Right now, the teens are working part-time. One for dough. The other for good will. They are both in climate-controlled environments, surrounded by mostly smiley-happy people. It’s all a little too pleasant, according to my personal standards of what constitutes a summer job.
I’m okay with how things turned out. They are learning and giving their game controllers a little rest.
But still, I wanted my sons to experience a more painful effort-to-dollar ratio with lots of grease stains. The character-building stuff. There’s nothing like dealing with the public, combined with some old-fashioned clock-slowing drudgery. Months ago, I envisioned them each coming home all sweaty and underpaid. I wanted them to quote Napoleon Dynamite after a day at the chicken coop: “That’s, like, a dollar an hour.”
Maybe next year.
Today, my sons tune me out when I recount the horrors of how I earned money help pay for tuition and Slurpees. I natter on anyway. These are the moments everything before me looks watery and hazy. I hear angels strumming harps, and I remember my summer jobs back in New York…as if…it…were...yesterday…
: “Good Evening. This is Denise. I’m calling for Beta Carpet Cleaning. I want to let you know about a special we’re running right now: Two rooms and a hallway for just…hello? Hello?”
Yes. I did that. Telemarketing. For a carpet cleaner. Back when I was in high school, jobs were almost non-existent. But in my ZIP code, guys who looked Soprano-esque ran businesses, and people had dirty rugs. I landed the dinnertime shift, which, on good days, translated to hearing one “yes” for every 379 F-Bombs. Click, dial tone. Click, dial tone. Not exactly what a young Alexander Graham Bell envisioned.
Howard Johnson’s Wimp
: The summer after my freshman year in college, I wore a triple-polyester A-line orange dress with white spongy shoes. I was the “counter girl” at a Howard Johnson’s. If you’re unfamiliar, think Applebee’s with an ice cream soda fountain, asbestos floor tiles and lots of turquoise and tangerine hues.
I was a waitress who couldn’t hide in the kitchen. I’d take food orders AND make banana splits under the watchful eye of a hungry, critical crowd. Aside from being underpaid and under-tipped, there was a more serious complication. The ice cream was so frozen, and my arms so skinny, I had trouble scooping. It was like digging into granite. I was the slowest cone builder in the east. Today, people pay top dollar for that kind of bicep workout.
Dunkin Donuts Zombie
: Another summer, my triple-polyester A-line dress turned pink. Genius that I was, I grabbed the midnight to 6 a.m. shift because I thought I could work all night, then hit the Long Island beaches during the day. That happened only twice. The entire season, I was too tired to drive over the bridges or navigate my legs past the sand dunes.
Clientele-wise, that was the weirdest job I’ve ever had. There was Owl Man who would never blink his eyes. He ordered one sugar, two creams and a lemon stick every day at precisely 3 a.m. Then at 5:30 a.m., Mr. Persnickety would run into the store, jump behind the counter and fill his own boxes while I was dealing with the commuter rush. And of course, there was the night I encountered the macho, bloodied cop. I thought he needed an ambulance. Instead he surprised me with a calm request for a box of Dunkin Munchkins. I still remember him walking off into the dark with a little pink box in hand.
Summer jobs like the ones I had, I tell my sons, build character like nothing else. They roll their eyes at me and say something brilliant and 100 percent true. They remind me of their challenges: Grueling summer Scout camps in triple-digit heat, AP classes, SATs, ACTs, volunteer work, music lessons, orthodontic palate separators, a mother who appears in public with a fanny pack, blah blah blah.
You know what else builds character? Parenthood.