I remember turning sixteen back in the early 1980s.
Sixteen. Wow. That was probably bigger than twenty-one or even thirty. Sixteen was, for us at the time the age of Independence. It was the age when we could start working, and start driving. Back then there were no “conditional” licenses or permits. On your sixteenth birthday you could go to DMV, take the test and walk out with your full license. I already had a car waiting for me – a 1974 Ford Pinto. It was so long ago the CT plates were still all numbers, no letters. My first plate was 686-696.
Yes, it was a Pinto, and it was ten years old when I got it but it was the first slice of real freedom I had. We lived far from town in a place where there was no public transportation. Once I got my license, on my birthday, I was off and running. I got my first job immediately.
I will never understand this thing where kids are turning eighteen and twenty years old and don’t have a license and don’t care about driving and definitely don’t want jobs. I don’t get this thing happening in our country now where people are like 40 years old and living in their parents basement, waiting for them to just die so they can get the house. At sixteen we wanted our licenses because it was Step One in the Great GET OUT Plan! It was a plan in which our parents participated, by the way. My parents had a saying, “Locks on the doors are to keep people out, not in!” License, car, job, OUT!
I went to Stop and Shop first. In Ridgefield, CT. They had JUST installed the first scanners at the registers. It was an exciting time. We had like three days of classes on how to bag groceries. They were paper bags. No plastic. You were supposed to build the foundation of the bag first, like with canned goods, but not too many because you didn’t want the bag to rip. Then you were supposed to make walls, like with boxes of cereal or something. And then in the middle would go maybe a loaf of bread or something else that was squishable. I got through that and was put on a register. I was fast. Thanks to the scanner technology we could be timed on how fast we were processing items per order. I lasted about three months there and they fired my best friend so in some stupid show of solidarity I quit. I went across town to one of the other two grocery stores in town and got a job there.
The name of the store I went to next was Gran Central Market. It was a little smaller than Stop and Shop and didn’t have scanners. There was were maybe four, maybe five registers. It also wasn’t as…. how shall I say this…. clean as the first place. I’m not saying straight up that it was dirty or anything, just that one of the managers used to run around with a BB gun during the hours before opening and after closing and shoot at rats in the bread aisle. Once in a while. Not every day. But still.
There were several friends of mine who were working there, too; Meggie, Cathy, Chris, Linda, Diane… and I made friends quickly with Rob and Jeff specifically. OMG, Jeff. He was so cute. He was in college already and only worked on summer breaks but he melted my heart and gave me a case of the teenage screaming thigh sweats. We all got up to every sort of shenanigans possible – stealing smokes, writing in the peanutbutter (and then putting the lid back on), eating marachino cherries out of the jars and then putting them back on the shelf, and the managers let us buy beer as long as it was after hours. And boy did we take them up on that. I remember my pay was $1.63/hour. And that was pretty good for the time. At that age we weren’t allowed to work 40 hours, but I usually got 30-35 hours a week.
There was one cashier who’d been there since the store was under its previous ownership. She was ancient as far as we were concerned and she was brutal. She used to yell at us non-stop. No matter what we did, she had a comment or a rebuke. She even got mad that we took breaks to go to the bathroom. She never left her register. One day she made a comment to us about Depends and we then realized that at any given moment she might be standing at the register, checking out an order and peeing at the same time.
Robert Vaughn lived in town. Everyone in town has a Robert Vaughn story. He used to come into the store on Sunday mornings in his shiny silver jogging suit. He’d get a newspaper and one or two other small items, and then linger around the front area of the store by the registers until someone – anyone recognized him. Sometimes when it was slow in the store Cathy and I would take turns saying, “Oh, wow, you’re Robert Vaughn!” just so he’d check out and leave.
It seems like the world made more sense back then. We were independent kids with lots of energy and drive. We wanted things and we went out and got them. We pulled our pants up. We didn’t wear pajamas to the store. We didn’t have so much childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes just wasn’t a thing. What happened? Is it really that generation that’s raising kids who will never leave home?
I miss my Pinto.
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