I started working at Rite-Aid my senior year of high school. I had quit my job at the barbecue on a wave of tears because I was stressed out from carrying a full-course load, an almost full-time job at two locations, and the college search. At the encouragement of my best friend, I called the owner and told her how I was hurt by the fact that they had ignored my cries of being overworked and instead of granting me the time off I had asked for, decreased my hours temporarily, but then slowly increased them again, knowing that I cared too much about disappointing them to ever say no. I concluded with a so, no, I’m not coming in today or tomorrow or any day after that.
But now it was February and I was poor. Those AP exams and graduation fees weren’t going to pay for themselves, so it was time to get back in the game. “Pull in here,” I said as my dad was passing by the Rite-Aid across the street from my old job. When I was working the late shift on the weekends at the restaurant, I would watch wistfully as the Rite-Aid employees shut down routinely at 10 and came out swiftly afterwards. We would be open until 1 am and then there was still the cleaning to be done. This was my chance to taste the sweet hours of the pharmacy life.
I went in looking for the old white man I had seen around and who must obviously be the manager. I found him near the registers. “Hi, I’m Andrea,” I said, launching into my spiel about going away to college in the fall, but needing a job in the meantime. All while I was talking I was reading his mind through his eyes. Who is this well-spoken black girl with goals and whatnot? Is she for real? By the time I finished, I knew the job was mine. When I got back in the car, my dad extended his hand, “Congratulations.” He already knew the deal.
It wasn’t long before one of my former coworkers came through my line. It was one of the managers, Ms. Pearlie. Our relationship had never been completely smooth, so it was fitting that she would bring the contention to my cash register. At first, she was barely making eye contact, but with her head in her purse, she finally drew up her eyes to mine, “I see you came over here and worked for the white man.” I wasn’t in the slightest moved by her words. Yes ma’am, I did and I have no qualms about it. See this here cash register? It’s locked by me, so there is no danger of some young teens that you hired stealing 200 bucks after of my cash register and having it docked out of my paycheck because they quit the same day they were hired. I done moved on up to the left side of the street and we’re doing bigger and better things here.
The clientele hadn’t changed. Same neighborhood, same bull. The only thing that had changed was me. I wasn’t the naïve girl who almost got tricked by a counterfeit 20-dollar bill on my first day of work (A woman came through the drive-thru and ordered a bunch of food and then changed her mind. Now she just wanted a two-dollar lemon cake. When she pulled around to the window, I hit her with my million-dollar customer service smile and got ready to get her change. My boss called out to me. “Wait, Andrea.” She scanned the money. “This is a counterfeit bill.” I turned to the woman to regretfully inform her that unfortunately someone had given her a fake bill. She had already driven away. Dumb, dumb me.) Nope, I didn’t play that game anymore. People came in line with nonsense and I sent them on their merry way.
And oh the games people would try to play. People wouldn’t have ID and would be pleading to buy alcohol. “I’m gon’ get my license on Monday, I swear. I just really need this.” Mmm no you don’t. Once, this girl yelled at me on her way out of the store, “She just mad because I think she’s ugly!” The levels. How would I have known what you thought of me when the first time I laid eyes on you was two minutes ago and ma’am, is this your way of persuading me to do your bidding? Oh darling, we’re going to have to work on your people skills.
My favorite thing to do was to slice someone down in the middle of a foolish complaint. The scanner for my cash register was a box on side of the computer near the bottom, which meant that if someone dumped a bunch of items on the counter, there was a strong possibility that something was going to get rung up accidentally. Once such incident occurred with this one lady on a Saturday evening. I accidentally rang up an item twice, so I had to press void and then scan it again. On the receipt, it looked as follows:
1 Item 3.00
1 Item 3.00
-1 Item -3.00
I saw her stare at her receipt for a second, but then she left. Two hours later, she appeared at the back of my line holding her receipt and I rolled my eyes. Soon enough, she made it to the front of the ling and the following exchange occurred.
“You rang me up for this item twice.”
“I did, but then I voided it. See here?”
“But it’s on here three times!”
“Yes, the first time is the intentional one, then the mistake, and then the void. You see a plus one, another plus one, and then a minus one. One plus one MINUS one equals one.”
(She’s now growing irritated with my calm. There is a sick pleasure I get out of people who come in ready to wage a holy war for some trumped up injustice and then get the air popped out of their balloon.)
“Ugh, will you just ring up the items again to be sure?”
“You don’t have the items with you.”
“Here is the receipt!”
“There are no barcodes on the receipt!”
After two more minutes of lunacy, I snatched up a bag of Ruffles from behind me that a customer had decided not to purchase.
“Look here. See? I scan it once. 1.50. Oops! I made a mistake. I scanned it again. 3.00. So, noooow, I press void and then scan it again and voila! The price is now 1.50 again even though we see three items on the screen.”
She stared at the screen. She looked at the receipt in her hand. Then the screen. Then the Ruffles. Then the receipt again.
“Um well, I didn’t look at the receipt carefully (oh really? You’ve been gone for two hours.) But, I’m going to go add it up and then I’ll be back.”
“Ok, ma’am, see you soon.”
When I told my dad what happened, he shook his head. You gon’ get yo’self shot up there, running your mouth like that. I rolled my eyes at his hyperbole. I don’t know what made me so confident. My mouth used to make me feel powerful. I guess I figured it also made me immune to bullets. My eighth grade teacher had told my mama that I used to intelligence as a weapon (sidenote: that’s crap on a stick. No one said a mumbling word about kids teasing me about my hair, clothes, weight, and acne, but oh when I stated facts about the trajectory of their lives, there was a problem.) If it was a weapon, then it could also be a shield. I was good.
My coworkers were more chill than my previous ones. This was an older crowd, so less baby mama/child support/drug possession drama. It was nice being the baby of the group (technically, I was the youngest employee at the restaurant, but it didn’t feel like it by the end), especially when it came to Ms. Geraldine. Ms. Geraldine was the resident grandma. She must have been in her early sixties and she came in and did her work, minded her business, and smiled at everyone. I will always love her for the day of my family reunion when I was assigned to work the late shift. I went to the picnic, but I also wanted to go to the banquet that night. I tried all day to get out my shift, but I couldn’t. Daddy took me to Rite-Aid and then went to my mom’s to pick up my baby sister.
I was silently seething when I clocked in. When asked by the manager what was wrong, I launched into a rant about how I had never been late, always did good work, subbed for others when they took off, and the one day when I wanted to be with my family, I couldn’t. It wasn’t fair. He started explaining to me why there was just no way to make it work when Ms. Geraldine interrupted to say that she would work past her shift and cover for me. “She’s a good kid. If this is really important to her, then I will do it.” Yes! Hugs and kisses for her and I was out the door, calling my dad to come back and rescue me.
There was one coworker in particular whom I did not trouble myself getting to know. She worked in the back of the store, so our paths didn’t cross too often. All I knew about her was that she was sleeping with a coworker and both of them were married to different people. Their illicit rendezvous would take place in her car in the last hour of the evening. We could see the car bouncing around like it was on hydraulics and I was disgusted. I couldn’t be bothered with either of them.
One day, I was in the break room, crying because the money for my AP exams were due and despite the fact that I had gotten a fee waiver discount for each of the exams and I was working, I still didn’t have the money. What was I going to do? She came in and asked me what was wrong. This was our first full-length conversation. I explained to her the situation.
“It will work out, I’m sure.”
“Mhmm, me too. See you later.” I got up and went back to my register.
The next day, I got to work and there was an envelope by my counter. I opened it up to find a pink card with a bunch of black women in their Sunday best dancing across the front. I remember it said something about you have to dance when the spirit says dance. And there inside was a wad of twenty-dollar bills, equaling the cost of all four full-priced AP exams. I still have that card in my memory box.
For the first time in my time working there, I walked back to where she worked in the store. I told her thank you and gave her a huge hug. “We’re very proud of you around here, Andrea. We expect great things from you.”
I wish I could say that what that experience taught me was not be so judgmental and value all people regardless of their personalities or life choices and that I never acted that way again, but that would be half-truth. Yes, I did learn that lesson that day and it changed my behavior for the duration of my time in that place, but I forgot it again, learned it again, and forgot it again. I constantly have to be reminded of this lesson. The difference today is that the repetitive lessons are starting to sync up in my brain and I am able to connect this lesson to more recent variations of it. Maybe when they all link up, the complete picture will fill my head and I will finally commit it to heart.