When I graduated from high school in 1973, it was difficult for me to find a job because I didn’t turn 18 for five more months. I did work at a telephone sales job in the summertime for a few weeks and then for several months with my good friend, Barb, selling a non brand-name encyclopedia set door-to-door.
That did not work out well. I am not a sales-person because I always felt like I was bothering people and my opening sales pitch was horrible: “You wouldn’t be in the mood to buy encyclopedias, would you?” “No!” as they slammed the door in my face.
So Virginia Hawkshaw, the sister to our neighbor, Betty Echlin, told me about an open part-time job in the ladies’ and children’s wear department where she worked at the nearby K-mart on Pierson Road in Mt. Morris Township. Apparently she had already put in a good word for me with the department manager who said I was hired even before I had managed to squeak out my name during the interview.
That was my first real job and it was interesting and fun. I had to keep the shelved clothing folded and neat looking. The other women who worked with me showed me “The K-Mart fold” which was a quick and easy method of folding tops and T-shirts so that the front was displayed nice and neat. Soon I was able to flip the clothing around almost as fast as they could.
I also had to keep the hanging clothes nice and neat as well. And I had to learn how to quickly answer the P.A. system’s call for “Ladies’ Wear, price check.” I was quick at running up to the check-outs but not so quick at being able to find that particular item and report back what price it was. There were so many clothes!
I also soon learned how to handle the layaway section in our department. There was a layaway section for the rest of the K-Mart store but we had our own separate ladies and children’s clothing layaway.
I learned how to bag up all of the customers’ selected clothing, write down all of the price tag and customer information and calculate out a payment schedule. Then I would correctly enter all of that information into our cash register and print out multiple copies. A copy was stapled to the bundled clothing, a copy was given to the customer, then a copy was put into the drawer underneath the cash register for somebody else in our department to file.
Layaway sections were in many stores then, but it is a service rarely offered today. Customers could select different items and they would be held in the back of the store while the customers made weekly or monthly payments until all of their items were completely paid off. This was a great way for people, especially lower-income families, to be able to afford to have new clothes and other items.
My department manager, Rose McCallister, was one of the few bosses I’ve ever had who actually knew how to be a good boss. She was nice but firm when she had to be and she didn’t throw her weight around just because she was a boss. She was kind and understanding when appropriate but tough and stern if she had to discipline someone. Rose was widely respected, and deservedly so, because she was always fair, just, and treated everyone equally well.
The benefits that I received while working there amazed me. Even though I was only a part-time employee, I had full medical benefits. I was also paid time and a half for the 8-9 hours that I worked on Sundays, instead of just my regular hourly wage for my usual 6pm-10pm weekday evening shifts. I was told by several of my co-workers that K-mart did that in an attempt to keep a union from forming.
I was hired in early October, about a month and a half before my birthday, and I didn’t know that I could request certain days off. So I was pleasantly surprised to find out that I had my birthday scheduled off. And even more surprised when my next cash pay envelope included being paid for that day!
Certain that there had been a mistake in the accounting department and not wanting to take money that I had not worked for, I took my payment envelope to Rose. I told her that there had been a mistake, that I had been given too much money.
She laughed as she told me it was department policy to always give an employee their birthday off with pay. My jaw dropped in astonishment! Wow, what a cool job!
My benefits and wages at K-Mart in the early 1970’s even astonished a woman I spoke to recently who had just finished a 10-year period of employment at the K-mart store in Bay City before being permanently laid off. She was an almost full-time worker but she had never had health insurance, no time and a half paid to her for any reason and never had she had her birthday scheduled off with pay during that whole 10 years.
There were a few downsides though. My first experience running a “blue light special” was horrifying. A blue light special was a famous K-mart tradition that is no longer done. At least once or twice a day a particular department in the store would wheel in a cart with a tall pole attached that held a blue light that could be turned on. The light looked very similar to the ones on top of the older police cars, and like them, they revolved and flashed.
Then an announcement would be made over the Public Address store speaker system that in that particular department a blue light special sale price on whatever item was now beginning for the next 15 minutes.
I had been working in our ladies’ and children’s wear department for just over a month when Yvonne, the oldest employee, asked me to conduct a blue light special on some kids’ clothing. So I hauled out the cart, got out my price-sticker gun and turned on the blue light as she made the announcement over the P.A. speakers that there would be a blue light special in the children’s department on selected tops and T-shirts at 20% off for the next 15 minutes.
I immediately saw a mad rampage of crazy-eyed women converging on me from all corners of the store, just like the running of the bulls at Pamplona, Spain! I was completely surrounded by these sale-frenzied women, who were rapidly pawing through my carefully folded shelves. A loud argument even erupted between two women who were both tugging on a little shirt, heatedly proclaiming that they had seen it first.
I was too busy with my price gun, quickly stamping the lower sale price sticker on all of the wanted items for these imploring women who were afraid to miss out before the sale expired. All I saw were what seemed like hundreds of waving hands in my face clutching kids’ clothes as I rapidly turned from one piece of clothing to another. And I think I stamped some of those women’s hands by mistake instead of the clothes.
Yvonne was standing back in the layaway room doors, laughing hard at my panicked expression and frantic price gunning, as she continued to make the blue light special announcement every couple of minutes, counting down the remaining time of the sale. Women who had entered the store in the middle of the blue light special would rush over and start grabbing kids’ clothes, eager to get in on the sale and the action.
Finally it was over! With much pleasure, I turned off the blue light and wheeled the cart to the layaway door, telling a few stragglers, no, sorry, they were out of luck, the sale was now over.
I sat down on the chair inside the doors with exaggerated relief as Yvonne, with stifled giggles, asked me, “So how did you enjoy your first blue light special?” “Oh my god, it was like a jungle out there! Where did all of those women come from?” I told her, while dramatically wiping my brow. She laughed so hard, tears rolled down her face.
Another downside was the changing stalls that were to the left of the layaway cash register. We all had to be eagle-eyed to make sure that people brought back out the exact items they had brought in. There were always a few people who thought they would be clever by putting on new clothes under their own.
We had early hot, spring weather in 1974. In spite of the air conditioning, it grew quite warm in those enclosed changing stalls, and unfortunately, there were some women who did not understand the importance of bathing and the use of deodorant.
Those changing stalls then reeked of accumulated body odors on the hottest of days. It just was not good customer relations to cover your nose when they came up close to you nor was it tactful to immediately grab and use the can of air freshener that was discreetly kept under the cash register.
But I had so much fun working there and sometimes a little too much fun. I was also going to college full-time in the mornings, with my first class at 7 am, and I didn’t have to be to work on the weekdays until 6pm. K-Mart closed at 10pm but it was usually 11 before we got everything tidied up so we could leave to go home…or not.
After working at K-mart for a month, I was invited to go with a regular group of store employees out to a nearby bar after work. Apparently this was quite the nightly routine for that group.
Most of us were single and young so we often closed the bars down at 2 am. Then we would go to Walli’s 24-hour restaurant that was just down the road to try and filter out the booze we had consumed and lessen its influence with food.
So this meant that I would often stagger home after 3 or sometimes 4 in the morning to get a few hours of sleep before I had to dazedly awaken and attend my first college class at 7 in the morning.
I had a system going though. I would frequently stay out quite late with my K-mart co-workers, catch a couple hours of sleep, get up, attend my college classes, come home, take a nap, work on my classes’ reading assignments then go to work. Since I usually had Saturdays off, as well as another day off during the week, that is when I would catch up on my sleep and the rest of my homework on those days.
Oh, to be young again! I easily pulled off that rough balance between work and college responsibilities and some hard nights of drinking and lack of sleep at the age of 18 with aplomb. Now it takes me several days to recover from just a very mild evening of a good time!
I somehow made burning my candle at both ends work out. I kept my grades up and made the Dean’s List for each semester and I was often praised for my work ethics and skills by my co-workers and Rose. But after several months, things began to unravel at K-Mart, but not from my candle burning.
Rose had decided that she needed an assistant manager and a young man was hired. I think his first name was Joe but I can no longer remember his whole name and maybe my unconsciousness is probably shielding it from me because I so grew to dislike him.
Joe was in his mid to late twenties, tall with blonde hair, married and with a little baby boy about a year old. He had such an arrogant attitude. He walked around like he owned the place, with his nose literally stuck up in the air, like the rest of us were beneath his notice and only worthy of his contempt.
He was put in charge of the supervision of our department, as well as our layaway, while Rose spent most of her time upstairs in her office from 9-5, handling the paperwork, clothes orders and her other management duties.
Joe determined who would work in what section in our department on a daily basis. He didn’t like me from the get-go, which I never understood because I always made friends easily. After a few weeks he began to order me to stay in our layaway for the whole time each night I worked. Usually me and my co-workers would take turns each night working in our different sections, switching over after our breaks. I didn’t mind working in just our layaway too much at first but I soon missed being out on the floor with my other co-workers and I even missed doing the “K-mart fold”.
I felt cooped-up in that little space. I also had to be in charge of the changing rooms that were a part of our layaway section so that meant I had to constantly inhale the accumulating body odors as that spring turned hotter and hotter. I used that air-freshening spray can a lot when no one was around. The only time I could escape was when I was relieved by Joe for my one 15-minute break.
One Saturday when I was scheduled off from work, I made plans to go to a movie with Jan, my best friend from high school. She had married immediately after our graduation and she also had a little boy. So to give her a break from being a full-time wife and mom, we made our plans for a few getaway hours that evening.
About an hour before I was due to pick Jan up, Joe called me at home. He asked me if I could baby-sit his baby boy so that him and his wife could go to the movies. He said that with his new job he had not been able to spend much time with her and that they needed a night out, just the two of them.
I hesitated because I had also made my own movie plans, and I was also irritated that this “request” from my boss seemed out-of-line. But then he rudely told me that unless I wanted to work in the layaway section forever, I had better tell him yes.
I felt stuck between a rock and a hard place. I did not appreciate being forced and threatened to do this “favor” for him on my own personal time. But then again, I also felt like I had no choice.
So I asked Joe if it would be okay if I brought my friend, Jan, with me since we had already made our own plans to hang out together that night. I also asked him how long did him and his wife plan on being gone. I was thinking that maybe Jan and I could just go to a nice restaurant after I was done babysitting so that we could salvage the evening that way.
He airily replied, “Oh, we’ll be gone just a few hours. Yeah, it’s okay to bring your friend. Be here at 7.” Then he hung up on me.
I sighed as I then phoned Jan and told her about the change in plans. She laughed as she said, “It’s okay. It will be fun for me to sit back and relax and watch you take care of their little boy while Wayne’s taking care of ours.”
So Jan and I arrived at Joe’s trailer promptly at 7 pm. Joe and his wife already had their jackets on and were waiting for us at their door, eagerly wanting to immediately leave. I practically had to stand in their way as I asked them what do I feed their son, what time does he go to bed and who would I call in case of an emergency.
They waved their hands at the kitchen as they told me to fix him anything in the refrigerator or the cupboards, he goes to bed at 8, and emergency numbers were in an address book on one of the counters of the kitchen. Then, whoosh, they were out of there!
Their little boy was in a playpen in the living room and he was such a little cutie! I picked him up and discovered that he was quite wet. So as I stripped him down, I asked Jan to find his diapers.
Jan came back and said she couldn’t find any diapers at all. Dismayed, I asked her to hold him while I found a linen closet and threw her a towel to wad up under the little boy just in case he was to pee or poop as I went searching for a diaper.
I looked in every part of that little 2-bedroom trailer but there were no diapers to be found anywhere. How could his parents not know that they had run out of diapers?
Angry at them and not knowing what else to do, I gave Jan some of my own money and my car keys and I asked her to please drive down to the nearest convenience store that was a few miles away and get that poor little kid some diapers. I also added that it would be best for her to get them since she would know better than me what size to buy.
So after she came back and we got him all diapered up and put into the cleanest clothes I could find, we played little games with him until it was time to give him some food before putting him down for the night.
My next shock was when I opened their refrigerator and discovered that there was only a half gallon of already souring milk and some moldy lunch meat. That was it. I pawed through their cupboards, hoping to find something, anything, edible for the baby but no, there was nothing but some stale crackers and a jar of peanut butter with only an inch remaining in the bottom.
Growing even more angry, I pulled out more of my own money and asked Jan to again go to the convenience store and get that poor kid something to eat, along with a gallon of fresh milk. In the meantime, I gave the little boy a bath and got him all freshly washed and tucked into his jammies.
After we fixed him some infant cereal and a small jar of baby vegetables, we read him a story and held our breath as we tip-toed out of his bedroom after putting him into his crib. Jan and I then sat in the living room trying to understand how those parents could leave their little boy with not one diaper or any food for him, much less for themselves, while they hurriedly skipped off to have a grand old time.
I was becoming even more mad about this whole situation. I was threatened to give up my own night-off plans so that Joe and his wife could have a good time and now I had spent so much of my own money on their kid! I was determined that I would be re-paid too, damn it!
I apologized to Jan for how this evening was turning out and I thanked her for being there with me so that she could twice go to the store. How could I have been able to bundle up that little boy into my car, with no car seat, twice, without Jan’s help?
We had fun anyways, chatting, laughing, and catching up with everything that had happened to us both since it had been so long when we’d had a chance to have a good, long talk.
Jan asked me what time Joe and his wife would be home and I told her that he had said they would only be gone for a few hours. But it was now 11pm and Jan and I were ravenous. So I sighed, pulled out more money, and I ordered a pizza, pop, and bread sticks to be delivered to us from the closest Little Caesar’s pizzeria.
We watched some television while we wolfed down the dinner that was a poor substitute for the one that we were supposed to have. The time kept ticking away. Midnight, then 1 am, then 2 am. Jan grew too sleepy and she fell asleep on the couch while I sat in a rocker-recliner, rocking and fuming, rocking and fuming, my temper increasing with every second that ticked away on the clock in the living room.
Finally, a few minutes after 3 am, Joe and his wife stumbled through their front door. It was obvious from their behavior and from the alcohol fumes reeking from the two of them, that they had spent quite a few hours drinking up a storm somewhere.
As they took off their coats, I woke Jan up and asked her to get our pizza and bread sticks out of the refrigerator. I would be damned if that Joe would munch the next day on the food that I had paid for.
As Joe’s wife stumbled towards their bedroom, Joe stood there, swaying, and looking stupid. He asked me how did the evening go. I told them that their little boy was bathed, fed and asleep since 8 pm and he was doing fine when I last checked on him just a few minutes before their arrival.
Then I told him, “Hey, there wasn’t one diaper in the house nor was there one bit of food to give to your baby. I had to pay for diapers and food bought at that nearby convenience store and here are the receipts. So you owe me $10 in addition to my babysitting fees. So let’s make it an even $20 since you ruined my evening and because you were out much, much later than the few hours you had said you would be gone.”
He reached for his wallet, opened it up, and peered into it. “Well, I only have a five dollar bill and I will need it for gas money. But just lock the door when you leave” and he turned to go to his bedroom.
Exasperated, I blew up at him. “What the hell did you think, that I was babysitting for free? You obviously had enough money to go out and have a fun time but you couldn’t be bothered with making sure your kid had diapers and food before you left? And apparently it’s perfectly okay for me to pay for your own kid’s diapers and food? Bullshit, Joe, bullshit! You owe me $20 and you will pay me $20 on our next payday! Or else I will tell Rose what you did to me on my day off and I know she will make you pay me back!”
He got angry back at me. “You forget that I am your boss too! I can fire you if I want so don’t threaten me! Rose can’t make me pay you a dime because it will be your word against mine! So get out of my house!”
I told Jan, “C’mon, we’re leaving this dump!” and I angrily stomped out to my car. I cussed Joe out the whole time it took me to drive Jan back to her house.
As she handed me back the pizza and bread sticks she had been holding, I apologized to her for such a rotten night when it was supposed to have been so much fun for the two of us. She laughed and said that tonight really had been so entertaining compared to what she usually did on a weekend and that she actually had enjoyed it a lot. That made me smile and I hugged her goodbye as I told her we would be enjoying a much more fun night real soon.
Monday evening at work, Joe pointedly ignored me, just curtly ordered me to work the layaway section again. But I told Yvonne and Sue, my co-workers, exactly what had happened Saturday night. They were appalled at what Joe had done, especially by his leaving his little boy with no food or diapers and then when he snottily refused to at least reimburse me for those costs and for my hours of babysitting. I also showed them the receipts for the stuff I had had to buy for Joe’s baby.
One of them, most likely Yvonne, must have told Rose what had happened. The next Friday Rose stayed until 6 pm, waiting for me to arrive for work. She then made Joe take a $20 bill out of his pay envelope and give it to me. Then he made a half-assed, glaring apology to me which had been so obviously forced out of him by Rose.
I was very grateful that Rose had done that because I wasn’t sure about the protocol of tattling to Rose about Joe, her assistant manager. That was why I didn’t say anything to Rose herself about it because that babysitting debacle had occurred on our own personal time.
But Joe wasn’t finished with me yet and I found out later exactly how low he could sink.
Several weeks later I arrived at work and there was a very tense atmosphere around my other co-workers. Joe wasn’t there either, which puzzled me, because he had been scheduled to work with us that night.
Soon after I had clocked in, Yvonne came up to me and whispered that Rose was upstairs in her office and wanted me to come up and see her. I asked Yvonne, “Am I in some sort of trouble?” She said, “Something bad must have happened because Joe left earlier in a fury and he hasn’t returned. I don’t know what’s going on, all I know is that now Rose wants to talk with you in her office.”
That did not reassure me so I slowly climbed the steps at the back of our layaway department to her office, hoping that I wasn’t going to be fired or be in any kind of trouble and I was unaware of any reasons why I could be.
Rose had her office door open and she asked me to come in and close it. I sat across from her at her desk, feeling my legs shaking. Then she asked me if I had ever wondered why Joe had ordered me to work in the layaway so many times.
I told her yes, I had often wondered why he did that. I also told Rose that it’s not that I disliked working exclusively in the layaway, but I did miss being out in the rest of our department with Yvonne and Sue. But because he’s my boss and he makes the decisions, I just did whatever he ordered me to do, with no questions asked.
Rose then picked up the phone and asked a Mike to please come to her office. She sighed as she began to tell me that the layaway cash register tills had been off in the last few months at the end of most nights, mostly missing $10 here or $20 there.
It was Joe’s duty, no matter who worked the layaway, to tally up the receipts with the money in the till. So he began reporting to Rose those discrepancies.
Then after a couple of weeks of even more discrepancies, Joe told Rose that they were only occurring whenever I worked the layaway, that they never occurred at the end of the day shift or when I had the night off. The discrepancies only happened when I was working the layaway. So Joe reported to Rose that it must be me helping myself to the money in the till and that I should be immediately fired.
Astonished and horrified, I told Rose, “I never took money out of the till! I always tried so hard to properly enter in all of the receipt details and make correct change from the deposits too! Maybe I made a few small mistakes from time to time, but not every night I worked in the layaway and most certainly not for those kinds of amounts either!”
Just then there was a knock at her office door and Rose told whoever it was to come in. I immediately recognized this Mike. He was one of the undercover store security guards.
He sat down and Rose asked him to please tell me what he had observed. Mike said that after Rose had first heard about the till discrepancies, but before Joe had come right out and accused me, Rose had asked him to secretly watch the layaway section each night.
The undercover security guards had many small one-way windows on the 2nd floor that held the store’s inventory that encircled the entire building. The security guards used these windows to keep an eye out for any shoplifters.
For several weeks Mike specifically kept a watch on just our layaway department through those windows, taking notes and taking pictures. An extra security guard had been temporarily hired to do the other routine surveillance while Mike concentrated on just our layaway department.
Mike told me he observed that whenever I worked the layaway and Joe relieved me for my 15-minute breaks, he saw Joe take a $10 or a $20 dollar bill out of the till and put it into his pants pocket when no one was around. That he saw Joe began to do this only once or twice a week, but Joe soon began doing it each and every time I worked in the layaway.
Then he showed me the pictures he had taken. They clearly showed Joe first opening up the till, removing money, and then putting the money into his back pocket. There were several sets of pictures from several different occasions. Mike said that at no other times, only when I worked the layaway, did Joe take money out of the till.
Rose thanked him for coming up to her office and then Mike left. I sat there, stunned. I could not believe that Joe had done that and I was also stunned that he had tried so hard to pin the till discrepancies on me.
A thought then occurred to me. I asked Rose, “Did Joe start raiding the till before or after I babysat for him that one Saturday night?” I was thinking that maybe because he had been forced to re-pay me and then apologize to me was what had made him do all of this, out of revenge.
Rose replied, “Well, both.” She gave me a faint smile at my puzzled look as she explained that Joe had already started taking money out of the till a few times before that babysitting incident but that he increased the thefts and his accusations about me after that.
She said that she had begun to have a lot of doubts about Joe even before the babysitting incident and before the layaway’s till discrepancies. So she did a closer check of his references and his education and work history that he had listed on his resume. She found out that not only did he not have the bachelor’s degree in business management as he had claimed, he had not even finished high school.
She also found out that he had been fired from several previous jobs for suspicions about missing money as well. There was never any actual proof so he wasn’t arrested or made to re-pay the money. There were just enough suspicions that it had been only him to warrant him being fired, but his past jobs always stated officially that he was fired for poor job performances, very unlike the reasons Joe had listed on his resume for why his previous jobs had ended.
Rose explained that after she begun doing all of that re-checking of Joe’s resume and credentials is when our own layaway’s discrepancies began. She had then asked Mike to do his own observations.
She just waited and gathered enough evidence to positively prove that Joe was the thief, that he had falsified so many things on his resume and that he was deliberately setting me up to get fired. She said she had always been confident that it was not me stealing from the layaway till, nor was it any of her other employees, and that she was so glad to find out that she had been right.
I started crying. I told her, “Rose, thank you so much for having that faith in me! I just don’t understand why Joe singled me out, or why he disliked me or why he would try to set me up like that, but oh my gosh, thank you, thank you for finding out the truth and for believing in my innocence!”
She got up from behind her desk and gave me a big hug as she told me, “It’s okay, Joe has been fired and his last paycheck will be withheld from him to repay back the money he stole in lieu of not having him arrested like I could have done. I think he tried setting you up because you had just recently been hired too so that you would have been a more obvious suspect than my other employees who have been working here much longer. But it doesn’t matter now, he won’t bother you any more and I’m pretty sure you won’t ever have to endure another horrible babysitting experience again either.”
That made me laugh, and Rose laughed along with me, so after I dried my eyes, I went back downstairs to work.
My co-workers eagerly asked me what had been going on so I told Yvonne and Sue that Joe had been fired for stealing money from our layaway till for months. And that Joe had also falsified his educational and prior job information on his resume and that there had been several past incidences of unproven suspicions that he had stolen money before.
But they really gasped when I told them how he had tried to set me up for his many till thefts but that Rose had had him secretly observed by Mike, one of our security guards. I told them that Mike had given Rose several photographs of Joe taking the money and then putting it into his pants pocket as proof of Joe’s guilt and that Mike had also shown me the pictures as well.
Yvonne and Sue were just as shocked as I had been! I told them how I had started crying as I thanked Rose for believing that it really had not been me stealing from our layaway till. I also asked them if they had any ideas on why Joe had disliked me so much, even from the beginning when he had first been hired and before that babysitting incident. I also told them about Rose’s theory as to why Joe had done what he had done to me but Joe had disliked me from his very first day and I had never understood why.
Yvonne told me that they had discussed that a few times, that her and Sue had noticed that he didn’t seem to care for me too much and had often disparaged my work to them behind my back. And they could never understand either why he had made me work in the layaway so frequently but it made sense now why he had done that. But beyond all of that, Yvonne and Sue couldn’t understand either why he had so disliked me.
Yvonne gave me a hug as she told me that everybody liked me, that everybody thought I was a great employee and so much fun to work with. So that made me feel so much better.
I had really tried to do so well in my first real job and I didn’t like the idea that I had somehow made someone dislike me so much and to the point of falsely accusing me of theft. I liked my job at K-mart and all of my fellow co-workers too. I most especially liked and appreciated Rose and even more so after I later found out that bosses like her were a rare commodity.
But all good things must come to an end. I had put in an application to Michigan Bell right after my high school graduation and soon after Joe was fired, they called me in for aptitude tests and then several interviews. I was then hired as a full-time long-distance telephone operator with much higher pay and increased benefits. So it seemed like a much better opportunity for me to work there until I had finished my college degree program to become a court reporter.
I had to submit my resignation to Rose and I gave my thanks to her again for having so much faith in me and I also told her what a wonderful boss she had been. She told me that she had enjoyed having me as one of her employees and that if the job at Michigan Bell did not work out, I was more than welcome to come back and work for her again. I also tearfully and gratefully said goodbye to my K-mart co-workers.
There was one thing I was very glad about not having to go through again and that was those mad, crazy stampedes of sale-happy women during those K-Mart blue light specials!
Please click on the comic strip to get a bigger image of this funny Calvin and Hobbes!