Wednesday, April 19, 2006


Summer Jobs

This time of year, as tenured faculty thoughtlessly start asking me about my summer plans and sharing theirs, I can tamp down any incipient bitterness by reflecting on one of the very best parts of having a real job: not having to find a summer job.

Finding summer jobs in high school and college was bad enough, but at least it felt age-appropriate. Since summer teaching gigs were few and far between in my graduate program (I got my first one after my fifth year in the program), I was still looking for summer jobs at 25. That’s just wrong.

The summer job panic usually started in April. By early May, I’d usually be in a combination of depression and panic.

There isn’t much good to be said about most summer jobs. They pay badly, you’re almost always the peon, and (almost by definition) they involve doing work you really don’t want to do. They can help forestall any undue sense of entitlement, since daily degrading combined with low pay will do a number on any excess self-esteem with which you might be burdened.

Crappy non-academic summer jobs I’ve held:

- Dishwasher

- Parking lot attendant

- Door-to-door canvasser (An awful job, but you do develop a pretty good sense of real estate.)

- Piston ring tester (We used Scotch tape. I’m not making that up. This is why I’ve never bought an American car.)

- Receptionist

- SAT Prep instructor (twice)

- Supermarket stock boy (I got fired from that for stacking canned beets too slowly. The shame!)

- Customer Service Rep (I drank more that summer than in the rest of my life, combined.)

- Mover

- AIDS Walk recruiter (lots of compliments on the little blue baseball cap we had to wear)

- Intern (where I learned I didn’t want to be a lawyer)

And the ultimate depression-inducing, college-motivating, holy-crap-if-I-had-to-do-that-for-a-living-I’d-kill-myself job...

- The Ice Factory

The ice factory bears explanation. You know those 8 pound bags of ice in convenience stores? The ones you buy for parties? Someone makes those. My job, for 8 hours a day at $3.50 an hour (minimum wage at the time was $3.35), was to pick up the 8 pound bags of ice off a lazy Susan and stack them on a wooden pallet, for the forklift to take to the saran wrapper, and then to the truck. Naturally, this entailed working in a freezer, so the ice wouldn’t melt. For 8 hours a day.

I learned a lot that summer. Lessons of the ice factory:

- If you work in a freezer 8 hours a day lifting heavy objects, you burn an astonishing amount of calories. Everybody brought huge lunches, and we all lost weight. Calories are actually units of heat. If you want to lose both excess weight and your will to live, I can’t recommend this enough.

- People whose actual, not-just-seasonal jobs are in the ice factory are prone to odd enthusiasms. One guy spent his time developing an intricate theory explaining that Phil Collins was actually a space alien. (“Sussudio? What’s that? Space code! Abacab? Space code!”) Another had what I would call an unhealthy fascination with the guitarist Allen Holdsworth.

- Different brands of bagged ice come out of the same vat. One brand’s bag memorably claimed that its ice melted more slowly than other brands. We checked. It didn’t.

- As of the mid-1980's, feminism had not yet made meaningful inroads into the culture of ice factories.

- Some people can discourse knowledgeably about the relative merits of the food in the various jails throughout their home county. These people make your food. I’m just sayin’.

- Just because a guy is five-foot-four, short a few fingers, and Vietnamese, doesn’t mean he can’t slam-dunk an 8 pound bag of ice in the middle of a stack fifteen bags high.

- Disgruntled workers have ways of Sticking It To The Man. Among these ways is peeing in the ice vat. There’s a reason I don’t buy bags of ice. If you do, first, hold the bag up to the light. If the ice isn’t perfectly clear, don’t buy it. Trust me on this one. Seriously.

- $3.50 an hour adds up to...let’s see, carry the seven...I think the mathematical term is “dick.”

Compared to that, deaning isn’t bad at all. It’s all about perspective...

Awesome post! It *is* all about perspective: I only have to remember my summers (a) cocktail waitressing at Chi-Chis; (b)game barkering at an amusement park; or (c) administering consumer surveys to understand that my current job is pretty sweet.
Here's one for you:

I administered urine drug tests one summer.

I lasted two weeks there.
I always found myself bitter to the fact that I had to work inside rather than be outside in the nice weather. Now I just wish I had an office window so I could at least see the sun. But to keep it in perspective, at least I don't have to witness urination in ice vats. Not having a window doesn't seem like such a bad thing how. Great post! I adore your blog.
Now I don't know what's worse--the ice factory, or my friend's description of his job on the slime line in an Alaska salmon canning factory one summer.
I lucked into a summer job that went part time during the school year and then full time all summer; it continued through undergrad and into my MA and after. I was always so grateful for knowing that I had a job, even though it was working in one of the toughest industries around: weddings. People getting married arte stressed out and crazy and will fly off the handle about, well, anything. I once had a woman write a letter of complaint about me to a government official because I threw out her leftover sushi.
I spent a summer as a rep in the complaint department at 6 Flags. Listening to people complain about how they got a sunburn during the day and should be reimbursed b/c they didn't have fun made me want to slit my throat!
The summer job I talk the most about--and it wasn't a bad job--was the summer I was a retail route salesman.

OK, I was a milkman.

The job gave me a great example for my future career as an economist, about the effect of incentives on behavior.

But the really great part of the story is that there was a, well, house of ill repute on one of my routes. Not that I ever got inside the place...but they did pay, cash, with each delivery.
This made me think back to my own summer jobs and what I refer to as the "summer job mentality."

That is, I figured I could do just about anything for three months if it got me enough money to go back to college in the fall.

Examples include:

Stuffing/sealing envelopes in a warehouse for a communications/direct mail company (ever wonder where a lot of your junk mail came from 20 years ago? I probably folded/stuffed/sealed it).

The breakfast shift at a fastfood chain. That was an okay job except for two things: 4:30am was brutal getting up every day, and one of my lovely co-workers sucker-punched me in the parking lot one day after work.

Temporary/Summer worker in the maintanence department of a hospital. Aside from my complete and utter ability to fix ANYthing (You want something painted or broken, and I'm your guy), what I could not stand about the place was the union attitude (Why don't we replace this? "Job security" was the answer...I could go on and on) and the fact that the other temp guy (who was in the KKK) and I got the jobs the regular maintenance personnel wanted NO part of).

Computer paper/card/industrial forms delivery guy. I learned how to drive a forklift (not well--my nickname was "Crash"), and my job was moving thousands of pounds of paper five days a week. My back aches just thinking about it now..
This was a great post. Thanks so much for the ice bag info!

packing hotdogs at Oscar Mayer was cold, too.
Try going to grad school in a country where you don't have residency and can only work as a TA -- and there are no summer TA-ships. I got very good at property management (get your rent free for working at the co-op), typing papers (90wpm!) and getting a library job termed as part of a fellowship so it wasn't technically employment.

That and lots and lots of lovely debt!
I will never again buy a bag of ice without holding it up to the light ....
... I'm not sure I'll buy a bag of ice again, period!
Hmmm, worst job I ever had was babysitting a stubborn pig -- the pig later got lost and was eaten which made the rest of the summer quite easy.
And you received all of that without the excitement of working second shift! The other benefit was perhaps the best arm strength I've ever had.
This is a great post!! I was thinking about this the other day -- thinking about how I spent several summers working the midnight shift at a sub shop. Every single night I would mop up someone's puke (we were on a bar strip) and more than once we were held up at knifepoint. Fun times...especially when you consider I was making $5/hr.

I had another job at a gas station -- I was a line cook for the crappy little cafeteria in the station. It was a shitty job to begin with, but when the boss locked me in the walk-in freezer (on purpose, to "teach me a lesson"!) it went from bad to nightmareish. I didn't even go back to pick up my last paycheck (which probably would have been about $40).

It is the end of term and everyone is at the end of their rope (students and faculty alike) -- I've been grumbling about marking and students who turn their assignments in late and all those usual things. Thinking back to these crappy jobs makes me put things in perspective. Thanks!
Great post! I am curious about the scotch-tape/piston tester part.

And to think of it, I was grumpy because my department refused to let me work for 40 hrs/week this summer even though my advisor agreed to pay me. I am in international student and we are allowed to work 40 hrs only in summer. Thanks for putting everything in perspective.
My partner was a milkman as a smmer job - aside from the early hours he loved it, His grandfather was a milkman for 30 years, when he started they used horse-drawn carts and the horses had the routes memorized.

Thinking more about this yesterday I remembered that one summer I made salad, that's all I did was make salad. My hands were a horrible purply grey from chopping red cabbage. I think I begged the dishwasher to swap jobs with me it was so boring!
I only had one real "summer" job, cleaning houses, and to be honest, I really enjoyed it. My boss owned her own business, I learned cool cleaning techniques, the work was quiet & solitary, and I got to see the inside of some really nice houses.

After that summer, I had a year-round work-study job, that turned into my first full-time job after college. (I've always been sort of lucky with employment.)

OTOH, I had 3 crap jobs in college: selling bargain shoes, working in the college food service, and fundraising phone calling for the college. I lasted exactly one evening past the training in that last one....
Had my share of crappy summer jobs, too, but my best job ever was a summer job: I spent one summer assigning the incoming freshmen to their dorm rooms. It required interpreting obscure comments on their applications to determine pairings.

Since it was a small campus, I actually got to know most of the students and to observe my successes. And my failures.

I did accidentally pair a prof's pretty daughter with a male student who'd failed to mark the gender box, but I blamed that on the admissions office.

In retrospect, the successes were probably more significant than the failures.

Great post, by the way. Thanks.
Looking back over summer jobs, I don't think it was as hard then-30 years ago-as it is now. There are so many liability issues that many jobs are out of reach for kids.
-My first job was at Southern Maid Donuts-running the glazing machine at 4:30 am has a way of quashing natural teenaged urges for sugar. I got first when I asked for my paycheck....
-My second job was working in the Sears Telephone Shopping Room, an early boiler room run by a disgruntled woman who worked on the TI assembly line during the day. We were given lists of people to call and scripts to read from. I learned a wide range of cussing that summer.
-My next job was at Gordons Jewelers, where I was the credit clerk. It was fun, except for balancing the cash drawer which the salesmen stole from to buy lunch. I learned to skip-trace and caught a stuff at 19.
-Then I worked at a department store where in order to get any other hours during the week you had to sign up to work Saturday was abusive.
-Then I taught for awhile, quit, worked at The Container Store, which isn't all it's cracked up to be.
-I worked at Fitz & Floyd Corporate making signs for their stores.
-Then I married, worked at General Aviation News as a graphic designer. Then I took a few years off.
Now I am back teaching high school, looking for summer work along with my own college-aged kids...and believe me,
I bet they have applied at fifty places and nobody calls, nobody responds when they call, and one place offered my son a fastfood job if he would take what they are paying some people of questionable legality under the table. At least there was a sense of we are all in this together back in the day. Now it's every man or woman for themselves and to hell with everyone else. It makes me really sad for the future.
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