Monday, May 04, 2009

The Country Boys, part 1

This weekend, I was rummaging around in a box of stuff I’d saved from high school and came across an old nametag from my first job. It got me thinking about those carefree days in the spring of 1973. Richard Nixon was still in the White House and we were just getting out of Vietnam. I’d just turned 16 and for the first time in my life, I would so learn what it means to live your life by the punch of a time clock. Hopefully, this will be the first of several stories, as I recreate my time at the store, kind of like I did when I wrote about my time at the bakery.

I became a country boy a few months after I turned sixteen. I’d gone with Mom to the grocery store and she pointed out the manager to me. He was standing in the front of the store, watching everything going on. Garnering all the courage I could find, I left mom at the meat country and went over and asked him for a job. “You have to be sixteen,” he said, obviously not thinking I was quite there. Admittedly, I was small for my age. “I am,” I responded, “can I show you my driver’s licenses?” He looked at it and said okay, that I’d need to get a social security card and that he’d start me off working four or five hours on Thursday and Friday afternoons and eight hours on Saturday.

That next Thursday afternoon, with a tie around my neck, I reported to work. Two of us were to start our grocery careers that day. Tom, the other kid, was from New Hanover High School, popularly known by those of us who attended John T. Hoggard as “New Hang-over.” He had bright red hair and a twitch and a lot of people thought he was weird, but he was a hard worker. As far as I know, Wilson’s Supermarket would his only job he ever had. That first day, we were trained to bag groceries. Bert, the manager who’d hired us, assigned each of us to a more experienced bagger. For an hour or two, we learned the fundamentals of bagging groceries. You don’t put can goods on top of bread or on cartons of eggs. If you have a lot of cans, double-up your bag for strength. You separate the cleansing supplies from the meat and produce. If the cart is loaded down, you can jump up on it as you go out the door and ride it through the lot, saving your energy. And most importantly, we were taught to recognize the big tippers and hustle especially hard for them, although Tom and both tried to give our best to everyone. Soon, we were on our own, taking out groceries and always saying, “Thank You, Ma’am,” as we slammed the trunk lid.

It now seems like a distant dream. It was the beginning of the end. Not only did I have to go to school, I now had to report to work and was expected to wear a tie! Beforehand, I’d only worn a tie on Sundays, an ideal that I still maintain. But unlike most of the newcomers at the store, I didn’t wear clip-ons. I knew how to tie a Double Windsor. Back in the 70s, with ties wide enough to serve as bibs, tying a big knot like a Double Windsor was quite a feat. Before the week was out, I was teaching Tom and others how to tie one. When you’re a runt, it helps to have a skill. Tom and I began to hang out and became good friends. Six months after I left the store for good, in my second year of college, Tom would become my second friend to meet an untimely death. Bert, our boss, served as a second father to both of us. Whenever I had problems, especially with girls, questions I’d never think about asking my own dad, I’d ask him. Looking back, I don’t know why? He was easy to talk to, but his martial record certainly left room for improvement. But Bert always gave me good advice.

I stayed at Wilsons through my first year of college doing a variety of jobs: bagging groceries, stocking the shelves at night, running a cashier, counting money, mopping and waxing the floors late on Saturday night and into the wee-morning hours of Sundays and managing the cigarette accounts. The pay was never very good, but I enjoyed my time there. There’s something rewarding about serving people.
More stories to come!


  1. Since you've been trained to bag groceries, I really wish you'd come to my grocery store and train their people - since no one has ever thought to teach them. Last week, my "bagger" had no idea how to fill a paper bag (I had forgotten my permanent bags) and after filling it to the top, in an unbalanced fashion, he picked it up to transfer it to the cart and dropped it - the bottom fell out of the bag. I was very frustrated with him. After that, he was sent outside to gather carts and as I left the store, he was wheeling them back inside - ONE BY ONE!! Can you believe it?

  2. Ah, those were the days. Thanks for the wee bit of nostalgia. I'll be checking for more.

  3. Remminds me of my first job. A nice series here! :)

  4. I remember those wide ties. I was in sixth grade in 1973, and our principal thought he'd go "mod". He wore a wide pink-and-purple FLOWERED tie to school. It was a conservative school district, and someone must have said something, because we kids never saw that tie ever again. But we never forgot it!

    Quite a feat to tie a Double Windsor in one of those, indeed.

    Enjoying this series!

  5. Really neat to read, it brings back a lot of memories. My first jobs weren't quite so rewarding... but they got better :)

  6. Tying ties and teaching the big boys how to do it...I love it!

    You made me think back to my first job as a telemarketer in the mid 80s. Fun times!

    I can't imagine a boss like Bert. It's been a while since I've worked for someone I truly admire and respect.

    I can't wait to hear more stories about your days at the market!

  7. Dude...I STILL can't tie a Windsor knot but I did like this memoir and am looking forward to more.

    Uhhhhh...yes I own 2 ties.

  8. Kenju, it's been too many decades! But good for you for using cloth bags (about 1/2 the time, as soon as they say, paper or plastic?, I realize that I left mine in my truck

    Kiva, I should note what some of the prices were back then!

    Michael, what was your first job?

    Edelwiss, I was in the 10th grade! Looking at the yearbook, our clothes were pretty awful looking!

    Beau, glad to hear they got better. I've been lucky, I've always enjoyed working

    Scarlet, I'll have to write more about Bert--he had an influence on my life

    Walking guy, maybe I should do a "how to tie a Windsor post!

  9. My dad taught me how to tie a tie properly when I was a bluebird (the uniform included a tie) and that is how I still do it!

  10. Bagging groceries in a tie, now that's something I never seen. Seems kinda out of place.

  11. Yes, the clothes were awful -- but nothing compared to the haircuts! Can you say Dorothy Hamill? Not a good look on most of us girls. And my daughters scream with laughter at the sight of my husband's yearbook photos, with his lovely long shag haircut. He's your age, so I'm sure you remember.

  12. I worked at an IGA during college doing everything. It was actually an enjoyable time.


  13. It sounds like a nice mom and pop type of place. My parents owned a family restaurant for 45 years. I miss the extended family I had while working there.

  14. Diane, I'm not sure what a bluebird is... I take it's something like the Brownies?

    Karen, We had to have a tie on as long as the store was open for business--even if we were stocking shelves--that was the olden days!

    Edelweiss, the women's hair in my yearbooks were mostly long and stringy, my hair was neat, but in college, I had a "white-boy's afro"

    Randall, it was fun working in a grocery, wasn't it.

    Fantasy, the store was a small chain--they had 7 or 8 stores--but it was owned by two brothers (their dad had started the business).

  15. Reminds me of my days at the Piggly Wiggly. I had three ties, those square nylon ones--in red, pink, and black. *cringe*

    I remember being amazed the first time I got a tip for taking someone groceries out for them. I loved the stockroom and the cooler. If it was a slow day, you could catch an unauthorized fifteen minute or so break/nap back there.

  16. I have a Country Boy Can survive in my head now for some reason!

  17. I'm sorry about Tom... I went on to read what happened to him and it must have been devastating. A real blow to the immortal mentality that is youth.

    "There's something rewarding about serving people."

    I concur.

    I have a few friends that think I'm above waitressing/banqueting/bartending, but I'm sorry... I love it and when the club needs a hand, I'll jump in every single time.
    The patrons LOVE when I'm called in...

    that's reward enough.

  18. Poor me. I started out as a maths teacher. Still continuing!


  19. Man, I wish it was still that easy to get hired!