In my last post I mentioned working hard over the years to advance in the business world. Even as I did so, the result of my first job search was never far from my mind.
A few months before my seventeenth birthday, I began looking for a part-time job. I had a driver’s permit but no license yet; I’d have to find something within walking distance. The local McDonald’s restaurant was an obvious choice, especially since I did similar work at a State Fair hamburger stand the summer before. I was nervous about the interview but, having excelled at school, babysitting and the hamburger stand, I fully expected to be offered a position.
“Oh, we can’t hire you,” the manager said upon noticing my hands. “Every employee has to work every station here. You might burn yourself on the fry basket.”
Such a thing had never occurred to me. Up to this point, it seemed as if I had done everything I ever wanted to do. But it was true I had no cooking experience because my boss at the hamburger stand divided the duties by gender, the boys cooked and the girls waited on customers.
Surely this was an isolated incident. Not many jobs require entry-level employees to handle hot oil. Maybe I’d have better luck at K-Mart. As before, I had no trouble landing an interview but the outcome was frighteningly similar. Once I took off my winter coat and the hiring manager noticed my hands, the path to a job was closed to me.
“The only position I have open is for a waitress,” she explained. “You wouldn’t be able to carry the heavy trays.”
Still determined to find a job before turning 17, I applied at the Tom Thumb convenience store. When I arrived for an interview with the store owner, an unpleasant woman in her 50s, she didn’t invite me to sit as the previous interviewers had. Standing near the cash register, she asked a few questions before showing me around the store, gruffly ticking off the job duties — cashiering, recording gas pump readings at the beginning and end of each shift, wrapping lettuce and other produce in plastic, stocking the milk cooler and mopping the floors.
Next, we headed outside to look at the gas pumps, where she explained the importance of writing down license plate numbers before turning them on and calling the police if anyone drove away without paying. With little fanfare, she hired me on the spot, telling me when to arrive for my first shift. I hadn’t even taken off my coat. Elated, I walked home to tell my family I had gotten the job.
My excitement turned to dismay when I learned the culture of my new workplace. A couple of girls one year ahead of me in school were running the show. Although the boss trusted them to run the store alone, they spent much of their time taking advantage of her good will. The covers of the pornographic magazines, sold alongside TV Guide and the daily newspaper, were covered with brown paper and wrapped in cellophane by employees too young to buy them. Never one to break rules, I was happy to stand at the cash register or restock the milk cooler while the other girls read the magazines. When they took a turn on the register, I watched silently as they “rang up” snacks for their friends, charging less than a dollar for a whole bag of food.
A month after getting the job, I called my mother from school to say I was having trouble breathing.
“I suppose you should walk over to the clinic,” she said.
When our doctor entered the exam room, I put aside the historical novel I was reading.
“Looks like you’re a Leon Uris fan.” he said.
“Yes, I just read Mila 18 and now I’m reading Exodus.”
He seemed surprised by my interest in the Holocaust and reading a 600-page book. After diagnosing me with pneumonia, he asked a nurse to call my mother in from the waiting room.
“She isn’t here,” I said. “I walked over from school and I’ll just walk home now.”
The outside temperature was 20 degrees and I lived a mile away.
“You will not walk home.” He advised me to take the prescribed antibiotic and stay home from school for a few days.
“But I have to work tomorrow night. I just got a job at Tom Thumb.”
“Call in sick,” the doctor said. “You’ll have plenty of time to finish reading your book now.”
I was embarrassed when he asked the receptionist to stay late until my mother arrived from work to pick me up. When we got home I called my boss to tell her the doctor said to take a few days off.
“Don’t bother coming in again,” she said. “I don’t need you anymore.”
“Why not? Because I’m sick?”
“No, I just don’t need you anymore.”
“Okay. Thank you. Goodbye.”
Sick with fear, I thought quickly. I couldn’t tell everyone I lost the job I worked so hard to land, I had to do something. Maybe I could go and speak to her, plead my case and beg for my job back. I didn’t want to tell my mother what had happened and ask her to drive me there. The doctor said I shouldn’t walk that distance in the cold and I’d be missed if I were gone that long anyway.
I snuck into the garage and hopped on the moped my father bought us before he left. On the moped I could get there and back in just minutes. I never wore gloves because the empty thumbs got in the way, so I pulled my hands up into my coat sleeves and rode the mile to the store. The boss was surprised to see me.
“I wanted to come and speak to you in person,” I said. “I’m sorry I got sick when I haven’t been here that long, but I never miss school. I’ll be a reliable employee.”
“It isn’t that,” she said. “There’s money missing from the register.”
“If you think I’ve been stealing from you, you’re wrong!” I glared at her but stopped short of stating the truth — your trusted teenage managers are robbing you blind.
“I’m not accusing you of stealing.” She appeared surprised by my angry retort. “I just think you’re making mistakes on the register.”
What would happen if I told on the other girls? Would she believe me? Would they be fired? I couldn’t risk being ostracized at school.
“I don’t think so but okay.” I walked out, rode the moped home, and followed the doctor’s orders to get well before going back to school. I was appalled, devastated, inconsolable.
Weeks later I learned why the cash register was short and it wasn’t because of the teen managers; they were smart enough to cover their tracks. Instead, the young mother who was hired last had been ringing returnable milk bottle refunds as cash coming in rather than going out. Although she was also fired, I was never called back. It was probably just as well. It was only a matter of time before someone complained that I was unable to do the job — I couldn’t lift the mop bucket to empty it at the end of my shift.