Register 16.

I took a part-time job for the holidays of 1990. I had moved back to Jamestown, N.Y., a small city in the extreme southwestern corner of New York State, earlier in the fall. Things were not going to plan. I had abandoned a job reading blueprints of ball bearings and turning them into computer automation. It didn’t pay well and the constant homophobic remarks from a co-worker led to the abandonment. I was single, though living in a mobile home with my ex-boyfriend. I didn’t have the funds to go back to college as I really intended when I moved back to the area. I felt rather down on my luck.

A few weeks prior to Christmas Eve, my mom and dad came down to visit and had stopped at the Hills Department Store I was working at part-time. After working for the second largest computer company in the world at the beginning of the year, I was embarassed when they walked to the back of the store and saw their son working in layaway. That visit included one of the few father-son talks my Dad had ever initiated with me, he told me that the important thing was that I was working and there is no shame in working, ever. A working man is a productive man and you work to make things better. The talk was only a few words because my dad was a man of few words, but those words struck chords with me that have been the bass line of the music of my life ever since.

So as the holidays rolled on I wasn’t feeling as down in the dumps about working at Hills as I had earlier in the season. I worked in the layaway department with three ladies: Nicole, Natalie and Martha. They were all typical gals of the 1990s, Aqua-Net, big hair. I liked working with them. I was holiday help, they worked layaway year ’round. Layaway plays a less important role in the retail world after the mandatory pick-up date of December 21st, so the girls stayed in the back when the manager announced to us that he would start letting the holiday help go. That’s when I was pulled aside by the head cashier and given an opportunity to work through the end of the year. Her name was Trish, and she had noticed that I was a very fast and accurate cashier.

Now remember this was the days before scanning. Every item was manually entered with a department number, an inventory number and a price. Greeting cards had a special button for an automatic 10% discount at Hills. Food items, department 50, had to be entered as department and SKU (inventory number) all as one number so that the tax would calculate properly. My cash drawer was always within ten cents of accuracy, with the majority of my cash-outs balancing to the penny.

It was Christmas Eve morning. I was planning on heading to my folks, about 300 miles away, when I got a call from the manager. He asked if I could come in and work during the day shift. (I usually worked the second shift at the store). Eager for extra money I went in. All but one register was already open and there were lines. After all, the old slogan said, “Hills Is Where The Toys Are!”. The head cashier, who bore a strong resemblance to Penny Marshall, asked if I could work the “old express lane”, which was Register 16 that was never, ever used. They had cleared discarded inventory from the counter. The cash register was a slightly older model than the others, it had green numbers instead of red, and it matched only one or two registers in the back office that were used for inventory processing. It was at the end of “the loop” so it ran slower. I logged in and turned on my “10 items or less” (should be fewer, grrrr) light proclaiming that my lane was open. The first woman through the line remarked, “they never open this express lane. Thank you! I need to get home and wrap presents.” My talent for speed on the old NCR counteracted the slowness of being at the end of the loop. For seven hours, save for a 15 minute and a 30 minute break, I worked the old cash register, making customers smile as they got through the checkout quickly to get their last minute Christmas preparations finished. Looking out the big plate glass windows at the front of the store (I wish we still had those), it was easy to see that it was snowing.

The store closed at 6:00 PM, I printed my cash-out slip for the day and logged off, turning in my cash bag to the office before punching out for the day. I felt good that night, working a minimum wage job but contributing to pleasant Christmases for families in the small southwestern city in a small way. It might not have been the most prestigious job in the world but I was productive and I contributed to the world, and that’s what was important.

Getting home to my folks was slow going due to the snow and it was midnight when I finally pulled into the driveway. My mom was still up, making sure her oldest was safe. I remember her asking about the weather and my drive and me giving her a simple reply.

“It was a good day.”