Mark Twain once said “Work is a necessary evil to be avoided.” He had to be talking about summer jobs.
My first was a retail gig with a family owned clothing store. I folded, I fetched, I ran the register. I became an expert in geriatric fashion (Alfred Dunner anyone?). I walked laps around the store, trying to look busy and kill time at the end of the day. I ate lunch with gossiping biddies in the break room as they puffed on their Newports and Camels.
In search of further fulfillment, I joined a chain store in our local mall. I folded, I fetched, I ran the register. I became an expert in teen / young adult fashion. I vacuumed the floor at the end of the night while my manager kept her head down and pretended to count the register.
Then came the noodle factory. I counted, I bagged, I quite nearly barfed. I’m not sure if it was the ultra-attractive hair net or the seductive powder-blue smock, but I lasted exactly one hour – and received my check for $5 in the mail.
My last summer job, the one before the internships and professional experiences began, topped them all.
I packed tile.
The job paid $13 / hour – a whole $5 more than retail – and was an anthropologist’s dream.
Each day began the same way – sitting in snarled traffic at the entrance of the parking lot. Then, the mad dash – park the car, run into the building, punch in before 7AM, put away the lunch, grab your gloves and form a line – on one side, the summer help (most of us college students) and on the other, the full-timers. In true military fashion, the forewoman would call the roll. We’d raise our hand and she’d check her paper. Tardy? Three strikes and good-bye. AWOL for the day? Don’t come back. In one motion, she’d send the full-timers to their usual posts. Like a disapproving school marm, she’d peer at us over the top of her glasses and, wordlessly, point us to where she wanted us to go.
At 7:05 AM, the racks of freshly baked tiles – in all colors and textures and sizes – began to snake throughout the warehouse, stopping only for lunch, a technical emergency or an accident. The goal was to remove all the tiles as the rack flowed by, check them for “windblown” cracks and box them before starting again with the next rack – the smaller ones fit 12 to a rack, two rows of six. With my tiny hands, I became adept at grabbing three at a time.
Most of the full-timers were civil to us, teaching us what we needed to know, making polite chit-chat throughout the day as we worked. Others, not so much – one even went so far as to call one of my compatriots a “rich college b*tch.”
The one I remember most, though, was Mary.
A lifer at the plant, Mary came in every morning shouting “hellos” to her friends, wearing bright colors, fresh lipstick, a crazy hat of some sort and a smile. I was frequently assigned to her line – the small, non-glossies. Mary had been working at the plant for more than 30 years. She’d started when she was 22. A mother of two young boys, Mary’s husband had been killed in a car accident, so she was forced to find work to support them. Uneducated, she took the job at the plant, earning benefits, a good salary and allowing her to be home in time for the kids’ return from school. In her mind, this was temporary – she’d planned to return to school and get a degree so she could work in an office. But, three years in, her mother became ill and Mary was the only one who could take care of her. She died two years later. Lacking funds and, at this point, motivation, Mary gave up on the idea of school for herself and instead focused on educating her boys, both of whom were in college or graduated at the time.
Mary was the only full-timer to ever ask me how I was, where I went to school, what I wanted to become. She really wanted to know. I’m not sure what amazed me more – those crazy hats or the fact that the drudgery of the place, of her life, hadn’t made her like most working in that plant … cynical, bitter, depressed, dispassionate.
I left the job a week early to go on vacation, happy to have been just a visitor. I said good-bye to Mary and suggested we stay in touch. Her eyes filled up, she gave me a hug, and we never did write or call. I got back to my life, and she got back to hers.
That fall, school never looked quite so good.