REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc) seems to be synonymous with hiking. No matter who I have talked to or whatever blog/discussion group I have visited, inevitably the name of that store has come up as the place to buy everything you need for a backpacking trip. People have extolled the store’s virtues ad infinitum, citing a generous return policy and helpful employees.
Researching backpacking gear and wilderness safety tips have confused the heck out of me. “If you see a bear, look it in the eyes.” “If you see a bear, don’t look it in the eyes.” “Ticks only climb up your legs. They don’t fall out of trees.” “Ticks fall out of trees, so be sure to wear a hat.” “A hammock is the best way to camp.” “Hammocks are illegal in some parks, and besides, they are bear tacos.” “Wear wool.” “Wear synthetics.” So, when a friend invited me to go with her to REI “down the hill” as they say around here, I jumped at the chance. I needed a pair of shoes for walking/hiking, I wanted to get a backpack, and I wished to check out the tents, clothes, and various types of gear available.
The woman in the shoe department brought one pair of shoes at my request. When the left foot fit and the right didn’t, and I asked for suggestions, she just shrugged. I could, of course, have bought the shoes and taken out the offending right insole, but it was glued in. Besides, there was no way I was going to buy a $150 pair of shoes and immediately start cannibalizing it. I might have to do so anyway, because there are various insoles one can purchase that are supposedly better than the insoles that come with the shoes, but I need that to be my choice, not a choice by default. So, not getting any further help from the shoe department, I wandered through the clothes department, found not one garment that would fit, then headed toward backpacks.
I found a backpack that was comfortable, had a fun assortment of pockets, and sported a suspension system that would allow air to get between my back and the pack. When I cornered a clerk and asked for advice, he merely said it was not good for overnight camping, but offered nothing in the way of an alternative, just kept saying I shouldn’t buy the pack. So I didn’t.
I flagged down another clerk and asked about tents. He waved me toward the tents, but very few were on display, so I could get no sense of weight, size, convenience, ease of set up. And there was no one to ask — the clerk had wandered away. My friend showed me various products that she used, which helped me get a sense of what I might need, otherwise I would have left immediately.
I didn’t really think anything else about the trip — the folks I encountered seemed typical bored retail clerks — until a couple of days ago when once again someone recommended REI. I explained the treatment I had received, and he said, “You know why, don’t you? You don’t fit the profile.”
That took me aback, not just the remark, but his saying it. What had he seen when he looked at me that made him think I didn’t fit the profile? My age? My extra pounds? I have no real body issues. I know what I look like, and I’m fine with it. I certainly don’t spend any time thinking about characteristics others might see as negative. Would I like to be gorgeous, young, fit? I was going to type “yes”, but the real answer appeared on the screen instead: “Not particularly.” My body has its own sort of peasant beauty, thick legs and all, and it’s a lot more fun to wiggle one’s hips in Tahitian dancing when one has hips to wiggle. Most of all, my body works. It does what I ask it with a minimum of discomfort, It might not always do what my ballet teacher asks of it, but that’s not my problem. I am developing wonderful muscles, so whether or not I can stand in a reasonable facsimile of fifth position is not a personal issue.
It had never occurred to me that I might not fit a profile — any profile — but the more I got to thinking about the man’s comment, the more it bothered me. So I wrote REI, explained the situation, then finished with, “So what if I’m overweight and over age. Is that any reason to treat a customer so poorly?”
The customer service rep apologized and forwarded my email to the store in question. The manager responded, saying, among other things, “It is especially disappointing to know that you did not feel welcomed because of any personal reasons. At REI we have no “profiles”- only a mission to eagerly serve all our guests by inspiring, educating and finding the right products- towards whatever end goal our guests want to enjoy.”
“Because of any personal reasons,” he said. Putting the onus on me, as if I were unduly sensitive. He went on to say, “I’m personally grateful and excited that we have such a variety of people who shop with us to gear up for recreation -no one deserves to have assumptions placed on their passions or abilities because of outward appearances, and at REI we won’t tolerate such behavior -you as our guest deserve better!” Yeah, right. That’s why not a single piece of clothing in the store fit me. They might not have an overt policy of profiling, but they do have a de facto policy. Where are the clothes for the out-fit to wear? (Out-fit because such folk are not necessary unfit, just outside the range of what is usually considered fit.) People twice my size go backpacking. Where were the clothes for those women? Where are the sleeping bags for the short and wide folks. (You can get wide bags, but they are also very long.)
The manager ended his letter by saying he had dealt with the person who had been in the camping department that day, and that he was proud of the service that 95% of his staff gives, and he hoped I would return.
By that time I was sick of the whole mess and wished I hadn’t said anything. So I wrote back, “If I wanted you to deal with your employees on my behalf, I would I have told you in person when I was there. I only wrote when I heard from someone else who had a similar experience with what appeared to be storewide profiling. You assure me that’s not the case. So fine. Nice to know. But there is no guarantee that if I were ever to shop at your store, I wouldn’t once again encounter some of the 5% who weren’t helpful. And it’s too far to go to find out. But thank you for responding.”
So why am I telling you this? I have no idea. Maybe because of the realization that I have no body issues though apparently it looks as if I should have. Maybe because the experience is just another step in the adventure that has become my life. Or maybe because . . . ta-da! . . . it’s a blog topic, and blog topics are almost as hard to find as outfits for the out-fit.
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.