Live Through This

At Your Service

The power of helping others.

Illustration by Kelly

The jobs available to teenagers seem designed to make you feel powerless. Mechanically stuffing groceries into plastic bags. Serving food. Serving food while wearing a stupid hat.

But you’re not powerless. Think about it: when you walk into a restaurant, who is in control? Who determines how long you wait for food, when your drink is filled, and the cleanliness of the bathrooms? The wait staff, that’s who. Who keeps the lines moving at the grocery store? WHO SELLS YOU EVERYTHING YOU NEED? Cashiers (unless you shop online or use self-checkouts, you Destroyer of the Job Market). When you work in customer service, you control the experience of your customers. And that is POWER.

My first job was as a cashier. I was bad with numbers, painfully shy, and in no way capable of lifting bags of dog food as big as I was (but I had signed a paper that said I was anyway). This job was guaranteed to be horrible.

But what I didn’t know was that when I put on my ugly blue vest and stepped through those automatic doors, I would turn into a different person. I was someone who belonged in that store, someone who had the ability to GET THINGS DONE.

So you have a new job in some crappy customer service field? Don’t feel powerful? Read on—because you have POWERS. For instance:

The power to get into forbidden places.

Once, at Six Flags, I (and several other members of my group, on a field trip) came down with a stomach virus. They had to ferry us by ambulance back to our bus, but there were more sick kids than there were ambulances. So I got to ride in the back of a golf cart through the staff-only area. Do you know what they keep back there? A WHOLE ROLLER COASTER. Granted, it was rusty and in pieces, but I’d still never have seen it if I wasn’t allowed past those “Staff Only” signs.

Having a job means having a special pass into places where ordinary people can’t go. Sure, most of them don’t include roller coasters, but my workplace had forklifts, which are pretty cool. We also had a second floor, which thrilled me for about a week because I’d been shopping there forever and had never noticed the stairwell. Secret offices!

And you get the experience of being in a public place WHILE IT’S CLOSED. There’s something very satisfying about going to a store at some ungodly hour in the morning, seeing a line of people waiting outside for who knows what reason, and then walking past them and going through the doors even though the store is NOT OPEN YET. This is especially fun in the winter, when your customers are so anxious about Christmas shopping that they’ll line up in the snow at seven AM and you just get to go to the front of the line and WALK RIGHT IN to your nice, toasty store. Once you’re in, it’s like you’re in some secret club, getting to hang out with all your fellow employees before the customers come in and ruin the place.

The power to make a person’s day better—or worse.

Bad customers are without a doubt one of the worst parts of having a customer-service job. But they’re not your bosses (although if you are cursed with bad customers AND bad bosses, I’m sorry). A lot of people seem to think that if they’re nasty and aggressive, you’ll give them what they want. DON’T GIVE IN. Remember, you have the power.

My store had a rule about transferring carts—to prevent us from missing an item, we had to make sure every item got moved to a new cart, even heavy ones. Sometimes people would come in with HUGE ORDERS that they had stacked JUST RIGHT, and they didn’t want us to touch it. I’m not quite sure how they expected us to ring up their items like that, but I took a perverse pleasure in listening to them grumble and sigh as I took my time moving each of their items, one by one. Sorry, dude, I’m not going to get in trouble with my boss because YOU think the rules don’t apply to you.

But nice customers got extra help from me. If you missed a coupon that could save a couple dollars and you’re nice to me, I’ll tell you. If you’re being a jerk, you’re going to miss out on that deal. Helping customers was kind of a rush. No one goes grocery shopping for fun, and I’d get a lot of stressed-out people coming through my line. If I could make their day a little easier or more pleasant, then this job was worth it.

My favorite was cheering up and/or distracting kids. This was in no way part of my job description, but it was a ton of fun. Some kids get teary-eyed when you try to take a brand-new toy from them to go on the conveyer belt—I was always quick with the handheld scanner when I saw that happening. But some kids want you to scan EVERYTHING. I “rang up” one girl’s personal Dora doll, and then proceeded to (pretend to) ring up the girl herself. Fun for everyone! There was one kid with autism who LOVED to be handed the receipt—it was always a treat to see him, because that little piece of paper MADE HIS DAY.

To a kid, you’re not “just” a cashier. You’re a grown-up with an awesome job. One small girl once looked in my cash register and told me, wide-eyed, “Wow, you have a lot of money!” Then her mother and I proceeded to ruin her innocence by explaining how capitalism works. But for a moment, in that girl’s eyes, I was rich.

The power to get things done.

As a teenager, you’re probably at the bottom of your workplace hierarchy. But you’re still making a business work, and that’s pretty powerful. Without all the cashiers like me, our store couldn’t sell items. Without wait staff, sit-down restaurants wouldn’t exist. Without someone selling tickets, no one would get into amusement parks or concerts. WE ARE THE GATEKEEPERS TO THE WORLD.

When people need help, they come to you. True, they’re often rude or annoying about it, but they still think YOU have the answers, and that’s pretty cool. People generally ask easy questions, and you can feel all smart and powerful by knowing all the answers. You may even have the power to FIX THEIR PROBLEMS. Of course, you often don’t want to be bothered with questions and problems, but it’s still pretty rad to be considered an expert at something, even if it’s just making curly fries.

I’m sorry to say that I no longer work in customer service. (This is a lie. I’m not at all sorry. If you love customer service, more power to you. I did not.) While I did legitimately enjoy working with customers (look, I even wrote an article about it!), it didn’t make up for the pay (low) and the hours (unpredictable and apparently engineered to ruin your social life). So enjoy the power while you can, and remember—no matter what job you get now, while you’re in high school, any job you have in the future is pretty much guaranteed to be even better. ♦

25 Comments

  • Mags May 21st, 2012 11:06 PM

    All jobs hold power. Maybe some more so than others, but there is definitely something truly empowering about having a job and knowing that you’re making things happen.

  • hannachronism May 21st, 2012 11:31 PM

    plus, a job in high school, no matter how crappy is experience on your resume and gets you better jobs later. If by 18, you’ve never been employed, you’re basically fucked and most places, if you don’t have connections, will not even bother to look at your resume once they realize that.
    (this of course is only true in places where you can start working young. I started at 12 babysitting and worked retail/grocery at 14, as a student aide at the library from 15-17 and as a day camp counsellor and movie theater usher/concessionist during the summer I was 17. All whilst regularly babysitting 2-7 kids at night. This year I’m going to be a program coordinator at the library and then who knows, probably town work and then fashion stuff while I’m in school. But I got that job within 3 days of dropping off my resume.)

    I have friends who work in fast food and their managers will not hire a high school graduate with no work experience, so…

  • SpencerBowie May 21st, 2012 11:34 PM

    I’m 22 and still in retail! But I love customer service! When I started at my latest store, my manager said sales went up for three weeks because of ME!!! I love to help people with outfits or curtains or the perfect thing for their yard! I have a knowledge of art and get to use it! My fave part of my job is displaying AND haveing keys to the store! That is POWER!

    I love the public and making people happy, I want to become a fashion designer, but I’ll always remember helping others!!!

  • Cerise May 21st, 2012 11:45 PM

    Perfect timing, as always. I just started working in a restaurant today, and I really needed to hear this. Thank you!

  • ilovebabies May 21st, 2012 11:52 PM

    Im probably going to be getting my first job this summer, and this article actually makes me PUMPED. I know it won’t be the greatest thing in the world, but this definitely shows some fun benefits to look forward to.

  • Lynvine May 22nd, 2012 12:13 AM

    Whooo….
    With my job, I have the power to….
    to um….
    to..
    umm…
    Never mind. I’m basically a slave. I do not interact with people, or do anything that requires non-physical effort.

  • Adrienne May 22nd, 2012 12:24 AM

    Haha love this! I have a job at a retirement’s home golf course, so I work with a lot of (sometimes) cute and confused old people! Most people are really nice, but there are some rude grandpas out there. They never fail to entertain though!

    I basically wash golf carts, pick up the range balls, clean the pro shop… yeah all the dirty work. But hey, free balls and rounds for me!

    Here’s an actual post I wrote a few months back about my experience with my job:

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com/2012/02/hardships-of-teenage-girl-work.html

  • SweetThangVintage May 22nd, 2012 12:30 AM

    I work at a cookie bakery and it is SO fun! I’m friends with all the girls I work with, sometimes we get slap happy a little before close on Saturday nights and its just like a party. If you scrubbed floors, wiped off counters, did dishes, and helped costumers at parties… haha

    Lets be honest though, this article was totally inspired by that Mcdonalds line in the first episode of Girls. AmIRight? ;)

    I really enjoyed reading this. <3

  • Maraschino May 22nd, 2012 1:31 AM

    I don’t know… on a personal level you have power but on a bigger level consumers decide everything it seems.

  • mayaautumn May 22nd, 2012 2:24 AM

    i actually can’t believe it – this was exactly what we were talking about at school the other day (dunno which lesson..) and the teacher was saying stuff previsely like the first paragraph & about power etc..
    v.interesting :)

    http://cottonmixblog.blogspot.com

  • Afra May 22nd, 2012 3:09 AM

    This piece is awesome! It actually make me miss my first job as a cinema-worker so much more! They broke the old cinema down.. :( Bye popcorn, bye EVERYTHING. :(

  • HolyMoly May 22nd, 2012 7:16 AM

    Why oh why will nobody hire me?!

  • oriGINAlity95 May 22nd, 2012 8:59 AM

    What a great perspective. I was just complaining about the new people at work, college aged girls who I can already tell I have nothing common with. I’ve been working since I was 11 first at my parents store, then working at another gift shop, now at my mom’s job doing the same kind of stuff, transfers, pricing, inventory… I’ve babysat, set up at home shows, all sorts of stuff and I’m only 17 these new girls coming in just seem so clueless, how did they get hired?:p

  • Delune May 22nd, 2012 9:36 AM

    This is great! I’ve worked in retail and hospitality (bartending needs an article of its own haha) and though generally my co-workers have been wonderful, hilarious, supportive creatures who I’m very lucky to know, I would find myself feeling crushed and jaded after tough shifts. It’s helpful to remember that everybody starts somewhere, you won’t be doing this job forever! Be thankful for the good bits, and thankful that the bad bits are helping you grow. And finally, be thankful that you aren’t related to that disgustingly rude customer, and that whilst they continue their life being selfish and negative and awful to be around, you get to move on and be awesome.

  • a-anti-anticapitalista May 22nd, 2012 9:42 AM

    You guys are mindreaders! I just got called to go get drug-tested (because capitalists have control over not only your life and your access to resources, but your friggin body too, and I don’t do drugs but this still bothers me) so I can be allowed to have my first experience as a wage-slave.
    And it is as a cashier in Winn Dixie. And I am super scared and nervious, and shy and awkward and sucky at being an adult and REAALLY bad with numbers.
    I just hang up the phone and decided to see what’s in on rookie to cheer me up… and I find this perfectly-crafted-for-me-articile.
    Thank you so much :) you made my day.

  • ruby May 22nd, 2012 10:39 AM

    haha the part about rewarding the nice customers is so true..
    I waitress a sunday lunch shift and always give the polite customers big slices of cheesecake and extra bread (:

  • skydivingseagull May 22nd, 2012 1:13 PM

    This past school year I worked as a cashier for a tiny gourmet restaurant, sacrificing all my weekends (every single one) to working 8+ hour days serving food to picky North Berkeley folk. It truly is a powerful feeling when your boss calls you up and begs you to come in on your day off, because it’s THAT busy and they NEED you to work the front line infantry of customer service or else the restaurant will fall to shambles or something. The absolute worst part of the job was dealing with angry patrons, but on the flip side these people made for great conversation topics. And the secret perks were an excellent counterpart to the minimum wage and long, stressful hours. :)

  • Samantha May 22nd, 2012 1:33 PM

    I’ve been in my “adult job” for two and a half years now, but because I secretly missed the minimum-wage hustle, and because of student loans, I work at a movie theater on the weekends. There is a certain amount of joy that comes with the power to kick movie-texters out of the theater. And there’s definitely a lot of satisfaction when little kids come up to you after their first movie on the big screen with so much joy in their eyes. It’s a nice reminder that it takes all sorts of people to keep things running.

    http://poorgoop.com/

  • zoeah May 22nd, 2012 1:53 PM

    I’ve recently started my first part time job at the local supermarket, and it was awkward timing because of my AS level exams (which ended today!) and the fact that I was a chronic procrastinator in terms of study. But those 4 little hours on a Saturday have taught me that in the real world you need to sometimes do shit you don’t really enjoy in order to get places (in this case, saving up for the best summer), and it sort of acted as a kick up the ass. Even with less time to do it in, I studied harder in the last three weeks than I ever have in my life. So that I don’t end up still working there in 5 years time.

  • bird May 22nd, 2012 2:19 PM

    No one has more power than the waitress! I’ve never gone the whole hog and spat in someone’s food but I have denied certain customes who represent PURE EVIL salad dressing/ condiments/ fat free milk/ extra bread – “Sorry, we don’t do that here”

    What kind of restaurant doesn’t ‘do’ salad dressing? But if you say it, they buy it.

  • ladyjenna May 22nd, 2012 8:21 PM

    Hey, rookie? How bout a crash course in applying for a job, writing a resume, cover letter, ect? Think this would be helpful

  • christinachristina May 23rd, 2012 12:34 AM

    Also, DISCOUNTS!!!

  • MinaM8 May 23rd, 2012 9:15 AM

    Aw man, too bad teens can’t get jobs here in South Korea, really annoying, because I’d need the few extra bucks and the general experience.

  • tangsister May 23rd, 2012 6:44 PM

    This completely made my day, you have no idea.

  • jess May 23rd, 2012 7:29 PM

    This is exactly what I need right now! My job at my local book store can make me want to gauge my eyes out just to not go there. I swear, every bloody customer seems to think that I’ve read every page of every book in the entire store.