Journeys: How Winn-Dixie Changed My Life

Life wasn’t easy when I was in my late teens.   I was 17 and completely lost.  I was sleeping all day and awake only at night, a soon to be high-school dropout fighting depression and the realization that I was gay.   Therapy was gradually helping me out, but there were many days when the thought of living life as gay man would churn my stomach.   Those days were extra dark, mostly spent staring at the ceiling, contemplating the best way to end my life.  Sometimes I’d be on the phone well into the night and early morning, talking to one of the few friends I had. Unfortunately, she was also suicidal and shared a very dark place.  Instead of lifting each other up, we’d compare notes on the best and least painful ways of making it all go away.   My mom picked up the phone once and overheard the conversation.  Unable to process what was going on in my life, she started yelling at me… screaming… words of desperation… saying I was “sick” and then she broke down crying.   Mom was fighting her own demons, trying the best to raise us without our father around, while her youngest son, her baby, was slipping through her fingers before her eyes.

One afternoon I was sleeping and my friend Donald came over.    He was actually the boyfriend of my sister’s friend Debbie, but we all ended up being good friends. Their presence was one of the few positive things in my life at the time, often spending the weekends with them at Donald’s grandmother’s home in Miami Shores.  They didn’t ask me a lot of questions as to why I was so depressed, they only tried to make me feel better, which is what I needed at the time.   Donald was one of those guys with a heart of gold, always wanting to help anyone he could.   His visit that afternoon was with a purpose much more important than a sleepover, he worked for a food brokerage firm and had arranged for my mom and I to get jobs at Winn-Dixie as cashiers.  I was unemployed, having recently left my job as a bag boy at Publix, and recovering from pneumonia fueled by the intense depression I was experiencing.  My mom had never worked a day in her life, and since my dad was no longer in the picture, a job for both of us was a really great thing… and a necessity.

In the late 80’s, Winn-Dixie sent all cashier applicants to a non-paid “cashier school” where they learned the ins and outs of cashiering, how to use a “cash terminal” (it was never to be referred to as a register), how to do deposits, what to do if you’re robbed, how to bag groceries, all about the Davis family and the list went on and on.    I never realized so much went into a profession, that until then, thought all you had to do was scan items and collect money.   One of the hardest things we had to learn was called “modifiers.”  If an item was not able to scan twice (and no more than twice), and you keyed in the UPC code and it did not work, you had to manually enter the price along with an associated modifier and department (grocery, deli, etc.).  The modifiers were coded keys, A, D, E & H, that computed the taxable designation of every item in the store.   In order to do this accurately, you had to memorize the modifier for all items in the store … taxable and non-food-stampable, non-taxable and food-stampable, taxable and food-stampable and finally non-taxable, non-food-stampable.  Yes I still remember them to this day, as I do many UPC codes, 21140-27250 being the one for a bag of ice.

All this information scared the crap out of my mom, but for me it was a chance to work with computerized and automated systems, something I truly enjoyed.  We would study each night, quizzing each other… “what’s the modifier for charcoal?”  I would ask.  “H – non taxable, non food-stampable… the no-no of modifiers” my mom would reply in excitement.   This went on for several days, each night we’d drive to the Winn-Dixie with the hidden school on the second floor.  It was one of the most wonderful experiences I have ever shared with my mom, learning something new together and giving her encouragement, as she did countless times for while me growing up.   She wanted to “drop out” of cashier school a couple of times herself, scared of this new technology she was being forced to learn, but I kept her going with words normally reserved for the mom telling her son. “It will all work out, I promise” I can remember telling her, wondering to myself how I suddenly grew up. Eventually cashier school was over and we passed our final exams.  We were given our start dates at two different locations.  Mom was headed to store 359 and mine would be a brand new location almost bordering the Florida Everglades, store number 239.

The thing they didn’t teach you in cashier school was that the terminals you were taught on were outdated, obsolete and not in the locations you were going to.    So while the buttons looked a little familiar, the systems were newer, smaller and worked in different ways.  However, after the learning the basics, we both adapted pretty quickly.  The best part was I couldn’t sleep all day since I actually had a job now, and I was out of the house and meeting people.   My store was especially slow since it had just opened, so there was a lot of time to learn new things, socialize and even make new friends.   I had never seen a Winn-Dixie store like mine before, so large and clean, shiny modern chrome department signs, with cursive style neon lights spelling words like “produce” and “deli.”   It was really beautiful and I gained almost an immediate appreciation for it.    I began to feel proud of my job, representing a company in a new location, a flagship store of sorts.   It was one of the first times I had felt proud of anything in a very long time.

High school was a miserable experience for me.  While the bullying I had experienced in junior high had stopped, I didn’t feel like I belonged.  I felt like I was watching everyone else enjoy this time of their lives and for me it was a living nightmare.   I was experiencing amazing levels of anxiety and fear, I was being approached by girls and only saying I would be their boyfriend because I didn’t want to be labeled as gay.   I didn’t even know how to be a boyfriend and thankfully this usually led to them dumping me in a very short amount of time.    This wasn’t the high school I would see on tv while watching Growing Pains and it wasn’t the life either.   I hated myself and it was extremely visible in my school work.   I was failing in subjects I was normally good at, I was already behind in credits because I didn’t complete summer school, and of course I didn’t want to be gay, and I felt everyone knew I was.   There was only a couple of things I wanted to do and that was go online at night on my computer, and work at Winn Dixie in the daytime.  It was the only place in life I was succeeding and the only place where I felt like I had purpose.    I was actually really good at something for a change and people liked me, customers and management both.    It was a structured environment, which I needed, but without the stress and pressure that high school was causing.    The day finally came when my absences caught up with me and I wouldn’t be allowed back in class even if I wanted to.  I would either have to repeat the 11th grade the following year, or drop out of highschool and meet up with all my friends in community college when they graduated.  I chose the later.

After leaving high school my responsibilities at Winn-Dixie continued to grow.   I was placed on the customer service counter and learned all about giving refunds, processing check approvals and stocking cigarettes.    Since I was available on Thursday mornings, my assistant manager Juan decided I would make a good receiving manager, since that was the regular manager’s day off.  This was incredibly cool since I would soon learn how to turn all the functions of a cash terminal into something completely different.   I would be checking in vendors, keep “unauthorized” items out of the store, and more importantly, feel like an integral part of a team.  My Winn-Dixie co-workers became a second family to me, and they were the ones that encouraged me to pursue my GED so I would be able attend college classes with my friends.   “You can’t work full time at Winn-Dixie without a diploma, isn’t that right Juan?” my friend Ruth would say while glaring at my assistant manager.  “Yes, of course that’s right, you need your diploma”  Juan would reply, always a little bit of giggle in his voice.  Since I wanted nothing more than to work for Winn-Dixie for the rest of my life, I took the necessary steps to get a GED, and to my surprise, scored incredibly high.   My self confidence was coming back.

youth manager day and I’m the location manager

It’s funny how when you feel completely worthless how different life looks to you.  It’s the same life in reality, but not feeling good about yourself changes things, morphs everything to be scarier and darker than it really is.  This was all starting to change and things were looking up.   I had even started to accept my sexuality and developed a couple of crushes on some very handsome and very muscular co-workers.   With this new sense of who I was, I began to excel in my abilities to solve problems at work and this didn’t go unnoticed.    Our pricing manager Ruth, a code 23 in WD terms, was leaving on maternity leave and they needed someone to fill her position while she was gone.  This was a coveted position that actually included an office, which was also the store’s computer room and your hours were almost that of a banker, 7 AM to 4 PM, Monday through Friday.   A pricing manager was responsible for every price and price tag in the store, along with verifying and applying the downloaded price changes on a daily basis.  For me it was an amazing honor.   I was given supervisor keys to the terminals and keys to the main offices.  It was my first role as a quasi systems administrator, since pricing managers were trained on how to reboot the stores main computer’s should they experience a failure.   I might as well have been a movie star, I was so happy.  Going to work was such a pleasure, the smell of the store at 7 AM was the best smell in the world.   I would walk the isles before customers were allowed inside and marvel at how clean and shiny everything looked, I was so proud to be a part of all of this.

vivian and thomas, two wonderful people that filled my day with smiles and laughter

My pride in where I worked began to grow at an exponential rate and since I was very much still a kid, went over the top as any kid would have at that age.    When our store changed the lighted checkout signs with numbers on them for a different model, I pulled the one for number 10 out of the dumpster and it became my bedroom lamp.    I forbid my mother to buy groceries at Publix and since 239 needed the sales, she had to come to my store to shop.    One week our store’s computer systems were updated and we received new cash terminals on the front end and new retail automation systems in the offices.    This was geek heaven to me and I was in the middle of it all, being an acting pricing manager.    I had to learn so many new things and ate it up like candy.  It was fascinating to me what I could do with an actual computer terminal in my office, complete with a keyboard, instead of the cash terminal switched to pricing mode that used to be there.   Occasionally, my location manager Mike Baird, would often go minus off the back room (inventory) and leave me in charge of the entire front end, firmly stating “make management decisions” before walking away.    For eight hours I supervised the cashiers, baggage staff, customer service counter and took care of any office duties.   The fast paced, multi-tasking atmosphere was amazing and I loved every second of it.

When Ruth came back from maternity leave four months later, I was promoted to assistant bookkeeper and her occasional replacement when she called in sick or needed extra help.  Every now and then, the managers called me at home when they had a problem with our new computer systems and I felt more needed than I had ever previously experienced in my life.   I was now responsible for counting and balancing thousands of dollars a day and I was only 19 years old.   I loved Winn-Dixie so much and I even got my sister a job at the store where I worked.    We were a Winn-Dixie family now and dinner at home often included non-stop chatter and gossip about what happened in the store, what manager made a customer upset, who was getting into trouble with store security and the normal stuff you talk about regardless where your paycheck comes from.    As a company Winn-Dixie was doing excellent and set a goal for 10 billion in store sales to make them the number one supermarket in the United States.  Life was good.

checking in a vendor, comparing items received to items invoiced

As many corporate policies go, Winn-Dixie doesn’t like family members working in the same location, and this was the case with my sister and I.   It was especially frowned upon because I worked in the office with money and she was a cashier, in corporate’s eyes a very high potential for theft.   Since Ruth was slated for a promotion to a brand new, super high-tech store, and I was a shoe in for full time pricing manager, it was suggested that my sister Bibi move to another location.    However since my sister was so happy at 239 I couldn’t let that happen and I decided to take the transfer instead.   I felt it was the right choice at the time, since I was super confident I could take my amazing Winn-Dixie skills anywhere I went.    After all I’d be working happily there for the rest of my life.    I was wrong on all accounts and my sister actually left Winn-Dixie shortly afterwards to start a successful career as a police officer.

I was transferred to an old Winn-Dixie location in a largely hispanic, lower income neighborhood where hardly anyone spoke English.   Being of hispanic origin myself, but unable to speak the language, made this transition especially difficult for me.    People often complained to the store’s managers that I should know how to speak Spanish if I worked in that neighborhood.   Although it was agreed that I would continue working as a bookkeeper, that promise was never kept and I was back on the front end, scanning groceries with extremely old and dirty equipment, often covered in cuban coffee stains, the empty cups still present as a reminder of how courteous (note the sarcasm) the previous cashier was.  At times I’d have to call for supervisor approval as employees were bringing large quantities of discounted meat to my checkout.   While this huge red flag and my reaction to it would have been praised at my previous location, I was considered a troublemaker and was rocking the boat unnecessarily.   I began to sense the tension and this was made obvious to me when my hours were reduced to five a week, Winn-Dixie’s way of telling you they no longer wanted you.  I decided to leave, having felt somewhat already betrayed by the convenient bait and switch regarding the terms of my transfer by the new store’s manager.

store 239 holiday party

While leaving Winn-Dixie was a very sad experience for me, the company gave me something I didn’t have when I started working with them, self confidence.   I believed in myself and with that came the determination to get an even better job, which I did.   I also had amassed a collection of valuable skills, such as customer service, problem resolution, financial systems, accounting, systems management and the all important, thinking outside the box.   I use these skills every day, almost 30 years later, on an enterprise level, as an electronic content management (ECM) systems / infrastructure administrator for a very large organization.   I truly believe working at Winn-Dixie was a crucial part of my career path and personal development, and I wouldn’t be where I was today without the lessons I learned there.   From feeling like a worthless teen, to having great responsibility for someone of my age, WD gave me the self confidence and knowledge to know that I could accomplish and succeed at anything I set my mind to.   As years went by my mom eventually retired, as a full time assistant head bookkeeper, her life also changed forever by a company willing to take a chance on 50 year old woman seeking her first job.    I am forever grateful to Winn-Dixie and the journey, for what it did for me, and my family.

Thank you for everything.

post script:  I didn’t over exaggerate how much I loved working at Winn-Dixie, my co-workers often tell me I’m forbidden to discuss Winn-Dixie as I have an extremely good memory and lots of funny adventures that occurred in the store.  Which in fairness, are largely the “you had to be there” kind.  🙂

 

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