A couple of old friends just mentioned (on Facebook) their first jobs, which got me thinking about my earliest forays into the world of work.
My first ever job was the quintessential teenage girl’s occupation – babysitting. I sat for neighbors and their friends, and most of the time, everything was copacetic – even fun -with the younger couples who treated me like a friend. Who could complain about sitting in the Barcalounger with a big bowl of potato chips, onion dip and soda watching Johnny Carson (“the Great Carsoni”), and then being handed twenty bucks for their trouble? Not bad for a 14-year-old in 1969.
There were a few folks I declined to sit for twice, like the family whose very precocious 3-year-old warned me about their Pekingese: “…if he should try to mount you…” and “…if he should give a bronchial cough….” (no exaggeration – these are the exact words that came out of that tiny tyke’s mouth – so dumbfounding that I’ve remembered them all these years). The little girl herself wasn’t so bad – in fact, I felt a bit sorry for her. She had the complete collection of Beatrix Potter books (with perfect dust covers!) sitting attractively on a shelf in her room, and it seemed pretty obvious to me that they were rarely read to her (I spent at least an hour doing just that). But her mom was a kook – when the parents arrived home from wherever, mom immediately got down on all fours and with no explanation, started crawling around the living room, loudly yodeling, “Doo-doo! Doo-doo!” Turned out that was the dog’s name, but that was enough for me.
Then there was the young woman who’d neglected to tell me that all of her living room lights – as well as the TV – were on a timer, and at 1 AM (she’d assured me she’d be home at 11 PM), everything suddenly switched off, leaving me in an unfamiliar house in pitch darkness. Of course, what immediately popped into my mind was the scourge of all babysitters: “…and the caller was in the basement!!!” Another customer down.
A more reliable source of employment at the time was work as a “page” at the Willy Park Library. I shelved books, organized magazines and newspapers, and – my favorite part – sometimes got to check out the patrons’ books, placing their old metal-plate cards in one slot of a compact machine, then slipping the book cards into a second slot, registering the patron info and the date with an authoritative ka-chunk! All this for the princely sum of $1.10 an hour! I was also the staff artist, producing advertising posters for special events. The head librarian sweetly insisted on paying me extra for this work – my first – and maybe only? – paid work as an artist.
When I was 18, a Hardees hamburger joint opened up on Hillside Ave, and I was one of the first people hired. The uniform was an ugly, bright-orange, polyester smock, short black skirt, and white knee socks, all presumably intended to pique the customers’ appetite. Before the restaurant opened for business, the manager hoped to have us counter people vying for top honors as the most ambitious salesperson by timing our responses – with a stopwatch! – as he strode jauntily in the door pretending to be a customer. Each of us was expected to plaster a big smile on and call out, “May I help you?!” as quickly as possible.
We were also constantly exhorted to engage in “suggestive selling” (their term), which you undoubtedly recognize if you patronize fast food establishments – “Is that a large?” At that time, there was only one size and everything was sold a la carte, so to speak – no combo meals – so suggestive selling consisted of trying to interest the customer in purchasing more items. As a result, after they stated their order, we were required to ask, “Would you like fries with that? How about a hot apple pie?”
All of this, relatively common sales strategies, I suppose, nonetheless struck me as supremely idiotic and embarrassing. (And expecting a little much for $1.90 an hour. Commissions? We don’t need no stinking commissions! And oh yeah – we had to pay for our food, even the leftover stuff that’d been sitting under the heat lamps for hours!!). For some strange reason, my embarrassment wasn’t compounded by a behavior I engaged in to relieve the boredom and inanity of my position. A co-worker and I had an interpretation of the phrase suggestive selling that was somewhat different from the management’s. When the boss wasn’t looking (and only with selected customers, to be sure!), we would throw ourselves across the counter, and putting on our best Playboy Bunny faces, ask in sultry voices, “Do you want fries with that?”
Needless to say, my career with Hardees, like my uniform skirt, was abbreviated.