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In the summer of 1990, the air thick with recession, my college classes had finished and my $10/hour work-study at the used bookstore had dried up. I needed a summer job. I’d saved almost enough to move out of my parents’ house. Twenty years old and brimming with determination, I drove my Dodge Dart to every strip mall in town, wadded my piece of Big Red in its wrapper, tucked my hair behind my ears, and smoothed my pencil skirt with sweaty palms. After more than 30 applications and follow-up phone calls dialed with the cord stretched to my bedroom, I landed a job at the Kmart deli.
From a formica desk in a back office, my manager grunted instructions. That summer, I ditched anthologies and learned how to clock in, the clank of my time card slotting into the machine like a bullet to my ears. He pointed to where I’d line up each Friday afternoon and my $4.25/hour pay would be doled out in cash in hopes I’d spend most of it in-store. He handed me an aqua button-up smock and hairnet and led me to meet Linda in the deli.
Linda, my supervisor, introduced me to the lit glass deli case at the front of the store across from the service desk. At 6:30 a.m., with the precision of a chemist, Linda taught me how to make the perfect Kmart sub sandwich. We’d line up super-soft rolls along the stainless steel countertop and open them slightly, careful not to break them into two. First, we’d dip plastic spatulas into tubs of condiments and smear mustard on one side, mayo on the other. Next, we’d place one slice each of bologna, salami, ham and processed American cheese atop the bread. Then came slivers of lettuce, one transparent tomato slice and finally, a wisp of onions.
Before customers arrived, Linda’s pace picked up. After tucking strands of gray in her hairnet, she showed me what to do with leftovers. From the cooler, we grabbed yesterday’s sandwiches. “OK. Unwrap these and pull the meat off.” I watched with disgust, making sure I’d heard her correctly. “C’mon. Get going. We’ve got to get these done,” Linda barked and glanced over at the service desk.
We proceeded to remove the meat glued to buns and cheese. We flicked yesterday’s lettuce and tomato from the meat slices into the big gray garbage bin. Then the sandwich-making assembly line began again. The soft rolls split, we added yesterday’s meat and wrapped them in plastic, then placed them alongside the fresh sandwiches.
The unrelenting desert sunshine of Southern California pounded as the glass doors slid open and shut with the day’s first customers. The regulars, old women with deep wrinkled foreheads, scowled then complained about their orders: “I said paper-thin.” They demanded to Linda, “Can’t you teach this young lady to do her job right?” Though I feared the meat cutter’s potential power to slice off a fingertip, I got to work carefully re-slicing the contrary woman’s meat extra thin. As I pushed the steel tray back and forth, a piece of ham flicked into my smock and stuck in my bra. I rolled my eyes, checked my watch and continued slicing.
As the morning wore on, young mothers eyed the counter optimistically, happy for their conquest of a no-cook meal on a sweltering summer day. Little kids filled their carts, pointing to the Icee machine with its backlit smiling polar bear. Tired of the nagging, the mothers ordered a swirled red and blue Icee with two straws. They’d bide their time staring vacantly at a carousel filled with nickel jewelry or vinyl purses, then head to the TV section to watch a snippet of their soap opera before the inevitable occurred: an Icee mess knocked to the floor. I imagined these mothers unwrapping the sandwiches onto plates at dinnertime, placing them on peeling lacy tablecloths and pouring themselves a rum and Coke.
The loudspeaker awoke me from my daydream. “Attention Kmart shoppers, head to the deli for Hot Summer Savings. Take home some fresh, succulent sandwiches from the deli today.” I scraped a spot of mustard off the front of my pants and waited for the line to form.
The summer finally ended and I headed to the employee bathroom, shed my polyester aqua smock for cutoffs and an eyelet tank top, looked into the mirror, applied lipgloss and slid on turquoise hoops. I picked up my final paycheck and walked right past the aisles of nail polish to my car. I clicked open the sunroof, unrolled the windows, dangled my arm out the window and cranked up Sting on the radio. As I sailed toward the beach, the cool breeze graced my hand and ran through my hair. I felt the first wave of freedom as I left the Kmart on Fletcher Parkway behind.