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Read This Confession To Me
Let’s kick the adult professional world for a second and go back to where it all started.
It’s rough on a sixteen or seventeen-year-old kid to land their very first job—as the usual old gripe goes, “How am I supposed to gain job experience when nobody will offer me any in the first place?” when a plucky teen is consistently booted over an older veteran of the cash register and fryer. However, those who have gotten past the obstacle of reigning in their first job will understand that it’s much, much harder to keep it and stay sane through the season.
While at the bottom of the food chain in youth and experience, dubious tasks and almost-illegal hours are pushed on the shoulders of the desperate kiddies who can do nothing but trudge back the very next day. No company was bad enough. I can say without reservation that I was one of those poor saps too hungry for my first few checks to refuse being a part of the asinine experience. In fact, I was the prime example!
My first gig started at a Halloween store, where I landed my very first job despite it being a seasonal position—‘twas the season for ghouls, ghosts, cobwebs, and friendly scares to go around. Besides for the occasional eerie robotic toy that came and went within the store, I even as a seventeen-year-old girl wasn’t too irked with the abysmal environment. Hired as a sales associate, my duties included being a dressing room attendant, a cashier, a pacing wordsmith on the sales floor, and a stock attendant.
While all of those things weren’t too bad in themselves, they came with their own little unspoken side-jobs: being demanded by managers to work the cash registers alone while dually greeting, taking out the garbage, vacuuming the all-carpeted rug with a single small hose, lurking the store nervously for the occasional riffraff that were rumored to be attempting theft, constantly maintaining the spooky animated electronics, being bribed to stay at the little store until midnight to build and tear down display sets when the company goals were not being met…I dealt with it all, and I quickly became a favorite. I was the sweetheart.
Who wouldn’t love me? I was a young, friendly, energetic and strong thing yet rather quiet, innocent and obedient—my weekly hours could be stretched or rung out like a sponge without expected backlash, and I was very absorbent of new instruction. I quickly became a cashier wiz, the only person around (among a small horde of frown-faced twenty to fifty-somethings who turned up every day after a full-timer) who offered to vacuum and clean, the only one to do the job right. The company’s bunk policies, poor management and crude manners liked my kind in that I had no choice but to put forth my best effort, and I quickly became the efficient reason why our shortage of employees was never taken seriously. They didn’t need to hire and pay other deadweights that were too proud to subject themselves to the junk I was willing to put up with; I was golden.
It was lucky enough I had a job at my age—the older employees quickly dropped off the schedule once they’d had enough of the mediocre company and treatment, and I was regarded as more reliable than even some managers. I came to work the register with expertise, understand how to solve problems amongst entire teams of workers, train recruits twice my age on running a dressing room—there’s no greater treasure in feeder minimum-wage companies than a seventeen-year-old goody-two-shoes.
It’s almost a wonder why they dually decided to screw me over the way they did when Halloween began to approach closer. But not quite. In short, our store was locally infamous for sticking some poor sap in the cold routinely in order to pull in customers and draw attention to the establishment. It would be kind of cool if we had the option to do whatever costume we wanted, yet there was a foreboding box of aged undesirables in the back room waiting for the ill-fated.
There was some sort of twisted hierarchy about it as well: a lie was nervously circulated that “everyone” had to go outside in a costume and wave the store’s sign, yet it was painfully obvious that only the youngest and lowliest of sales associates had to do it. Heck, the hierarchy was even in the company policy—the lowest-ranked person on the hour had to go outside, always. Despite my value as a do-everything worker, I suddenly and frequently became cast outside as Spongebob, a Muppet, a ghost, Gumby or what-have-you.
I should only reference Gumby at this point: the other costumes were either too revealing of our faces to the heckling public streets, or simply too disgusting. The ensembles were broken, smelly and parts dragged off my body like an anchor. I could afford to rip open already-ripped parts of the costume to find places to breathe, as it smelled none too nice. I was meant to take on standing outside in a Halloween costume for periods ranging from a half hour to an hour and a half every day, usually forced to soak in the aftermath of some young man working the day shift. I began dressing to work daily in ugly sweats and a tee in order to accommodate my imminent stinky sentence into the night.
Twenty-somethings and up, when the time came for the tradition to hit our crew (early to mid-October of that season), promptly and rudely threatened to quit if even asked to head outside in a costume.
“Don’t send me out there, or I’ll be out of here in a second—make the kids do it.”
Soon thereafter, others hovering around my age group made the same pitch, but by this point such a young population was nonexistent.
Three or four times a week, I’d make the walk of shame from the back of the store as a very droopy Gumby. I’d stumble outside in the wind and avoid traffic in the parking lot in order to get to the side of the busy road. And so it began.
“Get a real job!”
The world became suddenly so much more loud and scary than it was before. As cars whizzed past, out was hurled insults, boos, honks and maybe some trash once in a while.
For some reason, the anonymity granted with being an outside greeter is possibly the worst thing an individual can do for their level of human respect granted. In the cold, sweat and weird smell, I as a fresh college-bound girl of seventeen felt like I’d lost my identity and chances at succeeding in life. I became a stereotype by just dressing up in some goofy costume. Gumby meant a sad, forty-year-old hefty man behind the costume deserving of the utmost ridicule and shaming. Not a kid just working her ass off to get some money in her pocket. Gumby, to some, just meant Gumby.
Yet, while being Gumby, I could do things I’d never done before. I danced, I waved to all of the cars whether shady or familiar looking. I leaped, I made a show of myself, waved my arms (and that blessed sign) to the sky. I breathed heavily; I wore myself to a cold sweat. I brought smiles to the public, no matter what derision they drew from the experience of seeing Gumby on the side of the road.
After every night of waving, I’d trudge back into the warm little store and wear my sweat like some sort of proud veteran. I lingered in my costume every time I came back into the store so kids could talk to me. I could never tell if something was gained or taken from me each shift.
Then the day came where I found out.
On a chilly night in mid-October, I stood outside as usual, miming the excitement and irresistibility that was associated with Halloween and coming to our little store. Gumby flailed, wiggled, and waved. Then, it happened: something hit me hard from behind, and I’d been harshly tackled.
I immediately screamed, vocalizing not a commonality while in-costume (don’t ask, you’ll find that it’s simply requisite if you ever become a fully dressed character). I thought I was being jumped! I knew the day would come, I knew the day would come…
The person who hit me quickly recovered and backed away, laughing himself to tears. A hefty man of about thirty suddenly appeared, intending nothing more than to play a joke on the forty-year-old male loser in the costume. He’d tackled me simply to scare me. “A-ha! Yeah, Gumby! I gotcha!” he slapped my hand in an attempt to high-five me and scooted off.
It had been over in half a minute, and it was the most mortifying part of my twenty-eight hours a week experience at the store.
I stormed back in, angry I’d been duped, and told my story miserably to the managers. My face was sticky with sweat and a few spiteful tears—had I not been just ‘Gumby’, the huge baby would have taken note not to completely assault me. The store’s crew, almost exclusively older at this point in time, gasped in suddenly realizing what a horrible and unsafe position I was in (though I still believe to this day they’ll never understand until they do the same thing as I did).
The first work-related justice occurred to me and the rest of the crew then and there: I soon never had to go outside to wave the sign again, and thereafter no other associates. The tradition was done for the season, and I was nestled at the cash register when working nights like I was somebody. Respect and redemption was had.
And yet, something was taken from me. A shred of my innocence and raw slate to use in any field—I suddenly was an adult, had restrictions and standards. It was icky. For the rest of the season, hours became my own volition. It was icky. For some stupid reason, most of all, I missed that icky costume.
My confession: it was a damned terrible job, but for some reason I’ll forever remember my first crappy, minimum-wage gig like no other. I think a bit of that sentiment lies in all of us.