Back in the '80s, I got fired for not smiling enough; are we going back to those dark ages? | Perspective

Philly.com homepage producer Addam Schwartz was once fired from a job for not smiling enough.

There’s a new policy in the Northern Lebanon School District, and it’s no laughing matter.

Not the Lebanon in the Middle East, known for its lethal violence. The Lebanon in Pennsylvania, known for its lethal bologna.

At Northern Lebanon High School, it turns out, Someone in a Position of Power decided that students must smile when they walk through the hallways. If they don’t, they have to meet with a counselor, who presumably will make them watch cat videos on YouTube until the corners of their mouth curl upward. The next step? Detention, or maybe clown makeup.

This issue hits home for me because many years and many jobs ago, I was fired for not smiling enough.

It was during a fabled time called the ’80s, populated by women with very high hair, men with very skinny ties, and, in the case of the Cars’ Ric Ocasek, both. I had just gotten a job at a Northeast Philly record store called Sam Goody. (Historical note: A “record store” was a physical place that sold music. Sort of a Spotify with walls and, sometimes, an odd, sweetly smoky smell drifting up from the basement.)

I’d always wanted to work at a record store, because a) I was a big music fan and b) given that my other jobs have included working at a pinball machine shop and being a professional journalist, apparently I have a fondness for dying industries.

But Sam Goody was a dream job for a college student who loved to bore people with lengthy dissertations on, say, why the Beatles were better than Led Zeppelin. (Short answer: They just were. Get over it.) I correctly answered two questions about music during my interview with an assistant manager named John, and that was enough to win me the job.

As a new salesman, I was supposed to walk the floor and ask people if they needed help. As a shy teenager, I mainly thumbed through records and stood around aimlessly. At one point, an assistant manager named Rich — Sam Goody had more assistant managers than Kajagoogoo albums — breezed by me, told me to smile, and jokingly offered me some “happy pills.”

The smile comment was foreshadowing. The “happy pills” thing was just kind of creepy.

A couple of weeks later, at the end of my shift, Assistant Manager Rich took me aside. He had something to tell me that he knew I wouldn’t want to hear: that Houses of the Holy was way better than Abbey Road, even with its brilliant Side Two medley and charming “Her Majesty” coda.

No, wait. That wasn’t it. He was firing me.

“Why?” I asked.

His reply: “You don’t smile enough.”

Well, I thought, this isn’t helping. 

I pleaded my case, but it’s surprisingly difficult to put on a happy face when you’ve just been canned for not smiling enough. And so I collected my emotions, my dignity, and a few Duran Duran albums and headed for the door. On my way out, I told a coworker, Todd, what had just happened. Then I went home, put on a deconstructed jacket over a T-shirt, poured myself a Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler, and switched on Doogie Howser, M.D. (Did I mention it was the ’80s?)

The next day, while I sat at home and practiced grinning, smirking, and generally looking amused, my erstwhile colleagues made up smiley buttons and wore them through their shifts. It was by far the biggest labor protest in Roosevelt Mall second-rate record-store history, and, thanks to all those smileys, one of the cheeriest.

I had become the Norma Rae of frowny faces.

It would be nice to say there was a happy ending, but this was the decade in which the air traffic controllers’ union — responsible for keeping people safe while they hurtle through the air in massive, gravity-defying machines — was dismantled. A college kid who looked unhappy amid racks of Rod Stewart LPs didn’t stand a chance, no matter how skinny his tie or how high his hair. So, I set out to find a new job, though in retrospect Betamax repair probably wasn’t the way to go.

For the, um, record, Sam Goody went out of business several years later. That did, in fact, make me smile.

So, my advice to the Northern Lebanon High School kids: Stay strong. Fight the power with a glower. And someday you, too, could be the unsmiling face of a social movement.

Addam Schwartz is the night producer at Philly.com. aschwartz@phillynews.com @addamschwartz