The work experience: In the beginning

Published November 7, 2016   Posted in Having some fun

As we drove, I remember thinking about a void in my life. It was a powerful feeling, one that ultimately kick-started what I like to call my “work experience”. Earning paychecks. I was 15 at the time, the age where kids were permitted to work in my state.

Walking to work!The void I felt was real and it wasn’t getting any better. It cycled every month, beginning anew. It got so bad, in fact, that by the end of the month, I would have nothing left. It was gone. There just wasn’t enough.

The void was money. I got an allowance at the time, but my allowance matched my age. Of course, $15 a week was small, even back in the mid 90s. It would go fast. I had a habit of renting movies at Blockbuster. Or going to movies with my friends, an experience that absolutely, positively required the purchase of over-priced buttery popcorn at the theater.

And there was gas, too. I wasn’t going anywhere without the ability to pay for gas.

My parents paid for the necessities and, yes, a little more. Of course, food and shelter. Clothes. Even pricey shoes. I thought that I was the shit walking into school wearing a pair of Nike Air Jordans right out of the box. They smelled like awesome (at first!).

I always had no money!

Naturally, I grew tired of running out of money. It was like clockwork every month. I’d begin with some cash and by the end, it was mostly gone. I made a remark to my dad that I needed (wanted) more money.

We were in the car, me sitting in my assigned spot behind the passenger seat in the back. I sat there so much that putting on my seat belt from the other back seat just felt weird. I had to think about what I was doing, subverting the muscle memory I had built over the course of years behind the passenger.

Anyway, my dad gave the ball a gentle push: “Maybe you should get a job”.

Holy shit. The ball started to roll.

Jobs don’t sound like fun. I’d rather not, I thought. But, I do want more money. And, I’d have to get a job eventually anyway. It’s “work”, though. I don’t want work. I like coming home from school and putzing around. Doing whatever I wanted. Watching TV. Gorging on cheese balls and washing them down with Sunkist orange soda, a delicious combination that – to this day – I can still taste the immense satisfaction from.

But still, the money. What if I had a lot more money at the end of the month in exchange for putting in hours at work? Would this be worth the time spent away from home where I basically did nothing?

Maybe work is worth the money

He then said, “I was up at Safeway the other day and they are hiring courtesy clerks”. Courtesy clerks are baggers. And at this Safeway, customers were not permitted to take shopping carts into the parking lot, so baggers would assist customers by loading their groceries into their cars.

They would also organize the shopping carts and stack them into neat rows. We’d bag groceries at the register, too. And at the end of the night, we’d have “go back” carts full of products that people would simply put anywhere they happened to be if they decided that they didn’t want them.

Candy cars with the magazines. Milk with the pastries. Olive oil in an empty cereal display. That stuff. To this day, I always put groceries back where they belong. I know how it feels to re-stock that stuff before finally leaving for the night.

I quickly learned to loath these people. These “go back” carts were the only thing keeping us from escaping the place at nearly 10pm at night to finally go home.

Reluctantly, I acted on the suggestion from my dad. I made my way up to Safeway and grabbed an application. I filled it out and the next thing I knew I had an “interview”, which at this stage of my life consisted of the assistant manager asking if I had a car.

The interview (sorta)

So Steve, tell me about yourself.

“I’m in 10th grade. I currently maintain a 3.7 grade point average. I –”

Do you have a car?”


Great. It doesn’t matter, but it makes it easier to get to work that way!

And that was about it for the “interview”. I guess I didn’t make myself out to be a typical high schooler baked out of his mind. I wore nice interview clothes, not jeans and a t-shirt. I looked like I came from a nice, respectable family (and I did). The rest of the interview was the assistant manager explaining the position and the things that I’d be asked to do. It was going well.

His name was John. Gruff dude. He was about 100 pounds overweight, a smoker and about ready to kill over at any moment. Each step he took was a carefully choreographed stumble as much as it was an actual step. One misplaced foot and the guy would be flat on his face. He spent as much time as possible sitting in the shared manager’s office. Emphasis on sitting.

And he was a bit of an asshole, too. A huge suck-up to the store manager, always putting on his best synthetic smile whenever in his presence. I was in 10th grade and naive to the bone, but even I could see right through John for the type of person he was. I appreciated the fact that he hired me, but my level of respect for him was nonexistent. That feeling was common, too, at least among the courtesy clerks.

He loved giving us a hard time. I remember standing at the timecard station ready to clock out for the night. It was 4:59 and I wanted to wait for the machine to click over to 5:00 before swiping my card. He noticed the potential opportunity for “interaction” and stumbled up next to me.

May I ask what you are doing?

“I’m just waiting for the clock to strike 5 before swiping out”, I replied.

It’s time to go home, I understand that. But we aren’t paying you to just stand there! If it’s time to go, then swipe out and go“. He walked back into the manager’s office to reclaim his seat.

Painful work life

The shift was 5pm to 10pm on school days and, according to your seniority, weekend and summer shifts from 8am to 4 (highest seniority) to 2pm to 10 (lowest seniority). The lower you were on the seniority list, the later into the evening you worked. Everybody started at the bottom. The only way to climb the seniority ladder was for the place to hire more people in your position, or for those above you in the list to leave. Starting salary was $5.50, which was $.35 above minimum wage at the time. Every three months we got a 15 cent raise. Yeah, we were union’ed.

I was stuck with the 2pm to 10 shift until they hired more courtesy clerks.

After orientation the following Saturday, I found myself working as a courtesy clerk at Safeway. Boom, hello working career! In three working hours, I already made more than my weekly allowance.

It was a painful start, literally.

Every shift was nearly eight hours on your feet. They permitted one 15-minute break during the 5-hour school day shifts and two 15-minute breaks, along with a longer 30-minute break (termed “lunch”) during an 8-hour shift. When you weren’t on break, you were standing or walking.

We’d work outside in the blinding summer heat or the frigid winter cold loading groceries into people’s cars. Or stacking carts. We were forbidden to accept tips, and secret shoppers would test us. I remember one woman offered me a $2 tip after I loaded her car with her stuff. I refused. She offered again, and I again refused. Then, she shoved the $2 down my shirt. I believe she was a secret shopper with a kind heart, but to this day, I remain unsure.

Back to the standing part…I tend to feel pain at my feet when I stand for long periods of time. Sometimes, the pain was excruciating. I would sneak sit-breaks any chance I got. I think I faked “#2” bathroom visits every now and again just for a couple minutes of sweet relief from standing.

We got the grunt work most of the time. Then again, we were high school students without marketable skills, willing to do pretty much anything for a small paycheck. Everything from bagging groceries to janitorial happiness, we courtesy clerks got our introduction into the beautiful world of having a job.

Can I really do this?

At the time, I wasn’t sure about my future. I had an interest in meteorology (and still do!) and harbored a budding interest in attending Penn State University and becoming a meteorologist for the National Weather Service. I also held a passing interest in computers. I thoroughly enjoyed designing web sites, but wasn’t sure if I could do that for a living. In fact, I was pretty sure that I couldn’t!

One thing I did know, however, is that I couldn’t work for Safeway – or any similar type of job, as a career. There’s just no way. The thought of enduring the pain and anguish from standing on my feet all day and performing repetitive low-level tasks rang loud and clear in my head.

At the time, I couldn’t understand why so many people did those jobs.

Most of the cashiers at Safeway were in their 30s and 40s. Some even older. But why? Couldn’t these people find something else to do? If I made the wrong decisions, would I be stuck accepting painful work too? I had more questions than answers. The one thing that I did know was that I didn’t like doing this.

I didn’t make it a year at Safeway before I had to leave. I couldn’t take it.

I turned into a salesman. Part two on Wednesday!

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49 responses to “The work experience: In the beginning”

  1. That’s a fun story Steve! It reminds me of my first job at 15 as well. I was a busboy at a place called Wag’s down in Miami. It was sort of a down-scale Denny’s. It only paid minimum wage, so you had me beat there! You learn a lot from those entry level jobs, that’s for sure.

    #1 – You don’t want to do them very long
    #2 – You don’t wan to end up like the 30 and 40 years olds that are doing the same job as you

    I wondered too how those people ended up working there as adults. One clue, I was offered cocaine on my first day on the job! I politely refused…

    • Steve says:

      Hey Jon – yeah, those first jobs often do teach us what we DON’T want to do and the importance of working hard and smart to find better opportunities for ourselves. And wow, being offered cocaine on the job is definitely something that didn’t happen to me. Good on you for politely declining. 🙂

  2. Man that’s a rough first job. I started out as a swim instructor/lifeguard as a summer camp. The actual job itself was boring. Life guarding is hours of sitting in a chair staring at a pool hoping no one drowns so you don’t have to get up. Swim instruction was a little more interesting but depending on the age of the kids sometimes devolved to baby sitting. Still the life guarding bit was the fun part. At the end of the day cleaning the toilets and at the end of the year taking down camp were the equivalent of your reboxing. Kids do some nasty things with a public restroom. Interestingly enough the oldest workers at the camp were college kids, so no influence on long term career then. My next job was working as a lifeguard for the YMCA. Same issues but then I started to meet the poor individuals that guarded as a career. Seeing someone at 40 dealing with the same crap you are at 17 is a real motivator. I look forward to wednesdays article.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks for the comment. I heard that lifeguards make good money – was that true, especially for a young person?

      • It depends largely on the type of lifeguard. As a summer camp lifeguard I was making about 9 dollars an hour back when minimum wage was somewhere around 6.50 locally. So not great. However a lifeguard at the beach can make 40-60K a year. Then again the stress there is through the roof.

        • Steve says:

          Thanks for the detail, FTF. Still, $2.50 above minimum wage as a teenager isn’t horrible. I can only imagine the stress of being a beach lifeguard – and the training that you need to go through before actually getting placed.

  3. Great story Steve! It’s amazing how tough it is to stand and work for that many hours a day (even as a teenager)! I bussed tables and then waitressed (along with lifeguarding) all through high school and college. It was exhausting carrying trays of dinners – but I could carry twelve plates of food on a tray and not even spill it back then! I was in much better shape, but happy to not have to do that any more too!

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Vicki. Being a server at a restaurant is always something that I’ve been curious about. It can’t be easy dealing with people, either – your tips can sometimes rely on things completely outside of your control. But then again, sometimes you’ll get customers who are understanding to a fault and wouldn’t short your tip even if the restaurant caught on fire. 🙂

    • I think it took me until this year (3+ years removed from law school) to have a salary that surpassed my average weekend hourly rate working as a server at a very busy restaurant in State College, Pa. Tough work that I’m happy I don’t do today, but wow did I do well on football weekends!

  4. Thanks for sharing the story. I also worked in a grocery store as one of my early jobs. I lucked out and landed a position in produce, which for whatever reason was way better than any other section. Our responsibilities were mainly keeping the fruit and vegetables stacked up nicely and always full with fresh produce. When we had down time, we’d cut up fresh fruit and set it out for the customers to sample. Even as a kid, I was surprised with how effective this strategy can be. If you cut up a pineapple and allow people to taste it, we would easily sell 30% more pineapple that day.

    • Steve says:

      You’re welcome, and thanks for commenting. Actually, the produce and bakery sections did seem to be a little more relaxed or structured. You were still standing on your feet, but your job was relatively straightforward too. And pineapple is by far my favorite fruit. I’d eat that stuff all day, every day. 🙂

  5. My first job (other than paper routes) was working as a clerk at a Target Store. You certainly learn a lot from these jobs and look at us now. I often think they would be shocked to learn that one of those kids saved their money so well that I could retire before I turned 50!

  6. Interesting story, Steve! I had a similar experience which is why I think those early jobs are really valuable, they quickly teach you what you don’t want to do for a living and why it is so important to do well in school so you can get the job/ career you want.

    I worked in a print shop, pretty tough manual labor…and also very boring work. I couldn’t see how that would be appealing for anyone for a long-term job. I toughed it out working part-time to help pay for my college and as soon as I didn’t need it anymore I was gone.

    I look forward to part 2!

    • Steve says:

      It’s true – they teach us what we don’t want to do for a living. Yeah, the print shop does sound pretty laborious…even more so than Safeway!

  7. I worked in a grocery store one summer, and my least favorite thing about it was the apparent lack of respect between the front-line employees and the company/managers. Little things like that timecard issue drove me mad. They’re really going to make a big deal about paying you an extra 10 cents for a minute of time? (Yes, they really are.) All that stuff just built a mutual disdain; the employer treated people like children, and the employees hated the place for it.

    I never hated working in a service role, and I could laugh at the over-the-top complaining customers — but that condescending treatment never sat well with me, and it was good motivation to keep working toward a better career.

    • Steve says:

      Looks like my experience at Safeway wasn’t all that unique. The store manager, to his credit, was fairly respecting of what we did, but like the assistant manager…that respect wasn’t shared among some of the other managers.

  8. Hahahaha, sounds like a fuuuun time over at the Safeway. I never had a job as a teen, and in many ways that made me unprepared for the professional world. There are a lot of lessons to be learned, *especially* for how to deal with assholes at work.

    • Steve says:

      Oh yeah, much, much fun! I did learn a lot while working there, though. It was my first *real* job. Dealing with assholes was just a single element of what I was taught, but an important one. 🙂

  9. Troy says:

    I too worked at Safeway while in high school, I made it about 6 months. It wasn’t my first job, more like the third or fourth. It was a fun experience even in the cold and snowy Utah winters, i guess i liked the fact that it was different than the restaurant jobs I had prior.

    • Steve says:

      Hey Troy – I guess that it can be fun because you get to do different things. For me, it was mainly the standing part and the fact that my feet just couldn’t take it. Working in restaurants is the same deal, I bet. I probably couldn’t do that, either!

  10. Good story Steve! I think we all had jobs like this growing up. We learned what kind of jobs we *didn’t* like.

    For me, it was working in a restaurant kitchen. Total grunt work, and on your feet for 8 hours a day. Full-on hustle the full 8 hours. Extremely tiring for little pay.

    It’s probably jobs like this that set me on the path to Financial Independence.

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Mr. Tako. I think you’re right that getting exposed to grunt work can spur on additional motivation to find something better. It certainly did for me.

  11. Jack says:

    My first job was as a lackey at a pizzeria. Making sandwich starts, pizza dough, and sauce. Chopping vegetables (ever chopped an entire 25 lb bag of onions?)

    Had a great time with most of my co-workers, earned very little money, and learned all about the evils of taxation. 2 years earned enough money to cover half of my first quarter of my first year of college.


    • Steve says:

      Wow, I have never chopped a 25lb bag of onions! I do love onions, but I’m sure that I’d get just a little tired of that in short order. And oh yes, the evils of taxation. Don’t even get me started. 🙂

  12. Mrs. BITA says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever hard a job this hard (in terms of physical labour and pain) in my life. I like your point about knowing, just knowing, that your life had to be about more than that job, that you couldn’t do that job for the rest of your life. That must have been motivating – you would do what it took to get out of there. That is a valuable lesson for a kid to learn.

    • Steve says:

      It was motivating…though I didn’t exactly know it at the time. All I knew was that I was a high school student that went to school for 7 hours a day, then for another three school days, I’d put in another 5 hours at work, then work AT LEAST another day over the weekend…all the while coming home every day with my feet aching. Yeah, I was determined to find something different! 🙂

  13. It’s the teenage jobs that turn us into what we become! At 15, I had a paper route and worked at an ice cream counter in a local restaurant. Good memories of hard work for low pay, but the work ethic remained, and let me into a successful business career. I look forward to Part two!!

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Fritz. I think you’re right – our experiences working as a high school student definitely shape how we think about work today…and some of the choices that we made in a previous life to help prevent us from turning our high school jobs into…well, careers!

  14. Mr. PIE says:

    Ha, fun reading!
    It is funny as we think back to jobs we used to do. As a student. I used to work(24 hrs on, 48 hrs off) on a ship that sailed between Scotland and Ireland. One lesson I learned quickly was to never go to work on a ship with a raging hangover. Especially foolish when seas are stormy and they often were on that route especially in late summer/early autumn. Beer plus headache plus nausea plus high seas = disaster…….!! amazing how quickly humans can learn…..

    • Steve says:

      Ha! I can only imagine the pain of swaying back and forth with a bad hangover. *shivers* I don’t drink all that heavily, so it doesn’t take much for me to get a hangover!

  15. Great story! That’s some very powerful motivation seeing people much older than you still working that crappy job. Looking forward to Part II. My dad owned a small business where I would work doing a number of things when I was young. The thing I hated most that he had me do was making cold calls at office parks and surrounding places to try to drum up business. It takes a special personal to enjoy and thrive in sales. Looking forward to hearing about your experiences!

    • Steve says:

      Oh my, the cold calls. Yeah, that is definitely something that I could not do. I hate the phone in general anyway, but add in the element that people probably don’t even want to talk with you in the first place, it makes the torture that much worse!

  16. It’s fun to hear your early work experience! My early jobs where all ones where I couldn’t go to the bathroom when I needed to — LOL! I was a lifeguard (can’t leave the pool unattended!), a dorm security guard (can’t leave the door unattended!) and later rode on an ambulance (no bathroom on board!). And that secured it for me: I only want a job where I can go to the bathroom whenever I need to! Hahaha (Of course, saying that, I’m currently stuck on a plane with the seatbelt sign on, so everything has come full circle.) 😉

    • Steve says:

      Ha! That’s funny, but I also sympathize. I have a micro bladder myself…so not being able to go to the bathroom would certainly make me a very upset little worker. And an uncomfortable one to boot! 😉

  17. Mr. SSC says:

    My first job was at a fast food place and the interview consisted of:
    Them: “Do you have a car?” Me: “Yep” Them: “Someone gives you a 5 and their bill is $3.67. What is their change?” Me: Puzzled look, “Um, $1.33” Evidently, they loved I could do math in my head quickly. Seriously… I lasted about 8 months before I quit and started bagging groceries at Kroger. That only lasted through the holidays. I too was surprised by the lifers working there. One cashier had worked there for 20 years at that point. 20 years….

    Those jobs and the other jobs I had like lawn boy/boat washer/general lackey for a boat dealer, and the loads of restaurant work, kitchen and front of the house showed me I want to do something different than that. Although I would have gone to culinary school if my brother hadn’t beaten me to it. I don’t want to compete with him at a career, no thanks.

    I realized this past weekend though, that the longest stretch of time I’ve ever spent at any one job was 7 years at a restaurant. The same restaurant. All my other jobs have only been 6 years at one place tops, and I don’t plan on being at this one for another 4.5 years.

    • Steve says:

      Wow, they actually asked you a math question! Actually, that kind of impresses me. If you can do quick math in your head, then you aren’t a complete idiot.

      Like you, I tended to move around quite a bit in my career. For me, that’s how I learned…getting exposed to new ways of doing business, new projects, new management, new customers. It definitely kept me learning along the way.

  18. My first W2 job was at an RV campground. I loved it (mainly my friends and the work) and hated the manager. He was a mean, old, scabby, chain-smoker. He had a thick southern accent and I could barely understand him. We butted heads constantly since the owner loved me and he didn’t care for the 16 year old kid getting special treatment. I stayed there for 5 years and learned a ton about maintenance work, camping, RVs, customer service, and hard work. Even though some times were tough I wouldn’t change it for anything.

    • Steve says:

      Good attitude to have, Fervent. We do tend to learn a lot from our first jobs…both things that we enjoy doing as well as the stuff we don’t. And a little work ethic along the way, me thinks.

  19. Matt Spillar says:

    I worked a variety of minimum wage jobs throughout high school and early college, and one of these jobs was at a grocery store for a summer. It was easily the worst summer of my wife, 40 hour weeks with all the horrible things you described. I was nodding all throughout reading your post, because everything rings so true and takes me back to that horrible summer. It felt like all I would do was wake up, go to a job I hated, come home and go to sleep. I had always known that I wanted to go to college, work hard, and get a “good job” and working at the grocery store showed me the exact reason why I wanted to avoid the fate of working minimum wage jobs for the rest of my life. Now I look back at those minimum wage jobs and it makes me thankful for how far I’ve come and it motivates me to keep pursuing bigger and better things in my life.

    • Steve says:

      Wow, sounds like a pretty horrifying experience at that grocery store! But yup, I think we both definitely learned from working this kind of job that finding something better and getting a good degree is a *requirement* to help avoid the possibility that we’ll ever have to do this again. 🙂

  20. Andrew says:

    Great story Steve! I always love hearing about people’s first jobs.

    My first job was a cashier at a major drug store chain. I totally remember so many details (both good and bad).

    Like you, I didn’t like some parts of the job….mainly standing around all day haha. I stayed there for a little over a year.

    While I wouldn’t do it over again, it was a great experience, because it taught me what hard work is and what I didn’t want to do when I was 30+!

    • Steve says:

      Thanks Andrew. “…because it taught me what hard work is and what I didn’t want to do when I was 30+!” – well said! I definitely agree.

  21. […] part one of the Work Experience, I talked about my first job. I was 15 and wanted extra cash, and I was […]

  22. Great read Steve!
    My early career shares some similarities with yours. I got a job to have more money and freedom as soon as I could. I started at 16 for Swiss Chalet as a dish washer. It paid $6.81 per hour and was awful to say the least. I worked there for 3 months and then managed to get a warehouse job for Canadian Tire. After a few more of these type of jobs I got into sales too.

    I also strongly agree with what you said about always remembering to stock the shelves properly to this day. I feel the same way about customer service. I think everyone needs to work in customer service so they learn how to treat people. Working in retail sales or in a call centre is challenging.

    Great post though. It really got me thinking about my early career. I’m looking forward to reading part two now.

    • Steve says:

      I wonder how different our world would be if everyone had worked in customer service for some point in their lives. It wouldn’t solve everything, of course, but I’d be that we’d generally be a kinder, more friendly society!

  23. Living Free says:

    Love your blog post. I started my first job as a cashier at the local grocery store too.

    While the people I worked with weren’t necessary mean or anything, but I truly understood what it meant to have a job. It meant having to deal with difficult customers and enduring excruciating pain on my feet on a 7-hour shift for minimum wage. It was also then that I appreciated the freedom that money can buy.

    Yes, it all started with that first job…..

    • Steve says:

      Amen to that, Living Free. I think it started with that job as well. Although I definitely wasn’t focused on early retirement at the time, I certainly knew what I didn’t want to end up doing for my career! 🙂

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