I attempted multiple money-making schemes as a kid. I had lemonade stands and potholder stands. I blanketed the neighbor’s doorsteps with hand-drawn flyers advertising my babysitting and dog-walking skills. My best friend and I even offered our services as piano teachers though our expertise was limited to books One through Five of the John W. Schaum MAKING MUSIC AT THE PIANO series and even our Heart and Soul duet lacked actual talent. I rarely earned enough for more than a night at SKATE TOWN or a few trips to the 99¢ Movie Theatre across the street from Kerr drugs. Saving for the clothes I coveted from my SEVENTEEN magazines was nearly impossible.
But the month I turned fifteen, the most AMAZING thing happened. We were riding in mom’s Chevy Citation to pick up groceries from Piggly Wiggly when it came on the radio: “You get the max for the minimum, minimum price and its never, ever the same place twice!” Our town was getting a TJ Maxx! Now I was going to have access to discounted designer brands. It was a game changer. But it gets better. When I got home from school a few days later, I found an ad torn from the newspaper lying on my strawberry quilt. TJ Maxx was hiring and the minimum age to apply was fifteen!
The bright red backlit letters were just going up in front of the honey-colored stucco building as I navigated under the scaffolding, walking into an enormous space inhabited only by rows of partially assembled metal clothing racks and a card table. Behind it, sitting on a folding chair, was a rather large black woman in a bold floral dress.
I took a deep breath. “I’m here to apply for a position with your company.” I tried to sound confident. I tried to sound as if I’d had jobs other than babysitting and I knew how to do this kind of thing.
She looked me up and down. Pastel dress, tan Candies slip-ons that were slipping on the recently polished commercial grade gray linoleum, hair in a ponytail and a confirmation cross around my neck. She handed me an application and gesture-mumbled toward another card table near a partially built checkout counter. A guy in a red baseball cap, a wife-beater tank top and jeans stained with grease sat in one chair. I felt over-dressed as I sat down, picked up a pen and leaned over to write my name. He looked up, craning his neck to see below the rim of his cap, “You here to apply for a job?” he asked with a slow southern drawl. “Yes,” I smiled, not wanting to engage and needing to get my application submitted quickly. My mother and baby sisters were waiting in the car. “I’m onna try working the loading dock, settin’ shit up, that kinda thang,” he informed me. I suspected that might be a better job for him than customer service, but I didn’t want to encourage a more in-depth conversation.
Having no experience and only neighbors to list as references, it didn’t take me long to fill out my application. The man in the red cap was still working on his when I slid my chair under the table.
Two days after I turned fifteen, an interview was scheduled. With my heart pounding and mom again waiting in the Chevy, I walked under the now fully installed TJ Maxx sign and into a space that resembled a store, with kiosks and wall racks, registers and hanging signage indicating where there would soon be dresses, menswear and coats.
The manager resembled a young Barney Fife, lanky and a little slouched, with a sad plaid tie hanging from his turtle-like neck. His hand was clammy when he shook mine and pointed to the rust-colored faux leather chair next to a stack of boxes that nearly touched the ceiling in his tiny office.
“So what would you say you have to offer the TJ Maxx team?” he asked with a serious expression.
“Well, I have a positive attitude and I am a team player,” I explained, describing my role as Sergeant-at-Arms of my sophomore class. I was just about to detail my fashion sense, when there was a tap on the open door and the black woman who gave me the application cleared her throat, “Your 3:35 is here.” And I feared I was being rushed out when he said, “So when can you start?” and passed me an employment packet with a letter on top indicating my training day.
Shortly there after, I was set upon the boxes lining the aisles. For two weeks, I worked diligently, 10 hours a day taking sweaters and slacks out of those boxes, putting them on hangers and finding them homes on the racks between white circle size markers. I arranged socks by color and created visually appealing displays of handbags, hats and scarves.
As Grand Opening signs went up around town, I felt a real sense of pride in my work. When the store opened, I was there daily, as pretty much everyone in town came to check out the newest retailer. I greeted guests with a smile, re-hung dislodged dresses and found mates for shoes scattered across the floor during the decision process.
But after the curiosity died down and the customer crush eased up, I noticed my fellow employees being called into Barney Fife’s office and walking out, heads hanging low moments later. It turned out that they over-hired to stock and open the store, and they were in the process of firing excess employees. Three days went by and the parade seemed to be slowing down. I felt confident, certain that management had observed my attention to detail and my gift for untangling fake gold necklaces.
Then on day number four, my number was up. I was unraveling a pile of rejected bras when the assistant manager tapped me on my shoulder, “You’re wanted in the office.” And so, with little eye contact and not even an offer to sit down, I was handed my check and told my services were no longer needed.
I’d never been fired before. I was a good student. I worked hard. And there I was, looking for a payphone under the Grand Opening sign.
When I got into the car, mom was quiet. “It’s not your fault.” Then she casually mentioned that she’d heard a new Golden Corral was opening near the Cary Town Center.
Which is how I found myself standing just past the kiosk where customers picked up their trays, clad in a brown polyester skirt and a brown and orange plaid shirt with a coordinating plaid head scarf asking “Would you care to start with a soup or salad this evening?”
I climbed into my dad’s truck at midnight, reeking of steak and had to leave my white nurses shoes on the front porch so as to not track grease onto the hardwood floors every evening.
I heard about the tips the wait staff were getting and watched the perky waitresses with the hope that one day, maybe I, too, could step out from behind my perch between the silverware canisters and the dessert display case. I asked my manager if he’d consider me for a promotion to waitress, and he told me I needed at least six months experience passing out soup plates and salad bowls. Six months later, he told me he was fully staffed but to ask again next month. The next month he told me business was down and we really needed to sell more soup and salads. If I could use my charm to up our numbers he’d consider me the following month.
I left after a year having never become a waitress. Like being fired from my first job, it was an early experience with failure, a lesson at a tender age that it is important to recognize when you are valued and when you’re wasting your time. A lesson that sometimes you give your max and only get back the minimum.