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Things I learned at my very first job

People in my generation (X) are given to waxing nostalgic about how things were when we were kids. Not that things were better, necessarily, but we paid our dues, and we’d like to tell you all about it.

Example 1: What was the first car you drove? Maybe it was some old beater that your parents (or grandparents) bequeathed to you, or perhaps you saved money from your first job to buy one. Whatever it was, I bet if I ask you to tell me about it, you’ll get a misty, faraway gaze as you remember how it would randomly stall, or the passenger-side window didn’t roll down, or it leaked when it rained, or how the rear-view mirror was fastened to the car with duct tape. My own first car was given to overheating, so I traveled at all times with a gallon of water and a jug of coolant. But it was fun to drive – it was a 4-speed with a bench seat – and I got a sweet after-market cassette deck at Radio Shack and had it installed so I could play my Police, Van Halen, Foreigner, Prince, and Yes tapes until they warped and tore.

Now, our family’s fleet includes a late-model compact sedan (practical and economical), an older sporty black convertible (neither practical nor economical but oh-so-much fun to drive), and a 20 year old two-door Jeep Wrangler with a manual transmission that is decidedly unglamorous and needs a good bit of work. Guess which one of these is the one I intend to bequeath to my son, who currently has his learner’s permit?

I believe it is a rite of passage for a kid to have a… memorable first car. After all, a teenager needs something to aspire to. They need to earn their first “nice” car. And if he can’t connect his phone to the sound system via Bluetooth, well, that just means he can concentrate on actually driving.

Example #2: Your job(s) during high school. There were the lucky few who snagged jobs as lifeguards at the town’s only swimming pool, which paid minimum wage but promised maximum suntan potential. The farm kids baled hay or detasseled corn. Some kids drove half an hour down the road to work at the nearest McDonalds, and others found restaurants where they could wait tables. Still others focused on babysitting – a smart strategy to avoid paying taxes.

I was 16 when I got my very first job at the grocery store that my Uncle Bill and his brother owned. It was located several miles from my home, situated at the crossroads of a small rural village, but they did a brisk business because it was the only store for miles. They hired me to be a cashier, and to be honest, I had always wanted to work there, so I was super-excited to have scored this great opportunity.

The store was an independent grocer, not part of a chain. This was in the mid-1980s, before plastic bags became ubiquitous, products had UPC barcodes, and long before anyone thought of paying for groceries with a credit card.

I learned a lot at this job: 

There were no scanners, so I manually entered the cost of each item based on its price sticker. As with many grocery checkouts, the belt was on my left. I am VERY left-handed, so I improved my checking speed by training my right hand to punch in numbers on the keypad without me having to constantly look at it.

Not every item had a price sticker. The price of produce items fluctuated, and they didn’t have universal PLU codes like they do now. So at the beginning each shift, my uncle would tell me which produce prices had changed, and I memorized them. I no longer memorize produce prices, but I do know that the PLU code for limes (non-organic) is 4048 and that saves me seconds each time I self-checkout.

Each week, the manufacturer’s cents-off coupons had to be tallied and sent in to the redemption center. I was tasked with counting them and filling out the redemption slip. So, I would log that we had, say, 14 five-cent coupons, 27 ten-cent coupons, eight 15-cent coupons, etc., calculated the total dollar value in each category, then added them all for the grand total. While calculators and adding machines did exist then, Uncle Bill insisted that I do all the math in my head. He and his brother were amazing at this – they could eyeball the sheet and come up with the correct total in just a few seconds. 

The store accepted only cash and checks. So, I learned to count back change The Right Way (which I recall being taught in elementary math). Say your order was $52.38, and you gave me $60. I would count up as I pulled your change from the drawer, saying aloud as I went: 39 (cents), 40, 50, 75, 53 (dollars)… 54, 55, and 5 is 60. If someone insisted on giving me the 38 cents, I knew to give them $8. The machine didn’t tell me – I did the math. And I placed the coins in your hand before the bills, not on top of them where they can slide off, a misguided practice that irks me to this day.

I learned how to expertly pack up a grocery order, using a cardboard box for heavy canned goods and other nonperishables, and placing meats and other refrigerated items together in a brown paper bag to keep them cool. Now, I can’t not load my own items onto the belt grouped as I want them to be bagged.

But the biggest lesson I learned was that it’s important – even vital – to serve your community in ways big and small.

My uncle and his brother believed that nobody should go hungry, and they knew they were in a position to help. Some in the community were on fixed incomes. If they needed food before their check arrived, they were permitted to charge their purchase to their store account, and make a payment once they had money. The accounts were kept by hand, stacks of paper sales slips stapled together and stored in the drawer beneath the register. There were some accounts that were never totally paid off, but because the people always made an effort to pay at least something, they were allowed to keep their accounts.

I keep these early lessons in mind as my 16 year old son – the future driver of the beater Wrangler – has recently expressed interest in getting a job. He doesn’t want to wait till summer – he’d like one now. So, I created a resume for him. Because even kids with no work experience need a resume. I’ve been shopping it around, and he’s going to email it to some local businesses by way of application. I told him to walk around to each store to drop off a copy, to demonstrate his hustle. That approach generally is not well-suited for adults, but wouldn’t you want to hire the go-getter kid who’s demonstrating his eagerness in that way?

My hope is that, by making him drive a less than excellent vehicle to his first minimum-wage job, he’ll experience the kinds of formative lessons that shape his character and help him to become a first-rate citizen and fully-functioning member of society. After all, I turned out OK!

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