This is my second post on my time as a "Country Boy," working for Wilsons Supermarkets. Click here for my first post.
When I was pursuing my supermarket career, it was the custom for grocery stores to run weekly sales from Thursday to Wednesday. Late Wednesday night, Bert would have a bag boy help him hang large signs in the widows, advertising our weekly specials: a five pound bag of sugar for 59 cents, some cut of steak for 1.99 a pound, bananas for 10 cents a pound, baby food a dime a jar, five pounds of potatoes for 39 cents. Also late Wednesday, as we’d be closing up, the job of changing the marquee out front would fall to one of the bagboys. This was always a fun job, except for when it was raining or windy. We’d used a 12 foot long mechanical hand to take off the old letters and put on the new ones. By the time I arrived at work from school on Thursday, the grocery store would be packed with customers trying to get in on the deals.
I don’t recall a lot about my few months working at Wilsons. Everyone that I worked with, except for Tom, was older than me. During this time I mostly worked up front, bagging groceries and carrying them out to the customer’s car. This was fine with me for you were often tipped for helping someone with their groceries. Occasionally, we’d be assigned another task like taking care of bottle returns. In the front of the store were several large bins on wheels where soft-drink bottles were placed after being redeemed for deposit. Whenever a bin would begin to fill, or when there was a lull in the action, Bert would assign one of us bag boys take the bins to the back of the store and separate the bottles into several large wooden bins, divided by brands. The distributors picked up the empties a couple times a week. Although this gave you a break from bagging, it was really a dirty job and the novelty of working in the back of the store soon wore off.
At this time in my grocery career, I worked only three days a week: Thursday, Friday and Saturday. On school nights, I’d arrive at 4 PM and work till 8 or 9 PM. As things begin to slow down in the evening, Bert would begin to send some of us home for the night. It was always nice to get out a little early on Thursday, especially if I had homework. On Saturday, I’d work from late morning till early evening. As the weather warmed and school was done for the summer, there was a turn-over of personnel. Many of my colleagues had graduated from high school and they left for permanent jobs, college or the military. As these guys and gals were replaced, I was no longer the new kid on the block. Of these new employees, Tina was the most exciting. They'd later be others such as the from North Brunswick High who stood me up for the ROTC ball, but Tina was the first of the girls my age working at the store. Like Tom, she was a student from New Hangover High. I remember her with hard dark hair, olive colored skin and big dark eyes. For the next couple of years, we’d flirt back and forth. She was the only cashier younger than my mother who called me “honey.” But for some reason, I never got the nerve to ask her out and after a year or so I'd missed my opportunity as she was dating others.
Late that summer, I found myself being trained for new jobs around the store. Bert trained me to run a cash register. It seemed a nice skill to have and it meant a small increase in my paycheck (but an actual decrease since cashiers never received tips). All the regular cashiers were women, just as all the bag boys were “boys.” But, there were always a few bag boys trained to take over a register if things got busy, or to allow those on the register to take a break and to fill in if there was an absence. It was a treat to be assigned to a cash register on a rainy day. At that time, the store used mechanical cash registers. These were heavy machines that had rows of numbers. There were no scanning of products. A carton of cigarettes at the time cost $1.89 (this was North Carolina, after all!). Holding the item in one hand, I’d mash the 1 button on the third-to-the-left column, the 8 button on the second and the 9 on the left-hand column. Soon, I could do this in one motion. I then rolled my hand to the right and with the side of my hand hit enter. The price would appear on the tape and show on the top of the machine. It became second nature and after a few weeks, I discovered that I was as fast as anyone in the store except for some of the older women who been there for years and mainly worked the morning and early afternoon shifts.
Another new job I found myself being assigned to was mopping. On week nights, about 15 minutes before the doors were locked, Bert would have two of us go back and begin preparations for mopping the store. We had a large machine that put out a cleaning solution, scrubbed the floor and then vacuumed up the dirty solution. Behind the machine, the second person would come with a mop and bucket and scrub the sides of the aisles and any missed areas. It’d take 30 or so minutes to cover the floor.
Late in the summer of ’73, Bert asked if I’d be interested in working the Saturday night mop crew. For this, I had to get my parents permission since we worked well into Sunday morning. The store was closed on Sundays. My parents agreed and, for the rest of the time I was in high school, I didn’t have to worry about a Saturday night curfew and often came home at 4 or 5 on Sunday mornings. This was okay with my parents as long as I was up in time for church and provided me with more freedom that I should have had as a high school kid.
One of these early Sunday mornings, I came home hungry. Everyone had been asleep for hours. Looking in the fridge, I spotted some sliced ham and made me a sandwich. It was good and I decided when I got home from church that Sunday afternoon, I’d make me another sandwich. I started to fix this to my mother’s horror, who informed me that it was a fresh ham and it hadn’t been cooked. She was sure I was going to come down with some terrible disease, but I never did.
On Saturday night, we’d not only mop the floor, but strip it of wax. As soon as the last of the customers were out, we’d take all the shopping carts out of the store and place them in the parking lot. Then the three of us (there were always three on Saturdays), would remove anything from the aisles and place them in the back room or up off the floor. With the floors cleared, except for the aisles themselves, we’d use chemicals in the machine and in the buckets to cut the wax off. Where the wax had built up, we’d scrap off the excess with metal scrapers attached to hoe handles. The floor had to be spotless and dry before waxing. We’d had special mops and buckets for the wax, which came in 55 gallon oil drums. Using a mop, One of us would put a line of wax along the edge of each aisle, about two inches from the edge. Then the other two would come in and fill in the aisle with wax. The job required a steady swing of the mop in order to place the wax evenly on the floor. Then, after the wax had dried, we moved everything back out onto the floor and brought in the shopping carts and the store was ready to open on Monday morning. (If it was raining, we’d have to mop again the area where we brought the carts in, for it’d be sloppy wet.)
There was lots of freedom with working on the mop crew. Bert or John (John was the assistant manager and the two of them rotated Saturday night duty), would lock us in the store after we’d taken the carts out. We’d be on our own till they came back, generally at 1 or 2 AM, after the clubs were closed. They’d often have beer on their breath and on many occasions, Bert would have a hot looking woman with him. (Bert was divorced, John was married.) They’d help us finish up and we’d leave for home an hour or so later.
Two or three weeks after starting to work on the mop crew, the other guys who’d been on the crew left and I found myself in charge. I also quickly learned that it didn’t take six or seven hours to do the work. We’d normally be done by midnight and would spent an hour or two sleeping on the cash register belts as we waiting for Bert or John to come back and open the doors so we could bring in the buggies before going home. Since we were still on the clock, those were some of the best hours I’d work. I ran mop crew throughout my high school year. Bert, knowing that we were faster than others had been, would come back earlier and we started being out of the store between midnight and 1 AM. When I and the others started turning 18, during my senior year in high school, getting out “early” on this late night shift had the added advantage of allowing us to cruise around and to close down night clubs.
It doesn’t seem like it’s been nearly thirty-five years since I worked in the grocery. I wonder what happened to Bert and John and Tina?