“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.