Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Gainfully Employed in 1995

Back when I was looking for summer jobs,
I put in applications for places where
I would probably rather shop than work.
Back then, if I tried to imagine a dream job,
besides “famous writer,”
it usually involved spending cold, rainy days
surrounded by novels and travel guides
and movies and CDs
and cookbooks and 30-day self-help solutions
for problems you didn’t even know you had.
Probably some big chain bookstore with leather couches
and a coffee shop or café,
filled with teens killing time before a movie,
laughing too loud at a dumb joke,
or an awkward couple on a first date.
After all, I have always been a creature of the suburbs.
Anyway, I didn’t get called for those types of jobs.
The only place that deigned to hire me
was a dry cleaners drop-off location
in Highland, Indiana, next to a Subway.
They hired my mom at the same time as me,
and they taught us how to sort and tag the clothing.
There were different colored tags for each day of the week,
special tags for delicate items, like silks,
special tags for same-day jobs, and
special tags for suedes and leathers.
If you collected a pile of men’s dress shirts,
you needed to mark how starchy they wanted the collars.
If a blouse had fragile shell buttons,
they needed to be covered with foil so they didn’t break.
All this tagged clothing needed to be put in the correct bins.
It was shockingly easy to mess up,
which my mom did too often,
and she was rather brutally let go.
I should probably have quit alongside her in protest,
but I needed the money and felt an obligation
to see this through the summer,
my first summer job.
There is nothing that upsets me more
than being yelled at,
and this job involved a lot of scolding.
There were customers who yelled at me,
in particular, the man who was disappointed
that I had failed to tag his clothes as “same day.”
He lamented that he would be forced to wear
“mismatching shades of black.”
My manager yelled at me too,
with her raspy cigarette voice,
when I inevitably made some mistake or other.
I could never rectify the situation;
the clothes in question were always still at the plant.
Nothing to do but apologize and promise
it would never happen again,
a promise I broke repeatedly.
One day my manager,
whose name I can’t recall,
but it was some kind of Region Lady name
like “Pam” or “Barb,”
felt that my white summer dress
I had bought at one of those discount stores
was inappropriate for work
and forced me to wear some black button-down shirt
over my dress,
like a nun’s habit draped across the shoulders of a slut in training,
and I felt shamed and wronged.
I had coworkers with curly permed hair and teased bangs
and adult problems that I didn’t understand,
like children and ex-husbands.
And always the baking bread of Subway
perfumed the air,
and I both hated it and greedily desired it.
I made minimum wage then,
$4.25 an hour, I believe.
So when I did break down
and get a Subway sandwich after work,
it represented an hour of drudgery
buried in clothes on wire hangers
and covered in clear plastic.
I think my manager was sad to see me go
at the end of the summer,
or maybe that’s just how I remember it.
But I was relieved,
as though a death sentence had been commuted,
thirsty for freedom
and my freshman year at college.

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