Born and raised in Shanghai, China, I had absolutely no conception about what “buying on credit” actually entailed. Soon after my arrival in these United States, my husband was stationed at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. After settling down in our apartment, my husband handed me $100 and ordered me to “go off on a buying spree to your heart’s content.” I was so excited. Off I trekked to Joske’s of Texas, a large department store — a stone’s throw from where we lived — and proceeded to shop to my content.
Not understanding the principle of “a small amount down and so much a month,” I proceeded to hand the salesman in each department a “small down payment” for a washing machine, a hand-rubbed mahogany console TV and radio combination, six suits for my husband, an 11-cubic-feet refrigerator, a baby bed and a collapsible playpen, returning home with $15. It never occurred to me to ask what “so much a month” entailed, or how much the total was. When my husband asked what I had purchased, I told him to wait — tomorrow would be a surprise!
When “tomorrow” came and deliveries were made, my husband asked me how much I had spent and how I planned to pay for those purchases. Naively I answered, “I paid money already on them and in a few days I would receive coupons which I am to tear out and ‘pay so much a month.’” A cursory glance told him that “so much a month” could conceivably exceed his total take-home pay. When I suggested sending them all back, he said that would not do; he would not have his credit rating marred; and since the obligation was mine and mine alone, my only recourse was to “go to work.” No amount of tears and pleadings swayed him, so that afternoon I went job hunting. One consolation: he did order me to cancel the six suits, which I did.
Since I was not yet a naturalized American citizen, government jobs were not available to me. Finding practically no available jobs on the local job market, I returned to Joske’s and explained my predicament to Mrs. Wilson, personnel manager, who said she had no job to offer me and suggested I return the merchandise delivered that morning. I said I could not as I was more afraid of my husband than I was of Joske’s. I then said I would camp outside her office until she found a job for me. I was in this predicament primarily because I was too gullible to recognize the wiles of their salesmen. And further, I wished someone would explain to me what “credit” truly meant.
Closing time came and I was still there. Out of desperation, Mrs. Wilson suggested I return the next morning as she needed to check to see if she could find a place for me “somewhere.” She did.
I started work as a typist the next morning earning $35 a week. I kept $5 to pay the landlady for babysitting and applied the rest toward my nearly $2,000 spending spree. My job entailed working for the merchandising manager in the women’s better ready-to-wear apparel department.
Apparently word seemed to have passed among the employees about my predicament, and each morning without fail I would find on my desk a cup of hot coffee and a doughnut!
Several days later, Joske’s board of directors informed me that since I started work one day after my “spree” I was entitled to the employees’ 20 percent discount. Wow!
From then on, Mrs. Wilson became my surrogate mother. She kept tabs of each payday deposit made toward my debt. Without fail, Mrs. Wilson found ways to get me assignments with better pay. I would keep $5 and apply the rest toward my “spending spree.” As an example: When my department manager had monthly modeling shows featuring new apparel, he would use the same model. As luck would have it, whenever that model was unavailable, I was used as a pinch-hitter. I took a crash course in modeling so whenever I substituted, I was not only presented with those items I modeled, but also with the model’s salary. Wow!
When the president’s secretary went on vacation, I worked in her place on her pay scale. Wow!
Good fortune continued to smile on me — beginning with periodic wage raises, cash rewards for suggestions submitted, ad infinitum. When going to work became too uncomfortable during the seventh month of my pregnancy, I did typing at home for Joske’s at $1 a page. Daily, the president’s driver would deliver and pick up my work assignments.
Shortly after our son was born my husband received transfer orders to Fort Meade, Maryland. I asked Joske’s if they would consider putting a hold on my payment schedule until I found work in our new location. I never got an answer!
On our arrival at Fort Meade, I received a letter from Joske’s thanking me for my services, ending with:
“We commend you for your outstanding loyalty, expertise and devotion to duty, and award you the sum of $500. Thank you for your meritorious attention to detail.”
My last statement was enclosed; it was marked: PAID IN FULL!
This article originally appeared in Roadrunner Extra!, the resident newsletter of Beatitudes Campus.