Lee Smith is one of my favorite Southern writers. I just bought her memoir and can’t wait to start reading it. I love her writing, I love memoirs, I love the South. So I know it will be a treasured experience to read her story. More than that, the title suggests that I might identify with some of her experiences.
My first job as a teenager was in a dimestore. Oh, I had earned money at home for various special chores. Like Truman Capote, I picked up pecans in the fall of the year. (Some grammarians would rather read that I gathered pecans, but that’s not what we said in Sycamore. Furthermore, as you read it, think pea-cans, to get the sound of the word right in your mind.) If you’ve ever read his “A Christmas Memory,” you can get an idea of the experience of fruitcake baking that took place at our house. I even had a spinster aunt to guide me as Capote did.
And, there was a day picking cotton (probably a couple of hours) at Uncle Hal’s field, and a day in the tobacco barn (also Uncle Hal’s). My Daddy had given up farming for building by the time I was born, but he realized the experience of field labor would be soon forgotten and that I should have those memories. He was right on both counts. Of course.
Oh, my job at the dimestore.
The year I turned fifteen, I was eligible to get a work permit and get a job. My mother took me to the school superintendent’s office to complete the appropriate paperwork. I recall Mr. Royal counseling me that, “this should not interfere with your schoolwork, of course.” Well, of course; it wouldn’t. I was the class nerd before nerd was a word. Nothing came before my schoolwork.
But now I was legal. On Saturdays, I reported to Elrod’s Five and Dime on Main Street in Ashburn. I guess I worked from 9:00 until 5:00, I don’t recall the exact hours. I do recall the pay. It was $5.00 and change. Literally. Cash. In a small manila envelope.
There were three of us teenagers working; the manager, and another adult full-time employee. Carl lifted all the heavy boxes, swept the oiled wood floors with sweeping compound, and helped with serving customers. Carolyn and I offered assistance to customers, kept shelves filled with reserves from beneath the old wooden counters, and watched for shoplifters.
Saturday was a busy day; there wasn’t much time for small talk, But, in the quiet times, I learned to bond with co-workers. We did not know each other so had nothing in common other than this experience. We learned from our customers, too. A wide range of society came through those doors, and the dimestore sold everything from toys to tools. There were clothing items for children and underwear for adults. The first time a customer asked for “step-ins,” I replied that we didn’t carry those. Carolyn had to translate for me. Oh. I taught her the difference in a wrench and screwdriver.
We sold bulk candy, learning to scoop from the bins and weigh on a scale now sold in antique stores. We mixed the sticky syrup that went into making “slushies” when they were new. Dare I say that we did not wash our hands frequently, and there were no plastic gloves? It was a simpler time.
We wrapped Christmas packages with the stern manager watching over our shoulder to ensure that the paper didn’t overlap too much and that we didn’t use too much scotch tape. The paper was quite thin, and tearing it was wasteful, too, so we learned to be fast and careful and frugal. There were no boxes or gift bags, so some oddly shaped packages required some creative thinking. The paper curling ribbon was final flourish. Today, even though I have wired ribbon on hand to decorate my packages, I keep some paper curling ribbon on hand.
I worked at Elrod’s on Saturdays, some weekdays in the summer, and during Christmas holidays for the last three years of high school. In the last year, the business relocated to a more modern building. I guess it was more comfortable; being air-conditioned and having slick tile floors. But it never seemed the same. The old building, the theatre next door, and the railroad track across the street were all part of the ambiance. That theatre sold the world’s greatest french fries. To this day, if I am served extraordinarily good, greasy, salty fries made from freshly sliced potatoes, I remember the ones Carl would go get for all of us at mealtime.
Now I guess it’s time to travel down Lee Smith’s memory lane with her Dimestore.
Photo: If Carl, Carolyn, and I were working teens these days, we would have numerous group selfies, I’m sure. But the best I can do here is a blurry scanned image of myself during those years. Yes, I made the dress.