My very first job was with Panera Bread, and I took it to pay for the repair of a villainous dent in my mom’s car that I had made by borrowing it and driving it into a pole. I was 16 and had just gotten my license after a grueling year of backing up and parallel parking in abandoned lots with my dad. Since I clearly needed a lifetime longer of practice, I spent a year being dropped off at work to slice bagels and ring up U-Pick-2s before I was allowed to independently drive a car again. If I thought infinite jazz covers of Alicia Keys, taking sandwich orders from fellow high-school classmates and their moms and making Panera’s signature iced green tea from a jug of syrup by the gallon was torture, I was so, so wrong. In our life, we often find ourselves grappling for anything that is convenient or profitable, even if it means we are degraded in the process. I held minimum wage jobs in high-school, but I’ve also struggled with them throughout my undergrad and several months after in order to make some extra cash. Whenever it feels like it’s you versus that measly check at the end of the week, just remember: this, most likely, will not last forever.
A year after I left Panera, I couldn’t really pull off saving my lunch money as a means for an entertainment fund anymore. I had places to be and people to see, and by places and people, I mean hanging out with my friends at Denny’s to gossip and eat cheesy fries and solely shop at Forever 21. Since I needed a way to support my wild lifestyle, it was imperative that I found a job.
It happened to be at this hole-in-the-wall pizza shop called Mama Lulu’s. There was no mama named Lulu, but instead, a middle-aged man with a thick Middle Eastern accent who told me to call him “Sam.” Basically, after he concluded that I knew how to operate a phone and that I was well-versed in simple addition and subtraction, he hired me on the spot and told me he would pay me under the table by the week. Since only ten or fifteen people ordered pizzas per night, I spent my evenings reading Gossip Girl under the counter and eating leftover pizza slices. I was sold. Then, one day, Sam disappeared and a more intimidating character also named Sam took over. He was about three-hundred pounds, bald and only wore black tee-shirts and swanky gold necklaces.
“Where’s Sam?” I asked.
“I am Sam. Who are you?” Sam II replied.
“I’m the cashier.”
“Sam away on business. You be do the delivery when it’s slow.”
My first time delivering a pizza was a complete disaster. The customer lived in the boonies where all of the uber-wealthy people who hated other people and civilization retreated; it was dark, impossible to differentiate between farm and house, and there were no house numbers, because why would there be? I drove around the neighborhood for hours, desperately trying to find my way to this hungry, desolate and pissed-off family. I ended up calling them two hours later and they met me at The Pancake House, totally furious and unwilling to pay a cent for their cold pizza. But my odyssey was not over yet; I still had a lasagna to drop off, and I noted that I was running a whopping two and half hours late. By the time I found the house, the man that answered the door demanded why I was so tardy, and that is precisely when I burst into hot, snotty tears of humiliation. His wife came downstairs in her nightgown and asked her husband why he was making the delivery girl cry. When I came back to Mama Lulu’s, defeated and embarrassed, Sam II said, “So, where is all money?”
“One of the families didn’t give me any because I was so late.”
“Why you late?”
“I got lost?”
“How you get lost? It is road with house on it!”
Since I had no way of justifying my complete and utter failure, Sam II took the unpaid for pizzas out of my illegitimate paycheck and hired a family friend to start doing the deliveries with me. The family friend was amiable enough, but pretty reserved. He never said much to me until one especially slow evening he turned to me and whispered, “I shot a man once.”
“I shot him. Back home. We are pals now.”
“Why did you shoot him?”
“He made me very angry one day. So I shot him. I prayed every day he would not die. He did not die, and we learned lessons.”
It was a heart-wrenching story, but after he shared this with me, and after six months of working for Mama Lulu’s, I quit one day, taking home an old pizza and a piece of mind.
I was leaving for college the next year, but with a vast summer before me, I decided to save up. I was immediately hired by the alleged resort-style retirement home near my house that desperately needed servers. They essentially hired anyone, since the servers didn’t get tips and there was no real way of advancement, but the opportunity seemed perfect for me, and I started working right away.
If you have the preconceived notion that all elderly folk want to do is squeeze your cheek and call you their granddaughter, then you clearly have not worked at a four-star retirement home. The wealthy clientele there were ruthless, menacing and needy. I have had requests for “a side of ten peas only”, “steak, rare, blended” and “loaded, peeled baked potato.” I have had a woman throw her fork at my face because her mashed potatoes were salty, I have been written up because one of the residents didn’t like the way my hair was styled and I have been forced to take away many bottles of wine from intoxicated residents that would easily end up in the emergency room if I didn’t.
The worst, however, was the death factor. Unlike a regular restaurant, I served the same customers over and over again. Throughout college, I held on to the job and grew to know and understand most of the residents who hated their meals simply because they were depressed or bored. Most of the time, they didn’t mean to treat the servers badly, they just didn’t know how else to behave. That, and many had actual servants back in the day, so that explains some things. Since I knew almost every single resident that came in to eat, I noticed when one hadn’t been down to the dining room in weeks. When I learned that a man that I talked to every single day died of cancer, I locked myself up in the employee stall and sobbed.
My last job before I got accepted into my Master’s program was one I found off Craigslist. It was a substitute teacher company calling for pre-school teacher’s aides. The pay was a dollar more than minimum wage, and since I had my Creative Writing and Education degrees, I figured it would be excellent practice for running my own classroom, and I needed something flexible and temporary. I applied for the job, and once the owner of the company deemed me functional and non-criminal, I started traveling from pre-school to pre-school. I thought I would be helping teachers organize their curriculums, help set up games and activities and contribute to the ever-evolving state of childhood education.
Instead, I mostly followed toddlers around the playground to make sure they didn’t punch or bite each other. Since I didn’t have any child development classes under my belt, most of the pre-school teachers were annoyed that I was there; apparently if you don’t have at least 9 units, you can’t be left alone with any children, so I became more of a burden than an aide.
“Can you just,” the teachers would say, “make sure nobody gets violated on the playground?”
Which, by the way, is easier said than done. If you have ever watched over thirty toddlers run around on plastic equipment with bucketfuls of toys scattered throughout the premises, you will learn that there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop the violence.
“Mason! No, NO THANK YOU!” This is what I was instructed to say when a child behaved inappropriately, not “Can you please not be a psycho and hit the other kids with that wooden block you are so fond of?”
Also, if you think a 2-year old whose diet consists of Entenmann’s sugar-frosted donuts and Gatorade will listen to you when you plead them to not bite and macerate the skin of other 2-year olds, you are wrong.
I knew it was my last day with substitute company after a kid threw up into the sand box after spinning on the tire swing for too long. I was instructed to pick up all the puke that had absorbed and imbedded itself into the sand like DNA. At this point, I wasn’t letting a 4-year old make me cry, but I did throw up in my mouth a little bit.
These days, I tutor English, work as a college counselor at high-schools and write for HelloGiggles. I have not lost my way delivering dinner, had utensils chucked at my head or wrestled with biters (not the zombies) for a while now. Life is pretty good.
Featured image via Ign.com