At the age ten, I got my first job walking a miniature white poodle that lived in a building nearby. My friend Laurie had the job first, but she would often invite me to walk the dog with her and later I was asked by the owner to walk the dog when Laurie wasn’t available. Since I knew there was no way in hell I was ever getting a dog, or any pet for that matter, (please don’t ask me about the fish we killed after just one week), I was very excited to get paid to walk a dog. And back then, no one even expected you to clean up dog shit, so the job really was good, clean fun. I can’t remember if I earned 50 cents a walk or 50 cents a week, but I do remember putting the money to good use, mainly for buying Mr. Softee and maybe even my own cup of Chow Chow truck french fries once in a while. After that job, things went downhill, and I spent much of my early and late teen years in a series of boring cashier jobs.
During my summer break, following my first year of college, I returned to Queens to make some money to help finance my second year of college. For most students this meant landing some crappy minimum wage job that required you to work for people who had that same crappy minimum wage job years before you and were now crappy managers. I found all that and more when I landed a cashier job at Jalar, the Everything Store.
Jalar the Everything Store was on the south side of Queen’s Boulevard. It was like a Woolworth’s or Five & Ten store, and it really did seem to have everything. Aisle one had assorted sundries like shampoo, hair dye, and deodorant. Aisle two had a large shopping cart perched precariously on a hook several feet above the ground and items in this aisle included housewares and things for the laundry. But perhaps the most interesting display was in aisle three which housed a toilet seat suspended from the ceiling. Luckily it was the soft foamy kind that became popular in the 70’s, so at least if it fell and someone was struck in the head with it, it wouldn’t be fatal and Jalar wouldn’t be held liable for murdering someone with a toilet seat.
The cigarettes, their most popular item, were kept at the front of the store, behind the counter. I had become a pro at quickly guessing and then dispensing a customer’s cigarette choice from earlier cashier jobs selling cigarettes to all the under-aged kids, pregnant women, and older adults sporting portable oxygen tanks. So by the time I got to Jalar, I already knew that the 18-year old boys smoked Marlboro (hard box only), young women with big hair smoked Parliments, old women with blue hair smoked Kools, ladies with nice handbags and long fingernails smoked Virginia Slims, and men with leathery skin and mechanical voice boxes smoked Camels (unfiltered).
After cigarettes, probably the most widely sold item at Jalar was condoms. Men would typically buy their condoms along with other manly things like a screwdriver, a can of paint, a pair of work gloves, and nails. They would toss everything from their cart onto the counter as if the condoms were part of their shopping list or the list of “things I need to get done this weekend.”
When I first started working at Jalar, the condoms were kept at the counter with the cigarettes and the boxes were held together with rubber bands so they wouldn’t fall over or be easily stolen. The first time a customer asked me for a box of condoms, I grabbed a set of boxes in rubber bands, and charged him as if this was one box. Judging by the looks of this guy, I had easily sold him his lifetime supply of condoms for just 99 cents. This explains the huge smile he flashed me as he tipped his policeman’s cap and left the store.
There was a lot of theft at Jalar and the manager took matters into his own hands to manage this. Each time a shoplifter was caught, he would break out a Polaroid camera (note to readers born after 1990: this is the 1970’s equivalent of Instagram without the ability to adjust the color, making everyone look green) and force the thief to pose for a picture which he would hang up at the front counter with a sign that read, “People caught stealing from Jalar.” One shoplifter posed with a big smile on his face and underneath his photo read the inscription “second time!” You would think the picture taking would serve as some sort of deterrent, but after the one shoplifter claimed the “second time” title, every crook wanted to have their picture taken to steal the title of person caught stealing most frequently at Jalar.
The manager lacked good judgment in other ways as well. He was having a very blatant affair with one of the other cashiers and when his wife came into the store (with their baby!) looking for him, we were supposed to act like we didn’t know where he was. I would usually use this time to reorganize the condoms, so I wouldn’t be seen and wouldn’t have to lie for him and this is probably when I realized that three condoms, not 300 were 99 cents.