My first job was dreadful. I remember it was the late fall of the year. I was visiting my cousin, Frances, at her home when she told me I needed a job.
Frances told me, “Kresge’s five and 10-cent store at 47th and South Park is hiring. Just go in, fill out an application and you’re hired. You’ll have your own money for Christmas, and you’re old enough.”
I was 16 and Frances was a year older. If I had said to her I didn’t need a job, she would’ve thought I was indicating that I was better off than she was. Anyway, I thought a job would make me feel grown-up.
One week later, I applied for a job at the store. The manager gave me an application, and I filled in my information. He looked over the form, and said I could start work right away. I said I was ready.
We went to the store’s basement where the employees’ lounge, washrooms and lockers were. He pointed to an open empty locker. I hung up my coat and put my schoolbooks on the top shelf. We went back upstairs. The manager walked me over to the fabric counter. He told me this was where I would work and then he left me.
The fabric counter was a square shape of tables. It was similar to the paint department counter in today’s Home Depot except I had to lift and lower a part of the counter that was hinged to get in and out rather than walk through an opening. Once inside, I stood in front of the cash register. The cash register was old fashioned for the times. It had about 10 keys, a $1 and $5 key, and a 5-cent, 25-cent and 50-cent key, and several other keys. Next to the cash register, a 48-inch metal measuring tape was attached to the top edge of the counter. On the counter, scattered about were scissors, scotch tape, wrapping paper and string. I looked around me. There were woolen cotton and linen cloth on top of the counter behind me. Bolts of solid reds, blues, plaids, polka dots, and stripe material were haphazardly tossed on top of each other.
The store was large and the lighting was dim. People were strolling from counter to counter just looking. I waited for my first customer. It wasn’t long before a woman holding a Simplicity dress pattern envelope in her hand approached me.
“May I help you?” I asked the customer.
“Yes,” the customer answered. “What material should I buy to make this dress?” I told her what I thought, but she chose a black velvet fabric.
“I’ll take two and three-quarters yards of the velvet,” she said. This was when I started to feel frustrated. When I tried to measure the velvet material on the measuring tape, I couldn’t do it. Those short lines on the measuring tape didn’t tell what they were. I didn’t know where the three-quarter mark of a yard was. I measured the velvet to three yards, got the scissors, and cut it at that point.
“I asked for two and three-quarters of a yard, you cut three,” the customer said.
“I made a mistake, but I won’t charge you for the extra material,” I told her.
The cash register was another problem. If the sale was $6.10, I had to press the $5 and then $1 key. In addition, I had to press the 5-cent key twice. The keys were stiff and the wrong amount showed in the glass at the top of the cash register, and I had to do it over until it was right. Wow! I thought. “What have I gotten myself into? I felt like a traveler without a map. I thought the manager thought every high school student knew measurements. That’s why he didn’t train me. I was too embarrassed to ask the manager for help because I wanted him to keep thinking I was an educated teenager. I gave the customer change from her $10 and wrapped the velvet material in paper and tied it.
The next customer wanted 1 and 7/8ths of a yard of white linen cloth. “Eight-eighths is a whole, so seven-eights is a little less than a yard,” I said as I lined the material along the measuring tape.
“Are you talking to me,” the customer asked.
“No, mam, I was thinking out loud. The customer could see I was nervous.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“Oh no, I’m fine,” I replied. When she turned her head, I cut the linen cloth at the two-yard mark. I figured she might not notice because 1/8th of a yard was not that much.
My three hours was ending. If I thought a customer was coming to my counter, I put on a mean face, or ignored her by pretending to be busy straightening out the bolts of materials.
When I left the store, it was dark outside. I hurried home. At home, I told my mother I was hired at Kresge’s. She didn’t say anything, but she told my dad that I had a job. My dad had many questions, and he was OK with my answers until I said I was paid 50 cents an hour. My dad got angry. In the order of location, he cursed Kresge’s, the city of Chicago, the federal government and President Dwight Eisenhower. “No damn good, no damn good,” he said.
My dad told me not to go back to Kresge’s. I didn’t. I agreed with my dad then as I do now. A job that doesn’t pay enough to give me bus fare to and from work is not worth it. If I had worked a month of Saturdays, I still would not have had enough Christmas money.
However, my first job stands out because I was very uncomfortable pretending to know measurements, and I wasn’t mature enough to ask for help.