Tuesday, December 28, 2010

COLUMN: VanDerGinst Pt. 1

Every year around this time, I get the itch to find the Christmas spirit. I crave proof that this holiday amounts to more than crass consumerism. I want magic in the air, children laughing, and chestnuts roasting on open fires even though I had one last year and it was super gross. I demand nothing less than the living embodiment of the monologue at the end of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Will 2010 be that year?

It started, as most good tales do, with a phone call.

It was my friend from the newsroom, Jonathan Turner, with an interesting proposition. As most of you know, every year the Quad Cities has a gala Christmas bash put on by our friends at the VanDerGinst Law firm. It's a time-honored and heralded local tradition. Except, of course, for the fact that I'd never heard of it. Let's face it, my idea of a Christmas gala is microwave brownies and reruns of "Elf." High falutin' and cultured I am NOT.

Still, Jonathan was calling me because the folks at VanDerGinst wanted a known face from our papers to serve as a "Celebrity Bartender" at the event alongside other recognizable media personalities. Well, apparantly all the known faces at our papers were otherwise occupied, because the offer strangely ended up my way. I mulled it over for a night.

I know NOTHING about bartending, I have crippling social anxiety when it comes to milling about with strangers, and I'm about as well-known a celebrity as your average house-bound agoraphobic. I was already practicing my "thanks-but-no-thanks" speech.

But I also had a girlfriend who squealed when I told her the news. "Eeeeeee!" she said, "That sounds FUN! We should totally go!" Well, if nothing else, there's supposed to be complimentary "heavy hors d'oevres," and if there's one thing I'm a sucker for, it's some heavy hors. Besides, I figured, it's all for charity -- and maybe by giving back to the community, I'll capture some of that elusive Christmas spirit.

Last Saturday was the big day, and it started off with my girlfriend arriving with a garment bag the size of Rhode Island and a rousing game of "which-outfit-do-you-like-best?" (note to guys: the only acceptable answer here is to say "ALL OF THEM.") Upon her suggestion, I sent a text to my contact at VanDerGinst inquiring about dress code.


Well, "Help!" is definitely one word that crossed my mind. In my world, "dressing up" means "a shirt with buttons." When I wear a tie, it means one of two things: "Yes, I would like this job" or "I'm so sorry for your loss." I haven't worn a tux since Prom '88. I was in trouble deep. I showed my girlfriend the message. She took a breath, paused, and just said, "Get in the car. Now." I know when to shut up and when to move, and this was a shut-up-and-move moment.

Some people excel at athletics. Others excel at business. My Amy excels at shopping. She's the only person I've ever met who can come home with a new wardrobe and announce that the whole thing cost twelve dollars. She's a genius at thrifty shopping, and I was just along for the ride. And the credit card. And dealing with rude employees, of which there were MANY.

At one store, I was trying to buy a dress shirt despite the clerk NOT allowing me to try it on. And when I DID finally try on her idea of a perfect fit? Well, my neck is where I choose to store all the leftover pizza for the long winter months ahead, and let's just say my second chin grew a third and a fourth and they were all trying to escape the dreaded stranglehold of that collar.

But nothing could have prepped us for the rudeness of our final bulls-eye: a big box mega-store that shall remain nameless. This store is Amy's natural habitat; she knows its every nook, cranny, and clearance rack. With skillful precision, she swept down the aisles, grabbed five different dresses in a blur, and headed to the fitting rooms. Staffing the area was an over-worked clerk trying to balance two customers AND a telephone call. By this point, we were in a HUGE hurry and the fitting rooms were empty, so Amy bolted into the nearest one. Or would have, had Ms. Clerky NOT had a fit.


"Really?" muttered Amy under her breath. This woman was impeding our quick-shopping mojo. "This is ridiculous..."

And as the clerk returned to her desk, I overheard one of the customers say, "I'm so sorry that girl was SOOOOOO rude to you."

"Well," replied Ms. Clerky, "This time of year some of us are just jolly and some of us are just grinches!" SAY WHAT? DID YOU JUST CALL MY GIRLFRIEND A GRINCH?! My girlfriend is known far throughout the land for 3 things: (1) Her occasionally insufferable niceness, (2) her love of Christmas, and (3) her love of the very store we were standing in. I couldn't keep quiet.

"Actually," I leapt in, "we're just in a big hurry and you looked understaffed and busy and we were just trying to save you some..."

That's when Amy came out of the dressing room and handed her the number tag back.

The clerk shot us daggers and said venomously, "Thannk yooou. You have a niiiice day." It was the closest I've ever heard "You have a nice day" sound like a swear word. It's also the closest I've ever come to wanting to hit a woman. Or a man, for that matter. Or, well, ANYTHING. I don't even know how to hit something. Still, I was hot.

"Put down ALL this stuff and let's leave," I said to Amy. "Now."

"No," said Amy on the verge of tears, "I'm not letting some horrible lady ruin my favorite store."

So we held our grinchy heads high, found our clothes, checked out, and then complained to the store manager until we were blue in the face and red in the eyes. And as much as I hope the world finds Christmas joy, I wouldn't weep for Ms. Clerky if Santa stuck her with coal.

On the lighter side, we now had the clothes, the style, and a newfound holiday bloodlust for violence. Would we find the spirit of Christmas at the VanDerGinst holiday bash? Or would I end up going ten rounds with the coat-check guy? I'll finish the story... next week.

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