Work — Just Dig In

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The morning I turned 16 my father took me directly to the DMV to apply for my learner’s permit.  He had been teaching me to drive since I was small, holding me on his lap to steer the car from the corner into our driveway.  He loved driving, it seemed he could hardly wait to share the fun with me, his oldest child.  That same birthday, he marched me straight to the neighborhood supermarket to apply for the job he had already arranged for me as a part-time cashier.  It seemed he hated working and wanted me to have the same awful experience.

We had the same conversation for years as I watched him shave before going to work, one leg up on the toilet:

Dad: “I wish I didn’t have to go to work.”

Me:  “Why don’t you call in sick?”

Dad:  “No one would answer!”

He was the…

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Work — Just Dig In

The morning I turned 16 my father took me directly to the DMV to apply for my learner’s permit.  He had been teaching me to drive since I was small, holding me on his lap to steer the car from the corner into our driveway.  He loved driving, it seemed he could hardly wait to share the fun with me, his oldest child.  That same birthday, he marched me straight to the neighborhood supermarket to apply for the job he had already arranged for me as a part-time cashier.  It seemed he hated working and wanted me to have the same awful experience.

We had the same conversation for years as I watched him shave before going to work, one leg up on the toilet:

Dad: “I wish I didn’t have to go to work.”

Me:  “Why don’t you call in sick?”

Dad:  “No one would answer!”

He was the boss; still, I got the message, he didn’t like working, and at first neither did I.  Being confined to that checkout for four or five hours felt like prison.  I’d watch people walking in and out and so envy their freedom.  Time dragged, except for the ten-minute break which flew, barely long enough to drink an ice-cold Coke (with real sugar) out of a glass bottle and eat a pack of orange Hostess cupcakes.  I watched the slow tick of that big clock on the wall, wishing for time to pass.  I prayed for short shifts and traded my way out of longer ones whenever possible.

Not that the schedule mattered, you could be ten minutes from the end of your shift when Mary, the front end manager who never smiled and seemed to hate everyone would walk over and ask, “What time do you get off?”  and before you could answer would point her finger and bark, “You’re staying” and walk away.  Even if you weren’t on the schedule, you could get a call at any time expecting you to report to work immediately.  And I went because I had learned from my father You Go To Work No Matter What.   

Attitudes are different today.  When I had my coffee shop the teens told me when they were available to work and expected to be scheduled off when they had something to do.  I didn’t inherit my father’s hard-nosed managing style and accommodated them.  I thought happy employees made the best workers.  In my new retail position, part-time workers also are allowed to share their availability and request time off, which is usually granted within certain parameters.  I still feel guilty asking and worry about maintaining my reputation as a hard worker but the young people take that privilege and more for granted.

The supermarket job turned out well.  Back then we had real cash registers with buttons and I liked seeing what foods people bought, especially around the holidays.  Co-workers became friends and although I wasn’t allowed to hang out outside of school or work, I enjoyed socializing while I was working.  During slower times, I found things to do like cleaning the conveyor belts or organizing the cigarette cartons kept under the checkout.  I found that losing myself in activity made time go more quickly than resisting work and wishing the shift would end.

Now I hear the kids at work complain, “I just got here and I already can’t wait to leave.”  Or, “I’m tired,” something I don’t think any twenty year old should be allowed to say.  I know school is more demanding than it was, but come on.  Now I know why people say youth is wasted on the young.  I see bright young people put all their energy into avoiding work, mistakenly thinking that will help them somehow.  They drag out their breaks and find every reason to ring up as few customers as possible.  I wish I could tell them how diving into work tricks their mind into making time go faster and has other benefits too. 

I had my first negotiating experience at the supermarket.  I wanted a regular schedule, they had shifts no one wanted to cover.  I brokered a deal that allowed me to attend all my boyfriend’s Friday night basketball games by offering to work every Saturday night.  Back then Saturday nights were notoriously slow so I ended up being left in charge of the front end, showing other people how to clean checkout stations while I sat in the office counting money and coupons with the handsome assistant manager.  Now that’s how you make the time go faster.    

 

What the Universe knows

2013I wasn’t looking for a retail job.  I’ve never watched someone working at the mall and thought hey, I’d like to do that!  I’m not even so into shopping anymore.  It’s gotten where I feel like I’ve eaten a too rich dessert just walking into some stores for being surrounded by so much stuff no one needs.  But I did want to find work and wasn’t getting any interviews via the internet, so I signed up for a career fair one Wednesday afternoon.  I didn’t have high hopes and wasn’t even sure I’d go, but with no other pressing plans that day, off I went, thinking at least I was taking a positive step.

My goal was to get face to face with someone at a large health care organization I already applied to online.  I hoped handing someone the book I published years ago would make me memorable enough to get an interview, but the opportunity fell flat.  The young woman behind the table was nothing more than a resume receptacle, reciting the same script to everyone in the long line.  Deflated, I looked around and spied the logo for a clothing line I held in high regard.

The young woman at this booth was personable, genuine.  I hoped she was hiring for an office, but it was for a store.  I’d been to that place in a crazy busy outlet mall, and mostly remembered how I couldn’t find my car for over an hour, not so Seinfeld funny.  Still, when the young woman said “we’ll talk more next week at the interview” my heart lilted.  Three weeks later, after I’d given up, I got a voice message inviting me to call for an interview.  Mapquest said the store was an hour away.  Too far, I thought.  I called to decline the interview, but at the last minute changed my mind and accepted.  What did I have to lose?

The drive was pleasant, scenic, peaceful almost, all highway and against traffic.  The store was nicer than I expected: neat, colorful, classy; smelled good, fun music playing.  I liked the interviewer, a little younger than me, but with much in common, including college degrees unrelated to retail and a long drive to the store.  “I guess I’m an adrenalin junkie,” she shared, describing the busy store’s challenges, obviously proud of the store’s high standing.  “We need grownups.” she said.  I would take an online test before we could move forward.  If I passed, I would get a second interview.  I was … intrigued.

I almost didn’t go to the second interview.  Does it make sense to drive an hour to work an hourly retail job?  What about the gas and tolls?  Can I tolerate such a busy place?  Stand on my feet all day?  But it’s a good company, and I haven’t been offered anything else.  Why not go for another interview?  The second interviewer, a much younger man, shared the larger picture of what it takes to operate the company’s number one factory store.  Employees work many hours beyond open for business. Am I available?  Yes, In theory at least.  It’s most difficult filling the middle hours of the day, he said.  “Then I’m your man!” I replied.  A high five and the interview ended on a positive note.

A week later I was offered a part-time position as a cashier.  Orientation would be the following morning if I was available.  Elated, I felt a weight had been lifted.  Months of searching were over, I had a job!

I almost quit at orientation.  Six of us sat around a table and were handed a quarter-inch stack of papers and an equally thick employee manual.  One other woman was about my age, the rest were kids in high school or college.  We each shared how we came to this company.  The other woman and I both hoped to progress to the corporate office, the kids just wanted a job, any job.  We were shown a video on the company’s history then spent the next four hours reviewing the company’s policies and expectations while reviewing and signing copious authorizations, releases and employment forms.  The kids looked to take it all in stride, I was overwhelmed.  It’s been many years since I worked for a large company.  Would I fit in?  Could I take on the required persona?  I closed the folder and sat quietly waiting for the session to end so I could escape, maybe never to return.

I handed my folder to the session leader and told her I wasn’t sure I fit into this company.  “I don’t dress like that,” I said, referring to the dress code.  She urged me to give the job a try for a couple of weeks before deciding. “It’s a lot to take in,” she admitted, “but I’ve seen four or five people catch the eye of Corporate,” she encouraged, cracking that door open, drawing me in.  I agreed not to give up just yet and later tried analyzing my resistance.  For years I had been in charge, setting the culture, creating the atmosphere; I wasn’t used to taking on someone else’s.  Could I be another company’s “brand ambassador?”

I might have noticed the real-life foreshadowing pointing me right in that direction.  I was consciously trying to update my “look”, yet didn’t connect that with having recently bought, for the first time, clothes bearing the logo I would represent.  There was that aforementioned trip to this particular store in the huge mall, including parking in the same lot (in which I would lose my car again, this time in torrential rain).  On the negative side, though, employees have to park far from the store during the week and completely off-site on weekends, taking a bus in, adding to an already long commute.

I didn’t anticipate how tiring it would be to absorb so much new information.  “Learn something new every five minutes” became my motto my first few weeks on the job.  If I thought being a cashier might be too simple, I was wrong; it’s extremely challenging, physically and mentally.  Yet interesting.  In four months I’ve met customers visiting from 55 countries, including some I’ve never heard of (Brunei?).  I have something to talk about and stories to tell every night.  I notice so many ways in which the store is just right for me, from how the physical work area is set up to the people I’m working with, to the company’s customer service philosophy, one of my passions.  And it turns out I love dressing to code in the company’s style.

Sometimes I feel anxious going to work, until I enter the store and it all feels right and good.  How right it is became crystal clear when this week I finally got invited to explore my intended path, going back to my roots as a legal secretary.  The law firm setting was so familiar, from formal reception area to elegant conference room.  As I interviewed with two of the firm’s partners, though, I found I was much more excited talking about my current job than I was hearing about the firm’s activities.  When they asked how soon I could start, I realized I had no intention of leaving my new retail home.  The Universe knows.