Remember Your First Summer Job?

This year brings a scarcity of summer jobs for America’s youth.  It is unfortunate that so many will miss the tremendous learning opportunity that summer jobs present.  I don’t know where I’d be today without such opportunities.

My first summer job, other than making spin art and being forced to play kickball, was at for a supplier of home security devices.  My task was to assemble and mail marketing materials.  The work was routine, and I was soon able to stuff, seal, and put postage on the envelopes while reading the books that my English teacher had assigned over the summer.  The system went fine until I accidentally sent one of our paranoid customers a copy of 1984 with our catalog.

The next summer I answered the calling to sell high quality cutlery.  We were trained to use the bonds of love to convince our family and friends that the wisest move they could make in their lives was to plunk down $600 for a set of butter knives.  If they balked at the price tag, we reminded them that the knives’ warranty could be bequeathed to later generations, like the estates of English gentry.  To seal the deal, we would demonstrate that the knives could cut pennies in half, perfect for salad or guacamole.

The most educational summer job was working at a convenience store.  My first day on the cash register I produced an error of $900, and the IRS showed up and demanded free Slurpees.  There was so much to learn.  I had to remember which cigarettes were running promotions and which ones prevented osteoporosis.  I had to know the price of every size of soda cup, from the 12-ounce regular to the 20-gallon Mega Gulp that included free use of the store’s dolly.  I had to serve hot dogs to customers without scrunching up my face.

Selling alcohol required extra vigilance.  Minors would try all sorts of tricks.  One time a young man told me he was 45, but that he suffered from a rare disease that made him look 19 and wear his baseball cap backwards.  I asked for identification.  He said he forgot it at home.  When I told him that, despite his condition, I could not meet his request, he threatened to sue me and then pedaled away on his bike.  I am still waiting for the summons.

Approximately 90% of our business, it seemed, was selling lottery tickets.  A man once gave me a list of six numbers to play, saying that those were his magic numbers.  I informed him that, statistically, he would have the same chances of hitting numbers one through six in order, and I showed him the math on a napkin.  He dismissed me as crazy.  I was about to pull out the calculator, but the line was getting long and people were starting to throw packets of Equal.  The next day the man played his magic numbers and the numbers one through six.

My shift was eight hours long with no break for lunch.  When a friend of mine saw me snapping into a Slim Jim between coffee station drills, he said that the law entitled me to a half-hour paid lunch break for every eight-hour shift.  I didn’t know if my friend was right, but I wasn’t about to let that stop me, and I told my co-workers I was forming a union.  That night at home while I stenciled my picket signs, a black car drove by and lobbed stale doughnuts at my front door.  I had gotten the message, and took a few of the doughnuts for lunch the next day.

I hope that the economy turns around soon, so that young people can have the same learning opportunities that I did.

Did you have any memorable summer jobs?

Mark Kaplowitz

15 Responses

  1. This post cracked me up!

    My first job was as a dishwasher in a local family restaurant. At 14, I thought that the waitresses were all so glamourous and mature, with their blue eyeliner and their menthol cigarettes. I used to practice smoking in the bathroom on my break and tried to emulate their knowing laughter whenever they talked about their boyfriends.

    By summer’s end, I was a waitress myself and held my cigarette with careless ease (or so I thought) I felt deep and enormous contentment at shift end, when we would sit together at the round table, counting over tips, rubbing our feet and commiserating about men. How grown up I was! How mature. Ha!

    Thinking of this now, I am a mite embarrassed for my younger self, but am grateful to those women for their kindness and for letting me believe that I belonged, if only for awhile.

    • Thanks Liz. I like your story too. A lot of people started smoking as a way to fit in, but I usually think of a person’s friends or maybe the “cool” crowd at school, not their co-workers. That’s funny how you practiced smoking in the bathroom. Just throwing out my two cents here, but if you haven’t done it already, I think you could turn this into a longer piece.

  2. I have 3 teenagers. 2 have jobs, thanks be to God, the other can not seem to land one. It is a very sad thing indeed that our youth can not learn from a working experience. Maybe we parents should start an employment angency and hire each other’s children to do yard work or something…Great post…

    • Thanks. I remember what it was like to go a whole summer without a job. At first it seems great, but without a structure to the day it could get a little depressing. Sleeping late, staying up late…it can get to you after a while. I think that’s a great idea about the parents’ employment agency. Just put the kids to work. They’ll be glad you did.

  3. Awesome. I just had this conversation with my husband when we went down to his hometown for a nephew’s birthday. I can’t remember which one was his first job: Dominos, selling time shares, restaurant dishwasher, Blockbuster, bank president… but he seems to have hit them all.

    Me? I was a cashier at the Winn-Dixie, alternately being asked if I was old enough to work there by concerned elders looking to catch the WD in a child-labor lawsuit, and being hit on by the bag boys. It was as natural as the football player and the cheerleader going steady.

  4. Okay, my first summer job was as a camp counselor. I have written much on the topic on my blog. But I also worked as a Fitting Room Checker and at the fine jewelry counter at a local department store. Disaster. I think I shall use as a twit story, if you don’t mind.

    Teaser: I cost the store $2000. You’ll have to wait for it.

  5. I liked that blog post and all of the comments here. It’s funny how the girl who was a dishwasher and thought the waitresses were all so glamourous and mature then. That’s how I feel reading this post and everyones comments. The only things close to jobs I had growing up were mini internships I took part in for a class at school. I helped at a horse stable grooming and making sure things were organized and another intern spot was at a video game production company. Yes, I did test the games a lot and also got to see how some of the original sounds and music were recorded for the games. The recording studio always fascinated me because it was all too foreign to me. I didn’t think of myself as a recording artist/sound person; I’m a visual-artist and writer when I can muster up the words. I like the idea of the parent-job agency. Would anyone like to hire a 25-year old visual artist, photographer, web designer, and/or typist? 🙂

  6. Great post. One of my primary objections to illegal aliens is that they now fill most of the summer jobs that used to go to teens.

    For three summers, I worked at a dude ranch in southern Colorado. I was a hotel maid, a pool hall attendant, and a horse wrangler, sometimes all on the same day. They tried me in the restaurant, but I was a terrible waitress. It was hard work and one of the funnest times of my life.

    I love your blog, Mark. 🙂

  7. I was a babysitter from the time I was about 13, and then at 16, I got a job at the sporting goods store in the local mall. It was definitely one of the cooler stores in the mall to work at. I think only the record store was cooler. The only job I had that was specifically a summer job was camp counselor at the town’s day camp. I did that three summers in a row, including the summer after my first year of college. I took classes for the first half, and came back to NY to do the camp for 6 weeks. I think I made about $600. I didn’t realize I had to pay state income tax until a few years later when NY State audited me. For $8. After fees it came to about $32. It probably cost them a few hundred dollars to collect that $32.

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