Entering the work force

“I can get a job when I turn 14,” my child announced one evening. “That’s just a few months away.”

“Why are you wanting to get a job?” I asked.

“Because,” he began, looking me squarely in the eye. “There are a lot of things I want that cost a lot of money and I don’t want to ask you to buy them for me.”

I have to admit, a lot of emotions hit me with this statement, the first being that my child was getting old enough to enter the workforce.

The second was that I admired my child for wanting to work for the things he wanted.

He recognizes what he wants is kind of pricey and he doesn’t expect me to pay for it.

I started working at 15, for pretty much the same reason.

My weekly pilgrimages to the mall had taken a toll on Mama’s finances. Her credit cards were given a better workout than her Jane Fonda tape and she could have saved a lot of time by just having a huge chunk of her check deposited in the bank accounts of Macy’s and The Limited.

Clothing, makeup, books, shoes, and music were staples and necessities of my teenage life, and unlike now, where I tend to be more frugal, everything had to be name brand and top of the line.

Now that I am paying for it, I find myself realizing L’oreal can cover my freckles as well as Lancome.

But, back then, when Mama was paying for it, was a totally different story.

Until one day, she said something she rarely said: No.

“W-what?” I asked, dumbfounded.

“That’s too expensive. I have already bought you jeans that were $100 – what made those jeans so much? Are they stitched with gold thread? I can’t get this for you this week. Maybe ever.”

I don’t even remember what it was that I was wanting. Back then, clothes were expensive and disposable. Mama would buy me something and the next month, it was considered out of fashion and discarded.

“You have to clothe me!” I cried when she told me no.

“Clothe you, yes; spend ridiculous amounts of money and go into debt over one pair of blue jeans – no.”

“What am I going to do?” I cried.

“You’ll figure something out,” she said.

And I did.

I got a job.

Granted, I had been ‘working’ since I was in kindergarten, writing up invoices for my grandfather and uncle and taking phone messages. I was paid a dollar a week and copious amounts of candy.

This was a real job, with a weekly schedule and lunch breaks, and where I paid taxes.

I was 15 but fibbed about my age. Or rather just danced around the whole age question. I started working at Cato, taking credit card applications at the door.

I think I made $10 for every application that was filled out, but more importantly, I got a discount on clothes. No, it wasn’t The Limited but it was clothing.

By the middle of the summer, I was working over 30 hours a week.

I loved it.

But, I never brought a full paycheck home.

I spent it. All of it. If it wasn’t on clothes, I was going to the Revco next door and getting drugstore makeup and hair products.

“Even though I am working, I still get an allowance, right?” I asked her one week. “And as your child and your main tax deduction, I think you should still be responsible for some of my clothing and upkeep.”

Mama laughed. She had probably expected me to burn through my paycheck in rapid speed.

Mama had mistakenly thought having a boy would be cheaper than a girl. Boys typically don’t worry about fashion like girls do or care about name brands or getting their hair and nails done. Mama was right on those things, but she failed to realize that boys tend to want bigger ticket items. Video games, cars, and electronics. Things that needed upgrades and enhancements.

Things I have no idea about and that run in the price range of car payments.

“I know the things I want cost a lot of money,” Cole explained. “I know you try your best to get me these things for my birthday and Christmas but sometimes, I don’t want to wait to get them. And, even if I do wait, some of the things are a bit more than what I would feel comfortable with you spending.”

He rattled off a list of things: a gaming computer, new consoles, video capture cards. And a corgi. He’s still wanting a corgi and knows those little herders are pretty expensive, not including the vet bills.

“Where are you thinking about getting a job?” I asked.

He took a deep breath and told me the places he was considering. “I want something that will pay me decent and be a good place to work. There may be scholarship opportunities for me, too.”

He had clearly thought this through.

“So, what do you think?” he asked.

What did I think?

I was proud of him.

Immensely full of weepy mom-pride.

“I think any place will be lucky to hire you,” I said truthfully. I know he will be a great employee wherever he works and bring a great attitude and work ethic to anything he did.

He smiled humbly. “Can you believe I am almost old enough to start working?” he asked excitedly.

No, I can’t. I really can’t.

I was proud of his initiative but really wish time would slow down.

Then I had to think of an added perk Mama had when I started working and smiled.
“Maybe when you start working, you can buy your dear old mom dinner,” I said.

He beamed. “Absolutely! One thing though.”
“What?”

“Will you let me borrow the car?”

Oh, geesh.

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Just don’t order the soup — or set anything on fire

“Mama, what was your toughest job?” Cole asked one day.

“Mama, what was your toughest job?” Cole asked one day.

He’s heard his dad talk about construction work, hard physical labor where there were not many funny stories or warm experiences other than the time his pants caught fire.

Out of my myriad of jobs – and there’s been plenty – one in particular stood out.

It was not the time I sold cemetery plots, although that was not much fun. It’s kind of depressing to talk about death and dying all day.

The hardest wasn’t even when I was a telemarketer even though “dialing and smiling” is not as easy as it sounds. And that was during the time you could really hang up on someone and not just quietly push a button.

Probably the most difficult job I ever had was being a waitress.

Somehow, I heard that the Chinese restaurant was needing a waitress and they must have been desperate because they hired me.

Or maybe I didn’t seem like a disaster walking at the time I spoke to the owner; whatever it was, she hired me on the spot and told me to be there that Friday night.

I was excited.

I just knew I was going to make so much in tips that I was going to be able to buy a real radio for my car – instead of driving around with a boom box in the passenger seat.

I had never been a waitress before, but how hard could it be taking a tray to a table loaded with Cokes?

Or balancing said tray while you dumped the rice in the soup for Sizzlin’ Rice Soup?

It was just taking food and drinks to a table.

After the first night, I was never so thankful to see Granny’s Chevette sitting outside when I walked out.

I crawled in the back and I think I cried.

“What’s the matter?” she asked. “Did you get fired on your first night?”

“No,” I whimpered. “People wanted me to bring them stuff!”

My grandfather snorted.

“Yeah, well, that’s what a waitress does – you take them stuff.”

“But they were mean and rude and not one said thank you!”

Not that thanks was in order; remember the soup?

Yeah…I spilled sizzlin’ hot soup on some folks.

I am pretty sure Ms. Judy gave them their meal free.

“Did you make any tips?” Pop asked.

I did.

I think it was mostly people were in such a hurry to get out of there, they just threw whatever was in their wallet on the table.

I was too tired and upset to eat my egg rolls.

Somehow, I managed to keep that job for a brief while, even though I actually had people come in and request any table but mine. One evening, I was the only one waiting tables, so the couple ordered their food to go.

Another evening, a couple wanted a Pu Pu Platter.

I talked them out of it when I explained me bringing them something that was actually on fire was far too risky for everyone in the restaurant.

I also cautioned them about soup – the lady really did have on a pretty blouse and I didn’t want to ruin it with Egg Drop.

I think they settled on something safe like fried rice and a side of wontons.

Eventually, I realized I couldn’t do it anymore. I was a klutz and a horrible waitress.

Seeing people watch me in horror was not my idea of how to spend my weekends.

No matter how lame it was to ride around, cruising the Piggly Wiggly without a real stereo, I had to quit.

I didn’t want to let Ms. Judy down.

I was the only waitress she had besides her two teen sons who weren’t always able to help.
Ms. Judy needed me.

I was going to give her a proper two weeks’ notice to find someone.

Ms. Judy took it a lot better than I thought.

“Thank God, I don’t have to fire you!” she exclaimed.

When I told her I would work a notice, she opened the register and handed me a twenty.
“It’s what you would have made in tips tonight,” she explained, insisting – make that pleaded – I not work a notice.

I am sure she actually came out ahead, given the fact she didn’t have to give customers free meals.

It was one of the hardest, most physically demanding jobs I have ever had.

I was terrible at it and knew it.

Dealing with the public is tough, too.

Anyone that deals with the public on any service level probably can attest to that – some folks are impossible to make happy, no matter what.

Some people just have a sour attitude and no amount of Kung Pao Chicken is going to change it.

And keep in mind, this isn’t just the regular public – it’s the hungry public. Even worse.

Even though it was tough, I am glad I did it.

I learned you can tell a lot about a person based on how they treat someone that is waiting on them.

“Do you think that is the hardest job you will ever have?” he asked.

I wasn’t sure. Our perceptions of what’s hard or difficult often depends on our level of aptitude and if we enjoy it.

There may be things in my future that are more difficult or maybe they’d be easier, I wasn’t sure.

But as long as it didn’t involve soup or setting food on fire, I should be fine.