In the fall of 1963, at the age of twelve, I started my first job. I was trying to follow Dad’s example of being responsible and hardworking. The job was in an old-fashioned mom-and-pop grocery, which wasn’t so old-fashioned in those days, a block from my grandparents’ house, two doors down from the barbershop, and next to the Rexall drug store.
My friends and I used to hang out there and buy Cokes, candy, and cigarettes—two for a nickel. The owner, Oliver Morton, was a gregarious man in his early forties, and he loved to kid around with us. He was a bear of a man: broad, muscular, and powerful, and he always had the stub of a Roi-Tan cigar clenched between his teeth. Mr. Morton challenged us to foot races, engaged in contests seeing who could tell the funniest joke, and even competed with us in our “who could fart and burp the loudest” competitions. He never won.
One day, I said to him, “Mr. Morton, can I have a job here?”
“Well, what can you do, Rich?” Mr. Morton called me Rich, because he knew I was tiring of the “Ricky” handle.
“I can stock the shelves, sweep up, bag groceries, and deliver groceries.” This was in the day when small grocers still delivered to their customers. Mr. Morton had an old Ford station wagon for delivering groceries, but the delivery driver, Don, was often too drunk to be reliable. This prompted Mr. Morton to buy one of those old-fashioned, jumbo-sized bicycles with large, iron baskets on the front and back. I think Mr. Morton bought the bike expecting that soon a boy, most likely me, would be delivering his groceries. I couldn’t imagine that he bought it for Don to ride; poor, old, drunk Don could barely walk.
“Okay, I’ll try you out. You’ll get fifty-cents an hour and you’ll work Saturday from 7:00 A.M. until 7:00 P.M. Can you do that?”
“Yes, sir, I can.” I was thrilled. Fifty-cents an hour was huge.
The next Saturday, I reported for work at 6:45, fifteen minutes early. That was another of Dad’s uncompromising rules. When you have an appointment, always be fifteen minutes early—always. To Dad, there was never an excuse for being late for anything, unless someone cut your leg off, a car hit you, or a car hit you and tore your leg off. The fifteen-minute early rule was one I would rigidly adhere to for the rest of my life. My always-late little sister never received the fifteen-minute early memo, but it was okay with Dad, because Dad adored Kriste.
Mr. Morton showed up about five minutes later, opened the door, and said, “Go in the back and get yourself a white apron.”
I recoiled at the thought of wearing an apron. I was afraid the oth-er kids would laugh at me, but I had no choice. I went in the back, grabbed a clean apron from the shelf, and put it on. I was only about four-feet, eight-inches tall and the apron came down to my ankles. Mr. Morton showed me how to fold and bunch it up and use the waist tie so the apron was shorter. I stood there and remembered the time, just four years earlier, when Father Welch helped shorten my cassock. I wondered if I was ever going to start growing taller.
My first job of the morning was sweeping the floor. Then, Mr. Morton showed me how to stamp the prices on the products and stack them on the shelves. Throughout the day, I bagged groceries and took them out to the customers’ cars, swept the floor, stocked the shelves, swept the floor, made ground beef by mixing beef parts and beef fat in a large grinder-mixer, and swept the floor. When things became slow in the store, Mr. Morton told me to sweep the floor again. Later in the day, Mr. Morton taught me how to use the large, manual cash register and how to make change. When the store closed at 6:00 P.M., I mopped the floor, and swept up the blood-soaked sawdust that covered the butcher’s worn, wooden floor.
I made only one mistake that day. A woman wanted a chicken cut up for frying. Mr. Morton was busy in the front, and he told me to cut up the chicken for her. I had never butchered anything. I put a whole chicken on the huge butcher block, picked up the heavy cleaver with both hands, and started whacking away. When I was finished, the chicken was unrecognizable—even the chicken parts were grotesque. I quickly wrapped the slaughtered bird in butcher paper, wrote the price on it and gave it to her, and hid in the back room until the woman left the store. Later that afternoon, the woman returned to the store and she was angry. She opened the package and showed Mr. Morton the chopped chicken chunks, and said, “How am I supposed to cook this thing? I can’t even tell what it is. It looks like that kid took a chicken and threw it through the blades of a whirling fan and wrapped up what came out the other side. I want a chicken that looks like a chicken.”
Again, I slipped in the back room while she was yelling, and Mr. Morton cut up another chicken for her. I was relieved when he told me later, “That was my fault; I shouldn’t have expected you to know how to cut up a chicken. When things slow down I’ll teach you a few things about butchering.”
About 7:00 P.M., Mr. Morton turned off the lights, reached in his pocket and pulled out a large wad of cash. I had never seen so much money. He said, “Well, Rich, you worked twelve hours. At fifty cents an hour, that should come to five dollars.”
Hesitating for a moment, I said, “Mr. Morton, according to the way I learned my multiplication that should come to six dollars.”
He grinned, and gave me seven dollars instead of six. “There’s an extra dollar there because you never took a break or time off for lunch. You know, Rich, except for that massacred bird, you did a good job today. I wasn’t sure you were up to it, but you proved yourself. I’ll see you next Saturday morning.”
I thanked him, looked at the money, and thought I was rich. I had never had that much cash at one time. Seven dollars was a lot of money in 1963 (the equivalent of about $50 today). I stood there thinking about all the Cokes, cookies, candy, comic books, and cigarettes I could buy, but I was so tired I didn’t want anything. I began the walk back to my grandmother’s house, which took twice as long as usual. When I went inside the house, I went right to the bathroom and took a shower. My wonderfully sweet great-grandmother, Granny, who lived in my grandparent’s home, offered to fix me something to eat. Even at age ninety-two, Granny could fix the best fried chicken in the South (I’ve never had any better), but I was just too exhausted to eat. I passed on Granny’s offer, crawled in the bed, and slept for the next twelve hours.