Summer’s almost over — and being that it was the longest summer break in the history of summer breaks, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect upon the glory of being able to work.
Since March 13, I have been at one side job or another nearly every day. At Super Foods, people often speak to me in passing and say things about my having 600 jobs or some crazy number like that. The most I ever had was six, and that was in 2011-2012, so that was a long time ago.
But let’s go back to the beginning, to the first weeks of my life as a grocery man. It’s amazing I ever kept a job at all.
When I was 15, I went to the distributive education classroom at Robert E. Lee High School and applied for a work permit. The week I turned 16, I started working at Winn-Dixie.
I had a bit of an inside track: the store manager of the Dalraida location was someone my father had hired years before. His name was Gunter Wendlandt. He was running that Winn-Dixie in the absence of Pat Meehan, who had been the store manager but was dealing with an illness at the time (he eventually recovered and returned).
My dad took me to the store and helped me fill out the application. I was already hearing about what a great grocery man my dad was, how fast he could move with that feather duster and how many cases he could put on the shelf. The job description said I would be “bagging, cashiering, retrieving buggies and light stocking.”
In those days, Winn-Dixie employees first went through a series of training videos with titles such as “Bag It Right!” that emphasized how to handle groceries and paper bags (plastic bags were an anomaly back then; paper bags were more commonplace). That store had four or five cashiers with three or four bag boys at all times. We all had to learn what to do.
I signed up for as many hours as I could get in that 16th summer. On my third day of employment, however, I nearly became unemployed for the first time.
Trying to be a hero, I gathered up 15 buggies from the cart corral and was pushing them through the parking lot to the automatic doors. Right as half of them began to slip away, a customer pulled into the first parking space.
This customer was in a brand new BMW. Those buggies did a number on his car. He immediately jumped out and attacked me for running into his car, and as I sputtered and spat some excuses, Mr. Wendlandt came outside to assist.
The car had just left the showroom floor — as in, it was brand spanking new. I watched in horror as my manager filled out paperwork with this man and Winn-Dixie was on the hook for repairs.
Mr. Wendlandt told me I’d better never let anything like that happen again. But because of who my dad was, he’d give me a pass this time.
A few weeks later, our store was preparing for a Fall of Value campaign. Our co-manager, Wanda Wallace, was really in charge of this and had special T-shirts made for the occasion.
Mr. Wendlandt and Mrs. Wallace hired in a team to strip the floors and put down wax. This was good stuff and it was done only once a year or every other year.
The day the new floor was unveiled, I was scurrying down the cleaning aisle and knocked over a display of Windex (actually, store brand cleaner called Arrow).
It wasn’t just one broken bottle. It was seven or eight cases of broken bottles. Glass cleaner was everywhere. It was ruining the tiles before my eyes.
Mr. Wendlandt (again, poor guy) came running over, and screamed about his $800 wax job that I’d just ruined. Again, he reminded me … if it weren’t for your father being such a good grocery man …
Within that year, I’d get into trouble with a pricing gun episode that ended in a courtroom as one of my fellow employees actually tried to purchase an item that I’d playfully marked with a “2- cent” price tag. By then, Mr. Meehan was back, and he, too, wasn’t impressed with my skills. In fact, Mr. Meehan would also say … if it weren’t for your father being such a good grocery man
It’s amazing I’m still employed in a grocery store. Wonder if Gene Lawrence reads this?
Michael Bird is a longtime columnist for The Tribune.