I heard a Hootie and the Blowfish song, “Hold my Hand,” on the radio the other day and I was immediately taken back to my high school job at the mall. It was my junior year, and I was working at J. Riggings, a tiny little men’s clothing store. It was in a corner of the first floor of the mall, under the escalator.
When this song came on the radio at work, one of the assistant managers, John, would grab the hook we used to reach clothes way up on the wall, and turn up the radio. The radio was on the highest shelf in the middle of the store, it never moved. It could only be reached by using this hook. I don’t think anyone ever dusted up there. I certainly never dusted up there.
John would sing along with Hootie as loud as he possibly could, dancing among the clothes racks. I remember watching him and laughing, wishing I had the self-confidence and the don’t-give-a-shit attitude to dance like no one was watching. John must have been in his twenties at the time, he had this smile that went from ear to ear, and a fabulous British accent that made it fun to listen to him talk.
There was another manager with an accent, a heavy Irish accent. His name was Aidan. I loved his Irish brogue, but I honestly felt like a darn fool every time I worked with him. His accent was so thick, I could barely understand him, as in maybe 40% of what actually came out of his mouth. I was constantly saying, “What?” “What did you say?” “What?” Some of it I could figure out from context, but he must have thought I was either the flightiest teenager he’d ever met, or partially hard-of-hearing.
I remember Bob and Susan, another pair of managers. Bob had the best sense of humor; he was sort of loud, definitely an extrovert, and he could talk to anyone about anything. Susan was more of an introvert, just as funny as Bob, but more dry. I remember Stephen, down-to-earth, great fashion sense, and destined for a bigger and better store. All these managers were in their twenties or maybe even early thirties when I worked there, which at the time seemed to be so much older than I was. I had the impression that they had everything figured out, as I’d never seen them confronted with a problem at this job that they couldn’t solve. I wonder where they are now- John, Aidan, Bob, Stephen, and Susan?
Todd was a college kid, who held the position of assistant manager for a short time. I remember one summer day he was scheduled to open the store at 10 am with me. It was July 5th. I waited and waited at the courtyard tables until well after 11 am. He finally showed up, stumbling down the escalator, looking like crap and obviously hung-over. He did not give me the impression that he had it all figured out. He didn’t last very long.
I once had a connection with all these people. I knew when they were happy, and I could tell when something was bothering them. I knew who their friends were, and when family stopped by. I knew what they liked to eat for lunch, and how long they were likely to talk on the phone during their shift. It’s weird to think that those connections are completely gone, victims of circumstances and time.
I don’t know where these people are, if they are even in the same state, if they ever got married, had kids or not, or ever found another career? Would I recognize them if I ran into them today? Would they recognize me? Twenty-seven years is a long time, a lifetime. They could have kids that are grown and moved on by now. They could have grandkids.
There is no photographic evidence of this time in my life. We didn’t just walk around taking photos of our work friends. Most of the time, they were just that, “work friends,” not necessarily someone you’d hang out with outside of work.
I did save my first paycheck stub, but it’s buried in a box of mementos somewhere in my attic. Years ago, I came across a lone sweater from J. Riggings in my old bedroom before my parents sold the house.
I do still have a full-length dressing room mirror that my first manager let me salvage from the first store I worked at. They closed, filing for Chapter 11. “They’re going to trash everything anyway,” she’d said. “You might as well take it.”
Other than those few tangibles, I have no other proof I worked at the mall for seven years of my life. All through high school and college.
Those seven years held a lot of “firsts” for me, beyond the obvious. I had to learn to be diplomatic. I was in customer service, and had complete strangers ask for my opinion on colors, styles, sizes. I had to learn to how to really talk to people, and how to really listen to them. I had to get along with and work with people I’d never met before, and probably would never be friends with outside my job.
This was where I learned to apologize for something that wasn’t my fault, to suck it up and be sincere about it. “I’m sorry we don’t have that in your size.” Or, “I’m sorry that’s the last sweater left and it has a rip in it.” Or “I’m sorry, our store doesn’t open until 11 am on Sunday.”
This is where I learned to speak up for myself. I wasn’t surrounded by close friends or family; no one was going to speak up for me. If I had a scheduling conflict or was going on a family vacation, I had to overcome my shyness and deal with it.
I learned how to problem solve, although they seem like pretty small problems now. I couldn’t always defer to someone else to solve problems that came my way. Someone wants a shirt and we don’t have their size? Call another store, and another and another, and have it shipped. Offer several possibilities and solutions so the customer can see you’re doing your best, putting forth an effort just for them. Everyone deserved your attention.
I learned how to wait… how to really wait for something: for my lunch break, for my paycheck, to buy something I really wanted. Dealing with the anticipation that comes with delayed gratification is a rare skill these days.
I learned how to take directions and correction from someone barely five years older than I was, and whom I barely knew. Because that’s how the system worked. Respect the system, respect the people you work with, and earn their respect back.
I did and learned all these important things next to people who are no longer a part of my life. (Except for Colleen, who started out as my co-worker and then was my teaching partner, and whom I’ve always been lucky to call a dear friend.) These people are as much a part of this story as my memories are, and I’m happy to remember them as I share this.
Co-workers at your first job often go unrecognized as people who help shape your life. And maybe they don’t shape your life in huge ways like your parents, teachers, and coaches do. But they have the unique experience of seeing the real you, or the you that you want to be, without all that prior knowledge or expectations that everyone else has about you. They can see the sum total of what you’ve learned up to this point in your young life, and how you’re going to use it, to apply it, to implement it. Make it meaningful.
I know I’m not going to remember everyone’s name, but… to Karen, Janet, Bob, Stephen, Susan, Aidan, John, Todd, Colleen, Shawn, Pete… Thanks for being there. I remember you.