TAMPA — A young woman sat at a computer terminal inside a strip-mall suite Monday applying for a job while a considerate stranger held her 8-month-old daughter.
Your mama's trying to get a job, the fellow applicant told the baby, so you can go to college someday.
Other computers drew a cleaning business owner with not much to clean, a construction worker with little to build and Matthew West, who sleeps in a family's walk-in closet after being laid off as a sports bar cook.
They came to this hiring center after seeing banners and signs along Gandy Boulevard in South Tampa with magic words: "Walmart is hiring."
A new supercenter is being finished at 4302 W Gandy Blvd., and the store needs 300 employees. In Tampa Bay, where the unemployment rate hovers at 13 percent, some had to rub their eyes and look again.
"You always hear of 300 jobs being laid off," said Teedee McFarland, 40, an applicant.
Since the hiring center opened Aug. 16 at 4644 W Gandy Blvd., about 65 people a day have punched their hopes into the center's terminals. They joined hundreds of others online, praying for an interview with panels of managers who could put them in a blue vest for above-minimum wage, health benefits and a 401(k) retirement plan.
People around the neighborhood have been anticipating this moment, said Al Steenson, president of the Gandy/Sun Bay South Civic Association, who had several requests to give the locals a heads-up when hiring started.
"We've got a lot of people out of work," he said.
For every open position, five people have already applied, including former medical professionals, secretaries, even a school principal, said store manager Brian Lemelin, 49.
Which is why West, 23, pored over questions with care.
Question 56: "When you have finished a task or project before deadline, how often did you spend time rechecking your work before moving onto the next activity?"
West took several minutes before he picked an answer he thought was the right one.
"I really hope I get this job," he said. "I'm pretty much starting all over right now, trying to jump back up on my feet. It's hard because everyone's cutting back now."
He has left messages with a plumbing company that were unanswered.
He has called on his application with Amscot, only to get lost in phone transfers.
"Dude, it's so hard," he said. "Honestly, I've put in 20 applicants. Restaurants, warehouses. I've tried day labor."
He works for a lawn care company making $180 a week, eating McDonald's $1 menu for lunch and ramen noodles, SpaghettiOs or friends' generosity for dinner.
"Can't really afford to go grocery shopping on $180," he said.
He has two pairs of shoes: $5 flip-flops from Walgreens and $45 work boots he bought last week to replace a worn-out pair.
He bought those at Walmart.
He once dreamed of a culinary degree and a shot on the reality TV show Hell's Kitchen. "Right now I'd settle for picking fruit for minimum wage," he said.
All around him, the applicants thought about their pitches if they received an interview.
"I'm a people person. I love people, I love kids," said Kristin Caldwell, 21, the new mother. "I'm very used to handling stress with the baby, and I was a manager at Hungry Howie's. I'm always worried about the customers. That's the No. 1 priority."
"No. 1, I am a people person," said Willie Green, 63, a retired city worker who wants a part-time job to pay off credit cards. "And I realize that the customer is always right and I'm good at helping people."
And then there's West.
"Long hours don't bother me, 12-13 hours don't bother me. I'll do whatever's asked," he said. "I'm built to be a tool."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.