Essay # 11 - Final Essay
My First Job
Saturdays at the Woolworth’s where I began my working career were a madhouse. This particular store was on Steinway Street in Astoria, Queens, one of the boroughs of New York City. (In case you’re curious, Steinway Street got its name because it led to the Steinway Mansion and the famous Steinway piano factory. Not relevant to this story, but an interesting bit of trivia.) Steinway Street is a typical city street in the Big Apple – miles of stores holding hands with each other as they line either side of the street, bonds broken only by necessary intersections with other streets, also lined with buildings on either side. Since at that time, most business establishments were still closed on Sundays, Saturdays were the big shopping day for most of the multitude of residents in the area. This store, on this street, in this city was my stepping stone to the future as I had my first real job experience – finding a job, learning the ropes in a job, and moving up in a job.
That summertime, I was just 16 years old and finally old enough to apply for work. Woolworth’s seemed a logical choice. It was close enough to walk to, if I needed or wanted to, but also easily accessible by bus or subway. It was also the type of job that might allow me to keep working part-time when school started up again. Besides, I had a friend who already worked there, and having a familiar face nearby always makes any transition easier. I applied for and got the job without any difficulties. (I guess they realized my exceptional quality at first glance...)
Stores were a little different in those days. There were no computers, no scanners, no checkout counters lined up at every entrance and exit. Instead, we had real cash registers located at various places around the store. We actually had to know how to count out the proper change to the customers! And my work station was unlike most, even within my own store. I was assigned to a counter at the most strategic entrance to the establishment. I say counter, because that is what it was – a counter that made a long rectangle around my employee area within that space. On one long side was jewelry; on the other long side was candy, some of which required weighing. On one short side was the popcorn machine, and – here I must plea early-onset dementia – I can’t remember what was on that final short side, but it was something different that needed my attention. And there I was, stuck in the middle with people on each side demanding that I tend to them RIGHT NOW! Saturdays, as I said, were a madhouse, not only because it was THE major shopping day of the week, but also because on 2 of the corners of the same intersection as my store were movie theaters. And any frugal American citizen in those days realized it was to their financial benefit to stock up on candy and popcorn across the street at the local Woolworth’s rather than pay the exorbitant prices required for such delicacies once they were seated inside the theater. And so, on any given Saturday, I had lines of people on all four sides of my counter DEMANDING my attention. Though this was a very difficult beginning to my work career, there was one good result. Through this experience, I learned a valuable lesson. I learned that store personnel are people, too. They are not unfeeling machines. When someone would take the time to smile or say thank you, it was as if he or she had bestowed a blessing upon me. When customers would patiently wait their turns, I would thank them profusely. It was so nice when someone recognized that I, too, was a member of the human race. This is a lesson I have never forgotten. To this day, I try to always thank the employees who serve me. I even thank the toll booth people as I hurry on my way to my destination. It doesn’t add any time to my trip, but it recognizes their humanity and may give them a much-needed boost for the day.
Learning to deal with the public, learning how to multi-task and still maintain order, and just learning to keep up with supply and demand in my little microcosm of the business world were all part of learning the ropes in a new job situation. And I must have done well, because soon I was asked to move up to the more responsible position of “Office Girl.” Of course, I took the job, though I don’t remember any pay increase involved. Becoming Office Girl was a step up and I was thrilled. As Office Girl, I now had new responsibilities and a new boss. My new office supervisor was a grumpy, old lady who never had any kids and didn’t like teenagers at all. My main responsibility was to periodically collect the money from the various cash registers around the store, bring it all upstairs to the office, and count and record each amount separately. This was later checked against the cash register tapes for accuracy and, of course, possible theft. I had other office duties, but they did not require all my time, so I was privileged to pursue a great variety of store-related activities. Since I was no longer assigned to any one work station, I would fill in on any area of the store needing extra help. I worked stock down the basement or filled in wherever someone was needed in the main storefront. Woolworth stores in those days were the tiny forerunners of the big box stores now. We sold everything from pet fish to material, from household items to books and records, (yes, records, not CD’s!) from clothing to hardware. And I was able to work anywhere, something I loved, since I always enjoy doing new things. One of my favorite activities was decorating the store for holidays. I loved choosing the ornaments for the Christmas trees, picking whatever decorations struck my fancy. And one of my most unusual assignments was as bodyguard when someone was making the bank deposit. (I’ve always wondered what I was supposed to do should we be attacked on the way. I do have a good pair of lungs, and I suppose the loud noise might cause the perpetrators to think twice, but I’m glad I never had to find out if that would work…) When inventory time came around, our store received an influx of special machines that made the round of Woolworth stores. That grumpy, old lady I mentioned was insistent that the young whippersnapper should never touch one of those delicate, expensive machines. As it turned out, she had a medical emergency during the entire inventory time, and that young whippersnapper and another lady did ALL of the work on those machines, and never broke a thing!
And so, I was now experienced in the real business world. I’d found my first job, learned how to be a good employee, and was beginning to move up in my career. As all good things usually come to an end, so did this job. Though I did continue working through summers and after school during the school year for a time, I eventually graduated from high school and moved on to college and so left the place that had taught me so much and where I had made many good friends. The lessons that I learned there continue with me throughout my life. Not only the lesson of remembering to treat workers as human beings, but also the lessons of being a good employee myself, and learning how to work with difficult people. I’ve often said that everyone should be required to work a low-level job dealing with the public. If more people realized what it felt like to be treated poorly, they would tend to treat others better, and perhaps the world might be a better place for all.