A few months after my 16th birthday, my dad gave me a choice: Find a full-time job or work all summer as his slave. The next week, I filled out applications at dozens of places, and got hired as a stock clerk at a women’s clothing store.
The first days on the job were boring and horrible. I put ugly clothes on hangers and steamed away wrinkles. Blouses and pleated skirts invaded my dreams. Whenever the owner’s son leaned over my shoulder to tell me how to handle the hideous “merchandise,” his bad breath would curl my hair. The radios in the workrooms were tuned to ONE station, KGO News Talk radio. On my first shift, I became an expert on the Air Traffic Controller’s strike. By the third shift, I would’ve chewed off my right arm to bring the strike to an end. One of the salesladies snagged all the commissions, leaving the other two in tears at the end of each day. I ate lunch alone.
Luckily things got better. I got permission to change the radio in the clothes-steamer room to a rock and roll station. Though I foolishly got into an argument with the owner’s son over politics, he didn’t fire me (a mixed blessing, but still).
The best part of the job was meeting an elderly Japanese woman that altered clothes for the customers. The first day I worked near her station, she kept glaring at me. When I finally asked her what was wrong, she just wanted to show me how to hang shirts without unbuttoning them, a trick I still use.
Without meaning to, she taught me something important. Or maybe she meant to all along.