Friday, November 18, 2005

Working Girl

On of the MEMEs I did earlier tonight asked the question (in a different format), 'what was my first job?' After a discussion about working for a jerk at training the other day (yet another post I wrote tonight), I was reminded of my first job.

When I was 15, I entered the working world as a hostess (and eventually server) of a family-owned and operated Chinese restaurant. I was quite green in the workforce and I can look back now and find how much I learned in this position that has trickled down into other jobs I've held and how I now try to act (or not act) as a boss.

As I tell you the stories about this job, please remember I was 15 and 16. This was my first job. I did not know that some of these behaviors were not acceptable for an employee to tolerate. It took me a year and four months before I walked out. This is the only job I've ever walked out on without two weeks notice. This is also the only job I've ever been fired from (I'll get to that). I know the two previous sentences contradict each other. I did actually quit this job, but there was an issue at one point.

Okay, enough of the double talk. In March of 1994, I was looking for a part-time job and a friend (former) of mine was working as a hostess at a restaurant on the frontage road behind my house. It was within walking distance and I did cut through my backyard and walk two buildings over (past the AA building and the Animal Hospital) once I was hired. This lasted for a few months before I made an impulsive mistake. I applied for a position as hostess and had my first interview. It was held in the entryway of the restaurant, sitting in the orange chairs the customers waiting for their orders would sit. My interview was very informal. It was with Jim, the manager, and Milan, the owner. Jim and Milan were married and childless. They lived in the house behind the restaurant.

I passed the interview and was offered the job, working for $5 an hour. It was a minimum wage position, but what did I care, I was 15. My training involved the waitress telling me on my first day to answer the phone, "Oriental House." Yep, it was extensive.

Over time, I learned how to abbreviate take-out orders (Fried Rice = FR, Chicken = CH, Beef = B, Moo Goo Gai Pan = MGGP, Egg Roll = ER, etc.). I learned how to make hot tea without burning my hands and how to pull the strings off of pea pods.

The food in this restaurant was excellent. The egg rolls were perfect and the seasame chicken was to die for. I found out that I love cream cheese puffs and that beef potato may very well be my favorite stir fry ever.

First, the story of my firing. The other girl that worked there, a friend of mine until the fateful day, decided that it was time to cause a stir about the hours we worked and the fact the establishment served liquor. We both signed the waiver that allowed us to work until 9 PM (because the law stated we could only work until 8 unless we signed the waiver). Her mother was an assistant to a paralegal, so of course she was an expert at the law. (I still have hard feelings over this. What can I say, I'm a Scorpio.) She threatened to sue the owners because she worked until 9 and there was beer there.

The owners only option was to tell us both that we couldn't work there anymore. They said that they didn't know about the liquor law and so we were given the pink slip.

Being 15, I cried. I was furious and livid and screaming at her when she showed up at my door with her mother. I'm pretty sure I called her stupid and ignorant and if she didn't like it, why didn't she just quit? Why did she have to ruin my job because she didn't want to work? She was the first person I truly hated.

Three hours later, the owners called me and asked if I wanted to work at their other restaurant, a fast-food Chinese restaurant called Hot Wok. They were happy with me as an employee and had felt trapped by the actions of my "friend" (who, by-the-way, was stealing money from the till).

I did accept this offer and headed up to Hot Wok for one night of employment. During that night, I managed to break three plates, get yelled at, and almost threw-up on customers. This was my one day ever working fast-food. The amount of grease going through a restaurant, that doesn't even have that greasy food, to serve that many customers was more than I could handle. I told them I didn't want to work there anymore.

The owners' solution? They rehired me for Oriental House and just asked that I don't tell this girl. No problem. I kept a secret job for a year. After a while, I was asked to be a waitress on Sunday afternoons/evenings. My mom even picked up a few shifts, being the hostess while I served tables.

The kitchen staff was a diverse mix of people. This job gave me a crash course in diversity and different cultures. We had cooks from Laos, Vietnam, China, and Mexico. I'm not sure if any of them had green cards. I would practice the Spanish I was learning in school with the Mexican cooks. This is where I learned the responses to "How are you?" that they do not teach in school. It also helped me when my family went border-hopping to Nogales, Mexico and a little girl said some naughty words to me when I declined purchasing crap at inflated prices.

At the time, I was a young girl. Puberty had hit, obviously at age 15, and the cooks were sometimes a bit too lose with their hands. I would reach to grab the boxes of food to bag up and I would have my hand taken. One of the female cooks would always talk about my skin and wanted to touch me often. Maybe it was cultural, but I'll admit. It made me very uncomfortable.

One of the cooks cornered me one day in the kitchen while the rest of the staff was outside, talking with the owner. He reached out and started touching in ways that children are taught to yell, "Bad Touch!" This was not my reaction. My reaction was to slap him, full-force and threaten him with, "If you ever touch me again, I'll see you deported!" It worked. He was quickly no longer working there, for fear that I would call the INS. Last I heard, he was working at a different restaurant.

Jim and Milan soon had a good news announcement to make to the staff. Milan was pregnant! It was exciting around the restaurant, the women getting together to plan a baby shower, and the men all slapping Jim's back. The happy day arrived and the baby was here.

When the little boy was brought into the restaurant, everyone noticed that his ethnicity didn't quite match. Jim was of the Irish heritage and Milan was Chinese. This little baby looked quite Mexican. This is about the time Jim started his mid-life crisis and Manuel disappeared. The theory is that he is buried in the backyard of Jim and Milan's house.

Jim became paranoid of all women. He wouldn't speak to the female cooks or my mother. He wouldn't converse with the other female servers and even shut off from the male cooks. The person he decided to bring all his troubles to? That was me.

He started asking about school. He wanted help with all the new menus and graphic design for them. What would be my input for a new layout? Did I like using computers? He'd start inquiring about how my social life was going. It really felt like he was trying to be my father. I have a father, thank you very much.

The problems between Jim and Milan increased and they were rarely seen together. Milan knew that Jim was trying to connect with me and of course, that made me a target for her anger.

Before the baby, Milan was a large woman. I do not mean this to be discriminating or an insult; I am just stating some facts. After the baby, Milan was even larger. The space behind the counter was barely big enough for her to fit and the back, where we bagged up the orders, was tight when she was around. She was not graceful as many larger people are and tended to push her way around.

Jim had wanted me to stay employed and was scared I would run off to work at McDonald's. He offered me a raise to help keep my wages competitive. He raised my hourly rate to $5.25 an hour. McDonald's was hiring at $7.50 an hour. Yeah, real competitive.

One night, a large party of guests dined at the restaurant. The host of this party did not want his guests to know how much the bill really came to. He spoke to Jim and paid $50 in cash upfront to keep this figure off the bill. Jim took the money and we gave the ticket to the party. When they left, the money was with Jim.

My till had always been perfect. I was never off even by a penny. That night, the till showed $50 short, because of the money that Jim had. Milan called my house at 3 AM to accuse me of stealing.

My mother, a woman who had to get up by 6, was not thrilled to hear this. The conversation went a bit like this:

Milan: You are short $50. You stole it.
Beth: What? No, I didn't.
Milan: Where do you suppose it went then?
Beth: Jim took $50 from a party and he has it. Have you talked with him?
Milan: *muffled* Jim? Do you have $50 from the till? *not muffled* Oh, he has it. Goodnight.
My mother: Wait a minute bitch. First of all, you just called and accused my daughter of stealing. You need to get your facts straight before you ever think of doing something like that again. Talking to your husband would be a good plan in the future. Second of all, it is 3 in the morning. There are people in the world that do need to get up early for other jobs. You need to be considerate of others and realize that this is not an appropriate time to call a 15-year old high school girl's home on a weekday. Finally, you need to apologize right now for your rude behavior.
Milan: Whatever. Sorry. Bye.

This is when I started looking for another job. It was now July of 1995 and I applied at a couple of places around town. I could drive by this time and I was offered jobs at both Targt (retail store) and Denny's (a 24-hour restaurant). I accepted and gave Jim my two weeks notice.

A week into my final stint, I was working the Friday night rush. All the people who did know I worked at the restaurant (my parents, my parents' friends) thought I was too nice to give two weeks, but it was my way of trying to leave on a positive note. The restaurant was hopping, but I was keeping customers happy. I was able to keep taking orders and knew the right schedule to quote on how quickly the food would be ready for them to pick up. The till was balancing and I had everything in order. It was chaos, but it was organized chaos. Milan showed up.

She hated the fact that everything was covered and she had nothing to do but get in the way. So she did what she did best; she pushed her way into the mix and started messing up orders. She was bagging up the wrong food and customers were snapping at her for causing delays. I tried to get away from the till and went to the back to get a customer the correct order. She came back and shoved her way into the space, pushing me physically.

I'm sure I had a bit of a scowl on my face at this point and this is where I snapped. With two hours of my shift left and a responsibility to the server to help out, I decided it was time to give up the fight and get out. This is the conversation, that is permanently in my memory:

Milan: What is your problem?
Beth: If you had to work with yourself, you'd know.
Milan: What?!
Beth: You know, I think I'd like to cut my two weeks short and not come back after tonight.
Milan: Fine.
Beth: Actually, I think I'm going to leave now. I'll pick up my check on payday. Goodbye.

And I walked out. Jim was there the day I got my check and he looked sad. Our family still ate there for years, but I didn't talk with Milan again.

As a supervisor today, I look back at why I stayed as long as I did and what finally made me leave. There were mistakes and successes. I liked the job itself. A few of my co-workers were fun to be around. There were others that were not. Jim did do some great things by trying to involve me in the decision-making process and relating to me on a human level. He did it in a creepy way, but the theory was correct. Milan showed me exactly what I absolutely cannot put up with in a work environment. In the end, I quit my boss, not the job.

The job opened my eyes to the working world and I hope that I keep the experience in my mind to use the lessons to be a better worker and supervisor.