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Get a Job, and Give Me Some Space

Thanks to Dave Aldrich of pleasantfamilyshopping.blogspot.com for permission to use this photo.

 

“Y’wear see-troo blouses, y’ call out at 5 o’clock, g’bye.”

Let me translate this warning issued by the hiring manager at Two Guys in East Brunswick, New Jersey in 1977: “If you wear see-through blouses to work, or if you call in sick at 5 for a shift that starts at 6, you’re fired.”

It was a warning I didn’t need. I no more would have worn a see-through blouse than I would have shown up naked. At the time I’d have said that my opaque-blouse policy stemmed from my highly developed sense of feminism, but now I suspect it was more a lack of the boldness and confidence you’d need to show up to work in a “see-troo” blouse. I kind of wish that I had, at least once. I never would have “called out” at 5, either, approaching all my jobs, even menial ones like slinging around bags of peat moss in the garden department at Two Guys, with a deadly seriousness. I wish I’d occasionally ditched work for something better, like a party or a day at Seaside, but I probably felt like the world would unravel if I displayed such irresponsibility.

Now our son is about to start his first job. As a stand-in for that long-ago Two Guys hiring manager—I think her name was Gloria—I have been trying to impress upon him the need to be uber-reliable and responsible. “Let your manager know when you’ll be gone to visit colleges,” I hear myself barking. “Don’t ever talk on your cellphone at work!”  “Don’t be late!” “Don’t stand around—if you don’t have anything to do, grab a broom and sweep!”  “Or reshelve the go-backs!”

I’m not nearly as succinct as Gloria was, and as you might imagine, Christopher does not find this unsolicited job performance advice the least bit helpful. “You don’t have to micromanage my job,” he says bitterly. “It’s my job.”

I’m not sure why I’ve felt compelled to hector him about work habits. Maybe there’s some strange jealousy that he’s not old before his time the way I was, not worried about everything, not worried about a thing, in fact. I’m not proud to admit it, but I’m envious that he can be a bit cavalier about his bag-boy responsibilities at Ralph’s without feeling like the world will end.

I’m cast back to a pre-Two Guys job I had when I was 17, a bit older than Christopher is now. After a stint at JJ Newberry, where I rang up 2-cent mints, 10-cent skeins of embroidery thread, and 1970s sundries like Afro picks, I moved on to “Space Creators.” It was a typing service where I typed theses and papers, mostly for Rutgers students. This job represented an enormous pay boost to $2 an hour. Thinking back, it was a scary and dangerous gig.

Space Creators was housed in the blandly named “Shopper’s Mall,” a decaying, two-story structure built in 1970s “brutalist” architectural style, slabs of concrete studded with dark, heavy, poorly weathered wood. The building looked like unfriendly remnant of deprivation that should have been in Russia rather than New Jersey. The recession had deepened, and most of the stores in this frightful looking mall had gone belly up. Practically all the retail spaces sat empty, undoubtedly the reason Space Creators ended up in the husk of one of the lower-level stores for what was probably dirt-cheap rent.

I’d sit in what had been a storefront from 6 to 10 in the evening several nights a week, by myself. No one was there with me, and there were no going businesses in the adjoining spaces, so the atmosphere was ghostly and echoey. Occasionally a lone man would walk through the dimly lit, abandoned building, peering curiously at me inside the storefront window as I tapped away at my IBM Selectric typewriter and plied my Wite-Out. I never knew if he was a security guard or some kind of lurker.

I recall feeling vaguely nervous occasionally, and remember looking over my shoulder when I let myself out of Space Creators to go home, my footsteps echoing in the empty Shopper’s Mall, checking to be sure that the lone man or anyone else wasn’t there. But I wasn’t actively scared, and in fact I walked home, a 20-minute trek in the dark that included a shortcut through what passed as “woods” in central New Jersey.

My Space Creators career lasted only a few months, ending abruptly when my final couple of paychecks bounced. Isn’t Space Creators a funny name?  Presumably it came from that 1970s notion of “Give me some space.”  Maybe the marketing pitch went something like this: “Hey, we’ll get a 17-year-old girl to type up your poorly written thesis in an abandoned mall basement, and give you some space to go do something more fun, like inhale a big spliff, hitchhike to an Allman Brothers concert, or macramé a holder for your spider plant.”

It occurs to me that “Give me some space” mirrors Christopher’s sour injunction, “Don’t micromanage me.” Nobody micromanaged me in my Space Creators, Two Guys, or JJ Newberry days. As much as I sometimes wish I’d had more oversight and attention, I had better not veer too hard in the other direction as Christopher makes his way in his first job. I don’t know what the equivalent work infraction of a “see-troo” blouse is today, but I’ll let him find out on his own.

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About treacycolbert

I make my living by writing about health care. I've always written about life's chastening effect, but just as a way of sorting it out for myself. After years of doing this and keeping these essays quiet, I decided to put some of these impressions out there on this blog. Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think.

11 responses »

  1. Another brilliant post…I love how adeptly you take your reader from fascinating nostalgia to laugh-out-loud funny to insights both touching and profound. And I may be a few years older than you, but oh, can I relate! My first “real” job (other than babysitting) was as a check-out girl in the Big Apple (a now defunct Long Island supermarket chain) where I worked like a slave for $1.65 an hour. No bar code trickery in those days…it was all about nimble fingers, knowledge of price, counting cash quickly, making change, and bagging properly. We had a 30-minute break for lunch, usually sitting on a milk crate in a back area that smelled of rotting produce. The assistant manager, married and a good 20 years older than me (naive high school girl that I was) was forever commenting on my attributes and suggesting various outings, but in those days young women just figured that was part of the territory, no matter how uncomfortable it made us. At the end of the day, we had to tally our receipts, and any shortfalls, even pennies, were taken from our pay envelopes. Talk about uber-responsible: my earnest, conscientious diligence was pathetic. I simply had to do a good job; I became known for my speed and accuracy, not that it yielded any rewards. At night I used to dream of groceries going by on conveyer belts and me struggling to keep up. I’ve always said, ever since, that this is where I learned to hate work. I am happy to see that Christopher has a better sense of balance and boundaries along with the work ethic and integrity he could not help but have inherited.

    Reply
    • Cynthia, Your memories are so vivid! Do you ever wonder what happened to your Big Apple manager? There was a similar mgr. @ Two Guys, an Elvis lookalike who leered but not at me, off-putting and unattractive as I was in my homemade polyester dresses, not even see-through! As always, I so appreciate your reading these posts.

      Reply
  2. Brilliant, Treacy. I love these stories and I agree wholeheartedly with Cynthia. I’d add there were even some Stephen King moments in this one. It certainly brought back memories of my first job working at Monkey Wards on the credit trolleys for $1.12 per hour. I’ll never forget how empowered I felt, though, when I got my first paycheck. I liked the independence and freedom I felt, like I was, indeed, commander of my own ship! What I most specifically remember about the job what the little voice in my earpiece saying, “This is Joyce down in appliances and Mrs. Ellen Brown is here. She wants to buy a refrigerator. Can you check and see how much credit she has available?” So I would peddle the trolley along on tracks between two rows of files. I’d find the Bs and fumble through looking for Mrs. Brown. If she hadn’t filled up her card and was a “good pay”, she could be approved. I felt like Santa Clause when I could say, “Mrs. Brown is A-okay to go.” Those were the days….
    Thanks, for sharing your beautiful prose, Treacy. It’s a bright spot in my day when I get notice of a new entry.

    Reply
  3. Wonderful article, Treacy–you’re really bringing it a back for me. First off, I once got the crap kicked out of me in those woods (I’ll let you know which guys did it). Also, you know Two Guys remains my favorite store of all time. And what I wouldn’t give for a bowl of Newberry’s Frontier Chowder!

    Reply
  4. Wonderful, wonderful…You are one fine writer. Philosophical and bittersweet and funny.
    I’ll throw in a bit about one of my early jobs (outside of the babysitting/cleaning lady jobs). I was a ‘relish girl’ – sounds kinda kinky, eh? I wheeled a relish cart around a restaurant – the Towpath – outside the RIT campus. I wheeled a cart up to the table, customers made their choices and I put the relishes on their bread plates. Naive as I was, when a customer asked for a carrot stick, I daintily picked it up with my fingers and put it on his plate. The maitre de nearly fainted. Obviously, a faux pas! I shudder at my naivete. I hadn’t been trained and was tong-less. This seemed the only choice at the time (and my mother did raise me properly)! Sad to say, the lack of proper training or baptism by fire seems to have followed me in all my careers, especially in my current position. I congratulate Christopher on his first gig and hope his baptism is less painless.

    Reply
  5. correction – I meant “I hope Christopher’s baptism is painless.” (proofread, Laurie, proofread)

    Reply
  6. Treacy, I just stumbled across your blog today. I worked my way through college waitressing the lunch counter at JJ Newberry’s. Probably the same time you worked there. It was a job that paid the bills, not much more. I became a pretty good soda jerk and I can still make a good milkshake. Thanks for the memories.

    Reply
    • Hi Pam, I had no idea you worked at JJN too! I worked there during my sophomore and junior years of HS, so we may not have crossed paths while you were there. Now you have me craving a milkshake!

      Reply

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