When I was 16 or so, I got my first job, as a “bag boy” at the Kingsdale shopping center Big Bear. I filled out an employment application, was hired in a few days, and then started working a few days after that. I was interested in getting a job so I could have some spending money and take my girlfriend out for pizza and movies.
At that time, at least, there was a rigid hierarchy at the front of the store. The store manager, Mr. Evans, was a lofty figure who for the most part stayed in the office and occasionally hobnobbed with customers. The assistant manager, Mr. Cooper, was the tough guy enforcer — a sort of vice principal type, who took care of any disciplinary action that needed to be taken. Then, there were the cashiers, who were older ladies who had worked at the store for years and younger women who were starting out on a cashier career. The lowest rung on the ladder was the bag boys, and the lowest of the low was the newest bag boy, with no seniority and no say on when he worked. For a few months, that was me. The more senior baggers got the cushy Sunday and holiday gigs, which paid double-time or time and a half; the grunts got Saturday morning, which was our busiest time, or weeknight work.
I had to join a union — I don’t remember which one it was — and paid union dues. I had to wear a shirt with a button-down collar, a tie, and a clean white apron. I would move from register to register, bagging groceries into brown paper sacks — cans at the bottom, bread on the top, keeping the Tide away from the meat, double-bagging when needed — and then load the sacks into grocery carts. You would wheel the cart out to the customer’s car, unload the sacks into the trunk, and hope for a tip. Some people were tippers and some weren’t, and you could never be quite sure which was which, so you were polite and friendly to everyone. If you slipped up, and a customer complained, you would get a dressing down from Mr. Cooper. At the end of the workday, as the store was closing, a bag boy had to go around the entire Kingsdale shopping center, to pick up any stray carts that had ended up by Lazarus, The Union, the MCL Cafeteria, or the Goodyear store, add them to a long line, and then push the line up the slight incline at the last turn before the Big Bear came into view.
I don’t remember how much I made at that job, but when I got my first paycheck it seemed like a lot of money. It felt good to be able to take my girlfriend out on my own dime. I think I became a quick, proficient bagger, and after a few months they sent me to a school to learn how to operate the cash registers — this was years before optical scanners and bar codes were developed — so that I could spell the cashiers when they were on breaks. The cashier work was easier, and gave you a chance to interact with customers. I learned that politeness paid off, and that if you wanted to keep your job it was a good idea to stay off your boss’ radar screen.
One day, I tried to get off work and called in to say that I didn’t have a ride to the store that day. They connected me with Mr. Evans, the store manager. He heard my story, and then he said: “Well, Bob, if you want to keep your job you will find a way to get here on time.” I rode my bike the store, my face burning with shame. I made it there on time, and neither Mr. Evans nor anyone else mentioned anything about my phone call. I respected that Mr. Evans quietly called my bluff, and I respected even more that, when I showed up for work, he didn’t grind it in. He knew that the message had been effectively delivered, and received.
In all, it was a good job and a good experience. I learned a lot about a lot of things — about being a worker, and about being a boss. I am a big believer in the value of work for teenagers precisely because work gives kids the chance to be on their own, judged on their own merits and the value of their contributions, learning the kind of basic lessons that are learned at any job. Lessons learned by doing and experiencing tend to have more long-lasting impact than lessons learned by hearing. In my case, those lessons lasted longer than Big Bear itself — the Big Bear chains went out of business a few years ago.