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— 'One time I wondered," says Ana Valdivia (her maiden name), "with the hours my husband was putting in, if maybe he was having an affair. But we laughed when he said, 'I'd be too tired. Not that I'm interested, but only to let you know. Where would I find the time?' "

I am sitting with Valdivia on her 51st birthday, three days after Thanksgiving. She has come from having lunch with her father and sisters. Her husband is working his management job at a Kearny Mesa retail store. He is lucky that today he had to be at work only by 10:00 a.m.

But he won't get off until 11:30 tonight. And Valdivia will be there to pick him up. The couple has one car now that their older one was stolen in the company parking lot several years ago. Valdivia's husband has been working in retail for over 40 years and as a manager for 30. "He started when he was a kid," she says. "He hired me at the Wherehouse when he was a manager there. We've been married for 12 years."

I am receiving an account of the couple's most recent "black Friday," so named for the day after Thanksgiving when supposedly many retail stores' balance sheets move, for the year's first time, out of the red and into the black. For retailers the money-maker event starts on Wednesday night.

On that night this year, "My husband was scheduled to be off at about 7:00 p.m.," says Valdivia. "Knowing him and how things set up, I figured it would turn out to be 8:00. When I called to check on how he was doing, he said he needed me to come up and take some things to Kinko's to make sale signs. The time he could leave became 9:30, then 11:00. At midnight I bundled up in the car because I didn't want to go back to our place in Chula Vista. I fell asleep, fortunately, and when he got out, it was 1:45 in the morning.

"What they were doing," Valdivia goes on, "was setting everything up for the day after Thanksgiving. We got home at about 2:00, crashed about 2:30, and were up again at 6:00 so my husband could be back in the store to let the janitors out and the loss-prevention team in. I guess they do the backup tape then, too. Loss prevention is there to make sure nothing gets stolen in the transition. It's a trust issue but good policy nevertheless.

"In addition, that's when they place barriers around the doors so that when they come in Friday morning they don't have to step over all the people to get to the front door and unlock," says Valdivia. "What I heard happened this year was that as soon as the barriers came down at 5:00 a.m., people charged the doors. At 8:00 or 9:00 Thanksgiving evening, they're already sitting around the edges of the building in lawn chairs and sleeping bags and blankets.

"You've never seen that?" asks Valdivia, who finds my surprise strange. "Every year there are a number of sales. Prices are marked down so low that I guess these people figure it's too great an opportunity to miss. My sister-in-law went down to the San Ysidro outlet center on the same day, and she said it took her almost five hours to get into the lot and find a parking place."

The whole period from Thanksgiving to the middle of January "is very hard to take," says Valdivia. "I call it the Christmas monster. They're constantly making sure everything gets restocked, sales signs are up, and so on. It goes until after new inventory comes in when the holiday season's over. At that time they're replacing and counting things. They want to verify that the numbers all square. Finally, I get to see my husband again, the guy I know instead of the robot.

"I know it sounds like I'm complaining. Still, I'm very glad my husband has his job. There is a roof over our heads; food is in the refrigerator and gas in the tank. And we've got our family and our house. You can't ask for more than that. But it's amazing how depressing things can get," says Valdivia with a sigh and shoulders that suddenly sag, "how tired you can be, and how dragging it is on the human body."

Her husband's back is "killing him," says Valdivia. "He's a tall man, and now has bad knees because he's on concrete all day long. I try to get him out of the building for lunch. We were sitting at a Panda Express in Vons one day and, because he's a familiar face, somebody decided to sit with us while we were eating," she says, laughing. "The woman started asking him questions about what was on sale and whether he knew if the store had this or that. Being in company dress, you need to not be rude. He's such a sweet guy anyway, so he went ahead and gave her all the information. She was feeling pretty comfortable. I was waiting for her to start picking off his plate."

Last Christmas Eve Valdivia went with her husband to deliver a chair after-hours to customers in Poway. It had not arrived in the store on time from an Anaheim warehouse. "The people came down in a golf cart to let us through their guarded gate," says Valdivia. "We drove up, and they came and took the chair out. The lady was very nice. She made us some cookies, which was very nice, and she gave me a big hug. The man was kind of cold, but he tipped my husband $20. We made it home about 11:30 that night -- starving."

I ask Valdivia why her husband doesn't get out of retail. "He does have lots of experience training people in customer service, and he's beautiful with people. But at 56, to go out someplace else, the pickings are pretty slim." Valdivia does not have complaints about his pay nor does she blame any particular ogres in the company for all the stress he goes through. "It's the business," she says. "All the companies do the same thing.

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