I got my first job when I was 16. And since then, I’ve had close to 30 different jobs and have been fired only twice.
This is about the first time I got fired.
I wish I could say I got fired from my first job because it makes a better story, but technically it was my second job. I had done a very brief stint at a local grocery store. I lasted one day on my own. Turns out a person with two carts full of groceries and hundreds of dollars in food stamps was my breaking point. Long story short: I couldn’t remember how to ring in food stamps, I had to call the manager, the customer got impatient, I got anxious and embarrassed, and then spent the rest of my first (and last) shift quietly crying behind my register. I just wasn’t cut out for the fast-paced pressures of a grocery store.
After my experience at Tops Friendly Markets, I went in search of something with lower stakes and I found it. My friend put in a good word and helped me get a job working with her at TJ Maxx. I figured as long as there were no food stamps to trip me up, I’d be fine.
I started in the fitting room, which I liked because I didn’t have to talk to too many people. But what I didn’t like was having to enforce the fitting procedure. Anyone who’s ever been in a fitting room knows the procedure: you’re interrogated about the number of items you’re going to take out of view of store employees and in exchange, you get a plastic number to hang outside your fitting room door. But with the TJ Maxx fitting room procedure, I was specifically instructed to physically take the items from the customer and count them myself. And not just count them, but also make sure that the customer isn’t trying to smuggle more items into the fitting room than they are admitting to (you know, make sure they’re not trying to steal anything).
Now here’s the thing: that system works fine if the customer has a big pile of stuff. Then it makes sense for me to take the items, count them out, and then hand them back to the customer. I look like I’m being helpful. But when someone rolls up with two things, one in each hand, and says, “Just two,” and I still try to take the two items from the customer so I can count them myself? Then it kind of looks like I’m trying to make sure you’re not trying to steal. As it turns out, a lot of women got annoyed and even a little offended when they feel like a high schooler is questioning their integrity.
I’ll tell you what, 17-year-old me wasn’t particularly interested in conflict so after awhile, I stopped taking the clothes from the customer and just started taking their word for it. I didn’t think it was a big deal. But apparently my manager did. Because when he walked by and saw that I wasn’t doing it the way I was supposed to, he stopped in the fitting room and counseled me on the importance of the fitting room procedure. Which I followed for about an hour, until an adult woman got bitchy with me and then it was back to the honor system.
In time, I graduated from the the fitting room to the register and then eventually to the Service Desk. I was one of the cool kids with a key to the register. I had made it to the big time, y’all; I had the power to do returns.
But despite my rise in ranks, I wasn’t completely free of the fitting room. One day, a co-worker had called in sick and I had to cover for her. It had been months since I’d worked a shift in the fitting room; I had put that ridiculous fitting room procedure behind me. And sure enough, a manager walked by just in time to watch me not take clothes from a customer who was coming in to try a few things on.
“Raina, you really need to take the clothing from the customer, count them yourself, and then hand them back,” she said with the same hint of impatience that most adults had when speaking to me.
About two weeks later, I worked an agonizingly long shift. Fine, it was 9 am to 5 pm. But I had stayed up way too late the night before hanging out with my boyfriend and had slept just shy of three hours sleep before my eight hour shift. The day was a waking nightmare; after showing up late (my friend had to call and tell me I was supposed to be at work), I spent a long day of trying to stay coherent while people tried to argue with me about whether or not a pair of damaged sunglasses should be discounted.
It was the kind of tired where you feel like, at at any minute, you might throw up and fall down. But I made it through the eight hours. And while I was getting ready to leave for the day, I got a call from the manager on duty; she wanted me to stop in the office before I left.
It was my least favorite manager working that day; she had a little bird-like face and was an uptight, condescending woman who liked to catch you doing something wrong so she could tell you about it. She let me into the office and instructed me to have a seat next to the desk. As I sat down, I noticed some papers on the desk. The first thing to catch my eyes were the words, “Reason for termination…” followed by some squiggly handwriting.
I’m getting fired? Wait, why?
“You’ve been talked to on more than one occasion about not following fitting room procedure,” she said in a snotty way that made me like her little bird face even less. I protested briefly, explained how I felt uncomfortable frisking people on their way into the fitting room but it fell on deaf ears. My days of wearing that grey smock were over.
I was left to my own recognizance to go to the break room to get my things. Thinking back on it now, it’s kind of strange that no one walked me out. Maybe if I had been escorted out, the following mishap could have been avoided.
When I got to the break room, it was empty; everyone was in the front of the store working. I was super fired up about getting fired. Not just because I thought the fitting room procedure was utter bullshit but because they made me work the whole day and then fired me. Seriously, at least if they’d fired me in the the morning, I could have gone home and taken a nap. Then the day wouldn’t have been a complete waste.
I was angry and I felt like acting out. I ripped my smock off and threw it at the lockers as hard as I could. Have you ever seen half a yard of fabric fly through the air? Exactly, it lacked the drama I was trying to convey. I was still pissed off and wanting to prove a point.
And then I saw the cake. Once a month, the managers would buy a sheet cake from the grocery store to celebrate the employee birthdays happening that month. I was having a shitty day and decided in that moment that if I can’t have cake, no one’s getting any.
Now, this next bit is still highly debated to this day:
The way I remember it, I picked up what was left of the sheet cake and awkwardly wrestled it into the trash can that was just a hair too small for the cake.
However, not one but two of my friends who worked there with me swear up and down that I didn’t throw the cake in the trash. They insist that I took that cake and, like a maniac, smashed it into the front of the break room vending machine.
While I don’t remember all that, I do remember leaving feeling vindicated (and slightly guilty for wasting cake). You know what else I remember? The shame. Getting fired was a new kind of embarrassment and a mistake I wasn’t trying to make again. I learn everything the hard way so I guess I’m grateful that it happened when it did. Because after that job, I took work way more seriously.
I like telling the story of the first time I got fired because I totally deserved to get fired and it’s a funny story. I like telling the story about the second time I got fired because I didn’t deserve to get fired. And it’s crazy story.
I’ll tell you about it next time.