The dog chased me down the street, his mouth afroth, drooling and flinging his foam and spittle every which way as he closed in. My sneakers seemed to make impressions in the sidewalk as I literally flew down across the avenue, but he was gaining. And I was tiring. I dodged into the nearest alley, wheezing and panting for my life. My messenger bag had somehow flung wide open during my journey, and a stream of papers had flown out, falling pell mell in the street, on the sidewalk, and in the yards and bushes that punctuated my escape route. I think I finally lost him, too, with that last sprint. But it had been raining, and all the flyers were ruined. Oh well. That was how I ended my first job.
We all remember our first jobs. Well, most of us, anyway. Some of us were barely ten, raking lawns for the neighbors to get a little pocket change. Others were given odd jobs by people in the neighborhood who needed odd jobs done. Still others were babysitters for kids who were nearly as old as they were. I wasn’t allowed to do any of that, so my first job actually came when I was 16, when I began working for the Philadelphia Vision Center passing out flyers. I discussed it briefly here, about the year I was Santa Claus, but there was a lot more to it than that.
I blame my sister for the job, as she had it the previous year and recommended me for the position when she went off to college. My boss was a squirrely man named Todd who spoke too quickly and never focused his eyes on one place for too long. How he actually helped people who had their own eye troubles was beyond me, but he did a relatively brisk business at the Vision Center. The job was $5.00 an hour, and he paid me under the table. He explained that it was best for me because I didn’t have to pay taxes on it, and wasn’t that worth a little sly business?
All I knew is that I wanted to buy some tapes. The new Mariah Carey was out, as was the self-titled Janet record, and the long-awaited Snoop Dogg album, Doggystyle. I just wanted so much, and I had absolutely no money, so I took the job, even though it was my sister who recommended me for it. Just as in school, I knew that Todd expected great things from me judging by my sister’s dogged nature, and I nodded along as he talked that first day, as he handed me my messenger bag, a stack of flyers, and a photocopied map of Southwest Philly with lines drawn on it.
Now, I didn’t know it then, but those lines would be the death of me (figuratively, not literally). You see, Todd had drawn regions on that map, separated by a roughly ten block radius within each region. He explained that those were the areas I was expected to reach during my three-hour shift every day after school. The aim was for me to canvas every single house in each region during the course of a day, so I would rotate around the 10 or so regions in the course of two weeks. Then I would go back around the regions again.
Talk about tedious! Remember what I said about sitting around in a chair at Talbots waiting for the beep? Well, you would think this was exciting compared to that, but you would be sadly mistaken. While it wasn’t sitting in a chair being bored, it was walking block after block being bored. The effectiveness of my job was judged by how many flyers made their way back into the store along with customers who needed eyeglasses, eye exams, or contact lenses. If they brought back the flyer they got 5% off whatever they bought. What a deal! However, that also meant that Todd was counting how many flyers made it back in.
Things were good for the first few months. I canvassed each region in turn, taking an average of about two and a half weeks to reach every house the region assigned. A relatively good percentage of flyers returned to the store and Todd was pleased. He would nod at me when I came in each night with my nearly empty messenger bag, and more often than not limping as well. That was how he showed his pleasure. And at the end of every single week he would give me my grand total of $75 dollars, I would head across the street to the record store, and I would purchase one $12 dollar tape. The rest of the money would be spent on my girlfriend. Yeah, I was that cool.
Well, after about three months things changed, and not for the better. I swear people began letting their dogs out into the yard exactly when I rounded the corner onto their block to begin distributing flyers. I ran from enough dogs from that point on that I knew it couldn’t have been a coincidence. That’s when I realized these people had seen me and my flyers more than enough times. They had had their opportunity to visit the Vision Center, and they were now fed up with its attempts, which meant they were fed up with me. I was starting to get really bored too. There were only so many times I could walk up and down the same blocks for three hours on end every day.
That’s when I started mixing it up. I mean, why should I keep stumping hard for the store when the payout was so little and everyone had already gotten enough flyers to blanket a small village so it would appear to be wintertime? So, I made some new friends, a group of boys who lived in one of the regions. I would pass them every eighth day or so, and they were always playing tackle football in the street, something that intrigued me. So, one day when I was in that neighborhood I accepted one of their many requests that I play with them. My bag forgotten in a snowdrift, I played for an hour and a half that first time. Then I went back to the store after having deposited most of the rest of my flyers at the bottom of a trash bin.
It was the beginning of the end. From that point on I did the most minimal of flyer handouts, usually making a beeline for the football game instead of for the houses with dogs that scared me and with people that were bored with my shtick. I would play from the moment my shift started until the last second before I had to be back at the store, and I felt no sort of guilt from it at all. Indeed, I had done my job too well, I thought. Passing out more flyers to the regions could wait for a couple of weeks until they weren’t sick of me. In fact, I was doing a better job by waiting.
Of course painting it in those broad brush strokes was how I dealt with the guilt that was indeed there below the surface, especially every Friday when I got my money for a job well done. That’s when it caught up with me. Todd had begun to notice that flyers weren’t coming back into the store at a regular clip as they had been, so he called me out on it. I explained that maybe it had reached a saturation point, and maybe I should go to regions outside of the map he had given me. He gave me a different map of the next neighborhoods over, and he had more regions on them. I had been given a new scene to start over. And I think he was starting to get suspicious.
But I kept on playing football, perhaps taking half an hour out of each day to hand out flyers, maybe in the region I had been assigned, or if it was too far away, in the area around the football game or on my way back to the store. On the day that the mad dog followed me I hadn’t yet had time to get rid of my flyers in a trash bin, so they were all still sitting right there in my messenger bag, ready to rat me out. You see, that was the day that Todd decided to physically check up on me. He had been driving his car down the street when I ran out from nowhere, papers flying everywhere. It had been quite obvious to him that even though I had been out “canvassing the neighborhood” for over two hours I hadn’t really been doing anything.
I didn’t get fired, though. In fact, Todd hired a new boy to go out with me. I supposed it was to make sure I did what I was supposed to do. But I merely paid him $10 bucks out of my pay to keep his mouth shut while I continued to play football. One day I just stopped going to the store at all, too embarrassed to even fake that I did my job in front of Todd. To this day I don’t know what really happened there, if he thought I quit, or if my failure to reappear meant that I quit. All I know is that with the way I was raised, there was absolutely no way I was going to go back to that Vision Center, come hell or high water. And I didn’t. I also didn’t ever treat a job that way again. That’s what gave me my strong work ethic that has followed me to this day.
So, thanks Todd, wherever you are.