My first job…

Wilsons Supermarket bag
Bag posted on the Facebook Page, Hometown memories of Wilmington, NC

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. 

Sign for Wilsons Grocery store
I don’t know how many times I posted the week’s special on a similar sign. Photo from the Facebook page, Hometown Memories of Wilmington, NC

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.

Photo of a Jerry Garcia designed tie
These days, when I need to wear a tie, I try to wear nice ones like this tie, designed by Jerry Garcia (of the Grateful Dead)

18 Replies to “My first job…”

  1. What a great memory. A first job is one you always remember, and I’m glad yours was so rewarding. I like the tie and I like the idea that you “boys” had to dress up to go to work.

  2. A wonderful story. You make an important point with Tom. For those of us with advantages like higher ed, a job bagging groceries inspires wistful memories. For others, it’s the only job they may ever have.

    1. Sadly, Tom died in 1976, in his first year of college. Good to hear from you–I haven’t been able to reply to your posts in a couple of months!

  3. Great story of your first job, and underscores the importance of getting a job as a young person and learning responsibility. Not to mention making friends. I’m a canvas bag user. I hate the plastic bags, although my wife also seems to be a collector!

    1. Good for you using canvas bags! We keep canvas bags in all vehicles, along with an insulated bag as most of our grocery shopping is 30-45 minutes away.

  4. Good memories, Jeff. My first gig was as a newspaper carrier but I bagged groceries most of my way through high school. Learned a lot and sounds like you did as well.

    1. I think working in a grocery store is a good job to help you learn how to work with others and to relate to people. I had a few friends who delivered newspaper, but I lived too far our of town for that kind of job.

  5. I remember when you worked at Wilson ‘s. My Mom would shop there because of the friendly staff and clean stores. Look at you now. God has been so good to you. I remember our days at Bradley Creek school. I am a proud graduate of “New Hanover”. 1975.. Remember when we would consider Hoggard and sing Frosty Morn.
    Love you my friend in Christ

    1. There was always a good healthy rivalry between the two high schools. It’s a shame that 1/2 of the Bradley Creek students ended up going to a different high school from the rest of us. Did you know Tom Payne? I am trying to find a photo of him for a post about him.

  6. Those grocery store jobs taught so many kids about the working world, like McDonald’s jobs. Both of my kids worked at grocery stores, with varying success! My daughter was their dream employee and my son too independent (yelled at them for folding the American flag wrong).

    Good story, Jeff.

    1. Interestingly, there was a McDonald’s across the street from us and many other classmates worked there! Interesting about your son and the folding of the flag (I don’t ever remember the grocery store having an American flag or any flag).

  7. What a shame to be considered weird because of bright red hair! I love gingers!

    I don’t think they train folks on how to bag anymore. It’s one reason I prefer doing it myself when forced to shop inside. For years I carried my own bags (which baggers hated), but now do pickup and gladly collect all those plastic ones. We always need them for giving out frozen items at our local food bank.

    1. I wonder what kind of training such workers receive today. It was a good job and Wilsons hired a lot of high schoolers–this one store probably had 30-40 of us working as cashiers or baggers.

      I am going to try to write more about Tom this week (I’m trying to find a photo of him since he went to a different high school).

  8. How things have changed. Not only do I have to bag my own groceries, but I have to do so with a million plastic bags that immediately unpack themselves as I turn around the first corner heading for home, causing me to pack my own groceries twice.

    1. I have a number of canvas totes and try to remember to bring them and pack my groceries in them… I hate plastic bags, but we still seem to collect them.

    1. It sounds like your first job has the making of a book! I did enjoy this job and there was a good working relationship with all us who worked there for those years. Sadly, I lost contact with them all and Bert died 5-6 years ago. (I’ll write more about Tom, maybe next week, as he died in 1976).

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