Things have been a little crazy at work lately and there's been an increase in the FUD factor that's got me a little geared up. Needless to say, I've been thinking about my job history. I rarely if ever write about work, because way back when I started blogging, one of the first sites I ever read was Dooce, and the lesson stuck with me.
Long story short, I am going to have to learn an insane amount of tech in a very short amount of time, and even though I'm pretty sure I can do it, there's always a little voice in the back of my brain saying, "What if you can't learn it fast enough?" Anyway, this got me thinking about how it felt to get my first "real" job and the fear and exhiliration that goes along with that phone call or letter that says, "Hey, you got the job! So when can you start?"
If you've been hanging around here for very long, you probably read the story of my first "non-corporate" jobs, here and here. As I mention in that second post, every company I've ever worked for (with the exception of my current place of employment) has gone out of business. In all cases except one, I managed to jump ship before the torpedo hit. I think I finally broke that streak though, since I'm 99.99% positive that my current employer has the ability to counteract my company-killing mojo, because I've been with them for an insane number of years. I presume that means I like them and they like me, but sometimes I find it hard to believe that so much time has passed.
I've worked in a lot of pits over the years, and this post could be amusing or it could be boring as hell. I'm not sure yet. If it just straight out sucks, I won't push the publish button and you'll never see this. (Or maybe you will see it, and it will still suck -- only I won't know it until you tell me. Guess we'll see.) This will also be a multi-parter, one job per post, just to make it more painful for everyone.
Job One: When You Wish Upon A Star
My parents were firm believers in teaching us the value of money. When we were kids, we got a small allowance, but we worked for it. In fact, just yesterday I went over to visit my dad and he had a "to-do" list for me. I laughed and told him it was just like old times, except he wasn't waking me up at 9 am on Saturday morning by pulling the covers off me and hauling me out of bed by my right foot.
My first job was as a stockboy for a rinky-dink corner grocery store called Star Market. My buddy The Slug worked there, and he thought he might be able to get me in. I still remember asking my mother if I could fill out an application. I was 15 years old, and she had to sign a special form so I could apply for the job. I could only work a limited number of hours a week because of my age. I never really thought about what a pain in the ass that first job was for my parents. I couldn't drive, which meant they had to drop me off, pick me up, take me to the bank, and keep track of my schedule, all to teach me about this thing called responsibility. I'm not sure I really understood that lesson at the time, but I did get some extra money out of the deal, and to my parents' credit, they didn't make me save it for college or make me pay rent.
Star Market was a family affair run by three brothers and their father, who was the boss. The brothers were older than us, probably between 18 and 25, and the younger two used the stockboys as their personal slaves. Any crappy job they didn't want to do fell to us. Cleaning the sour, curdled milk that had leaked inside the dairy case? That was us. Cleaning the bathroom? Definitely us. Just to sweeten the pot -- so to speak -- they thought it was funny to make us do it right after one of them had blown out the previous night's chicken wings and beer. Mopping up spills in the aisles? Also us. You haven't lived until you've tried to clean a busted bottle of olive oil off of a gritty linoleum floor using a 30-year-old mop that smells like cheese. Two of brothers worked in the deli, and the other one worked stocking the "fresh" produce and doing other things that generally involved finding the best ways to goof off.
For his part, their old man would sit behind the plexiglass walls in the corner office loft that overlooked the cashier lines and chain smoke cigarettes, talk on the phone and pound on his adding machine. The oldest son was the butcher. He was also a scary-ass Dexter-lookin' mofo who watched you like a hawk and never smiled unless he was chopping meat with a cleaver. There were a couple of gum-chewing cashiers and an ancient white-haired guy who I think may have been another partner/owner or maybe just the resident dirty old man. I'm not really sure what he did, but he hung around a lot in the back room drinking stale coffee, getting handsy with the cashiers, and smoking. I remember one time we were rearranging the stock in the back room and he said to me, "Hand me that box of manhole covers, will ya?" I looked at him in confusion, because I had no idea what he was talking about. Then he pointed to the case of Kotex behind me, exhaled a huge cloud of rancid smoke in my general direction and said, "It's a joke, boy." Even though I didn't really get it right away, I laughed nervously, then passed him the box. What can I say? I was slow then, and I'm slow now.
The Slug and I usually worked the closing shift. We'd get dropped off by the school bus, and then have to go inside and put our stock boy jackets on. Unfortunately for us, the jackets were communal, and they didn't have enough of them to go around. They always stunk like the worst B.O. you could imagine. The day-shift guys would wear them when they were outside in the heat unloading the trucks, and then after their shift they'd hang them up soaking with sweat, and we'd come in and have to put those disgusting things on. The only way you could stand it was by convincing yourself it was a bowl of french onion soup you were smelling instead of your own reeking jacket. I used to take my own shirt off and wear the jacket with nothing underneath because I couldn't stand the way it made my clothes stink. It was bad enough that people thought you had B.O., but even worse if you brought it home on your own clothes.
The closing shift was actually a pretty good deal, because everyone went home except for the father, one cashier and us. The only bad part was that we didn't get dinner unless we paid for it. If you ate before six pm, Dexter would make you a sandwich when you were on break, but he'd weigh each slice of meat and cheese and charge you the going rate. He'd wrap your food in paper, tape it up and write the price on with a grease pencil. We'd have to take it to the front cashier and pay for it before walking back to the stock room to eat it. When you make $2.65 an hour, you eat a lot of olive loaf. If you wanted fresh bread, or mustard or mayo, that was extra, too. Otherwise you got the shelf-expired bread, because that was free, and you ate it dry.
So we learned to um… supplement our diet. For instance, do you know fast you can stand in the bathroom and suck down a yogurt without using any utensils? Approximately 4.2 seconds. About the same amount of time it takes the toilet to flush and cover up your slurping noises. The best free meals were when you were working the deli, though. After you were on the meat slicer for a while, you got pretty good at judging weights. If some old crank ordered a pound of roast beef, you'd estimate a pound and then pop off an extra slice or two. If they didn't want to pay for the extra ounce, you could set that slice aside, then a few minutes later do the same thing with the American cheese. Eventually, you had the makings of a nice little snack. You'd just have to make sure you downed it before the old man saw you, otherwise he'd make you put it back in the cooler and add it to someone else's order.
Yes, technically it was stealing, and yes, stealing is wrong. But even today, nothing tastes quite as good as a slice of roast beef and a slice of cheese rolled up and eaten while standing in front of the refrigerator. Besides, that was nothing compared to the larceny going on all around us. The youngest brother used to prop open the back door and hand cases of beer outside to his buddies and then threaten to kill us if we told anyone. I think he probably would have done it, too. He looked a little like Charles Manson.
Here's a tip for you. Never buy ground beef. Ever. Unless you make it yourself or watch it being made. Why? Because you never know what's in it, that's why. They used to make us do some things that are probably illegal and also probably the basis of my germophobia. When the ground beef out on the floor was close to expiring, they'd put it on sale to unload it. But once the 'sell by' date passed, they made us take the old, greying beef and put it through the grinder again, mixing it in with new ground beef. Then they'd put the mix on sale. Tell me that's not disgusting.
They also had a bit of a rodent problem. There was a vacant lot next door, completely overgrown with weeds, and the dumpsters were out on the loading dock, overlooking the lot. The entire thing was infested with rats. If you tossed a rock out into the middle, the weeds would ripple like the water in a pond as the rats ran in every direction. There was a pellet gun in the back room, and sometimes the brothers would take turns standing out on the loading dock and shooting any rats that tried to get to the dumpsters.
They had some in the store, too, because we'd sometimes see chewed stuff in the produce aisle. For whatever reason, they couldn't seem to catch them. Traps didn't work, poison was untouched…I guess when you have an entire produce aisle to snack on, those little hard d-Con peanut-flavored pellets aren't so appetizing.
After you worked there for a few months, you got to know your regular customers, which could be a good thing or a bad thing -- mostly bad. You had the "head-cheese lady" and "crazy boloney" and any number of other shoppers you learned to avoid if at all possible. One night when I was working the deli and The Slug was stocking shelves and doing price changes, I looked up and saw "shaved-ham" shuffling down the produce aisle to the deli counter. When she finally got to me, she ordered up her usual: three pounds of shaved ham. If you don't know what that is, let me explain. It's basically the biggest pain in the ass order you could possibly get. You had to set the slicer on its thinnest setting, so it just barely touches the ham, and then stand there for a solid 20 minutes moving the damned thing back and forth while microscopic bits of ham dropped on to the paper. There was no such thing as an automatic slicer at the time, or if there was, we didn't have one. You could actually break a sweat doing this.
Right before the shaved-ham lady turned away, I happened to look down the produce aisle and see a giant rat waddle nonchalantly from one side of the aisle to the other, then disappear. The coolers had doors underneath, and the excess produce was stored down there. Underneath the doors, there were removable kick panels that allowed access to the wiring and refrigeration, and the rat had found an opening between the panels. I kept my cool and continued slicing. Rats in the produce aisle are not generally good for business. Just then, The Slug came around the corner with the pricing cart.*
"Hey Slug!" I said, "C'mere! Hurry!" He came around the deli counter. "What's up?" he asked, then saw what I was doing.
"Oh man," he said, "I'm glad you got her this time. She was just here a couple of days ago. I seriously have no idea what the hell she does with all that ham."
"Forget the ham," I told him, continuing to slice. "I just saw the freakin' rat! He ran from one side of the produce aisle to the other. I think he's still underneath it."
"No way!" he said. "Where?"
I nodded to the produce aisle where the shaved-ham lady had stopped, her back to the produce as she examined a jar of pickles or something on the opposite side. "Right there, kind of where shaved-ham is standing." I said. I looked down to gauge how much ham I had piled up, when The Slug whispered, "Holy shit!" I looked back up and he was pointing down the aisle at the shaved-ham lady.
Directly next to her cart, literally between her feet, a fat brown rat was settled back on his haunches eating a grape, and she had no idea. She was completely engrossed in her label reading -- and there was a rat between her legs.
"What should we do?" I asked. "If she sees that thing she's gonna flip out. And she'll definitely never shop here again."
The Slug paused for a second, weighing the pros and cons of this. "On the plus side, we'd never have to shave that fucking ham again," he said. Since I could barely feel my shoulder at the moment, I didn't argue. But then he reconsidered and said, "OK, maybe I can distract her. You keep slicing, and we'll get her the hell out of here. With any luck, the rat will run before she sees it."
The Slug walked back to his pricing cart and steered it down the produce aisle. When he was about 20 feet away from the shaved-ham lady, he reached over and knocked a few cans off the pricing cart onto the floor. Startled, she looked up at him, and the plan worked perfectly. When the cans hit the floor, the rat spooked and ran down the aisle behind her and back into the kick panel. The Slug made a show of picking up the cans, and then stayed in the aisle making noise with his cart, hoping that it would keep the rat from popping out again.
A few minutes later, as I was wrapping up the three pounds of pasty meat for her, the boss came over and asked The Slug what the hell he was doing, since he was in the wrong aisle and his price changes weren't done yet. In a low voice, the Slug explained what happened, and the old man left and came back with a packing tape gun.
After the shaved-ham lady left the store, the boss had The Slug tape over all the openings in the kick panel, just to get us through the rest of the night rat-free. Then at the end of the night, he called us over to the office and handed us an extra five bucks. I guess at that point, with the new Price Chopper opening up not too far down the street, he figured every customer was worth their weight in gold and we had saved one of his regulars for him. It didn't help in the long run, since they went out of business eventually anyway, but by that time both The Slug and I had moved on.
I never got a rat-bonus before or since, but hey, you never know. The building I work in is kind of old. It could happen.
*I may not be young. I say this because at the time, the pricing cart consisted of a shopping cart with a board on top. You were armed with a clipboard, a rubber stamp with rotating numbers on it, a purple ink pad, a roll of paper towels and an aerosol can of Lysol. If an item changed price, either because it went up, or was on sale, you'd have to take all the cans off the shelf, line them up on the board, spray the Lysol on top then quickly wipe the old purple price away with the paper towels. For some reason, Lysol was the solvent of choice. Then when the cans were clean, you'd re-stamp them with the new price. It was a real skill to stamp them so the purple price was legible, and do it fast enough to finish everything on time. I was really good at it, and it's a skill I've used many times since. Oh wait, no, that's a lie. It's come in handy exactly zero times since then. On the plus side, you actually knew what stuff cost.