Saturday Diary / First jobs, life lessons

Life lessons come easy when you're busing tables and bagging groceries

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When I was 15 my father said I was going to get a job.

There were a few problems with this plan. First, I was not old enough to work without a permit (which I never got). Second, my father was not going to drive me or lend me the family station wagon to get to work. And third, I had lived a sheltered, not to say smothered, life up to that point.

Nevertheless, I started work busing tables shortly afterward. My father asked a favor of a friend for me to work at Le High Class French Restaurant in town, where I was told the tips were great. I wouldn't know.

One weekend, I worked Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, from 4 p.m. to after closing, busing tables without a break or a meal. Then I went to sleep and dreamed I was busing more tables. I never worked so hard in my life.

The next weekend my father wanted to go on a family camping trip and would not consent to my working that weekend, so that was the end of my career as a bus girl.

After that, I would walk into office buildings near my home and go door to door trying to get an office job.

When that didn't pan out, my grandfather got me an "interview" at his former place of work. Up to this point, I had never thought to wonder what my grandfather did for a living before he retired. It turns out the answer was, supermarket executive. And it turns out that when the retired supermarket executive asks that the supermarket hire his teenage granddaughter part time, that's what happens, even if it means transferring a full-time employee to another store. Clueless about that employee's fate, I wondered for weeks why everyone at work seemed so resentful of me.

The job seemed like hell. After school, I stood on the main boulevard waiting for the city bus, which sometimes came early, but often came 45 minutes late, as passing motorists yelled insults. Then I arrived at work, where everyone seemed to dislike me.

Bagging groceries and gathering carts were the fun parts of the job. I got a 30-minute break for a meal. Usually I bought the store's fried chicken, which I ate alone in the closet-sized, windowless break room, reading the grease-smeared National Enquirers someone had left there.

I did get to meet a lot of people. One was an old woman I secretly called "Old Plum." Old Plum seemed to be about the shape of a plum, from what little could be discerned under her bulky coat. Her skin, the scarf over her head and her coat seemed almost the same brownish-purple color. She always bought wooden palettes of Coca-Cola, the kind that used to come in glass bottles. I would have to help push the heavy cart to her car and load all the Coke into the trunk. Once she tipped me 50 cents.

There was also Betty Duke, one of the cashiers. Betty trained me how to use the cash machine. This was not the kind where you scan groceries. This was the kind where you rang in each item by hand. My fingers flew over those keys. Betty laughed and said, "You bad, girl!" Ack. I was bad. My face fell. Then she laughed even harder. "You think I mean ... you're really bad!" she choked out.

And there was the undercover cop. I didn't know he was an undercover cop at first. He was just a guy who hung around the candy bins wearing a black leather jacket, no shirt, a heavy gold necklace and sunglasses. He seemed to be loitering. Once he told me he was a cop. Then he laughed at my frank face of doubt and flashed his badge at me. Some time later, when I was a cashier, he sidled up to me while I was ringing groceries and muttered, "See the old lady two back? Ring her up an extra three fifty on produce." When I rang up the elderly woman, I saw that she had a small bag of loose candy in her cart. Apparently, she had also eaten a pretty large quantity of additional candy, and the police officer had estimated her consumption.

A lot of shoppers complained to the managers about seeing a "little girl" having to gather carts in the parking lot, so that's why I got promoted to cashier.

At that point my age became a factor. As far as the store was concerned, I was 16 when I was hired and 17 now. I had to be 18 to ring up liquor. For several months until I turned "18" (really 17), I had to ask for "a special" to get a manager to ring up liquor. Being naive (that is, stupid) I sometimes asked the manager to "special me." The top store manager picked up on that quickly. "Sure, I'll special you," he said with a leer. I looked at his oily hair, his ruddy face with its whiteheads and his hard, greedy eyes, flicking this way and that, and I knew I had said exactly the wrong thing. Life lesson number whatever.

He was one man to deal with at the store. There were others. One, short with a halo of hair that went from dark to blond at its tips, flirted with me regularly. He looked like a small, smiling lion. I'll call him Jay.

One day Jay and I were standing together at the manager's station at the front of the store, which was elevated. Just below us, something was making a noise as he and I talked. The noise got a little louder and a little louder, more and more persistent, and I gradually became aware that a woman with a grocery cart was standing just below us calling, "Jay! Jay! Jay!" I looked at Jay.

His face was red. He wouldn't answer the woman, and he wouldn't look at me.

After a few seconds ticked by (the woman still calling, "Jay! Jay!"), understanding suddenly dawned on me. "Is that your wife?" I asked.

Without looking up, he nodded.

Life lesson number whatever plus one.

There were other life lessons. I was crestfallen to learn that the employee I wanted to ask to my high school Sadie Hawkins dance was gay. The employee who did ask me on a date took me to see "Coma" at the local city college. The nude scene was intensely embarrassing, and we didn't go on another date.

The most important lesson came when I went to a company Christmas party and saw my co-workers with their families. I realized then that my co-workers expected to be working in the grocery store for the rest of their lives. The job I considered boring and trivial was the life's work and sole support of my co-workers. I soon finished my last day at the store without fanfare, punched out at the time clock for the last time and went away to college.

opinion_commentary

Laura Malt Schneiderman is a Web content producer for Post-gazette.com (lschneiderman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1923).


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