I held summer jobs from the time I was about 14, working summers in my father’s law office. The formal title of the job was something like “runner” or “courier,” but really I was the go-fer.
That undersells the job a bit. This was a part-time job held by a real adult much of the year, but I was told she liked having time off in the summer. I’m not sure why; she was British and maybe she visited family back in the UK? All I know is that once school was out, one of the partner’s kids would take over this job for the summer for minimum wage, and for many years that kid was me.
Much of the work involved shuttling various pieces of paper from office to courthouse, or office to bank, or office to another lawyer. I’d take checks to the bank for deposit, or wills to the probate court. I was probably one of the few teenagers who knew what probate court was.
Other parts of the job were a bit more complex. After a few summers they asked me to look up deeds at the County Recorder’s office. This was really the heart of the job for the actual adult who was on vacation. You would start with most recent deed indicating who owned a piece of land, and then somewhere on that deed would be a Volume and Page number for the previous deed. And so on and so on, going back a hundred years or more. The books were heavy and bound together with screw-bolts that you’d have to take apart to pull out the pages and photo copy them.
I really liked this job. I liked stepping out of the office into the sticky summer morning, and stepping into the cool air-conditioning of the First Knox National Bank or the Knox County Court House. I liked knowing who the judges were, and that people knew who I was and treated me like a grown-up. I liked navigating the ins and outs of paperwork, solving the little mysteries of who owned what parcel of land when. While waiting for two or three errands to stack up, I would sit in the very chilled lobby of the firm – actually the foyer of an old mansion – and read a book or the newspaper.
The second summer I came home from college, I was shocked to find out that my job had been promised to another partner’s son who was a year or so younger. I found another job, working in the back office of a bank. It was awful and made me realize how great my years as ZB&C’s go-fer had been. That bank job was the first job I ever quit.
Keeping A Tiny Part of America Informed
It was neither unique nor particularly fulfilling, but my official work career was as a paperboy. Yes, I'm that old.
I would occasionally fill in for a neighbor who had the route, and when I was twelve and he went on to better things, I inherited his paper route and all the glory and acclaim that goes along with such an exalted and responsible position.
Instead of being for a "real" newspaper, although it had some local news and articles, the Westchester News Advertiser was mostly just a delivery mechanism for ads and was delivered to all the homes on my block whether they wanted it or not.
The paper came out twice a week, on Thursdays and Sundays, and the Sunday edition had a lot more of those inserts and, as a result, was much larger. On Wednesday nights I'd usually still be awake when the truck tossed the bundles of fresh newspapers out front of my home, but on Sundays I received not only the papers, but another bundle or two of advertising inserts.
Also, when I'd order them, a large bag of rubber bands.
I was told my route was one of the larger ones, and I had to fold and deliver 198 papers twice a week. For this, I was expected to collect twenty-five cents from about 100 people and the paper and I would split the take. Those hundred people were my goal, and every month I met it, I collected points that I could turn in for prizes from a catalog, much like savings stamps.
On quite a few of the months, because I hated going door to door and collecting the money, I'd collect enough to turn in all the money so I could meet my goal and not even bother making any money. I didn't want them to think I wasn't doing my job.
Also, waking up with my mom at 4:30 to wrap and deliver all the papers before IU went to school is when I learned to drink coffee, black, just the way she did.
The first job I ever had was working food service for a Christian camp called Forest Home, in the mountains about 45 minutes from my house. It was a part of a deal to get them to let me go to summer camp of my own--an arts camp called Idyllwild Arts in another set of mountains near my house. If I could pay my way, I could go.
The schedule was brutal: I worked both in the snack bar and in the cafeteria, so during the week I was working both opening and closing shifts. I have vivid memories of cracking stacks and stacks of 12x12 flats of eggs into cleaned and sanitized trash cans (the only vessels big enough for the job) for scrambled eggs; standing at an industrial slicer for hours at a time prepping slabs of ham and crates of tomatoes for make-your-own sandwich bars for lunch at "Lake Day," and coming home smelling of the professional-grade grease spray we would use on the cooktops to keep food from sticking, wishing I could burn my clothes and scrub several layers of dermis off my body. And in these heady days of internet 1.0, before instantly accessible music of every kind, for some reason, the only CD in the entire kitchen was a novelty record of Christian Rock hits, but rearranged and covered by a faux lounge-lizard.
In the closing shifts I worked in the snack bar, I made endless chocolate chip milkshakes out of Magic Shell for bored teens forced to come to Family Camp to "reconnect with God and family," and then cleaned up after them when that same family and God could not instill in them the value of bussing their own tables.
Exhausted to the point of nearly driving off the mountain when it came time to go home, I collected my checks and got to go to my theater camp later that summer, which made it all worth it--but I've never managed to drink a chocolate-chip milkshake since.
"The Customer Is Always Right"
Larry Dobis, my first boss, is the manager of the Wellesley Super Market. His big smile is all teeth, bright white against his dark, closely shaven beard and black curly hair. His large hand reaches out to shake mine. He says he’s glad to have me as he gives me a white apron, showing me how to tie it. I hand over my ‘working papers’ from the town clerk permitting me to work at age 12.
I follow him as he moves quickly through the store, struggling to keep up with his fast walking. We end up in one of the store’s isles of shelves. Looking down at me, he says, “Kid, you’re going to clean all the shelves in the store this summer. Just take them one at a time.” Then he shows me how to do it by removing everything on the shelf, spraying cleaner and wiping it, replacing the items, and moving on to the next one. And when they need help in other parts of the store, like bagging groceries, wrapping meat, unloading trucks, I’ll do that too.
During those first days at work, he teaches me other jobs. Soon I realize not only can Larry do every job in the store, he does them all faster and better than anyone else. Teaching me how to bag groceries he says, “The first thing you need to know is simple, but never forget it. The customer is always right so never argue with them. They want eggs on the bottom of the bag, put them on the bottom.” After awhile, I learn that dealing with customers is the hardest job in the market, and he is masterful at it. The customers adore him.
I started working behind the counter at a bakery when I was in high school. I loved it. It was a chance to be social and to be in a place that smelled good. Everyone who worked there knew the husband and wife bakers who owned it. We all knew also that he had a mistress. The wife, who was sweet and looked very old, worked mornings and one of us high schoolers would take over after school. Once Mrs. Bakery Owner left the shop for the day, Mr. Bakery Owner would wait a few minutes and head out in his car, going the other way.
Usually the work was doling out x number of cookies or doughnuts and ringing up the customer; the worst part for me was when someone wanted a cake with writing on it. Guess how much practice and training I had had using frosting to write "Happy birthday, Susie"?
Besides the panic occasioned by those infrequent requests, I went through a whole other panic one day. For hours I had smelled something that did not seem related to baking. Finally, reluctantly, I phoned the fire department. To my horror, two fire engines and an ambulance showed up, blocking the parking lot in front, all because I had timidly said that I thought maybe, perhaps, who knows, there was an odd odor.
The fire fighters trooped around for 10 minutes or so, looking high and low and finally leaving, laden with doughnuts and cookies I had given them in embarrassed thanks. As the last one was stepping out the door, flames suddenly shot out of the ceiling, melting the tiles. Good timing. There was a fire, all right, somewhere in the rafters, and the smell had been burning insulation.
Oddly, I don't remember what happened after that. ...I'm guessing Mr. Bakery Owner had to tell Mrs. Bakery Owner that he had been the one to phone the fire department. She assumed he stayed till we closed the shop.
May I help you find something?
My father ran a retail chain in Connecticut. "Retail is in your blood" he would tell me, and then proceed to tell me to never, ever make a career out of retail. Oh, the contradictions of a father! When I was about 10, I started "working" for my dad, at the main store in Hartford. I would go in with him on the weekends and help unpack stock or fill the stock room with new merchandise. I was paid "under the table", which I found very enticing until my father would "forget" to pay me, with an apology that sounded more like a used car salesman than a dad... "Well, I would rather owe it to you than cheat you out of it!"
When I reached the official working age, which I believe was 16, I wanted to go out on my own. I was tired of "working for the man", literally, and hoped to get both a legitimate, and a regular, paycheck. I was not one who wanted to spend her summers babysitting, or by the pool as a lifeguard, so I followed what I knew; retail. There was a woman's specialty shop in the mall not far from the house called The Narraganset. I honestly cannot remember what sorts of women's clothing they sold, but I remember not loving everything on the rack, which made it easier to bring home a paycheck rather than reinvest it back into the store to bolster my closet.
What I remember most about it is the music. The first person in the store each day had the honor of picking from the three 8-track style MusaK tapes sanctioned by Corporate. None of them were good, and by the end of a week, the employees were ready to invest in earplugs, even if that made it nearly impossible to interact with customers. The music was awful; get in your head and can't get out kinds of awful. I would go to my car at the end of my shift and blast the radio as loud as I could on the most head-banging-worthy station I could find. (WCCC, 106.9, the Home of Connecticut Rock)
I also remember this being where I learned about customer service. Diplomacy. Tact. Helping people in a retail establishment is a thankless task unless you are working on commission (we were not). But a lack of any of those attributes stood out beyond imagination. The older mother who wanted to look hip (she didn't) and the frumpy, overweight waitress who wanted to look preppy (she didn't either) all came to stores like The Narraganset searching for something to make themselves feel better, and it didn't take long to realize how to give them what they wanted. "I love the color on you, but the cut could be better. Why don't I see if I can find something else for you," while replacing the size 6 they picked up with the size 14 they needed. Customers who left happy and gratified made the job fulfilling. I found that I really liked making someone's day, even if I had to plaster on a smile or not laugh out loud at them to reach that point.
I fully understood why my father implored me to never make a living in retail, but I believe strongly that it is a noble occupation, one that can teach you much about yourself, and about how to treat others.
The Beverly Hills Courier
From the time I was 15 until about 20, I worked for my local community newspaper as an intern and then a reporter. I really think of it more as an apprenticeship than a job, because it was something I took on after school hours and on weekends, but it was the first time in my life I was paid to write.
The Beverly Hills Courier was everything you’d expect it to be. All of the small-town intrigue, score-settling, and local political bickering, interspersed with hard-hitting columns on who attended parties at which person’s house, along with a two-page spread full of photos. I was recently back at my parent’s house, and I flipped through the most recent issue, and found that some of those columnists—who were ancient when I worked there—are still going, reporting on the same parties year-after-year.
Eventually, I worked up to writing my own column on city history called “This Week,” which mostly involved me digging through bound tomes of back issues of the Courier (each one must have weighed 15 pounds and reeked of decaying paper) to find interesting headlines from that week one year ago, ten years ago, twenty years ago, etc. Without asking permission, I added a “10,000 Years Ago” category and populated it with uninspired, pre-historic-themed jokes centering around the life and adventures of Agador the Orangutan.
Fifteen years later, I’m now a full-time professional writer. Though I can no longer add pre-historic primates to my assignments, I still try to draw from the creative well to enliven even the most uninspiring assignments. That’s the nice thing about writing for a living—regardless of what you are working on, if you put creative energy into it, you’ll tend to get some amount of satisfaction out of it.