Rescue
Home Up Porcupine

   

Book One:
A SIMPLE ACT OF KINDNESS


PART TWO: HIGH SCHOOL HELL

CHAPTER EIGHT:
RESCUE

Written by Rick Archer

  2015, Richard Archer

 


SUBCHAPTER 35
- PICKING UP THE PIECES 

 

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 - College. 

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 smarter. 

Knowing this, I owe much of my academic success to the indisputable fact that I out-worked everyone.  I dare say if I could have kept my looks and played sports, my grades 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 superior IQ. 

 

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 father's will.  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.  

Mark Mendel would finish with High Honors accompanied by two others. I became part of a second tier of six students who finished with Honors.

I 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 well. 

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.

 


SUBCHAPTER 36
- WEINGARTEN'S

 

In the spring of my Sophomore year, I applied for a job at Weingarten's 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.

Weingarten's grocery 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 none. 

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 8th grade. 

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 money.  So 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.

We moved 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, kid?"

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 penitentiary.

Whether it was deliberate or not, he kept me waiting in that room for a full thirty 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 wits.

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 attention.

"Hey, kid, what is this stuff?"

"That is my Latin test."

"What is Latin?"

"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."

"Julius Caesar?  You have to be kidding me.  Why are you learning a dead language?"

"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?"

"Yes, sir."

"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 yet. 

"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, sir."

"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 again."

"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 store."

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 word was more powerful than the mean-spirited cop scaring me to death.  It worked.  I didn't do it again.

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. 

 


SUBCHAPTER 37
- STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER

 

It was now April 1966, sophomore year.  I was 16.  It had been two and a half years since the candy bar incident. 

As I applied for this job, I had no doubt that Mr. Ocker remembered this incident.  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 even sure Mr. Ocker intended to hire me.  I got my job in a very odd way. 

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 job. 

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. 

Despite our 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 her. 

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 his 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 job. 

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 not 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 containers of 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 special day.

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 sale. 

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.  

Obviously this 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?"

"No, sir."

"Good.  Then 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.  One 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 boredom well. 

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."

Five minutes 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 groceries."

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 up report. 

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. 

 


SUBCHAPTER 38
- DOUBLE IDENTITY

 

I 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.

The discipline drilled into me by St. John's - never call in sick, never late, 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 too.  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 spoken to.

There was a small yet important 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 groceries, so 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 the grocery bags out to the car for her.  This was new.  I looked to Kostas for approval.  He nodded.  Sure!  Go ahead!

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 profusely.

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. 

This 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 self-confidence. 

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 nobody.

'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 that "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 student games.

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 invaluable 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.  Those 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 as well.

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 personality.  All summer long, I gained more confidence in my ability to socialize.  At the 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 getting better. 

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 financially and 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 life.   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 growing list. 

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.

 


CHAPTER NINE: PORCUPINE

 

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