by Nancy Martin
When my aunt---the one who eventually became a psychoanalyst for many good reasons---went looking for her first summer job, she was hired by the local glass bottle factory to work in the packing department. Her job was to pick up 6 bottles at once off a conveyor belt and nestle them gently into a cardboard box. Fast. Over and over. 8 hours a day, half an hour for lunch. The trick, she learned from co-workers, was to get her fingers into the open mouths of the bottles to lift them off the moving belt. Trouble was, her fingers were always a little plump, and speed was never her talent, and forget about dexterity. She frequently ended her shift standing ankle-deep in broken glass.
To me, her story always sounded like an episode of I Love Lucy, except no chocolate.
Well, over the weekend, my husband and I had lunch at a golf resort on Sunday afternoon, and our teenaged waitress was a complete ditz. Couldn't get anything right, and there was even broken glass involved. I'm betting it was her first job ever.
When we look back on our lives, we tend to think about the high profile life-changing events like weddings and births of children and whatnot, but my theory is that one of the biggest game-changers in anyone's life is your first employment.
I'm not talking about your first career move out of college, but the summer you scooped ice cream or guarded children in a swimming pool or maybe you were one of the lucky ones who waited tables at a beach resort? Did you strap on roller skates to deliver hamburgers to convertibles? Mow lawns with a crew of guys who didn't speak English? My first job was lifeguarding (at 14! Would you trust a 14-year-old nowadays?) and after that, I waitressed, spent a summer as a camp counselor and even sat behind my dad's secretary's desk to answer the phone when she went on vacation. One summer, after a hurricane blew through and ruined a lot of the state park where I was hired to lifeguard, I spent a month on the clean-up crew. We shoveled filth out of cabins, scrubbed toilets and I even learned how to drive a dump truck--with a clutch and something like 17 gears.
The summer job is the first time you must answer to an adult other than your own forgiving parents. It's when you learn to be polite. Learn to be respectful. You learn about customer service from the standpoint of the person who gets yelled at by dissatisfied jerks. There are lots more lessons to be learned, too.
When I waitressed at the Holiday Inn while on college break, I worked with a couple of women who needed their tips to pay for groceries for their kids. Me, I was looking to make a little--uh, beer money because my parents still paid my tuition, my car insurance, my room and board--even the taxes on the house where I slept every night. (An expense that never occurred to me, but surely was a fact of life for my co-workers.) Working alongside those two ladies, I had my eyes opened to the real world. With as much subtlety as I could manage, I gave them the big tables, the big tippers. (They'd be pissed if they thought I was being charitable.) I took the guy who left a quarter under his coffee cup after a $10 dinner, because--hey, it didn't take long for me to figure out who really needed the job and who could be spared to take care of the pests. In return, they taught me how a woman handled a boss who had roving hands--how to handle him without getting fired, that is. An important life skill back then.
The summer job is also when you become part of a tight community that's not your family. There's camaraderie among co-workers that kids need to experience, I think, so we understand that work can be enjoyable as well as a means to a paycheck. Your co-workers become your friends, right? Your fellows in the foxhole.
But mostly, summer jobs are about growing up.
So we were patient with our ditzy waitress. We left her a nice tip, even though there was broken glass under our table, and we never did get the extra napkin we requested. She was learning. I wanted to suggest that she consider becoming a psychoanalyst, but figured that would be rude, and she was already plenty harried.