I applied for a job at only one place, in the grocery industry—the other traditional career route in my family (the first being the newspaper industry). My dad, you see, was a grocer for the first twenty-something years of his adult-type married life, and a butcher for the remainder of his working days. My older brothers and sisters helped out around his small neighborhood grocery store, the one a few miles from our house that Dad opened after his first store, a block from our house, burned to the ground one horrible night. It was the first time I ever saw Mom cry one of my older sisters remembers. I was a year old. By the time I was old enough to help bag apples (how do you think they got into the bags?) or sweep the warped oak floors, Dad decided that the larger chain stores were a real threat to the neighborhood stores—and he converted his into a Laundromat. Smart guy, my dad.
But this is about me. I’m sixteen, and I’m ready for my first interview at Tops Friendly Market. I meet the small, eyeglassed and balding manager in his tiny, dark little domain of power behind the cash office. I’m extremely nervous, and figure I have a snowball’s chance in hell of being hired to be a real grocery store cashier (low self-worth, anyone?). But the manager is impressed by my work history. He is even more impressed by my personal reference: Mr. B., our next-door-neighbor and all-around good citizen, who was a bank manager back in the day when they wore suits, topcoats, and hats to work every day, and were held in the highest esteem. (Side note: I was happy to visit Mr. B. just last November. He is eighty-nine.)
I was hired and started my career. I remember my first day of training, when the front-end manager introduced me to the expression, “I don’t get mad, I get even.” I spent days wondering what she really meant by that. But she was a toughie, no doubt about it. She scared me, and I stayed out of her way. With a little practice, I soon became a very good cashier. No scanning bar codes back then, oh no. We had to read the price and punch in the numbers, attributing each item to meat, produce, frozen foods, or miscellaneous as we went. I was a veritable machine, grabbing item after item from the cart, placing it on the conveyor belt with one hand, while accurately punching in numbers with the other. Fast as lighting. I was that good. My failure as a paper girl was soon a distant memory.
Tops Friendly Market was an odd little segment of society. Aside from the wide variety of personality types in our customers, the people who worked there were a little different than I had encountered in my sheltered world. They were a little more crass, a little more permed, teased, sprayed and Camaro driving than I was used to. I liked them. Once I felt comfortable, I wandered to the break room to chat with the other women, usually older than me and much more aware of the world. I started bumming a cigarette here and there, to fit in, to have something to do on break. I started making friends among the red polyester smocked and vested community; even took on a van-driving boyfriend, much to the horror of my parents. He was a real loser, but I thought he was pretty much the best I could do. The jocks weren’t lining up outside the door, you know?
I used to go out after work with a guy named Troy. He was cute and I had a real crush on him. We’d get some beer after work, and sit in his car, drinking and listening to Lynard Skynard. We’d flirt some and make out, even though he had a girlfriend. I was one of those girls, apparently. I was in his car one night, in front of my house as he was dropping me off, when the radio announcer told the world that John Lennon was dead. That’s why I remember Troy.
Back at Tops Friendly Market, I eventually ended up switching to the produce department. It was more solitary work, interacting with the iceberg and parsley instead of the drunks and yuppies. I had time to think, and hum, while I was making piles of oranges and weighing bags of broccoli crowns. I was usually the only one in the department in the evenings. All alone and isolated from the rest of the store.
All that stretching, reaching for the top of the apple display. Plenty of bending over, sweeping up the celery fronds. The quiet nights when very few customers would wander through the department. Ample opportunity for a predator, otherwise known as the store security guard, (you know, someone to be TRUSTED) to graze a bustline or a hip, and to say the inappropriate things that only confused a young woman into wondering if she should be flattered—or frightened. And so she said nothing at all.
That was my second job. And my first experience with sexual harassment. Little did I know how many more were to come.
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