My first real job paid me three dollars and thirty-five cents an hour. I worked for the grocery store out on the main road. The main road that was slowly becoming more and more of a main road every day.
Through the years, the town I grew up in experienced a strong influx of people from the boroughs of New York City – people who decided that the town I lived in would be a good place to put themselves for a while. Now, I can’t really complain about all the people who moved into my hometown too much because that’s what my parents did. My parents weren’t natives of our town, so if there was someone from a generation older than me, from the same town, writing a story about the town they grew up in and decided to mention the influx of people, they would be talking about my parents.
There were only three food stores nearby. There was a small IGA, a mid-sized store called Finast and then there was the larger one called the A&P. The A&P is where I got my first official job. This was the store that gave me my first taste of real life. Life that required a time card and life that gave me a lunch break. Life that had me stand behind a cash register for hours on end and worst of all, life that said each cashier was to wear a tie. A tie at fourteen years old.
Back when I worked at the A&P, my fellow cashiers and I were directed by a manager named Jim. This guy named Jim took his job very seriously – for which I’m not sure I can blame him, because it was, well, his job. And his job was to keep the front end of the store running smoothly. He did this by using a whole bunch of tie wearing fourteen year olds to punch numbers in some cash registers. He made sure everyone showed up on time, did their job effectively and that they dressed properly.
I had applied for a job at the A&P in September. I remember it well because I handed in the application on my birthday. The minute I turned fourteen, I ran down to the guidance office in my high school to get my working papers. The very documents that gave me the permission to work in the real world. The documents that somehow also told me that there would be rules to follow out there and that those rules couldn’t be broken.
I followed the rules at the age of fourteen, so the day I applied for the cashier’s job at the A&P, I showed my new working papers to Jim. He stood there and scanned them over. After he found them accurately describing who I was, he quickly and smartly accepted them, made a copy and then handed them back to me. He then proceeded to tell me my start date.
Now, I’m going to try to make a long, and at times disheartening, story short. Jim and I had never seen eye to eye on the tie thing. While wearing a tie was of the utmost importance to Jim, it wasn’t really very important to me. It actually wasn’t important to me at all. It repulsed me and had such little importance to me in fact, that I decided pretty quickly that I was never going to wear one. Not even on the very first day I worked for the A&P. Now, Jim took notice of this. He took notice of this from that office he sat in at the front of the store. The office that was right behind the customer service desk and the office that was elevated just a few feet higher than everyone else’s workplace.
On the very first day of work, Jim saw that I wasn’t wearing my tie, so he approached me to ask where it was. I told him that I forgot to wear it – that I had left it at home. Jim replied that it really was important for me to wear a tie and explained to me that wearing a tie was one of the rules I had to abide by if I wanted to work for the A&P.
Now, you know as well as I do that I didn’t forget that tie. I had never planned on wearing it. I thought I could grind Jim down so I would one day be known as the cashier who didn’t have to wear a tie. Since I had abided by the rest of the uniform, I felt my strategy was innocent enough.
On my second day of work at the A&P, I decided not to wear my tie once more. Jim again noticed this from his elevated office and approached me to ask where my tie was. I told him that I had forgotten it – that I had left it at home.
Jim seemed quite angry at hearing this, but he suppressed his anger and merely repeated to me the critical importance of wearing a tie – the critical importance that a tie had on the operation of the entire store. He then left me alone for the rest of the day to punch those numbers in my cash register.
Now, here’s the dismaying part I’m going to share with you. On the third day I arrived at work, and after somehow forgetting my tie again, Jim hopped down from his floating office and approached me with a beet red face. He asked where in the hell my tie was and when I informed Jim that I had forgotten it once more, I witnessed the emergence of a giant vein in Jim’s forehead begin to throb. Jim wasn’t very happy from hearing this news – not happy at all.
Right after hearing my excuse and not a second after my sentence escaped my mouth did Jim tightly grab my arm to drag me through the store. He pulled me across the front-end, past each and every register and cashier, past the main entrance and down the health and beauty-aid aisle. He continued pulling me back towards the rear of the store and across the last aisle that spanned all the aisles, and slammed through the double doors that led to the warehouse – the warehouse that held the side entrance to the meat department.
Once we stopped in the darkened space, where all the grocery items were stored on pallets for distribution, Jim released his grip on my arm and quickly, with long strides, walked towards and through the meat department double doors to find a meat cutter. A few seconds passed when Jim returned to me with a cutter in tow.
Almost purposefully in front of me and acting as the meat cutter’s manager as well, Jim asked if there was an extra tie floating around somewhere in the warehouse. I saw the meat cutter’s lips begin to curl after Jim finished his question. Apparently, this wasn’t the first time a lowly cashier had to borrow a tie from this department.
The meat cutter slowly turned toward me and smiled. “Oh, sure Jim. Sure we have a tie back here. A nice tie that would look just perfect on this young man.”
Jim and I stood patiently as we watched the meat cutter make his way over to a small wooden bench that held some papers and other junk. A price gun, an apron, a roll of wax paper with neon green stickers. You get the idea.
He looked through a few drawers before he gave an audible chuckle and pulled out the most grotesque green and tan tie you had ever seen. It was about a foot wide with some holiday designs across its face. It looked as though it was a leftover from the seventies and that it may have been worn with some sort of unfortunate costume.
The meat cutter walked back over to Jim and me and handed him the tie. “Is this what you were looking for?
Jim didn’t say a word. He didn’t even turn his head. He just thrust the tie at my chest and said, “Put this on.” As he continued to needle his thumb in my sternum.
As soon as I pulled the tie from Jim’s hand, he decided to clamp on my arm once more – tighter than he had before – to swing around and face me. I could feel his breath on my cheek.
“If my manager walks in this store and sees my employees not wearing the appropriate uniform, it’s my ass. You got that?”
With that, Jim released my arm and with a huff, left through the double doors and headed back to the front of the store – throbbing forehead vein and all.
I lifted my hand to take closer inspection of the tie. I bit my lip and dropped my head slightly while turning it side to side – giving myself a bit of reassurance. I let my eyes wander, lose focus and refocus on all the junk that had piled up in the corners of the warehouse through the years. I took a deep breath in and gradually let it out in an attempt to keep my composure. I stood in place for just a few more seconds before I walked past the meat cutter and towards the desk he had come from almost a minute earlier. I held my hand up – the hand that clutched the fabric – and dropped the tie on the desk.
I turned around and again walked past the meat cutter and made my way to the double doors. I pushed them open and walked straight through them. I continued to walk straight across the rear aisle and straight up the health and beauty aid aisle from which I had come. In fact, I walked so straight that I deliberately avoided making the left turn that would bring me back to the front of the store. I walked so straight that the only place I could walk was straight through the main exit. And I continued walking. Walking so straight that I walked straight home that day. Straight home after making one small stop along the way.