Seems there are some people that get pretty testy when I don’t post on a regular basis. You’d think I was entertainment for them or something. Sheesh.
I remember the first job I ever held. Aside from babysitting, which isn’t a job when you’re twelve and your neighbors invite you to come over for TV and snacks while their kids are sleeping. God knows what would have happened if there had been a real emergency, because I had no training in CPR, diaper-changing, or smothering fires with a box of salt. Parents must have been really desperate to escape their children back in those days. Although, in these modern times, I hear about 10-year-olds babysitting and my skin crawls. But I digress.
My first real job wasn’t even one I was looking for. I don’t know if my parents thought it was about time I got off my lazy butt or if I had expressed an interest to work (oh, young self, so naive, so innocent….) but my mother found me a job that would take place on Saturdays. It was a job taking inventory in supermarkets, and it could only be done when the store was closed. So at dark o’clock on a winter morning, I was driven to a large supermarket in the middle of vast Long Island nowhere (before everything got built up on top of each other so that it now resembles Queens) and dropped off with a bunch of strangers. Apparently my mother knew one of the men and he was kind of appointed my friend and trainer, so he assured my mother that I’d be fine and he’d take good care of me, and we’d see her about 4:00.
Think about this. Besides the obvious fact that I would be making some money, what was my mother trying to tell me? She wanted me gone for the day? It was okay to hang out with strangers, despite the early warnings of my childhood? That I was only as good as my paycheck determined? That if something happened I was out of luck because she wouldn’t be back until 4:00? Didn’t she love me anymore? I remember feeling a bit lost and dismayed and to distract myself I did my favorite people-watching activity, which simply meant staring at people until I figured out if they were friendly or mean. Not a good way to make friends.
A manager or team leader or know-it-all came out to the group with a large cup of coffee in a paper cup that he used to gesture with, and he paired us off to work together. There were specific forms we had to fill in after we counted things, and I was nervous about getting it right. But I was paired up with an older gentleman who was rather on the large side and couldn’t move too well, so it became clear that I was to do the counting and he would do the writing. We went into the supermarket and were assigned an aisle. You had to count the items on the shelf, making sure that you found the stuff that had been hidden behind other stuff, and announce the count to the writer, who would enter it on the special paper and announce the total back to you. Then you’d take a little slip of paper, write the number on it, and stick it between the cans or boxes or bags and move on to the next item.
This was fun for about twenty minutes. Then the drudgery of the job took over and I was bored stiff. To amuse myself, I began to sing the numbers, and my partner thought this was terrific. He was thrilled that I was energetic enough to do all the physical stuff and I seemed entertaining to boot, so he had a wonderful time. When I thought we had been at this for hours and it would surely be time for lunch, I was crushed to learn it had only been forty-five minutes. Luckily, we were allowed to have a five-minute break in the aisle, and then you had to get right back to work. The manager with the paper coffee cup kept walking around and watching what we were doing. Apparently, he was not happy that my partner was happy, because after the five-minute break I was paired with a new partner. She was also older, with tired fake orange hair featuring a large grey strip down the middle of her scalp, a smoker’s hacking cough, and a forbidding frown. She would do the counting and I would do the writing, which terrified me because what if I messed it up? She didn’t look like she’d be friendly enough to help me.
I got the sheet and was promptly full of questions. What did all these codes stand for? How would I find each item? They weren’t spelled out, what if I entered the wrong one? More importantly, why was I here? Why didn’t my mother love me anymore? Mrs. Orange Head got right to work and counted super quickly and yelled out the number and the item, while I quickly scanned the list. I was still looking for the item when she called out the next count and moved on. I asked her to hold on, I couldn’t find the correct item.
Now, what would you do in this situation? Would you go over to the newbie and point out the correct spot and give a couple of warm-up shots? Of course you would, you’re a decent human being. But Mrs. Orange Head with the Skunky Grey Strip simply sighed, folded her arms, and muttered, “whenever you’re ready.” Ouch. Being the sensitive young lady I was, my eyes flooded with tears as I tried to find the right code to enter the counted number, and I blinked to clear my vision. Two fat tears fell on the inventory sheet and I tried to brush them away. This merely caused the previous pencil marks to smudge, and I gasped. Surely I would be fired on the spot! I looked up at my partner who was now tapping her foot, and said, “uh..I’ve never done this before. I’m not sure where the codes go?” To which she responded, “Of course you don’t. I always get stuck with the idiots. Give it to me,” and she took the clipboard from my hands and entered the code herself.
Wow, I thought. That was a little harsh. “Did you want me to count?”
“No,” she snorted. “I’ll do it. Go find somebody else to work with.”
First day on the job and I was rejected! I was humiliated and didn’t know what to do. What does anybody do in that situation?
I went to the bathroom.
When I emerged with my face newly washed, I found Mr. Paper Coffee Cup. He had a new paper cup full of coffee, and I wondered where he was finding all this coffee. “Excuse me,” I ventured. He spun around and said “What?”
“My…my partner prefers to work alone. Is there someplace else I should work?”
“Who were you with?”
My acute Spidey senses were telling me NOT to refer to her as Skunky Orange Head, so I said, “I was working in Aisle Seven, but I don’t know how to fill in the sheets.”
“Is this your first time?” he asked, taking a swig.
“Yes,” I answered, and my chin bobbled a bit. He must have seen the bobble, because he put down the cup and brought me over to the service desk. He asked the very pretty and smiley lady who was perched on the counter swinging her boot-clad feet to show me how to enter the information on the sheets, and she said “Sure, boss,” and hopped down.
Mixed with my relief was the desire to look and dress like this lady when I grew up. She was petite, with long glossy hair and a perfect set of white teeth and lovely manicured fingernails that wore the prettiest shade of pink and wonderfully fashionable clothes. Never mind that I was already on the tall-ish side, my feet were the same size as my mother’s, and my hands were squat and square and featured broken nails. She was fabulous, and I wanted to have that same sort of self-assurance. Then she started showing me how to decipher the codes and enter the numbers, and it became instantly clear.
After that, I was unstoppable. I was zipping through counting and taking codes and writing and inserting those slips of paper and just dazzling myself all around. When the time came for lunch, I was feeling like a Master of the Supermarket Inventory Team. Everyone gathered in the employee break room and began unwrapping sandwiches and buying Cokes from the vending machine. My mother had packed me a bologna sandwich (dry, thank you very much) and an orange. I had seventy-five cents in my pocket to buy something to drink, but I knew the orange would be my means of hydrating. I slyly took the money and bought a bag of potato chips from the vending machine, feeling very grown-up about making my own food choices.
If I remember correctly, I went back to that job six or seven times on various Saturdays. I found out that most of these people worked elsewhere and did this for extra money, and they went all over Suffolk County to various supermarkets, whereas I was limited to the one closest to my house. I don’t remember why I stopped, if it was because my mother got tired of driving me early in the morning and receiving a phone call at 1:30 chirping “We finished early! Come get me!” which maybe ruined her afternoon plans. I remember I preferred counting boxed products because they were the easiest to see, whereas the cans toppled and didn’t line up; I absolutely hated counting the produce because I had to take everything out and then put it back and it made my hands feel gross; counting frozen pizzas and cartons of ice cream was pure torture; and counting items in the paper products aisle was the fastest and easiest because you would be done in ten minutes and spend the rest of the time chatting.
Looking back and reflecting about jobs “way back then” I’m amazed at how crude and simple the job was, how acceptable it was for a store to close due to inventory, and how easy it was for me to get a job, considering I don’t think I even looked for one. I look at my daughters and their friends and the struggles they experience to find any employment at all, and how full-time jobs with benefits and pensions may soon be a thing of the past and I wonder what sort of look back at their primitive sort of employment will be.