Since Mom had no money for sitters, of course, I wound up going in to work with her over the summer at the Chik-In/Chik-Out. Ordinarily that would have been frowned upon, but the manager was an older guy who’d been in the trenches for decades after flaming out of a law career. He had a simple rule: you could bring your kid as long as they were old enough to wash their hands and pitch in.

For most people, this would have meant sitting in the supply room and taking out the trash, but that got boring after about five seconds. So I found a uniform shirt that fit me, thrown out because of a ketchup stain that I could easily tuck out of sight.

Even then I was tall for my age–as Mom used to say, “whoever your father was, he sure would have been a tall one”–and I’d already cut off the coifs that had occupied the first hour of Mom’s day in favor of something more sensible. So while I got some funny looks cleaning up tables or taking orders, most people just assumed I was a shrimpy 14-year-old boy instead of a tall 10-year-old girl.

I did all the jobs that no one else wanted to do during Mom’s shift because it got people smiling and it got them to talk to me. Then as now, it’s all about people and getting to know them. Eventually, the manager even started paying me under the table, muttering something about his guilty conscience. Not minumum wage, naturally, but a few bucks here and there, with a few more wrinkled bills and quarters for the really horrid jobs.

Mom only took the money when we were really really short that month, so it was the first time I was able to buy things for myself. I still remember that the first thing I bought with my Chik-In/Chik-Out money was a fine pair of work pants to match my shirt uniform. A lot of the ladies there wore hip-huggers or pants with some sequins as a way of tiptoeing around the dress code, but I was delighted that I could finally skip all that and buy the straightest, plainest pair of boys’ slacks I could.

Things couldn’t last. When the manager retired–who retires from managing a Chik-In/Chik-Out, anyway?–he was replaced by some young hardass who told allt he ladies in no undertain terms that if he saw their kids anywhere but a birthday party they were fired. But being there taught me a lot about myself and the world. Hell, that uniform shirt became my first dress shirt once I pulled the logo off of it, and I wore it until my growth spurt made it impossible.

I suppose that’s where I got the idea, a few years later when I was 16, to apply to the MacConnell Burger on Main for my first job–as a 4-year-old boy.

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