Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Helpful Smile

I was 15 years old when I got my first “real” job at the HyVee grocery store. I started out with the title of “grocer” which basically meant I would put all your groceries in plastic bags and take them out to your car for you. I also did some stocking of shelves. It’s the bottom rung of the corporate grocery ladder. After a while, they taught me how to be a “checker.” I would stand at my register and scan all your items, collect your money, sometimes even bag your groceries if I didn’t have some poor newby assisting me, and send you on your way. And that’s pretty much as high as I got on said ladder. I worked there till I left for college.

I have to admit it was a really good job for me. It gave me some lasting skills and experience which has certainly come in useful as I’ve worked in various businesses.

I’m not so afraid to strike up a conversation with a random person. Before working at HyVee, I would have put myself in the slightly-shy-and-quiet category. There was no avoiding the inevitable question from a shopper as I stocked shelves. I was expected to not only answer and assist these people, I was also expected to be friendly, warm, kind. It was quite a stretch at first. I strongly preferred to walk past someone and stare at my feet. Our slogan was “a helpful smile in every aisle” so I made myself look customers in the eye and smile. Why couldn’t there be one aisle where I could be shy and grumpy? Just one. They forced me out of my shell and into connecting with people. The result is that now when someone walks into my office, I have no problem and no fear of striking up a conversation with them. There were regulars and it was easy to chat with them. There were new people and I did my best to win them over.

I learned how to multi-task and thus, I developed a pretty strong work ethic. I was there to work, not sit around and do nothing. Sure, on occasion I loafed off just like everyone else. But most of the time I made an effort to keep busy and do something, anything, to earn my minimum wage. When I wasn’t scanning groceries, I was cleaning off counters, full-facing (grocer lingo), or sorting checks and coupons.

I can pack a box like nobody’s business. Parking a box so that it was full but not too full was an art. I watched my shift manager, Josh, as he would precisely and perfectly find a way to make the contents of 3 half-full boxes fit easily and succinctly into one. And slowly I picked up this skill. To be sure, there was no shortage of “constructive” criticism from him. There were times he told me it wasn’t good enough and made me repack it. But I think he’d be so proud to know that today I have mastered the art.

I learned that it’s the people you work with that often determine whether or not you love your job. I never went back to HyVee to work after college or in the summers, but I often wished I had. I’ve worked in a few places where I did not like or appreciate (on any level whatsoever) the people with whom I was forced to work. Those are the jobs that didn’t last and that I was thrilled to leave. But I have a lot of fond memories of working at HyVee. It makes me sad to go back now. Sure, there are some of the same people (wow!) working there, but most of my coworkers have moved on. And it just isn’t the same. I walk through the automatic doors and half expect to see Josh or Brian or Pat or Kim or Joelle standing at one of the registers. I expect to see Joe in the meat department. I expect to see the other Josh filling the dairy case. But none of them are there and when I walk down the aisles all I can do is smile about all the hilarious (and not so hilarious) memories waiting for me there in the place of my coworkers. Coworkers who had become friends.

Maybe its my way of hanging onto some of those memories, but I do still have all my name tags and my nifty apron.

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