Memories From My First Job

The only thing that didn’t happen was actual work.

Memories From My First Job
Photo by Markus Spiske / Unsplash

There once was a time when I worked a less, how shall I say, rewarding job. Like many people, my first venture into the workforce was at a local grocery store. I was sixteen, a sophomore in high school, and looking for money. So, I turned to the “we hire everyone” mentality of the local store. They signed me on as a bag boy — wait, I’m sorry — front service personnel. I’m sure the fancy title was intended to raise the morale among our measly ranks in exchange for paying minimum wage. Fancy title or not, I was now part of the working world.

For three years, I worked pretty hard at not working at all. Most of the time I worked, er, spent at the store, five or so of my friends from school were also on the payroll. We had that store wired. I could walk in that store today and point out which aisles had “dummy” surveillance cameras and which had working ones. I knew the managers’ routines, how much revenue the store made daily, I knew… Now that I think about it, I knew some valuable information should 16-year-old me had less than ideal motives.

Anyway, my friends and I used our knowledge for good, not ill.

Mostly good.

I would start the day by clocking in exactly seven minutes late because the clock-in system was programmed to round to the closest seven-minute period. Seven minutes late was rounded down to being on time. In turn, I would also clock out precisely seven minutes early, thus maximizing my pay per time “worked.”

A good majority of my on-the-clock time was spent in the parking lot, “collecting carts.” This is where the magic happened — and by magic, I mean trouble. My fellow cart collectors and I often played a game where we would dare each other to do things; we called this excellent game “I Dare You.” We were so creative. The game began with benign things, like setting off our car alarms for some time or lying down in the middle of traffic lanes to see if anyone reacted. Things escalated quickly from there.

I won’t say that I once got a friend to urinate in the parking lot median while we aimed our car’s headlights at him and honked our horns. I also won’t say we collectively hung a shopping cart vertically from a tree in the middle of the lot. I won’t admit those things happened.

Sometimes we did actually do what we were in the parking lot to do: collect carts. One night, two other guys and I brought in 148 carts at once. It took almost an entire shift to collect and create a train of carts about 20 parking spaces long. It was virtually impossible to push and even more challenging to steer, but we brought the snake of shopping carts into the store. The managers weren’t happy traffic in front of the store stopped for five minutes while getting the train to the station, but what did we care? We were young and having fun with our job.

Other cart collecting adventures meant strolling around the block to ensure our carts didn’t wander off to various bus stops. These trips typically took no less than forty-five minutes and resulted in maybe one or two cart retrievals. But that company property was valuable, and someone needed to collect it.

When the weather was too hot or too wet, or when the managers decided to actually check on the parking lot (which rarely happened), I’d return to the store. Inside, there were new ways to earn a paycheck not working. When my friends got really adventurous, “I Dare You” moved inside. I can neither confirm nor deny that there were once bare ass-cheeks impressed upon the frozen dinner’s frost-covered door. Instead, I can talk about the times the game led to juggling produce and racing motorized carts. On that particular day, the managers were paying attention and displeased their service personal were intentionally driving motorized carts like bumper cars. Being creative and quick-thinking individuals, we redirected the management team explaining the stunt was practice for a school video-shoot we were working on. They bought it, didn’t know how to react, and simply walked away.

Despite the professional “service personnel” title, most of my time spent inside the store involved cleaning things. Once a manager instructed what to clean, I’d go back to the mop room. A grocery store mop room is the absolute last place a curious teenager should be allowed unsupervised. The store had a pretty sophisticated chemical dispensing system with every cleaning solution imaginable. No matter what I had been told to clean, I would mix up the same chemical solution discovered by another industrious teenager (who became our valedictorian). This magic formula consisted of glass cleaner, surface disinfectant, water, and the secret ingredient guaranteed to make short work of any cleaning job: floor stripper. The exact proportions of this perfect formula can’t be revealed due to obvious security concerns. According to the labels, the floor stripper chemical was only intended for the overnight crew’s giant waxing machines. Whatever “extremely hazardous” substance lived in that chemical made everything super clean and all of the “work” much more manageable.

After about ten minutes of mixing chemicals, I would clean whatever I had been sent out the clean. No matter how small the task, I made sure the job took a good twenty minutes, even if it was just a simple window or spill. A full bathroom cleaning took at least 90-minutes. A checkout lane? Thirty minutes each to ensure the belt was free from all contaminants. A friend spent an entire five-hour shift “cleaning” a single men’s room that may or may not have included a nap in the newly cleaned stall. The managers — who undoubtedly hated all of us — were notorious for assigning ridiculous cleaning tasks just to keep us busy. This was also a way to get back at us since the store adhered to a stringent policy refusing to fire anyone for any reason whatsoever. These ridiculous tasks included cleaning the break room microwave, cleaning the tile on the side of the building, and, wait for it, mopping the handicapped parking spaces in front of the store. Even with our fantastic chemical mixture, mopping asphalt with a fabric mop is a futile endeavor.

Another fun and time-consuming task was a little thing called blocking. This chore involves pulling all items on a given shelf to the front so the aisle looks nice and resembles a smooth wall. That’s probably where the term “blocking” originated. I guess a more visually appealing aisle causes people to buy more cereal? Who knows. Blocking was probably invented to keep pesky staff busy and out of management’s hair. Either way, blocking took up a lot of time. Especially when you were blocking paper towels in such a way your friend could lie on the bottom shelf behind a wall of rolls, knocking them out at people passing by. The assailant would then avoid detection by escaping down the aisle to a pre-constructed paper towel saferoom. For the record, the paper towel aisle was one of the many without working cameras. I guess people don’t often try to steal paper goods.

Despite events to the contrary, there were times I lived up to my title and provided services. Though, in keeping with tradition, these services often had nothing to do with the store’s job description. At least, I don’t think my job description mentioned changing tires for older women, chasing bank robbers (you read that correctly), and investigating parking lot hit-and-runs. Despite all of these side projects fulfilling the “service” component of my title, the managers were insistent I spend some of my time bagging groceries instead. Maybe the store should have called us bag boys after all.

But alas, my time at the store ended senior year when I moved on to new career paths. Though, come to think of it, I never actually quit. Upon clocking out, I told a manager I had a new job. He acknowledged, and I just never went back.

I wonder if I’m technically still employed?

I don’t share all of this to encourage current grocery employees to put my former practices into action. I do, however, encourage anyone working a tedious job to go and have fun. Above all else, don’t do anything that may or may not have actually happened as depicted above. Deal?

Justin Cox Justin Cox

Justin Cox is a donut-loving, word-writing, nonprofit consultant based in Orlando. He also runs The Writing Cooperative on Medium. Come say hello!