When I was in high school (and on summer/winter breaks in college), I worked at the Marquee Cinemas in Fredericksburg, Virginia. One of my managers there was Linda Owens. She’s the one pictured above; presumably pretending to be some kind of human-cat hybrid for Halloween one year (it was the most embarrassing picture I could find). Today she’s retiring after 35 years in the movie theater business. Fredericksburg’s local paper wrote a feature on her earlier this week commemorating her career. It was a glowing and well-deserved writeup, and while I’m glad she got some press, it inspired me to write a different kind of ode to Ms. Owens’ career. Since I spent a good portion of my high school and college years having this diminutive fireball yell orders at me like a drill instructor on meth, I’d like to pass on the lessons the woman we all referred to affectionately as “Owens” taught me about how to boss people around:
Expect People to Be Able to Do 75 Things at Once
Multi-tasking is the key to success, and no one knew that better than Owens. She knew it so well, she gave everyone who worked for her 100 things to do at a time. Whether she was just forgetful, or genuinely enjoyed confusing and angering 16-18 year olds, who’s to say? It wasn’t enough to sweep up popcorn, you had to be sweeping popcorn while taking out the trash and ripping the ticket stubs of passersby. That way, she could yell at you whether you were doing something or nothing. A win-win for her. Believe me, I became a better man for it. Nothing prepares you for the real world like undertaking several tasks while a bookish, otherwise unthreatening-looking woman grabs you by the lapels of your cheap vest and yells “Mikey! Stop being lazy and do a candy list!” directly into your ear.
Conservation is King
After Owens washed her hands, she never used paper towels. Didn’t want to kill trees. She didn’t use air dryers. Didn’t want to waste the energy. No, this paragon of conservation awareness did the thing any environmentally-conscious person who needs to dry their hands would do: she’d use the back of my shirt. Seriously, she’d just grab my shirt, or in some cases vest and dry her hands on that. Some might say she was being obnoxious , but not me. I knew she was teaching the value of resourcefulness.
Less Lean, More Clean
This was Owens’ favorite refrain during slow times. It meant “Stop doing nothing, grab a bottle of Windex, and wipe down the counters behind the concession stand.” As dumb as the stupid rhyme is, it worked. I remember it to this day. In fact, even now any time I’m leaning anywhere I’ll have a weird urge to clean something. Just the other day I was onstage. I started leaning against the mic stand, within two seconds I asked the audience if anybody had a broom and dustpan.
Win Over Subordinates Through Nicknames They Don’t Like and Insults
Owens often referred to me derisively as “Mikey.” (Though everyone else referred to her as Owens, I referred to her, with mock reverance, as “Ms. Owens”). She did so knowing this annoyed me. Also, any time I brought a friend in to see a movie, she would question them on why they were hanging out with someone like me, someone she’d refer to as “loser” or an “idiot.” These insults helped me build a thick skin, serving as a verbal brillow pad meant to cleanse me of my softness. The insults of my high school peers bounced off me like bullets off of Superman. None of my classmates’ insults could sting after I’d heard them already come from the mouth of a 4’5″ middle-aged woman.
Off the Clock or On the Clock, Your Boss is Your Boss
Sometimes before a shift Owens used to call me to tell me to meet her at the bank; she was picking up change and didn’t feel safe transporting the money alone (this fear was well founded; after all, Fredericksburg had a lot of bandits interested in $100 in quarters). One time she called me an hour before my shift started and I wasn’t near my phone. When I checked it, I had three voicemails – each one angrier then the last – telling me I needed to check my phone and that I was supposed to know I should be at the bank. No prior instruction had been given, but that wasn’t the point. The point was she was right, and that as the Supreme Leader of my life she had dominion over my every decision, on the clock and off.
No Matter What Line of Work You Are In, Send Your Employees to Dairy Queen to Get You Ice Cream
One time I heard Owens’ military-like bark yelling at me over the intercom to come back to the manager’s office. I did, wondering what transgression she was going to yell at me for this time. I got back there and she handed me a $5. “Go to Dairy Queen, get me a flurry.” I was confused. I was on the clock, doing my job as an employee of the movie theater? Sensing but not caring about my confusion, she added unhelpfully, “Take your vest off when you go. If there’s anything left over you can get something for yourself.” Owens was communicating a valuable lesson here: your employees are more than just your employees. They’re also your personal assistants. On future trips she would actually give me additional funds to secure a frosty treat for myself. A just reward, I reminded myself, for previous jobs well done.
In all seriousness: Owens, if you’re reading this (which I doubt, because you never were too keen on computers there, Professor): There are hundreds (maybe thousands?) of people out there who worked at the Marquee who look at you like their crazy, trash-talking aunt, and I’m honored to be among that group. You turned working at routine summer job into something this dorky high school kid had fun doing every day, something lots of “kids” will remember for a lifetime. I know this kid will. So thanks, ya crazy old lady. Congrats on a great career and a well-earned retirement.
Oh, and also: every time I open a bag of tortilla chips nowadays I still think of you saying, “Mikey: go do nachos.” So, thanks for that.