I got my first job when I was fifteen years old. Every Thursday from 5pm to 9pm and Saturday from 9am until noon, I worked as a shop assistant at Fay’s Shoes in a monstrously huge, loud, fluro-lit shopping centre that boasted it was the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. This boast was repeated to me by Fat Terry when he hired me.
I would never have been brave enough to call him Fat Terry – that’s what one of the other shop assistants, Tracy, called him. She was the only one who seemed relaxed about working, who made jokes, who wasn’t grateful. She took cigarette breaks with Terry by the back door, near the sink full of dirty coffee mugs. I tried to be her friend but another girl beat me to it.
That’s not the point. Terry treated all of us with enormous disinterest. He wasn’t that interested in the customers either. He was interested in the daily takings. Only when the regional manager, Even Fatter Ron, showed up did Terry become animated. Mostly he checked the till, often, counting money and moving rubberband-wound wads of cash into the safe that sat out the back, under the sink. Also, he hoiked his pants up a lot, told Dulcie (a small, skinny women hooked over with age, with Margaret Thatcher style hair, the twitchy eyes of a bird and high-heeled shoes meant for a twenty-year-old) to dust, told me to tidy the shelves. Since none of us were given any training or instruction I didn’t know what that meant – I moved shoes around on the glass shelves in arrangements that I found pleasing, making them look like they were walking somewhere, or putting apricot shoes next to pale blue ones.
The shoes were ugly and shoddily made, and I felt bad for anyone who bought them. When Terry was out of earshot I would tell mothers to go somewhere else for children’s school shoes since ours were bad. I felt this was the kind thing to do for the children, but the mothers would frown at me and tell me to get them this size or that. I realise now they wanted the task to be over and done with. But I was fifteen then, and wore school shoes myself.
Why anyone bought ugly, shoddy shoes from a clumsy and clueless fifteen-year-old in a big airless complex full of awfulness was beyond me then. Now I know people had little choice, and were used to cheap child shop assistants. It was Brisbane, too. A small city with people who, for the longest time, took what they were given – only later in my life did I realise what a terrible legacy that was for so many of my friends and family. We knew we were small, lesser, not cool, and certainly not worth being heard in the way people from, say, London or New York were. We aimed low, in life aspirations and footwear.
That’s not the point either. The point is that my first job, and every subsequent job offered me life lessons that have stayed with me. Terry had no intention of teaching me anything. When I left Fays’ Shoes, at the end of a Saturday morning shift after three years of Thursdays and Saturdays, he didn’t look up from counting the morning’s takings when he said goodbye. No bonus, no box of chocolates, no reference. I walked across the splotchy stained grey carpet, past the metal and glass display cabinets, and out under the pull-down roller door security gate, to where my dad was waiting to give me a lift home. There were no buses that went from the shopping centre to our suburban street.
What I learned from Fays’ Shoes was this: never have empty hands. A visiting regional manager with an American accent told me this, and since tuition was so lacking, I clung to it as sage advice. In my own home, still, decades later, I almost never have empty hands. ‘Always be doing something!’ he said. ‘Never have empty hands when you could be doing something useful with them!’
As a waitress I learned that chefs are highly strung and prone to howls of rage, and that apologising to customers for late meals is well and good but you need to fix the problem or they stay mad.
As a subeditor I learned I am not good at coming up with pithy headlines and should never write poetry. I am not succinct.
As a book editor I learned it is right to tell people the truth, always, but that you should gauge their capacity to deal with it before you choose your words. I learned this, but I rarely do it.
As a copywriter I learned that some people don’t think they are worthless – they think, at first blush, they are worth more than gold, more insightful than a prophet, more necessary than oxygen. Once I watched more carefully, I learned that these people are insecure, angry, and maybe won’t ever get over their childhoods.
As a parent I learned you can be very alone, no matter how many people are in the room with you.
All of which is useful, in one way or another.
I’d like to know what other people have learned, over the years. If you’re inclined to share, I’d love to hear from you. Learning from others…that, of course, is the point.
And designer Stefan Sagmeister: