Just a Job

heartland

When I was evacuated from my first Peace Corps service, in Niger, I went home to live with my parents for a few months, where I planned to get my bearings straight and decide what to do next. I figured I would get a low-stress, no-stakes job, so once I passed the initial devastation of my service ending, I started looking around for gigs. I went to the local ice cream shop, a bar, a couple of retail stores. No one wanted to hire me, probably because I didn’t have much experience in those industries. The place that did want to hire me, though, was the local newspaper, and so I took the job and immediately became one of the more veteran reporters on staff. A few months later, the Missouri River Flood of 2011 happened, and while I won an award and produced clips that I used to get jobs a few years later (after a second Peace Corps service), it was not the stress-less job I had hoped to have.

I’ve been very fortunate that I haven’t had to work many service, minimum wage jobs in my lifetime. My first real job, outside of babysitting, was lifeguarding and teaching swimming lessons, which I did all throughout high school. In college, I interned and freelanced for newspapers and made most of my beer and rent money working in the marketing department of a scoreboard company. Outside of short stints at Blockbuster and a pizzeria housed in a gas station, I have always held jobs that were linked to my field of choice. I never folded clothes at a Gap, made a latte, or waited tables. I am lucky, I know.

When I made the choice to quit my job to go to school it was with the idea that I would probably get some part-time work down the road. With my grad assistantship to cover my tuition, loan money to cover my rent and extra school fees, a willing husband to cover more costs, and a fairly decent savings, I didn’t need a job right away but that didn’t stop me from obsessing over our bank account and feeling guilty for not contributing more to the household expenses.

Initially, I thought that this would be through freelance work. I could do some writing, editing, and marketing work on the side, creating my own hours and bringing in a bit of cash. When I left my job, though, I didn’t want to start putting out the feelers right away because I needed a break. Plus, I wanted to adjust to my new life as a student. I did apply for a few positions from postings online, but I knew that the best way to get work was reaching out to connections. Part of me put off looking for this kind of work because school hadn’t quite ramped up and I didn’t know what kind of time I could commit to a side gig, but also because I wasn’t ready to dive back into that work just yet. And because writing those “Hey, I am looking for work” emails isn’t the best way to spend an afternoon.

Then, one day, while returning home from the gym where I just swam tens of laps to get rid of my anxieties about money, I decided to stop in at a health foods market in my neighborhood. The market is attached to a restaurant and cafe that has been in the neighborhood for 40-some years and is known for its vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free options. The store’s items include produce from an organic farm in Michigan, sustainable coffee, vegetable versions of chips, and natural beauty and cleaning products. I had been in there a few times to browse their vegan section, and while I couldn’t afford much, it was the type of store I often dreamed about shopping at exclusively. Locally owned. All organic. Kombucha on tap.

I’ve often been scared to go up to a business and ask if they are hiring, as if I am the first person to ever think of such an idea, because of the possibility of instant rejection. On this day, though, I would risk that fear because the worry over money was greater, so I walked up right to the counter and asked if they were hiring.

The woman wasn’t sure. Maybe, she said. I told her I wasn’t looking for many hours, just one or two shifts a week. I didn’t know if this would hurt or help my chances, but it was actually the answer she was looking for. They could use a filler here and there, and even better that I was willing to work weekends, almost exclusively. I didn’t flinch saying ‘no’ when she asked if I had retail experience, but she gave me an application to fill out. I returned it later that day and was hired the following week at Heartland Café.

Generally speaking, the job is easy. Checking the produce, make inventory notes, answering the phone, and taking to-go orders. It can get stressful on a Sunday morning when I have several online orders that need to be sent to the kitchen and a line full of customers waiting to be checked out, but other than that it is low-stakes. Whatever fire ignites is easily put out in a few minutes. I was overwhelmed at first, not knowing how busy a kitchen can get and terrified to ask the chefs to make special accommodations on orders, but then I found my groove and identified my little role in this business.

Some have said that the worst part of jobs like these are the people. Rude customers, unlikeable characters, strays from the neighborhood. And, it’s this unknown of who is going to come in the door that has kept me from jobs like this in the past, but it’s actually the people that are my favorite part. I love the regulars who come in for the same thing each Sunday or whose order I can predict before their open their mouth. I love helping people find something that they can’t get at other stores. I even like the uncomfortable situations, where someone comments about how high the prices are or how the business has gone down in recent years, because it’s great training for a counselor who will be in all kinds of awkward scenarios.

What’s best about this job, though, is that it is just a job. I don’t have to think too much, except when counting the cash, and it gets me out of my own head for a few hours. I work just a shift or two a week making minimum wage, but even that is enough to soothe some of my money worries. Plus, I’ve always loved grocery stores and it’s an easy two-block commute from my house.

And, it’s low stakes. I don’t have to be here forever. I don’t have to work my way up. I don’t have to prove to everyone that I am good at what I do. I can just show up, do my job, and then go home. The key, for me, is to keep out the stress. In my last position, I spent so much time worry about where I was in the organization and what others thought of me (they often were not thinking about me) that it diluted my experience. Much of the time, I was more stressed than I needed to be. In fact, when I left, one piece of advice someone gave me was to just relax. This market job is a way of reclaiming my passion and my energy. I want to succeed and do well at school, but work is actually a break from that. It’s just a job, and at this moment in my life, it’s exactly what I need.

Just when I started to really enjoy this just-a-job job, I lost it (after I had written 1,300 words about it). The Heartland announced that it was closing because the building had been bought (by developers, cue the eye roll). Both the restaurant and café will close tomorrow evening, December 31, without a new home, although the owner hopes to be in a new Rogers Park location by the spring, but nothing is confirmed.

At first, losing my job was a kick in the teeth after some already unfortunate events Ethan and I were handling. Second, I am losing my strongest connection to the neighborhood. But most of all, the neighborhood is losing, as many customers have told me, an institution. Over the last few weeks, people have poured into the store, telling me how they started coming there three years ago, 15 years ago, 35 years ago, when they first moved to the area. It was their first home, they tell me. They are sad for me, but mostly for their neighborhood.

It’s very interesting to be at a store as it approaches its end. Some people are sad, saying they love this place, but admit they haven’t been there in years. Other people are very pumped about the discount on market products and buy baskets full of stuff when they wouldn’t have bought anything if there wasn’t a sale. It reminds me of a radio piece I heard several years ago, about the 2008 recession, and how some customers were upset that either something was discounted further or they no longer had what the shopper wanted. Most people are generally upset about the Heartland closing, but there are some who just want a good deal. It makes me sad.

For a while, I wasn’t sure what I would do. Maybe I would actually try freelancing this time, because we do need the extra income, or I could get another part-time job. Either way, I told myself that I wouldn’t bother with that until after Heartland closed. Till then, I would work my shifts and say goodbye properly.

One thing that is nice about working at a locally-owned business is that other locally-owned businesses want to hire those employees. A few places reached out to the owner about some opportunities and he passed them on to those who were interested, myself included. Before Heartland closed its doors tomorrow (I’m working the morning shift that day), I’ve already worked two days at my new job. It’s at a bakery, not too far away, and so far it’s as cute and as quaint as you would think baking at a bakery would be.

I will miss Heartland, but it was my threshold to just-a-job jobs. I needed that foundation of doing something unfamiliar yet low stakes to help me through school. Getting through my master’s is my main focus right now, but these jobs shows me sides of myself that have yet been cultivated. Now I know I can have just a job and be perfectly content.

 

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