"You are the first man I have ever seen working at Victoria's Secret," said a customer walking up to the cash register. I’d hear this a lot over the next year. For a while, I'd tell customers that I was, in fact, the first man to work at Victoria's Secret, adding that GQ had recently named me "The Ponce de Leon of Panties." But seeing as this was my first day on the job, I didn’t have that kind of confidence yet. That would come later.
As a college senior with plans to attend dental school, I never imagined my life would end up this way. I figured I'd graduate college, take the summer to prep for the Dental Admission Test, get into schools, then begin my trek toward normal, civilized life. That's what everyone else was doing in the biology department.
But I had no idea of the turmoil that lay in store. I ended up at Victoria's Secret the same way most men end up on daytime talk shows: I got dumped by my girlfriend; I couldn't get a new girlfriend to save my life; and, to top it all off, I began growing breasts. I now believe my boobs were the result of eating too much soy, which has a high amount of estrogen in it, and has been known to cause such reactions in prepubescent girls. But at the time I didn't realize this as I was simply too busy freaking-the-hell-out. It's one thing, as a man, to feel like you don't understand women; it is another to feel like you're becoming one.
Desperate to regain my swagger, I decided I needed to study women, to go somewhere I could immerse myself in them. The first place that came to mind was a brothel. The only problem was: Where was I going to find a brothel in Nashville? With a semester of college still to go, I wasn't about to leave town for Bangkok either. Thus, with “temporary, purely educational prostitution” out of the question, as well as the very real possibility I might need a bra, I applied to Victoria’s Secret.
What I failed to realize was just how difficult this would be. After getting up the nerve to walk into the store and ask a manager for an application, I spent the next month trying to get an interview. Persistence was the key here. Talk to anyone who’s successful in the arts, business or convincing women to have anal sex, and they’ll tell you, aside from skill and plenty of lube, it boils down to one thing: persistence.
But persistence in regards to getting a job at Victoria’s Secret is a delicate matter -- one that, if you’re not careful, can result in registering yourself as a sex offender for the rest of your life. I got the application, returned it a few days later, then returned to the store two weeks after that to check on it. When they said they weren’t hiring at the moment, I returned two weeks later only to hear the same thing. It was discouraging, to say the least, but I have never been so determined to do anything in my life. So I kept going back, and finally, on my third return trip, they scheduled an interview.
This turned out to be pretty basic. The hiring manager led me to a bench just outside the store and proceeded to ask me the same question 37 times: Could I handle doing floor sets?
While I had no clue what a floor set was, this was retail. As long as “floor sets” didn’t involve building a Jarvik artificial heart from clothes hangers, bra straps and adhesive, I could handle it. I told her I was a fast learner.
Then came the big question: How comfortable was I working with women shopping for bras and panties?
For this, I explained I’d been raised in a family full of women — a mother, a sister, a slew of aunts, and two girl cousins who basically acted as sisters — and had, for years, subsequently removed their underwear from the dryer. I was not only comfortable in their company, but also with their undergarments.
“Comfortable handling women’s undergarments,” she jotted on my application. She seemed pleased with this.
It came as a surprise, then, when I hadn’t heard anything from them almost three weeks after the interview. I began to panic. Had I done something wrong? Was I too forward about handling my mother’s panties? Should I have worn a little less purple? I couldn’t think of any glaring mistakes. The only thing it might have been was a bad review from one of my references.
This is one of those things you overlook when you apply for a job at Victoria’s Secret. Like putting large, steel testicles on the hitch of your Silverado, then realizing you have to drive to church with it, you don’t realize you’re applying for a job at Victoria’s Secret until the hiring manager says they’re going to call all the people you’ve listed as references. It became very real for me then. In a matter of seconds, my life had gone from telling people, “I’ll be applying to the University of Pennsylvania in the fall, where my mother went to school,” to “I’m applying for a job at Victoria’s Secret right now, where my mother occasionally shops for high leg briefs.”
Holy crap, I thought, How am I going to face these people now?
I found out pretty quickly. I was working at my university’s student life center when I heard my boss yell from behind me.
“WHY DO YOU WANT TO SELL WOMEN’S UNDERWEAR?” he said, glaring.
In the heart-stopping silence that followed, I nearly crapped myself. What do you say here? Do you tell the truth -- about the heartbreak, the frustration and the nipple buds poking out through your shirt? Or do you lie through your teeth, saying it was some kind of bet you had with your friend and there was $200 riding on it?
I, instead, opted for something else. While recession is something you never wish upon a nation or someone’s hairline I was, in this situation, grateful for it. I explained to him that jobs were scarce, and this was one. And seeing as I was graduating with a degree in English, it was as good a job as any.
He laughed at this.
“Well, I guess so,” he said. “Just don’t end up in prison, OK? I don’t want to know what they’d do to you in there for sniffing panties.”
I was at home for Easter break when the call finally came. The store manager delivered the good news: A job working the cash wrap for $8/hour.
“We’ll see you in here next week for training,” she said. “Just bring your driver’s license and a pad of paper, then we’ll get you situated. And Chris?”
“Welcome to Victoria’s Secret.”
* * *
In the beginning, the customers were my primary interest. I figured if I learned anything about women, it was going to come from watching and interacting with them. I was also curious to see how they'd react to a grown man bagging their thongs. I assumed they would think I was one of three things: a gay man, a pervert or a perverted gay man. Whichever they felt was most apt for the moment.
It came as a surprise that most female customers were not only receptive to my help, but also my opinion. They wanted to know what a straight guy thought about things. Lingerie, swimsuits, panties: The question I constantly received was, “Which do you like best?” I followed that with by my timeworn response, “Well, which would look best on the ground?” Because, really, that’s where it was going to end up anyway.
I was also surprised to find how forward they were. One customer came to the cash wrap to exchange a bra for a bigger size due to the fact that she’d just gotten, and I quote, “new boobies.”
“Before the surgery,” she said, looking down and pushing them together, “I was about a 34A. But now, thanks to Dr. Schulman over on Wedgewood, I'm a solid 34C. Aren’t they just great?”
It was like watching a mother hold her baby for the first time, mixed with a 6-year-old girl getting a pony for her birthday. I've never seen a person look upon anything with such pride before. She was overjoyed, and had the doctor not advised her to avoid any activities that required jumping, slip 'n’ slides or extreme gravitational forces, she probably would have skipped out of the store.
Another woman told me she couldn’t wear any of our panties because they all, one way or another, got stuck in her butt. That was her exact phrasing: stuck in her butt. I like to think that had my life been an ongoing musical, and not the banal sequence of pointless events that it actually is, this would have been the moment in which I, the heroic loser, would have broken out into a parodied version of Usher’s “Love in This Club.”
“These panties get stuck in her butt … in her butt … in her butt … in her…”
But, instead, I just apologized and handed her the receipt.
The customers taught me how to assert myself with women, but it was my co-workers who taught the most important lesson about their sex: Girls talk. And when they talk, they talk in explicit detail.
I was folding panties one evening, when I overheard two of the girls discussing a recent hookup one of them had had.
“He had this vein,” one of them said, “that wrapped around his penis like a ...”
“A blue vine?” said the other girl.
“No, no … Oh, what’s the word?”
“A string of blue Christmas lights?”
“No,” she said. “No, it’s a kind of staircase …”
“A spiral staircase?” I said.
“YES! Thank you. A SPIRAL STAIRCASE!”
If it was possible for humans, like snakes, to dislocate their jaws and lay them on the floor, this is precisely what I would have done. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. As a man, you naively assume that every interaction you have with a woman is going to remain in a vacuum. Sure, they might give their friends the outlined version of their experience. Roman numeral I: “We had dinner.” Letter A: “I had fish.” Roman numeral II: “We watched a movie at his place.”
I assumed this, because that’s how men communicate — in swaths. But women, when left alone, get down to the nitty-gritty. I’d seen this before, actually. An ex-girlfriend once told me, after coming home from a sex toy party, that the dominant topic of conversation had been uncircumcised penises: What do they look like? Apparently most of them had never seen one; most of them, that is, except one girl, who had briefly dated a guy with a foreskin. The description she gave, and was later relayed to me, reminded me of a great poem title, right up there with T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." To her, an uncircumcised penis looked not like an earthworm, but "A Pink Anteater in a Turtleneck Sweater."
In the end, working at Victoria's Secret didn't necessarily make me better with women, it simply brought my image of them into a more realistic and startling focus. They were no longer the Cult of True Womanhood; they didn't sit around sipping tea and speaking in hushed tones about community fundraisers or the best way to knit a sock. They were what I came to call the Female Tribe, a highly sophisticated group of skilled communicators who love nothing more than knowing everything they can about another person. All the way down to the veins.
It's a humbling realization as a man, and exactly the reason why, when I wrote a letter to an ex-girlfriend confessing that I still loved her, I prefaced it by saying, "This is perhaps the most embarrassing thing I've ever done. Not because of what I'm about to say, or how I feel, but because I know, after folding thongs at Victoria's Secret, that nothing told to a woman is told in confidence. There is a 100 percent chance that the contents of this letter will be divulged to any number of people, male or female, and that they will largely be scoffed at and/or laughed at. I'm fully aware of this, yet I'll say them anyways, as the burden of silence has come to far outweigh the fear of ridicule."
Her response was short and to the point. She said nothing, then got engaged.
In the end, I’d gone into my job hoping to learn about women and regain my confidence; two things I can confidently say I succeeded in doing. There is no medicine in the world for a man distraught like being around 20 girls, and hearing on a daily basis that your butt looks good in the pants you’re wearing. I was back to my old self in two months, and dating again in three. The boobs disappeared, too — thank God. But I guess if they ever do make a comeback, I at least know how to fit them for the perfect pushup.