We all want a life filled with satisfying, meaningful work but most of us go through periods when a job is just a job. "If you must have motivation" Noel Coward reportedly said "think of your paycheck on Friday."
My mum got me my first job. It lasted all of a morning. I scored the second one myself, saw the Help Wanted sign sitting on the counter of the snack bar at the grocery store and walked over and applied. But nothing lasts forever. Job number three came via my dad. He was the chatty type. He told jokes to the tellers at the bank, spoke Arabic to the guys down at the Chevron station and toted up friendly acquaintances wherever he went, the dry cleaners, the post office, the grocery store. As luck would have it, he extended his bonhomie to the ladies at the drug store across the street from our apartment, where Joanie, the manager of the cosmetics department, thought he was 'a lovely man.' .
"Go see Joanie over at Drug King" he told me one afternoon while I was lounging on the couch paging through a Cosmo, my classes done for the day, half-watching the Mike Douglas show. "She's looking for someone part time."
"Which one is Joanie?"
I was in and out of Drug King all the time, picking up L'Eggs pantyhose, extra-black Maybelline mascara, GeeYour Hair Smells Terrific shampoo, a pack of Rothman's to fill my slim gold cigarette case, gum. Lightbulbs, laundry detergent, notebook paper, the occasional prescription. Unlike my dad, I didn't do a lot of chatting to the clerks. I went in, I shopped, I left. I had no idea who Joanie was.
"The blonde. The short one."
Joanie was a surprise to me. I was expecting glamour, like those modelicious types who don't need the overpriced foundation to look beautiful, the type to peer down their noses from the Clinique counter at the department store. As if they actually were models or highly paid stars instead of working in a department store selling cosmetics. Snooty.
Joanie was nothing like that. She was the opposite of that. Heavy with a fleshy face that fell into her thick neck, Joanie had a smile that pulled her whole face right up and you with it. I can see her full coral lips even now, curved up over big white teeth, smiling at me like I had the job the moment we met. I couldn't help but smile back. Forties, in a shapeless pink smock buttoned over a straight white skirt hanging down around her calves. On her feet—long before Reebox and Merrills and Nikes took the job away—those white leather shoes favored by nurses and diner waitresses all over America. Joanie asked me when I could start and welcomed me to the department. She'd have a pink smock ready for me the following day. No jeans allowed but I could wear pants if I wanted.
I mostly worked the late shift, from 1 to 10 with a half hour lunch. Unpacking orders from Revlon, Max Factor and L'Oreal, slicing through the packing tape on boxes of nail polish with a utility knife, each bottle in its slot inside a protective cardboard grid of a dozen bottles, making sure the actual count of every shade matched the invoice, circling the missing items. Slipping the bottles of Revlon nail enamel into the correct rows on the glass shelves—Cherries in the Snow, Fire and Ice, Love that Red—lining them up neatly, using a ruler to straighten them.
Customers would interrupt me, apologetically, laying their bottles of conditioner on the counter as I stood, pink feather duster in hand, a roll of paper towels and spray bottle of glass cleaner on the clean white counter next to the cash register.
"Excuse me?" Like I was doing them a favor. "Would you mind terribly ringing me up? It's so busy over there!"
It was. There were always lines at the two checkout stands and the tobacco department upfront, the sound of the cash registers opening and closing, the calls for price checks and change sounding like we were in a Vegas casino. The cosmetics department hidden around the corner was like my own private oasis.
I never had lines, often I had the place completely to myself. I 'faced' the shelves, pulling shampoo bottles forward, making sure the labels faced front, filling in the gaps. Stacked the round cardboard containers of Coty loose face powder, the old-fashioned boxes covered with peach colored flowers that made me wish for a dressing table topped with a silver tray. I had time to help women decide between naturally neutral, honey, translucent. I sprayed cotton balls with small bursts of fragrance for customers to tuck into their handbags. I helped women find their perfect makeup color match by dipping toothpicks into bottles of foundation and stroking it on the inside of their wrists. I told them confidentially, that Oil of Olay was just as effective a face moisturizer as the high priced brands.
A customer would hold up their hands, rough, painfully red.
"What would you recommend? Is there anything that actually works?"
"Have you tried Neutrogena's Norwegian formula? Norwegian fisherman swear by it." And I'd pick up the tidy little box with the small blue and red flag and put it into their cracked hands, flashing on the poor fisherman having to plunge their hands into icy buckets of fishy water. "If it works for them, it'll work for you."
Cute guys came in looking for Sun In, embarrassed when I asked if they needed help finding the spray on hair lightener. College girls came in looking for Charlie, that new fragrance that was kind of now, kind of wow. Their mothers wanted Chanel 5, their grandmother's insisting on Guerlain. Shampoo, moisturizer, false eyelashes, fake nails, liquid eyeliner and powdered blush. Pancake makeup, panstick makeup, matte lipstick, frosted lipstick, perfume, cream blush and old-fashioned rouge. We had it all.
And it was all so easy. While college meant laboring over English papers exploring the theme of adultery in Flaubert's Madame Bovary and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, or defending a woman's right to terminate her pregnancy for a philosophy class—issues that rarely came with simple yes or no answers—there was immense satisfaction in accomplishing the simple tasks of the day at the drug store, checking off the boxes, keeping the twenties stacked neatly, paper-clipping all the checks together, counting out the register at the end of the night.
Unpack the orders. Inventory the products. Put them away.
Keep the area clean. Help the customers.
Diapers? Aisle ten.
Pet food? Did you check over on aisle twelve?
Fans? I heard we're getting some more in tomorrow. That heatwave really did a number on the stock.
The job paid minimum wage when I was hired in 1973 but over the weeks and months and years, I made enough money to move out of my parents' place and pay my half-share of the rent in a Brentwood apartment. I made enough to put myself through college at both SMC and transfer to UCLA. I even made enough to pay for my own braces. By the time I graduated in 1977, I'd been married–in braces—and divorced—still wearing those braces. I didn't pay for the wedding, my parents took care of that. But that divorce? I paid for that too.