We all remember our first job and the people we worked for and worked alongside. The first time we had disposable income beyond chump change. It may have been the first time we ever didn’t work alone to earn money–unlike the proverbial lemonade stand, babysitting or lawn mowing gigs or doing chores. I never was good at the chores thing. I did split mowing the front and back lawns with my brother, but when a developed hay fever my brother was stuck with mowing all the lawns. I did have the occasional Saturday job at my father’s shop cleaning up the wood chips around the band saw and (lamely) trying to learn his trade. This post is about those first jobs outside the supervision of my parents. It’s also about the friendships–albeit transitory–I developed. I’m excluding any journeymen posts, which I define as a career-entry position. (Not that I couldn’t have aspired to be the manager of a taco stand, but I didn’t.)
The Corporate Stooge
My first job, sort of, was issuing subpoenas for medical records in clinics around town here in Sacramento. The post was supposed to be easy: I showed up at an answering service where I was given a stack of subpoenas and a machine with which I was to “scan” (for the lack of the proper word) medical documents into. I had the day to drive around Downtown and Midtown Sacramento issuing subpoenas requesting copies of medical files by “scanning” them into the machine, and drop off the “scanner” at the answering service when I finish. It turns out I was working for The Man, providing copies of medical documents for a private dick who was employed by a corporate law firm defending companies against worker’s compensation cases. I was canned, anyway. Too many times I failed to get the “scanner” back to the answering service on time. Take that, local Corporate Oligarchs!
The funny thing is I didn’t know I was terminated until about a year later when our next-door neighbor who was a corporate attorney said he recommended me because he assumed I knew my way around town and that he was sorry I was let go. (Blast our city’s logical algebraic grid!) The official story from my mom was they no longer needed me. I was so dull that I assumed there were no more worker’s compensation cases. Labor had seized the means of production, and our brothers and sisters were helping all our fellow injured workers. Not quite, but I like that last part.
The Taco Dog
My second (which was my first as an adult) was working at the local Taco Bell. (I say “local” because back in the late 70s Taco Bell and all the other fast food establishments weren’t so omnipresent as they are today.) I was better at this job because the store was near my house and I couldn’t get lost commuting like I did with my last job. It wasn’t an ideal job for me, though. I learned here that I wasn’t cut out for customer service. I would occasionally wear my frustration on my sleeve and customers would complain–thankfully only back at me. “Hey man, what’s your problem? I just want two red burritos and a taco. Geez.” I only got mad when I was trying to prep for closing, or my break was overdue. Still, the writing was on the wall–I wasn’t good with people.
One of the nice things about my time at Taco Bell was meeting Matt. Matt and I were opposites in many ways, but we got along famously. At least at the start of the two- or three-year relationship and my parents loved him like a son. One thing I admired about Matt was how outgoing and gregarious he was. Not the register drawer-slamming, audible-sigh-in-the-customer’s-face me. I think our relationship ended because he went off to college, but also I became jealous of his relationship with his new girlfriend. They both attempted to hook me up in failed double-dates. He also was too generous with information about his girlfriend which only made me more resentful of him.
Years later I would hear from my brother that he lives in the old neighborhood and looks like he hasn’t aged a day beside a full head of gray hair. I looked him up on Facebook and found his scantly updated feed is filled with exotic beaches and sailboats. I clicked on Photos, and there he was: faded jeans, his hands tucked in a stylish activewear jacket with a crisp oxford under it. He’s slightly bent over, looking to the left, enjoying a laugh, his pearl-white, straight teeth showing. He’s fucking gorgeous. He might as well be a model. He looks better than he did back in the day. I burned with envy as I clicked through the images. There’s one pic of him sitting on a step-through bicycle with a flower-trimmed basket and makes it look good! Is this someone’s Facebook page or an online L.L.Beane catalog!
So there you have it. Not much about my taco dog days back then, but about what a jealous bastard I am now. Did I tell you Taco Bell used to have an “eat sheet”? No kidding! You had to write down everything you ate while on shift, but here’s the beautiful thing: all the food items were free! When my break came around, I built mega-burritos, titanic tacos, and I am shocked I didn’t develop Type 2 Diabetes the way I drained the store’s Pepsi machine. It’s funny that I was arguably in the best shape of my life at that time due to this kind of work. I started getting a gut when I left.
Mr. “Earnings Adjusted”
I think Matt figured out he could make more money with his good looks, personality, and brimming self-confidence selling shoes, so he got a job at the local Florsheim Shoes. Since Matt and I were best friends at the time when he suggested I would make more money as a shoe salesman than a taco dog I decided to follow him. I was mistaken.
The only thing good to come out of this job was the friendship I developed with the manager, Rick, who I originally met back in elementary school. We weren’t close in those days nor in high school where we ended up in a couple of P.E. classes together, but we became close here. If we hadn’t become friends, I don’t know what he would have done with me as an employee.
I was a horrible shoe salesman. I projected my lack of confidence in myself to the shoes I was supposed to sell. Some old guy would come in and try on a pair of shoes and complain, “In my day, ‘Florshim’ [as the oldsters used to pronounce it] used to make better shoes. So did Nunn Bush. They just don’t make ’em like they used to,” he’d finish with a sigh, as I just sat there giving up in slow motion. He’d say the shoe was too big. I’d have him try on the next half-size down, and that would be too tight. I’d go up and down on the width. I’d tell him–my mind wracked with doubt in my own words–“Well, sir, that is a kidskin shoe it should fit a little tight. It will conform to fit your feet.” But with the black cloud of self-doubt hanging in the air over us, I might as well have said, “Oh well, we tried. Maybe Weinstock’s down the mall has something to your liking.”
Rick would have weekly staff meetings. He’d be sitting on a fitting stool twirling a long shoehorn, his team in the chairs facing him. He would ask me each meeting, “Are you getting the hang of it?” What he meant was, when are you going to start moving product? I had come from Taco Bell where I was the crew chief. This meant I make, I think, about twenty-five cents over minimum wage which came to a little under three buck an hour. When I moved to Florsheim, I started at about $1.25 an hour plus commission. I should have been making much more than what I made at Taco Bell. It turned out I often made less. I couldn’t sell enough shoes to make minimum wage, so my checks showed how much I made base plus commission. Then there was another box that said: “Earnings Adjusted.” That’s how much Florsheim had to pony up to pay me minimum wage–about a quarter less an hour than I made stuffing tacos.
So, that’s what Rick meant by the refrain, “Are you getting the hang of it?” He didn’t say that to Matt, Leonard, or Kevin. Matt was an excellent salesman. Leonard was even better and had, I believe, the highest sales. He was a bullshitter, but the right kind: he would like anything the customer would like, but he was honest about the products he sold. It was how he agreed with the client on all manner of things that made him a genius. Disco was definitely dead at this time, but I once heard Leonard agree with his guy stuck in a time warp how “Disco rules.” He knew how to talk to the older generation, too. When they would drone on about the good ole days, there was Leonard right with them. “Yeah, I just don’t know what’s with my generation, Roger.” (Another thing he did: ask for the prospect’s name and use it.) When it came to shoes, he knew being honest would bring the customer back, even if it meant losing a sale on occasion.
Kevin was a different animal, altogether. I’m not sure he graduated from high school–he was a poor speller as illustrated below. On the other hand, he was charming and funny even if his look was a little unkempt. Where Leonard and Matt knew when honesty was the best policy, Kevin pushed the edge of the honesty envelope. For example, Florsheim had these horrible, cheap hosiery that had a lifetime guarantee to never wear holes. It was a win-win for the company: it helped bring prospective customers into the store and who was going to remember the guarantee when the socks eventually developed holes. Kevin changed the meaning: now these cheap socks would keep their elasticity–guaranteed. When the customer said, “Lifetime guarantee to never sag?” “Yes, sir,” Kevin would confidently reply. It was amusing the first time or two I saw Kevin making a sale on a lie, but sometimes he wasn’t around when the angry customer came storming in demanding his money back while nearly throwing the too-worn-to-restock shoes.
Despite some dubious sales tactics, Kevin was a good guy. Also, I could talk to him about music. He was a talented artist with a dark sense of humor I could relate to. When it was slow, and we could have been straightening up the stock room, or I could be boning up on our inventory, Kevin would doodle on the back of shoe order cards while we talked music. I kept one of his masterpieces and have included it in this post. It may seem gratuitously out of place here, but this post is also about the friends I developed while working these first jobs. Here, for your enjoyment/horror is Kevin’s “How I Killed My Self” [sic]
I loved showing the cards to other people. If my stint at Florsheim netted nothing beyond an embarrassing “earnings adjusted” minimum wage job, it helped me find fellow slightly bent friends. This little stack of cards became kind of a Litmus test for friendship with me. Most people failed the test as they flipped through the cards in horror. A few years later, when I showed them to Paul, a fellow usher at Tower Theatre, and he rolled over in laughter I know I found a kindred spirit, but that’s a different story.
While my sales continued to sag like Florsheim’s Lifetime Guarantee Hosiery, my friendship with Matt diminished. However, Rick and I were becoming close friends. I began taking journalism classes with him at the local community college as well as worked on the campus paper together. I attended some of the most memorable concerts thanks to him. And just like I followed Matt from Taco Bell to Florsheim, I followed Rick from Florsheim to Julius–a high-end clothing store in the same mall. He worked as a sales associate and became the stock clerk.
The Angry Young Stock Boy
From my very first day as the stock clerk at Julius, I had a bad attitude. I just resented the floor staff and the owners, and I never knew why. Maybe I just wanted to hang out with Rick, and when I got there, I realized I was in the back. Also, I was becoming a clothes horse (for what I could afford), and I didn’t get to wear the cool clothes back in the stock room labeling crazy expensive clothes. The chip on my shoulder began to wear me down. I found myself snapping at the floor staff or becoming sarcastic towards the owners. Finally, the floor manager rightfully chewed me out for talking back, and I knew I needed to shut up and work, but I also decided I would move on when I could find another job.
The Brief Return of Mr. “Earnings Adjusted”
From the stock clerk job I returned to Florsheim because it was an easy out, but I hated the work even more–Rick and Matt were gone and, for reasons I cannot remember, Kevin was fired. When our boss fired him, he blasted past me screaming obscenities. I thought of the once-funny images like the ones above and wondered if my mom was right–if he was a little off and, possibly, dangerous. I quit soon after that.
I think after Florsheim 2: Electric Boogaloo I spent time unemployed focusing on finishing my studies. I got a job at the local independent cinema–the Tower Theatre. My stint at the Tower was the longest and happiest of all my jobs until I started my career with the State of California. Actually, it was the most enjoyable job I ever had, but I had no interest in making a career in the film presentation business, so I moved on. I have posted many stories about this segment of my life on this blog, so I’ll leave it out here except for the time I narced on my boss! I’ll write about that some day soon.
So these are my adult lemonade stand stories–bitter-sweet with some TNT mixed in to hopefully give them a little “KA-BAM-O.”
Great post! And I was literally laughing out loud at Kevin’s cards (especially his attempts to spell the word “still”). I was pleased to see in the next paragraph that your litmus test for friendship was whether one found Kevin’s cards funny. Rest assured, they meet the Police Horse seal of approval!
Hilarious & so amusing…..for some reason, the thought of you selling shoes and sitting down on one of those “Hello I am a shoe salesman chairs” with the little prop up deal for the customers foot, just cracked me up! an actual LOL…..Oh and Kevins card so funny! as I giggled, I also thought, wow this day and age he would of been sent to a psychiatrist or a mental health counselor if the big boss got a glimpse of that. Well Done Jack!
I guess we all have those first jobs that were unforgettable. One of mine was working at the now defunct Shortstop Market. I had all kinds of crazy things happen. Selling full head knitted ski masks to some guy who went ten miles up the road and robbed the next Shortstop with his 2 buddies. Neighborhood kids liked to shoplift candy from me ( they told me after I quit) and I would card 40 yr. olds for a 6 pack (they loved me) because I had no idea of a person’s age. One dark night I came home to my grandmother’s home, and swear I saw Bigfoot in my grandmother’s garden. It scared me to death! I drove to the carport, honked my horn till Red came to the door. “What is going on?” I told her don’t open the door till I get there. I was sure Bigfoot would come running up from the garden to the house. Quickly I ran to the door, slammed and locked it! “Red, Bigfoot is out there!” Red thought I was kidding, but I called the police and then she knew I wasn’t. She just thought I was crazy. The police arrived, calmed me down, investigated the garden with flashlights and concluded it was a deer by the hoof prints and small crushed plants where it was apparently lying down. Case closed. A couple weeks later, I was back at work and 3 punk teenagers wanted to buy beer. Of course I carded them, which none had on hand. The drunk one refused to give up, started carrying cases out to their car. I called the cops, and they arrested the thief in the parking lot. They came in to get my testimony and lo and behold. “Hey Joe, it’s the Bigfoot Girl!” They reminded me of the cops in that tv show My Mother the Car. Anyway, that job was always an adventure. When I quit for a full time gig, my boss personally delivered my last check and then felt it was okay to proposition me with an affair behind his wife’s back! Jeez, I was never so happy to leave a job or that boss in my life!!! Just one of the many part time, minimum pay jobs I had. Other jobs at the same pay level were fun, developing those kind of friendships with others that were in the same boat as you. Poor, eeking by, but rich in commaradery and great humor. I enjoyed your article Jack. It was a fun read. It really brought back a lot of memories of some of my first jobs that were crappy, but the friendships made, made it fun and adventurous.