Near Miss at Respectability

My vagabond life as an office temp did finally come to an end.  My last assignment–a receptionist gig at $7/hour–turned into a full-time position after six months.  I was over the moon.  I was so proud.  I finally had a real, grown-up-type job.  At $22,000/year, I felt that I had arrived.

But let me back up and set the scene a little bit.  The company was a little pre-press computer imaging service located in a tiny office park.  When I started it had the clunky name of Hi-Tech Color and Creative Services.  (It went through several name changes while I was there and has gone through even more since.)  There were two sides to the business.  On one side of the building was the technical side.  This housed not only all the people who made the physical proofs and films and such, but also the people at their MACs who put various models’ heads on other models’ bodies in all those magazine ads.  On the other side of the building were the creative designers–the artists who did ad layouts and such.  In the middle were the salespeople, customer service reps, and the administrative types.  There were probably between twenty and thirty people working there at the time.

I started as the receptionist.  I answered the telephone–a 12-line system with voice mail and all that.  I greeted guests and paged the people they were there to see.  I sorted the incoming mail and put messages in the little cubbyholes marked with employees’ names.  I had a nice, dark walnut desk with lots of drawers, which also made me happy.  I love office supplies, and I had all I could want.

After I’d been there about a month (still technically working for the temp agency), the office manager began teaching me how to do the customer billing.  I learned how to use accounting software.  I learned about accounting principles and all about accounts receivables and it was a lot of fun.  I’ve been told that this is a little weird, but a well-filled-out ledger is a thing of beauty to me.  By the time I had been there a year, I was handling most of the accounts receivable duties along with receptionist duties.  And it was fabulous!  I loved nearly every minute of that job.  Oh sure there were some difficult people I encountered once in a while, but in general this was a great gig.

Once we got a photo studio, I started to meet some interesting folks coming in for shoots.  I meet Emmett Kelly, Jr., Bo Jackson, and a lot of local celebrities and business owners.  My favorite, though, was Real Musgrave.  He is the creator of Pocket Dragons–one of my favorite little collectibles.  I got to speak to him for a few moments one day while he was waiting in the lobby for our boss lady to take him to lunch.  He seemed surprised that I knew who he was and that I knew about Pocket Dragons.  He asked if I had any, and I had to admit that I did not, that I had never had the money to spare.  Well, after the photo shoot, he came out of the studio with a small paper bag in his hand.  He smiled and made small talk for a minute, and then presented me with the bag.  Inside was a Pocket Dragon of my very own!  I gasped.  I squealed.  He then explained that this was a prototype–not one that was available commercially yet.  It was a sleeping baby dragon on top of a hinged ring-box.  I still have it.  It’s the one sentimental possession that survived my many moves and bad relationships.  And even though I’ve been told that it is very valuable because it was never put into general production, I wouldn’t sell it for all the world.

But, as usual, things went downhill.  In this case, however, I still don’t understand all I know about the situation.

About seven or eight months after I started there the office manager retired and a new office manager came in.  She and I got along wonderfully.  I learned a lot from her and we had a great working relationship.  Sometime during my second year there, she announced that she would also be retiring.  She started teaching me how to handle more and more of her duties, and, when she retired, I thought I would be promoted into her slot.  Our boss, the company controller, set it up to where I would work half the day in the office manager’s office and half the day at the reception desk.  He said that this would continue “until we hire someone”.  I naturally thought that they would hire a receptionist and I would take over as office manager.

After I’d been doing this for about three months, my boss called everyone into the photo studio (the biggest room in the building) for a meeting.  There he introduced a young woman as THE NEW OFFICE MANAGER.  I was stunned.  I was so upset I ran to the rest room and burst into tears.  But I didn’t question it.  I wasn’t that kind of person back then.  I just went back to the reception desk and went back to my old duties.

Here’s the weird part.

That gal lasted about two weeks.  That’s it.  And my boss had me start with the old half-n-half routine again.  Once again, I was naive enough to think that this time, I would get the promotion.

No dice.

Another office manager showed up.  This time it was an older woman much like the two I had worked for before.  Again, I sighed and went back to work thinking that I would be able to work with her as well as I had the first two.  Alas, that was not to be.

I don’t know why she decided she did not like me.  Several co-workers also commented on her obvious animosity toward me, but no one seemed to be able to offer an explanation.

Am I exaggerating?  I’ll let you decide.

A few days before my birthday this lady told me that our boss wanted her to take me out to lunch for my birthday.  I thought, oh, how nice, maybe we’re going to mend some fences here.  So on my birthday I rode in her beautiful Lexus to Ruby Tuesday’s and we had a beautiful lunch.  Right after the entree was done, she brought out a packet of papers from her purse.  She explained that my job performance had been terrible and that these papers were a formal write-up.  She listed a series of missteps I had supposedly done, and I asked her why no one had said anything the first time any of those things had happened.  She just told me that I needed to sign the papers and that she didn’t owe me any explanation.  I tried to explain that I wanted to do a good job, and all anyone would have to do is call my attention to anything that had gone wrong and I would try to fix it.  She wasn’t listening.  So I signed the paper, rode back with her, and again cried in the rest room on my break.

I wish I could say that I quit right there, but this story ends not with a bang, but with a whimper.  I saw that the company was getting rid of people and not replacing them.  I knew that our receivables were not equalling our outgo, and that this wasn’t a good situation.  So I found a new job, gave a 2-week notice, and was fired that day (not allowed to work out the notice).

Oh well.

So that ended the best job I’d had to date, but I was about to start on a new adventure.  I was about to learn all about the world of law enforcement.

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Posted by on March 2, 2014 in Work History


Here, There, Everywhere

Even while I was working for Sears in Georgia, I had started taking on little temporary jobs here and there to make up for the reduced number of hours we were scheduled.  The mall was filled with these sorts of opportunities and I daresay I learned something interesting at each one.

The first gig I remember taking was at a Claire’s Boutique.  For those not familiar with them, Claire’s sells costume jewelry and little fashion accessories, mostly to teen and pre-teen girls.  I happened to speak to the manager there one time on my lunch break and learned that they were about to take inventory, but needed someone who could run the cash register while the regular staff did counts.  So I offered to help. What did I learn here?  I learned that babies sleep through having their ears pierced while teenage boys screech, cry, and bleed all over the place.  I’ve no idea of the whys or wherefores of that situation–it’s just an observation.

One of my favorite gigs was at a Freshens Yogurt stand in the food court.  I worked there through the summertime when the college students were out of town, mostly. I got to learn all about how the machines worked, how to put together the toppings bar, and how to make the various recipes.  I loved making milkshakes–which were actually frozen yogurt shakes but whatever.  We also made pretzels in one of those ovens that has the little conveyor belt in it.  Frozen pretzel goes in, hot pretzel comes out.  So cool!  The best part about this gig was the ability to trade food with the other food court denizens.  Our manager was very free with sampling allowances, and so we could often trade yogurt for sandwiches or even plate lunches depending on who was working at the other stands.  We could eat as much yogurt as we wanted, too, because as the manager told us, you’d eat a ton of it the first week, a little the second, and not even want to look at it the third.

The one job I probably learned the most from, though, was delivering newspapers.  First, I found out that a lot of newspaper delivery people are considered independent contractors.  This means the company asks you for a security deposit–I think mine was around $250 at the time–and assigns you a route.  You are then responsible for that route.  If you need a day off or get sick, you are the one responsible for getting someone to fill in for you and for compensating that person.  If you’re interested in delivering papers, it’s a good idea to have someone go in with you and split the duties.  I got to ride along with a trainer for the first couple of nights.  He showed me how to read the hieroglyphics in the route book that showed every turn and every driveway and designated which houses got papers.  Pay was per newspaper delivered.  If a paper was late, or not delivered, the company docked two or three times what you would have gotten paid for that paper.

The business side of it was fascinating, but the real fun was being out there in the wee hours of the morning all alone.  I delivered in a section of Cobb County, GA which was mostly rural with a few subdivisions on one edge.  I used to listen to Art Bell’s Coast to Coast radio program while I was out there in the dark which made it all the more fun.  I became friendly with the cops and cabbies who frequented the one convenience store on my route.  And I learned about the power of good, strong coffee to get me through the tasks at hand.

I even tried my hand at being a telephone psychic of all things.  This was another fascinating business model.  Again, this was independent contractor work (tax form 1099).  I worked for a few different lines, but they all worked basically the same.  I had to install a separate telephone line just for calls that came through the company.  There could be no background noise when on the line with a client and you had to be willing to stay on the line as long as the client did (or to the company limit–90 minutes was usually the most time they allowed for any one call).  The reader comes to an agreement with the company about the hours the reader will definitely be available for calls.  I usually guaranteed each line about three hours per day.  All the lines I worked for permitted the readers to stay logged into the system for as many hours as they liked as long as the minimum hours were met.  There was a standard rate per minute that you kept the client on the line.  This usually hovered around the 25 cent mark.  If you went over a certain number of minutes in a week, this base rate might bump up to 35, 45, or even 55 cents per minute.  Of course, as a 1099 worker, each reader is responsible for paying taxes and there are no benefits, but  then again there was the advantage of being able to work from home.

As for the psychic part, well, let’s just say some of us were more ethical than others.  I was mostly the “you control your own fate”  type offering platitudes and a shoulder to cry on.  (Yes, many clients paid us to listen to *them*.  I had one client who called every Tuesday, talked non-stop for 90 minutes, then hung up.)  There were others who seemed to relish the idea of being cruel to people or running them around in crazy psycho-drama nonsense.  These are what I call the “dark cloud is following you” variety who convince each client that there is an evil presence that only calling and paying $5/minute can keep at bay.  While I don’t think most readers meant any harm, too many of them did.

Finally, I joined up with Randstad Staffing and started doing temp office work.  This was a lot of fun!  If you like variety in your workplace, and you can show up at a moment’s notice, temping is for you.  If you get a reputation as a reliable worker, you will never lack for assignments.  I had one gig that lasted about six months working in the human resources department at the headquarters for a chain of gas stations.  We were in the records department in the era when computers were just starting to become common in smaller businesses.  Most of our work, therefore, was still in paper files.  My job was to create file folders for people who had just been hired and to pull files of people who had been terminated.  After I had been there a few months, I found out that a permanent position had opened and I applied for it.  I was told that my credit rating was not good enough for them to put me on the permanent payroll, but that I was still welcome to keep filling that position as long as I stayed working for the temp service.  I never did understand that.  I was a security risk if I worked directly for the company but I wasn’t if I worked under the temp service?

Finally, my last gig with the temp service was with a little computer graphics pre-press agency as a receptionist.  These guys hired me permanently, and I’ll talk about that next time.  (Preview:  I still don’t understand what happened there, either!)


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Posted by on February 22, 2014 in Work History


Where America Used to Shop

1988, Sears Commercial:

See all that stuff in the commercial up there?  Drapes, furniture, bedding, towels? Yeah, our store didn’t carry any of that.

A New Hope

I went to work for Sears, Roebuck, & Company right after I left Shoneys.  A new store was being built in the brand spanking new New River Valley Mall and I was on the very first crew.

It was a small store by Sears’ standards–what they called a “C-class” store.  This meant that we had clothing on one side (shoes, men’s, women’s, children’s) and hard lines on the other side (appliances, hardware, paint, electronics, sporting goods, and lawn & garden).

This time things started off pretty well.  I understood retail much better than I understood food service and took to it like a duck to water.  We also had the luxury of an extended training period before the doors opened to the public, which gave me a better understanding of many product lines too.  I worked Paint & Hardware at $2.85/hour plus commission.  Commission rates depended on the item sold.  Hand tools, small power tools, and most items from the paint department paid one percent.  Large power tools, premium tool storage boxes, and the high-grade paints paid three percent.  Once in a while the company would pay out a spiff on promoted items–fifty cents a gallon on outdoor paint, for example.  Even as a part timer still going to school I was making in the range of $200 to $300 per week.

Oh and I almost forgot the biggest money-maker–Maintenance Agreements.  Most people know these as “extended warranties”, but Sears at that time tried to dress them up so that they were slightly more than that.  On most items, it was just money down the drain, but the pressure to sell these things was so great that I went through the information with a fine toothed comb to find the items where the agreement was cost-effective for the customer.  My favorite one was the 2-year agreement on wet/dry vacs.  A yearly maintenance check was included in all plans, but on the wet/dry vac in particular it included a free filter each year.  Two filters were about 50% more expensive than the 2-year agreement, and so I sold the daylights out of that program.

My favorite day of the week was stockpen day.  Farmers came in in their overalls and the little college boys I worked with were often too stuck up to wait on them.  I loved them.  The farmers always knew exactly what they wanted and had big rolls of hundred dollar bills to pay for it.

There were a few drawbacks, but for me they were more puzzling than they were distressing.  The most obvious one was the dress code.  Even those of us who worked in hardlines had to wear dress clothing.  Guys were in shirts and ties, we gals were in skirts and dress shoes.  It made the job much more dangerous than it had to be, I thought, and it just plain made no sense.  Just before Christmas the first year our store manager put out a memo cracking down on what he saw as relaxing standards on this dress code and admonished us all to look our professional best for the coming holiday season.  The day after the memo came out, we received huge boxes of white paper hats with “Santa’s Helper” written in green on them.  I led a bit of an insurrection, and hardlines refused to wear them.

After I graduated from Virginia Tech in 1990, I went to full time status.  I even became a “red badge”.  An associate with a red name tag was allowed to approve voids and returns and a bunch of other minor managerial duties–all without any additional pay, of course.  I even moved up to Lawn & Garden–a department where most of the merchandise paid three percent commission.  After a year of this, I asked my manager about the management training program, and he said he’d see what he could do about getting me in.

At this point Sears as a corporation was running into some major problems.  We found out along with the rest of the television viewing public that the company would be closing many stores of our size across the country, and wondered if we would be among them.  Our training department, which had been top-notch, was eliminated.  Management training would now only be held in a few magnet stores around the country, and ours was definitely not in that category.

One of the stores that would be a center for management training was at Town Center Mall in Kennesaw, Georgia.  Coincidentally, I had some friends who had moved down there I could stay with while I found my own place, so I asked for the transfer.  My local manager agreed, contacted his counterpart at that store, and told me it was all set up.  I could start in mid-January, 1993.

The Empire Strikes Back

This is where things stop going well.

I arrived in Kennesaw right after the New Year, having braved a horrific ice storm on the way.  The very next day, I took my letter of reference from my previous manager to the Town Center store and requested to see the hardlines manager.  The gentleman to whom my old manager had spoke had retired the day before I arrived!  Let me repeat that–the day before I arrived.  What’s more, no one at that store had any idea who I was.  There was no position waiting for me.  I persisted in getting someone to talk to me, and finally spoke to the store manager himself.  He took my letter of reference and told me someone would call me when they were ready for me to start work.

It took a few weeks, but I finally bulldozed my way into getting a part-time position in the Hardware department out of desperation.  Still, I thought it would be a stepping stone to management training and a “real grown-up job” as I had come to call it in my mind.  It was back to the one percent commission ranks, but still I had hope.  This was a much bigger store and had all the departments that my old store had not.  Plus it was a much more metropolitan area with many more Sears stores within a small radius, so I thought that any opportunities that arose in those stores might be available to me as well.

By the time I had been there three years, the company really started to decline.  Full-timers were made part-timers.  Part-timers were scheduled no more than 15 hours per week.  Benefits were a thing of the past.  And management training was only available if you were under 25, white, and male.  (By that time I was only one out of the three.)  I still consistently scored in the top two or three sales people in the store, so I held onto hope just a little longer than perhaps I should have, thinking that hard work, knowledge, and skill would pay off.

But the Jedi Doesn’t Return

“Hey I heard you might be hurting for money.  I can help you out.  You could help me sell cocaine.”

This is what one of my co-workers said to me one day.  I don’t know what else he said, because I was terrified at that point.  He said this right out on the sales floor, not seeming to care who heard him.  I managed to make enough conversation  to determine that yes, he was serious and not just blowing smoke.

So, like the innocent little lamb I was, I went to the loss prevention people.  These are the folks in any retail store who chase down shoplifters and make sure associates aren’t dipping into the till.  I told the story several times to three different people, the last one being the head honcho of that department.  When I left, I felt sure that the boy would be fired and everything would be fine.

He was not fired.

It was not fine.

I worked one more day with him as he glared at me from across the aisle and then I quit.  No notice, just said “I quit” and didn’t come back.

No, I had no plan or anywhere to go, but I was so terrified that I just couldn’t go back there anymore.

And so began my “Nomadic Period”, which I’ll talk about next week.

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Posted by on February 15, 2014 in Work History


In the Beginning, There Was Shoney’s

Perhaps the most important section of any job application or résumé comes under the “Work History” header.  I have seen the confused expressions on the faces of potential employers when they view mine.  So here it is, annotated with the stories behind the titles.

For today’s installment, we shall journey back to the summer of 1988, for the tale of my first paying job.

Breakfast Bar Girl

During the summer before my junior year at Virginia Tech it became obvious that I would need to contribute to the family income.  I put in applications at all the usual suspects–restaurants, retail stores, and even the local bowling alley.  The first one to say “yes” was our nearest Shoney’s location.

I was to be their new breakfast bar girl.  My pay rate was $3.35/hour–a whole dime more than minimum wage at the time.  I was issued a uniform, which I had to pay to get hemmed right off the bat.  It was a short-sleeved, mid-calf-length dress of dark avocado green polyester.  The static electricity the thing generated was enough to power a small town.

With no training other than the advice offered by my co-worker, Pearl, out of the goodness of her heart, I showed up for my first shift at 3:00 in the morning.  The next three days were a dream-like blur with only a few clear images.  There was the endless parade of customers demanding fresh bacon (even when I was still holding the empty pan from which I had just filled the bacon).  The snide woman who thrust the “dirty” plate at me on which I could see not a single spot.  The loop tape that played over the loudspeakers that always seemed to be playing George Michael singing “You gotta have faith.”  And kale.  Kale.  I hate kale to this day.  Kale was used as decoration around the containers on the bar and it required frequent replacement from a bag into which one could easily fit two adults and several small children.

I snapped on the second day.

I was then and still am a very straightforward person.  Often, I don’t understand things like social hazing rituals.  I don’t understand when I’m being “messed with”, and so don’t realize that it’s all just a joke.  I don’t get angry, I just become confused–like someone who is not a native speaker trying to understand a comedy routine in another language.

So when, on the second day, I needed a large spoon to scoop whipped cream into a serving dish to place next to the strawberries, I simply went up to one of the cooks and asked where they were kept.  He pretended he couldn’t hear me.  So I asked the other cook.  He pulled the same routine.  To this day, I don’t know why this was supposed to be funny.  I was scared and confused and sleep-deprived and I just lost it.

I washed my hands thoroughly and dried them.  I picked up a serving dish and carried it into the walk-in cooler and set it next to the massive tub of whipped cream.  I then used both hands to scoop the whipped cream out into the serving dish.  I picked up the serving dish between my elbows and carried it back to the handwashing sink.  My hands were coated with whipped cream.  In fact, I was covered in whipped cream halfway up my forearms.  I silently rinsed off in the handwashing sink as the cooks stared at me.  Then I carried the serving dish out to the bar.

Halfway through the next day I went to the manager and told her I wouldn’t be able to continue.  She just nodded sympathetically and cut a check for me that very day, and I never went back.


When I tearfully told my mother that I had failed in my first job she gave me a strange look.  She then told me that our family has something of a “curse” regarding first jobs.  I had never known about this, so I asked her what she meant.  It turns out that nearly everyone on both sides of my family had lasted less than three days in their first jobs.  Story after story about family members either getting fired or quitting their first jobs came out that I had never heard before.  I felt like I had fulfilled a dire prophecy without ever having known that it had been foretold.

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Posted by on February 8, 2014 in Work History


Early Dreams

“They let you dream just to watch ’em shatter.” — Dolly Parton, “9 to 5”


From a very early age, I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I wanted to be the lady who has been at the same job for 40 years, who knows everyone and everything that touches her position, and on whom everyone can depend for everything from a bandaid to emotional support to turning out projects on time every time.

It did not matter one bit to me what the actual job title might be.  All I wanted was a particular social role.  What’s more, I really didn’t think that this was overly ambitious.  Plain old hard work, friendliness, and a good skill set should be enough to attain that glorious position.

Moreover, I already had a role model.  My grandmother, Louise, ran the elementary school from the secretary’s chair from the time she was a young mother until long past retirement–often coming in to work “part time” on special projects or during current staff vacations.  Whether a child needed a change of clothes or a parent needed information from a child’s teacher, she handled it all.  Best of all to my little-kid brain, between her and the janitor–a wonderful lady named Darlene–they had all the keys to every door in the school.  Not even the principal had that, and I decided that secretaries and janitors ruled the world, since only they have keys to everything.  I lived in the next town over, and so did not attend her school, but her school fed into the larger middle school along with my school, providing me with a ready-made introduction as her grandchild.  Even now, almost a decade since she passed away, people still introduce themselves to me with, “I knew your grandmother.”

So I knew such a thing could exist, and I really thought I could attain that same status.

I did all the things that all the adults in my world told me would get me there.  I took the highest level classes and got good grades all through high school.  I went to college and got my BA.  “It doesn’t matter what your degree is in,” everyone said, “Employers just want to see that you can complete advanced studies–that you’re trainable.”  On graduation day, recruiters would appear and whisk me away to the wonderful land of unbridled success, money, and social acceptance.

Well, that didn’t happen.

In subsequent posts I will present a slightly abridged version of the long, sad tale of my many failures in the world of work.  Knowing me, though, I will probably include posts on wildly varying subjects too, just because no one likes to listen to a Johnny-One-Note.

My intent is two-fold.  First, I want for people who have stumbled to understand that they are not alone (and it’s not always *your* fault).  Second, I have a faint hope that someone will shed some actual light on some of the events that, although I lived through them, I still don’t understand myself.

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Posted by on February 1, 2014 in Work History