Working Stiff: My Mall Job at Chess King

Southridge was a typical early 1970s shopping experience: one of the new mega malls with dozens of stores on two levels and thousands of parking spaces surrounding the massive enclosed structure. One of hundreds that were popping up in Edge Cities all over the country. An advance scout in the homogenization of America.

Southridge was just like them -- only bigger. When it was developed in 1970 by soon-to-be U.S. Sen. Herbert Kohl, it was the biggest mall in Wisconsin. Still is. And it featured the same exact stores as all the others:

Hickory Farms, the meat and cheese shop that handed out free beefstick samples. All day. Every day. Somebody was always on sample duty. Tiny triangles of summer sausage speared with colored toothpicks scattered on a hesitantly proffered paper plate by a shy teenage girl in a flowered apron.

Sears. JCPenney. Baskin-Robbins. Spencer's Gifts, with its black light posters and novelty gag items -- the giant 64-ounce beer mug with "My Doctor Says I Can Have One Beer a Day" on the side in a thick goofy rounded font.

But the height of Midwestern humor was the organ store, with a poor guy in a moth-eaten tux wailing away during peak hours pumping out cheesy versions of songs Lawrence Welk rejected as too hokey.

A lesson in dressing

And, of course, there was Chess King. The store started in 1968 in Massachusetts, but by 1971 it was up to 100 separate stores. "Cutting-edge men's clothing." That's what they said. Hideous designs. Cheap fabric. Awful construction. Why in the world it was called Chess King, I'll never know.

The guy who took my application had a bit of an attitude regarding my particular sartorial style -- which typically ran to flannel shirts, beat-up jeans, and an old green Army jacket. But they must have been desperate, because Cory hired me on the spot, with the provision that I wore the costume he picked for me. Its cost would be deducted from my first check at a 30% discount and I was to use it like a uniform until I could afford another Chess King outfit.

For the first time in my life I was going to wear "slacks" -- black ones without belt loops -- with a maroon shirt made out of some material that shouldn't get too near any source of heat (otherwise known as "Qiana").

My stepfather was out of town for a couple months investigating a new job opportunity, so I was able to move back into my old room in the family house without him barking and bellowing about my music or the length of my hair. Saving money was nice, but the best part was reconnecting with my mom. We always made each other laugh, and without Richard's polarizing influence we ate dinner and watched TV. It was the last time I got to live with her, and it was great.

Working for a living

I liked working at the mall. The bustle. The white noise. The glint that comes to people's eyes knowing they are about to enter the great American consumer machine.

As low man on the seniority chart, I was scattered over the schedule like Bingo chips halfway into a game. The best shift was Saturday afternoons because the mall was crowded with our target demographic --young gay men who didn't know they were gay yet. I never did get to sell much, mostly because Cory and the other guys were a tight-knit group who cliqued together and hawked all my prospective customers. I didn't care because the commission was paltry and I was working for my regular paycheck, most of which went to crowding my closet with more slacks and Qiana shirts.

Then my stepfather came home, I found a couple of roommates to move in with, and I quit Chess King. I got a job closer to Waukesha and never wore "slacks" again. I like "pants." Still not sure what the difference is.



Next: How Not to Be a Working Stiff, 10 Jobs that Earn $60,000 per Year







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