It was now April 1966,
I was sixteen. 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? This was the same kid who had stolen
from his store! He knew I was smart, but he also had
first-hand knowledge I was
a problem kid.
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
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 how
she had mishandled my acne made it tough for her to talk openly with
We both kept our
feelings bottled up. Neither of us had a clue how to relate to
or talk about sensitive topics.
I showed up Saturday
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. If I was going to make it to
college, I needed this job.
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
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. 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. 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. That's when he told me I was in charge of
today's strawberry project. Of course I had no idea
how or why I got my job, but if I had to guess, 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?
So when Mr. Ocker saw me wandering through the store, 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 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 name for the refrigerated area, I gasped. There was an entire mountain of
cartons full of strawberries. Those cartons were
stacked to the ceiling! I would have to climb a tall ladder just to
get to the uppermost box. It became my job to
transfer strawberries from these 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 for
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 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.
And all this time I never realized I owed my big
break in life to those strawberries. First St. John's, now
At 6 pm, I had
finally built up enough reserves that the produce manager felt
safe to cut me loose. He smiled and said thanks.
Despite the kind word, 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 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. He wanted to see how I handled it. I also imagine Mr. Ocker had told the supervisor to keep a
close eye on me. I imagine the supervisor gave me a thumbs
up. As bored as I was, I had continued to do the work without
any need for someone to keep me focused. I suppose I had that
St. John's-instilled discipline to thank for that.
Apparently I had passed the test. Mr. Ocker
not only wanted me to come back, he had given me a pat on the back.
I smiled as I rode my
bike home. Thank goodness he 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.
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.
I was a reliable, conscientious employee. Right from the start, the customers
loved 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, 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 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.
Fortunately I had the
sense to keep this opinion to myself. I decided not to reveal
where I went to school to the other boys at the store.
I think Mr. Ocker
noticed the difference as well. 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?
This job had become my
Slowly but surely,
I began pushing the Rock of Sisyphus back up the hill.
My job at Weingarten's
lasted from April 1966 until I left for college in
early September 1968... two years, five months.
At the start of my job,
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?
Naturally I also stuffed those bags to the top. 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 this stuff 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
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.
Now that I had 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.
It was nice to know not
everyone thought I was the teenage werewolf. I began to feel
part of the human race again.
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.
job had become a form of therapy. The more I talked to the
customers, the more they liked me. I laughed at the irony.
The more I opened up and learned how to talk to the customers, the
more money I made. These tips were a powerful incentive to
learn how to become a normal person!
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 other workers 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, 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". As "Dick", a name I
despised thanks largely to Harold's taunts, I was deeply mired in the role of 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.
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 a certain administrator due to my authority issues. They
also took note of my height and broad shoulders; I was the biggest
guy in my class. This made me borderline dangerous to the boys
and threatening to the girls. I was basically an unknown commodity.
The smart thing to do was leave me alone. And that they did.
"Dick" was someone to avoid.
A simple way to explain
my SJS situation would be to use Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
as an example.
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, we now know 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.
Weingarten's had given me an
fresh start. Now that I was no longer locked into my St. John's role,
I became "Rick", a much happier person.
dimes and quarters
were a real salvation. They gave me a valuable incentive to
learn how to talk to people even if they were 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 and talk to people.
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.
It was just like
training Pavlov's dog... if I chatted with the customers, I
might get a
tip. Worked like a charm. 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
I began to 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.
I have already mentioned
Uncle Dick, the man who paid my SJS scholarship for two years, and
SJS Headmaster Mr. Chidsey as my benefactors. Now I will add
Mr. Ocker, my store manager, to that list. Mr. Ocker knew full
well he was taking a chance on a troubled kid when he gave me
this job. Most men would have turned their backs. Not
Mr. Ocker. This explains why I feel such a tremendous
gratitude to this man.
As one can gather,
this story serves as a dramatic example of how a simple act
of kindness can have profound consequences on the recipient's 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 six 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 when Mr. Ocker
spotted me in his store at the same moment he realized he was in a
real fix for help with tomorrow's strawberry sale.
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.
However, now that he was
in a fix and I just happened to walk by, I 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.