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Friday, March 7, 2003

All week when I've looked at the calendar, something about this date has struck a chord. I couldn't remember why March 7 was important until last night, when in a blinding flash of revelation I realized it was thirty years ago today that I started what I consider my first "real" job.

Maybe I think of a job as real only if I stay at it for at least four years. That's how long this one lasted. I'd been out of college a little more than a year, picking up short-term employment here and there. I was even fired once, by Kmart, because the manager of the women's ready-to-wear department had someone else in mind for the prestigious position of head stock boy, namely her 16-year-old son.

It shook me up to lose that job, but I shed no tears over it. I hadn't been planning on making a career out of hauling blouses and pants from the loading dock to the stockroom and hanging them on racks. It's an honorable profession, but I had a bachelor's degree in English and thought I could do a little better, if not now then some time down the road.

Working at Kmart was the high point of my post-college experience until I answered a blind ad in the local paper. When I was called for an interview, I learned that the job would be at a family shoe store. As a stock boy. At that point, though, I didn't care what I was doing; I just wanted to be employed.

I didn't think the interview was going well, but then I told the dignified older gentleman who owned the shop that I didn't think the interview was going well. That was apparently the right thing to say, because it was the turning point. One of the turning points of my life, in fact. The next day I got the call, and the day after that, March 7, 1973, I started my first real job.

It was a family-owned shoe store on Main Street in Small Town America (actually Sebastopol, California, which is now Artist Colony/Tourist Trap America but at the time was Small Town America). I was 23 with no real life experience. The only thing I'd ever succeeded at was school, and then it was only in the classroom. I had a lot to learn, and Mr. L taught me more than any teacher I'd ever had.

By the time I'd been there a few weeks I was no longer just dusting and sweeping and stocking the shelves. I was also selling, and thanks to Mr. and Mrs. L I was comfortable for the first time around people I didn't know. It helped that most of the customers were older people and young mothers with small children. It wasn't like retail work in a mall store, which was a fire I had to pass through a few years later.

It didn't turn me into a social being by any means. I brought my lunch every day and ate in while sitting in my car and reading. But I did learn to greet every single person who walked through the front door as if they were old and dear acquaintances. I could never match Mr. L's booming "Hi, girls!" when a group of older women would wander in, but that probably wouldn't have been appropriate coming from me anyway. He got away with it because he was the lovable old town character.

I'm glad the shoe store eased me into the world of work, and I'll be forever grateful for the confidence I gained there. The low key atmosphere and friendly clientele helped me feel that I was doing something well. A little success, even if it's an illusion, is something that can do wonders for a person at any time of life, but for me at 23 it was a much needed boost to a fragile ego.


I'm going to have to stop calling this tree the "dead" birch.

It was almost exactly four years later, on March 10, 1977, that Mr. L retired and the store closed its doors forever. I moved on to other jobs, and some of those were not happy experiences. But I always had the memory of the years with Mr. and Mrs. L to help me through the bad times and remind me that a job can be rewarding in surprising ways. I treasure those memories to this day, so many decades later.

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We sold Buster Browns and Florsheims, Naturalizers, Daniel Green slippers and Red Wing Work Boots. We also had Earth Shoes and Birkenstocks and Sun-Glo sandals, along with clogs, espadrilles and Hush Puppies. I wore (along with my bell bottom pants) white shoes with one-inch platform soles, because that was what was in style. I also had a pair of crepe-soled suede Wallabees.

I once sold a handbag to the late folk-singing legend Kate Wolf, but according to Mr. L the store's biggest celebrities were Hollywood stars and local landowners Fred MacMurray and June Haver, who were regular customers there in the 1950s.

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One year ago: Head and Heart
"Anything I write here is filtered through each day's experience and likely to change with the weather, or the moon and tides, or any unforeseen circumstances. And fortunately, unforeseen circumstances abound, even in the most sheltered, quiet life."

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