We were driving around Kanata. Tension was building for Belinda as the end of my unemployment benefits approached. There was a similarity between Belinda with a thirty four year career, one federal government job, and me, whose longest job had been two years: work meant the same thing to both of us, money to pay the bills. Being without a job was unknown to her, familiar to me.
My employment was on our minds. Belinda pointed out the ‘Hiring – Part Time’ sign in front of the grocery store at Kanata Centrum. I had never worked in a grocery store but in one of those damn grand gestures, I pulled into the parking lot and ran in to get an application.
These gestures were made in mild anger. They were meant to go along with Belinda, to demonstrate that I was doing everything she suggested. She thought she knew how I should conduct myself better than I.
She is often wrong but that doesn’t bother her at all. It was just another whim for her, a help wanted sign seen through the window of a moving car.
Belinda’s been in management for many years and I have worked for very few places with good management. Most big companies, in my experience, have terrible management with no self respect or ethics. Morality doesn’t even enter into it.
She and I have a fundamental disagreement.
One advantage of living with a person who is in management is the opportunity to look at things through management’s eyes. Over a long, painful process, I learned to ask Belinda’s advice.
She had heard there was a union at this store, that the jobs probably paid ten dollars an hour minimum. All of my life I’ve had self appointed experts telling me what to do about work. Like her, most of them have never had to do the jobs I have. I appreciated their concern but seldom found a job because of their help.
I’ve often thought that stocking shelves, arranging vegetables, wouldn’t be bad work, but it was hard to believe that you could get ten bucks an hour for it.
I dropped off the application at the Kanata Centrum store.
Belinda couldn’t let it go. She was using guilt to motivate me. She knew that I wanted to work, but resented the fact that I was taking the time to try to find a decent job. This seemed to indicate that I was lazy and that I didn’t want to work. The next step in that reasoning is that all unemployed people should happily stampede Macdonald’s to take the jobs there.
I was sending Belinda off at five – thirty in the dark every morning. She was squeezing every ounce of guilt out of it.
Iris, from the grocery chain, called. She said that they had my application and asked if I would be available for an interview. She said that it was a union shop, that the starting pay was a few cents over minimum wage per hour. Their policy was that they only hired part time workers for a maximum of twenty-four hours per week.
When I shopped at our grocery store in the next few days, I watched the staff out of the corner of my eye. The vegetable department didn’t look too bad. The shelf stocking and pricing looked downright pleasant compared to many of the jobs I’ve had. Inside, warm and dry, radio music drifting through the store, nice smells, downright pleasant.
It wasn’t until I emerged into the parking lot in the driving rain that I stepped aside for the older guy pushing a line of shopping carts in the door. He had a wet, red face. I realized that this was probably where you started in a grocery store. You were the guy pushing carts around.
What would former school mates and friends think, if they saw me pushing carts around a grocery store parking lot?
When I told Belinda about my revelation, she started calling me “Bubbles”.
I found the store in the mall on March Road and parked in the lot. I didn’t really want to work for a company which automatically enrolled me in a union but paid minimum wage to start. I watched a young guy with a stubble cut pushing some shopping carts toward the store.
It was time for the interview. My attitude toward all paid work was the same. I figured most jobs were possible for me to learn. I had proved that to myself travelling around the world. “If they can do it, I can do it” had worked so far.
I found the customer service desk, waited while a woman behind the counter used a phone to call someone on the p.a. system. I notice several white haired men in grocery store uniforms.
The lady phoned Iris and directed me back into the lobby where there was a park bench. She told me to take a seat, Iris would be right down.
How many people did you see sitting on those benches inside the automatic doors at the grocery store? I sat for a moment, got up to check out the bulletin board. Next to it was a board showing snapshot sized photos of the management team with their names and titles. There, at the top, was Eddy Laval, Assistant Manager.
I knew Eddy and his older brother, Frankie, when they were kids at the rink where I worked in high school. They were rink rats like I was at their age. I had seen Eddy, years ago, stocking shelves at a grocery store. He must have stayed with the company all this time to become an assistant manager.
Iris arrived while I was looking up at Eddy’s smiling mug, his tie befitting his position. Iris was an attractive young woman, polite and friendly..
To make conversation, to skate over the first few painful moments, I indicated the picture, explained that I knew Eddy when he was a little kid.
We climbed the stairs to the offices. Iris asked what Eddy was like when I knew him. I told her that Eddy and Frankie were good kids, quiet, nice guys.
At the top of the stairs, Iris opened a door, we stepped into an office with a big window looking out over the store. Iris stopped.
“He says he knew you when you were a little kid”
She spoke to the two people sitting at the table with lunch bags and newspapers.
Eddy looked up from the paper with a worried frown. He had white and grey patches in his hair and moustache. He wore a look of bored exhaustion. Seeing me didn’t seem to help. His expression remained blank as he sort of nodded or blinked in recognition. I’m not sure if he said “Yeah” or “Hey” or just grunted. I didn’t notice him jumping across the table to pump my hand, welcoming me to the family. Then again, the way he looked, I didn’t hold it against him. Maybe he was trying to do me a favour.
Sensing embarrassment, I followed Iris into another room.
“But he was a good kid though” I managed. It was directed at the young guy, another stubble cut, who sat across the table from Eddy smirking at him.
Iris remarked that she guessed Eddy wasn’t the same as when I knew him. She pointed me to one of two chairs in a tiny, cubbyhole office. She was probably twenty years younger than I, Eddy, ten years younger. I couldn’t remember the last boss I had who was older than me.
A slim, white haired woman in a business suit sat at the only desk in the room sorting through piles of job applications. She smiled pleasantly, three feet away.
“I’ll be quiet”
“OK” I smiled.
Iris got her papers ready. She wanted to ask me a series of questions.
I indicated that I was ready. She asked me why I applied for the job. I appreciated Iris’ manner, it wasn’t intimidating or judgemental. I felt I could be sincere with her, but I couldn’t just laugh out loud. I glanced at the white haired lady. She gave me a reassuring look with a twinkle in her eye which meant that all three of us knew how stupid that question was.
“I was looking for a job”
Relief swept over us all. Iris went on to the next question.
“Think back, to other jobs where you’ve had a conflict with someone, say a customer, over something. How have you resolved it?”
I’m past being too honest in job interviews. For my jobs they wanted to hear you say the right things. I told her I’d never had a problem with a customer. It wasn’t a big lie.
The next question was about multi – tasking. How would I cope with a lot of things to do at once. I had no answer so I referred to the last job. As it was outlined in my resume, a yardman in an oil terminal has a million responsibilities.
I glanced at the lady with the white hair who was beginning to look more like a management type. She had the piles of applications all over the desk but the shuffling quieted when I gave my answers.
Thank goodness it wasn’t a big, important job. I still couldn’t believe that they were going to these lengths for a buggy man.
The final question was, even Iris admitted, a little strange.
“Think of a product, any product from any store, which you bought and you’ve found it’s the greatest. Tell me about it. Explain why it’s so great”
I was getting the feeling that the other woman was actually in charge here. Even if I graduated to sorting tomatoes I wouldn’t need to know anything like this. I wondered if they had me mixed up with a management candidate.
All three of us knew that these were Human Resource questions which had to be asked because they were on the list which Iris was consulting. She was taking notes too. She was probably an ex cashier with a degree training to be a Human Resources person. Good for her. Someone in the human resources department had decided that these questions were necessary so that these jobs wouldn’t be squandered on just anyone.
The only thing I could think of was my water barrel. It was a great acquisition. I recommended it to anyone with an eaves trough. Iris said she had an eaves trough.
I did a double take when Iris straightened her papers and told me that I would be contacted in the future if I advanced to the next level. Another level, I thought.
I left after shaking hands, saying polite thank yous. I was glad that Eddy wasn’t in the next room. Maybe I banned him from the rink for a week, but I couldn’t remember doing it. He and Frankie were good natured, dedicated rink rats. I know they coached little kids’ teams. Never any trouble that I could remember.
Iris called again a few days later. She wanted to know if I was available for an interview at the Kanata store I had applied to. Of course I was. I mentioned Eddy’s non response at the interview. She laughed it off, said they didn’t pay much attention to Eddy, he was probably “in a mood”. When the day came, I parked in the lot. An older guy with a goatee pushed long lines of carts toward the door. He wore a hood against the wind but no gloves. I’d wear gloves if I was doing that.
I followed a cashier toward the upstairs offices.
I shook hands with a pleasant chap wearing a brown shirt and tie, no jacket, Mr. Fisher. His back was to the picture window which looked out over the store. I tried to be pleasant and interested, but he knew that I didn’t understand the system. I couldn’t figure out what Iris was talking about when she explained the part time, permanent, job status.
In a nutshell, the only obstacle that he had with hiring me, on the spot, was availability. I had emphasized that my availability was wide open, nights, weekends, anything except graveyards. Iris had checked this twice. I thought that it was an advantage. It wasn’t. If you really wanted a full time job, it would take years there, so you would probably leave. It was a disadvantage to be too available.
Mr. Fisher emphasized that they only hired permanent part time employees, not temporary. When you signed on, they paid for training and orientation, you committed yourself to certain shifts. If you wanted to change those shifts to nights or weekends for another job, you couldn’t. All the other workers in the store had seniority, students needed nights and weekends. You were responsible for your shifts, out of a job if you didn’t do them. He made it clear that it was the union who forced you to sign the commitment to your designated shifts.
After a year’s worth of hours, the employees get some benefits. He said he needed people in the produce department from now till Christmas from six a.m. to noon. It would probably take two years for me to qualify for the benefits which sounded like they were designed to attract single mothers.
Mr. Fisher had middle management hair and glasses. He steepled his fingers, read from the notes Iris had written on my application.
“It says here you’ve haven’t dealt much with customers. Here, what we do with customers is make their shopping experience the best it can be”
We both knew he could say nothing else. I wanted to look out of the big window behind him but kept remembering the interview tips I’d seen: books, magazines and newspaper columns all advised the interviewee to give good eye contact.
The fact that Mr. Fisher was being nice while reeling off the cliches, made me feel better. The trouble was, we were in a serious discussion about a minimum wage job, maximum twenty four hours a week, minus union dues and taxes. He told me that he had no problem hiring me if I was willing to go along with the conditions.
I had repeated to Iris several times that I was looking for a full time job. That didn’t seem to faze her. She said that, if I got one, I could still come in on weekends.
I admitted to Mr. Fisher that I probably wouldn’t be able to continue the shifts which I took at the beginning when I got another job. He made it clear that the company didn’t want to pay for orientation and training only to lose the employee as had happened with one girl last week. I could see his point. He wanted a definite commitment. I couldn’t give him one. Even if I could do the job, I couldn’t live on the money.
We shook hands. I rose to leave. There was a tiredness behind his pleasant smile. Probably, aside from the money, the buggy men and produce clerks were feeling better than this guy. Doing what he did all day must have been exhausting. He said he had a few more people to interview.
Later Belinda told me that I should have lied and taken the twenty four hours a week for the moment. I don’t think even she believed that.
I left the store after picking up a green pepper and some pita bread. I felt relief and gave a cheery nod to the stubble cut pushing carts past my truck. He looked miserable, hood up.
That evening, I stepped outside to say goodbye to Belinda and her girlfriend as they left for the Bingo. She looked up at me from the driver’s window of her Mazda. She said I looked tired, no, depressed.
“You don’t turn down a buggy man job, every day” I smiled.
They drove off, laughing.
The grand gesture was a waste of time. Belinda had long forgotten that she started it when we were driving past the grocery store in Kanata Centrum.
I turned on the kitchen radio. A news break interrupted the drive home radio show: drivers, warehouse people and some cashiers were on strike at another local grocery chain. The issue: part time workers.