I became a Country Boy a few months after I turned sixteen. I’d gone with Mom to the Wilson’s Supermarket on Oleander Drive, the “home of the Country Boys.” Mom pointed out the manager. He stood in the front of the store, watching everything. Garnering courage, I walked over and asked him for a job.
“You have to be sixteen,” he said, obviously not thinking I was quite there. Admittedly, I was small for my age.
“But I am,” I responded, “I can show you my driver’s license?”
He looked at it and nodded his head in approval.
“You’ll need a social security card,” he said. “Can you work four or five hours on Thursday and Friday afternoons and eight hours on Saturday?”
“Yes Sir,” I said.
I had my first job. Of course, I had worked before but it was just mowing yards for neighbors or babysitting. But this was my first regular job, with a paycheck and deduction for taxes…
That next Thursday afternoon, with a tie around my neck, I reported to work. Two of us were to start our grocery careers that day. Tom, the other kid, was from New Hanover High School, popularly known by those of us who attended Hoggard High as “New Hang-over.” His bright red hair and his twitch in his neck when he talked caused lots of people to consider him weird, but he worked hard. Wilson’s Supermarket would his only job.
They trained us that first day to bag groceries. Bert, the manager who hired us, assigned each of us to a more experienced bagger. For an hour or two, we learned the fundamentals of bagging groceries. Don’t put can goods on top of bread or on cartons of eggs. If you have a lot of cans, double-up your bag for strength. This was the era of only paper bags, no plastic ones. You separate the cleansing supplies from the meat and produce.
We also learned if the cart was loaded down, we could jump up onto it and ride it out the door and through the lot, saving energy. Soon, we were on our own, taking out groceries and always saying, “Thank You, Ma’am,” as we slammed the trunk lid. Another lesson we’d later learned was to recognize the big tippers and hustle especially hard for them. This became a game for some, although Tom and I tried to give our best to everyone.
It now seems like a distant dream. In a way, I suppose, it was the beginning of the end. So far, I have never been without a job except for three months I took off to finish hiking the Appalachian Trail. I would have another four-month break for work, but it was a sabbatical, so I still had a job. But back in 1973, I had school along with 15 to 18 hours a week of work. As I found high school boring and wasn’t very motivated, having a job provided dignity.
Each day, when I showed up for work, I’d put on a tie. It was expected of all of us “country boys.” While the ads might have had us looking like hillbillies, we were expected to be dressed properly. Beforehand, I’d only worn a ties on Sundays for church, an ideal I still maintain. But unlike most of the newcomers at the store, I didn’t wear a clip-on tie, which they sold on a rack at the end of one of the aisle. I think they were there mostly in case we forgot to bring a tie.
As a 16-year-old, I knew how to tie a Double Windsor. Back in the 70s, with ties wide enough to serve as bibs, tying a big knot like a Double Windsor was quite a feat. Before the week was out, I was teaching Tom and others how to tie one. When you’re a runt, it helps to have a skill. Tom and I began to hang out and became good friends. Six months after I left the store for good, during my second year of college, Tom died from a brain tumor.
Bert, our boss, served as a second father to both of us. Whenever I had problems, especially with girls, questions I’d never think about asking my own dad, I’d ask him. Looking back, I don’t know why? He was easy to talk to, but his martial record certainly left room for improvement. While I didn’t know it when I started, Bert was the father of a elementary school friend of mine, Nicky Pipkin. While Bert had his own troubles with relationships, he always gave me good advice.
I stayed at Wilsons through my first year of college doing a variety of jobs: bagging groceries, stocking the shelves at night, running a cashier, counting money, mopping and waxing the floors late on Saturday night and into the wee-morning hours of Sundays and, thanks to being a non-smoker, managing the cigarette aisle. The pay was never very good, but I enjoyed my time there. It’s rewarding and noble to serve people.
A version of this story appeared in a older blog of mine.