The front page (is it still called a front page if it's the online version?) of the New York Times today has an article about teenagers trying to find summer jobs, along with an invitation to "tell us about your first summer job."
I think I was fourteen. Money was tight in our household, and my mother, a teacher, waited tables in the evening and all summer long to supplement the family income. (Actually, I think she was more than supplementing it.) The restaurant in question was a creperie in Hackensack, New Jersey called The Magic Pan. My older sister worked a few nights a week making salads at The Magic Pan and actually came home with her very own money, which she used to buy her own clothes and to go out with her friends. I very much admired my older sister's earning power and wished I too could make salads and that other type of green stuff.
The restaurant's manager was a big, gregarious Greek woman named Pat. My mom and Pat were fast friends, so my mom spoke with her about taking on a second Salad Girl. Pat was game. I would come in one afternoon to be trained, and thereafter, because of my tender age, I would work off the books. (I hope the statute of limitations on child labor violations has run. Pat was such a nice person - I'd hate to get her into trouble thirty years later.)
I donned a paper hat, tucked my ponytail underneath it, and showed up for my training. The salad area was next to the dishwashing area. It had a big walk-in refrigerator where all the ingredients were stored, an enormous sink for washing lettuce, a wide counter for cutting tomatoes, and a little refrigerator, with a front and back door. I put the salads into the back, and the waiters and waitresses took them out of the front. During the dinner rush, it looked like a sped-up film. Door open; tray of salads in. Other door open; salads out at a startling pace. Empty trays removed and re-stocked. Salads in. Salads out.
I was in charge of washing and preparing all produce, making all the salad dressings, assembling the salads themselves, and preparing the add-ons that the waiters and waitresses added at the last minute, such as crumbled bacon and chopped boiled egg. I could chat with the dishwashers as I worked in the salad area. This was particularly fun, because they were usually recent immigrants who spoke only Spanish, and I only knew a few words of Spanish. I had to learn quickly, and to use gestures and pratfalls to supplement my limited conversational skills. To reward my efforts at being friendly, they helped me fetch things off high shelves, lifted heavy eighteen-quart containers of salad dressing for me, and fast-tracked the washing of salad bowls when things got particularly crazy.
Salad dressings were prepared in the main part of the kitchen in a huge Hobart mixer that was as tall as I was. The chef was a stern woman named Judy who was mildly annoyed whenever I touched her stuff. (Everything in the kitchen qualified as her stuff: knives, cutting boards, eggs, containers of oil, bits of cheese, and the mixer itself.) Judy was gay. I knew some gay men, but I had never met an openly gay woman before. She scared me a little, because she was gruff and cranky, but underneath it all, she was actually a kind person. She helped me mop up messes that I made, bandaged the inevitable knife-wielding and burn injuries I sustained, and listened patiently to the inanities of my life, like the high school play I was auditioning for and the particular boy I was interested in. She was a great cook, and she let me taste her creations now and then. Even back then, that was the surest way to become my friend.
If you ask my mother what she remembers most about this period of my professional life, she will tell you about a dinner shift early in my tenure, when I had not yet mastered the art of making an appetizing salad. One of the waitresses took a mixed green salad out of the refrigerator and, frustrated with its sad appearance, yelled, "Who's the RE-tard making the salads tonight?"
My mother went nuts. She stomped her feet and lectured this woman about the fact that the "retard" making the salads was in fact a student at a prestigious girls' school in Manhattan who was acing her Latin and French classes and was almost certainly bound for an Ivy League degree. I peered through the glass refrigerator doors and took in the scene of my five-foot mother dressing this poor woman down. It was a scene none of us will ever forget, and I'm pretty sure it's the last time anyone ever called me a "retard," at least within my mother's earshot.
I made salads until I was old enough to bus tables, and then I did that until I was eighteen, and old enough to serve alcohol. I then waitressed until my sophomore year in college, at which point I was able to secure a "real" job in an office, as a paralegal.
My oldest daughter and her friends are now in the process of trying to find summer jobs. A new ice cream shop is opening in our town, and several of them have applied to be scoopers. Money is of course a motivation, but the pressure to find a prestigious internship, or a job that relates somehow to their future careers, is palpable. I don't think it's a bad thing to start out as something humble, like a Salad Girl. I met a lot of people I otherwise would not have met, and I learned how to communicate with them and work as a team. The work was hard and messy, and pressured at times. I needed to be organized, neat, and helpful. I formed friendships, some of them enduring. I worked my way up from bringing home a few dollars an hour to a pocket stuffed at the end of a long night with generous tips.
I didn't much like the job back then, but I appreciate it now for what it taught me. So many experiences are funny like that.
What was your first job? What did you learn from it?