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— "The day after Christmas is insane. The return lines are out the door and around the building. And on days like that, when I call him from the parking lot to get him out for lunch, he answers the phone, and I can hear screaming in the background," says Valdivia. "I've asked him, 'Are they screaming at you?' 'Yes, I'll have to call you back later,' he said and hung up."

During a visit to a mall in Mission Valley, I ask clerks in Robinsons-May and Bed Bath & Beyond how customers treat them. They said that many customers do get irritable, but most of them remain polite. One woman, however, said an obviously perturbed man made her nervous with his glares. It caused her to start putting his purchase into another customer's bag. "He called me a stupid bitch," she said, "and stormed off without me getting it into a bag at all."

But Christmas season gives a financial boost to many part-time retail employees. A clerk in Robinsons-May told me she's happy with an extra 17 hours she has gotten on the floor this year. She gets only 20 hours per week during the rest of the year.

"Managers and assistant managers -- the upper level -- get hit hardest," according to Valdivia. "If you're on salary, they own you and can keep you at the store for as long as they want." She says her husband was on salary at the Wherehouse for 25 years. "The fact that now the Wherehouse has to close a lot of stores in the San Diego area is just deserts," she adds. "They were very nasty to their management. In Las Vegas they've been taken to court for requiring management to do carpentry and painting, things out of the job description.

"In his current store, my husband is paid hourly," says Valdivia. "He still puts in long hours, but usually at this time of year only. They do pay year-end bonuses based on profits. But when they have big sales, the profits stay low, and so do the bonuses."

Valdivia relishes the thought of being on the other end of Christmas business. "I would love to go shopping with my husband and pick things out together. It's not going to happen until after he retires, if the business doesn't kill him first," she says. "When Christmas comes now, I don't even want to go into stores. I tell everybody, 'I'll buy you guys dinner.' I'm not into gifts anymore. And I got so frustrated that I had to do something for me. So I used fireplace tongs -- I'm that short -- to hang lights. I turn them on every night.

"This year I'm taking the bull by the horns," says Valdivia, "and getting a little more involved with my church, because they go Christmas caroling and have such a positive attitude about it all. But people in malls are off the deep end. You talk about the Christmas spirit; if you want to see the Christmas spirit that's out there, try to find a parking space at the mall and accidentally cut someone off. There are so many worse things going on in this world to get upset about than somebody squeezing into a parking place you anticipated getting into. The way people treat each other is amazing, and it's all so they can get their stuff, get it wrapped, give it to someone else, and say, 'Look at me. Aren't I great? I love you. Here.' "

I ask how many times she's gotten to spend her birthday with her husband. A long pause follows as tears well up in Valdivia's brown eyes. Then she laughs loudly and says, "I think it was five years ago.

"Last year," she says, "I threw my own 50th birthday party at a restaurant. It fell on Black Friday. Both my family and his family came. At 1:00 in the morning, he came into the bar. It was a little anticlimactic, but it was great to see that he still wanted to catch it. Normally he's so beat up that he'll call and say, 'Honey, I'll see you at home.' "

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