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.
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!
Steve is a 37-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.