Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Kid Behind the Counter


In the summer of 1980, which bridged high school and college for me, I worked my first real job in a place called Pet Nosh, a mom-and-pop pet food and supply shop located in the Little Neck section of Queens. It was owned and operated by my older brother and a neighbor named Rich. As part of Pet Nosh’s business plan, the first few years encouraged home deliveries from Queens to Manhattan to the Bronx. One boss man ran the retail store while the other was out and about on the highways and byways generating additional cash flow.

When one-half of the aforementioned pair vacationed during their first summer in business, the as-yet-eighteen-year-old me was left in charge of the store. I'll admit the pay wasn’t especially good, because the Pet Nosh boys weren’t quite awash in capital back then. And, besides, the whole thing was pretty exciting. It was a real adventure being part of a family-oriented business attempting to beat the odds and make a go of it. This was the American dream personified.

I'll not soon forget Rich's encouraging words to an anxious and pretty shy kid that summer a long time ago. “You should be paying me for the experience you will be getting,” he said. At the time, I considered his remark a self-serving volley from a notorious miser. But lo and behold, Rich was right after all, although I do believe that even a teenager—and, in this instance, a relative—ought to be paid a fair wage for his respective toils. The man’s larger point was nonetheless on the mark.

Getting thrown into the shark-infested retail-help swimming hole without a life raft, as I was at the time, was an education for sure. I was compelled to do many things I had never done before, and had no place to hide, either. Servicing the sometimes impatient, frequently demanding, and occasionally very weird and even creepy public at large imparts one life lesson after another. It's a dynamic and unpredictable laboratory. For starters, it requires ample doses of patience and understanding.

Life on the retail frontlines can be simultaneously exciting and harrowing. It should be said that most shoppers just show up to satisfy their needs, pay their tabs, and are on their merry way. They seek no attention and desire, above all else, a certain anonymity. However, a distinct minority could best be described as consumer terrorists, the men and women who make retailers' lives a holy hell. Countless times I arrived home from a day at Pet Nosh physically exhausted—we carted around lots of cases of cat food and bags of dog food—and emotionally drained, too. Encounters with certain customers of ours—the bad apples in the barrel—could be at once mind-altering and downright depressing. It seems there are more than a handful of folks walking the streets with troubled lives and tortured psyches who aren’t content to check their psychological baggage at the retailer’s doorstep.

I was merely a kid behind a counter. But I got a crash course in what could best be described as the multi-hued nature of humanity—the good, the bad, and the ugly. While I wouldn’t advocate paying your employer for the privilege, it is an experience money cannot buy.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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