Gift wrap

I understand that some people hate to wrap gifts or have no talent for it. Gift wrapping, to a lot of my friends, means not removing the gift from the sack it was placed in at the point of sale ("The receipt's still in there if you hate it"); others, like my friend Barbara, remove the item from its original limp, thin, plastic bag and then create an effect a lot like it in wrapping paper, price tags and all. I always appreciate the effort in Barbara's case (I've seen her do it, and she puts a lot more work into it than you could guess from the end result) and I've never resented the impulse in the others to play it as it lays. It's the thought that counts, right?

My life is chaos. I don't live anywhere, I don't have a car, per se, and my employment history is best described as fitful, like a single, long night of bad sleep. There are, however, a couple of places where order is asserted: I can fold a fitted sheet so that it lies as flat as a pillowcase, and I can't lend someone my car, on those occasions when I have one, without fighting the impulse to first gift wrap the keys. I perceive the world differently from you, especially as the holidays near. Anything I look at — a sponge, a book, a person, a tree, anything at all — I first scan for text, hoping to find spelling and grammatical errors; next I imagine wrapping it. The popular belief is that men gauge the potential pleasure of copulating with whatever they see. I'm not that guy.

Maybe gift wrapping seems inconsequential to you, but what if I told you that the history of my involvement in that particular activity is all tied up with the civil rights struggles that America underwent in the sixties and seventies? Because it is? You see, in 1978, at the age of only sixteen, I struck a blow for equality felt throughout Towne East Square when I tore down the walls of superstition, fear, and ignorance long surrounding the institution of gift wrapping by becoming the first male gift-wrapper at Henry's, a tony department store that then stood where some other store stands now. If you yourself are a sixteen-year-old boy who holds opinions about what kind of tape is best for visible seams on a gift-wrapped package, then I struck that blow for you.

Here are a couple of true stories from my days at Henry's:

Nutjobs, as you can probably guess, infallibly choose me above all others in their vicinity to confide in or hit on or direct unblinking, threatening stares at for entire shifts. One busy day in gift wrap I was putting the finishing touches on a package when a roll of ribbon hit the wall above the worktable where I stood, a foot or so to the right of my head. It made me curious. Next a pair of scissors crashed into this same wall, and now I turned around. I found that one of my co-workers, a pretty, college-age woman whom we'll call Prancer in honor of the holiday, was glowering at me, and I had the impression that she had been for some time.

"May I help you?" I imagine I said.

"Did it ever occur to you," Prancer said, "that all your hard work here will be in the fucking trash a week from now?"

It had, but she was making me nervous and I guessed that her question was meant rhetorically anyway. "Oh," I probably responded. "Ha ha."

"That's right," she said. "Be a good elf. Wrap. Wrap!"

"Ha ha," I may have repeated nervously. "OK."

At this point Prancer, who wasn't even pretending to wrap gifts, began to unwrap some that were awaiting pick-up, and a more seasoned employee summoned management. We never saw her again, although I am certainly more sympathetic now, at age forty-four, to those who find the seasonal stress of the holidays too much to govern than I was then, at sixteen, with loads of presents awaiting me at home and a bottle of peppermint schnapps that I planned to drink in its entirety within fifteen minutes of getting off work.

Another time, two seasons later, an especially vivacious customer presented me with a purchase to be wrapped, but her voucher was for the upstairs gift wrap, not the downstairs gift wrap, where we were at the time. I started to explain but could see that an explanation would do no good with this particular customer and instead said that I would get it taken care of right away. The store's general manager happened to wander by and the customer enthusiastically praised me to him. How agreeable I was!

I asked for the woman's last name. At the end of the holidays, I would be moving into an apartment at college that I would share with two female friends, an arrangement that still held some shock value in 1980, a time when Three's Company was in prime time. Now the woman gave me her last name, and seeing that it was the same as one of my future roommate's, I asked if they were related.

"She's my daughter!" the woman answered cheerfully.

"I'm her new roommate!" I merrily replied.

Later this woman and I would become friends, but the important thing at the time was that I was able to keep my job. It just goes to illustrate the perils faced by those of us — freedom fighters, you might call us — who set out to level the playing field and make a change for the good.

"Maybe It Was Once a Cake"

At Henry's I was trained to wrap packages so that no tape or cut edges showed on the final product; where paper joined paper, the edge was folded under and held in place invisibly with double-sided tape. Back in Lawrence, though, I was a rebel who shaved his head and who wrapped gifts in Saran wrap, wire, twine, duct tape, tinfoil, Hustler centerfolds, and sandpaper. My family members were among those who grew confused in the presence of these gifts, and at least one Christmas present — one that I know of — was thrown away, rather than opened, by mistake. Aside the more traditionally wrapped presents under the tree, they jarred.

It occurs to me that a psychologist would probably identify any of my gift-wrapping techniques of this period as a "cry for help," but I didn't worry about it at the time, and I next went through a phase wherein I wrapped gifts nicely and then distressed them. I'm not sure exactly what I was after aesthetically, but these wrapped gifts were deliberately drenched, burned, or torn, and some were decorated with fake postmarks, as though they'd taken a real beating in the mail. Meanwhile — perhaps inspired by my Grandma Ella, who once mailed a birthday cake to me in Hutchinson, Kansas, from Los Angeles, California — I mailed actual junk to a friend overseas at enormous expense; I mailed him sticky toy squid, candy stones, tackle, and chocolate coins, all of them gift-wrapped. Why? When I later met a friend of my friend's who had studied overseas with him, this friend asked, "Are you the one who mailed Brad the orange juice?" I hadn't mailed Brad any orange juice, and it made me kind of jealous. Who had? But it turned out that Brad's friend had meant the band Orange Juice and that I had done it after all.

But to get back to the topic at hand, at some point, probably after the discovery of Thai Binh Supermarket and thus joss paper, I decided that it would be acceptable if I were to resort to wrapping presents attractively, in an un-ironic way, in my non-professional life. This may have occurred embarrassingly recently, and the approach is much easier: the risk of personal injury is reduced to almost nil and the less demanding results generally produce a more positive reaction in the recipient.

Still my friends have concerns. One expressed the fear that I'm giving away things I might ordinarily choose to keep solely in order to gift wrap them. Another wondered if the presentation might sometimes overshadow the worth of the gift, as when I gave her a coffee mug promoting the movie Congo in a cardboard box that I painstakingly covered in wood-patterned contact paper. Fabian asked why, if I didn't have a place to live, I carried three designs of gift wrap, but no change of clothes, in "my" car, and another guy voiced a similar concern when I asked him if there wasn't some way we could charge a coveted tape dispenser to his father's credit card.

A Moment of Introspection

I pondered these questions when I caught up with myself one recent afternoon at a friend's house, where Taco the Italian greyhound and I had stopped in to gift wrap a box of wooden sushi. Surrounding me on the floor were a variety of seasonal papers, a large envelope of stickers, a rainbow of Sharpies, a can of red spray paint, and see-through plastic boxes containing tape, rubber bands, ribbon, and miscellany. I wore a look of rapt concentration. Taco napped peacefully on a nearby futon.

JE: That sushi is cool. Who's it for?

JE: My friend T-------.

JE: And the… What are those? Clown shoes?

JE: Those are for F-----.

JE: You think he'll be surprised?

JE: I'm sure he will.

JE: Tell us a little bit about the wrapping you're using on the sushi here.

JE: This? Well, this is pretty much a standard job. I got the Santa paper on sale last year…

JE: After the holidays?

JE: Right, yeah, because why pay seven dollars for it? At any rate, I'm using the Santa paper, maybe with this red ribbon, and then I'll find a sticker or something to put on top.

JE: With the bow?

JE: No. No bow. I hate bows. There's nothing more depressing than one of those lopsided, smashed bows. Like the kind you buy in a bag? Those are what estranged fathers use.

JE: And they pop off…

JE: They're good for about eight to ten minutes, then they're gone. "Look, honey, I guess the courts must have repossessed the bow Daddy gave you, too. So much for college. You'd better get busy and learn a trade because Daddy can't even clear a check for a crappy little bow…"

JE: OK. And so what are the plans for the shoes?

JE: You know, I should have wrapped this sushi in seaweed . Why didn't I think of that?

JE: Seaweed?

JE: Not actual seaweed seaweed. I mean the paper kind, the kind that they smash into paper. To wrap the sushi in?

JE: Nori.

JE: Nori! Do you think it rots?

JE: I don't know. We could keep it in the fridge, wrap it and keep it in the fridge somewhere…

JE: Where would we buy something like that? Nori?

JE: At that Asian grocery! The one right over here at Broadway! We could take Sarah's car.

JE: I've got eight dollars.

JE: It can't cost more than eight dollars. Taco, did you want to go? To the Asian grocery store? [In baby talk] Because we have to buy some nori to wrap up T-------'s wooden sushi in so that she won't think we don't love her. Don't we? Don't we have to buy some nori for T-------? Yes, we do.

JE: They might close at five, so I'll call Sarah.

Taco: Yap!

JE: Let's go.

Wrap Up

A couple months ago I wrote about bad grammar on signs I saw at the state fair, and afterwards some people reported to me that they were afraid to send me emails afterwards: what if I proofread them? The danger now, of course, is that, having written about gift wrapping, my friends will be afraid to give me presents. (A more pressing danger is that T------- and F----- will fill in the blanks in their names and know that they're receiving wooden sushi and clown shoes for Christmas. I know what you're thinking, but I think they'll be thrilled.)

Quit, because I have the solution. First off, skip the presents; where would I put them? Second, I meant it sincerely above when I wrote that it's the thought that counts. When my friend Rob once gave me back the birthday present I had given him the month before, but in a paper bag rather than a gift-wrapped box, and then asked kind of nervously, "Is this OK?," as in, "Do you get this joke?," it was. Gift wrapping was too much to expect from Rob, although he'd walk two miles through waist-deep snow with pneumonia to get to your birthday party.

I forgive in advance visible tape and exposed cuts on wrapping paper. In exchange, just agree not to be disappointed if I give you something that looks really fancy but turns out to be a Congo mug.