There are select errands in life that you know are going to be hell on Earth even before you step foot out the door. You know there’s going to be an excessively long line. You know they are going to only have one person working despite the excessive unmanned counters that speak to a time when this place of business actually gave a shit. And you know that you will have to muster every ounce of your patience and compassion for other human beings to get that which you seek. Places like the post office, DMV, the deli counter and the bank are probably coming to mind. Lest we forget Jo-Ann Fabrics.
Just yesterday, I made a stop there to get some holiday fabric for a Christmas stocking I want to sew for my new baby girl. And somehow, like an abused woman blacking out the details of her attacks, I had forgotten what it actually takes to accomplish purchasing fabric there. The trip seemed harmless at first, but I should’ve heeded the nasal-searing stench of the cinnamon pinecones at the store’s threshold, for it tries to hide the atrocities committed within its walls.
I quickly chose my fabrics, knowing full well that I had little time to meander as life with a newborn baby has me on the tight milk leash. I headed to the fabric table, which I will subsequently refer to as the “hellmouth.“
As I approached it, I noticed that there was some kind of waiting system going on that didn’t utilize a standard line. People were spread around the hellmouth — slack-jawed and slumped against anything they could find to support their lifeless bodies, like wounded soldiers at a makeshift medical tent. I spotted the machine with those paper number thingys and joined my fallen brethren. They were on number eight, and I had number 14. I had no way to gauge what I was in for, but by the looks of these sad sacks, it would be an eternity.
The smart move here would’ve been to just leave. But I couldn’t. My precious little girl would not go stocking-less just because I couldn’t handle Jo-Ann Fabrics. And then there was the fact that I already knew I would never be able to go back there. I had to sack up and be strong, because I knew I could not bring myself to return to that desolate strip mall which included the ever-popular Steinmart and what I assumed was the last standing Jazzercisestudio, unless I misjudged it and it was actually an ironic hipster bar.
The parking lot was completely lawless a la “Mad Max.” There was no good way to enter it nor exit and that should’ve tipped me off that things were not quite right there. The lot was vast and like lost souls, cars rambled every which way across empty aisles with painted lines for parking spots that no car would ever fill. I imagined the construction crew who built this strip mall going over the plan, “Oh, a Jo-Ann is going in here? Well then fuck it.”
Back to the hellmouth. I clung to my paper number — my Charon’s obol and tried to inhabit a positive attitude. This is going to be a great exercise in being Zen. Life gives us these moments to push us to our edge and ultimately help us grow. I would not let myself get to the place (read drooling against upholstery) that these other people had. I was better than that.
I focused in on the two Jo-Ann fabric cutters working at an ludicrously slow pace — as if on purpose — making no eye contact and seemingly unaware of the human element that surrounded them. They moved about as if they had never waited in a line for anything. I pursed my lips, squinted my eyes and breathed in. This was not going to be easy. And then I saw that Cutter Number One was finished and we were on to customer number nine already! Oh wait, not yet. It appeared that Cutter Number One decided that this would be the perfect time to tidy up the already tidy inner-workings of the hellmouth. She rearranged stacks of fabric, unrolled them for no reason only to brush them off and re-roll them. Oh and what was that, a bolt of fabric without a tag on it? This was the ideal time to look through an archaic black three-ringed binder to find a price among about a thousand SKU numbers. And not only that, but since no one was waiting (insert the sound of eyeballs cutting through flesh. Yes, the sound of eyeballs), why not cut off the edges of every roll of fabric nearby so that they are perfectly, excruciatingly straight? Never mind the slumping carcasses with arms barely clinging to their gargantuan bolts of fabric. At this point, I found a rack of upholstery and leaned my body against it and actually closed my eyes. I can do this. I’ll just use this as a break, yes a break. A welcomed chance to recharge. Thank you Jo-Ann Fabrics for this mini gift. I was living in the moment while also living in gratitude (extra points).
I can’t fucking take it! But I couldn’t leave. It truly was purgatory. This went on for about 20 insufferable minutes. The fabric cutters made no acknowledgement of any of us. Their eyes stayed low. God forbid they made eye contact. And none of us could muster a word. It was as if a dark spell had been cast.
At this point, I was losing my mind for a variety of reasons: One was that I was appalled at how quickly my Zen attitude survived — about three minutes. Two, I come from a family that’s obsessed with the quality of customer service in even the most minute of exchanges and I find it self-centered to always be critiquing minimum wage workers on how well they treat you. But now I wanted both of these fabric cutters fired. And better yet, I wanted Ms. Jo-Ann Herself to make an example of them. I might even go so far as to say that I wanted Ms. Jo-Ann Herself to torture them with pinking shears. And lastly, I had a six-year-old son to pick up from school in two hours, and I wasn’t sure that I’d even be out of there by then. And when I would tell the principal and my crying, confused and sensitive son that I was late because I was at the hellmouth, they would simply say, “Why didn’t you leave?” and I just know they would not understand why I couldn’t and then I would have to tell them about the lawless parking lot, the burning cinnamon stench, Cutters Numbers One and Two and the mass slumping — and they would not understand. They could not understand.
About a half hour in, my baby started fussing. YES! YES, give our people out here a voice! Cry the tears of a thousand crafters who simply wanted to make a fucking Christmas stocking but who were brought to their knees because two fabric cutters could not manage to cut fabric with deftness, friendliness or the humanity to look up and for the love of God say, “Thanks for waiting, we’ll be with you in a moment.” I then visualized the next part of this tragic tale in which I had to bare my breast to feed my crying baby right there in the heap of fleece in the hellmouth. And I knew Cutter Number Two would not go for that. Hell no. She’s a crafter all right, but not the sweet, motherly kind, but instead the stern, woodworking and spray-painting kind. She was reminiscent of Large Marge from “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure” — older and gruff and I was pretty sure her eyeballs could explode out of her face whenever she wanted. Even though my baby’s cries subsided, I scrambled to come up with a story that would suffice and justify the milky mess among the fleece that I was sure to find myself in. I would tell her that I was buying this fabric to make a nursing cover and well, it took too long. This is your fault Cutter Number Two. You made me do this. You made me nurse my baby with all these half-alive onlookers waiting for their turn to cross the River Styx. Shame on you Cutter Number Two, shame on you.
I was pulled out of my daydream by a woman asking Cutter Number Two if they sold cushions in size different than the one she was holding. How dare she not take a paper number to even speak to Cutters Number One and Two? “Nope,” Cutter Number Two said without even looking at the cushion nor the cushion-carrier. I could sense that Cutter Number Two was happy that this poor woman would now have to scour the Earth for her precious cushion. Cutter Number One, who was young and a little asexual, offered (without looking up, naturally), “I think there’s a Cushion World somewhere around here, but I think they moved. I’d Google it if I were you.” The cushion woman was nearly sweating. We could all then see that she didn’t speak English very well and didn’t understand any of what Cutter Number One had said. But she could smell the tension and didn’t dare ask for it to be repeated. She turned away, bowed her head and moved on with her life, cushion less and broken. My heart softened and I wanted to shout after her, “I will help you Google it!” but I couldn’t speak. There was no more water in my decaying body and my mouth would not open.
Forty-five minutes later, I was barely carrying a pulse when the unthinkable happened. Cutter Number Two called my number. It was time. I was the chosen one. I peeled myself off the end cap I’d been laying on and rolled the squeaky stroller to the heart of the hellmouth. I was faced with a dilemma: Now that I was in the driver’s seat, should I dish back the unfriendly filth these two had spewed over all of us, or should I take the high road. I thought about my family whom I’m sure would’ve immediately laid into Cutter Number Two, so I resisted my DNA and chose the high road. I didn’t know where this was coming from, it was as if I was possessed or had forgotten the 45 minutes of my life that had just been pillaged from me, but I was actually friendly with Cutter Number Two. It must’ve been that I knew I would be getting my life back soon. How the faintest glimmer of hope can lift the soul. I spoke in concise sentences so that those whom came after me would not be burdened by my needs or extra chatter. Because of this, I was pretty sure I got the wrong amount of fabric, but fuck it, there was no going back. Cutter Number Two mumbled about their “system” needing to reboot and my knees buckled. I hadn’t remembered shopping at Jo-Ann Fabrics being this much of a soul-sucking experience but one thing I did suddenly remember is that their fucking fabric computer calculator things NEVER work. EVER. NEVER EVER. Ms. Jo-Ann Herself, why will you never implement fabric computer calculators that work? This is essential to your business. Why have you forsaken your own company? It dons your name — why have you forsaken your name, Jo-Ann??
Shockingly, the machine only took about 10 extra painful minutes to reboot and in the blink of an eye, it was over. I had been spared. I turned around to exit the hellmouth and somehow behind me, people had multiplied. And I use the term “people” very loosely. It’s as if Sleestaks had replicated during my interlude with Cutter Number Two. There were a confusing amount of males, with their mouths agape, slowly moving in on me and none of them even seemed to be carrying fabric nor had any need to be at the hellmouth (except for the fact that I’m pretty sure it’s their breeding ground). Part of me wanted to stick around and study them, but my new mom paranoia kicked in and reminded me that they were probably just Juggalos hopped up on bath salts and were going to surely eat my baby, so I fled immediately.
I sprinted my victory lap to the cashier — yes, after you wait in the eternal line to experience the hellmouth, you get to wait in another line — Ms. Jo-Ann Herself, have you ever been to your own store — it’s HELL ON EARTH! My genes got the best of me, and I was already concocting what I would say to the cashier and perhaps even the manager about everything and how a big change needs to be made here, although at this point I was sure there was no one manning this ghost ship. I got to the cashier only to find that she probably dug herself out of her own grave to come to work that morning and was pushing 95. I shoved my money in the corpse’s bony hand, bolted of out there and then fell to the earth and prayed to the god of all that is good in this world in thanks for letting me live and see the light of day again. And for the fabric for my baby girl’s stocking.
Some will say I could’ve left at any moment and avoided this whole experience. Those people will be right.
*Amazing drawing above done by a talented reader when this article first appeared on HuffPost, in 2013.