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Gainfully employed

By Shelah Miner

Every so often, when my mom was too fed up with us to cook or soft-shell crab was in season, my parents loaded us up to take us to Marnick’s, a little diner on the beach in the Connecticut town where I grew up. We snagged a table that looked out over the water, and while my parents watched the waves, I watched the wait staff. The waitresses at Marnick’s fell into two categories: lifers– no-nonsense, wisecracking, solid women who knew how to get the job done; and teenage girls, suntanned and Sun-inned, languidly fetching italian ices and twisting soft serve cones. When I was ten, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew that I wanted to work at Marnick’s when I turned fifteen.

Sure enough, fifteen came around, and tired of babysitting and working the concession stand for our town’s softball team, I decided to apply for a summer job at Marnick’s. I was shocked when they told me I was hired, although I guess I shouldn’t have been since the owner was my next-door neighbor, but all of the girls who worked at Marnick’s seemed so relaxed, and friendly and cool, and I knew from the moment they handed me my apron that I wasn’t like that. I may have been a lot of things at fifteen, but relaxed and cool were not among them. Still, I hoped that the navy polo shirt and the khaki apron might be my glass slippers, imbuing me with the easygoing cachet of my fellow servers.

I was a conscientious waitress. No one on my watch got the wrong food, or cold food, or had their coffee cup go empty. I hovered, begging to refill drinks, fetch lemon slices, bring over an ageless slice of coconut cream for dessert. After the breakfast crowd died down, I took off my rings and jiggled them in my hands, tapped my feet absentmindedly, and rearranged the sugar dispensers on each table in alphabetical order (Equal, Sugar, Sweet-and-Low, of course). “Just relax,” they told me, “You need to learn to look busy without actually being busy.” I didn’t know how. I willed the clock to move so I could serve lunch, eat the free meatball grinder I earned as part of the shift, and get out of there. Unlike the girls who chatted and joked as they made milkshakes, I attacked the soft-serve and shake machines like I was doing battle. Efficiency had served me well for fifteen years, but it didn’t win me any favors at Marnick’s.

They didn’t fire me, but honestly, they didn’t have to. As much as I wanted to be one of the “Marnick’s Girls,” I wasn’t stupid, I knew it wasn’t the right job for me, without actually having the guts to articulate that fact. When fall came, I found excuses not to work on Saturdays, and eventually they stopped putting me on the schedule altogether. The next summer I found a desk job where I could hide a book under the office catalogs when things were slow. Sure, I missed my polo shirt and my meatball grinder, but the bakery next door made a mean cannoli.

What were your summer jobs? What did you learn from them? Do you look back on them with fondness or with relief that you’re not working them any longer?


About Shelah Miner

(Co-Editor-in-Chief) teaches English at BYU and French at a Salt Lake City middle school. She has an addiction to her Audible account, hates making dinner, and embraces the chaos of life with a husband, six kids, a dog, a lizard and four rabbits.

18 thoughts on “Gainfully employed”

  1. In high school I worked at a day care center. It was the perfect job for me–I had no desire whatsoever to do anything in the restaurant industry, fast food or otherwise.

    My first summer home from college, I worked as a summer hire for the Department of Defense (I grew up in an army town). It was the most awful job I've ever had. It sounded great–it was rather prestigious for a young person, paid way more than the daycare center, etc. But in the first three weeks I completed all the work they'd planned for me for the entire summer. And then I had 2.5 months with literally nothing to do. And a boss who wanted me to look busy, a boss with a terrible temper who yelled and screamed at people who didn't do exactly what he wanted. I would much rather be busy than bored, and trying to look busy when you aren't is far more work than actually being busy. I tried reading a book, but got in trouble for that. So I sat at an empty desk sneaking crossword puzzles, pretending like I was doing something. You can only clean out the supply closet so many times when it doesn't need to be cleaned out in the first place.

    My next summer job was working as an aide in a care center for developmentally-delayed children. That was hard work, but much more rewarding!

  2. My first job was at a grocery store. I bagged groceries and wrangled carts with the best of the boys, secretly proud of my wiry strength.

    I made friends with everyone and thought I'd found the perfect teen job, but one day our little company was bought out by a bigger company, and our grocery department was absorbed into the larger department store and the happy days ended as we were shuffled around. Sundry Goods wasn't my cup of Postum, so I moved on and got a job at Marie Calendars Restaurant.

    My family NEVER ever ate out (sneaking over to McD's for a $.25 –$.27 with tax– ice cream after school was an illicit activity), so being in such a "super classy" restaurant like that made me feel like a poseur.

    I worked hard and dished the Kahlua Creme Pie with the best of them, but when school started up I couldn't put in the hours and had to quit.

    The next summer I put my totally sick typing skills to work as a temp agency employee. The $$ was far better than my other jobs had paid, and I enjoyed the variety of jobs and companies my agency sent me out on.

    One pharmaceutical company I was sent to work at for a week liked me so well they kept me on their payroll for the next 5 years, and I worked my way through nearly every department there. I'm a fan of the temp agency. Loved the flexibility, variability, and general "classiness" of professional office settings compared to the retail/food industry.

    I hope my kids think out of the box when they consider what kinds of jobs they're eligible as teens. You don't HAVE to do fast-food, a mall job, retail, or restaurant. It's good to have a discussion with teens about options and implications for the future. My contacts from the temp jobs got me jobs throughout and after college. It was a great experience.

  3. My first job was at a doughnut shop by a busy beach with my best friend. We were just 14 and the place was her older sisters. We got up before the crack of dawn each day, got the doughnuts ready and then we were swamped from 6am till 1pm. I don't think I made much money but I loved that summer. My next job was at a newspaper delivery office I helped with bookkeeping. I kept that job till college.

  4. I was a cut table girl and cashier at JoAnns Crafts and Fabric. I loved it and hated it. It was very busy — and as a first job it was fabulous. I have great memories, but for some reason I remember not liking it. I made minimum wage but I felt rich. I had my own checking account and got my nails done every 3 weeks. Ah… how would it be?

  5. From age eight I always, always worked at my dad's office doing grunt work, cleaning etc. The summer I was 17 I was enticed by a job at an ice cream shop with my best friend. My dad was hurt but agreed to let me work there as long as I still put in my hours at his office.

    But the joy of serving hot-fudge laden sundaes and flirting with the occasional cute customer was soon overshadowed by a fellow employee who felt me up every time I walked past. I didn't know how to talk to my parents or my boss about it and after one particularly disturbing encounter in the parking lot I abruptly quit and refused to work out my two weeks notice.

    I still remember the disappoint in my boss' voice– "I expected you to have more character than this." and I wish I'd had the guts to tell him the truth.

  6. From when I was 12 though the end of high school, it was babysitting. During the summers between college, I worked as a secretary. (Yes, that's what they were called then!) I had taken shorthand and typing in high school, and they stood me in good stead. I also worked at Bob's Big Boy one summer and found out that waitressing is the hardest job in the world!


  7. I worked my way into a job with a local pharmacist at 13… volunteered to do tidying up, or other tasks in exchange for a dance team sponsorship ($50!), he asked me to fill out prescription reimbursement forms (I could type!), and by the end of the month, I had a permanent after school/Saturdays/vacations job. It was AWESOME. I learned to do billing, basic bookkeeping, inventory, ordering, filing; I worked in the lunch counter of the pharmacy, and was also given permission to organize and run a used-book corner in the store. I set my own hours and was given a weekly list of tasks my boss wanted done, but when I did them was entirely up to me.

    Learning to just dive in and tackle things, with approval from adults, gave me a lot of confidence. By the time I was 16, I walked into the local US Forest Service office and "applied" for a job by saying, "I saw you have a listing for an archaeology field tech. I'm your girl!"–and got the job. Through college, I worked USFS archaeology Monday through Thursday, and at the pharmacy Friday and Saturday.

    I'm very much encouraging my own kids to think radically outside the box for "teen jobs." There are so many opportunities out there!

  8. Soft-shell crabs!! MMMMMMM
    I've always been jealous of those who had cool, fun summer jobs. I was never allowed to-what can I say?…I lived a sheltered life on a short leash. My mom worked full time and there was always plenty to do around the house. I did learn a lot as far as cooking, baking, cleaning, yardwork, etc., so I guess that counts for something. I had dinner ready every night starting about age 12, usually with a homemade dessert too…a regular Jr. June Cleaver 🙂

  9. My Dad created my very first job when I was about 9 or 10. He had my brother and I go door to door on Sunday afternoons after church, asking if we could please have their section of the paper that included all the wedding and engagement announcements. As soon as we had 10 copies we would go home and cut them all out and stack them in matching piles. Meanwhile, my dad would find the addresses of these people getting married….My brother and I would then hand write a letter, to include with each batch of 10 we would send out, asking them to please send to us a dollar if these announcements were worth it to them. Then we would wait for the money to come in the mail, and it did! Usually people would give us more than a dollar, often $2 or $3 or $5….lots of money back in the 1960s! Back then, this was a valuable service to people since there were no copy machines or internet. Looking back, I think my Dad was very smart, and creative.

  10. At fourteen I worked at a carwash. Tried a couple of restaurants after that, but hated it. At 17 I worked at a high end dress shop and really liked it, mostly because the owner took me under her wing and made me her pet. I got to drive her car, wear her fur coats, and occasionally model the clothes at luncheons. It was heady stuff at that age.

    At 18 I worked on the city street crew because it was good money. I emptied the trash cans in front of bars and picked up animal carcasses. It was glamorous.

    I also worked as a lift operator at a ski resort and as a landscaper. I’ve realized I prefer to work outside and be physical and get a little dirty. I like to come home feeling like I’ve worked hard.

  11. My first job was an early-morning paper route starting when I was about 11 or 12. I kept that up for a few years until I started high school and early morning seminary. I didn't work for a while, but then when I was 16 I got a job at Taco Bell. I mostly did it because I could ride my bike there from my house and they were hiring. I loved the money and some of my coworkers, but I wasn't a big fan of working the front end. I would have preferred to just be in the back making the food, but the manager liked having me interact with customers. We moved my senior year of high school and in our new place it didn't really work for me to have a job (3 teenagers in the family and no extra car in a rural area). I tried teaching piano lessons but I wasn't very good at it.

    During college at BYU I got a great job working for the main EFY office that was part-time during the school year and full-time during the summers. It was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed it. I do wish that I'd had a little more gumption like some of you who have commented and been more able to make things happen in the areas that would have been more suited to my skills and interests.

  12. I worked at a dry cleaner.

    Funny this essay would come up, because the other night when I couldn't sleep, I was thinking about that job and this one customer. I still remember his name. I wonder how he is.

    Anyway, the thing that really frosts this job is that the name of the dry cleaning establishment was 'The Stallion'. Really. As in equine stealth. A dry cleaner. I always thought that was a hoot. Boy, was I glad to get out of there.

  13. Like Natalie, I worked at a fabric store in high school. I saw my sister come home spattered with ice cream from working at Dairy Queen and Orange Julius – I didn't want to do that!

    It lasted two years, through school and during the summer. It was a good job, close to home, but could be boring at times. I worked with wonderful women and never came home spattered with fabric!

    In college I worked for a photography studio in Provo, then moved to a photography studio in Murray when my husband graduated. Those jobs were mixed. One of my bosses was a grumpy tyrant and the first year was very difficult. After I proved myself he was much better to work with and I was showered with raises and Christmas bonuses. I am so proud of myself for sticking it out – I learned how to get along with someone unpleasant. (Lessons which serve me well in church callings!)

  14. My first summer job was a waitress when I was 19. I loved the people I worked with–the actual job, not so much. But it wasn't a difficult restaurant to work—slow paced, not crowded, so I thought I was a pretty good waitress. The upshot of that is that in college, I worked at Pizzerio Uno, the one located across the street from Fenway Park in Boston. I learned that waitressing is not a slow relaxed profession, and that I wasn't nearly as good at it as I thought I was. I quit to do a semester abroad, and when I came back, I vowed never to do food service again.

  15. And Michelle, I was sexually harassed at Uno's, too. I was so shocked and stunned by it, and I was so young, I had no idea what to do about it. The sad thing is, the managers mildly harassed me, too, and it seemed like everybody just took it as part of the job. Now I probably wouldn't have put up with it, or would have done a better job defending myself, but at the time, I'm sure I just sort of looked like a virgin deer in the headlights.

  16. My first job was as a nanny. Then I worked in the china department of an old time department store (snooty clerks and fur storage). I worked in a one-hour photo store and passed that job onto my 4 successive siblings. I have cleaned houses and done comparable sales research for a r/e appraiser and I have worked in a law firm doing paralegal and glorified copy clerk work. I have also worked as a temp in a variety of jobs, some of which turned into semi-perm jobs. I have assembled computer software manuals (piecework) and worked in BYU's writing lab and as an EFY counselor. I have gratefully never worked food service or in any job where I was sexually harassed, but I have been yelled at within an inch of my life and had chairs thrown in my general direction. I have always been grateful my parents encouraged me to think outside the box and figure out a wide variety of skills I could use and/or develop.

  17. It's interesting to see what other's 1st jobs were.
    When I was 16 a lady who knew my mom from church (and new she had a lot of kids) called my mom to see if she had a 16 yr old looking for a job. So I got hired without even trying. It was at a pharmacy doing what ever needed to be done. I loved it. I worked there till I left for Ricks. It was fun & easy, thou it had some very embarrassing moments too. When I was first married I worked for a gas station called "Stinker" as a clerk and moved my way up to a manager and then on in to the main office as the AP dept. I loved that AP end of it, which is why I'm now going back to school majoring in accounting.

  18. I worked as a maid in a hotel in Tonopah, Nevada. I said I was 16, which I'm pretty sure nobody believed, but nobody cared, either. My boss was a Mexican woman who couldn't read English. For that summer, I helped her do orders and fill out laundry (you wouldn't believe how much paperwork is involved in being a maid). Her name was Mary Cardenas and while she was uneducated, she was one of the wisest women I've ever known. She patiently taught me how to make beds and scrub toilets and although I was a kid with all the quirks of a normal 14 year old (coupled with the baggage of my screwed up family)she never lost her temper with me. Her voice was quiet and confident.

    At the end of the summer, I had enough money to buy my sisters new coats and snow boots.

    The next summer, I worked for Mary again. That fall, we were put into foster care and I never saw her again, but I sent her cards from time to time. Of course she never responded, but I wanted her to never forget how grateful I was and how much I respected her.

    And I'm NEVER rude to maids in motels. I always tip them and thank them personally. It's hard work.


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