by Gregory J. M. Kasunich
In the sophomore year of high school, one of the most momentous occasions of my career as a young adult came to pass. It seems that despite the numerous vaccinations, ample food, athletic involvement in junior sports, and a stable family income, I was somehow able to survive sixteen years in the rough and tumble, dog-eat-dog world that is suburban America. Due to my ability to not die, I was thrown a party complete with sugar saturated treats, namely cake, cookies and ice cream.
As it is with any other human being living in the United States, turning 16 is much less about achieving a sugar high or paper wrapped DVD’s and hallmark greetings stuffed with five dollar bills from distant yet financially supportive relatives, as it is about receiving that one little piece of paper, the piece of paper that opens up endless possibilities, new horizons, exciting opportunities, and boundless adventures; the work permit.
Initially I had applied all of those two-word adjectives commonly found in reference to loans in national bank commercials to the other piece of paper, the learners permit. I had longed for the chance to get behind the wheel of my fathers Oldsmobile ever since I was doing it Fred Flintstone style in my one-door, red-bodied, yellow-roofed Fisher-Price coup. It was my father who insisted otherwise. Claiming that, “due to poor academic standing”, I was not permitted my permit, the driving type, but would be able to pick up my permit, the working type.
So began the job search. Although I would not be driving and therefore would be commonly and repeatedly attacked for my lack of mobility in a relentless barrage of insults and sarcastic remarks by my peers, not all seemed lost. I would be employed, a working man as it were. I began to fantasize about my new found role in society. Armed with my briefcase and travel mug brimming with the finest of Columbian coffee, I would march out the door just in time to catch the metro. A tip of the hat to my fellow travelers as I smooth the pants of my Armani suit before placing my rump in the preformed, plastic, one-size-fits-most groove. After perusing the stock tips in the financial section and downing the last of my caffeinated wake up call, I pop off the train, slide through the revolving doors of the smoky glass build on the corner of Fifth and Grant, and wink at the twenty-something receptionist as I just make it into my office at 8:59. I might be in line for a promotion.
As my father drove me around on my first day of filling out applications, I was quickly, and somewhat rudely, disillusioned. First stop, the local supermarket. As we pulled up to the mammoth grocery outlet the car was immediately swarmed by soccer moms, grandparents, and uncomfortable husbands. My father sighed, rolled his eyes, and flicked on the windshield wipers as if driving though a mob was a standard part of food shopping, as I later found out, it was.
“I’m gonna have to clean coupons out of the air filter again” he mumbled under his breath.
When I refused to get out of the car and demanded he take me to a more respectable workplace, he reached over me sprung my door and rolled me into the nearest shopping cart, in which I was promptly swept towards the automatic sliding glass doors by the bargain-hungry mass.
Once inside, I made my way to the customer service counter where a friendly looking, glossy faced teenager greeted me with a toothy smile encased in metal brackets.
“Why hello and welcome to Giant Eagle! How may I be of service to you today sir?!” he over-enthusiastically inquired.
“I, um, just wanted to know if you have any jobs.”
“Well! We are always accepting applications! Would you like to fill one out and leave it with me?!”
I looked over the three-page application and quickly realized how much I didn’t know about myself, and how little clout I held in employed civilization. Social security number, four-digit zip code extension, previous employers, references, school address, grandmothers’ maiden name, all left blank. Retreating back to the car I told my father they were booked solid, fully staffed, it was a damn shame.
Pit stop home for lunch and we were back out, this time equipped with the necessary information. After a few apps I was on a roll. Bam, bam, bam. One after another I submitted my name to at least a dozen or so minimum wage establishments. With each successful completion I would return to the car to the same question each time, “Did you get an interview? Did you talk to the manager?”
Each time I disappointed my father with a “no”, little did I know what lay ahead.
The last stop of the day brought me to the Outback Steakhouse, which, keeping true to the mentality of the Country that inspired the eatery’s Aussie theme, promised a “No rules, just right” dining experience. This I later came to find out was not true. In fact there were quite a few rules that made some patrons less than alright. No smoking, no sitting at the bar if you are under twenty-one, no ordering burgers cooked rare, no fighting or throwing of bar stools, which, in my opinion, would be in the spirit of the mother land making the restrictions even less understandable.
Beyond Vega-mite, Crocodile Dundee, Mel Gibson, kangaroos, and the Sydney Opera House, I was not all that well versed in Australian culture. Luckily, it was not a prerequisite.
As I entered through the vast wooden doors dressed to the nines in my T.J. Maxx button down shirt and payless shoes, the sweet aroma of the prime ministers prime rib and the Alice Springs chicken nestled softly in my nostrils, I knew I had to nail this app. I had to work here.
An attractive hostess with yellow hair that showered down to her shoulders greeted me and asked “how many?”
I told her I just wanted an application. She disappeared into the kitchen and a moment later returned with what closely resembled a phone book.
“Here is, like, the application. You can, like, sit in a booth and, like, fill it out if you want to.”
I thanked her and scooted into the nearest wooden booth and began to fill out the form that must have been more extensive than a patent application. After an hour of writing I had finished the application, which left me with severe nerve damage and carpal tunnel that still plagues my writing today. I ambled up to the hostess once again and dropped the application on her podium with a triumphant thud.
“Like, would you, like, like to speak with a manager?”
This was it! My big break.
“YES!” I responded a little too quick and a little too loud to hide my excitement.
Five minutes later the manager, a behemoth man named Jake, thudded toward me. I scooted across the room to meet him. Out of breath, he extended his massive paw, which instantly swallowed my hand, wrist, and forearm, in a formal handshake.
“Have a seat.” He boomed. His words ruffled and fogged by his tar coated trachea characteristic of chain smokers.
“Sooooo, looking for a job, are you?”
“You like washing dishes?”
I shook my head “no”
“Hmmm. Ok then, you want to host? You friendly?”
“Very. I’ve been called many things in my life, and “people person” is defiantly one of them.” I replied, trying way too hard.
“Fair enough. Come back on Tuesday and you can take the test.”
And that was that. Jake squeezed himself from the booth, aided by his grease covered polo, and lumbered back into the kitchen to undoubtedly feast on stacks of fries oozing cheese covered bacon wrapped cheese.
I was surprised at the simplicity of the interview and a little annoyed that I had shaved off my peach fuzz of a beard for it in the first place, but now I had some bragging rights among my unemployed friends. I would be rolling in a bed of hard earned freshly strewn hundred dollar bills, while they would have to settle for the secondhand hundred dollar bills issued to them as allowance by their parents.
In my household the idea of allowance was a foreign concept. Suggesting it to my parents was as effective as asking them to comment on the Einstein-Rosenberg bridge, or sum up quantum mechanics in a nutshell. When I went into a detailed discourse on how this allowance thing works, their faces would squish up with confusion and their eyes would search the sky for meaning.
“But why would they just give their kids free money?”
“So they can spend it.”
A few more hours of contemplative silence would follow. Fearing that I would cause my parents a mild stroke or brain aneurism, I decided to drop the subject and earn spending money through a series of never ending house hold odd jobs. Cleaning the gutters and fireplace, sealing the deck, re-shingling the roof, kept me busy in the past, but now I had a chance for some real income.
Tuesday came and all day thoughts of dead presidents filling my pockets and half priced filet mignon provided ample distraction from whatever academic dribble was being dispensed by my archaic teachers. When the bell rang I trudged the quarter mile walk to the Outback, which, due to its proximity to the high school, made having a driver’s license an unnecessary luxury I could afford to live without. When I poked my head into the dimly lit restaurant (with black ceiling tiles to replicate the night sky over the real outback) I sauntered up to the hostess and asked for Jake like an old regular. He emerged one hand suffocating a Bic pen and the other clamped a bundle of papers that could only be the “test” he mentioned a day earlier.
I found out by a phone call later that week that I had passed the Outback Exam and would be hired as a new host. When I got the news I immediately phoned my father who was hard at work at his office. Breathless, I heaved into the phone that I had got the job, I was finally a working, productive member of society, perhaps now I could get that other piece of paper, the driving type.
My father simply huffed a stifled congratulation and said, “we’ll see”, which always meant, “not for a long time bucco.” That long time ended up being a year and a half later, but by that time I was no longer employed at the Outback, which made my sixteenth birthday one to remember, if only to forget.