I’m a training specialist for a local credit union (and I curse too much on this blog, so I’ll preserve its reputation by leaving it nameless), and on the first day of each new hire class, I like to poll my students: “Is there a particular grocery store you like to shop at? One that you generally prefer over others?”
And without fail, and I’m talking about two solid years of polling now, I’ve ALWAYS gotten the SAME answer from at least one person in the group: Publix.
“Why Publix?” I inquire further. I enjoy exploring their reasoning.
And the answers vary; great customer service, clean floors, lots of BOGO deals, fresh meats and produce.. and the question, as well as their answer, is a great “launching board” to discuss how a company’s level of customer service is often the most important factor a consumer considers when they’re deciding whether they want to support/buy Store X or Brand X over Store Y or Brand Y. And I always take a little bit of pride in the fact that my very first job was working at Publix; the grocery store authority on providing consistently good customer service.
I started off as a bagger who quickly mastered the art of bagging. When the cashier slid, in quick succession, a carton of eggs, a bunch of bananas, a small family of avocados and a box of saltine crackers down onto the sterling metal landing, I didn’t panic; I knew just how to bag them. First off, the eggs are raw, so you package them solo by tightly wrapping a plastic yellow bag around the carton. Then, you fluff out another plastic bag, place the sturdy box of saltines near the bottom of the bag, and then place the pre-wrapped carton of eggs on top of the cracker box (easier to carry this way). And then, lastly, you bag the bananas and avocados together because they’re madly in love — no; incorrect. You bag them together because they’re delicate and they bruise easily. Duh.
So bagging was simple, but pleasant, work. I was quickly cross-trained to work as a cashier, and that’s when the fun REALLY began. I now got to converse with customers a bit more, scan their items for them, key in 4- or 5- (organic) digit PLU numbers, carefully process in-house and manufacturer coupons, and accept various means of tender (cash, checks, and credit/debit cards). I was eventually trained to stock and block as well, and I enjoyed the peace and quiet that tagged along with the methodical nature of this particular kind of work.
After a solid year of employment and a generous $0.75 raise, I dipped; I enjoyed working at Publix, but I was attending public school, taking 11th grade classes there, and was also dual-enrolled in 12th grade online classes. I had enough on my plate, academics-wise, and found it difficult to balance my workload with my schoolwork.
But after living the unemployed student life for just a few months, I realized that I somehow had too much free time on my hands.
Where I grew up, out in rural McCalla, there was a collection of old and rough-looking trailers right off of the interstate. Well, one day, all of these trailer owners were offered – according to the rumors – some pretty generous payouts from a corporate entity (I’d be curious to know how much!) and BOOM; within the space of a year, loud and messy demolition and construction work ensued, and then suddenly – it felt like it happened magically, overnight – the area had EVERYTHING to offer: a movie theater, a Ross, a JC Penney, a Petsmart, a hair salon, ANOTHER Publix, and at least 15 other things. One of the new places was a Burger King.
Kinda weird for a vegetarian to work at Burger King, I considered the irony, but they do offer veggie burgers and onion rings. I shrugged it off and, without giving the matter NEARLY enough thought, I applied for an available position (cashier) and was quickly hired on.
Within a week, I was entering the fast food joint through double glass doors and reporting for my very first BK shift ever. When he – a tall, lanky boy with oily hair, tired eyes, and lots of acne – saw me, he mumbled a bored ‘hello’ from behind the register. I shared that I was a new co-worker, and then he motioned for me to join him behind the counter.
“So.. you’ll need a shirt. What size do you wear?”
I was about 95 pounds. “Probably a small.. possibly an extra-small,” I answered, indecisive.
He walked further into the back of the restaurant, disappeared behind a door, and then returned with a rolled up red shirt tucked underneath his arm.
“All we have is XL,” he apologized, handing it over. I stepped into a restroom, tugged it on, and felt like a total joke; the end of the shirt about reached my knees.
Whatever, I sighed. The outfit is the least important part of a job. That’s what I thought at the time, anyways.
I returned to the front. The boy was helping a customer with a transaction and, when he saw me, he moved over a little so that I could stand beside him at the register. I watched silently as he keyed in the customer’s order, and once he’d finished, he turned to look at me.
“So if they want a burger, you click here.. drinks, you click there.. modifications (like ‘It comes with mustard but I hate mustard so leave that off’), you’ll go over to this tab,” he gestured, “and you can type something in if it’s not saved in the system as something you can just click.” A small line had developed while he shared these tidbits with me; he looked up, noticed, and walked away.
I repeat: He walked away. Leaving me standing there, clueless and drowning inside of a Burger King shirt that was 4 sizes too big, with a growing line of impatient and hangry customers staring me down.
WHAT THE FUCKING FUCKITY FUCK?
I somehow survived the morning and afternoon, but that night, I made one of the most cowardly decisions of my life. I quit the job. But that wasn’t the cowardly decision; it was having my dad do it for me.
He called BK the next day, asked to speak with the manager, and explained that Rose won’t be returning — she needs to focus on school during this time of her life. Would you like her to return the shirt? he asked.
I began working at McAllister’s Deli (which was located in the same shopping plaza.. #awkward) a few weeks later and enjoyed it much more.
When my family and I moved down to Florida, I waited tables at the local Cracker Barrel in an effort to save up money for college. This was my favorite job to date, for three reasons:
- I knew exactly what I was saving for, and it was something very important to me; college tuition costs. Having a ‘defined goal’ in mind motivated me to work hard and do well, and during the year I spent working at Cracker Barrel, I was able to stash $5,000 into savings for college costs and only spent $14 on myself during this time. It was for (of all things) a night gown I spotted at Ross one afternoon — one that featured a moon on it and read “Goodnight.” You’d think I would have bought a couple of burritos with the money or something equally as sensible.
- I liked that, as a server, I was able to stay on my feet, move around freely, and talk with people.
- Each day was exciting and surprising because you never knew just how much cash you were going to take home; it could be $40, but it might be $150.. it depended on a variety of things; your hours, your attitude, and the generosity of your clientele (sad but indisputable fun fact: church crowds are the GRUMPIEST guests and they leave the SHITTIEST tips EVER). The biggest tip I ever got, while serving (relative to the price of the order), was a $20 bill from a guy wearing a hat who ordered a coffee and scrambled eggs.
I left Cracker Barrel (and Florida) at the dawn of summer, deciding to drive up to New York and attend a 2-month Bible camp. My co-workers created a “Where’s Rosie?” map and tacked it up in the break room; I texted the manager updates as I drove from Florida to Alabama, Alabama to West Virginia, and – finally – from West Virginia to New York. I promised everyone I’d come back in the fall and resume work, but I ended up getting married and moving to Alabama to start a new life with my very best friend.
Here, at this juncture, my grocery store/restaurant career hit a dead end as I ventured into something completely new: the financial world. I began working as a teller with a local credit union and, after spending three full years handling cash, placing check holds, and proactively checking for bad guys (drug traffickers, money launderers, and suspected and known terrorists) on the OFAC list, I applied to work at another, larger credit union (deets here). I already liked the line of work that I was in, but I needed a change, and I wanted a challenge, and I also desired to work for a company that I could see myself growing and advancing with.
So I remained in the credit union world but took up a different position: call center rep. I loved the autonomy of this job, and learning something new every single day kept me happily engaged. But after a year, I requested a one-on-one meeting with my manager, who I admired and trusted deeply.
“I love working in the call center,” I began, and this was true, “but I’m sort of wondering if lending is something I’d be well-suited for. I know the topic’s a little advanced, and that it isn’t included in my current job scope, and that’s intriguing to me. Is there anyway that I could shadow our centralized lending department sometime.. just to get a feel for what they do and so that I can grasp the basics of their job?”
“Absolutely,” she responded. She scheduled a date and time for me to shadow a lending rep and, after just three hours of doing so, I knew: this isn’t the job for me. I was incredibly grateful that I’d been able to ‘experience’ the position before formally applying and transferring over to it, because I wouldn’t have been happy there; the verdict was that I liked working with people more than I liked working with numbers. Good to know.
Another four months passed, and then I read an email one afternoon.. one that advertised an HR position that had become internally available. I requested another meeting with my manager.
“I don’t know if HR is something I’d be interested in, but I also don’t want to appear stagnant,” I explained. “It’s definitely my intention to grow and advance with the company, and it’s important to me that I become cross-trained as much as possible. When I worked for a grocery store, as a kid, I could do three different things.. here, so far, I’ve only officiated in one department.” I paused. “Do you think it would be wise for me to apply for the position? Do you think I’d be a good fit for it?”
“Would you like to work in Human Resources?” she asked, in response to my question. “Would you like to help employees understand their benefits? Enroll in various programs? Answer payroll questions? Review salaries and determine increases?” I thought about it. The honest answer was that that sounded super boring.
“Honestly, no. Not at all.” I sat back in my chair. “No.. I wouldn’t enjoy it. I’m not going to apply,” I decided. “You know, sitting here and thinking about it, there’s really only one department in this credit union that I’d be genuinely interested in transferring to — only one that I think I’d enjoy more than I enjoy the call center — and that’s training.”
“Oh, yes,” I replied. “I’ve known since the 7th grade that I wanted to be a teacher — an instructor of SOME kind. But then, at the age of 19, I fell in love with the credit union world and abandoned the idea of ever teaching. But to work as a trainer IN the credit union world.. now that would be a fusion of two loves.” I smiled. “Yeah; that’s the only department I’d be interested to work in. Otherwise, I’m very happy, staying here in the call center.”
Our meeting ended, and I returned to answering calls. I’ll note, here, that the training department was small, so – reasonably speaking – I had no expectations of quickly getting an opportunity to transfer. But a mere five weeks after our meeting, a training position unexpectedly became available for the first time in two years. I applied within 30 minutes of the job bid going out, and then I was absolutely sick with anxiety.
I know that no one else would love this job as much as I would, I reassured myself, but who’s to say that I’m the most qualified? I’m very likely not.
Things happened quickly. I interviewed with two training reps the following week. I had bought a pair of heels – my first ever – just for the interview, thinking it would make me appear more confident and professional and hire-worthy.. but wearing them and awkwardly trying to make it up and down stairs in them just made me feel even more like a blundering fool. I made it through the interview and, an excruciating week and a half later, was informed that I’d gotten the job. When I shared the exciting news with them, my family couldn’t believe it.
“Wow, Rose!” I recall my mother exclaiming into the phone. “I really didn’t think you’d get it. I mean.. really. It’s like a miracle.”
And it’s been two years and four days since I began working in my credit union’s training department. I love it. Some people take work home in a negative kind of way, but I bring it home with me in a happy sense; I identify closely with my job. I’m proud to be a trainer. And the best news is, I don’t dread Mondays; come to think of it, I haven’t dreaded a Monday in the last three and a half years. It wasn’t always this way. Here’s what makes the difference for me:
- Working for a company that helps consumers with their needs and, in the process of doing so, doesn’t take advantage of them (cough BANKS).
- Having a supportive, reliable, and exemplary manager who feels like a friend and who challenges, teaches, inspires and encourages me.
- Enjoying a certain degree of autonomy and creative control, where I’m able to make changes that increase efficiency and boost morale.
- Connecting with other people, especially new hires, and helping them reach a level of confidence and self-sufficiency that they didn’t believe – back on day one – they could possibly achieve.
My job is, in a word, fulfilling.
And while I was testing out a new (work-related) online module a few weeks ago, I ran across an interesting question, posed by the cyber instructor: “What kind of work would you do for free?”
I paused the video and searched for my own answer. As much as I love my job, I honestly wouldn’t report to work 40 hours a week for absolutely free, I admitted. I’d probably swing by once a week for 8 hours to help out and view it as volunteer work.. a community event type deal.. but I definitely wouldn’t be here full-time.
I continued pondering the idea: What kind of work you would do for free?
And to help myself answer the question, I built an imaginary scenario. It went like this:
Imagine that your current lifestyle could stay exactly the same without you going to work ever again. And I mean your rent or mortgage/ utilities/ groceries/ car payment/ gas/ insurance/ clothing costs/ recreational expenses/ everything is magically “taken care of” each week and month and you’re left with nothing but free time. Doesn’t that sound delicious? So.. finding yourself in these favorable circumstances, what kind of work would you do for free?
“Nothing. I’d watch TV.” Fair enough. I can understand the appeal, and some days, that might be a fun way of passing the time. But I couldn’t stand constantly doing nothing.
And in this scenario, my immediate, unfiltered, and unchallenged response was write. I would spend my free time writing and I would be a writer.
Satisfied with my response, I clicked ‘Play’ and resumed watching the video.
“And what would your mission statement be?” the instructor probed further.
I sighed and hit ‘Pause’ again; another hard question. Mission statement? Like, what would my purpose or intention be? My goal?
I thought about it some more, and the question became very personal. Why DO I like writing so much? I know I’m able to process and work through a whole lot of internal shit, yeah, but why else? And why have I made this blog public? It could have been private, easily. What was, and is, my hope; to connect with people? To be understood? To incidentally help someone else who might be thinking or fearing or experiencing similar things that I have?
I finally came to this conclusion:
I love writing because I think that words (and the stories they compose) connect people. It’s a simple answer, but it’s an honest one. I love reading about other people’s experiences as well as sharing my own. Writing is a great tool some can use to process, reflect, and heal — it’s free therapy! — but I also think that its benefits extend far beyond personal ones; writing is one of the most powerful ways to connect with others.
Picture putting a banker and a terrorist, or an atheist and a christian, or a human being and their least favorite person ever into a room together — sitting at a table, directly across from each other. Consider these people who are opposites, or dissimilar, or even hostile towards each other; how do you help them connect? How can you get them to set aside their bias, negativity, prejudice, and dislike so that they can understand, empathize with, and respect each other? I think that it boils down to experience. Have them pose questions like these to each other:
- Have you been in love?
- What, or who, have you lost?
- What are you sorry for?
- What are you afraid of?
- What do you dream of?
- What have you learned?
These are universal topics of interest — some of the best questions ever — and I love writing about these things; my joy, and my depression; my fun adventures and my deepest struggles, because I think that they make me – someone who feels awkward, alienated, and unlikable – relate-able. I don’t try to paint a picture of my very best and most ideal self on this blog and then set it on display for compliments and admiration; I tell the truth, and sometimes, the truth looks bad and it’s embarrassing to share.. but it’s also freeing. We can sit down at a table together, over warm cups of coffee, and I can stumble over the words.. telling you all of the things that I want to share.. but I much prefer thinking about them first — viewing them from this angle and that, and then flipping them over and turning them sideways and critiquing them ever further — and then, after all of this studying, I like to write about them and have you read about them. The written word (and I’m NOT talking about the Bible here) is so very beautiful to me. Because you get to see it; to look at it. The letters, all sensibly arranged together.. they look nice. Spaces here and there; they give relief. There’s punctuation that makes you feel something; capitalization that signals the start of something, or urges the importance, the severity, of something. And if, as you’re reading, you choose to speak the words out loud, then you also get to hear them. There’s something special about the very process of writing — the way you can tap, easily and freely, into your recent and old memories, imagine your best and worst futures, and deeper explore the things you might have glazed over, or the things that you may be inclined to suppress — and it – writing – is one of the few things that’s kept me alive when I’ve had no other inclination to stay.
So that’s the “work” I’d do for free, in a strangely Utopian world that doesn’t actually exist; I would sit down with people, on park benches and inside of coffee shops, and listen to them tell their stories, and then I would write them down, or type them out. I’d caution myself to embellish on these stories only a tiny little bit and I’d try to uncover general and universal life lessons wherever possible. I’d volunteer for community events, and travel, and live for the purpose of observing, just so I could see and share everything with you.. the bad stuff and the good stuff and the things I thought were so very interesting and that you’d probably like to know about, too. If there is a heaven out there, invisibly existing now or magically materializing at some point in the future (like a fully outfitted shopping plaza that erected itself overnight), it better have an infinitely endless stash of textured, linen paper and an entire world of fancy pens lying around, because I can’t imagine a better way to spend forever than by telling these silly and silent and terribly long-winded stories.
A few accurate quips on writing:
Writing for free, and writing forever (in heaven or hell or a swirly black hole somewhere)..
PS: Unrelated, but here’s me and my cool new $40 bike! (In case you missed it, here’s the backstory.)