The Set-Up

Somehow my MBA didn’t save me from the bad economy a few years ago. (Go figure – guess it wasn’t just happening to someone else). The job I had excelled at for 20 years (in the HR industry was being swallowed by another, bigger job description. I pictured it as one of those pictures with the line of fish with their mouths open, each one eating the next smaller fish until the giant fish devoured everyone. So I had to find something to do.

I live in the Midwest, that part of the country that no one cares about unless the weather puts us in the headlines. Which is a huge improvement over the previous lumping under “Rustbelt”, a sad commentary on our place in the American psyche. Unfortunately, when it comes to looking for a career, sometimes “The Dead Zone” (apologies to Stephen King) is a better description.

I discovered that I was no longer qualified for most positions in HR. It was probably for the best. In my last position I was in constant trouble because I was standing up for the employees. (I hadn’t realized that the job qualification of ‘being able to say no” applied to the staff, not the customer.) My resume, which had looked eclectic in the past (some HR, some tech, some project work), now showed that while I was talented I didn’t appear to have a passion for anything. At least anything that someone would pay me to do.

So I did what any self-respecting professional would do – sat on the sofa and felt sorry for myself. On the bright side, I did not end up a ‘Toddlers & Tiaras” addict. And I tried to find a job. I discovered that the advice to use “the words that employers want to hear” on my resume (to keep it from getting kicked out from the parser the employer was using) is worthless – thousands of other people were reading the same articles and clips.

Finally, I became desperate enough to take any interview I could get. I applied to the deli at a regional big-box store (let’s call it Ralph’s Mega-Mart and hope there isn’t really one in the Midwest). The day of the interview, I had a semi-rant about how this would probably be the interview that would end in a job offer. Of course, it was the only interview I’d had in recent memory, including other low-paying, low-prestige jobs. Sure enough, Ralph’s wanted me.

I should have had a clue at the orientation when they gave us company-issue polyester shirts at the orientation. They varied by department – the deli wears dirty orange (they call it rust). The first few days reminded my of the saying “the less at stake, the more vigorously people defend their position”. Each person who trained me explained why they were doing things rights and everyone else was wrong. I was on afternoons, so the real ogres were the day-shift. I had learned to do dishes, close up, and fry chicken before management decided they needed someone out in the store on packaged cheese (e.g. Kraft, Velveeta, store-brand). For some reason. Ralph’s sees these products as tied to the deli rather than dairy.

Apparently I showed potential (and very little training investment), so I moved over. I didn’t know it, but it was the best day of my life at Ralph’s (sad, but true). At the time, I didn’t understand the true personality of the deli – a half-dozen people working under pressure, in close quarters, reporting to a supervisor with virtually no interpersonal skills. Not to mention wages approximately $3 below living standards, limited benefits, and hours that could begin at 6a and end at 11p, seven days a week including all holidays + Christmas.

So began my adventures in cheese…

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