A SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS
PART TWO: HIGH SCHOOL HELL
Written by Rick Archer
2015, Richard Archer
I cannot begin to
express how much I hated my father for denying me the third skin-planing operation.
However, following the terrible accident to George, I decided it was
time for a shift in attitude. Yes, I had a permanently damaged
face, but let's get on with it. In a way, I suppose my
father had done me a back-handed favor. By slamming the door
shut on any further skin treatment, there was no reason to keep
hoping my looks would be restored.
So I decided to stop
agonizing over my bad luck and decide what to do next. My first decision was to stop looking at myself in the
mirror. I was so repulsive I absolutely could not stand my appearance.
I learned to shave with my eyes closed.
My second decision was to quit thinking about dating.
All that did was make me feel even lonelier.
Since it was clear that
I would never date in high school thanks to my jagged face,
my third decision was to concentrate on the only thing that still mattered -
Recalling my Bible History
stories about Exodus, gaining entrance into college was
elevated to something
akin to reaching the Promised
Land of the Jews.
The acne was a curse, no
doubt about it. But there was one very odd silver lining to my
ordeal... my grades improved. My grades were my ticket
out of town. I began to worship my
grades with the same fervor a slave might dream of the
Underground Railroad. There would be no more living for the present, but
rather the future.
I was a smart kid. As much as I complain about my parents, I
do have them to thank for the gift of intelligence. That said, I met a
lot of students at St. John's who were just as smart as me and quite
a few who were
Knowing this, I owe much
of my academic success to the indisputable fact that I out-worked
I dare say if I could have kept my looks and played sports, my
would have turned out very different. But one has to play the
hand dealt, correct? My grades were the key to my escape.
I had dreamed of being
an athlete, but fate had condemned me to become a nerd. With plenty of time on
my hands, I turned my attention to homework and study. I dare
say I owe my academic success at St. John's more to willpower than
In my class
of fifty students, Mark Mendel was the solitary genius. Mark
was the son of the psychiatrist who had
persuaded my mother to send me to St. John's against my
After Mark, there was a group of eight
elite students locked in a dogfight for second place.
I was somewhere
around tenth or eleventh place when the acne hit. Since I had virtually no
life, I studied hard. What else did I have to do?
I was smart, but nowhere near
super-smart. My one gift was my drive and self-discipline. No
matter how much I did not want to study, I could always
force myself to do it anyway. In response to
my acne crisis, I called upon that drive to
maximize what talent I did have.
Over the next
two and a half years, slowly but surely I moved up the
ranks. Like an athlete with average talent who is
determined to improve, I entered the top echelon
strictly through hard work.
would finish with High Honors accompanied by two others. I became part of a
second tier of six students who finished with Honors.
wasn't worried about getting into college. Grades were
not a problem. Money was the problem. Where was the
money going to come from?
I assumed that I could
get a college scholarship. After all, I had gotten a scholarship to
St. John's, so I assumed that would work in my favor for college as
But what about room and
board? Books? Clothes?
My mother was dirt poor
and my father's dismissal of the third facial operation had shown he was reluctant
to invest any more money in me than he had to. I concluded if I intended to
go to college, I would have to pay for at least some of it on my own.
So my fourth decision to
was to look for a job.
In the spring of my Sophomore year, I applied for a job
on Alabama and Dunlavy.
This was a
Montrose-area grocery store I passed daily on
my bike on the way to school. Mom liked to shop there because
it was near to five of the eleven places we lived over the years.
store was the only place where I
applied for a job. I don't know what I was
thinking. My chances of getting a job there were slim and
And why was that?
Because I was a thief.
This particular Weingarten's was
the same neighborhood store where I had been caught shoplifting candy in the
I mentioned earlier that the 8th grade was a very bad time for me. Every now and then on the way home from school,
I would feel sorry for myself because I had no spending
I would ride my bike home, stop off at the grocery store, and stuff a few candy
bars in my pocket. Later on I would
eat the candy bars while I
took my dog Terry out for a walk.
around a lot when I was a kid whenever my mother couldn't
pay the rent, but we usually stayed in the Montrose
neighborhood. Those little red squares mark the
location of some of my various homes.
One day a plain clothes
cop came up from behind, grabbed me by the collar and hauled me into a room in the back
of the store before I could say a word. I was 13 at the time
and completely terrified. I never knew what hit me.
Once we were out of
sight, he reached inside my jacket and watched
grimly as several candy bars spilled to the floor. Then after
looking twice to make sure no one was around, he cuffed
me hard on the side of my head and yelled, "What the hell is wrong with you,
I was stunned by the
blow and humiliated by the rebuke. That got my attention.
As he wrote up a report, this man continued to chew me out upside
down. First he called me a 'juvenile delinquent'.
Then he threatened me with jail downtown and Gatesville School for Boys,
a fabled juvenile detention center near Waco where the worst boys in
Texas were sent. He asked me if I
knew how to fight because those tough boys at Gatesville were going
to beat the crap out of me. I paled visibly. This guy scared the bejeezus out of me.
No kidding, this cop had me shaking like a leaf.
Deliberately preying on my naivety, he had me convinced I was headed to the
Whether it was
deliberate or not, he kept me waiting in that room for a full
minutes. Now that I give some it thought, it was probably deliberate. I
believe he wanted to give me time to think about what I had done and
ratchet up my fears. It worked. The longer I waited not
knowing what my fate was, the more my fears increased. I was scared out of my
Now came the worst humiliation of all.
This man inadvertently began a conversation that cut me to shreds.
To pass the time, the detective
decided to leaf through my
Algebra book and my Latin book. Inside the Latin book, he
discovered a current test that I had folded and inserted between
the pages. In big red letters, the test was marked '94', the equivalent of an 'A'.
The teacher's bold handwriting in the margin said, "Great work, Dick!!"
The detective stared at that test.
Then he stared at me
incredulously. He held up my test to make sure he had my
"Hey, kid, what is
"That is my Latin test."
"Latin is the ancient
language of Italy."
"I've never heard of
Latin. Does anyone speak Latin any more?"
"No, not really, not
unless you are a priest or something. It is the language
Julius Caesar used."
You have to be kidding me. Why are you learning a dead
"That's a good question,
sir. I ask myself that question all the time. I learn
Latin because they make me learn it whether I like it or not."
"What kind of school
makes you learn a dead language?"
I didn't answer.
"And you made an 'A'
on this test?"
"Well, I'll be
damned. It looks like you have brains although you could have
fooled me. I have another question for you. Why the hell did a smart boy like you do a dumb thing like this?"
You know, I had a really
big mouth in those days. I detested authority. But for once in my
life, I didn't sass
back. This guy had me on that one. Unfortunately, the cop wasn't finished
"What the heck
use is there for Latin?
What kind a school do you go to, some church school?"
"I go to St. John's,
"Is that a church school?"
"No, sir, it is a private
school next to Lamar High School."
"A private school?
You go to that private school next to Lamar? I think I know what school you are talking about. I've passed
that place. It's on
Westheimer. Hey, you're talking about that
rich kid's school over in River Oaks, right?"
I groaned. I did
like where this was headed. "Yes, sir, that's the one."
"You go to St. John's? Are you
serious? You go to a good school like St. John's and here
you are stealing candy bars? Do you have any sense of pride?
Take a guess how many
kids would die to go to a school like yours."
I nearly died on the
spot with embarrassment. To be honest, the man
was not even being sarcastic. He was actually curious to
understand what would make a kid with my advantages do something
inexplicable like this. This guy had asked a very good question.
It was such a good question that I was asking myself the same thing.
Was my life really so bad that stealing
candy bars was going to make any kind of difference?
The detective snorted
with disgust. He had contempt written all over his face... and
it was no act, either. All he could see was some pampered
little rich boy who was too cheap to pay for a couple of candy bars.
I wanted to tell him I was not a rich kid, but stopped when I
realized he wasn't interested in my excuses.
At this moment Mr. Ocker, the store manager, walked in.
Mr. Ocker recognized me immediately and a reflexive flash of disappointment shot across his face. He
quickly brought his hand to his face to mask his regret, but it was
too late... I saw how he looked at me. The hurt I saw in his expression cut me to ribbons. Oh, I was so
ashamed of myself!
So who was Mr. Ocker?
He was a gentle, gray-haired man, age 50, who exuded kindness.
Mr. Ocker happened to be one of my mother's heroes.
Mr. Ocker knew exactly who I was because he knew my mother
quite well. Mom had
bounced a check or two... or three... over the years. Mr. Ocker had patiently worked with
her each time. I remembered how grateful my mother felt towards him. Thanks to his
kindness, Mom made sure she always found a way to catch up on her debts.
Mom was always telling me how much she liked Mr. Ocker... and then
she would go ahead and bounce another check.
The mother bounces
checks and the kid gets caught stealing. Weren't we a pair?
I could not imagine what crossed Mr. Ocker's mind as he looked at me with
his disappointed frown. I decided I didn't want to know the answer.
Now as I stood there shaking in the stockroom, Mr. Ocker took mercy on
me in the same way he did for my mother. First he asked me to
sign a form the detective had written up admitting my guilt.
Then Mr. Ocker took a long look at me.
"I am not
going to press charges.
But I do have a favor to ask. Please do not do this
"No, sir, you have my
word this will not happen again."
"Good. But I
am not done yet.
In addition, I want you to tell your mother what you did.
To be sure you keep your word, I want your mother to come speak to
me the next time she is in the
Chastened, I promised to do what he said.
With that, Mr. Ocker said I could go.
The detective couldn't
resist one last shot. He handed me my book bag, then quipped,
"Here's your Latin book, kid. Keep up the good work."
His sarcasm was not lost on me. He clearly disapproved of Mr.
Ocker's decision to treat me lightly.
As I rode home on my
bike, I couldn't get it out of my head that Mr. Ocker had said
'please'. I just couldn't get that word out of my mind. "Please." That
more powerful than the mean-spirited cop scaring me to death. It worked. I didn't do it
I never forgot that
incident. Nor did I forget the profound respect I felt for Mr.
Ocker based on the gentle way he treated me and my mother. It
really stuck in my mind that he had given me another chance.
Mr. Ocker had taught me a lesson in decency.
It was now April 1966,
I was 16. It had been two
and a half years since the candy bar incident.
I applied for this job, I had no doubt that Mr. Ocker remembered
As I handed him my application form, I never really expected him to hire me. Why should he?
Why would anyone hire a kid who had stolen
from his store? Mr. Ocker knew I was smart, but he also had
first-hand knowledge I was
a problem kid.
To be honest, I am not
intended to hire me. I got my job in a very odd
One evening about a
month after my application, my mother and I were shopping
at the store. It was a Friday night and the grocery
store was packed. Mom and I were standing in the checkout
line when Mr. Ocker came over. After greeting my mother,
he turned to me and asked if I was still interested in the
Sure! Then he asked if I could start tomorrow.
Are you kidding? Absolutely!
Talk about shocked!
This offer had come straight out of the wild blue yonder.
I remember my mother
beaming at me. I wish we could have had more moments like
that. I will never understand as long as I live why it was
so difficult for my mother to praise
me. She loved me very
much, but struggled so hard to demonstrate it. No doubt
the wall I had built between us over all those loser men and my
resentment over how
she had mishandled my acne problem made it tough for her to talk openly with
me. Neither of us knew how to clear the air, so we both
kept our feelings bottled up.
communication difficulties, seeing her hero Mr. Ocker ask me to come
work for him right before her eyes was a moment of real pride for
I showed up the next
morning for my first day at work. It was hard to believe just
twelve hours ago I had been offered a job. Mr. Ocker had just hired
very first prep school kid. However,
I was hardly the
stereotypical preppie. I figured if I was going to make it to
college, then I needed this job badly.
I had no idea what
my duties would be. Mr. Ocker had simply asked if I wanted a
The store had not yet opened
when I arrived, but it was about to. There was a line of customers waiting at the front door I could
believe. I knew that Saturday was always their biggest day of
the week, but the length of this line was out of the ordinary.
I knocked on the door
and they let me inside. I
noticed a sign and realized what the big deal was. The store had a huge
special that day. Customers could buy four small plastic
strawberries for a dollar. Normally they would pay
about $3 for the same amount. I would learn the store did this
popular sale only three or four times a year. Don't ask me
what the appeal of $1 strawberries was, but for whatever reason, this was a
The moment I
reported for work, Mr. Ocker took one look at me and pointed
directly to the Fruit and Produce section. There
was a worried edge in his voice along the lines of "quickly".
As I walked back, I
noticed the customers had just been let in the door. They were racing
past me. What was this all about?? Immediately the store
was a madhouse in the fruit and produce section. Sure enough,
people were grabbing at those little green plastic strawberry boxes like this
was the Klondike gold rush. I already knew from experience my
mother never passed up this opportunity, but I was still astonished at
the popularity of today's
I laughed as one lady argued with the Produce manager that she should be allowed
eight green containers instead of four because she had a large
family. How silly was this?
After the Produce
manager finished standing his ground on the "four to a customer"
rule, I introduced myself. He seemed very relieved to see me.
The Produce manager told me I was in charge of
today's strawberry project. It was at this moment that I guessed I owed my new job
to those strawberries. Mr. Ocker was probably short-handed
and knew tomorrow's strawberry sale would need major attention. Where was he going to find some help on short notice?
It made perfect sense.
When Mr. Ocker saw me wandering through the store last night, I was in the right
place at the right time. Call it my "Lana Turner moment".
Lana Turner was
the movie actress who got her big break when she was spotted working in a
soda shop at age sixteen. By coincidence I was sixteen as well, but I am sure the
resemblance ended there.
strawberry sale was a big draw for
the store. Now I learned it was also a huge undertaking. When I entered
the Cooler, the nickname for the refrigerated produce area, I gasped. There was an entire mountain of
cartons full of strawberries. Nearly half the area was
devoted to those strawberries. Good grief, those cartons were
stacked to the ceiling! I would have to climb a tall ladder just to
get to the uppermost box.
The Produce manager
looked at me. "You're not afraid of ladders, are you?"
climb up that ladder and let's get to work."
It became my job to
transfer strawberries from the large cartons into the
small plastic containers that the customers bought. I
groaned. What have I gotten myself into?
Nonetheless I wanted
this job. So I put on a white apron, rolled up my sleeves,
climbed the ladder, brought down a carton and got to work.
handful at a time, I began transferring countless strawberries from
the large boxes into
the smaller containers.
I did this over and
over for nine hours with just a couple of short breaks in between.
I was bored out of my mind. It was probably just as well that I wasn't told
in advance I would be doing
this for the entire day because I might not have shown up.
I have never handled
Oddly enough, despite my
boredom, I took pride in what I was doing. I made a game out
of it. I was determined to
outrace the demand. Several times the
produce manager stood next to me waiting for several quick
containers because they were almost out and needed instant
replacements to match the frenzy. I felt like the little Dutch
boy with his finger stuck in the dike till
reinforcements could arrive. Except there were no
reinforcements. It was just me and my mountain of strawberries
in the chilly cooler.
I was supposed to have a half hour for lunch, but my supervisor told
me we were too busy. The demand was just phenomenal that
day. He asked if I wanted a sandwich. I nodded. Five
minutes later he was back with a tuna sandwich and a coke.
"It's on the house, kid."
later I was back to work. It was that kind of day.
I detested this job. I worked alone with no one to talk to.
The boredom was overwhelming. Worst of all, I thought this was going to
be my job every week. I hadn't bargained for this
nonsense. Angry at my fate, I decided to give myself a
treat. I deliberately ate the biggest strawberry from each
batch. By the end of the day, I was so sick of
strawberries that I would refuse to eat strawberries again for
the next ten years. Let's just say I didn't have the best
attitude about this project.
The demand tapered
off in the afternoon and I piled up a big lead. At 6 pm, I had
finally built up enough plastic carton reserves that the produce manager felt
safe to cut me loose. He smiled and said thanks.
Despite his kind words, I was ready to quit
my new job at the end of the day. As I pulled off my apron, I noticed it was completely
soaked in sticky red
strawberry juice. I looked like I had been in a war zone
and felt like it too.
By chance, Mr. Ocker saw me as I
was about to walk out the front door in disgust. He called
to me and beckoned for
me to come over.
"Young man, your supervisor said you did a very
good job today. I am sure it wasn't much fun, but you stayed with it. Good for you.
When you come back next Saturday, you can start sacking
Huh. How about
that? This had been 'emergency duty' of sorts. I had
not known that. Mr. Ocker knew full well this was a
thankless task, but he didn't tell me. I imagine he was
testing me to see how I handled it. No doubt Mr. Ocker had told the supervisor to keep a
close eye on me. Based on his nice words at the end of the
shift, I imagine the produce manager gave Mr. Ocker a thumbs
As I left the store, I
was proud of myself. Mr. Ocker
not only wanted me to come back, he had given me a pat on the back.
Despite my intense boredom, I had continued to do the work without
any need for someone to keep me focused. Apparently I had
passed the test. I suppose I had that
St. John's-instilled discipline to thank for that.
I smiled as I rode my
bike home. Thank goodness Mr. Ocker didn't know about all the
strawberries I had eaten. I have two sides to my personality -
porcupine and puppy dog. Any criticism or command sends me
straight to the porcupine. I bristle, sass back, get defensive
and begin to argue. However, Mr. Ocker's kindness went straight
to my puppy dog side. Still feeling guilty over stealing the
candy a few years back, I vowed not to let him down.
turned out to be a good hire at the grocery store.
I was a reliable, conscientious employee. Right from the start, the customers
appreciated my good manners. "Yes, ma'am, yes sir." That was
me all right. They loved how polite I was and commended me. I
noticed these compliments and took them to heart.
In the days and weeks to follow,
I came to realize I had a polish that differentiated me from the other boys
who worked there. I discovered my respectful attitude, my manners,
vocabulary and ability to express myself set me a cut above the
others. I began
to realize that my elite education had given me
a huge advantage in this regard. I developed a new
appreciation for St. John's.
discipline drilled into me by St. John's - never call in sick,
always reliable, proper respect, do the work without being told - served me well.
If I ever had any doubts about the value of a superior education,
they were gone now. I stood out because my school had given me a powerful edge.
I think Mr. Ocker
noticed the difference. He could see that I was
dependable and willing to work hard without being told.
There can be no question he took a shine to me. Without being asked,
two months after I started, Mr. Ocker expanded my hours in late May 1966. I now had a full-time
40 hour a week summer job.
I was incredulous.
To begin with, I had no business getting this job. Mr. Ocker
knew I had stolen from him. Why did he trust me so much?
My gratitude towards him knew no limits. Now he was my hero
I had been
pretty low when I started this job. Every day I came to work,
I got a little more confident. Entrusted with a new start, slowly but surely,
I began pushing the Rock of Sisyphus back up the hill.
This job became my
rescue. It also became my home away from home. My job at Weingarten's
lasted for two and a half years.
At the start,
I was ridiculously shy. As an only child with few friends, I had never learned how to make small
talk with people I didn't know. Although I spoke
freely in the classroom, outside of class I kept to myself and my
lunch hour friends
who were equally shy. Because I did not have the slightest clue how to
initiate a conversation around strangers, I was at a complete loss
when I started this job.
I barely said a word at Weingarten's for the first two
weeks either to the other employees or to the customers unless
There was a small yet
moment at my job that would change all that. I had no clue how to sack groceries
and no one bothered to show me what I was doing wrong. I didn't have the
slightest idea what to do. All
I did was toss things in the bag as fast as I could regardless of
the mess I made. Without giving it a second thought,
frequently I threw the bread and eggs
at the bottom and put the heavy cans on top. I was beyond pathetic.
Isn't it weird how bright people can be so clueless?
Lacking any common
sense, I stuffed those bags to the brim. Not surprisingly,
sometimes the over-packed
bags ripped when
the customers picked them up. I would frequently have to redo the job.
In other words, I made every mistake in the book.
One day Kostas, a boy my
age who was also a sacker, took pity on me and showed me how to do it right.
Take your time. People had just paid good money for these
be careful. Put the cans on the bottom and fragile
items like bread and eggs on top. Stack everything neatly.
Don't make the bag too heavy or it will rip.
Ah, now I get it. Big difference!
After looking over his
shoulder, Kostas continued. Another secret, Kostas whispered,
was to "double bag" the groceries, i.e., put one bag inside the
other for extra strength. The grocery store frowned on this because it was wasted
profits, but unless the manager was looking right at you, do it
anyway. I nodded in gratitude. Kostas had just shared
the secret of the ages with me.
Once I learned how to do
my job properly, to my surprise, later that day a lady customer asked if I would take
grocery bags out to the car for her. This was new. I
looked to Kostas for approval. He nodded. Sure! Go
So I wheeled the cart
outside and placed three sacks of perfectly double-bagged groceries in the trunk. As I
turned to go, the lady handed me a quarter. My eyes grew wide
as saucers. A whole quarter! I had no idea people got
tips for this. I was so appreciative, I thanked the lady
There must have
been something about my sincerity that touched her.
The lady smiled back
at me warmly. I melted inside. That was the first smile I had gotten from a
woman in a long time. I had worried
that the vestiges of my acne curse would haunt me with the
public, so this woman's smile had a powerful healing effect.
This moment was
a turning point. As I wheeled the cart
back to the store, I may have even smiled. Smiling wasn't
something I was accustomed to in those days.
Twenty-five cents in those days
was a lot of money. Twenty-five cents in those days is $1.50 today,
maybe even more.
Another way to look at it was this - my salary was $1.25 an hour.
With her tip of a quarter, this nice lady had just
given me a 20% raise for five minutes of work!
Now that got my attention.
Once I learned
to sack properly, trips to customer's cars began to
occur with increasing frequency. My tips went up each week
on the job. Some people who had started by giving me dimes
increased their generosity and gave me quarters. I could not help but
notice the customers at Weingarten's seemed to like me. This
was heady stuff. Other
than my teachers, I had not had anyone 'like me' in ages.
Maybe I wasn't as bad as
I thought I was. It was nice to know not
everyone thought I was the teenage werewolf. I began to feel
part of the human race again. Furthermore,
the other teenagers and young adults who worked there liked me too.
I was astonished at how friendly everyone was towards me at the
grocery store. No one treated me like a leper. My ravaged face meant nothing to them.
The fact that I was poor meant nothing. Heck, they were
poor too! Why else would they be working here?
I even made a friend.
Kostas, a Lamar student, became a buddy. An outgoing,
fun-loving guy, being nice to people came naturally to Kostas.
I began to copy his style and noticed it worked. I could feel
my darkness lifting.
summer job was pure magic. Every day I looked
forward to work because people were nice to me. I made so much
money that summer that I decided to buy my very own used Volkswagen
Beetle. Now I could go wherever I pleased. I felt
delirious elation over my new-found independence.
By the time my Junior
year rolled around, my sanctuary had switched from St. John's
to Weingarten's. Now the happiest time of my day was going to work
in the afternoon. Lo and behold, I was actually beginning to come out of my
shell thanks to the grocery store. This
job had become a form of therapy. The more I talked to the
customers, the more they liked me. The more they liked me, the
more money they gave me. I laughed at the irony.
In a very real sense, I was being paid to
learn how to become a normal person! I could not have asked
for a better job than this.
There was another
blessing as well. The job helped me come to grips with my
disfigurement. When I had started at
Weingarten's, I had just finished my second skin operation. I
was certain that I looked repulsive, but to my surprise no one at the
store seemed disgusted by my face. No gasps, no
involuntary hands to cover the face, no step-backs to allow leper
boy to pass. Once I discovered I
could be liked by the staff and
customers in spite of my appearance, it did wonders for my shattered
An immense wave of relief began to take hold.
I was stunned and gratified to discover my pock-marked face didn't
seem to bother anybody. A new hope began to grow in me, a hope
for the future. I could not fathom overcoming my vast social
problems at St. John's, but I now began to believe college would
offer me the fresh start I needed in pursuit of a girlfriend.
I made an important
symbolic move... I changed my name from "Dick Archer" to "Rick Archer". About month after I
started at Weingarten's, Mr. Ocher handed me a name badge.
It said "Rick Archer" on it. This was the name I had used to sign employee
paperwork. I smiled. I had a new identity. I was one person at St. John's - "Dick" - and
another person at Weingarten's - "Rick".
I hated being "Dick".
Every time someone called me "Dick", I cringed. It
was a name I
despised thanks largely to Harold's taunts because it reminded me
how of being called the
Creepy Loser Kid. To me, there was no
escape at St. John's from my well-established role as a permanent
'Role Theory' is a
concept that says a large percentage of everyday activity involves acting out
socially defined categories - mother, manager, principal, teacher, student.
Each social role is a set of duties, expectations, norms and
behaviors that a person has to face and fulfill. If
anyone at school noticed me at all, they probably frowned. They didn't
know much about me, but they remembered the pimples and they
remembered the rumor that I had beaten some kid to shreds in the
locker room shower.
They knew I was smart,
but they also knew I was quiet, moody and that I looked hostile all the time. They
knew I got in frequent trouble with Mr. Murphy, one of the administrators, due to my authority issues. They
also took note of my height and broad shoulders. Due to my
natural height and the weight-lifting, I was the biggest
guy in my class. Thanks to my perpetual frown, I am sure I
seemed borderline dangerous to those who didn't know me. The smart thing to do was leave me alone. And that they did.
A simple way to explain
my SJS situation would be to use Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
as an example. Rudoph was someone to avoid in the same manner
"Dick Archer" was someone to avoid.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed
Reindeer was different. Rudolph had a very shiny nose.
All of the other reindeer laughed and called him names. They
never let poor Rudolph join in any reindeer games.
Now substitute Dick
for Rudolph and it reads like this: Dick was different.
Dick had a very red face. All of the other students laughed
and called Dick names. They never let poor
Dick join in any
As for Rudolph, he
became a hero. As for me, I had intended to let my basketball
skills create my Rudolph moment. However, that dream went up in smoke
thanks to the acne attack. There was no escaping
my role... I was doomed to remain the Invisible Kid at St. John's.
There would be no Christmas jingles written about me.
It was my good fortune
that Weingarten's had given me an
fresh start. Now that I was no longer locked into my St. John's
creepy loser kid role,
I became "Rick", a much happier person.
dimes and quarters
were a real salvation. They gave me the perfect incentive to
learn how to talk to strangers.
For a kid who was increasingly
worried about paying for college, the tip money was a
powerful temptation to come out of my shell. The more I talked to people while I sacked the
groceries, the more likely they
were to ask me to take their groceries to the car. The
more I talked with them as we walked to the car, the more likely
they were to tip me. And they would remember me the next time
It was just like
training Pavlov's dog...chatted with customers, get a
tip. Lo and behold, I even tried smiling once in a while. My poor
crooked face struggled to remember how, but with practice eventually I
got the hang of it.
The more I talked or got the
customers to talk, the
more money I made. And the more I talked or got the customers to
talk, the more I learned about the art of conversation. It
became a game to me, a fun game. The quarters were
like gold coins.
They gave me a reason to develop a
All summer long, I gained
more confidence in my ability to socialize.
rate of twenty-five cents a pop, I was finding the courage to
re-enter the human race.
Within a year, I had
doubled my salary. I was
making $1.25 an hour in tips on top of my $1.25 an hour
salary. I was hustling tips
just as hard as I could. I was telling jokes, I was learning
names of customers, and I was noticing things about customers that
would allow me to ask a question or make a comment... anything to
break the ice and get the conversation rolling. I was making
huge strides in the lucrative art of schmoozing the customer.
Hidden underneath my problems, I
was actually a pretty good kid. Yes, I was a loner by nature
and overwhelmingly self-centered, but behind my cloak of doom I
was a decent person. The pain of the acne had forced me to
retreat mostly into my porcupine personality. Now as
I let some of my natural warmth begin to
show again, I noted with satisfaction that both my salary and my enjoyment of the job just kept
Like a turtle, the sunshine was coaxing me to
stick my head out
of my shell.
Maybe the world wasn't so dark and evil after all.
My job at Weingarten's was an oasis.
I saw this job as a
true blessing. Not only did it prepare me for college
increase my independence, it helped me cope with my unrelenting
downward spiral at St. John's. From dark and moody "Dick"
at school, for a few hours
each day I could be "Rick", a normal teenage boy who
was finally learning how to be friendly.
From time to time in my
saga, I have pointed to some situation or some person and suggest they
were instrumental in helping a certain creepy loser kid along
the path to becoming a decent human being. In this case, my
grocery job was a real lifesaver. Mr. Ocker had taken a chance on a troubled kid when he gave me
this job. Most men would have turned their backs. Not
Mr. Ocker. I felt a tremendous
gratitude to this man.
As one can gather,
this particular story serves as a dramatic example of how a simple act
of kindness on Mr. Ocker's part had a profound consequence on my
Without this job, I cannot imagine how I would have recovered from
the psychological devastation of the 16-month acne crisis.
I will never know what
went through Mr. Ocker's mind when he decided to hire me, but his
decision changed the course of my life.
I have spoken of two
previous coincidences in my life. One was my narrow escape from
death at age five when a random thought delayed my progress just long
enough to let a racecar hurtle by. Another was the mysterious
appearance of a chess book moments after I had openly wished I could
find some way to beat my nemesis Neal at chess. Now we can add
the 'right place at the right time' coincidence to the
As I said, Mr. Ocker had my home
phone number, but he had not called me for over a month since I had
applied. Either there was no opening or he had doubts about
the wisdom of hiring a thief to work at his store. It was just
my luck to walk across his path at the same moment he realized he was in a
real fix for help with tomorrow's strawberry sale. I strongly suspect he decided to put
his misgivings aside and take a gamble. Nice timing, yes?
On their own, none of
these coincidences are particularly mind-bending. However,
they start to add up. As we shall see, there
will be more.