Each month, we pitch a new question to our staff and readers. If you have a question you’d like us to answer, email it to us. This month we asked: What did you learn from your summer jobs?
It seemed sensible when I saw the ad. I loved animals, and I needed a job. The ad listed a need for managing customer relations and a “love of animals.” Check, check. After an interview where they didn’t ask for more than age, I was hired at the zoo. I learned how to capture escaped armadillos (be fast); how to feed baby tigers (with care); but what I value regarded the snake people. You see, there are snake people and non-snake people. And you mustn’t mention a fear of snakes around snake people, particularly if they’re zoo keepers. Zoo keepers believe curing snake fear is to join them. Before long, I had boa constrictor on one shoulder, python on another. “Don’t move; they can tell if you’re afraid,” he noted (from too far away, I thought). You know, the snakes were OK. It was the people I should have worried about.
I was the “Dugan Man” for four summers during college. Dugan Bakeries was an old-line bakery company in the Northeast that sold bread, cakes, donuts, and a variety of packaged baked goods. My summer route from late May to early September was to sell and deliver these baked goods to various establishments in the Catskill Mountains (the Borscht Belt). I would drive 100 miles into the Catskill Mountain resort areas and spend all day dropping off breads and cakes to my route customers. That first summer, I was thrown into a world of “hey Dugie,” almost to be trusted as much as the milkman. I had a fleeting “flirtation” with the pretty daughter of the owner of the orthodox Effelbaum’s Dairy in White Lake, who was forbidden to even talk to me—the Goy.
Occasionally I would be so tired from driving around all day, I would pull over, dump a “crate” of hamburger rolls out into the truck aisle and take a nap. It’s amazing how they would puff back up and be ready for delivery at the next stop.
Robert Moses had big plans for Ward’s Island. He thought the tiny landmass just east of 125th Street connected to Randall’s Island could escape its past as a dumping ground for people dead or crazy. The summer I documented the renovation of the bridge that runs through the island I knew those plans were just dreams. The trailer in which I worked was down the road from a wastewater treatment plant, a state-run psych hospital, and a center for the criminally insane. The MTA brought me to Shutter Island Monday through Friday, and every day I feared for my life. Between the realization that the engineers and some welders were too scared to take the bus and that of all the people on the bus going to the hospital none were receiving a salary, I was spooked. Eventually, I decided I had to buy a car or quit the job—remembering I lived in Manhattan, I quit. No job is worth enough to fear for your life during each commute.
Jessica Francis Kane
My first summer home from college I answered an ad in the newspaper for a job. As I recall, the employer wanted someone who could do some gardening and light landscaping. At the time, I was under the mistaken impression that I liked gardening. Also, something about working outside with flowers sounded so appealing. I pictured something out of E.M. Forster, I’m afraid.
I’d garden by day (in a long dress and straw hat), then read and write at night. The woman who hired me had three daughters, the youngest of whom was getting married at the end of the summer on the grounds of her mother’s house. The colors of the wedding were pink and white, so my job—what the woman hired me to do—was replant the entire garden in pink and white. It was to be in full bloom by the time of the late August wedding, which meant using annuals, primarily. Pink and white impatiens. Pink and white petunias. I drove to nurseries all over southeastern Michigan buying up as many flats of the damned things as I could. There was also a college boy who was hired to build a white gazebo.
By midsummer, the woman began planning a summer party, and as the garden and gazebo were “under construction,” this would be the theme. Gazebo boy and I would wear construction hats while we served the guests. That party never happened, though, and she fired me before the end of the summer, so to this day I don’t know if the wedding was real. The whole thing felt like a rudderless fairy tale. But I’ve never forgotten this: Petunias look a hell of a lot better in pots than as a ground cover.
In the summer of ’92 I worked the night shift at a gas station on Highway 33 north of Coonpath Road. My sole coworker and mentor claimed to be an ex-roadie for Foghat. I was ex-Mormon and he taught me many things. For example, coffee must be brewed with fresh grounds, not just more water. Bathrooms can be washed with a hose. People are angry on the drive to work. Cheerfulness makes angry people angrier. Kitty litter absorbs any fluid, especially blood, vomit, and oil. Being courteous and being helpful are not the same. Oftentimes, drunk girls that pee in parking lots do not mind if you watch. Stale donuts can be delicious but old hotdogs are ruined. Cigarettes are a specific, acquired taste and you cannot substitute one brand, type, or packaging for another. Most importantly, pace yourself—save some work for tomorrow night, college boy.
When I was 15 I got a job as a file clerk for the school district office, where we tracked our own hours by signing in on time cards. My friend was stealing time on a scale so bold I was sure she’d be hit by lightening every time she picked up a paycheck.
I’m the kind of person who feels a German level of discomfort about littering, so you can imagine me quivering with the injustice of it all as she stopped by for fifteen minutes so she could mark six hours on her time sheet. The entire file crew was enraged. Eventually we decided to tell management about our suspicions.
They watched her for a week, pulled her aside to “chat with her,” and then never mentioned it again. She continued to steal, in a slightly less dramatic fashion, for the rest of the summer. A few weeks later I was severely reprimanded for wearing cut-off shorts to the office.
In the summer of 1990, I took a job as a “casual carrier” for the U.S. Postal Service in Woods Hole, Mass. It was a great job, covering for the old timers who had about 48 weeks of vacation to use up every year. And I learned a few valuable lessons that have come in handy innumerable times since: Old folks go apeshit if their Social Security checks and TV Guide subscriptions aren’t delivered on time; Bichon Frisés are basically vicious wolves stuffed into extra small, fluffy white dog suits, and they can only be stopped with pepper spray; and when you’re trying to impress the girls at the bar, don’t tell them you’re a “casual carrier.” It sounds like you have an STD, and they won’t appreciate the joke.
The summer after my first year of college, I worked two part-time jobs and apparently experienced much of one in a state of veiled mental detachment. At the time, working at a national clothing retailer three to four days a week seemed a fine setup, and I gladly folded and stickered and hung things day in and day out. I worked a thinner and thinner set of shifts, and steered clear of the intimidating long-term employees. At the time, it was no problem—even enjoyable. Looking back, it was a narrow slice of torture pie with a scoop of boredom on the side. I thank my mind for what was obviously a defense mechanism.
Avoid the lifers. “Lifers” being the term for those dedicated souls that have dedicated their lives to becoming Head Sales Associate for Cutlery and House Appliances at the outlet store past the interstate. Not that there’s anything wrong with leadership positions or selling housewares, but lifers take to it with gleeful, sadistic abandon. They have traded their lives and the risks inherent in putting yourself out in the world for dominance over a small, obscure portion of it. If you’re only at this job for a short stint in between semesters, get ready to be berated on your lack of knowledge of the 3 P’s, the tensile strength of the Helmsman series of ladles, or the standard practice for storing plastic bins. Then comfort yourself that, thankfully, you have better things in your life that don’t involve petulant arrogance at the inane minutiae of work.
My first summer job was as an all-purpose grocery store helper when I was 16. Lesson learned: Don’t leave your carts in the parking lot. I used to be a happy cart-leaver. I’d leave them near my car, on the curb, in someone else’s parking spot…but that was before I spent four-hour chunks of time in the California sun wandering a parking lot in search of lost carts. The job was never, ever done. I have not left a straggling cart since.
As for my job working at a local paper this summer, the lesson is simpler: Have a phone with good reception. Otherwise you don’t know if your call was dropped because of your new iPhone’s now-notoriously bad reception, or if the other person hung up because she didn’t want to answer your questions about controlling the local population of Canada geese.
The common denominator among my many temporary jobs is that they were all in the service industry. Veterinarian’s assistant, landscaping, bag boy at a golf course. I worked in nearly every department of a grocery store (finally found my calling in the bakery). Before the year I spent working in a call center, I earned minimum wage in a Tex-Mex restaurant; six months as a dishwasher, then line cook, then server. Trust me when I say that the service industry offers many life lessons for a young man. One of the most important is the value of simply being nice and respectful, something that has laid a solid foundation for my character and the way I treat people. That’s all find and dandy, but do you really want to know something? To this day I can still make a fat ass burrito and wash the fuck out of a pile of dishes.
No music is better than bad music, no matter how boring and repetitive the task. Weaver’s Apprentice was not a glamorous job, but as long as I was alone it was OK. The work was unexciting, but it was air-conditioned and paid. I measured thousands of yards of thin cotton yarn and tied hundreds of knots to change the warp colors between product batches. I even learned how to weave pillows. Alone, I listened to my New Wave tapes and the hours flew by, but while the Weaver wove, the days were torturous. Her Christian radio lite rock was toxic. She wanted me to be ready and willing to listen to instructions, so I couldn’t escape via Walkman. I treasured the days she didn’t turn on the radio…almost more than the rug she gave me at the end of the summer.
In 1999, I walked into my boss’s office, in the janitorial division of the local city hospital, livid with the accumulated frustrations of being accidentally pricked by a used hypodermic needle, having a geriatric’s poop drip onto my shoe, and, just that morning, being scolded by a plastic-surgeon for making eye-contact with him in the hallway and not understanding my role in the world, to name a few. I was opening my mouth to quit, in a polite but flippantly fed-up manner, when my boss pulled a large, mahogany-and-gold plaque from behind his desk and pointed to my name, engraved upon it, for having been awarded the Employee of the Month status for the month of July. He also handed me some coupons for free ice cream cones from Stewart’s. I learned that glory doesn’t come without sacrifices, and that, unlike ice cream, plaques and glory last for a while.