My first real job was in 1986 at the C-Mart, an IGA grocery store in Oglethorpe, Georgia. I was paid $3.25 an hour — which seemed like a pretty decent wage when I typed that until I realized that I forgot to hold the shift key while trying to get that $ symbol, meaning that for a moment I was making a respectable 43.25.
Actually, 43.25 an hour would have been more fair because to this day that’s probably the toughest job I’ve ever had. Fortunately, I was able to bridge the gap between the legal minimum wage in 1986 and 43.25 by borrowing a Slim Jim or two. (I use the term borrowing only because I’m not sure about the meat stick statute of limitations.)
My boss was irritated that he had to pay a whopping $3.25 for a mere hour of work, so he drove us to bag groceries, mop the floors and stock the shelves twice as quickly, which gave me a few minutes each week to focus on my new promotion as leader of the Who’s Stealing the Slim Jims Subcommittee. (After nearly 40 years, I’m ready to submit my official report that with 68 percent certainty, it was probably a guy named Steve.)
I was grateful for the job. After all, the only other steady jobs in my hometown were hair-cuttin’, police chief and waving at every car that came into town — and an old man in overalls named Henry had a monopoly on that last one. I could have gone into hair-cuttin’, but I didn’t have the gossipin’ skills.
Being a “bag boy,” though, was dangerous. I had to dodge paychecks that my boss threw at me hoping to nick a jugular with a paper cut, and little old ladies often chased me in the parking lot because their bread got mashed. Later, when I’d get my hair cut, Ms. Susan would interrogate me while waving her scissors dangerously in front of my eyes.
“Juanita said you mashed her bread!”
“It won’t happen again, I promise.”
“By the way, did you see that dress she wore to church Sunday? Lawd have mercy …”
Despite the mad ravings of little old ladies wielding loaves of Wonder Bread in the air like rampaging Vikings preparing to toast a village, a few folks were nice to me. One lady gave me a $5 tip for taking her groceries to her car and then asked if I would come home with her to unload them. I didn’t go because (1) she was a female flirting with me, which meant she lacked good judgment or it was a trick, (2) I knew as much about women as I did about protecting Wonder Bread, and (3) she had already given me $5, which was more than my car was worth, so I figured the day couldn’t get any better.
The nicest person was Mary Jane, the checkout girl in Lane 2 — also known as “the other lane” at C-Mart. I knew she liked me because she expressed genuine curiosity about my life with questions like, “What are you looking at?!” and “Why does your breath smell like Slim Jims?”
I’d just smile and think, wow, she spoke to me!
My extensive grocery experience — we’re talking three or four months here — is one of the reasons I’m extra nice to the folks who work at grocery stores today. I never impolitely brush off the routine cashier questions like “Did you find everything you need?” or “Would you like to donate to help needy children in our community?” — to which I respond with “No, y’all must be out of ground squirrel,” and “No, I don’t like children.” (Of course, I’m joking. They always keep a little ground squirrel behind the meat counter.)
The conversations get a little longer when I ask for cash back.
“Fifty dollars cash back. Any particular way you want that?”
“Three 20s is fine.”
“OK … hey, wait a minute!”
And, every now and then, I still help bag the groceries, especially when I go with my wife and we spend $215, enough to last two or three days. Of course, this leads to the same old admonishment from my wife — “Don’t mash my bread!” — and the same old questions from cashiers.
“No, I don’t know why my breath smells like Slim Jims. But I do know they need restocking on aisle 5.”