Labor of Flub

Wilt on a summer job? Never. Though one or two may have burnt out on me.

Wilt on a summer job? Never. Though one or two may have burnt out on me.

By Susan Anspach  •  Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

City Sprawl Illustration


There came a point in my admittedly overprivileged youth here in NoVA that my parents began not so much nudging me toward some gainful summertime employment, more jiu-jitsu-chokehold wrestling me toward it. I’m ashamed to say now that this came as a real shock. Having never worked so much as a lemonade stand, I’d been living my summers thus far blissfully sunning myself at camps and in swimming pools, when I wasn’t lolling around in my bed sheets with the sheer thrill of not having to be on a school bus. 

Today I have a real nostalgia for summer jobs; God only knows why. General wistful tendencies? I have a real fondness for swimming pools and bed sheets, too. I’m great with those, though, and with summer jobs I was awful. Objectively awful. Indisputably so. I’m exceptionally unskilled with tasks involving my hands or real-time mental acuity; as a hunter-gatherer, the other cave-people would have elected to stone me, leaving me no choice other than to contribute my own rock supply and agree it was for the best. Today, most of my jobs entail sitting at desks, slurping coffee and punching different combinations of the same 26 characters for nine hours a day. I’m passably decent at all of those things. As for light lifting, clearing tables, basic verbal instructives in English? You’d find someone more qualified in a shallow puddle of sea monkeys.

There’s a difference between going to camp and going to work for a camp, and that could have been better pressed upon me. 

My first summer job I worked as a hostess for a diner where, wanting to go above and beyond, I constantly insisting on “helping” the wait staff, taking drink orders and whisking off plates. I wanted them to like me, I guess? It’s astonishing they didn’t butcher me. I dropped so many of that restaurant’s dishes that the dining-room carpet was a different color by the end of my time there. The hostess stand suffered three months in utter disarray. I was like a dog that kept getting distracted by scents and other animals, small children with hair ribbons, and actually, that metaphor extends: After shifts, they fed me my choice of free dinner from all the wrong orders—by any other name, scraps. That was probably the part I liked best. There were a lot of wrong orders for nachos that summer. And also, a lot of erroneous requests for cherry pie. 

The next year I got a job as a camp counselor, which would have gone better if I’d retained anything from the summer before and remembered why they were paying me. There’s a difference between going to camp and going to work for a camp, and that could have been better pressed upon me. What I remember from that job’s sleeping through Reveille. Misplacing a lot of parts of my uniform. Reassuring my campers that it was OK by me if we weren’t the cleanest cabin on the block (I wasn’t that clean). Dropping a lot of phone calls to the counselors’ administrative office, where I pulled shifts to avoid having to teach an exercise class. All in all, I think, I had a pretty good time, though “having a pretty good time” wasn’t a bullet point on the job description. There wasn’t a public outcry when I didn’t reapply the next spring.

Other years I’d snag gigs as a babysitter, hired by people who didn’t know any better. Fine by me. Kids and I have a lot in common. Likes: cherry pie, nachos, not being that clean; dislikes: uniforms, Reveille, slippery dishes. I do great with kids, when they have good toys and I’m not hired to oversee their bedtimes or vegetable intake. One time I asked a 4-year-old to eat his carrots and he wouldn’t. What could I do? Be professional. Recall and apply past acquired experience. Eat the scraps. 

I was a better babysitter than I was caterer, though, my only bad summer job. Catering took the worst part of every past position I held and smushed them up in a sweaty, tuxedoed ball. For three months I was hostess, waitress and early-riser all rolled into one. When you’re a caterer you work nights, too, of course—and no one ate their carrots there, either. (Without fail, though, they polished off every slice of pie.)

The best part of summer jobs was when your friends got them. None of the work, all the reward. I had one friend who worked at a Cinnabon in a strip mall, which I’m sure was lousy for her, but terrific for me. When you’re 16 years old, an age when concerns for metabolism and Type II diabetes have never so much as flitted through your mind, you know what’s the greatest thing in the world? Cinnabon. Lots of it, and for free. Plus I always knew who, at the movie theater, spat in the sodas, and whether or not to order the hot dogs. (Pro tip: Don’t order the hot dogs.)

I couldn’t tell you where I spent what paltry money I earned. I made peanuts—never enough to contribute significantly to real expenses, housing or groceries. I remember buying a belt bedazzled in pink and white glitter one time. I remember paying for someone else to paint my fingernails, just to see what that felt like. It was only last month that my parents called to tell me they’d found a 12-year-old paycheck from the diner I’d never cashed. It wasn’t that I spent my youth Scrooge McDucking in gold doubloons, but remember: My interests were free Cinnabon and not playing sports. There are some things money can’t buy.

It got to the point where, after college, I didn’t want a real job. I needed one, obviously—for the wakeup call as much as the salary. It boiled down to a choice between another part-time hostess position (this time at a snazzy New York-styled lounge) and a full-time reporter’s job in a newsroom decidedly not New York-styled. For the lounge I’d have split housing with five young men from Australia; for the paper I’d live in my own sensibly situated apartment in a town notably lacking in Ozzies. Some force of uncharacteristic good sense led me to pick the latter: The lounge folded in four months, and it would have been two if they’d hired me.

While they lasted, though, summer jobs were the ultimate (for me, not a single one of my employers, who must suffer seasonal stress disorders trying to manage the likes of me). They invited a way of life, transience, a fleetingness. One could come, another would go. The mistakes you made as a line chef were put to rest as a dog-walker, and that was the beauty of employment defined by its ephemerality: low stakes. I can’t remember a summer job that asked for so much as a reference; the camp counselor position had a one-page application and no interview. (Maybe they could have benefited from tighter screening? There were fire hazards at that camp. There were large bodies of water, and I’ll tell you that 10 years ago the only thought I had for life preservers was whether the orange complemented the straps of my tankini.) You earned $5.15 hourly as a 15-year-old in 1999, but the scope of your responsibilities extended only to scooping the right flavor ice cream—and while there’s finally no such tomorrow unfettered by consequences of what you did today (in the end, the best things in life aren’t free), there’s something to be said for believing there is.

So get the Cinnabon. Drink all the theater soda you want. Just don’t check the nutrition facts, and whatever you do, don’t grow up: You and your metabolism will never get luck like this back.


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(July 2013)