My first real job was at the now-defunct Woolworth’s at the El Cerrito Plaza. I was fifteen years old and would walk the mile or so to the store every Sunday morning, calculating how I would spend my eight hours of minimum wage pay. We clocked in upstairs in the employee break room, donned our pale blue smocks, and then trudged down to our assigned stations. The women working the lunch counter would shuffle around brewing coffee and putting out coffee and sugar. Woolworth’s still had a pet section, though they had phased out the higher maintenance hamsters and parakeets and were limited to fish. As the newest employee,Iwas assigned the decidedly unglamorous task of “death patrol,” counting which types of fish had died, and scooping them out of the tank so as not to offend the refined sensibilities of the Woolworth clientele.
One morning I was finishing the death count and humming along to the Doobie Brothers song piped through the store. Not too many casualties today, two regular goldfish, some striped fish, and an eel. The dead eel was about nine inches long and stiff, so it didn’t fit into the two square inch net we used for the fish. I used the net to push the eel along the side of the tank up to the top and tried to maneuver it into the plastic garbage bag I was holding. The eel was stuck on the lip of the tank, so I gave it a shove, but it flipped into the air, splashing sour eel juice on my face, before landing somewhere on the ground. I screamed and recoiled dramatically (remember, I was a teenager) and started wiping my face with my sleeves.
The store manager burst out of the office by the stairs and looked around. “What? What is it?” Several customers, including a woman and her golden retriever on a harness, had also rushed over to investigate the commotion. The dog’s hackles were raised and it growled in a very low register. “Shane, quiet,” the woman commanded him.
“Um, I touched a dead eel,” I said. “Sorry I yelled.” The customers rolled their eyes at me. I felt my face get hot and my stomach twisted like I was going to throw up.
The manager grabbed my arm and pulled me aside. “Don’t ever yell like that in the store again,” he said harshly. “And don’t mention a dead eel. Or dead anything! These are customers. What is wrong with you?“ I apologized and wondered if I would have to pay for the cost of the eel. He started berating me again, and neither of us noticed that the dog had pulled away from his owner, gone to the fish section and was sniffing under a display of tanks. He lunged forward, sending the tank display crashing to the ground, glass shattering everywhere. The retriever emerged with the eel in his mouth, and turned and ran down the aisle, dodging away from the outstretched hands of his owner. “Shane!” she wailed after him. “Shane, come back!” She addressed the manager with a sheepish smile. “He’s in training to be a guide dog,” she said. “I guess this means he failed.”
Shane and I both got fired from our jobs that day.