When we are sixteen years old, it is hard for us to truly understand the great risk to self and property someone takes when they decide, against all of humanities better judgment, to hire one of us young, naive, trouble making miscreants. They often give us keys and access to money and worst of all, the ability to speak to customers even though we haven’t the slightest clue what we are talking about.
The very first time someone was ever crazy enough to hire me was at a local pet store, which was just up the street from my grandmother’s house. I was thrilled at the prospect of a job and being able to work with animals and just having something to do outside of the house. The other issue with being so young is that we are far less likely to understand when a job is not for us, or in my case, when a job breaks every work environment and city code known to man. I began my employ at Hart’s Corner at the young age of 13. But Jaysen, you are thinking to yourself as you read this on your iphone while attempting to go number two, it is illegal to hire persons of that age. You’d undoubtedly be correct. BUT, what if I told you that you could in fact hire that person but call it “volunteer” work and then pay them $2 an hour store credit, under the table AND get their parents to sign away that this was all okay? You’d be on board in an instant, I’m sure.
I set off to work, learning all about rats and snakes, bunnies and tropical fish, aoles and iguanas, geckos and chinchillas. As an animal lover (See all previous articles for more on this topic) I was in heaven. That was for the first week. The intense labor of the job soon became overwhelming, and any day the work was too much to handle, surely the much older staff was doing something 100% against the rules. Two of my co-workers, for example, would wait until we were closed and then have sex atop of a trash barrel in the back room where we put all the excrement from the cages of the animals too sick or decrepit to display on the floor.
Another one of my fellow staffers would take to smoking in the store and then blow the smoke over the water of the fish tanks claiming it made the fish ‘heartier.’ This pet store was an establishment and had been around for years and while the owner was incredibly nice and really legitimately cared for her customers, the overwhelming stress of raising a family and trying to save a failing business caused her to often miss the ridiculousness going on right under her nose. That’s not even mentioning the ridiculousness that was just part of an average day.
If a customer came in wanting a rat to feed their snake, they might ask for it to be knocked out or even possibly dead. This meant that we were to go in back, remove an already agitated rat from its home, with the hopes of not being bitten, and then swing it by its tail so that its head were smacked on the edge of the cage. The force at which this was done, depended on just how concussed the customer needed the rat to be. I can honestly say I never did this as A) I was too traumatized from seeing it to ever possibly do it, B) I was small and did not have the proper upper body strength to actually kill a rat and C) EWWWW EW EW EW EWWWW!
Many customers owned pirañas or arowanas or turtles or any number of smaller fish eating big fish. This meant that they would come in to purchase large quantities of goldfish. Catching the fish and then bagging them was slimy and unpleasant but totally doable. That was unless the poorly built electrical system, providing oxygen to the fish, happened to fall from its SCOTCH TAPE, that was meant to hold it, and then plummet into the water. This meant that you would go to pull the fish out and receive a massive shock. You would then have to fix the electrical issue, while avoiding the sparks, before you could catch the fish. When finally this was all done, you would have to answer to the customer who thought that it took entirely too long to catch fifteen goldfish.
Eventually, I received a raise, which I was ecstatic about. I was now making five real dollars an hour, in addition to my store credit wage. Because of the high dollar amount of store credit I accumulated, we often times brought animals from the store home. At one point, there was a menagerie of critters living in the small town home my mother and I shared. We owned everything from ferrets to rats to chinchillas to flying squirrels. We had a hedgehog and a hamster and sugar gliders and that is not even mentioning the three cats and a dog. It really was a full house.
I can honestly say that the cast of characters in this store truly shaped my youth. From Adam, the first openly gay male I’d ever met, to Michelle, the first girl to ever teach me to break the rules, to Ellie, the girl who treated every new employee like crap until they warmed up to her, it was a tight nit team. I learned how to work with others, even though it was in every way more work than it was worth. I learned about trance music from Adam and I remember it being the first time I’d ever really liked music and understood the way a rhythm could transform me. I learned the value of hard work and I also learned what it means to understand that a job, even when you really devote yourself to it, might not be for you.
Eventually I left the pet store for other employment, which did things like pay minimum wage and allow you to not get electrocuted every day. I will, however, never forget my time at Hart’s Corner or the many animals I owned while there. Through the good and the bad, every job is a learning experience, and for a first job, I look back now and realize that while it could have been better, it could also have been much worse. Hart’s has since closed down, being replaced by other stores in its wake and for this I am glad. While the owner loved the store and wanted it to do well, I imagine she is off somewhere, having the time of her life, finally getting to do something she really wanted. All things end but it is what we learn from them that truly benefits us. And if nothing else, how many jobs have you worked which offer electroshock therapy as one of the benefits? I’m guessing not as many as me.
This blog post comes out of a weekly writing prompt I do with Carl Li and others. Read his submission HERE.