By GREG MARKLEY
Next September marks 50 years since I put on slacks (not blue jeans!) and a tie (remember what that is?) and ventured across state lines to begin my first job. I was 16 years, 3 months old — and looked 14. I attended an excellent parochial school but was a novice at being a grocery clerk. I worked in Seekonk, Massachusetts, for Almacs, the last grocery store chain based in Rhode Island (43 locations).
One thing that frustrated us employees was the five or six customers or families that always seemed to arrive at 8:30 p.m. to do extensive shopping. Although the store officially closed at 9 p.m., they usually shopped for goods that filled two baskets. The bill was usually $125 to $150, which went far in 1972. Our slogan was “Where Convenience and Quality Cost Less.” But it wasn’t convenient for me to have to stay until 15 minutes after closing to collect the last baskets!
However, I was lucky to work for Almacs. My brother Larry worked at a Burger Chef and supposedly could get one 20-minute break on an eight-hour shift. I say “supposedly” because the fast-food chain was often too busy and employees would get only bathroom breaks. Meanwhile, poor Greg in his first job always got a 30-minute lunch break and two 15-minute respites every eight-hour shift. And my pay was better, although I don’t recall how much it was.
“You should introduce yourself, relentlessly,” said Indeed.com editors on its employment website. “In the first days of a new job, you want your enthusiasm to shine through. Find the timing that feels right and give a quick, energetic introduction to the people you do not know yet.” Indeed.com emphasizes as well, to ask well-timed questions, seek out a friend and learn how to navigate and enjoy your new workplace.
My ignorance in work culture and relationship-building led me to make a mistake on a break at the supermarket’s snack bar. I saw other employees sitting together but did not realize I should sit with them; I thought everyone just went their own way on breaks. A new co-worker yelled to me while pointing at his table: “Hey, do you think you are special?” I said “No” and joined him. I have not made that mistake with my coworkers in the decades since.
What about those coffee makers such as Keurig and Mr. Coffee? I quickly learned that the person who fills the last cup should make more coffee. I have known co-workers who approach a coffee maker with one cup’s coffee inside and wait until someone else takes the last cup to refill the machine. Are they lazy, inconsiderate or both?
As I quit the supermarket job in 1976, the industry was making big changes. Scanners were used in 30% of stores, electronic scales (36%) and cash registers coupled with computers (57%) appeared. In 2000, supercenters grew but hurt the traditional stores’ bottom line. The internet was in the early stages of becoming a strong element of business.
“By 2010, and coming off a significant economic downturn, the economy was a top concern among food retailers,” said Steve Markenson, director of research, Food Marketing Institute. “In an effort to compete for business, price competition was intense in the industry. Supercenters were seen as a competitive threat and health care costs were also having an impact on the bottom line.”
But in the late 1970s, our Almacs continued to be enjoyable. We workers had “fruit throwing contests;” — playing baseball in the storage room by hitting around baseball-sized oranges and softball-size cantaloupes. Sometimes, employees were able to salvage an orange or cantaloupe, notably when we struck out.
Like me, you will almost certainly remember your first job. That first day or even week or month of a person’s first paid employment becomes a memory with high and low points. Yes, it can be scary and you may find yourself disoriented. It is somewhat akin to basic training, but without the intensity and fortunately without the very long hours.
Almacs is no more. All those benefits and higher wages than others in the same field cut the company’s profits. It happened just 15 years after I left. There is even a Facebook site for conversations and memories by people who loved the chain. I have not seen comments by anyone who got hit in the head by a thrown cantaloupe. Maybe at least one person did. Ouch!
Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has Masters’ in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 11 years. email@example.com