My mom used to tell me I could be whatever I want when I grow up. I explored new potential career paths almost every day: an artist, a cowboy, a secret agent. But after my Hogwarts acceptance letter never came, I realized I would have to pursue more realistic occupations. So I considered entering the fields of business or journalism. Never in my youth did I envision myself donning a gaudy red vest and taking abuse behind a register for hours on end.
Don’t get me wrong, I knew my first position wouldn’t exactly be my “dream job.” I knew that I would only be making minimum wage. I knew I’d be the lowest man on the food chain. But my only concern was saving up enough money to buy a car.
Because of my lack of personal transportation, my occupational options were limited to local retail and grocery stores. After submitting countless applications, I was finally hired by a neighborhood hardware store, which shall remain nameless. On my second day, a co-worker told me how that he loathed the job more than anything in the world. I should have heeded his warning.
The store was a high traffic area for the elderly. From the time we’d open until about 5 o’clock (bedtime for our regulars), I’d see an endless stream of Lincolns and Buicks poorly parked in the handicapped spots. My customers usually possessed at least one of the following qualities: insanity, anger or downright stupidity. Allow me to explain. A woman once walked into the store, looked me dead in the eyes and asked, “Is it six in the morning or evening?”
I stared in disbelief. She repeated the question.
“Um…evening,” I said.
She thanked me and left. Then, there was this man who dressed in Playboy apparel and frequently purchased hundreds of pounds of birdseed. I really don’t want to know what he intended to do with it. Another customer returned a bag of cement because it broke when he dropped it on the floor, and demanded that I pay for his ruined carpet. One woman accused my co-worker of stealing her iPhone on the basis that she was “rude to her.” Naturally, she found the phone in her car ten minutes later. Apology? Nope. These people robbed me of my faith in humanity.
I still tried to look for the best in customers. Loading bags for them was something I did out of the kindness of my heart, and I typically didn’t expect anything in return. But after loading 30 bags of mulch with a broken finger, it would have been nice to get a little tip and feel appreciated from time to time. Sometimes customers gave me things, though never money. For instance, I accumulated a sizable collection of pamphlets for the Church of the Latter Day saints. If I had a dollar for every time a customer tried to convert me to their religion, I wouldn’t have needed that stupid job.
Of course, it wasn’t all about the money; first jobs are supposed to be learning experiences. I anticipated learning a lot about hardware, which no one in my family knows anything about. My dad practically has to call a plumber every time we run out of toilet paper. I can’t say my skills as a handyman improved much over the course of two years, but I certainly did learn some valuable lessons. Here’s the first rule of retail:
Not only is the customer always right, but the employee is always wrong. Most of my customers lived in a time when everything could be bought for a nickel. Because of this, they were convinced that I was overcharging them for everything. I would politely show them the price, and they would impolitely demand to see a manager. The managers never, ever took my side. They would ride in on their white horses to give the customer whatever price they wanted, and I would get yelled at for upholding policy. Which leads me to the next lesson:
Managers are evil tyrants. They made me work nine hours on my birthday. My birthday. They scheduled me for 30 hours during finals week; didn’t exactly ace that pre-calculus exam. They treated every undeserving customer like royalty, but couldn’t manage to give me the least bit of respect. I always fantasized about my last day of work ending in an intense shouting match, but in reality, I kept my cool and calmly handed in my vest. Despite my hatred of them, even the managers taught me something.
Stay in school. Without a proper education, I would be doomed for the same fate as them—a lifetime of retail. I would rather play leapfrog with a unicorn. The store is a fortress of broken dreams; it preys on the young and transforms them into hardened cynics; it robs employees of all ambition and replaces it with only the desire to survive. All I ever wanted was to get through my shift, go home and sleep. In this regard, my job did teach me a very important virtue:
Patience. It was hard enough having customers blaming me for not carrying a certain brand of carpet cleaner while managers yelled at me for unsatisfactory mopping; it was even harder doing it with a smile on my face. Patience is a necessity when working retail. A little Novocaine never hurt either. No matter how dead I was on the inside, I could always muster up the courage to greet the next customer, even though they only responded about a third of the time.
Yeah, I hated the place. I always told myself it was only a temporary job, but six months turned into a year. A year turned into two. Who knows how long I would have stayed had the decision not been made for me? I was summoned to the tyrant’s office on one fateful Sunday morning. After two long years, I was still making minimum wage and thought I was finally getting a raise. To my surprise, the manager and a corporate representative began to ask me questions about a former co-worker of mine who had apparently cost the company thousands of dollars in the span of a few months by performing illegal procedures on register. After sifting through my records, they realized that I had cost the company…
…wait for it…
…let me check my math…
…a grand total of about three dollars over two years.
I can explain. Employees would often buy soda or candy to consume during their shifts. Sometimes they didn’t have quite enough money to buy the items, so on the rarest of occasions, I would bump the price from $1.60 to $1.50. So they fired me. For being a nice guy.
I really didn’t know what to feel. I went through the four stages of unemployment: disbelief at my termination, anger at my former employer, elation at not having to go into work and finally realizing the hard reality that I don’t have any money. When I think about it, $7.25 per hour was not worth the torture. I was miserable at my job, and now I never have to go back.
Maybe being fired was a blessing; I am now free to pursue more realistic and agreeable jobs. Is it too late to run for president?