The Art of Winging It: The Horrors and Triumphs of My First Job – Part I

The summer before sophomore year of high school, I applied to work at least a dozen shops and restaurants around my hometown, a small city on the coast of California. For weeks, I got no calls back. It was clear why I was an unappealing candidate: I had no work experience and was barely fifteen. To top it off, I was late in the hiring process, since (as I’d come to discover) most businesses hire for the summer season in April or May and I made my rounds in June. I’d like to think it was destiny that brought me to Marigold’s Bakery, but really it was the fact that, on that fateful day at the end of July, my cousin’s birthday was that night, and no one had time to make a cake, and when we went to pick one up I saw a “Now Hiring” poster on the door outside and thought, what the hell.
I was at my aunt’s house the next day when I got a voicemail from the manager. I waited an hour so I wouldn’t seem too desperate–give me a break, I was fifteen–and reached the manager on the first ring. He offered some information about the job which I’ve since forgotten, and I offered nervous yes’s and mmhmm’s and that sounds great’s whenever he paused. An hour later, I was heading over for the next step in the extensive hiring process of minimum wage, entry level jobs: the in-person interview, for which I had changed into my most “professional” top at my mom’s insistence.
The interview was conducted in the upstairs offices above the bakery. I sat across from the manager as he read through my resume, which I’d beefed up with lots of fun details including “hobbies” and “special interests.” (“I know I’ve never worked a cash register and have zero retail experience, but did you know I took an acting class in 9th grade?”)
The questions, and my bullshit answers, commenced. “Why do you want to work here?” (“I’ve always had such wonderful memories of this place. I’d love to contribute to someone else’s positive memories.”) “Why should we hire you?” (“I’m very hardworking and motivated to provide the best customer experience I can. Also, I love interacting with people so I think I’d fit right in with a customer service job.”) “What would you want to gain from this experience?” (“I would love to learn how to work collaboratively with my coworkers, and how to provide the best customer experience I can.”) I’d rehearsed these responses with my mom and aunt earlier.
The questions escalated to: “How would you handle a customer being rude to you?” (“I would respond calmly and respectfully. If the situation escalates, I’d retrieve my supervisor.”) “Do you thrive in a high-stress environment?” (“I really do love working under lots of pressure. I’m immune to stress, so there really is no word more perfect to describe me in stressful situations than ‘thriving.’”) (I didn’t really say it that way, but come on, who thrives in high-stress environments?)
He gave me a little spiel about how Marigold’s is a team that looks out for each other, etc etc, and I smiled and nodded the whole time like a pro. Say what you will about my 15-year-old self (and there is a lot to say), but my active listening skills were immaculate.
After what felt like an hour but was probably about seven minutes, the manager stood up, shook my hand, and said, “Let’s get you a t-shirt, shall we?”
My eyes widened. “Am I hired?”
The manager looked like he was about to laugh. In retrospect, I was probably the most eager person to work a minimum wage job he’d ever seen.
My first shift was the following afternoon, 3:00-closing. I showed up ten minutes early in my new Marigold’s t-shirt and the only pair of black jeans I owned, which were tight and uncomfortable. I’d read the new hire packet thoroughly, and knew I was not supposed to wear leggings, blue jeans, bright colors, logos, sweatpants, anything above the knee. The second I arrived, it became clear that the repercussions of dress code violation (“Any employee not adhering will be asked to go home and change, and their shift will be counted as a no-show”) had been greatly exaggerated. I was met with complete anarchy, dress code violations left and right: teal leggings, ripped light-wash jeans, purple yoga pants, Nike sweats. In fact, it took me only a couple seconds to find someone violating every single code, sometimes multiple at once. My tight jeans and I admired their courage.
I was not the only new hire. The other new retail worker, who took the locker next to mine, was a tall girl with red hair and freckles. She must have been around 18 or 19. Our supervisor, a curly-haired woman in her early 20s, retrieved us from the break room, introduced herself as Ally, and told us that we were the latest in a stream of new hires because half the staff had quit to go to a music festival in LA.
The shift, only four hours, was not too bad. Ally told the other girl (I’d already forgotten her name) and I to just copy whatever she was doing, so we followed her around like puppies. Occasionally she’d give us jobs, and we’d fill small containers of fruit, fold napkins badly, spend five minutes looking for the proper locations of dishes she handed us. After we had finished all the closing tasks, and Ally had redone them all correctly, we stood in line in the back, waiting to clock out.
“That wasn’t too busy,” I said, to cover the silence.
Ally swung her purse over her shoulder as she checked the time. “We didn’t have the lunch crowd. What’s your next shift?”
“Sunday, 8:00-3:00.”
“Oh girl–” another coworker, Kelsey, looked around. “All I can say is, good luck.” At my confusion, she explained, “You got worse than lunch. You got brunch.”
“You’ll be okay,” Ally assured me. “Everyone has to work Sunday brunch every once in a while.”
I was starting to dread my next shift. “Will you be there?”
“Hell no.” Ally laughed, finished signing out, and handed me the pen. “But seriously, you’ll be fine. It’s not that bad.”
“It’s bad,” said Kelsey, and they left together.
I turned to the red-headed girl. “Do you have Sunday brunch?”
“Yep.” She smiled and I felt a little relieved. “I guess we’ll suffer together.”
Sunday brunch brought huge crowds and a few more obstacles: the manager who had hired me had been fired, as I learned from one of the baristas; Ally was, of course, not there; and we three (the redhead, a girl named Delaney, and I) were tasked with the training of another new hire named Anne.
Delaney rang up customers while the redhead and I “trained” Anne (“This is where the food comes out, and…um…these are the plates…”). This was fine for the first hour, since there weren’t too many customers.
As we sorted silverware, the redhead told us about skydiving in Madrid. “So I was like, in love with my skydiving instructor, right–he had kind of a weird mustache, which is like a Spanish thing I guess, but he was so cute. And so we were, like, falling from the sky, right? And I knew I had to make a move, so I just grabbed his face and kissed him.”
Anne’s eyes widened. “In the air?” The redhead nodded. “Wow, your life is a lot more exciting than mine.” I laughed, but it was true.
Luckily, Anne had worked a cash register at her last job, so she took over the other register when the crowds started to pick up. And damn, did they pick up. By 9:30, the line was out the door. Delaney and Anne were at the registers while the redhead and I hurried orders back and forth from the kitchen to the tables. We balanced as many as five dishes at once, the redhead gracefully along her long arms, me awkwardly, using multiple trays. Still, I was in no rush to learn how to cashier. I liked going into the kitchen because it meant I’d get to interact with Max, the cute sandwich maker, and nod along to his sermons about how apathetic and removed “the establishment,” aka the management, were.
My job, “expo,” was to bring in meals once they were completed, match them up with a receipt, and bring out the order once it had all been made to the table with the corresponding table tent. Sometimes it was hard to tell what an order was, especially if it was a sandwich, so I’d have to lift up the corner of the bread and take a peak when no one was looking, or, during a busy time when it would be hard to do this unnoticed, pretend to drop something and check the inside of the sandwich on the way down. There weren’t many sandwich options, so the difference between delivering the right order and the wrong one was often as subtle as whether it had mayonnaise or not.
I remember very clearly the first sandwich I dropped. I was carrying an order outside–ham, cheese, and lettuce on ciabatta–when I missed a step. I quickly regained my footing, but the laws of physics were not in my favor, and the sandwich slid right off the plate and onto the concrete.
I was, of course, embarrassed. My first day and I’d already made a mistake? And then I realized I’d have to go tell Max I’d ruined his sandwich, and my embarrassment turned to dread. But the place was so full, we were falling more and more behind the longer I stood there deliberating. There was no time for stalling.
I picked the sandwich up off the ground with two fingers, placed it gingerly back on the plate, and made my way back to the kitchen, careful to look out for each step, as though a twice-dropped sandwich would have been any worse. Full of shame, I approached Max and told him what I’d done. Within ten seconds he had slapped together a new sandwich for me to take to the customer. I felt marginally better.
When I made it back to the expo station, it seemed as though my sandwich mishap had set us back significantly. Plates of sandwiches, salads, eggs and bacon, and breakfast combos left not an inch of counter uncovered. The redhead was trying desperately to match them all up with the row of receipts taped to the wall. When she looked up and saw me, she shoved a plastic tray into my hands.
“There you are,” she said, stacking a bowl of oatmeal and two plates of eggs benedict onto the tray. “Where’ve you been?” I opened my mouth but she cut me off. “Doesn’t matter. Can you take these to table 18?”
Table 18 turned out to be two young women who looked like they’d walked right out of a Zumba class: yoga pants, sneakers, fly-aways pulled back in Lululemon headbands. They unwrapped the silverware sets eagerly as I placed their meals in front of them.
As I turned to go, one of them stopped me. “Excuse me–is the oatmeal organic?”
“Umm–” Of course I did not know the answer to this. My training had not even included health code guidelines: although I had done it out of common sense, not one person had actually told me to wash my hands before a shift. “I’m not sure, let me ask my manager.”
Delaney, who was not my manager but was close enough, was tapping away at the register when I reached her. “Hey, do you know if the oatmeal’s organic?”
She looked at me, like, what kind of question is that? “Obviously.” I relayed the message to the Zumba girls.
This turned out to be a persistent problem. Both the customers I served and the ones I was lucky enough to pass on my path to the correctly numbered table seemed to think, based on my work uniform, that I’d have the answers to their questions. Some of them were obvious (a man asked if there was flour in his croissant), some of them less so (“Are the hoagie rolls made locally?”). My fear of being unfriendly to the customers overrode my fear of annoying Delaney, until, exasperated, she finally said, “Elizabeth, you need to figure out some of these answers on your own, okay? You need to learn the art of winging it.”
At 11:00, when the brunch crowd was slowing down, the phone rang. I had thus far avoided answering the phone by strategically hurrying off to do some task elsewhere whenever it rang, but no such luck on this occasion. Anne was on break, the redhead was presumably delivering an order, and Delaney, who was fixing the jammed receipt printer, said, “Can you get it?” I was powerless to decline.
I picked up the phone and copied the line I’d heard Delaney use. “You’ve reached Marigold’s Bakery, Elizabeth speaking, how may I help you?”
“Yeah, hi, I had a to-go order this morning for breakfast?” The voice was a man’s, with a slight Southern twang–unusual around here. “My wife had a cup of fruit, and some of it seemed a little squishy and soft, so we were wondering, is your fruit fresh?”
Saying yes when I didn’t know felt like lying.
“Are you there?”
The fruit was probably fresh, right? I looked over at Delaney, who was smacking her palm against the receipt printer as though it had wronged her.
“Yes, the fruit’s all fresh.” I turned towards the window, fantasized about stepping out of the stuffy kitchen into the cool air.
“You sure? It’s awfully squishy.”
“Yes, sir.” And then, for good measure, “We cut it fresh every morning.”
“Well, alright then.” He seemed reassured.
“Anything else I can help you with?”
“Yes, I’d like to order a cake for my son’s birthday.”
“One moment, let me transfer you.” I accidentally disconnected the call in my attempt to transfer it, but I’d done it. I’d fielded my first call, and handled a customer question without asking for help.
From that point on, I came to understand that not every piece of information I passed along to a customer could be perfectly accurate. In other words, you gotta do what you gotta do. The rest of the shift was much easier. When customers asked me something I didn’t know the answer to, I simply made one up. “Do you close at 7:00 on weekdays also?” “Yep, same time.” “Is the bathroom over this way?” “It’s on the other side, in the left-hand corner.” “Are you sure this is my latte?” “Yes, ma’am.” Most of the time, what people really wanted was a little reassurance.
Once I relaxed, the job actually became fun. There was a short period of relief between the brunch and lunch crowds, from around 11:30-12:30. There were few enough customers for Delaney and Anne to handle on their own, so the redhead and I made silverware sets behind the counter.
“Hey, what do you think of the barista?” she said.
“Amara?” Amara had cropped brown hair and dark eyes. She had brought me coffee during my morning break as a welcoming gesture. I secretly liked her, though I wouldn’t admit that to myself for several years.
“No, Eric.”
I glanced over to the barista station. The boy who appeared to be Eric, who I hadn’t paid much attention to thus far, had flat black hair and a wispy mustache. Apparently the redhead had a thing for mustaches.
“He seems cool.”
“I think he’s just adorable.”
“Yeah, he’s cute.”
“Do you think he’d go out with me?”
I looked up from the tub of forks and knives, which I was separating into two piles while she wrapped napkins around the sets. “Definitely, you’re way out of his league.” I wasn’t being complimentary, it was objectively true.
“Oh my gosh, really?” She stopped folding and leaned against the counter. “Should I go talk to him? We made eye contact once when I was bringing him dishes and I think we had a connection….”
She went on like this as I sorted. Many of our conversations went this way: her thinking out loud, me listening quietly and staying busy. I didn’t mind this at all. I didn’t think I had much to say that would have been entertaining to her, and I was happy to be the one she vented to.
The lunch crowd, which picked up at 1:00 and didn’t dwindle until just before I left at 3:30, was a subdued version of the brunch crowd: smaller, and a little less chaotic, although it had its moments. A woman ordered, along with a club sandwich, a single hard boiled egg in a bowl, and when I brought her the order, she instructed me to place the egg on the ground for her French bulldog, which was wearing a cashmere sweater. An engaged couple in their thirties came in for sandwiches, the woman waving her hand around at every opportunity to show me the ring until I complimented it. I let the redhead bring all the coffee dishes to the barista station, though I wouldn’t have minded the chance to talk to Amara.