I had some time to kill so I decided to check out Vallejo’s Larwin Plaza Shopping Mall when it debuted in the early 1960s. It featured sparkling new shops populated by some of that era’s top retailers, including Sears, Singer, Long’s Drugs and S.S. Kresge.
As I strolled through our town’s new future of retailing, a sign in the window of Kresge’s caught my eye. It read, “WANT TO TRAVEL? Ask about our Management Trainee Program.”
“Want to travel? WANT TO TRAVEL? HELL YES I WANT TO TRAVEL!” I thought as I ran through the doors of the venerable old dime store’s new outlet to find out more about the trainee program (the five and dime variety stores, like Kresge’s and Woolworth’s have morphed into today’s inflation adjusted dollar stores).
I was footloose and fancy free at the time. I’d dropped out of UC Berkeley (later to return and complete my studies there, but that’s another story) which had felt like a colossal waste of time for someone who lacked career ambitions.
This vocational motivational deficit, however, couldn’t be attributed to a lack of effort on my part … I’d given it an honest go.
In fact, when that most troubling of teenage thoughts … “What am I going to do with the rest of my life?” … disturbed my carefree consciousness, I studied a telephone directory’s Yellow Pages, from A through Z, in order to comprehensively survey the different employment opportunities out there.
Unfortunately my painstaking research yielded less than satisfactory results, for by the time I reached zoologist, I’d come the unavoidable conclusion that there was nothing out there for me.
No profession, trade, craft or mission even remotely piqued my interest. So I resigned myself to go with what truly interested me … I’d be a poet! And that sure didn’t require a college degree!
So I dropped out of Cal to get rich instead of smart … and started selling Kirby vacuum cleaners door to door. While this didn’t quite yield a cornucopia of riches, it did teach me some invaluable lessons.
I found that I had what it takes to sell things … such as a lack of trepidation when approaching strangers with outrageous proposals; asking the right questions at the right time in order to understand what makes a prospect tick; a fearlessness when asking a stranger early and often to buy something that previously hadn’t occurred to them that they needed; an understanding that “no” simply meant I’d not explained the “opportunity” to them adequately; an appreciation that no isn’t a personal rejection but a statistical necessity; and an irrepressible pleasure when, in the heat of “battle” I would extemporaneously craft a “pitch” that produced a homerun.
I also discovered that through selling I could enjoy a deluxe lifestyle with a minimum of effort. In a few short months I’d acquired my own apartment as well as an Austin Healy 100-6 “English” sports car (which represented an exciting and beautiful chapter in the history of automotive engineering and art). After a few more months I found that I could support both of these, along with dating, carousing and a variety of self-destructive activities by working two or fewer weeks a month!
“To hell with getting rich,” I thought, “I’ll just get laid!” … which became my motto! But after a year and a half of a downhill slide toward depravity and debauchery, I started to feel something was missing. And upon seeing that sign in Kresge’s window I realized what that something was … travel!
Once inside the variety store, as fate would have it, I saw a familiar face … a friend of my older sister Martha. I’d only met the fellow a few times, but he had an official air about him. It turned-out that he was well into his tenure as a management trainee there!
S.S. Kresge and Company couldn’t have had a more enthusiastic employee than this guy. He told me about the myriad of opportunities the company offered, how they’d been steadily and aggressively expanding for over half a century, how they’d just launched a new division called K-mart and how they were going to bust the billion dollar sales barrier for the first time in 1963!
Wow! After hearing all this, I was sold! It sounded like Kresge’s five and dime stores represented a fantastic future for their employees as well as an absolute blessing for the entire nation!
Martha’s friend introduced me to the store manager who escorted me back to his office. I sat with a panoramic view of the entire store while he gave me the once-over.
“What brings you to Kresge’s?” he asked me.
“What brings me to Kresge’s?” I repeated. “Well for one thing, I want to be on-board when you chalk-up your first billion dollars in sales this year! I want to get in on the ground floor with your K-mart retail revolution! I want to travel! I want to be part the best retail operation in the America!”
I could have gone on, but by that time the fellow’s eyes were the size of Moon Pies so I figured I’d probably said enough.
After the manager gathered my personal information, I walked out of his establishment viewing the place in an altogether different, much more positive light than I had only a brief time before. Could this be my future?
I heard nothing from Kresge’s for over a couple of months following that interview, and, preoccupied with my personal pursuit of happiness, I forgot about it entirely.
Later a Kirby colleague whose car had broken down, asked me for a ride to Oakland. He’d heard that the phone company (there was but one at the time, PT&T, a subsidiary of corporate behemoth AT&T) was hiring after a years-long hiatus. He confessed right then and there that his grand ambition in life was to get a job with Ma Bell (aka AT&T). He offered to pay for gas (the magic words), so we hopped in the Healy and headed to Oakland.
When we entered PT&T’s personnel office, a secretary greeted us, handed us employment applications and directed us to a waiting room jammed with similar job-seekers. It looked like it’d be a long wait.
Since I had an application … “What the hell!” I filled it out and waited … and waited … and waited. With nothing better to do, I started reading various PT&T company magazines scattered about the room.
By the time my name was called, I’d read just about every one of them, all of which extolled the vision and virtue of PT&T’s various California ventures and gave tribute to the loyalty and creativity of its tens of thousands of employees (at the time AT&T employed a million people nationwide and raked-in annual revenues in excess of $300,000,000,000.00 in today’s dollars).
“What brings you to PT&T?” an older gentlement in a rumpled suit asked me politely, but authoritatively.
“What brings me to PT&T?” I reiterated. “Well it’s part of the largest corporation in the world! Talk about opportunity! Just next year AT&T is spending over $25,000,000 on improvements in California alone! I couldn’t imagine a company with a better future! That’s why I came to PT&T! And that’s why I want to be part of it!”
That brought this fellow bolt upright, straight out of his all-day-long-interviewing-boring-young-men-who-all-said-the-same-thing stupor! He started writing without further ado, and within minutes had scheduled me for a physical exam the following week, after which, providing I passed the exam, I’d be called for another interview with PT&T’s regional operations director in Marin County.
As I left his office he reminded me in a fatherly fashion that as the physical was first thing in the morning, I should do my best not to sleep in. I grinned sheepishly knowing I hadn’t pulled the wool over this gentleman’s eyes completely!
The drive back to Vallejo wasn’t great. My friend and I didn’t talk much. He sat hunched over, glumly contemplating a bleak future after realizing he’d not spend it with Ma Bell, while I, on the other hand, kept asking myself, “What the hell have you gotten yourself into this time? What in the hell have you done now?”
Coming next! How To Get A Great Job You Really Don’t Want, Part 3 … MAKING THE LEAP FROM TELEPHONE POLES TO FREEDOM! You won’t want to miss it!
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