Monday, May 12, 2008

Summer Jobs

My daughter comes home from college on Wednesday. She's got two internships this summer, but unfortunately only one pays even a small stipend. Usually my husband and I encourage her to take jobs where she can earn enough to cover her personal expenses during the school year. But she's a film studies major and we agreed that these two summer opportunities in the entertainment industry were too good to pass up. In today's job market, employers definitely check what kind of career-building internships an applicant has held. We see this summer as investment in her future. If we're lucky, her stipend will at least cover her summer expenses.

I wish I could say that my summer jobs were career building. Frankly, I usually never gave jobs a thought until I'd been home a week or two from school. At that point, my exasperated parents would slam into my room one morning around eleven and yell something to the effect that (1) money didn't grow on trees and (2)there was no way in hell I was spending the summer partying at night and sleeping in the day and I'd better haul myself out of bed and find some summer employment or else. Which could explain the boring, dead-end, 'don't bother to list them on the resume' positions I held every summer.

My daughter and her friends started their job searches last Christmas. The competition for good internships is more intense than trying to get into Harvard on a full scholarship. For the unpaid internship she has, there were 1000 applicants, 200 students were interviewed, and 15 were chosen. I guess we're lucky we didn't have to pay for the privilege of no pay.

But sometimes dead end jobs teach you as much as these career builders. The summer after I graduated from high school, I got a job in the Baltimore City water department. I don't want to tell you how old I am, but let's just say that they were still totaling district water bills with electric adding machines. Summers in Baltimore are charitably described as hot and humid. Sweat, not perspiration, but sweat is a constant companion. Real men, apparently, didn't need no stinkin' air conditioning, stinkin' being the operative word.

Anyway, the work was deathly boring. Whenever you had finally finished a huge mass of water bills, there was always a hundred more piles to do. But what I remember the most about that summer is the old man who'd been in the department for thirty years. He was as thin as a rail and literally bent in half. His body was permanently bowed at the waist, from what I assume was a severe spinal condition. His job was exactly the same as mine: To add up an endless pile of water bills. But while I would be leaving in the fall for college, this was his permanent position. He would be doing it until he retired.

Spending a long, hot, boring summer in the Baltimore City water department taught me more than almost any other job I've ever held. While I'd been able to effortlessly tune out all those parental lectures on the importance of an education, the image of the bent man adding up water bills was enough to send me off to school that fall with a new sense of urgency.

How about you? What were your summer jobs?

Evelyn David


  1. Hi, Evelyn: Although I spent two, hot, sweaty summers cooking in a country club snack bar (100 degrees was the LOW temp), your job at the Water Dept. sounds way worse. At least I got to stare at a beautiful pool all day from my perch on the deck. That's something, right? Maggie

  2. Congratulations to your daughter! Internships are important, but I think there is a lot to be said for summer jobs for pay. The career building benefits might not be as obvious, but you learn responsibility and time and money management skills and so on that are important. One of my first jobs was working at a plant nursery, I turned that into my own landscaping company and I learned that I was inspired by entrepreneurship.

  3. Holy smokes! Maggie and I, who have some post-college history, have a shared teenage history working poolside for the clubbing set! I also worked a couple of summers at the concession stand of my local country club pool. The seven (or so) things I learned at Gary Country Club:

    1) Some kids are spoiled brats and some are just hungry and thirsty and tired, especially after being dumped there for pretty much a whole day by parents who want to spend their time otherwise. And, in some cases, some kids are just lonely and alone, even in their “family”. Days when the weather turned and the kids had to get out of the pool for a while I often read to them, played checkers and Monopoly with them, helped them with homework (that they’d been sent to the pool carrying!?), and just plain listened to them for a while. The really tough cases would sometimes, no kidding, NEVER even get into the pool. They’d just stand around in their bathing suit and fill every spare minute you had between filling orders with conversation. And, some of those kids were good, happy, albeit a little bored, sweethearts who just liked to converse and crack up with anyone and everyone and they put a good vibe into my day. Each of us working there ended up with a few kids who came over now and then just to see us, specifically. We were friends for a while.
    2) When the sun beating through the plate glass over the counter doesn’t make it hot enough for you on a shift, just go stand over the grill in the corner, next to the freezer chest whose motor generates a ton of EXTERIOR heat to make the INTERIOR near freezing, and make 17 burgers for some rowdy children and maybe then you’ll be satisfied, you Sweat Hog, you.
    3) There isn’t a big enough tip in anyone’s pocket that makes it worth getting involved when a “Wife-Of” pulls you aside and wink-wink says that you’d be doing her a “huge favor” if you’d keep tabs on what days her husband comes by off the near-by 5th hole for a coke, and who’s with him. Ditto for when a husband comes by and wants to put you on the payroll to “let him know” how many times his wife comes and hides out on the shady side of the pool every week, and who’s with her. That kind of lesson really was worth something.
    4) It’s a real lesson in social and cultural science to spend a few hours on a 98 degree Friday taking orders for cheeseburgers and “suicide soda”. Don’t ask me why they loved it, but it was a splash of every soda on the fountain all mixed into one cup: Fanta Orange and A&W Root Beer and Coke and Seven-Up. Yeesh! On the other hand, we did a similar thing in college by putting Hawaiian punch into a garbage can and adding every liquor we could lay hand to, including grain alcohol. I think we called it Suicide Punch or maybe Jungle Juice—so who am I to judge? The real kicker was when the kid only had to scribble a signature (signatures from 11-year-olds?) on a “tab” to buy what they wanted and you’d then see things like the little boy who would buy soda after soda, with extra ice, only so he could run and dump it over the head of some other kid. This lead to more attempts at proxy-parental control when you had a whole list of parents who actually thought you could remember which kid was theirs and then “make sure he/she only spends $5, okay?”. Or the more direct: “don’t let John do that!” Sure, I’m on it, Dr. Gagan.
    5) Being a life guard was boring and you got baked and you had to deal with the kids just as much, etc. BUT while I could only stare at the mirage of the pool through my sliding-glass orders window, thinking how unfair it was that being soaked with sweat should feel so different than being soaked with chlorine, the guards were ready, able, and allowed to take a quick dip and that gave them the better deal. Especially since they could also come over to the stand and get eats and drinks! So, if you have the choice, be the life guard, not the short-order cook.
    6) Although it sucks, there is no way to tell four tennis-racket wielding club moms who’ve decided it would be très chic to eat poolside that no, you will NOT run back and forth to the main clubhouse kitchen that is roughly a block away in distance to get them lunch food that is not offered at the stand and that if they want to eat from the club house they should go eat AT the club house. You will, grumbling and rolling your eyes, fetch fruit cups and salades Niçoises and gazpacho for women who will then, without a shred of shame, change part of the order and send you back. You will also be told by your supervisor, the high-school gym teacher cum lifeguard at the pool that you should count yourself lucky that they deign to drink the “Tab with lime” that we do stock at the stand. It is THE drink of choice for that crowd—it’s the iced-tea of the late 70’s! If they were really making a day of it, they would shun even the Tab and you’d end up having to send Mr. Bill, our managing life guard who was more than of legal age, and he’d go up to the clubhouse bar and ferry back a tray of vodka tonics. Serves him right, I’d think, maybe now he’ll be more sympathetic toward me. It took me weeks to learn that he didn’t mind the change of scenery and the chance to knock back a vodka tonic, himself.
    7) It is (even after all these years) still completely fair and reasonable that for all the hot, sweaty, draining, head-ache and sunburn inducing hours you spend every summer, at least a few hours each season will be spent on days when the main club house management doesn’t realize until too late that the weather is awful and no one is coming to the pool or golfing and there are a handful of employees like you, on the clock, just hanging out and making your special ham-cheese-and-double-beef-patty-burgers for one another and eating a week’s worth of ice-cream sandwiches, washing all of it down with enough soda to make you spend over 30% of your day peeing. We knew to keep the lights out on those days so no one taking a glance out the main office window toward the pool would be easily tipped off, but eventually the call came to just clock out and go home. It didn’t matter: we’d have gotten some pay, not done a damn thing, ate and drank like pigs, and still got off early for the day to some degree.

    But, mostly I learned that work was work. And, that being the case, make the best you can of every mid-stream job and while trying to find some work that you value and that, even if it’s not glamorous, is honorable. It won’t always be fun, but there isn’t a job that is. And, keep the work the work, the job the job, and make sure to fill up the rest of your life with even better things, sometimes using those on-the-job lessons in a new way.