Nothing Up My Sleeve

Jon Gallagher

So That’s What it Feels Like


I’ve always wondered what it would feel like to be the victim of discrimination.  When my grade school teachers told us tales of how Blacks had to drink at separate drinking fountains, ride in the back of a bus, or go to separate schools, I always wondered how they felt.  I didn’t imagine they would feel too good, but there was no role playing exercise in the world that would really let anyone experience the world of discrimination on a first hand basis.

I grew up in an all white town, went to an all white school, and played sports and scholastic games against all white schools.  When I got to college, I got to associate with Blacks for the first time.  The only real difference I could tell was the fact that their skin was black and mine was white.  I would ask some of my newfound friends if they’d ever been discriminated against, and the answer was a resounding, “Yes.”

From the stories they told me, I promised myself that I would never consciously discriminate against anyone – not for color or religion or sexual preference or any of the other myriad of things that could fall into that category.  I never dreamed, being a white Protestant male, that there was anything in the world that could make me the victim of discrimination myself.

Then it came time to do some job hunting at the ripe old age of 52.  If you’ve been reading this column any length of time, you’ll know that I was a manager at Circuit City in Peoria and I’d been with the company for the past five and half years.  Their closure sent me in search of a new job.

During that five and a half years, I’d asked to be promoted to management, but the request, despite my outstanding record of sales and my strong work ethic, had been ignored.  It was only when another company called my boss for a reference that they put me on the slow track to a management position.  Meanwhile, I watched as those around me, none with the same skills or sales records, but all of whom were younger, got promoted.  Kids who were literally half my age were being moved into management where they enjoyed a salary that was nearly double mine. 

Once a customer who had been pleased by my service in the store, asked to talk to my boss so she could tell him what I great job I had done.  I called my boss on the walkie-talkie system we used, and when he showed up, she was shocked.  He was barely old enough to drink alcohol legally, yet he was my boss. 

Last week, I got called to an interview by a local chain store.  Though not nationwide, they do operate almost as many stores throughout the Midwest as Circuit City had operated nationwide.  They are expanding rapidly and I thought that going to work for them would be mutually beneficial.  They offered a decent rate of pay, and I offered a top notch work ethic.

The manager of the store was impressed by my credentials.  He was impressed by my communication skills, my work record, and my personality.  He told me that if it was up to him, he’d hire me on the spot, but it wasn’t up to him.  I needed to interview with his boss, the district manager.  He gave me a written test that took more than an hour to complete and told me that if I passed it, he’d be calling to set up an interview with his boss.

I received a phone call just two days later.  I had passed the test “with flying colors,” so we needed to take the next step.  The DM would be in town later on in the week and he wanted to talk to me.  I was told that everything was looking good.

I walked into their store at the appointed time, ready to be offered a job.  I had on a brand new shirt and tie, clean pressed pants, shoes that had been shined, a fresh haircut, a touch of cologne, and minty fresh breath.  I’d done my homework and knew how many stores were in the chain, when the company had been started and by whom, and several other tidbits such as where stores were at locally. 

The district manager was behind the counter himself.  I introduced myself and gave him a firm handshake (in fact, his was a little wimpy).  I noticed that his face changed a little when he realized I was his interviewee, but I really didn’t think anything of it.

We sat down for the interview and exchanged small talk.  We seemed to hit it off.  Twenty minutes into the interview, we discussed salary and schedules.  I fully expected to be offered a job on the spot.

Then he slipped in a question.  “Do you have any kids?”

I told him I had three.

“How old?” he asked in a very off handed manner. 

When I told him my oldest was 25, it was like someone flipped a switch on him.  He went from being super-friendly to I-can’t-get-you-out-of-here-quickly-enough.”  He seemed to be calculating something in his head.

“I’m not going to hire you,” he said after some very minor chit-chat.  “I need someone who’s going to be around for a while, like twenty years, and someone who’s not tied to this area.  Our managers-in-training need to relocate.”  When I had talked to the store manager earlier in the week, I had asked about relocation and was told that managers were never required to relocate.

He went on to tell me that he also wouldn’t hire me as an assistant manager because he wouldn’t be able to pay me very much and it wouldn’t be worth it for me to drive 25 miles to his store for what he could pay.  Assistant managers at his store make about what I had made at Circuit City prior to being moved to the management team.

I’ve replayed the interview in my mind hundreds of times, trying to figure out what exactly it was that I said that made him go from talking salary to dismissing me with another wimpy handshake. 

His whole demeanor changed completely when I told him I had a daughter who was 25.  I don’t think he was much older than that.

I’ve concluded that it didn’t have anything to do with what I said.  It had to do with all the grey hairs in my beard.  I bought some Grecian Formula 44 for beards on the way home.

Now I think I know what it feels like to be the victim of discrimination.

And let me tell ya, Maynard, it ain’t a good feeling at all.