Early in my junior year of high school it became clear that I had to find a job. I was hired by the local Albertson’s supermarket as a bagboy. It was difficult to transition from intensely shy, reclusive kid into a public figure with multiple responsibilities. A bagboy is front and center with the public for at least half of every shift. It was very difficult to get adjusted to being bossed around by our ex-marine assistant manager who believed that, like a shark, one should never stop moving, doing something productive and never ever put hands in pocket. There are always carts to retrieve from the parking lot, bags to be re-stocked at the check out counters, floors to be swept, beer to be re-stocked, loss-leaders like five pound bags of sugar to be re-stocked. On my second day I was ordered to sort soda bottles in the back of the store. This sounds easy enough but the stack of bottles was eight feet high and contained 10,000 bottles from twenty different brands. They all had to be sorted into their own brand crate and stacked in orderly columns so they could be carted into beverage trucks. This was a towering, frightening egregious task the first time and it never got much easier although the anxiety quelled after a few weeks. The older guys on each shift were the checkers who also stocked shelves. They tended toward surliness which was also difficult. I hated this fucking job and wanted to quit very badly but quitting was not an option if I wanted to study architecture at the University of Washington. My high school counselor told me architecture was out of the question with my IQ and grades and she suggested bus driving as a career path. I ignored her and this new job was the key to my dreams. My shifts during the week began right after school and my anxiety would begin to kick in around lunch time. Every day as I punched my time card and tied on my apron and adjusted my bow tie I felt like running away.
I got through the first few weeks, nobody bit me. I realized any sternness was not personal but simply the tenor of the workplace. I was able to hustle with the rest of the guys. It always felt so good at night when the six hour shift was finally over and I could raid the candy display for a few pieces and ride my bike home in the dark. Once my anxiety was internalized into a work pattern and I discovered the good feeling of doing a solid shift of work and the paychecks began to pile up in my savings account, things began to lighten.
I loved watching Johnny Carson throughout high school. He was my hero. I thought he was the perfect adult. He was smart, funny, always cheerful, articulate, witty and just the all-around perfect example of male adulthood. He seemed to be making a good living, he never got angry and he smiled and laughed a lot. Johnny did this night after night year after year, it was just miraculous. The men in my immediate family and circle of adults suffered from depression, anger, worry, anxiety of every sort - Johnny appeared to be immune from these afflictions. He was a superman.
My big breakthrough at work came when I discovered that I could practice becoming Johnny Carson while bagging groceries. I began to see mothers pushing a shopping cart towering with her week’s groceries with a couple of kids in tow as my guests. During the five minutes they were waiting for their groceries to be checked, I began initiating conversations with them, guessing their children’s ages and grade level in school. During the walk out to their car with me pushing their carts, we would discuss the price of groceries, the weather, the towering grandeur of the Space Needle or the excitement of the Seattle Public Market. With the kids it was artwork in school: Crayolas versus fingerpaint, the mystery of multiplication tables. “Who says two and two is four? Are you sure it’s not five” “Yes, I’m sure!” Every single customer was a unique challenge. . Are they basically happy or morose? My question to myself was always “How hard will it be to get a conversation going” It was almost always easy. Moms and dads were always ready to vent about the rising cost of groceries - this was the ice breaker. By the time the groceries were loaded into the trunk or backseat I had a new friend or two.
This was the miracle of bagging groceries. I discovered a way to harness my deepest desire to be more like Johnny Carson to available opportunities at the store which were ever-present. After a few months when I hit my stride and could initiate a conversation with anyone no matter how dark a mood they were in and have new friends in minutes - Hey! These people were my guests and I had to be radiant, cheerful and happy. The satisfaction from my public experience at the check out counter gave me the strength to stack the most intimidating mass of mixed up soda bottles or re-stocking ice cream in the zero degree freezer or cutting boxes open and stacking canned goods on the shelves.
Over the course of the next year and a half I made countless friends, saved enough money for college and developed social skills that resulted in my election to the presidency of my home-room my senior year. Not an achievement that opens doors to the ivy league (that would come later) but far from the socially inept, shy teen that I had been. The lesson here, if there is one, is that one can persevere through what seem to be egregious tasks, onerous personalities and other roadblocks to well-being and turn a situation to serve one’s private psychic goals.
Later during my senior year I discovered, to my chagrin, that my more sophisticated classmates, who wrote for the school poetry journal, maxed the SATs and got accepted to Harvard, Yale and Stanford didn’t share my feelings about the inviolability of Johnny Carson. It was like the day when an art professor doesn’t think much of Norman Rockwell. Johnny was a crucial transitional figure for me and I’ll always be thankful for his bounty.