When I graduated from university and started my career as a cobol programmer I had to pause and consider where my working life had started.
My parents had divorced. We didn't have much money. And I wanted some groovy clothes. And I wasn't gettin' those from my parents. So I needed to get a job. But I was 15. And it was illegal for a 15 year old to get a job.
But I had this friend, Robin Longo. And her mum had this boyfriend who owned a tropical fish store just 4 blocks from my house down on Colfax Avenue in Lakewood, Colorado. And Robin already had a job there. And she was only 15.
I asked Robin if she needed any help. She said yes. Of course she did. She was 15.
So we asked the owner and he said I could help too. And this is how it worked. I worked Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Friday evenings. During the week we only worked after school from about 3:30 to 8 pm when we closed. It was usually slow enough at some point in the evening for us to get our homework finished. During the weekends we worked all day. Usually the owner would come in to help us as these were our busiest days.
I knew nothing about fish when I started working there. And I got no training. I taught myself. I read all the books in the store. And I learned how to set up salt water tanks and how to change water and how to feed fish. I watched sea horses give birth. I learned how to diagnose sick fish and how to test water for alkaline. I could advise people on what size and shape of tank was best for different types of fish. I could explain to people how to set up salt water environments. And it worked. They would come in very excited and buy more fish.
We had total responsibility for the store. When we got there the owner left for the afternoon and we locked up. We had keys to the store. We had to open up and feed all the fish. We had to clean tanks, stock shelves and hoover the floor during the day. We had to turn off all the lights and lock up when we left. No one watched over us. We just did it.
We counted the day's sales and reconciled that with the cash in the drawer. We prepared deposits for the bank which the owner would make the next day during the week.
As far as pay went, well, we got minimum wage. And we calculated what he owed us ourselves and at the end of the week we took our earnings from the cash register. If we needed some cash during the week, we took it out of the till and wrote him an IOU. I was honest to a fault. Sometimes if we made really big sales he gave us a wee bit of a commission.
The saddest day was a Sunday morning when my grandparent's came over and told me that there was some kind of commotion down by the fish store. Robin had worked the Saturday before and I was due in on Sunday morning but not for a few more hours. We didn't open until 10 am.
I hopped on my bicycle and went down there. The fire trucks were there and asked me if I knew anything about the store. I explained that I worked there. They asked me to contact the owner. I did. He said he'd be right there.
In the meantime I explained to the firemen that some of the fish were very expensive and some were very dangerous. They asked me if I wanted to see if there was anything worth saving. And keep them from getting poisoned. They gave me a hat and I went in with them. It was the first and only time I've ever seen and smelt the devastation of a fire.
There was very little worth saving. I cried when I saw my little sea horses.
Apparently the fire was caused by an electrical short in a pump in one of our isolation tanks in the back. Robin had done all the right things when she shut down the store the night before. There was nothing anyone could have done to prevent the fire. Luckily no one was hurt.
But the store was a total loss. The owner didn't want to start over. And I was unemployed.
Still to this day, I've never had a job that gave me so much responsibility. I've never had a job that gave me so little training and left so much up to me and my judgment. I've never had a job that trusted me to do the right thing so completely. I've never had a job that paid so little. I've never had a job I loved so much.
A few weeks later I got a job at the Wendy's next door. They just assumed I was over 16 since I had run the fish store next door. I told them the truth the day I celebrated by 16th birthday a few months later. They couldn't believe it.