Saturday, December 02, 2006

Work Permits & Cotton Candy

by Gina Sestak

My first job was as a salesclerk in G.C. Murphys. I had to go to the Board of Education for a work permit because I was still in high school then. It was a little intimidating, filling out forms at the main office of the Pittsburgh Public Schools. I went to Catholic school myself.

Weekdays after school I would get on a bus to East Hills Shopping Center, one of the early outdoor shopping malls, and work from 5 to 9, then take the bus home. I also worked on Saturdays. Sundays the store was closed because Pennsylvania law prohibited the sale of anything but food on Sundays.

At that time, every department had it's own cash register and salesclerk standing ready to wait on customers. Because I wasn't a full time employee, I wasn't assigned to any particular department. I was a "floater," available to work whereever needed. Most departments were pretty boring; you stood by the cash register waiting for a sale or folded and refolded stack of towels, shirts, etc., trying to look busy in case a manager walked by. There were times we had to call a manager on purpose, using secret codes that gave both the reason and location: "Code 24 in 13," etc. They meant things like, "I need change (nickels, quarters, dimes)," "I made a mistake (over-ring -- charging too much, or under-ring, charging too little)," or "I see a shoplifter." That last one would bring the managers all running.

Working in Clothing required me to monitor the dressing room to make sure nobody stole or damaged merchandise. Then there was the always embarassing measurement of customers. A tape measure was stowed on a shelf beneath the cash register. Customers never wanted to know how tall they were, or the girth of their waists -- easy things to calculate in public. Instead, the parents (usually immigrants who spoke only broken English) required my services in measuring the in-seam of a little boy or a young girl's bust for her first bra while the measuree in question stood stock still and blushing.

Notions required measurement as well, to cut the proper length of fabric from huge bolts of cloth. I learned to estimate a yard by stretching the fabric between my nose and outstretched hand. The estimate would be verified by holding the cloth against a yard stick tacked to the edge of the counter, then a small cut was made along the edge and the chosen piece torn off by hand.

Housewares also included cutting things. There were rolls of vinyl to be measured and sliced with a device that ran along a track. Some of the vinyl was thick, with an uneven surface, meant to be laid upon a floor to keep wear and water off the carpet. Other vinyl was thinner and multi-colored. I never knew what people used that for -- making tablecloths, perhaps? We sold a lot of it.

Selling phonograph records was a little more fun. I got to read the album covers. The best, though, was making popcorn, ice balls, and cotton candy. In the summer, this would be done outside, in front of the store, enticing passers-by to stop and buy. Popcorn was made in a large glass box. A cup of popcorn was dumped into a little hot container near the top, and popcorn would leap out of it to fill the entire bottom of the box; it could then be scooped out into boxes. Making ice balls required filling a paper cup with shaved ice, then pouring sweet syrup over it and sticking in a little wooden spoon. Cotton candy is really nothing but spun sugar water. You use a cardboard core to catch the floating strands of sweetness -- an easy task because they are naturally sticky -- and build a fluffy mass.

I didn't make much money at this job -- I think it was about $1.09/hour. Murphys cashed employee checks then, so every week I'd get a pay envelope with real money inside. I stashed the envelopes in an old purse in a closet, spending a little on LPs (33 rpm record albums) and a lot on bus fare. When I started college, I pulled out the little envelopes and had more than $100 saved.

What did I learn from this job? I learned how to make cotton candy. Isn't that enough?


Nancy said...

Cotton candy-making sounds like an excellent lifetime skill to me, Gina.

You took me back. Where I grew up, the G.C. Murphy was our local "department store." We got everything there--from underwear and LPs (my first Beatles album! I still have it!) to that plastic stuff we used for re-covering my grandmother's picnic table every year. (We stapled it underneath the table, left it out all summer and replaced it every spring.)

Loved the post!

Kristine said...

Wouldn't it be great if all retail stores still adhered to the rule to close on Sunday? I remember working retail during high school and college. I hated going to work on those Sunday mornings.

Tory said...

In addition to learning how to make cotton candy, Gina, it sounds like you also learned how to "look busy" for management. I'm afraid that's an art I've never mastered. Either I'm busy and look it or not.