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Not Thankless

Right now, the world is filled with shows of “giving thanks.” We are all thankful for health, employment, family, education, food on your plate, clothes on your back, and a roof over your head.

Those objects of gratitude are really low hanging fruit. Lately, I’ve been looking back at parts of my life where I was not fully cognizant of everything I had to be thankful for — if not actually thankless.

I’m thinking about the job I had at a grocery store all through high school and college. Tops Market was just a few miles from home and I started there as a cashier the summer I was 16 years old. It was not glamorous and only sometimes fun. I saw it as something I had to do, not something I wanted to do.

Have you ever run a grocery lane? You stand in one place for hours, scanning a seemingly endless conveyor belt of products. Some of these products are leaky, some are super-heavy, and the customer standing very nearly inside your personal space is watching you like a hawk. Then you go on a 15 minute break that starts the second you leave the register. Once you’ve scarfed down a twinkie and used the restroom, you have about 3 minutes left to get your head together for the next 2+ hours of scanning, bagging, and being pleasant (even though you just want to cry).

I did that for seven years. It wasn’t digging ditches, but it was hard work. I started at minimum wage in 1989 ($3.35/hour). I went off to college, but still worked (because I had to) during every single break (no wild beach trips for me), and near full-time every summer.

I would send my manager a letter (yes, a real letter with a stamp!) a few weeks before I would be coming home to let her know I would be available. She always gave me as many hours as she could, often the maximum she could give me as a part-timer. I never had to look for a job during those years – my job at Tops was always there waiting for me. The best part was that HR kept me on the books when I was away at school so that I could maintain the wage I had reached.

By the time I graduated college, I was making almost $7.50 an hour (more than the current minimum wage in New York). That job was steady, I was good at it, and what I earned paid for my books, clothes, wants & needs, gas, etc. I could have stayed on, but decided to make a clean break after I graduated, even if it meant taking a lower-paying minimum wage job for that summer (which I did, and is another story).

On one occasion during my tenure on register, an old high school acquaintance passing through actually sort of ridiculed me for still working that same job as I had in high school. I felt humiliated, and stuck doing something so uncool instead of some more glamorous college summer job. I felt ungrateful.

As I get older, I more and more see that job as a true life-shaping experience, and one to be thankful for. I had a guaranteed job at a guaranteed wage for as long as I wanted it. The people working there were nice, and I was protected by a union (another story for another day). I could even cash my paycheck on site.

So, even if in a 20+ year ago parallel universe my teenage self is bemoaning having to go to work, I stand here now and declare that I am grateful that I was given that job opportunity, and that I took it.

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  1. a footnote in Seth Godin’s blog read:

    ” My father had one job his entire life. I will have more than 7 jobs before I retire. And my son will probably have 7 jobs at one time.”

    That line haunts me as I watch what is happening to employment. I mean what I see, not just what I read or watch a news person tell me.

    Thank you for your clear honest description of working at Tops. It makes me all the more thankful for all the people quietly working so hard to make my life easier. Such hard work deserves respect and a fair wage.

    Our family has decided to give 7 days of canned beef stew to the local food shelter every week as an answer to our national decision to cut food stamps. [When we asked what they needed most,canned food with beef was in short supply.] Its not politics; it’s being the change you want to see in the world. I am thankful that this is possible for us and thankful to everyone who makes it possible.

    • Thanks for your comments…I thought of you today when I was at the food cupboard and saw boxes and boxes of canned beef stew! I wondered, “is this Rosemary’s stew?”

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