Summer jobs began, at least for me, when more productive activities like playing stickball in the streets or Chinese handball on the sidewalk stopped. (Can you still say Chinese handball without being offensive? What about Chinese checkers?) Instead of hanging out with the gang, I had to get on the subway in an era preceding air conditioning when, even in the morning, people smelled bad.
My first summer job began at age 16, when I became eligible for working papers. My employer was my father, a relentless taskmaster who paid me a meager $40 a week despite my performing the highly skilled job of errand boy. All day, I delivered packages walking many blocks through the baked streets of Manhattan. Every day, I was forced to eat hamburgers at hole-in-the-wall luncheonettes where waitresses called me “Hon.”
The work was so repulsive that I started coming in late every day blaming subway delays. Fortunately, I was fired.
My summer employment career expanded when I graduated high school and landed a one-week job counting socks at Macy’s on 34th Street. I and about a hundred other young intellectuals were outfitted in gray smocks to facilitate our inventorying the store’s holdings. On the last day, several of us engaged in a vigorous rubber band war chasing each other up and down the escalators. We were asked to leave early.
In that pre-computer age. I’d search through job listings in the newspaper. There were few seasonal openings. Usually, those jobs were godawful, like selling magazines door-to-door. At one mass interview, the prospective employer asked, “How many magazines do you think you’d sell in a day?”
“None,” I answered, and walked out.
I finally landed a job emptying out filing cabinets and dumping them into large bins. No shredders in those days. In my spare time, I used the office’s copying machine, a large, primitive device that utilized a liquid bath and bright lights, to alter the date on my birth certificate, so I could get served in bars. Eighteen was the drinking age in New York back then.
The next summer I had a seemingly glamorous job: Lifeguard at a swimming pool atop a midtown hotel. It was the time of the New York World’s Fair, and every guest who came to the pool couldn’t wait to tell me about all the wonderful things they’d seen at Flushing Meadows. I heard so much that I boycotted the fair.
The tedium of sitting on a highchair overlooking a tiny pool was occasionally interrupted by the arrival of tough kids from the streets who would sneak up for a swim pretending to be guests. When challenged, they’d go racing down the fifteen stories back to the street. I had no saves but cultivated a great tan.
T he following summer, I had two jobs. The first was in New York’s fur district, combing coat cuffs made from Australian opossum. The boss told me that I was not allowed to sit while performing this challenging task. I came home every day itching with my nostrils full of fur. The work was so repulsive that I started coming in late every day blaming subway delays. Fortunately, I was fired.
Ultimately, I ended up with my worst summer job, and perhaps the worst job ever, as a counselor at Camp Dysfunctional overseeing a cabin of spoiled brats age 10 to 12 who tortured one another and me. I was paid $50 a month. The kids in the bunk had a weekly canteen fund of $50. I did get room and board which included baloney sandwiches every day for lunch.
Everyone at the camp was maladjusted. Prepubescent kids in those days used to sing, “First comes love/Then comes marriage/Then comes ____ with a baby carriage.” These kids sang, “First comes love/Then comes marriage/Then comes divorce.”
One of my duties was marine patrol, waking up the bedwetters at midnight and getting them to the bathroom in time.
The camp’s horseback riding counselor shared the cabin. He was on speed, which rendered him talkative and incoherent.
When Parents Day arrived, the day when the miserable salary was to be augmented by generous tips, my co-counselor lied about how much money he had received and was supposed to split with me. I knew about his deception because all the other counselors told me. I confronted him, but he claimed that the parents were really cheap. Someone less noble than I would have cut his throat while he slept.
When I got off the bus that freed me from the camp, I felt like I’d been released from prison. But the experience was invaluable. It established a baseline to compare to all subsequent jobs. None could ever be as awful.
Robin Schore lives in Hopewell Borough.