“Hey, you got something for my kid to do back there?”
My dad stood on the outside of the meat display case at Westridge Market, the “Mom and Pops” grocery store in Ojai. Dave, the second generation owner and head butcher, smiled back at my dad while chopping apart some pork ribs,
“I’m sure we can find him something to do.”
That’s how I got my first job: Butcher’s Assistant.
I was 16 years old. It was the summer between sophomore and junior year. It was my first real job and no matter what they had me doing, I was going to take pride in it and try my hardest to do it right. I wanted a DVD player, and this job was my key to getting it. Dressed in my khaki pants and green Westridge polo shirt, I arrived at work, ready to dig in.
Butcher’s Assistant, as I soon learned, does not refer to an apprenticeship in the art of butchery, but rather, I’m the one at the end of the parade sweeping up the leftover confetti. I was the cleanup crew… I should have guessed considering my shift was scheduled 5-9 PM. The manager threw me a white smock.
“Those nice new pants are gonna get nasty… quick.”
I was introduced to the high pressure nozzle at the sink and the hook-and-chain system in the meat locker. I was taught how to disassemble a ban saw, clean out all the excess meat shreddings, and reassemble it, in less than 10 minutes. I’ve cleaned thousands of knives, slicers, sausage grinders, and deep friers. I swept floors and washed display cases. (Can’t you see the montage now?)
Sometimes I’d make mistakes. Sometimes I’d get yelled at for eating leftover tri-tip from the BBQ or for talking to “customers” (my friends coming to make fun of me) for too long. There was plenty of humility that came with this job.
Don’t get me wrong, it was not an easy job, which made it all the more perfect as a “first job.” I was cultivating my work ethic. It didn’t hurt my reputation around the store that I managed to “stick it out” in a position that was infamous for frequent turnover. Eventually I got in with the rest of the people working in the store. That’s when the fun really started…
Westridge Market would receive hundreds of boxes full of produce and products throughout the week. I’d convinced the boxboys to save the largest cardboard boxes we’d receive (like watermelons, for instance) and tuck them away somewhere. Just before closing, I’d strike a deal with a co-worker to buy me a pack of Cigarillos, you know, because I was still 16. And on weekend nights, after the store was shut down, we would all reconvene in the employee parking lot.
We’d pull our cars into a circle with the headlights facing inward, illuminating the “dance floor.” The boxboys would lay out the watermelon boxes and we’d turn the music up. We were breakdancing (well… trying), listening to music and smoking cheap cigars. It looked like something out of Breakin’. It was good, harmless fun. We were just kids being kids.
On my very last night of work, I invited everybody to come and dance. And sure enough, Dave and the other managers brought their wives back to the store while we were breakdancing. I’m pretty sure one of them even jumped in with a backspin.
I bought that DVD player I wanted. It took two entire paychecks, but I got it. It was mine. Something I had purchased with my own money and nobody could (legally) take it from me. 11 years later, that DVD player is still downstairs in my room in Ojai. Sure, it still plays DVDs, but now it’s purpose is mostly nostalgic…
A remembrance of that “summer in high school” when I worked at the market.