My first “real” job was at Christmastime. By “real,” I mean a job that required a Social Security card. I’ve shoveled snow from a lot of $5 driveways and mowed a bunch of $10 lawns previously but was never asked for my Social Security number, so they don’t count. It was also my first experience with punching a time clock.

The job was during my senior year in high school, working for the J. L. Hudson’s department store in the Eastland Shopping Center in the suburbs of Detroit. Hudson’s had its main store in downtown Detroit, and then a number of slightly smaller stores in the major shopping centers out in the ‘burbs. There’s also a Northland, a Westland and a Southland store, but I don’t know if they’ve invented any more compass points to put any additional stores in.

My particular job was to work in Package Pickup, a small building out in the parking lot. Shoppers who didn’t want to lug their purchases along with them as they continued their shopping would ask to have them sent out to Package Pickup, where they could drive by and pick them up later. 

Hudson’s also had a fleet of trucks that offered home delivery for customers who could wait until the next day for their purchases to be delivered.

Package Pickup was connected to the store by a long, underground tunnel, with a conveyor belt running next to a walkway that delivered the packages to our remote outpost in the parking lot. Inside of Package Pickup were a number of bins the purchases would be stored in after they came off the conveyor belt.

Working with the public

If I remember correctly, there were three of us working out in the Package Pickup hut, minding that end of the conveyor belt and filing the packages in the correct bin that corresponded with the tag that the customer was given so they could pick them up.

Every time I see the old “I Love Lucy” episode of Lucy and Ethel working at the end of a conveyor belt in a candy company, I think of the quarter-mile belt delivering packages to us out in the parking lot. Except, unlike Lucy, we didn’t deal with pieces of candy we could eat; we dealt with electric food mixers and that sort of thing — big, breakable items.

Then, we also had to deal with the public. Believe me, even though you’re nice and smile at them, some people are gruff, especially at Christmastime. They can’t accept any variance in their idea of the way things should be. 

“I just bought it,” they’d demand. “Why isn’t it here?”

You’d try to explain that their purchase would take at least a half an hour to work through the system, but that wasn’t good enough for them. 

And then we’d get customers who refused to tell you just what was the item you were looking for. These were usually nervous, embarrassed Wally Cox-type men and their pickup item was something feminine.

One night, a proverbial little, ol’ lady came into our outpost with her pickup claim check. After a search through the bins, I finally found all three of her packages, but there was no way she’d be able to handle them all. 

“Let me help you with these,” I told her, as I gathered up the two biggest packages. She picked up the smallest package and led me out in the snowy parking lot to her old Ford. We got the trunk open, and I managed to get all her purchases safely stored away.

“Let me give you something for all your work,” she offered.

I looked at the condition of the Ford and knew she didn’t have much.

“No,” I replied. “Just think of it as a Christmas gift from me and Hudson’s. Have a most merry Christmas.”

Closing time?

The store would close at 9 p.m., but we’d keep Package Pickup open a half-hour after that. Still, just as we’d finally close the door and lock it, there would always be a person or two pounding on the door and demanding we re-open and give them their package. 

“Sorry, you’re going to have to come back tomorrow” — that would really have them fuming.

After we’d closed the Package Pickup, we’d go back into the store and help get it ready for the next day and the onslaught of more frenzied Christmas shoppers. The particular job I remember was restocking the cash register stations with gift boxes. 

Wheeling a stock cart loaded with empty boxes through the deserted store was at times unnerving. I was always expecting something to jump out at me. 

We also would help the gift-wrap department stay stocked with empty boxes as they worked like frenzied elves trying to get ready for Christmas.

Work would finally be done around midnight, and then we could start our lonely walk out to our cars, parked in the far reaches of the freezing, deserted parking lot. If we were lucky, it wasn’t snowing.

Just a final Christmas note to all of my faithful “Ramblings”readers: Here’s wishing you all a wonderful holiday season that will bring us all peace.

GARY McDANIEL is a longtime Magnolia resident. 

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