My first job as a teenager was working as a cashier at Sears, Roebuck and Co, at the local mall. Dallas, Tx 1970s. Most of my friends found jobs at stores where they liked to shop, or partake of the services offered for free (my bff worked at a dry-cleaners, just to get free dry-cleaning). Sears was decidedly uncool - I wouldn’t be caught dead in any of the polyester clothing sold there, but my parents love love loved my employee discount on tools, appliances, and automotive parts + work, back when Craftsman and Kenmore were strong brands.
At the time, I took working there for granted.......just another retail job. Yet all the jobs I’ve had since, professional or retail, have paled in comparison. Sears had many corporate policies in place back then that created a sustainable life for its employees: every 4 hour shift earned an employee a 15-20 min break. Every 7 hour shift earned one a paid, on the clock, 1 hour meal break. Every year I worked there, I got a raise and contributions, however small, to a pension plan. I was not required to wear Sears clothing while at work, which I have been forced to do at other retail establishments (American Eagle Outfitters, a place I worked briefly upon moving to New York, sucked up entire paychecks every season with that mandate). Older retail employees were given reasonable 40 hour workweeks that were mostly 9-5 Mon- Fri. Their pay levels enabled them to live middle class lives, with healthcare and a pension.
I didn’t realize how remarkable all this was until faced with working conditions at other jobs. It dawned on me one day while teaching - just one of the many interminable school days where, due to state testing, a sub shortage or “other duties as required”, I once again lost both my planning period and my lunch - that the actual working conditions as a cashier at Sears had been better than teaching. At Sears, I could at least go to the restroom as needed, and take a duty free meal break. After 30+ years of teaching, I was still treated like an easily replaceable cog, with no preference in teaching schedule given for seniority, expertise, or experience. I was required to work several hours each day - at meetings, tutoring students, or grading papers - off the clock, without pay. I was required to attend weeks of “training” every summer, again off the clock without pay or recompense.
The most important thing about working at Sears was that I was treated with respect, not just as human fodder for a giant workplace machine that keeps grinding through employees, regardless of an ever diminishing supply of future potential workers reluctant to put up with the dehumanization the job creates, as teaching in a public school does these days. My positive experience at Sears back in the 1970s was partly due to their corporate culture, and specifically due to my boss at the time : Louise. I don’t remember her last name. Louise was a tiny little battle axe of a woman, barely 5 ft tall in heels, chubby, chain smoking, frosted gray beehive hairdo 10 years out of date, alarmingly bright blue eyeshadow that took up an unnaturally large portion of her face (she looked like a smaller version of the drag queen Divine), talked a mile a minute and scared the pants off everyone she met. Except me. She tyrannized a fiefdom of the software lines : women’s separates, dresses, mens, shoes, juniors, sleep-ware, foundations (underwear) and everyone who worked there. Fully half the store was under her management. If she thought you were useless, lazy, lacked gumption, or looked slovenly, she’d cut your hours back to nothing, or give you horrible shifts no one wanted. Sales staff would hear her coming - she was too short to be seen above the sales racks of clothing - by the clatter of her heels on the parquet floor. Sometimes a waft of cigarette smoke would follow her, and you could trace her movements through the carpeted areas that way. Louise would barge into your department, pulling a loaded dolly of bagged clothes fresh from the shipping dock behind her, and start barking orders to move the merchandise onto the floor, change the mannequins’ outfits, re-arrange the entire “floor”, tidy up, make it look nice. Vacuum and wipe down counters. If Louise disliked you, she’d make you clean the dressing rooms, often filled w dirty loaded diapers left behind on a chair.
Lucky for me, I was the favored one. Louise quickly figured out that I had a solid grasp of basic addition and subtraction, so I was kept exclusively to cashiering. This was back before computerized cash registers, when cashiers had to be able to make change all by themselves, and count it back to customers. Cranky old men would always demand recounts if you went too fast, so I learned to be slow and loud, in effect, “teacherly”. Your cash drawer was checked when you went on shift and when you went off shift, so the boss knew how accurate you were. Once told, at the very beginning of my cashiering days, that my drawer was 3 cents short, I offered to replace it with money from my own wallet even as I replied, “How do I know you aren't the one who made the counting mistake? “ Louise understood that my hubris was well earned, for I was the only person in all her departments who could ring up a lay-a-way correctly. You had to add all the items up, add the sales tax, then subtract the down payment, and divide the balance remainder by the number of payments, which was variable. It shouldn’t have been difficult, even in the days before calculators, but for most folk, it was. So I was the layaway specialist, and got called in to various departments to ring them up. Same with complex returns. I didn’t mind......staying busy made the shift go by, faster. Let the newbies clean up the dirty diapers in the dressing room.