Monday, July 31, 2006

Origin of a Workaholic (HS)

I have to be completely honest here. I love money. LOVE IT. I don't necessarily love spending it, nor do I have expensive tastes, I just enjoy the piece of mind and comfort it brings when you have enough of it. When I was a kid, I'd probably empty out my piggy bank and just count the money about twice a month.

So, when it came time to do chores, I'd always try to haggle to have a little extra money added onto my allowance if I did this thing or that. I saw any quarter extra I received as a sweet, sweet victory.

As I got a little older, I took to doing some volunteering and odd jobs, if for no other reason than to make money while getting out of the house during the summer. Even as a kid, I had a long-term view, so I knew that one summer spent volunteering would mean that I'd be ready to apply for real jobs the next summer.

Then, with mom getting sick, the pressure was on. All of a sudden, I had to make money for a reason: there wouldn't be enough money to pay for mom's care and my university, so I was going to have to work in order to get what I wanted. Which was, in short, a guarantee that I could get out of the house. University provided me that guarantee. As an added bonus, I was given the ultimatum that I could get a job, or I'd be put in the Army Reserve. Yipes.

After weeks of dropping off resumes at wherever I thought I stood a chance, I was starting to give up. I was given the opportunity to stay with my grandparents for the summer in an effort to try to find work there. A few days before I was due to leave, I got a call from one of the grocery stores in town for an interview. This was the store that my parents shopped at, and was considered among the neighbourhood kids as a pretty cool place to work: pay above minimum wage, unionized, good, flexible hours, and a decent management staff. Needless to say, I really wanted the job. So, in order to impress them, I decided to dress for the interview in a white shirt and brown slacks, which was basically the uniform of the store clerk. What a fateful decision that turned out to be.

I was told to report to the customer service counter at 1:00 pm, at which point I was to meet with the manager for my interview. So I arrive at the counter, to find a herd of irate customers. It seems that the store was so busy, it had run out of shopping carts (we were close to the July holiday), and people who just wanted to get in and get out were complaining bitterly.

Not wanting to upset anyone, I got in line and hoped they'd get to me by 1:00. Just then, the store manager, who was a short, little man with a voice that betrayed 40 years of smoking and a rapid-fire delivery that made you think he should be on those boisterous furniture store commercials runs up to the counter.

"Are any of those boys here yet?", he barked out.

"Uh, sir, I think you're looking for me?", I asked. Note that at this point in my life, I was pathologically shy, and barely spoke above a whisper, especially around people I didn't know.

Even at 16 years old, I was a full head and then some taller than the store manager, and he was a little taken aback at first. Then, he sized me up, and seemed to have a curious look on his face. Then, a thought hit him like a lightning bolt going off in his head. Seeing that I already basically looked the part, and he had all those irate customers in the front of his store, he asked me:

"So, do you think you can keep this store full of shopping carts?"

"Uhhh, sure."

"You're sure, are you? It's pretty hot out there."

"I'll do my best."

"Ok son, you do that. We'll check on you in a while and see how you're doing."

And with that, I was sent outside to keep the store full of shopping carts. Now, this was no easy task. There was no shade, and it was 40 degrees celsius outside with the humidity. The parking lot sloped down away from the store at a considerable angle down to the laneway, then sloped back up to further parking on the other side. So you had to push the carts up a decent incline to get them in the store.

So I started with 2 carts at once. Not fast enough. Then 3, no good. Then 4, 5, 6, 7. In my lack of experience, 7 carts was about all I could fit through the door. And with the slope going up into the store, 7 carts was HEAVY. Really heavy. I was outside for 20 minutes, and already, my shirt was drenched with sweat and all the muscles in my legs were aching, to the point where I thought my quads were going to pop off my kneecaps. I had shoulder length hair at the time, and had a lot of trouble keeping it out of my eyes.

I was managing, but barely. In the time it took me to run (on a dead sprint) to pick up the few carts available in the parking lot, there was already a lineup of ingrates waiting for them. And they'd wait right in front of the automatic door, so there was no way to get into the store. At first, I'd ask to excuse myself, but after a while, as dehydration started to hit me and I lost my voice, I couldn't even bring myself to talk.

The minutes became hours, and I never stopped running. To this day, I don't know how I managed, and neither do my co-workers. I was relieved for a 10 minute break at about 3:30 pm. I was so exhausted, I hadn't even stopped breathing hard until I was back out again.

At 5:00, the manager comes out to see me. He seemed pretty grouchy, like he'd been having the longest day of his life, but he did his best to put a smile on when he came out.

"So, how are you doing?"

"Ok", I wheezed, trying not to let on that I was probably mostly dead.

"Well, you look pretty tired, and everyone says you've been working really hard. So what do you say you take a half-hour dinner break."

"A half-hour?" I asked, not so much as a complaint, but a confirmation.

The manager smirked at me, as if I was arguing with him. But then he saw how sunburned I was, how glassy my eyes where, and how drenched in sweat I was.

"Yeah, you'd better take an hour. And change your shirt."

So I called for my dad to come pick me up. He poured me into the passenger seat of the van and hauled my limp carcass home.

"So, you're done for the day?", he asked.

"Actually, the boss wants me back in an hour."

"Oh.", he replied, in equal parts pride, astonishment, and pity.

I have never, ever, experienced this kind of pain in my entire life. I was never in horrible shape as a kid, but adrenaline at the thought of having a steady income powered me through four straight hours of running in a parking lot on the hottest day of the summer, taking in car exhaust in huge gulps. And now that I had stopped, the overexertion was taking its toll. Every muscle in my body ached, and I had a stitch in my side that wouldn't go away. I was burned cherry red, so badly that my hair was matted as a result of being burned itself, in addition to my scalp bleeding because it had so badly burned it was cracked and peeled. My hands were dry and the skin cracked and worn, and I had blood stains on my pants from where I had wiped my hands without paying attention, as I hadn't yet built up the necessary callouses, and I had pinched my hands several times between the shopping carts, which were the old style models and hadn't had their edges filed down.

I was dizzy and nauseous from heatstroke, and had more than a passing thought about just not going back. Or calling 911. My throat was parched, and I tasted and smelled blood. Upon changing my clothes, I noticed that the muscles in my legs were so stretched and tortured, that blood had started to pool, and they looked bruised and disconcertingly swollen.

My dad had barbecued up some sausage and baked potatoes, with corn and salad. I took three bites and vomited, as my throat was so dry I couldn't even swallow. With only a few minutes to go before I had to be back to work, I threw myself in a cold shower to try to cool down and came damn near close to fainting as I washed the scabs out of my hair and watched as my scalp and hair fell out in chunks.

Somehow, even as sunburned as I was, I still managed to look pale and sickly. But I decided then and there that if nothing else, my dad, who always considered me to be soft because I was always better with the books than I was with my hands, would have to admit that I was as hardcore as they came. So I downed as much water as I could and went back to work. To this day, I think the store employees were surprised I came back.

After a few more hours of running outside, the pace finally slowed enough for me to go in the store and learn a few more chores. Like facing up product (pulling product to the front of the shelf so customers don't have to reach), stocking shelves and packing groceries. I met a few of the other clerks, who were older than me, as well as the assistant store manager, who forever earned my good graces by giving me an extended evening break, as long as I didn't stay in the same place long enough for people to ask questions.

After the longest 8 hours of my life, the manager was closing up the store.

"Long day, wasn't it, son."

"Yeah, I guess so."

"So, I'll see you tomorrow?"

"Does this mean I have the job?"

"Be here at 9:00 and we'll talk about it. And don't worry, I'll make sure you're paid for all the time you work here, whether we end up keeping you or not."

Well, it was better than nothing, at least I knew I'd be paid for a couple of days. I limped back home and kneaded my knotted leg muscles until I could start feeling a bit of give in them again, coaxed down some leftovers and headed to bed.

What started as a day to day arrangement, seemingly on the manager's whim, became a 5-year relationship, which contributed more to my personal development than any advice I got from my parents or any course I took in school. I learned principles of sound management, leadership and customer service that I use to this day. In fact, now that I'm a manager, I use it more than my professional training. I also learned that whatever the conditions, like that first day, which I believe still stands on record as the busiest day in that store's history, that when it comes right down to it, if there's work to do, it needs to get done, regardless of what kind of shape you're in, and if you can't do it, someone will take your place. It's that mentality that allows me to do the work of 9 people (see below).

So never underestimate the benefits of a part-time student job.


At August 02, 2006, Anonymous sailor said...

What a day!

I learned about work like that from watching my father, but never found myself doing it until a "friend" helped me out with a "cool" job at a quarry. While he sat inside and checked the trucks in and out, I shoveled dirt, manned the rock crusher, hand filtered a cascade of falling rock and drove dump trucks at 1 mile an hour all through what may have well been a desert- from 5:30am until 7:00p.m. everyday.

Unlike yourself, I did quit this job when a co-worker lost his thumb filtering the rocks and a man 30 years my senior threatened me while we were standing in front of an open crushing machine. It took all I had in me to leave without helping him fall into that machine.

I think that homicidal impulse is a valid reason for quitting, even if that word is not in your vocabulary.

At August 15, 2006, Anonymous Jay said...

What a story. I can definitely relate - I walked into a grocery store 25 minutes from me when I was 16 looking for a job. I ended up working there 3 1/2 years - the first year and a half cleaning toilets and stocking. It taught me more about responsibility than anything my parents have ever said to me.


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