(Hey, did you know there’s a PDF collection of Mad Scientist High strips on sale? $3 nets you Welcome to Herman Kahn Memorial High School: over 130 DRM-free strips that you can read on any device of your choosing!)
Summer vacation was about the best thing ever, until I started high school. Suddenly, summer vacation meant I had to get a “summer job.” Let me tell you, there’s nothing like a string of menial summer jobs in the food service industry to make you appreciate the folks who toil away in it today.
My first summer job was at a restaurant in Denver called the White Fence Farm. It was a supremely family friendly joint that served pretty basic variations on the turkey/fried chicken/cole slaw/corn fritters school of cuisine. I was a bus boy. It was hot, and we were frantic most of the time, and it kinda sucked. I don’t think any restaurant in the Mountain Time Zone placed such a focus on “values.” However, I will always remember Father’s Day that year. It was a Sunday, so the restaurant opened earlier and closed later than any other time during the week. I got assigned to be the only busser in this small, almost secluded room off the side of the main dining area, so I only really had seven tables on which I had to focus the whole day, and to top the whole thing off, I got to work with my two favorite waitresses. They had to cover more than that small room, though, so I was tasked with keeping the customers as satisfied as I could while the servers were out. That day was the first in my life that I was directly tipped for my work, and when closing finally came and we’d all finished our tasks, the waitresses handed me the fattest wad of one, five, and ten dollar bills I’d ever seen in my life from their portion of the tips. Sadly, I never got assigned to that room ever again.
The following summer, I worked at Albertson’s. Where you had the off-chance of getting properly rewarded for your work at the restaurant, that proved to be a pipe dream of the highest order of magnitude at the grocery store. I still remember having to watch the training video, and learning about “Joe Albertson,” the company’s founder (I don’t care if that’s the official story from the store, and Wikipedia, it still rings sour to me. “Albertson” sounds like a made-up name, the kind bored government employees would assign to a witness in the relocation program who’d made them angry), and about the “values” that still “guided” Albertson’s to that very day. Then, I had to run to the greeting card aisle and clean up some stupid kid’s vomit. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere, I know it.
Being a courtesy clerk at a grocery store isn’t the most demeaning thing a person can do in the industrialized world, but I do think it’s pretty high up there. I only really remember four things from that summer: Billy the Big-Mouthed Bass, Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire, Jesus Christ, and getting sent across the street to buy Gatorade. In descending order…
Billy Bass, in case you’re not familiar, is one of those inventions that future historians will look to as signalling the nadir of Western civilization, I’m convinced. We had a huge stack of them brought into the store one day, and they sat there for less than a week (easily, we had ninety boxes of these things or more, and they had to have sold at a rate of more than twenty a day) before the stock ran out, but not before I almost lost my mind from having to hear a warbly, electronic rendition of, “Take Me to the River,” tens of times a day. Like I said, though, we eventually sold out of them, and it was my great honor one day, when a cranky-looking old woman walked up to me and demanded to know where the, “big-mouth bass,” was, to send her to the seafood department at the back of the store. She stomped back several minutes later and felt it was important I know that she wasn’t looking for a fish, but the toy. She didn’t stay long enough for me to apologize, which is great, because I didn’t want to. I wish we could collect all of those stupid things and burn them in a grand fire.
The summer I was at the grocery store was the summer the fourth Harry Potter novel came out, and only a couple of months before had I succumbed to the craze. We got a crate of the books in a solid week or two before they officially went on sale, and I made it a point to pick up as many work shifts as I could between that day and the on-sale date of the book, so I could hide in the loading area and sneakily read chapters during my lunch break. I’d nearly finished the book by the time stores could officially sell it, and judging by the wear it showed in the waning days leading up to its release, so did a lot of other employees at that Albertson’s.
I had to work a lot of night shifts at Albertson’s, and anyone who’s ever had to do that will tell you that’s when the nutjobs come out. On more than one occasion, I had the “honor” of meeting Jesus Christ, who looked and sounded an awful lot like Mort Goldman from Family Guy. He was a born-again Christian who decided the best way to honor his lord and savior was to change his name to said savior’s name, and he’d show you his driver’s license at the drop of a hat to prove it. Cashiers couldn’t go on break fast enough when they saw him enter the store.
Finally, we had one week where there was some kind of insane sale on Gatorade; I don’t remember exactly what it was, but it was good enough that the store got cleared out of it in pretty short order. Like, the sale went into effect on Sunday, and by mid-day Monday, we were out of our entire stock of Gatorade. A new manager had started working just the week before; he was in his mid-20s (though he looked like he’d entered his early 40s), and tried a little too hard to come off as “cool” in front of a bunch of high school kids. He decided the best thing to do would be to send me over to the King Sooper’s across the street (yep – dueling grocery stores) to buy up their stock of Gatorade and stock our shelves with it. I was to take one of our Albertson’s carts behind the King Soopers and stash it, then load it up with the freshly-bought Gatorade and push it back into our store when I was done shopping, because he didn’t want to give our competitor any free advertising by my pushing the King Sooper’s cart around our store. That was an awkward afternoon, and I can safely say I will never spend that much time thinking about Gatorade ever again as long as I live. Except for when I typed this paragraph.
The following summer (between junior and senior year, for those of us keeping track), I was at Subway, and though it was really weird, it wasn’t so bad, except for the “obsessive-compulsive” guy who had me remake his sandwich four times in one night. It’s the only place I ever worked in high school to where I can stand returning.
Finally, the summer before college, I worked for two weeks as an usher at Cirque du Soleil (‘Alegria,’ in case you’re wondering). I showed up early, worked hard, stayed late, and got fired by the temp agency they had handling their local personnel. Someone just called me up one day and told me not to bother coming in again. I harbor an irrational grudge against Cirque du Soleil as a result, and it’ll take something like an act of Congress to get me to want to see one of their shows ever again. It was nice to just be able to take that summer easy, though. I walked to the park and read a lot. That’s close to my vision of a perfect summer vacation, actually.