In high school, I spent my summers sitting in a tall white chair, getting tanned and fighting my eyelids from shutting, while getting paid above minimum wage. Lifeguarding was my first, and easiest, job.
I was the youngest worker there, the rest mostly kids I knew from high school or college students from neighboring towns. The pool was the town pool, but many parents viewed it as a day-care center and would drop off their children for the day. This was a problem when we closed for rain, but still had to take care of a dozen or so kids.
It was hard for me to speak up and yell at kids—and adults—for breaking the rules. I wasn’t used to having authority. We had to call the police on occasion, like when I asked a woman to stop swearing because there were children around, and she yelled at me that she was pregnant, before exiting the pool for a cigarette and refusing to leave. The kids could get a little out of control—once one of our favorite troublemakers jokingly pretending to push the biggest occupied lifeguard chair into the pool, then accidentally did so, sinking one of my co-workers.
To make our mostly easy, ideal summer job yet more relaxing and ideal, the staff furnished our pool house with a couch and TV we found on the side of the road, an unwanted DVD player, an unlimited supply of freeze pops and Seinfeld DVDs. We made sure to always have as few lifeguards as necessary on to ensure we could all have the maximum office time. I realized then that working another, real job someday was going to be difficult for me.
I was certified to teach swimming lessons, but wasn’t as skilled in technique as the others, so I always taught the younger groups. I spent my mornings in the usually-freezing water trying to smile enough to convince 5-year-olds to get into it. Once the trauma and crying subsided, we would move on to blowing bubbles like fish, kicking like scissors, bobbing and jumping and so on. Despite the crying, complaining and whining, these kids’ personalities made me almost forget about the ice-cold water I was submerged in. One little boy was usually afraid to get in the water and stayed on land with his mom while watching his sisters—until, about once a lesson, he would decide to jump, spread-eagle, right at me, with no warning. I miraculously always caught him, and he would then spend incredible lengths of time standing underwater without coming up for a breath. We joked that he was part bird, part fish.
In the end, lifeguarding had very little to do with swimming.
For years I worked at a summer camp living the realities of Bill Murray’s movie Meatballs—pranks, rivalries with other camps, and general debauchery. However, it’s the summer I spent digging inground pools for a man named Jerry that always comes to mind as the sun gathers force after Memorial Day.
Jerry was a friend and offered me the job to rescue me from my shipwrecked life. He embodies the closest resemblance of the Marvel Comic character Wolverine I ever met—just under six feet, hair worn in a greaser-styled pompadour, and tattoos from an era before tattoos became cool covering muscles of wrought steel.
We spent the summer driving around in his pickup, listening to Van Morrison, digging holes in backyards, and pulling leaf-ridden covers off of pools. When we pulled into a driveway I always felt more like we were there to collect on a debt and smash some kneecaps instead of getting the family pool ready for summer fun.
I loved listening to Jerry’s tales of Paterson, N.J., how he came of age on the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the 1970s. He lived a rough-hewn life before he bottomed out, arriving in Albany with only a gym bag of belongings. Riding around in that black Ford Ranger loaded with tools and pool parts, he was teaching me about life.
That summer, I also learned that Jerry was a maniac.
Building an inground pool is some of the hardest work anybody can do. It reminded me of digging the Erie Canal. A homeowner decides they need a swimming pool, and calls someone like Jerry to build it. An excavator digs the hole and then a team erects steel walls, preparing the space for the concrete. When it arrives they throw shovel loads of it in backbreaking minutes, racing against the hardening cement. Then, on hands and knees, masons towel the bottom smooth. All on the hottest days of the year.
Jerry called this Concrete Day, and I dreaded it.
The entire day Jerry cursed and screamed about everything. The cement was too #$@* wet, or too #$@*dry. You aren’t #$@* shoveling the concrete fast enough, you aren’t #$@* throwing the concrete the right way. What the #$@* are you doing? Get the #$@* out of the hole. This streamed from the mouth of a man who said grace before eating fast food.
One day Jerry berated me for the thousandth time. I stood facing him with a shovel in my hand, grip tightening and thinking of swinging at his pompadoured head.
“Eddie, you better swing that #$@* shovel hard or I’ll wrap it around your #$@* skull,” Jerry said. I dropped the shovel to the ground.
I still think of summer days in that pickup when I hear Van Morrison. Jerry and I still call each other on St. Patrick’s Day.
Summer School of Rock
I never went to camp as a kid, but one summer in the course of a post-college year that found me living in five different states, I worked at one: a communist arts camp in the cornfields of southern New Jersey.
Things had mellowed at Appel Farm since it was founded in the ’60s by a semi-famous classical violinist with a sizable piece of family land and a clothing-optional sauna discreetly hidden from the bunk houses, but when I got there, fresh off a season of caretaking at a remote cabin in northern New Hampshire, it was still the kind of place where 12-year-olds with Stratocasters would wake campers with Hendrix-style renditions of the national anthem, the music staff would perform John Cage’s 4’33” to knowing middle-schoolers, and a legally blind theater director would stage blockbuster productions of Little Shop of Horrors. So, kind of like Wet Hot American Summer but with macrobiotic cafeteria options and a camp nurse who was into crystal healing.
I worked as the bass instructor in the camp’s rock department. Beyond convincing 14-year-old metalheads that we should probably learn a couple of scales before tackling Primus’ “Lacquer Head,” I got to teach classes on the history of hip-hop, perform at assemblies, and conduct student rock bands. To discourage cliques and the concentration of talent, bands were secretly drafted by the rock staff: a geeky jazz drummer, a Finnish prog-metal guitarist, a Scottish prog-metal guitarist and me. After the rosters were picked, it was up to us to make peace (and hopefully music) with a band that might consist of the guitarist whose dad was in a touring ska band, the singer who was actually a theater kid, the keyboardist who knew only Beatles songs, the foreign-exchange drummer who spoke little English, and the Wiccan girl whose parents dropped her there for both summer sessions and ostensibly played no musical instrument.
If you’ve seen Jack Black’s School of Rock, you know a rock instructor can instill only so much actual musical ability—I mostly printed lyrics and chord changes off the Internet and dumbed them down for the kids to play. Instead, your role is to spout heady abstractions like “Feel the pocket,” “Play from your heart,” and “Honestly, Oliver, turn your level down because the vocal mics are feeding back, the snare rattles every time you play an A, and even Eddie Van Halen never used that much gain.”
What resulted was the weirdest concert of cover bands in the greater Philadelphia area, where the instructors cringed from behind the open-air stage as their singers’ adolescent voices cracked reaching for the high note on “More Than a Feeling.” Bragging rights went to the instructor whose band could get through their set without a VH1 Behind the Music meltdown happening onstage. To placate the Wiccan girl who told me she saw demons in my aura, I made her the back-up singer and tambourine player for her band’s rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” a song she didn’t know or care for until she learned her only part was to scream “It’s just a shot away!” with as much zeal as she could muster. Every time that song comes on the radio, I still expect the banshee to keep shouting unintelligibly after Keith’s guitar fades out and picture some sunburned counselor trying to wrestle the mic out of her white-knuckle clutch.
The summer I was 19 I got a job as a dishwasher at the El Dorado Hotel. The summer before I’d worked at a girls camp. I was an art counselor, and I was miserable. Stuck in the woods with parked kids, it was a long hot summer I didn’t make any shorter with my attitude. I was master of modeling clay and pitched pithy leftist slogans about Central America at the innocent campers whenever I could, as if they understood my jibes. As if I did.
Camp: Why did I get a job at a camp? I grew up in the country and was hungry for cities, but somehow, I forgot that when I filled out the application.
The next summer I knew a little better so I picked Troy. I found the ad for the job in the newspaper. The bar was so dark I could barely see the paper in front of me, and the heavily polyurethaned table was sticky on my arms.
I worked weekends, helping the rail thin, mustachioed cook through the night. He listened to heavy metal from a little radio duct-taped to the stainless steel shelf above his cutting boards. He taught me that margarine was a big part of wing sauce, and how to make five gallons of blue cheese dressing. The Worcestershire sauce was the big surprise there—I felt like I was shaking a bottle of dark blood into the white sauce.
Though I strayed into food, I didn’t want to edge into that bar. Sure, I liked to drink, but the place was filled with girly girls and macho guys and I didn’t want to be near their sloppy flirtations. Especially when the bartender came through the doors and told me to mop up the bathroom. Somebody had puked.
“Put it on a plate and I’ll wash it,” I said. “I wasn’t hired to clean bathrooms.”
The next thing I knew, I was cooking weeknights. I got my sister my job at the sinks, and I made her mozzarella sticks. We ate vast quantities of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
I was a vegetarian, and aside from the wings, I had to make surf and turf. The mustached cook showed me how to lull the lobsters to sleep by stroking their bellies with my finger. He sang to them, too. Lullaby.
I cried the first time I had to do it myself. Slapping the steak on the grill, I wasn’t so weepy. The steak had no eyes. No tendrils flailing for information.
Years later, I wrote Dishwasher Pete about my brief time at the sinks. He was traveling around the country, making zines about washing dishes in all 50 states. One night, he came to my house and washed all of my dishes. I didn’t make it into his book, Dishwasher, but you should get your hands on it. His words will slip around your brain like silverware in soapy water.
Rich and Strange
If you ever doubt that upstate New York used to be in the money, visit Canandaigua. Perched at the north end of the same-named Finger Lake, Canandaigua was rich. In the early 1900s, Humphrey Bogart’s parents had a 50-acre estate near there. It was on the “old” mainline of the New York Central Railroad, and still had sleeper-car service to Washington, D.C., as late as the 1950s. And downtown Canandaigua was—is—home to some of the most beautiful mansions you’ll find anywhere.
One summer in the early 1980s, I had a job that brought me into close contact with one of those brick behemoths. Its glory days were long past. It was a model of faded glamour: the large first-floor living rooms still had impressive, if filthy, vintage fabric wall coverings. There were a few impressive chandeliers, hanging along side other remnants of the glory days of the teens and 1920s. It was the kind of place with laundry chutes and dumbwaiters, sun rooms and servants’ quarters. Still, the numbers on the doors on the second floor told the tale: It had been converted into some kind of rooming house, and the detritus of decline was all around. Still, it was a thrilling structure.
The house was (and still is, last time I passed through) situated on a corner. It had a huge yard, and was surrounded on three sides by a six- or seven-foot-tall wrought iron fence. It was a fence that seemed to go on forever. It was also rusted.
A rich guy had bought the place—God only knows why—and was in the process of renovating it. And he wanted that fence cleaned up. Through a neighbor, my brother and I were hired to scrape the rust off and then paint that fence. We were given wire brushes, and told to be thorough.
You want to do something tedious? Spend all day with a wire brush, working decades of rust off an endless row of iron bars. Scrape, scrape, scrape.
The weather was variable, so we spent rainy days inside. That is where I learned that working for a whimsical rich guy could be more annoying than scraping rust. He had a team of painters working full-time, but never seemed to let them finish anything. He’d move them from room to room, day to day, based on whatever idea he’d woke up with that morning. My brother and I would, similarly, be given odd projects in one end or the other of that sprawling place, to all appearances without rhyme or reason.
We soon began to miss the fence.
Eventually, we were told by a supervisor that we weren’t making enough progress on the fence. We picked up the pace, and, soon enough, the rich guy was there reading us the riot act for not being sufficiently thorough.
By this point, we’d both made enough money for our purposes, so we quit. And I have tried to avoid being subject to the whims of the wealthy ever since.
The bank job must have been some sort of karmic answer to my failure to hold a proper summer job throughout my high school and college years—i.e., one where I got to be outside.
That year I spent the nicest four weeks of the summer in a windowless basement of a bank in Pittsfield, counting and bundling money, weeding out wilted and torn bills (“rags”), and performing other menial tasks too dull and behind-the-scenes for the tellers upstairs, whose jobs seemed glamorous by comparison. I was covering two-week vacations for each of the two men who worked down in the money room, both of whom assumed I enjoyed the crude jokes they made constantly without fear of anyone hearing them but me.
I never bothered to apply for “cool” outdoor jobs like lifeguard or camp counselor; I was a decent swimmer and was fairly certain I could twirl my whistle endlessly, but I never got around to getting lifesaving certification until after college. I tried caddying, but was terrified every time a golfer asked me for advice, or how many yards I thought it was to the green, or—if the green was out of sight—where the sand traps were placed. How the hell was I supposed to remember that? I painted houses with a college friend for a few weeks, but I tired quickly of the bus commutes and long days on ladders.
Oh, and that lifesaving certification? It was for the coolest summer job I ever got, leading bicycle trips around the Northeast. Only I never led any trips because when I drove an hour to check into the training session, I couldn’t find it, got discouraged and drove home. Maybe deep down I just didn’t want a cool outdoor job.
Sooner or later, every failed stab at a job in the sun led me back under the roof of a restaurant. As the Berkshires were crawling with tourists every summer, there was plenty of restaurant work, and I worked in plenty of them. I was just an OK server and prep cook; some bosses liked me, others not so much. I had no idea I would become a pretty good home cook one day; all the chefs I met those summers just seemed crazy, and yelled all the time.
One night, after the yelling subsided, the last of the patrons finished their coffee, and there was no one left in the restaurant but the chef, me and the young dishwasher, the chef told Tom and me to clean up and go sit at a table on the porch. A few minutes later he came out with two Heinekens and two plates of the most amazing veal scaloppine and pasta. Tom and I sat there and ate and drank and talked and felt the evening August breeze cool us off. The sun had gone down, but I was outside, and I was enjoying the coolest moment of any summer job I ever had.
Me and the Boys
“What do you want for breakfast, Charlie?”
“I’ll have a Rolling Rock.”
This was a joke the 6-year-old boy pulled on me some mornings when I came to his house down the road from me in rural Le Roy, N.Y. When I told him he was not allowed to have Rolling Rock for breakfast, he’d laugh and select a cereal.
Charlie was young enough to still think I was a little cool, but I struggled to win over his 8-year-old brother, James. I asked my guy friends for advice, but they had none. They said it couldn’t be done: At 8 years old, girls are just not cool. Soon, the younger one started to follow suit, and said I wasn’t allowed to come with them to the recreation center at the park because “I’d embarrass them.”
But the two were more clever than any kids I’ve ever met, and had a sense of humor beyond their years. They thought it was funny to call me “mom,” especially in public, knowing how absurdly young I looked to have sons their age. Their performances were convincing. “Mom, can we please have mores sprinkles? Please, mom?” they’d say when I took them to the ice cream shop, making sure others could hear, and then laugh at the shocked and judging glances.
Their parents had an old Ford F-150, their “farm truck,” that needed to be given a little gas in order to start. I wasn’t used to starting a car like that, and Charlie insisted on helping me every time we drove it anywhere. The hard part, though, was then convincing him to move over, as the threw a fit because I wouldn’t let him drive. I’m not sure which part of “6-year-olds can’t drive” he didn’t understand, but to his this seemed like a grave injustice.
Being with those boys made me feel like both a mother and a child. Even though the two boys grew too old to be my buddy, they would often slip up and have fun with me. We made a music video to the song of the summer, Katy Perry’s “California Girls,” in which the boys dressed up like girls, with towels for hair and shirts tied like bikinis. We’d visit their pigs, who they named after wrestlers, and the boys would run around and play for them, while telling me where each pig’s meat would eventually be sent. Once they asked me to paint their nails. But whenever the brothers got too rough with each other, and someone’s eye got hurt by a hose or Nerf gun, I would remember I was needed. The same boys who earlier told me I was “embarrassing” and “not cool” would run crying into my arms.
Night Shift of Champions
In the summer of 1973, I worked for Manpower, something I’d done off and on since the previous summer after I graduated from high school. Mostly interested in playing in a local rock band, I halfheartedly attended college, fitting in some Manpower assignments on my free days. Having established myself as a reliable young man with a car, I was getting the more plum jobs. My first assignment had been unloading a boxcar full of lumber. Shortly thereafter I was sent to dig out a cesspool, then I had a day sitting by a conveyor belt, opening the tops of beer cases as they rolled past, on their way to being filled. Bad as some of those jobs were, none were so bad I couldn’t do them for a day.
Erie, Pa., is a factory town and I was afforded glimpses into all manner of enterprises, a day here, a day there. I sensed that I’d passed some sort of test and started getting the easier jobs, starting with one for an elderly woman who needed a dead mouse taken out of her attic and a basket affixed to a bicycle.
Nineteen seventy-three was also my last summer in Erie as several events aligned to propel me out into the world beyond the northwest corner of Pennsylvania (the band broke up, my family was going to move). Marx Toys had a plant in Erie. The company as a whole was in serious decline and heading toward bankruptcy. Their Erie facility seemed to be in the throes of mismanagement when they put in their call to Manpower for a two-month-long assignment that went to me. It was a night shift job, and on the first night I showed up, the supervisor explained my duties, then asked me to wake him up at 5 AM.
The factory was filled with plastic injection molding machines, turning out the parts for Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots. I needed to walk around the machines and wipe up anything that spilled. This took all of 20 minutes. The second night I brought along a Kurt Vonnegut book and read it in its entirety. On subsequent nights I read more Vonnegut, which, because of the rapid succession, have run together in my mind. The supervisor asked if I’d be willing to come in on Saturday and Sunday nights as well, which paid time-and-a-half and double time respectively. Besides allowing for even more reading, I’d also simply get in my car and go visit friends, returning a few hours later.
I could well have continued into the fall, but stopped when I moved to Philadelphia for a second attempt at college.