A prompt from the website Storyworth has asked me to describe how I got my first job. Like all such prompts, it opens a flood of memories. They are not all specific to the question at hand but all shine brightly in my mind.
We can quickly dispense with the job I held as a 13-year-old, counting shoe boxes in a warehouse for the shoe store chain my dad worked for. What family didn’t skirt child labor laws to have their kids work with Dad?
No, the first job that really counted came when I was 15, in the spring of 1971. And it came at the holiest of holies, the Jewel Food Store on Morse Avenue in East Rogers Park.
To outsiders, the center (social, not geographical) of East Rogers Park was Morse Avenue Beach. Teenagers from the North Side of Chicago, from Skokie, from Evanston, would flock to the golden sand beach with its breaking waves and nearby refreshment stand. Lifeguard towers dotted the shoreline and sunburns were the name of the game.
But if you lived in East Rogers Park, you knew that its true core was Morse Avenue itself, particularly the short stretch from the Morse El stop on the east to Ashland Avenue on the west. This was where the locals ate at cherished restaurants (Ashkenaz, Froikins, DeMars); enjoyed their sweets (Baskin-Robbins Ice Cream, Davidsons Bakery, Dutch Mill Candies); and then shopped for everything else they needed (Charles Variety, Morry’s Mens Wear, Leonard’s Juvenile). The area was a 15-minute city before 15-minute cities became woke.
And at the center of all this was “The Jewels,” the local outpost of the Jewel Food Store chain that dominated Chicago grocery stores. The store at 1425 Morse was the best and for many of the area residents the only option for weekly groceries. The parking lot was small, but that was of no consequence. Most of the clientele walked to the store and had their grocery bags delivered in cardboard boxes by two twenty-somethings in a pick-up truck (Saturdays only) or wheeled their grocery bags home in their own upright wire grocery carts. No fresh meat after 6 pm (Butcher’s Union rules), no liquor before noon on Sunday (Chicago blue laws) but everything else whenever you wanted.
How did I wind up working at such a community centerpiece at the young age of 15? As in most things in life, it isn’t what you know, it’s who you know. Julie, an old grammar school friend of my sister who was the Assistant Service Manager greased the wheels for my application as a bagger. When I applied for the job I was instructed to say I was 16–and Julie made sure no one checked too carefully.
I got the bottom-rung position, was handed a clip-on red bow tie, and began a 5-year long career that helped pay for college as I rose from bagger to cashier to service desk pro.
And the chance to say “I made it big on Morse Avenue!” What more could a Chicago kid ask for from his first job?
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