When I was 22, I moved to Chicago with $500, no job, and an English degree from a state school that impressed literally no one outside my extended family. After a few weeks of rejection emails from pretty much every job in the literary world, I decided paying rent was more important than impressing anyone back home. I got a job as a receptionist at a swanky salon in the Gold Coast, a neighborhood filled with million dollar brownstones, terrible nightclubs, and warring factions of high-class escorts.
My interview for the position was more like a casting call. I was required to include a headshot along with my résumé, and the hiring manager's first order of business was to compare my picture to my actual, in-person face. She asked me a few throwaway questions about my nonexistent experience as a receptionist, then deemed me pretty enough to start the following week. She made it clear that the girls at the front desk were walking advertisements for the salon. Our hair was to be perfectly done every day, our makeup, immaculate. If we showed up wearing something frumpy, we had to either go home and change, or buy something new to wear with our generous, $9 an hour salary.
I'll be the first to admit that working in this environment turned me into a narcissistic bitch. I was on the spectrum before, but it's hard not to become completely obsessed with your appearance when it's the only thing anyone talks about. On my first day, three separate people told me I would look a lot better if I dyed my eyebrows, and they were right. Turns out I looked great with dark eyebrows, balayaged hair, perfectly placed winged eyeliner, and the full spectrum of Aveda lipstick at my disposal. I wish I was kidding when I say I used to spend literal hours staring at myself in the mirror both during and after work. I was a fucking monster.
Luckily, my new raging ego was torn down on a daily basis. I'd waitressed during college, so I thought I knew what it was like to be treated like a piece of human garbage on the job. But the drunk patrons at my old Minneapolis sports bar had nothing on the entitled, wealthy housewives who frequented the salon. I rarely got through a full day without being called a stupid bitch for something that wasn't my fault. One rainy day, a woman in a fur coat remarked that the weather made her "melancholy." When I agreed, she rolled her eyes and said, "Oh, honey, don't pretend you know what that word means."
Every day featured some such indignity. The $10 blow dry charge the salon tacked on to hair services always set off the crazies. Guests were fine paying $200-plus for a haircut, but God forbid they pay a cent more to get it styled. I can't count how many times women carrying Birkin bags that cost more than my college education screamed at me over a miniscule $10 charge.
The salon was located in a part of the Gold Coast that locals call the 'Viagra Triangle.'
We also had a cash-only tipping policy, which resulted in fewer tips for the stylists who depended on tips to live. One repeat customer would get $400 in services every two weeks. After she checked out, she would claim she needed to run to the ATM across the street to get cash for a tip. Every damn time she'd leave the salon and—within full view of everyone at the front desk—slip into a cab.
The only thing rich people seemed to hate more than spending a cent more than necessary was having to wait. One day, I called a woman to tell her the appointment before hers was taking longer than expected, and asked her to come in at 4:20 instead of 4 PM. She informed me the 20 minute wait was unacceptable. She would come in for her scheduled time, and not a second later.
She showed up in a huff at 3:15, 45 minutes early for her original appointment. I'd told her my name on the phone, and when I politely repeated that, yes, she would still have to wait, she began yelling my name at the top of her lungs: "Well, CAROLINE, I don't know who was dumb enough to hire you, but you won't have a job in THIS TOWN for long. MY TIME IS VERY VALUABLE. I TOLD YOU ON THE PHONE."
The salon was located in a part of the Gold Coast that locals call the "Viagra Triangle" for its abundance of wealthy old men and the fake-breasted women they pay to accompany them to nightly dinners and, presumably, freaky hotel butt stuff. These women frequented our salon, treating themselves to full-body scrubs, replacing their long blond extensions, and buying thousands of dollars of product in cash. The highest rollers were in their mid to late 40s and botoxed to oblivion. They weren't all upfront about how they'd come into money to the girls at the front desk, but they gabbed with abandon to their stylists, who'd tell us all the dirt—the $12,000 weekends in Cabo, the million dollar apartments paid for by their longtime sugar daddies.
You had to be a little crazy to work in a place where every customer was a walking time bomb. One sweet baby angel, fresh off the bus from Nebraska, quit three hours into her first day when a disgruntled guest called her a dumb cunt over the phone. Nice girls dropped like flies in that place. Working there gave me a thick skin, but it also made me mean. I wasn't a saint before, but after just a few short weeks of having daily shit dumped on me by the filthy rich, I developed a flippant "fuck 'em before they fuck you" attitude. Combined with the full tilt narcissism the job all but required, and I had become a real treat to be around.
I was an asshole—working in an environment that was equal parts shallow and hostile facilitated it. If you treat someone like a piece of shit who's only valued for their looks, they're eventually going to start acting like one. I now go out of my way to treat every customer service professional like they've just given me my long-overdue Hogwarts acceptance letter. I'm a goddamn ray of sunshine.
I learned some basic life skills at that job: how to apply lipstick, how to calm down a menopausal psycho who's threatening to stab your co-worker with a pair of $100 tweezers, how to be cool while helping B-list celebrities find the perfect dry shampoo. But the most important lesson I learned from my year as a punching bag for rich housewives was simple: Don't be a fucking dick. No one owes you anything, least of all the girl ringing up your $800 skincare products. She probably drank a day-old cup of coffee for breakfast because she was too broke to buy a new one. She doesn't need your shit.
Follow Caroline Thompson on Twitter.