47 Years Of Working

Earlier this week I got a document called “Your Social Security Statement” from the federal government.  That’s the document that tells you how much you and your employers have paid in Social Security taxes, tells you what your monthly Social Security payment will be at various retirement ages, and also gives some pointers about how, and when, to start getting the benefits.

The statement also tells you, year by year, your taxable earnings for Social Security and Medicare purposes.  As I looked at it, I realized, with a certain chill, that I’ve been working for 47 years now.

ph-430009996The statement notes that my first job was in 1973, during the Nixon Administration, when the 16-year-old me got hired as a “bag boy” at the now-defunct Big Bear Supermarket at the Kingsdale Shopping Center in Upper Arlington.  I had to wear a collared shirt and tie and a long white apron, and I bagged groceries at the checkout lines, helped old ladies put their groceries in their cars, and retrieved shopping carts from the parking lot after the store closed down.

According to the statement, I made slightly more than $500 that year, which sure felt like a lot of money to a kid living at home.  The next year, after I got trained on how to run the cash register myself so I could sub in for the ladies who were the permanent cashiers when they needed a break, I upped my earnings to just over $1,000, and I felt flush with cash.

It’s all there on one page — my earnings from working on the Ohio State Lantern, from my summer intern stint for the Wall Street Journal, from writing obituaries for the Toledo Blade, from serving as a press secretary for a Congressman on Capitol Hill, as a research assistant in law school, as a summer associate at law firms, as a judicial clerk in Washington, D.C., and finally from the law firm where I’ve worked for nearly 34 years.

It’s kind of weird to look at my employment history on that one page, and remember those old jobs that I haven’t thought about in a while.  47 years is a long time, I suppose, but it really doesn’t feel that long, and the memories of those jobs — and the feeling I had when I got that first two-week paycheck that probably netted me about $64 — are still fresh and lurking.  Thanks to the Social Security Administration for the reminder!

Working On Thanksgiving

Many stores are open this Thanksgiving.  You may hear some people feeling sorry for the people manning the cash registers, swabbing the spill on aisle 9, or otherwise working today.  I can’t speak for everyone, but I worked part of one Thanksgiving Day, and it was great.

It was in the early ’70s, when I was a teenage “bag boy” at the Big Bear grocery store at Kingsdale Shopping Center in Upper Arlington.  The store was open from 8 to noon on Thanksgiving to allow people who had forgotten something to get what they needed for their meal.  Most the cashiers and workers used their seniority to take the day off, so the more junior people on the Big Bear payroll — like me — had to work.  But because the older women who typically manned the cash registers were off, I got to run one of the checkout lanes.  And, most importantly for a cash-strapped 16-year-old, I got paid double-time wages for working on a holiday.

The store was busy that Thanksgiving morning, but not overwhelmingly so.  More importantly, every customer who stopped by for another package of stuffing or sticks of butter or a bag of potatoes was incredibly polite.  They were genuinely grateful the Big Bear was open, and when I sincerely wished them a Happy Thanksgiving they responded in kind.  I even got a few tips for bagging, which was unprecedented.

After the shift was over I went home to my Thanksgiving meal, with a few extra dollars in my pocket and some holiday cheer in my heart.  I didn’t mind working on Thanksgiving Day one bit.

Bag Boy

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.