In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.
I’ve been on the road most of the day, so in the spirit of the season, a slightly edited reflection from a few years ago...
This time of year, when I keep waiting for that summer lull that keeps not coming, I find it helpful to reflect on one of the very best parts of having a real job: not having to find a summer job.
Finding summer jobs in high school and college was bad enough, but at least it felt age-appropriate. Since summer teaching gigs were few and far between in my graduate program (I got my first one after my fifth year in the program), I was still looking for summer jobs at 25. That’s just wrong.
The summer job panic usually started in April. By early May, I’d usually be in a combination of depression and panic.
There isn’t much good to be said about most summer jobs. They pay badly, you’re almost always the peon, and (almost by definition) they involve doing work you really don’t want to do. They can help forestall any undue sense of entitlement, since daily degrading combined with low pay will do a number on any excess self-esteem with which you might be burdened.
Crappy non-academic summer jobs I’ve held:
- Parking lot attendant
- Door-to-door canvasser (An awful job, but you do develop a pretty good sense of real estate.)
- Piston ring tester (We used Scotch tape. I’m not making that up. This is why I’ve never bought an American car.)
- SAT Prep instructor (twice)
- Supermarket stock boy (I got fired from that for stacking canned beets too slowly. The shame!)
- Customer Service Rep (I drank more that summer than in the rest of my life, combined.)
- AIDS Walk recruiter (lots of compliments on the little blue baseball cap we had to wear)
- Intern (where I learned I didn’t want to be a lawyer)
And the ultimate depression-inducing, college-motivating, holy-crap-if-I-had-to-do-that-for-a-living-I’d-kill-myself job...
- The Ice Factory
The ice factory bears explanation. You know those 8 pound bags of ice in convenience stores? The ones you buy for parties? Someone makes those. My job, for 8 hours a day at $3.50 an hour (minimum wage at the time was $3.35), was to pick up the 8 pound bags of ice off a lazy Susan and stack them on a wooden pallet, for the forklift to take to the saran wrapper, and then to the truck. Naturally, this entailed working in a freezer, so the ice wouldn’t melt. For 8 hours a day.
I learned a lot that summer. Lessons of the ice factory:
- If you work in a freezer 8 hours a day lifting heavy objects, you burn an astonishing amount of calories. Everybody brought huge lunches, and we all lost weight. Calories are actually units of heat. If you want to lose both excess weight and your will to live, I can’t recommend this enough.
- People whose actual, not-just-seasonal jobs are in the ice factory are prone to odd enthusiasms. One guy spent his time developing an intricate theory explaining that Phil Collins was actually a space alien. (“Sussudio? What’s that? Space code! Abacab? Space code!”) Another had what I would call an unhealthy fascination with the guitarist Allen Holdsworth.
- Different brands of bagged ice come out of the same vat. One brand’s bag memorably claimed that its ice melted more slowly than other brands. We checked. It didn’t.
- As of the mid-1980's, feminism had not yet made meaningful inroads into the culture of ice factories.
- Some people can discourse knowledgeably about the relative merits of the food in the various jails throughout their home county. These people make your food. I’m just sayin’.
- Just because a guy is five-foot-four and missing a few fingers, doesn’t mean he can’t slam-dunk an 8 pound bag of ice in the middle of a stack fifteen bags high.
- Disgruntled workers have ways of Sticking It To The Man. Among these ways is peeing in the ice vat. There’s a reason I don’t buy bags of ice. If you do, first, hold the bag up to the light. If the ice isn’t perfectly clear, don’t buy it. Trust me on this one. Seriously.
- $3.50 an hour adds up to...let’s see, carry the seven...I think the mathematical term is “bupkus.”
Compared to those, even the longest days here aren’t bad at all. It’s all about perspective.
Wise and worldly readers, what’s the worst summer job you’ve had?