When I graduated from college in 1985, I was faced with the unpleasant reality of finding a job. It was a bad year for new graduates generally, but I had a degree in cultural anthropology.
There are no jobs that require an undergraduate degree in anthropology. Well, almost none. You might be able to find a factory owner who wants someone to do time-motion studies. That’s where you spy on employees to see if they’re efficient and then tell their bosses how to make them work faster. Anthropologists, being keen observers of human behavior, are ideally suited to this sort of work. But I went to a lefty liberal arts college in Minnesota, and all of us in the anthro department agreed we would never work on time-motion studies. We took seriously the American Anthropological Association’s ethical code that said our research should not hurt the people we studied.
Since I was too professional to stoop to that sort of thing I moved back in with my mother in Ohio. As soon as I got my new diploma nailed to the wall she started hinting that people over 21 who live with their parents should pay rent.
I already knew there were no jobs that my degree qualified me for, but I thought I’d be able to find something interesting in the want ads. I read every column from accounts payable to zookeeper’s assistant. There wasn’t anything with what my mom called “career potential.” The only openings were for minimum wage sales clerks at Midway Mall.
It was hard going to interview after interview. Maybe if I had majored in English or history, something practical like that, I would have been hired. But when my potential employers saw anthropology on the application, it was almost like the interview changed into a contest: they had to prove they were smart, too. I spent many hours listening to shop owners talk about an article on Louis Leakey that was in Time Magazine that summer. Not one of them called back to offer me a job.
After a month I got desperate. There was this Quicky Mart a couple of towns over that needed a clerk. It wasn’t the job I had envisioned when I enrolled at Macalester College, but I took in my application anyway. The boss, Tobin, told me about the article he read on Louis Leakey. I smiled and nodded. He was very interested in where I went to school and then he wanted to know how long I had been back in Ohio. I said a month.
That was it. He hired me. No reference check. He just reached over and filled in the “pay required” section of the application that I had strategically left blank with an hourly rate that was a nickel above minimum.
Since I was going to be working overnights, I asked Tobin if they had had any robberies. He told me not to worry, that would not be a problem.
My first shift, his mother-in-law, Ella, came from the family’s other Quicky Mart franchise to train me. She was incredibly understanding. I remember she started to tell me about the article she had read on Louis Leakey and I said, “Ella, I studied cultural anthropology. I’m interested in living people, not stones and bones.” So then she told me about a book she read on Margaret Mead.
I thought to myself, I could like working here. The money was terrible, of course, but I really liked Ella and Tobin was OK. I tried to think of it as an opportunity to do first-person research on the culture of cigarettes and junk food.
The only nutritious thing sold in the Quicky Mart was milk. It was the place people stopped for Suzie Qs, Coke and potato chips. We also had a deli from which customers could order fresh-sliced meats. It was funny. The signs and promotional material from corporate made so much out of the fact that the meat was fresh sliced. It was stuff like olive loaf and bolognie. One of them was so pumped full of preservatives it had a shelf life of more than a year.
Ella warned me about chipped chopped ham. It was this meat product that most people liked sliced paper thin. Now the meat slicer was just a very sharp spinning blade housed in a metal holder that had a place for the loaf of lunchmeat. You would slide the lunch meat across the blade slowly, being very careful not to cut your wrist. Every pass across the blade potentially could send you to the emergency room. You had to go slow and concentrate on what you were doing.
Ella told me there were a couple of shoplifter kids who liked to come in, order four pounds of chipped chopped ham, and then run out with candy and soda while the clerk was at the slicer.
Shoplifting was just a fact of life, Ella said. But if I ever got robbed for real, if anybody ever came in and asked for the cash out of the till, she said to pick up the coffee pot and throw hot coffee in the guy’s face.
I asked her if there was a problem with robberies. Ella didn’t answer exactly, she just said you never know.
So my first shift working by myself, I walk in, and I’m just overcome by the sensory stimulation. The place smells like coffee and bleach. The air conditioning is set on high to extend the shelf life of all the junk food. The candy wrappers glint a dozen colors in the fluorescent light and there’s a bank of mirrors above the milk cooler reflecting everything back again in a slightly yellowed tone.
I go in the back room and put on my smock, making sure a little of my tie-dyed T-shirt pokes out at the neck. I run out when I hear the bells on the door jingle. It’s Ella. She just came to check on me. She looks down at my name tag that says trainee and she does the sweetest thing. She takes the trainee tag off my smock and replaces it with her name tag. I say, “Ella, people will think I’m you.” And she says, “They don’t need to know your name. I can’t let you wear a trainee tag when you’re working alone.”
It’s a midnight to eight shift. I’m thinking, this corporate Quicky Mart thing isn’t so bad. I’m feeling solidarity with Ella and Tobin. I’m mopping the floors and grooving on the colors of all the packages when this 20-something guy comes in. He gets a comb and a pack of Lifesavers. I go behind the counter to ring him out and he says, “I’ll also take a Pocket Fox.”
I’m like, “What?”
And he goes, “Pocket Fox. Behind you.”
I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed it before, but there’s a rack of what my mother refers to as one-armed reading for gentlemen behind me. Pocket Fox is a porn magazine that’s smaller than a Reader’s Digest.
I figure it will be less trouble to just sell the guy his magazine, but I am totally shaken.
I call Ella. I say, “I didn’t march with Andrea Dworkin and Katherine McKinnon all through college just to wind up selling pervert magazines.” She says to throw my smock over the rack. I say, “Ella, that’s our uniform.” She says nobody from corporate has ever come in after five, and if I want to clerk in my tie-dye T-shirt, that’s fine with her.
So I’m progressing through the shift list, getting the cigarettes stocked, wiping the glass doors with Windex.
Two kids come in and order chipped chopped ham paper thin. I tell them the slicer’s broke.
About 4 a.m., this cop comes in and tells me he gets his coffee free. I wink at him and say, “I bet you get free donuts too.” He gives me a look like that’s not funny, but he helps himself to a Suzy Q. While he’s eating, he asks me how long I’ve worked there. I tell him this is my first overnight. He kind of shakes his head and says the woman before me only lasted two weeks. I ask why she left. And he says, “Didn’t they tell you about the robbery? It was on the front page of the newspaper, about six weeks ago.”
The cop leaves and I’m feeling spooked. I can’t stand by the cash register looking at that pot of coffee. I’ve got to move, burn off this nervous energy. I mop like crazy, dust all the cans and boxes. I can’t find anything else to do, the store is so sparkling clean, so I go outside and sweep the sidewalk. While I’m out there the sky starts to light up and that’s comforting somehow. It will be dawn soon. Nobody robs a Quicky Mart in day light.
The weird thing is, I actually like the job. I think about it and decide there are lots of occupations where people face risks. I’m like an anthropologist who studies headhunters. I have to strategize like the people in this culture do. I have to be ready to throw that pot of coffee.
I decide I’m up to this challenge, but I’m going to have to talk to Tobin about having an honest, open work place.
I go back in, look up into the mirror above the milk cooler and give myself a little pep talk. I’m just saying, “You can handle this, Cindy,” when I hear somebody wheezing.
It’s coming from inside the cooler.
I grab the pot of coffee and throw open the back entrance to the cooler.
“Who’s in there?”
It’s Tobin. He’s wedged himself up above the milk racks. He’s been lying up there watching me. It’s a one-way mirror.
He climbs down like it’s no big deal to have been scrunched up above a set of milk racks for eight hours and he’s like, “Hey, you’re doing a really good job. I’ve never seen anybody work so fast. I have to tell you, we were a little worried about hiring somebody with an anthropology degree, but you’re really efficient.”
I glower at him, and he says, “The cop told you about the robbery, didn’t he? I should have told you about that myself.”
I say, “I quit.”
And Tobin goes, “Over a robbery? That guy got two years in prison. He’s not coming back here any time soon. It’s not going to be a problem.”
And I say, “Tobin, I’m not quitting because of the robbery. I’m quitting because you did a time-motion study on me.”
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Cindy Simmons just couldn't stand the isolation of being a stay-at-home writer. She's much happier now that she is a law student, but she tries to keep her creative side alive by competing in story slams. She finds the five-minute format "refreshingly short." Her story “Career Potential” was first performed at an A Guide to Visitors slam in 2003.