How I got sucked in, part 1


Let me tell you a little bit about why I got into the restaurant business. For as long as I can remember my wife has worked in restaurants. My wife is a very pleasant woman who has since found a very happy living teaching. Whether it is was part time on weekends or full time during the summer months, my wife has been employed at a restaurant one way or another for almost a decade. I never saw how she did it. Waiting on people seemed so difficult to me. It wasn’t until I had been with her for several years that she finally said to me “you should work in a restaurant, you definitely have the personality for it.” I thought about it, but it would take years before I finally followed her advice.

As I have mentioned, I have worked in a number of public relations type jobs for all of my life. I was a tour guide at a popular tourist attraction for the better part of five years when I was in my mid to late teens. As a tour guide I would walk groups of thirty to forty people around the grounds of this attraction four to five times daily. Each tour took about and hour and twenty minutes. Did I mention this tourist attraction was an underground cave with a long ass boat ride? It’s a pretty cool place to visit. I’m not going to give you the name of this attraction because, again, I’m not looking to draw them into this blog or get sued. Just know this attraction was very good to me and taught me real life skills I doubt I could have learned anywhere else at that point in my life. I started working at this attraction when I was barely sixteen years old. Giving tours to that many people for that long is an awful lot of responsibility to place on the shoulders of a teenager. Personally, I am very thankful for the opportunity looking back at it now. The pay was terrible but I learned how to talk to people, how to manage a crowd of total strangers, public speaking, and how to judge a person and tell them exactly what they want to hear. When I started working at the attraction I made a cool $4.75 an hour. Five years later when I left I was all the way up to $6.00 an hour. Nevertheless, the people I met working this job still influence my life to this day including several good friends and my wife.

At any rate working at this attraction was a great summer and part time job. When I neared graduation from college I wasn’t sure what exactly what my next step was. I could continue my schooling at the graduate level, go to law school, or take some time off. I couldn’t bear more schooling at the tim0e so graduate school was out. I didn’t want to be the punchline of thousands of jokes so law school was out. I took some time off.

When I graduated I needed a job. A job that was going to provide me with health benefits and a decent salary so I could actually afford to live and not be thrust into inescapable debt should I get an ear infection or, god forbid, appendicitis. I took a job as a delivery person for an engineering firm. After about two months of delivering blueprints to other engineering and surveying firms around town, they had me actually making the blueprints using a computer program called Auto Cad. One thing I’ve noticed about some people is when they realize you graduated from college they automatically assume you can do anything they want you to. Especially if they are your boss and are looking to get more out of you for the same money. Maybe that’s a universal thing about bosses, I’m not sure. Anyway, this engineering firm had me using Auto Cad. Auto Cad is a piece of software that costs several thousands of dollars to license and people go to school for years to master. Years. I’m the worst mathematician you have ever seen. Auto Cad is highly mathematical and to really understand the inner workings of the program you need to grasp pre-calculus concepts at the very least. As I said, an engineering background is also nice to have. How they got the idea to put me in front of a computer and start using a piece of software I have never heard of, let alone been academically trained on, is beyond me. The conversation that prompted this sudden “promotion” from delivery person to Auto Cad designer went something like this:

“Come into my office. I need to talk to you” said my boss. My boss was a fairly short balding man in his mid fifties who was in great shape for his age but had a legendary temper. To this point in my “career” at the firm, his temper had never erupted in my direction.

“OK boss, what’s up” I said, walking into his large and totally disheveled work area. Maps, blueprints, and various sketches were everywhere in this office. I wasn’t sure how anything got done in this place.

“You graduated from college didn’t you?” he asked.

“As a matter of fact, I did. Just this past winter” I replied.

“That’s great. Now, let me ask you something. How are you on computers?”

Right there I should have said “God awful” or “What’s a computer”. Instead I replied “Actually, I’m pretty handy with them.” Pretty handy? Has anyone, besides me, said “pretty handy” since 1956? Call it my never dying goal to please anyone I come across. Blame my first tour guiding job for my ability to sense and then, like a jerk, tell people what they want to hear. Who knows.

The fact of the matter is I actually am pretty handy with computers. I still remember my father teaching me about computers at a very early age. My dad had a Vic 20 before I was old enough to know what a computer really was. My dad would borrow Apple IIe's from the school he worked at over the summer months so my brother and I could play educational computer games like “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” when it was raining outside. I had been using computers since I was a little kid. Computers didn’t scare me like half the people in this engineering office and like the boss who was now grinning widely at me.

“Pretty handy with computers eh? I’ve got something to ask you.” my boss continued. “We’re a little short staffed here right now. The summer is our busy time and we’re really getting our asses kicked with map requests. How would you like to try working with the computers? I’ll pay you a dollar more an hour and if you take a liking to it we can talk about more money down the road.”

Again, I should have said “What’s a computer” or better yet “Can I get you more coffee sir?” I didn’t want a promotion. I didn’t want more responsibility at the time. Jesus Christ, I just graduated from college with a degree in Political Science. I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do with my life and I certainly wasn’t good enough with computers to manage Auto Cad. I was perfectly happy delivering maps. It was easy, I didn’t take my job home with me, and I kept reasonable hours. Was I making a ton of money? No, but the job had health insurance, vacations, and major holidays off. I was getting my head together and figuring a few things out. Why in God’s name I said “Sure boss, I’ll give it a try” is beyond me to this day. At the time of my promotion my salary was raised from $7.50 and hour to $8.50 an hour.

In my defense I honestly believed that my promotion wouldn’t change my life too much. People liked me in the office. I liked the people I worked with. They were consistent and friendly. You always knew what you were in for every day when you walked in the door. This all changed once I became a junior Auto Cad designer. When I walked into the office the first day I was to begin my “training” on Auto Cad everyone was different. Suddenly I wasn’t just hired help. I was part of the production team with real deadlines and goals to me. Nothing had changed except where my desk was and the fact I now had my own computer. Another major difference was that I was expected to report to work at 6:30 in the morning. 6:30 is early to be reporting to work. I don’t care what anyone says or thinks. If you can consistently report to work at 6:30 in the morning you are either an extraterrestrial or have been blessed with some chromosome that seems to have skipped my generation. Getting up at 6:30 am? Fine, I can do that. Getting to work at 6:30 requires waking up a lot earlier than that. Unless you’re making six figures, I can’t possibly imagine a job worth a 6:30 start time.

When I was the delivery person I was all over the place in the office. It probably should be mentioned that this engineering firm used an old Victorian home as their offices. There were rooms everywhere and the place even had its own basketball court. As the delivery person I would go from room to room and ask each engineer, the ones who actually went to college for engineering, if they had anything to deliver. Some days were busier than others. I never really talked to the Auto Cad engineers. They were squirreled away in a foul little room on the way to the building’s kitchen and next to the only bathroom in the place. Dozens of rooms and one bathroom in a building full of engineers. How does that happen? Anyway, one thing that stood out in this room are the ceilings. They must have been 30 feet high. The room always smelled like copy toner and printer dye from the huge printers used to make original engineering designs from, you guessed it, Auto Cad. I’m sure you’re not suppose to be breathing that crap in on a daily basis. It always seemed like a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Throughout the room were 6 or 7 different computers stations all networked into 2 or 3 of these foul smelling printers. At each station was an Auto Cad Designer. These computer stations were an absolute joke. As I have said, I know a little bit about computers. In hindsight I also know that Auto Cad is a very memory intensive program. Translated, you need a decent computer to really use Auto Cad to its utmost potential. Or to use Auto Cad period. The computers the bosses of this engineering firm had these poor designers using couldn’t effectively run Tetris let alone Auto Cad. Was it any wonder these designers always struck me as angry people? Maybe it was the fact they stared at a computer screen for 9 hours a day. Maybe it was the fact that computer viruses constantly took the office computer system down often resulting in the designers starting over on projects. Maybe it was all the nasty smelling toner in the air. Maybe it was their complete and total lack of people skills. Maybe it was the money. Maybe it was the job in general.

As I settled into my new desk and computer set up in this nasty room I realized I was now one of these angry, frustrated, underpaid, overworked designers.

My boss was happy as hell to see me on my first day as a designer. Maybe I should take this as a complement. Maybe he really thought this was going to make his life a lot easier. Here I am, a college graduate who knows something about computers. We never really defined what “something about computers” meant. It could have meant that I knew how to turn one on. Nonetheless my boss treated me, at first, like the Albert Einstein of computers. It was at this point I was introduced to Steve. Steve had been working at this engineering place for several years. He was very tall, had moppy brown hair, and wore the thickest goddamn glasses I have ever seen. Chalk it up to starting at a computer screen all day I guess. Steve was also the quietest person I had ever met. To say Steve was a man of few words would be understating it a bit. The only reason I had to be introduced to Steve was because, in the months I had worked at the firm, he had never said one thing to say to me. I knew, and knew well, every other person in the place. I could tell you their family situation, if they were married, where they went to school, and what they thought about each other. I quickly found out why Steve was so quiet. Steve hated his job, hated his boss, and I think he hated his life too. Unfortunately for Steve he was really, really, really good at engineering work with Auto Cad. He was the definition of “stuck in a rut”. Steve was in his mid thirties. He was good enough with designing to run the firm but a propensity to be angry and his anti-social persona kept him right where he was. Sitting in a computer chair, staring at a computer screen for 9 hours a day. Steve got to work earlier than 6:30am. He loved getting up early apparently. I could tell that Steve and I were going to get along just fine. Or not.

My boss introduced me to Steve on a Monday. Steve shook my hand and immediately went back to his work. Steve hit the keys on his keep board harder then any person I have ever encountered. I believe that Steve felt the harder he hit the keyboard the quicker the work would get done. It pained me to watch him work. I felt bad for the keyboard. My boss told me to watch Steve work for the entire day. Then, the following day, I would start working on a project. My pulled up a chair for me and left. When my boss left, Steve turned to me and said, “if you have any questions, let me know”. Boom. That was it. I was dumbfounded. Where was my training? I had absolutely no idea what was going on. Keep in mind I have never seen Auto Cad in my life. I had never been introduced to the most basic principles of engineering. I had never even taken Calculus. But here I was, staring a computer screen with Steve. Steve worked fast but today he worked extra fast. I’m sure it made his day that a 21 year old punk like me was being asked to doing his job for several dollars an hour less. Steve went to college for engineering. It’s not like he actually told me that or anything. I had to infer it from his angry silence. I totally understood where Steve was coming from. He was pissed at the world and I can’t say I blame him. Steve was really good at his job and getting paid less than he was worth. Now our boss was asking him to train me in a program he wasn’t prepared to talk about and I wasn’t prepared to learn. He was the backbone of the firm. He was their best designer. None of the partners in the firm even had a computer in their office. This was several years ago, but even several years ago this was laughable. They often hand drew their designs. How can an engineering firm not be computer based in this day and age? This is just an example of how this place did business.

For the next eight hours I watched Steve pound away unmercifully at the keyboards and confuse the hell out of me. There was no tutorial. There was even no on the job training. It was swim or drown. I drowned, but I did it with style. Who am I kidding? I was terrible. I only use the world terrible because there are few words better than terrible to describe my job performance. Abysmal? Yeah, you could say I was abysmal.

That is not to say I was terrible at using Auto Cad. It turns out that if you give me enough time, I can figure anything out on a computer. I know that’s not very modest but if you consider the circumstances of which I just described, the fact I basically got the principals of Auto Cad in a few weeks is pretty impressive if I do say so myself. Having said that, I knew and still know absolutely nothing about surveying and engineering. Nothing. The plans I would produce over the next few months would look great but be completely and totally incorrect. This was clearly my fault. My boss quickly went from a nice guy trying to help me out and give me a promotion to an angry tyrant who honestly believed he wasn’t getting his money’s worth. I was a scarred 21 year old kid. I didn’t have the balls to point out to him that this was a mess of his own creation. One of the reasons I accepted the “promotion” in the first place was because he told me they would train me and help me out when I need it. McDonalds trains people with more vigor than he did. If you screw up a cheeseburger, the world doesn’t end. I was working on plans that were fairly important. If I really screwed something up the company would lose money: the payroll it cost for someone else to fix my mistake, the delays in construction that my error caused, and the potential loss of future business. I caused these problems because my boss believed I would pick up the basic principles and, for what he was paying me, get an absolute bargain. I was a calculated risk. My upside was potentially huge and if I could swim long enough, I would be of tremendous value to the firm at a hell of a price. Once I realized this, my days at the firm were numbered.

Math was my downfall. A lack of training was my downfall. I shouldn’t have been doing the job to begin with. I was screwed from the start. Who, in their right mind, would believe it’s a sound business move to put a 21 year old kid into a job where he has zero training, education, and motivation. It’s much asking to asking a doctor to fly a spaceship. The doctor is probably a smart person but asking him to fly to the moon without any training is a little insane. The doctor will always be playing catch up and learning the controls of the aforementioned ship until he finally crashed the spaceship on some nice person’s suburban house in Illinois. Flying space ships and being a doctor are vastly more important than what I did at this engineering firm, but couldn’t help but think I was out of my depth and overwhelmed as an Auto Cad designer. This experience was a painful but educational experience. One that I would call on later in life.

It took me about 3 hours to realize I had made a terrible mistake. It took me three months to finally decide I needed another job. My next job would take me places I never thought I would step foot: a retail clothing store. One Monday morning in late summer at the engineering firm my boss walks into the design room and rips me a new asshole. I mean it was bloody. Apparently I had made a fairly large mistake that cost the company several man hours and now something had to be resurveyed. My boss also said that in the fall and early winter business slowed quite a bit. Hours might get harder to find for everyone. I was about at the end of my rope with this guy and I started to see the writing on the wall. Clearly Steve, the firms best Auto Cad designer, wasn’t going to get his hours cut. It was going to be my ass on the street and with it my health benefits, vacation, and income.

I started working at this firm to clear my head, take some time off, and figure out what my next step was. Instead I had a self serving boss who was using me for whatever he could get out of me and was ready to kick me out as soon as the weather started getting cold. I had really tried to make the job work but the cards were stacked against me. I was not going to get the chance to grow and learn at this place. My boss wanted results immediately from me despite the fact I had no education in the field and was completely untrained in Auto Cad. “Welcome to the real world” I thought to myself. In the three months I had been working with Auto Cad I had picked a lot up. Three months might sound like a lot of time to learn the ropes of a new job but not when you talking about surveying. There is a reason it’s called Civil Engineering and several colleges specialize in it. People don’t make up fancy sounding names like Civil Engineering for no particular reason.

Following work that particular day, I needed to blow off some steam. There is nothing I like better than walking around the mall in the summertime to relax. I know that sounds crazy. Hear me out. The mall is air conditioned and typically a pleasant distraction from the summer heat. Business-wise, the mall is very slow in the summer. Most people are barbecuing, swimming, camping, traveling, vacationing, and generally enjoying themselves outside. The mall is relaxing and quiet all summer. A mall I like to frequent is the Carousel Mall. The Carousel Mall isn’t far from where I live and is always deserted in the summer. The mall gets its name from a huge merry-go-round smack dab in the middle of the food court. Probably seemed like a good idea at the time they were building the place but there is no way, without major construction, to move this carousel now. It’s so big they would have to take it apart and put it back together just to move it five feet. In the ten years I’ve been going to this mall, I’ve seen maybe 10 people ride that dumb thing.

I really have no idea how the collective stores in the place stay in business. Sometimes you can walk an entire wing of the mall and not see another person. It does make for great walking and relaxing however. As I walked through the mall on this particular late summer Monday, I noticed a large amount of construction being performed on an old storefront. The signs tacked up near the construction said “Future home of Anonymous Outfitters”. Now it’s not uncommon to see vacant stores in this mall and it’s also not uncommon to see new stores replacing old stores. However, the sign also said they were looking for managers in this new store. There were promises of health benefits, a 401k program, good wages, and opportunity for advancement. After the morning’s reprimand, I decided I needed to be a boss and not be someone’s slave. I grabbed an application and continued my stroll around the mall.

I’m not big into clothing. I’m really not. I like to look presentable but that doesn’t mean you have to pay $75 for a pair of jeans. Anonymous Outfitters was, and still is, a fairly expensive retail store specializing in late teenage to early twenties fashion. I have changed the name of the store for my own protection. Their prices are predictably high. Not outrageously high to the general shopping public but fairly high in my opinion.

When I got home I told my wife (at the time girlfriend) about my day at the engineering firm, that I had picked up this application for Anonymous Outfitters, and was thinking about filling it out. She told me to do whatever would make me happy. I could tell she had her own misgivings about the retail industry but she wanted me to do what I thought was right for me. She also mentioned to me that maybe I should apply at the restaurant she had been working at for a year or so called Dead Animal Steak House. I told her I could never be a waiter and filled out the application for Anonymous Outfitters.

The next day I went back to the mall and submitted my Anonymous Outfitters application to customer service as the instructions indicated. Customer Service assured me they would forward the application to the store’s manager. Within 2 hours I received a call on my cellular phone.

“Hello?”

“Hello, is this Luke?” replied the caller.

“Yes…”

“Hello, my name is Andrea. I’m the future manager of the Anonymous Outfitters in Carousel Mall. I was wondering if we could set up a time to get to know each other a bit more?” she asked.

The way she said “get to know each other a bit more” was both encouraging and weird. I’ve never had a potential boss talk to me that way, almost as an equal. It was encouraging because people don’t generally say things like that unless they want you to work for them. I set up a meeting time for the next day during lunch hour.

It wasn’t uncommon for me to leave the engineering firm during my lunch break. I didn’t live far from the offices. I told my boss that I was taking a long lunch today. I didn’t care anymore. I was sick of him, sick of the job, and sick of his demands. He was pissed but didn’t make too many objections. As I left he did mutter “you’ll just have to stay late tonight, that’s all.”

I made the short drive to Carousel Mall and met Andrea for the first time. She was very tall,, blonde, and friendly. She was in her mid thirties and a poster girl for the Anonymous Outfitters brand. She asked me a lot of interview type questions that I was fairly prepared for. “Why do you want to work for Anonymous Outfitters?” “What is your best asset?” “What is your worst flaw?” I won’t bore you with the specifics of the interview but I would like to tell you how I answered her last question which is always one of my personal favorite interview questions: “What do you want out of your job with Anonymous Outfitters?” There is a fairly clear answer to this question. Obviously I want money. How many of us are fortunate to take a job for educational enlightenment or the challenge of it all? The people who take jobs for reasons other than money probably don’t need the money to begin with. This is not to be confused with people who love the jobs they make money at. I know my wife loves teaching kindergarten but she is paid to teach. If she didn’t need the money would she be teaching kindergarten? Probably not. If she wasn’t being paid would she be teaching? Again, probably not. She would be forced to find another job that pays her for her services. Such is the burden of the proletariat. The answer to this question is so obvious it drives me crazy every time I’m asked it. I want a job. I want money. I want health benefits. I want to pay my rent. I want to go to the movies on Sunday with my friends. All this happens when you hire me. Obviously that’s not how we answer. We make up some nonsense about wanting to interact with the public, showcase our person to person skills, and build the Anonymous Outfitters brand. I’m no different. I threw as much public relations psycho babble as I could lay my tongue to. As the interview ended Andrea was polite and said she would be in touch.

A few hours later I received another call on my cell phone.

“Hello?”

“This is Andrea from Anonymous Outfitters. Would it be possible to come in again tomorrow evening and meet our regional manager? He would love to speak with you.”

This was to be my first experience with a regional manager. I wish I could say it was my only experience. Unfortunately, the next ten years of my life would be affected, directly or indirectly, by the opinions of various regional managers.

I told Andrea I would be back to the mall at around 6pm the next day. Work at the engineering firm was getting worse by the day. People knew the end of the summer was coming and a lot of the design and field guys were getting really antsy they were going to be laid off for the winter. I also found out a piece of information that basically pushed me out the door at the firm. I over heard Steve talking to his wife on the phone early in the afternoon. Steve’s wife six or seven months pregnant at the time. Steve was really worried about making ends meet. Who isn’t I guess. That’s basically the point of this whole post. Judging from the tone of the conversation, it sounded like his wife was too. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on his call, but he was having the conversation in the middle of the design room. I wasn’t really paying that close attention what Steve was talking to his wife about until I heard him mention how his meeting with the boss went. Turns out Steve went to the boss and asked for a raise earlier in the day. Steve wanted everyone, including the boss, to believe he needed the extra money to help pay for the costs of bringing a new life into the world. I know that was definitely part of Steve’s reasoning. However, Steve also knew he had the boss between a rock and hard place. Steve had been offered another job for more money at a different, competing firm. The health benefits were just as good and pay was better. Steve, from what I gathered, gave the boss his two week notice unless a big raise was in his future. Steve got the raise. The boss had no choice. Don’t get me wrong. I was happy for Steve, his expecting wife, and his new raise. You could almost see Steve’s standard of living increasing before my eyes.

Three things didn’t sit too well with me about the whole raise game however. First, I found out that Steve was making more than double my $8.50 and hour. As I have said, Steve was educated in the field and damn good at what he did. The problem I had was that I was being asked to do some of the same things Steve was doing for half the money. Second, I could help but think that Steve used me as an example of what the firm would be left with if he took this other job at this other engineering place. He did “train” me on Auto Cad after all and the firm had no one to thank for my ineptitude but him. Third, the way Steve conducted himself on this phone call led me to believe that he wanted me to know that he made more money than me, he got a big raise, and was a hell of alot more important to the company than I was. It’s almost like he wanted me to hear the call. I never understood why, but it always seemed like Steve took my presence in the design room personally. Maybe he thought it was an indictment by the boss of his skills. Who cares. All I know is I was pissed at Steve, pissed at the boss, and pissed at the firm for what they expected me to do without training, guidance, or tutoring. I stood up and walked straight into my boss’s messy office.

“Boss, I need to tell you something” I said.

“I’m really busy. Come back later” he said from under a pile of drawings.

“I’ll make it quick. Consider this my two week notice. I’ve found another job and I will be starting by the end of August” I blurted out with a measure of satisfaction even though it wasn’t technically true. People quit jobs every day however you have to understand something about this particular action on my part: I have never quit a job in my life without a serious back up plan. I like stability and assurance in my employment. I’m not someone who is constantly scouring the classified ads or sending his resume out to 80 different potential employers. I like consistency. Things had just gotten so bad at this firm and I was so sick of the constant stress and belittlement that I had to make a change. I was quitting a job without another job lined up. This was big.

My boss leaned back in his chair. The real bitch about my boss was that he was and still is a decent man when you can get him away from the stress and craziness of the firm. He throws office parties for the major holidays. He has a fourth of July picnic at this house. Away from work, he’s someone you want to know. His face softened, his mouth turned into a frown. His entire demeanor changed. It’s almost like he was shocked and maybe even a little sad by my announcement.

“You found another job?” he said.

“Yes, I did. In the mall.” I relied.

“I see.”

I stood there for a few seconds. He stared at me measuring his next move.

“If there is anything I’ve done to cause this I want to say I’m sorry. I know things have been a little rough for you here lately. I think putting you into the design room might have been too much too fast….” said my boss. He continued “Let me know if I can do anything for you.” I thanked him and walked out of his office and back to my desk. I must admit I was a little surprised by his candor. I still, to this day, think he’s a decent person. I just think he’s a terrible boss. To be sure, he was a man of many faces. It didn’t matter at that point. The damage had been done and I was happy as hell that in two weeks I would never think about this firm again.

The gravity of the situation suddenly dawned on me. In two weeks I didn’t have a job since I was 16 years old. That scared the crap out of me. I knew my second interview with Anonymous Outfitters had to go well.

The day passed surprisingly quickly. My boss was much friendlier with me now that he knew I was leaving and didn’t really care about his needs, deadlines, or firm any more. I guess he didn’t want me to just up and leave before he could find some other lackey to replace me for $8.50 an hour.

After work I drove over to the mall and took a quick stroll to calm my nerves. Landing this job suddenly became the most important thing in my life. When I look back today and think about that I can’t believe how dumb I was. How can a job be the most important thing in your life? That’s pretty pathetic. If I can sound a little hippie for a second here, your friends, your love, your family, those are so much more important than a job and money. It would unfortunately take me several more years to realize that. I guess I should consider myself lucky. Some people never get it.

6:00 pm rolled around and walked to the Anonymous Outfitter storefront. There was Andrea and another man whom I assumed to be the regional manager. The man was short, round, and wore a baseball cap with Anonymous Outfitters scrawled across the front. For some reason the hat he wore really annoyed me. It was yellow, faded, and torn in various places. Why do people buy NEW clothing that is faded and torn? Maybe that should have been my first warning that retail wasn’t for me. That hat would look stupid on a sixteen year old, let alone a thirty something fat man with squinty eyes and a deceptive look about him. I really hoped wearing hats like that wasn’t part of the job. Come to think of it, the man also wore Anonymous Outfitters apparel from head to foot. His shorts, his shirt, his socks, his sandals, his watch, and for all I know his underwear were all part of the Anonymous Outfitter’s “back to school” line up.

“Thanks for coming in to meet with us” said Andrea. “This is Richard, my regional manager.”

I shook Richard’s hand. His handshake sucked. I should have known right then and there not to trust this Dick. A handshake is a window into someone confidence and self image. I’ve learned over the years that if your handshake sucks, so do you more than likely.

“Glad to meet you. Thanks for coming in to talk to me. Feel like taking a walk?”

“Sure” I said. Dick spoke very softly and deliberately. He thought about everything he was going to say before he said it. Or at least that’s what he wanted you to believe. As Dick and I walked through the mall it became clear this was more than an interview. It was a demographical research. As our “interview” commenced, Dick seemed very interested in what I thought of the area, the store, and the mall.

“Let me ask you something. How long have you lived in this area?” he started.

“Oh, all my life I guess” I replied.

“What do you think about this mall?” he prodded.

“Well, it’s a nice place to shop in my opinion. It’s quiet, it’s calm” I said.

“That’s what I was afraid of. Our demographics show this mall is very slow in the summer and busy in the winter” said Dick. I could already tell that Dick liked the word demographics.

Let me stop myself for a moment here to make a point. Who doesn’t know a mall is slow in the summer? As I said before, the reason I like coming to the mall in the summer is exactly because it is slow. Obviously the mall is busy in the winter. It’s cold outside and the Christmas seasons starts in September nowadays. The mall is a concentration of retail outlets by definition. There are more shopping holidays in the winter than there are in the summer. Demographics? You need demographics to figure that out?

“In order for Anonymous Outfitters to be successful in this mall, we need to build a loyal customer base. Do you think you can be part of a team committed to customer loyalty?” Dick continued.

I love these questions.

“Absolutely sir. I’ve been working with people since I was in my mid-teens. I was a tour guide for many summers while I went to college…”

“College did you say?” interrupted Dick. “Where did you go to college?”

“Well sir, I went to school at XYZ College. It’s not far from here” I proudly stated. The second I said “I went to college” Dick’s entire demeanor changed. I pride myself as being able to interpret body language. I watched this show on the Discovery channel once about how people project different emotions physically. There are the obvious ones like love and happiness. When you’re in love you hold hands and kiss. When you’re happy you smile. However, the body projects different signals for emotions like curiosity, attraction, interest, depression, and so on and so forth. Basically it boils down to eye contact, nervous ticks, and body movement. It’s all fairly obvious stuff. In a nutshell if someone is doing all kinds of weird ass things like looking off into space, playing with their hair, or folding their hands across their chest they are telling you something. Dick was actually talking to me now that I mentioned I was a college graduate.

“XYZ. I’ve heard of that school. It’s pretty expensive isn’t it?” asked Dick.

“Yeah, it is. Thankfully I had a decent scholarship and very understanding parents,” I truthfully replied. Why is it that whenever someone talks about college they find the need to ask if your school was expensive? I went to XYZ College. It is a very expensive school. When I was an undergraduate it cost over $30,000. Now I hear it’s up to about $50,000 ten years later. What school isn’t expensive? The more I think about this weird question, the more I think it has something to do with a need to compare school prices like you would automobiles or apartment. We’ve all seen conversations like this: “I drive a Hyundai Accent.” “Oh yeah? Well I drive a Lexus.” Who honestly cares? Where I went to school has about as much to do with my intelligent as my shoe size. You get out what you put into college just like everything else in this world. Every knows the S.A.T.’s are total nonsense anyway and a degree is only as good as the paper it’s printed on. That wasn’t a theory that Dick subscribed too however.

I could sense, thanks to the Discovery Channel, that Dick had really warmed up to me now. I firmly believe that Dick hadn’t even looked at my application before this interview. He knew my name and what time I was showing up. Now that I mentioned college he wanted to know all about me. As I learned later in my employment with Anonymous Outfitters, if you have a college education you are immediately considered for management positions. I’m not talking about key holders or shift managers. I’m talking about real deal bosses who can hire, fire, make payroll decisions, and handle thousands of dollars a week. All it takes is a piece of paper saying you graduated from college. I could have been the crookedest bastard on the planet and it wouldn’t have mattered. My degree is in Political Science. What that has to do with corporate retail clothing is beyond me. All I know is that once Dick figured out I went to school he wouldn’t shut up about what the company had to offer me.

“Let’s talk a little about Anonymous Outfitter’s brand image and corporate goals” said Dick. “Anonymous Outfitters is a clothing company that markets laid back fashion-right clothing for mid teens to late twenty something.” I swear to God that’s what he said. I will never forget it as long as I live. It’s like I was reading the training manual or something. What, exactly, does “fashion-right” mean anyway?

“We also have very competitive salary, bonuses based on sales for managers, health benefits, and a great 401k program” he continued. It was like I flipped a switch on him or something he went from totally aloof and talking about stupid demographics to his hardcore employment sales pitch. People, if you take one thing from this book I hope it is this. If some one ever uses “brand image and corporate goals” in the same sentence to you, run. Don’t walk. Run. I wish I had. Unfortunately Dick had me in his sights and there was no stopping him. I was a deer in headlights.

The problem was I was hearing the things I needed to hear. He promised me the company would provide the type of training I would need to fit in a retail environment. He told me about the health benefits. He told me about the retirement plan. He even told me about how quickly the company was expanding and I could have my own store, my very own store, in less than a year if things went right. Then he dropped the bomb on me.

“I’m willing to offer you the assistant manager position and pay you $13.00 an hour”. What could I say? He just offered me more money an hour than I had ever made in my life. I was 22 and making $8.50 an hour to be abused by an engineering tyrant. My previous job paid me about $6.00 an hour after five loyal seasons to guide people through a subterranean tourist attraction. Why not give retail a try? I was going to be unemployed in two weeks if I didn’t take the job anyway. It took me about 2 seconds to make up my mind. I was the new assistant manager of the Carousel Mall Anonymous Outfitters by the end of our walk.

Let me reiterate something. I had never worked in retail before. I had never even thought about it. Suddenly I was the assistant manager of a clothing store with real responsibilities. I was the second in command and didn’t even know how to fold a shirt. Why? Because I went to college. When I got my job at the engineering firm I knew that college helped get me in the door. Now that I was leaving the engineering firm and searching for something new, college had once again got me into a place I didn’t really belong. It was only going to get worse.

I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into. I really didn’t. Retail is a bitch. It’s not as big a bitch as waiting tables, but it’s not far off. Dick asked me one last question.

“If there is one thing you want from a boss, what is it?” This was too good to be true. A boss asking me what I wanted from him? I answered honestly.“I want my boss to be as honest and respectfully as I try to be with them.” I replied. What more can you ask from a boss? Dick grunted his approval.

Continued

No comments: