“Hi, I was wondering if I could apply for a job here?” I ask a bearded man in his early twenties. He is donning a loud hawaiian shirt and khakis, a Trader Joe’s T-shirt poking out from underneath.
“Uh, you have to be at least 16 to work here,” he says, presumably taken aback by the small girl wearing Target sneakers asking him about employment. “Maybe come back in 10 years?” a nearby girl with orange hair chuckles.
I was really bored the summer before sixth grade. My best friend and I would FaceTime each other on our iPads and come up with companies that we were going to found or worldwide issues that we were going to solve. One day, an outrageous thought popped into my mind.
“What if we got jobs?” I asked her.
“I don’t think we can. I think you have to be older,” she said.
I looked up Trader Joe’s job applications and could find no mention of an age restriction. I was eager to start filling it out –– I knew I wouldn’t have much time to work on it later because math camp was starting soon –– but our printer was perpetually out of ink.
“Let’s ask my mom to drive us there today. We can ask them if we are old enough and give them the job application right there,” I declared, ever the optimist. She agreed, and we spent the next couple of hours daydreaming about one day having jobs and driver’s licenses and apartments and independence.
I have always been somewhat infatuated with independence.
Needless to say, I did not start working at Trader Joe’s the summer before middle school. I did, however, develop an obsession with finding a job. I decided that as soon as I turned 16 –– April of sophomore year –– I would enter the workforce.
Of course, I did not bargain for a global lockdown in April of my sophomore year because of a pandemic, nor did I plan for a crumbling national economy and unemployment rates higher than those of the Great Depression. So my plan for joining the workforce and getting my license took a backseat to whipped coffee and socially distanced hikes for a bit. But I didn’t forget.
And eventually, the day I decided to apply for a job at Target arrived. I submitted two applications –– one for the big store and the other for the tiny Main Street Target –– and then scheduled my driver’s test. The big Target politely declined my application, but I was scheduled for an interview with the Main Street Target at 4 p.m. on a Tuesday during the summer. I got the job, celebrated with a milkshake from In-n-Out and started a week before school.
I have only worked at Target for two months, and it is not at all like what I expected. The shifts are long and the customers are not always kind and it is often difficult for me to convince myself that $15.35 an hour is worth the social life I flushed down the drain.
But I have learned so much. So to remind myself that even if I quit tomorrow, this job will not have been for naught, I would like to document some of my most memorable experiences as stories. Maybe you will take the same things I did from them or maybe you will not. But this job has shown me so much — maybe I can show you some of it too.
There are two tables with stacks of graphic T-shirts in the men’s section. People will sort through the shirts, then leave them haphazardly strewn across the table, trying to find the largest size at the bottom of the stack before deciding they don’t like it anyway. I will have barely finished cleaning up the mess before I see a group of middle schoolers tearing through piles of shirts that are plastered with bands they definitely do not know and piercing through my soul in the process.
I really do like organizing the shirts though. I use the folding table, a thin metal table with hinged slats that allow you to fold each shirt with factory precision. I fold the shirts and dream about a future life –– a recurring theme in my life, it seems –– of subways and corporate jobs and my own apartment and independence.
It is 7 p.m. one night as I fold the shirts for what feels like the tenth time that shift. I get off in an hour, but I’ve been here since 12, and I am so tired I could cry. As I arrange the shirts on the table, I spot a girl, who looks to be about my age, pointing to me.
“Oh, I think she works here,” she says to the older woman next to her.
The woman hobbles on over to me with her gray walker and several plastic bags clutched in her hands.
“Do you work here? Can you help me?” she demands. “I need help.”
“Yes, of course,” I say, excited. I love helping customers. “How can I help you today, ma’am?”
“This is just ridiculous. I need help finding two things. I need a clock,” she says angrily. She starts walking behind me with the walker biting my heels as I hastily step out of her way.
“You need a clock? That’ll be in our home section. I’d try Aisle A15, by the cash registers.”
“What? Speak up,” she snaps. “Why did you stop? You’re going to find it for me. I can’t read these damn shopping labels.”
“Oh, okay,” I say, taken aback. Customers will usually speak to us for as short a time as possible – they often start walking away before I’ve finished giving them the aisle number. We walk over to the clocks, and after some more yelling on my part due to her diminished hearing, I realize she actually wants an alarm clock and I point out several options to her.
“Which one do you want, ma’am?”
“Which one? There’s more than one? I don’t know. Which one is the cheapest? Which one comes with the batteries?” she shouts. I start reading the boxes furiously, no more aware of the components of alarm clocks than she is.
“It looks like the cheapest one is $10, but it does not appear to come with batteries. We sell the batteries it requires, though.”
“OK, well I want the cheap one.” She pauses and scrutinizes me through her square glasses which are attached to her boxy frame with a string of glass beads. Her olive skin reminds me of wrinkled fabric, smoothly folding to accentuate each disapproving stare she throws me as I remain crouched on the floor trying to read the box. “Well, what are you waiting for? Find the batteries.”
“Oh, yes of course.” I jump to my feet. “Do you want to wait in the line while I get the batteries for you?” I ask, eager to rid myself of her overbearing presence.
“Fine,” she huffs with immense disdain. I jog to the electronics section and start scanning the aisles for the cheapest AAA batteries I can find. I see packs of 20 and 50, but I know she will scoff at the prices of those, and anyway, the clock only needs three. After what feels like an eternity, I find a pack of six and run to the registers.
“There was some other girl, she was helping me,” I hear her papery drawl before I reach the registers.
“It’s me, I’m here. I was trying to find the cheapest pack,” I apologize, running to the open register. “I can help you over here.”
“This is ridiculous. I got on the bus to get here … how long ago? I don’t know. I’m not leaving until you get this thing to work,” she rants as I ring up her purchase.
“Your total is going to be $22.36,” I say, and then suddenly remember about the promotional items.
“Wait, I think we are having a sale on certain items. If I use the other clock, the total might be cheaper,” I say apologetically. “Do you want me to run and get it?”
“Well, fine, go,” she exclaims angrily. I run around the store collecting digital alarm clocks and AA batteries, feeling like her black, stony eyes are following me the whole time. I run back and ring her up again.
“Your total is going to be $18.44,” I say, oddly pleased with myself. She hands me a $20 and tells me to start assembling the clock before I even hand her the change. I can see the line of customers snaking around to the self checkout machines. And even though I know that spending time helping this mean old lady set her digital alarm clock is not the best way to use a cash register, I oblige.
I fumble with the box holding the alarm clock and the package of batteries. I fumble with the clock's plug as I try to jam it into a socket and fumble with the plastic flap over the battery compartment, trying to decipher which way each one fits. Then I fumble with the tiny buttons, trying to adjust the settings so that it displays the current time.
The lady, meanwhile, grows angrier by the second. She first yells at me for taking too long to program the clock and then because she doesn’t know how to put batteries in the clock if it breaks. Finally, finally, I get the clock to beep harshly at 6:30 a.m. every morning. I push ‘Total’ on the cash register, hand the lady her change and wait as the register processes the transaction.
“What the hell is taking so long?” she barks.
“I’m so sorry ma’am, these machines are really slow. It just needs to print your receipt,” I say, in a syrupy voice.
“The machine isn’t working. The machine this. The machine that. That’s all I ever hear,” she says, but she pronounces all like ‘awl.’ “You know, I come here and the machine on the bus don’t work. And then my phone don’t work, and then these damn glasses, did I tell you I can’t read anything with these damn glasses? And now you tell me, you tell me after wasting my time, you tell me that the damn register don’t work? Are you stupid?” she says, and now I can hear some sort of faint East Coast accent punctuating her rant.
And then the register shuts off.
“Can I get some help with a guest at the front please?” I say shakily into my walkie talkie. “I’m so sorry ma’am, the register seems to have shut off before it printed your receipt. My manager will be up to help you in a second. ‘Hey, uh, Steph? Can I get some help over here?’”
My co-worker walks over, and I can see her read the concern on my face.
“Ma’am, we can wait for our manager, but if the register shut off, we aren't going to be able to print your receipt right now. If you give us your phone number, we can send you the receipt from our system,” Stephanie says.
“Fine. Fine,” the old lady barks. I open my mouth to ask for her phone number. “No, you, shut up. I don’t have a number. I have an address. My address is 832 La Vista Drive, Apartment 81. I’m leaving. I can’t take it with you people anymore. I’m leaving,” and with that, she hobbles out of the door, open case of batteries and alarm clock in hand.
I think about her for the rest of my shift, and then in the car on my way home. I think about her all alone on the bus, all alone in her apartment, heading to work all alone the next day. I think about her life and her bitterness and how rude she was, even when all I tried to do was help her.
I have always been somewhat infatuated with independence. But nothing scares me more than being alone.
I hope she’s doing OK.