This week, the New York Times reported on the unavailability of jobs for teenagers this summer. With the downturn in the economy, adults are filling many of the positions traditionally filled by teenagers -- retail stock clerk, fast-food server, grocery sacker, cashier. One of my kids, awaiting orders for training from the Army, is looking for a job and tells me the prospects are bleak.
When we first started talking about it, he told me he didn't want just "any crappy old job," and I took him to task. Most of us, I told him, have labored in "crappy" jobs that didn't in any way relate to our vision of the future. At a certain point in life, a job translates to a paycheck, to liberation from the tyranny of parents, not to career training or dreams of meaningful work.
My first job besides babysitting, which I fervently hated, was as a cashier at Super D drugstore next to Giant Foods in east Memphis, Tenn. Two or three afternoons and evenings a week after school and all day on Saturday, I cashiered, assisted the pharmacist, gossiped with the chief sales clerk, stocked shelves and absorbed the sterile vibe of Super D. This was in 1971, well before the age of the automated pharmacy with all its slots and pill dispensers and regulations. Half the time I was bored stiff and passed the time leafing through movie magazines, waiting for a customer to appear. But the other half of the time, I got to do things I still remember as important, sometimes even thrilling.
There was the embarrassing role of condom dispenser or guide to the condom aisle. Some were kept behind the counter, I guess for guys who were too embarrassed to be seen eyeballing the selection. Asking a 16-year-old girl to hand 'em over must have been equally mortifying, though some creepy men took pleasure in the awkwardness of the moment.
Dispensing of birth control pills also provided a flicker of excitement. There were just a few brands available, and when the prescriptions came in the pharmacist let me fill them. The slender circular packs looked like candy dispensers. The women who came in to pick them up were all business; the husbands picking up their wives' prescriptions were sheepish, looked downward and paid quickly.
The best moments came on Saturday when customers came in and loaded up on everything from shampoo to deodorant to toilet paper and piled an entire grocery cart's worth of items on the counter. Shirley, the woman at the next register, and I secretly raced, seeing who could tally a long list of items fastest on a cash register. Dispensing change required actual addition skills and added an edge to the race. She could ring items up without looking at numbers on the machine, like an expert typist, so she always beat me.
Shirley was a short, gravelly voiced woman who was great about sharing perfume, cosmetic and cigarette samples that sales reps brought by the store. The pharmacist let her count pills when the prescriptions backed up. She taught me how to measure paregoric in sterile bottles, how to dispense the correct syringes to diabetics and where the refrigerated insulin bottles were kept.
So the days rolled on at Super D drugstore until the one I will never forget, the day Burt Reynolds' nude pull-out photograph came out in the newest edition of Cosmopolitan.
What the heck was going on, I wondered, when I had to elbow my way through a herd of waiting women to be let in the door of the store just a few minutes before opening. The pharmacist showed me our stack of Cosmo's, removed from the magazine rack and stashed beneath the cash register. Only one per customer, he warned me, then unlocked the door and let the mob in.
Women raced to the magazine rack, then walked around looking confused. "Do you have the new Cosmo?" one finally asked. "Sure," I said, pulling out the contraband, feeling like the keeper of forbidden treasure. I sold 99 copies in less than one hour and kept the 100th for myself. Later that afternoon, I left Super D with a sample pack of menthol Virginia Slims and my copy of the coveted Cosmo. Burt Reynolds was hairy all over and lying on his side with his limp pecker flopped over on his leg. I was completely grossed out.
But for that one day, being the cashier at Super D drugstore was the greatest crappy job on earth.