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.