed of the opportunity to toss a ping pong ball into the neat row of numbered buckets to win a collection of Bozo memorabilia and, if I was lucky, an enormous tin bank shaped like a Tootsie Roll. How frustrating to watch some glassy-eyed loser from the studio audience approach the buckets only to miss the first one, the bucket practically resting on the tips of your tennis shoes! Gravity did the work for you, kid! Why are these imbeciles always chosen for the privilege of Bozo’s GRAND PRIZE GAME? Why am I, a child with superior ping-pong-ball-tossing skills, left at home to watch helplessly from the living room?
That kid who missed bucket one? Working at Party City.