Welcome to The Serial Worker

Our value as people isn’t determined by the color of our collars or by how we pay the rent. Just because we’ve cleaned toilets or worked in fast food doesn’t mean we’re unintelligent or lazy or that we haven’t tried hard in our lives.

I mean, really; since when has a crooked path indicated a lack of direction? Who ever said nebulous goals mean an absence of passion? Who decided a fancy title is the epithet of happiness?

After all, somebody has to work the overnight shift at the beef-packing plant; somebody needs to be the janitor in your building; somebody needs to collect tolls on the interstate; somebody needs to be the lunch lady at your children’s school. And of course, somebody needs to clean the toilets.

The Serial Worker speaks to the worker in all of us. More importantly, it gives cause for celebration that we don’t have to be somebody to be somebody.

That being said, the 70 or so jobs to be discussed on this site don’t include those chores we all do as children, like babysitting, or mowing the lawn, or earning quarters for emptying dead mice from snap traps during winter infestations. Nor does it include my (surprisingly lucrative) adolescent hairstyling era: when in junior high, I cut, styled, French-braided and permed the hair of my mother’s friends for a few dollars a head. Neither have I felt the need to include the paltry amount of money I made playing in bands (I only mention it here because it makes me sound cool).

It’s conceivable that someone somewhere might discount a temp job or an internship that I’ve included, thinking it can’t be classified as a job because of its temporary status or lack of payment. What typifies a job is indeed a definition of the most slippery sort. Since I’ve had dozens of occasions in which to come up with a standard for applying this label, you’ll have to trust my judgment. Even so, excluding temp jobs and internships, I’ve still had well over 60 jobs, allowing me to graciously accept the designation of Serial Worker. The evidence defending that title can be found in the greasy creases of my jobs. They have truly shaped the shapeless person I am today.

I imagine few would want this distinction of impermanence, to be known as an ungrounded job-hopping gypsy, one of the original “free agents.” But sticking around at a job you hate doesn’t define control—it defies it. And vocational rebirth is hugely underrated.

Here Comes the Fuzz: A Beginning

TaxitestWhat is the feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? –It’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s goodbye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.

Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”

“Here comes the fuzz, Mom!” My sister shouted from the back seat of our powder blue Impala. “Here comes the fuzz!” Mom hit the brakes but the trooper’s lights were flashing before the garbage on the dash had time to hit the floorboards.

“Son of a bitch, girls, I think he got us.” Mom pulled off the road and yanked on the parking brake, then took a drag of her cigarette and forced the smoke through her nostrils. She was pissed. We were only in Ohio and had two more states to cross. Cash was tight and two girls under the age of five weren’t the best traveling partners. The last thing she wanted to see was a cop.

Mom had gotten out of the Big House the day before. Within hours of release, the Impala was packed and our dog was shedding hair in the front passenger seat. She’d swooped into the foster home where Lisa and I were living and, after gathering our meager personal belongings and making small talk with the parents, lifted us by the waist and wedged us among the debris cluttering the back seat. “Mommy’s so happy to see you girls. I missed you so much.” She kissed the tops of our heads and closed the door, then slid behind the wheel and revved the engine as she lit a cigarette. The car backfired. Lisa and I giggled. “How’d you like to go on a little trip?”

The officer approached the car. His face appeared in the window and my mother, her brown eyes bloodshot and filling with Oscar-worthy tears, looked out from beneath her hippie locks. He was practically a child himself. His round face was flushed the color of cherry Kool-Aid, and perspiration had made his blonde hair curl around the brim of his cap. A long silence passed as he took in the carnage of an impoverished family in transit.

Two young girls in pigtails stared at him. Our faces were smeared with peanut butter and jelly, our knees raw from crawling around on torn upholstery. A box of rotting fruit from our maternal grandmother gave off a faint aroma of overripe bananas and had encouraged a couple of fruit flies to make the trip with us. Toys were tossed about, some wedged under large garbage bags filled with our clothing. Lisa and I sat perfectly still, holding hands while we pressed as close to each other as possible. Mom hadn’t bothered to put out her cigarette and the car was filled with smoke. Lisa’s cough broke the silence and the officer returned his gaze to my mother. He puffed his cheeks full of air and allowed its slow escape as he consulted his conscience about what to do with this frazzled woman and her daughters.

Looking away he said, “Ma’am, it seems you were speeding. I’m only giving you a warning this time. Please, just slow down some, especially since you’re traveling with these little girls, here.”

“Thank you so much, officer. Thank you.”

Lisa and I chimed in, “Thanks, officer! Thanks, Fuzz!” My mother popped the Impala into drive and we started to move before he had time to react. We were off again, headed for a new home and our new father, filled with the humble expectations of the nomadic.

No. 1, Housekeeper (Age 12-14)

You are what you pretend to be, so be careful what you pretend to be.

– Kurt Vonnegut, “Mother Night”

Lisa and I were playing gin rummy in our makeshift fort when we heard the phone ring. It was approaching 100 degrees outside and the municipal swimming pool was closed for the afternoon because of a tornado watch. The screened-in porch offered little reprieve from the heat, so we’d stretched three sheets over the rickety furniture and placed a fan at each end, the billowing cotton percale forming a welcome tunnel of cool air.

“Can somebody get the phone? I’m trying to sleep,” Mom yelled from her bedroom sanctuary, the only room in our old house with an air conditioner. She’d been bartending nights at the local bowling alley and slept late most mornings, the aging window appliance cranked until she could see her breath. “What are you girls doing inside, anyway?” We sighed in unison when we heard the question, knowing it was just a matter of time before she stormed downstairs and chased us outdoors.

“How does she even know we’re in the house?” I whispered.

“Can one of you please answer the damn phone?” Mom cried. I took a swig of my root beer and Lisa shuffled the cards. The phone rang two more times and I heard Mom snarl into the receiver halfway through the next ring. We were wrapping up another hand of rummy when her head poked through the south end of the fort.

“Hey! Do you girls want to make some money working at the Palazzo Motel this summer? Karla needs some help with housekeeping. She’ll pay you three dollars an hour if you can start tomorrow.”

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” I answered for both of us. “When do we get paid?”

The following day I joined the day laborers at the Palazzo, a run-down motel rife with mildew and host to a number of peculiar odors. Like feet, and body odor, and forgotten washrags. With its 20-odd rooms it was similar to a Motel 6, right down to the curiously striped sheets and matted shag carpet. Karla was an old bartending friend of my mother, and she and her husband were the owners. We’d be working with Karla’s daughter Arial, a big-boned redhead.

Ariel was a year younger than me and already worked weekends at the motel. She drove without a learner’s permit and smoked her mother’s cigarettes. Most summers I flopped at her house for days on end, spending the evenings in a state of perpetual slumber-party bliss: facial masks and permanents, experiments with myriad bleaching agents and dyes, and makeovers during which I slathered layers of foundation over her fine cloak of freckles. Best yet, Arial’s family always had types of food we didn’t have at our house: potato chips, sugared cereal in boxes instead of bags, and chili made with all meat and no beans. No beans! I wasn’t starving at home by any stretch of the imagination, but a girl can get tired of government cheese and Steak-Ums.

The real perks of the Palazzo Motel were yet to be learned (I will disclose them here so you might ascertain the Palazzo’s larger role in our lives). Very soon (far, far too soon) Arial began “renting” rooms for partying. These parties would commence in the main house where her family lived, spilling over into adjoining motel rooms and the reception area. Without fail, we’d binge-drink nasty concoctions of booze stolen from Arial’s parents’ liquor cabinet, all the while stuffing ourselves with pizza and chips until our backs hurt and our lips were greasy. Ultimately, and often at dawn, the whole lot of us ended up piling into the motel lobby’s bathroom stalls; moaning, crying, and shitting while simultaneously puking into pants we’d recently rushed to our ankles. And you know who got to clean up in the morning . . .

I arrived for my first shift with a face full of makeup and a baggy shirt hiding what I had hoped were developing breasts. But they’d proven, thus far, to be the non-developing kind. I was just starting to experiment with cosmetics, beginning each day with the amateurish application of five shades of purple eye shadow (yes, five!) and chalky orange rouge. With Lisa’s guidance I added blue mascara and eyeliner. She was already testing the platinum hues: skillfully frosted and flirting at age 13. We were in the same grade even though I was ten months younger (Mom wanted us out of the house at the same time so I started kindergarten when I was four) and lucky (lucky!) Lisa had sprouted huge boobs by our sixth-grade year (Arial and I were both late bloomers, damned to wear stretchy pastel training bras well into high school).

“Okay girls, I want you to follow Beatrice around the motel and she’ll show you the ropes,” Karla said, smiling and waving us over to a round woman sipping coffee from a tiny Styrofoam cup. Beatrice was short and wide, and every visible inch of her body was encased in folds of soft pink flesh. To be blunt, she was F. A. T. fat. We had to follow her around for an entire weekend, gutter-bound preteens who could focus on nothing beyond the single burning question: How does this woman wipe?

You know what housekeepers do; they clean up the mess left by people who know they don’t have to clean up their mess. We did this while clouds of Lysol poisoned our lungs and burned our eyes, and did only what was mandatory before swooning in front of The Young and the Restless, desperate to find out what happened to Angie and Jesse after they’d kidnapped their infant son from his adopted parents and run off to Sea City . . .

“Hey, Arial. Do you think these sheets are clean?” I heard Lisa ask on our third day.

“Yeah. If it doesn’t look like they slept on them just pull the comforter up,” Arial instructed.

“What about the toilet? I don’t think anyone used this toilet,” I said.

“Just get rid of any hair and put the band on. It doesn’t really matter.” Arial was steadfast in her approach to cleanliness. She tossed me a pile of paper bands imprinted with SANITIZED FOR YOUR PROTECTION. I gave the toilet a quick swipe and slipped the paper lie into place.

“Oh my god! Come here, guys! Hurry!” Lisa yelled this at least once per shift. She’d gather us together in rooms where she’d found some questionable (or obvious) body fluid. We’d waste at least fifteen minutes pointing and giggling, trying unsuccessfully to make one another touch it. And yet, there was one thing worse than those mystery liquids, one thing I didn’t care to encounter while strapping paper bands on toilets, and that was opening a door and finding the beast with two backs. Or, more politely, naked people. Oh, call it what you want; screwing, fucking, bumping uglies or making babies, I was twelve years old and horrified. Horrified! Thank God it only happened once. The look on their faces was reason enough to knock until my knuckles bled. Every room. Every shift. Every time. Even if it was two hours post-checkout.

After a couple of weeks on the job I began taking advantage of the break room concessions, giving special devotion to Twin Bing candy bars and coffee I’d thickened with powdered creamer. Since employees could buy candy bars for a fraction of the retail price (better yet, they were free when Arial was in charge), I was always first in line for a sugar high. Drinking sugary coffee was far more enjoyable than my mom catching me eating sugar straight out of the sugar bowl . . . again.

Speaking of Mom, she, too, worked a few shifts at the Palazzo. All through the summer of ’81 and the winters of ’82 and ’83-we girls loved when the workday was over and we were allowed to hang out with Mom and Karla. Lisa, Arial, and I spent countless afternoons sipping kid-sized Tequila Sunrises and lighting their cigarettes, taking turns emptying the mounds of ashes collecting in their tiny amber ashtrays.

No. 2, Corn Roguer (Age 13)

rogue : An inferior or defective specimen among many satisfactory ones, esp. a seedling or plant deviating from the standard variety.

The final bell of the school year rattled the lockers and released an explosion of screams from the students. I sat on the middle school steps and watched ponytails and ribbons rush by. The din of a hundred heel-snapping flip-flops accompanied a blur of brightly colored cotton and denim. It was 1982. Eighth grade was officially over and I had only three months before I’d have to negotiate the horrors of high school. Would I still need to pretend I was having my period in gym class? And what was I going to wear?

“Hey, Piggy!” my friend Kate’s voice shouted from inside the school. Piggy was a name we called each other because we snorted when we laughed. We both played drums in the middle school band. She was talented; I had no rhythm and talked during rehearsals. The music teacher had wanted me to play the clarinet, “Because you can’t keep a beat and you’ve got that overbite.” But clarinets were expensive, and my Granny Idela was still playing drums in a country band on the Jersey shore. Granny Idela was cool. I wanted to be cool, too. So I tortured the already mediocre orchestra with my half-ass drum rolls and paradiddles. 

“Don’t you have to catch the bus?” I asked.

“No, I have a drum lesson at West Music. My mom’s picking me up later. Hey, did you and Lisa see the sign-up sheet for New Pioneer?”

“No, we’ll probably just keep working at the Palazzo.”

“We should all sign up. Come on,” she pleaded, gripping my arm in both hands and bouncing up and down until a drumstick fell out of her back pocket. “It pays $3.85 an hour and you get one big check at the end of summer.” She paused here, raised an eyebrow and said, “You get weekends off.”

Weekends off?

Hot damn! If the Palazzo Motel would settle for my presence on weekends only, I could work every day of the week. Bing! Bing! Bing! Bing! My eyes lit up like a slot machine. My parents had recently filed bankruptcy for the first time and money was tight. Lisa and I would have to buy our own school clothes. More money meant more clothes, which I believed would get me on the fast track to popularity. It was a prospect well worth working seven days a week.

“Sure, why not.”

“You have to hurry, though, it’s first-come first-serve.” She bent to pick up the drumstick and her backpack fell forward, banging her on the head as a few markers escaped and clattered on the sidewalk. We snorted.

“I’ll go find Lisa and see if she wants to sign up, too.”

Corn rogueing was the first of three jobs I would have working the fields for which Iowa is famous. It’s the first step employed by farmers to assure the genetic purity of seed corn. Seed corn is planted in rows that are either all female or all male. Six female rows and two male rows alternate for endless miles across Iowa’s landscape. This is what gives seed cornfields a rippling pattern and makes them fun to stare at when speeding down a treeless Iowa highway. The male corn occasionally pops up in the female rows, and the deviant, misplaced male cornstalks are called rogues. A corn roguer walks the miles of rows with a hoe, hacking the male cornstalks out of the female rows.

On the first day Lisa, Kate, and I waited among a small crowd in the high school parking lot with our Little Igloo coolers. It was 5:30 a.m. when the bus pulled in, and thirty young women clawed over one another to get to the rear seats. The bus was driven to one of the many fields contracted by the agricultural company. After piling out of the bus and ignoring a lecture by the crew chief, we spaced ourselves every few rows and started walking. We reached the end of the field and turned around, drank a Dixie cup or two of water, and headed back in. We repeated that for ten weeks.

“Piggy, this stinks,” I whined to Kate. Two weeks in and I was complaining every morning.

“No fooling. But we will be so loaded we can buy as many school clothes as we want,” she grinned, pushing some sweaty hair out of her eyes. “And think about how tan we’re going to be. I’m sure it’s all going to be worth it.”

In the hot Midwestern sun the tiny hoe felt more like a sledgehammer. The prolific cornstalks had leaves like scalpels. We were doomed to get welts and cuts on every inch of exposed skin. Supervisors gave us no pity and we were expected to continue rain or shine. 

We routinely prayed (begged, really) for tornadoes and inclement weather to end the day early. Thank God, or thanks perhaps, to our endless curses and paganisms, thunderstorms would blow in and flood the fields while we waited on the bus. The storms stopped as abruptly as they had started, however, and we often had to return to the now muddy fields.

By week three we gave up on Kate’s tan prediction. We all got brutally sunburned instead; the dirty skin on our necks and noses was peeling off in thick chucks. In response to the job sucking so much, we made up a song to the melody of Eddie Grant’s “Electric Avenue” and sang it at the top of our lungs as sweat blinded us and sharp hoe blades caromed off our ankles. It went something like this (I can still remember it after more than 25 years):

Out in the fields there is violence
Ah la la lots of work to be done
No place to lay out or party
And we can’t have fun ‘til we’re done . . . oh, oh

We’re gonna rogue down through this corny avenue
Before it gets much higher
We’re gonna rogue down through this corny avenue
It’s hotter than a dryer

We need lots of food for our lunches
And we can’t afford a thing in the store
We are just so hot and so sweaty
And our feet are weary and sore . . . oh, oh

When I got my fat check at the end of the summer, I didn’t go gangbusters shopping for school clothes like I thought I would. Instead I hoarded the money, rifling through sale racks and parting with the cash only when I found exactly what I was searching for. Lisa bought a few clothes and then squandered the balance on cigarettes and McDonald’s french fries.

“Sandy, can I borrow two dollars?” was Lisa’s familiar request throughout our entire adolescence. I would give her the money or buy her cigarettes and in return she would do some of my chores. Usually it was just washing dishes or doing laundry, but if she was really broke, I could get her to cover my two days of “doggie duty,” the dreaded task of cleaning up after the dog. Few and far between were my days of searching for those tufts of greener grass, each clump a verdant tombstone for petrifying Schnauzer poop.

It was nice being the one with the money.

No. 3, Ice Cream Counter Girl #1 (Age 14)

Counter Girl: A girl that only looks good from the waist up. Or in other words a girl whose lower body hides behind the counter.

UrbanDictionary.com
 

“Don’t forget to wear beige underwear,” my friend Angie instructed me.

“What?” I asked, as I skillfully guided Ms. Pacman around the perimeter of the video screen, gobbling pellets and avoiding ghosts. Wakka wakka wakka wakka.

“The pants. The pants are see-through. Remember? I told you yesterday?” Angie knew the details of our work uniforms right down to the thread count (140, believe it or not). She’d gotten her uniform a week before and had probably tried it on a dozen times, self-consciously checking every angle in front of the mirror. At least that’s what I did once I got mine.

“Yeah, you said something about that. Oh, no!” I watched Ms. Pacman disappear under a pile of colorful ghosts. I clucked my tongue and accused Angie of wrecking my game.

“Shut up. Did not. I told you those old ladies at the Dairy Cream have gross panty lines from their underwear. We have to wear beige ones so they don’t show. Duh.”

Angie was right. The slacks I’d soon wear were nearly transparent. After a certain age no one should be allowed to wear white pants. Some of the Dairy Cream’s more sizeable ladies wore theirs one size too small, shamelessly showing off the plight of their pastel bloomers. Sure, it gave us something to gossip about, but after a while I simply found no humor in watching underwear creep up someone’s dimpled behind. A 100% polyester shirt completed my uniform, the first of many I would wear over the next several years.

The owners of the Dairy Cream were a retirement-aged couple. The wife was a roly-poly moon-faced woman named Maggie who fancied those horn-rimmed magnifying glasses one can find on dusty racks in drugstores. Her husband looked like Dennis the Menace. They were pleasant enough except when scolding us for using too much hot fudge. “That costs extra!” Even back then, when Dairy Cream employees made just $2 an hour (far less than I made cleaning rooms for family friends or for suffering through the woes of farm work) extra hot fudge cost 75 cents. Sure enough, whenever I was loading hot fudge onto my mother’s sundae or a friend’s parfait, I would turn and see Maggie’s mouth hanging open as I spooned their profits onto an item that was already a freebie.

This particular Dairy Cream served hot dogs, pork tenderloins, and bastardized versions of several McDonald’s sandwiches. They had soggy onion rings and French fries as thin as matchsticks and just as hard, harder even. And of course they had ice cream. We had contests to see who could make the tallest cone, the widest cone, and the cone most like a circus animal. I was an incredibly gifted cone sculptor, though I rarely ate my masterpieces, having recently entered the requisite teenage mania of calorie counting, and only allowed myself tiny vanilla cones at carefully calculated intervals. This was followed by a two-hour session of aerobics to “Holding Out for a Hero” or some other pulsating song from Footloose. Usually while wearing leg warmers. And a headband. Made of terry cloth. 

The strangest and possibly only interesting detail about the Dairy Cream in Estherville was its popularity during tornadoes. Everybody went out for ice cream when the weather turned sour; which inevitably happened after we’d cleaned and prepped for closing. Like clockwork, the dining area filled to the brim with eager storm-tracking cone-eaters as soon as the tornado siren sounded. Thunderheads rolled in and the wind picked up, and 50 people arrived for malts, cones, and of course chilidogs since we’d already cleaned the machine. While the thunder clapped outside, inside, the piercing screams of babies sounded like cymbals crashing inside a Chevy Nova. Patrons gawked out the windows and ignored the cries, allowed their ice cream to melt all over the tables onto our just-cleaned floors. Hypnotized by the goddamned weather.

Those storm-driven frenzies made me dread closing shifts. And I only worked the closing shifts. So when my friend Christy landed another job at a family restaurant in mid-June of ’84, I was right behind her. But I didn’t let go of the Dairy Cream right away; instead, I decided I should have two jobs. Looking back, I don’t think it was about needing or wanting two paychecks, it was more the idea that there were two jobs I could have, that I could apply for and easily get. At age 14 it was already the second occasion I’d held two jobs at once. Sadly, trying to mesh the work schedules of two employers and high school proved too complex for my busy teenage social calendar, and led to my first dramatic resignation.

Here’s how it happened: some friends were having a party on a night I was scheduled to work at the Dairy Cream and I couldn’t find anyone to cover my shift. I was desperate. At fourteen and fifteen, Lisa and I were already well-seasoned party girls. We drank grain alcohol every chance we got (Mad Dog 20/20 comes to mind) and hung out with guys from the local community college (okay, so maybe we were more like groupies). Word on the street was these college boys would be around that evening, and I sure as hell wasn’t about to waste valuable primping time sweeping up crunch coating or scrubbing fry baskets. I decided to quit my lower-paying job at the Dairy Cream instead of missing the party. I folded up my white slacks and polyester top, strutted into the store, and plopped my uniform on the counter in front of Maggie.

“I’m quitting. I have another job.” I turned on my heel and then sprinted out the door. I was smiling. Was it freedom I was feeling? The freedom to change a plan, or change direction, or be spontaneous? Was it control?

Was it simply: possibility?

Or, it might been the girlish glee and anticipation for the bash I’d be attending later that night. Hindsight sometimes requires bifocals. 

Still, that moment was both an end and a beginning. A single gesture foreshadowing my life as The Serial Worker.

 

 


No. 4, Family Restaurant Counter Girl (Age 14-15)

Transient: A person or thing that is transient, especially a temporary guest, boarder, laborer, or the like.

In the dark of night, Estherville, Iowa, appears as a giant metropolis from atop Half-Mile Hill, a sloping stretch of asphalt leading into the dormant town of 6,000 residents. Lights seem to go on for miles, a luminous deception to motorists approaching from the west. An A&W restaurant had been situated on the crest of Half-Mile Hill for several years, capitalizing on the expansive view and its convenient location next to Estherville’s only drive-in movie theater. When the drive-in closed, the failing A&W was purchased by a couple who gave the place a thorough makeover and renamed it Grandma’s Revenge. They kept the drive-up booths and the homemade A&W root beer, expanded the menu threefold, and improved the burger selection. My friend Christy had hopped on her moped as soon as the help wanted advertisement appeared in the newspaper. As previously mentioned, I was right behind her. But not on a moped, I had to be driven. I’d been banned from mopeds until further notice. I had terrible balance back then and was always wiping out, breaking the blinkers and knocking the kick stand off my sister’s moped, not to mention the large patches of skin I’d left on several local roadways.

Grandma’s Revenge was a much cooler place to work than the Dairy Cream, and I was getting paid $2.25 an hour. A few popular girls were waitresses there, including the owners’ daughter, Connie. I wanted to be a waitress, too, but they only hired blue-eyed, tow-headed girls for those positions. With my flat chest, brown eyes, and brown frizzy hair, I was stationed behind the counter instead, a few feet in front of the dreadful kitchen where they put older girls with bigger butts and bad skin. Those in the back of the restaurant had the freedom to dip french fries in tartar sauce to their hearts’ content, so I secretly wanted to be back there with them. Of course, the food freak in me would have counted every fry and measured the tartar sauce, too.

I did all those duties expected of a counter girl: I washed glassware, prepared beverages as the waitresses ordered them, took food from the kitchen window and schlepped it over to the counter window, refilled the salad bar, and answered the phone for takeout orders. Grandma’s Revenge also served ice cream floats with the A&W root beer. The mugs holding those famous floats had to be washed immediately and chilled in the cooler; grown customers pouted and whined like children when we ran out of the frosty glasses and had to serve their float in a room-temperature glass. When I encountered these grumblers I let my face ice over with a well-rehearsed stare.

Once in a great while I would get to wait on a table in the dining room. The first time it happened, I was unfamiliar with both waitressing and tipping.

“Looks like they left eleven dollars too much,” I said as I handed the money to Christy, figuring she knew best how to divvy it up.

“That’s your tip, dummy.” She handed the money back to me.

“No way. I get to keep all of this?”

Duh. You can’t give it back to them.” Christy rolled her eyes and gave her head a shake to emphasize my stupidity. I put the money in my pocket and began clearing the table.

I started thinking. I multiplied and divided and added some numbers, and in the middle of sponging a sticky orb of ketchup it dawned on me that my girlfriends, those blue-eyed blonde nymphs, were taking in a huge haul of cash while I washed dishes and took orders from the drive-up stalls for a measly $2.25 an hour! A clot of envy formed in my stomach as I went over the numbers again in my head. X number of tables with X customers, ordering X dollars worth of food each equals . . . That is so unfair, I told myself. They weren’t doing anything more difficult than I was; yet they were making five times as much money. I promised myself that one day I would get to be the waitress. The brunette waitress.

Events were few and far between at Grandma’s Revenge. Interesting events were fewer and farther. Most of my time was spent in anticipation of Craig sightings or rearranging my schedule in order to play drums in the marching band during Friday night football games. Craig was the owners’ son. He was in college and worked in the kitchen during his summer break (guys could only work in the kitchen). I had a crush. He had blonde hair and blue eyes and a face full of teeth. Whenever I caught a glimpse of his head in the service window I’d turn red and drop whatever I was holding. By the end of our shifts together my fingers were singed from the coffeepot, my shirt was spattered with chicken fat and ketchup, we were down at least one frost-worthy mug, and nervous energy had steamed my polyester uniform with B.O.

Connie was aware of my infatuation with her brother and felt perfectly comfortable broadcasting this information.

“Hey, Craig, Sandy likes you,” she informed him while I stood next to her.

“Gross, I do not! God. You are such a liar.”

Craig feigned concern for my self-esteem, “Connie, knock it off.”

“What? She thinks you’re cute. She told me so.”

I would run off and cower in the bathroom, forced to work the rest of my shift in a fog of embarrassment. I spent the summers of ’83 and ’84 in that fog, making root beer floats and hanging out with the toilets —and finally decided that was more than enough. The following summer I would have my driver’s license, and I was going to be mobile. Maybe I could get myself some of those tips.

 

No. 5, Sales Clerk (Age 15)

THIEF: A person who steals, especially secretly or without open force; someone guilty of theft or larceny.

I tripped over a pile of toys and fell onto the doorbell, depressing it a little longer than was necessary. Monica opened the door and called for her husband. She and Harold had moved into my neighborhood a month earlier, migrating from somewhere far more hip than Estherville. She was tall and statuesque, curving and goddess-like. He was a full foot shorter, balding and nearsighted. After a quick tour of the four-story construction site they called home, they pointed me towards their two-year-old daughter and rushed out the door.

I watched their car lights evaporate into the darkness and within minutes began the process of getting the little girl to sleep. Once she was tucked in bed, I prowled for food and exercised to Showtime Shorts. I spent the remainder of the evening talking on the phone, likely gushing to a friend about my first real live boyfriend. He was one year out of high school and was teaching me about “parking” on dirt roads and abandoned farm acreages. In turn, I was teaching him how prudish and resistant fifteen-year-old girls can be. It was a short relationship.

One night in the fall of ’84 Monica and Harold arrived home and asked if I could stick around a few minutes. Oh my god! How did they know I ignored their daughter and ate all their cereal?

“Sandy, we were wondering,” Harold said, pausing to help Monica with her jacket. I felt sick. I’m busted. I’m busted. I’m busted. I mentally reviewed the entire evening in ten seconds. Baby to bed, Captain Crunch, snooping in bedroom, Doritos and ice cream, television . . . .

“We were wondering if you’d be interested in working at our store during the Christmas season. We’ll pay you $5 an hour.” $5 an hour? I almost fell over.

“Yeah, sure.”

The ill-fated Montgomery Ward showroom was located on Estherville’s main drag, Central Avenue. A long counter divided the storage area and the retail sales floor exactly in half. My job was to take people’s order numbers, retrieve items from the back room, and receive payments. I also took catalog orders over the phone.

I was routinely bored in the overheated building. There was little to do except dream about the towers of edible Christmas goodies surrounding me. Despite my mastery of caloric restraint my brain thought of little else but eating. There were fruitcakes, boxes of tasteless chocolates, and shiny tins of nuts. I wanted the nuts, but they were expensive and ate up at least three hour’s wages.

The nuts were wrapped inside heavy plastic bags, tied prettily with green and red ribbons, and placed in the tin cans. On purchase a customer opened the can, removed the ribbons, and unsealed the bag. I figured if I opened a bag from the bottom, I could eat some of the nuts and then tape the bags back together so that nobody would notice. By the end of my clerking stint all the bags had about one third of the original nut-count remaining. Yet no one ever complained or questioned the steep price for so few nuts in a mysteriously wrinkled bag crudely held together with Scotch tape and ribbons.

Then my criminal mind started taking over. Day by day, I noticed Monica and Harold had an absolutely horrible method of keeping inventory. If some of those housewares and polyester fashions ordered long ago were to suddenly vanish, there would be little questioning as to their whereabouts. Why not just give the customer a fake receipt and avoid ringing up the sale? I memorized all the items sitting around long enough to collect dust. Then, when customers came in to pick up a long-forgotten order, I would push the inactive buttons on the cash register and whisper “Oops” a few times during the transaction, and as soon as the door closed behind them I’d pocket the money.

I was confident my thieving went undetected. Once, Monica and Harold asked me if I knew where someone’s poofy pink slipcover was, but nothing further was ever discussed. I hardly flinched, though they may have smelled something odd. I reeked of craftiness. And, also, I had some seriously nasty nut breath.

I only gave in to these criminal cravings on a few occasions, and every time I stole from the register I promised myself I wouldn’t do it again. This is the last time. I swear. But sure enough, I’d find myself prowling around the stockroom (cranky and ashamed of my belly full of cashews and pecans) making a mental list of how I was going to spend the money I’d extracted from the customer picking up an outdated Dust Buster. I wasted any money I didn’t earn honestly, spending it as quickly as possible on video games and junk food.

I needed a valid motive for stealing to temper my shame, so I blamed genetics. Hadn’t my own mother spent time in the slammer for grand larceny? Oh, did I forget to mention that? Weren’t the first few years of our lives spent wandering blindly amidst a seedy population of drug addicts and criminals? Oops. My bad. Looks like I left that part out, too. I decided that having guilt as my constant companion would be a testament to my goodness, to my inner humanitarian. And if intrinsically good people steal from people they like and who trust them, well, God only knows what the bad people are doing.

When the Christmas season drew to a close my services were no longer needed. When Monica and Harold gave me a $25 Christmas bonus and sent me on my way, I was relieved. Apparently there were never any cameras, and the weight of my crimes evaporated the instant I walked out the door. Tucked into my ratty corduroy satchel was $25 worth of Monica and Harold’s trust, and a half-eaten bag of Christmas nuts.

No. 6, Drive-Thru Counter Girl (Age 16-19)

McJob: An unstimulating, low-wage job with few benefits, esp. in a service industry.

Counter girls come in all shapes and sizes. I know this from experience because I have been all shapes and sizes myself. One might be a big-boobed lovely in a tight pink sweater, leaning over to pour your coffee as she presses a runaway eyelash to her lid (not me). Another might be an old woman with six chin hairs and breath to yellow linoleum (not me, yet). Urban diners might find a few with rusty, infected earrings, or clothing stinking of mildew, or maybe flood pants and greasy hair (my friends). And there will always be those fat, lazy, out-of-shape girls with bad bras and pimples (me, at moments).

However blessed or cursed she (or I) may be with physical endowments, the fate of the counter girl always the same: we are universally regarded as moronic. So when my friend Jason said, “Why don’t you come work at McDonald’s?” I thought he was pulling my leg.

“You’re kidding, right? You want me to work at McDonald’s?”

What was he thinking? Hadn’t I endured enough wearing see-through pants at the Dairy Cream? What about the grim situation at Grandma’s Revenge, where I wasn’t manly enough to be in the kitchen and I wasn’t blonde enough to wait tables? Was I doomed to be a counter girl again?

Yes (sigh). I was. Lured in this time by Jason, an assistant manager at the McDonald’s restaurant in Okoboji, Iowa, a miniature resort area with an amusement park just thirty minutes west of Estherville. The area is home to several lakes around which the Midwest elite built shamefully elaborate summer homes and let their children run wild. Jason desperately needed more employees but hesitated to ask me, not wanting to look bad if a hired friend turned out to be a lousy worker. His current crew was largely composed of wealthy summer kids forced to take jobs “for the experience,” all of them despondent that their summer would be spent flipping burgers and serving their equally-privileged peers while earning $3.35 an hour. They were, “Like, so embarrassed!”

The turnover rate was high, and Jason managed the chronic absenteeism by hiring an eclectic collection of Esthervillians who were surprisingly reliable and capable of carpooling. There was my sister Lisa, whose warp-speed work habits earned her the nickname Lightning; her best friend, Lynn, a seasoned drinker and sex addict; Maryann, a twenty-McNugget-eating blonde; Christian, a pedantic comedian with a bloated ego; and Tina, a young woman who would years later marry the pedantic burger boy.

These people became my first temporary family. They were the first group of coworkers with whom I became emotionally entwined, who filled a hole that continually yawned open and slammed shut. But, like the countless temporary families that would follow, I wouldn’t miss them when I moved on—they were immediately replaced by fill-ins: a recycling of coworker understudies in the theatrical drama I imagined my working life to be. 

Tina and her family spent summers in an RV park on West Lake Okoboji. They had a lovely home nearby but for some strange reason enjoyed living in a mauve trailer that smelled like a port-a-potty. I spent many nights in that trailer (along with countless other couches and cars in the area) and days could pass without my needing a single reentry into Estherville. Tina and I (with Lisa nary a shadow away) quickly became sleep-deprived party girls. We worked the late-night or early-morning shifts and always had a subtle odor of fast food in our clothes and hair, making it mandatory that we confine our socializing to members of the McDonald’s crew.

This turned our working world into an incestuous stew, roiling with catfights and the drunken fruitfulness of coworkers with grossly conflicting gene pools. Jason and I even dated for a couple months during my first summer at the Mack Shack. Regrettably, I was uninterested in sharing any emotions at the time, unable to separate myself from the meticulous and orderly work machinations monopolizing my brain space. I was intent on charging ahead, propelling myself through time and on to whatever came next—even if it was just mopping. There could be no boyfriends. I was an emotional stone; my personality floated far away in a sea of insecurity and self-loathing.

Some nights, Lisa, Tina and I stayed out so late we had to sleep in one of our cars in the McDonald’s parking lot. We set our Swatches for 5:30 a.m. and like polyester-clad characters from “the Night of the Living Dead” marched inside to make Egg McMuffins, smelling strongly of booze and beer, hair matted and full of twigs from making out with coworkers in local wooded areas. More often than not, my head felt as though someone had screwed off the top and poured in salty road grit.

It was after these early mornings that I took little siestas in the women’s restroom. Yes, you read correctly; I slept in the john. If there were enough people working on a given day, a ten-minute absence went unnoticed, so a few times a day I napped with my head on my knees in the bathroom using my crossed arms as a pillow. And yet, no matter how bad the hangovers, no matter how wretched and awkward the lavatory slumber, my performance was always rock solid; it’s the Midwest way.

A handful of aspirin and a socially unacceptable amount of pickle slices later, Tina and I resumed our status as the ultimate drive-thru team: super fast, super accurate, and super friendly. Lisa provided the ballast of our power trio, running bags of food back and forth from the bins to the drive-thru window, feeding her addiction by occasionally snatching handfuls of fries from customers’ bags. The manager loved us because we worked as though someone were pointing a gun at our heads. The customers loved us because we pasted smiles on our faces no matter how bad our grease burns (two words: beef tallow). They would get their shakes, they would get their Big Macs, and they would get their fries (most of them, anyway). Everything was going to be just fine . . .

Yet, despite our obvious success as fast-food automatons, I still craved the attention of customers, even yearned for it, secretly desiring everyone’s approval and admiration. It was without rationale, this longing, and it expanded beyond any reasonable internal drive. It was a force that seemed at times to stand behind me, hissing in my ear, slapping my head and kicking me in the back. Faster! Faster! Hurry!  

Then, behind the stainless steel counter of a Midwest McDonald’s (a counter I had personally scrubbed and polished to a mirror-like sheen) an imaginary fan club signed up members in my mind. Look at Sandy go. She’s so fast. What would we ever do without Sandy?

I took on two other jobs that summer and, for the first time, experienced the marvels of sleep deprivation. Having multiple jobs guaranteed my escape from the boring tranquility of Midwest summers. As much I wanted it to be otherwise, that first summer in ’85 wasn’t the end of my relationship with McDonald’s—the franchise in Okoboji sustained me through other employment gigs, always providing a solid platform from which to branch. It simmered in the background the following summer, again in the winter of ’87 and in the spring and summer of ’88.

We all make bad choices (and trust me, I’ve made plenty), but I don’t think working in a fast food restaurant was one of mine. Until you’ve served several thousand rude assholes with a smile on your face, cat-napped on a public toilet, swept and mopped miles and miles of tile, won the take-the-shake-machine-apart contest two summers in a row, dined on a meal of pickles dipped in ketchup, and slept fully clothed in a blue LeCar in a McDonald’s parking lot—have you really, truly lived?

 

No. 7, Home Health Aide #1 (Age 16)

Aging: Reaching the end of useful life; obsolescent

“Gross, it smells like pee in here,” I said as we stepped inside the tiny house. Mom pressed a finger to her lips to silence me, but her forceful shushing shot spit in my direction. I lurched as it hit my cheek, knocking over a lamp and—from what I could hear in the next room—waking up Charlie, the male half of the elderly couple I was there to baby-sit.

“Jesus Christ, be careful,” my mother hissed. Then in a singsong voice called out, “Yoo-hoo!” followed by a three-syllable “Hell-oh-oo!” I grabbed the fallen lamp and propped it against the wall just as Charlie came tottering around the corner with his walker. His pants were unzipped and his mouth was hanging open. That’s just great, I thought—people who talk with their mouth stuck open have difficulties forming consonants. Nothing like trying to communicate with an old fart who only uses vowels.

“Hi, Charlie!” My mother’s voice feigned affection with impressive ease. He moaned something incomprehensible and waved at my mother like he was a teen queen on a parade float. His wife, Mildred, began bleating from the living room as the woman finishing up the night shift arrived from another room to greet us. Her eyes were ringed in black half-moons and nearly all of her hair had escaped from the rubber band tangled at the nape of her neck.

“Good Lord, these two take it out of me! Charlie’s been sittin’ in his chair all morning calling out other ladies’ names and Mildred has already gone to the bathroom six times.” I looked at my Swatch and noted it was only 8:00 a.m. Six times?

“Good to know,” Mom said. “By the way, this is my daughter Sandy. She’s only sixteen but she’s a hard worker, ain’t you, Sandman?”

I forced up the corners of my mouth.

Only greed and my obsession with accumulating work hours had enticed me to take this job in Wallingford, Iowa, a microscopic town bumping borders with Estherville. It also paid $5 an hour, tax-free. Mom worked there as well, and she and I were simultaneously working at understaffed fast food establishments in Okoboji and regularly competed to see who could tally up the most hours.

“Hey, Ma, I worked 56 hours this week.”

“Oh yeah? Well I worked 72. Shirley’s mom is in the hospital with pneumonia and I got to cover her shifts!”

“Hey, Ma, that one guy Steve has a raging kidney infection and they gave me all his hours! I worked 63 this week.”

Ooooo, you beat me. I only had 61.”

So went my summers in the Heartland.

I rarely slept that summer of ’85, and times when I should have been awake I was falling asleep in mid-sentence, or while driving, or while drunken skinny-dipping. Seriously, I nearly drowned twice, though it never prevented me from once again plunging into a rough lake with a fifth of gin in my stomach. I may have had youth on my side, but these sorts of festivities wore me down. So whenever Mildred took a nap I took one also, usually sitting up, posed for any unexpected guest. Sometimes I’d drift off to sleep while making the bed or peeling apples at the kitchen table. Despite my history of lavatory catnaps I was not about to sleep on their toilet. I squatted unnaturally over the elevated oval, trying not to touch anything that might have old people juice on it.

I was usually asleep somewhere in the house when their grandson showed up—that, or I would be in the process of stealing their medication. Mom had recommended the Lasix, a diuretic used to lessen the water around Milred’s heart. She lost seven pounds overnight from a single dose and I wanted in on that kind of weight loss. As long as I wasn’t jamming my fingers down my throat, I figured it shouldn’t matter how I maintained my thinness—just so long as I did. I once tried some of Charlie’s Haldol, a sedative and sleep aid, but I really wasn’t interested in sleeping soundly, only in staying up all night and being skinny.

I wasn’t very confident with this particular round of occupational thievery. I felt paranoid all the time and thought there were cameras trained on me as I rifled through their plastic forest of prescription bottles. I practiced an ignorant reaction in the event I was found out:

“You’re kidding me. These aren’t aspirin?” I even felt I could explain the ten-dollar bills I steadily snatched from Mildred’s purse. Most of my legitimate earnings went to car payments and auto insurance, and so I pilfered for party fare.

“Oh, that money. I was going to get Mildred another book of stamps.”

Mildred was in her late 70’s, wiped out physically from the ravages of Lupus but mentally sharp as a tack. If she felt like being a pain in the ass (which was always) she asked to be taken to the bathroom over and over and over again. She could walk with a walker but needed help getting onto the toilet, a task about as easy as lifting a corpse if you’re an underfed half-drowned hung over workaholic. She also needed her food cut into roughly 50 pieces and half of what she ate became lodged in her false teeth. I had to remove the gooey dentures (with my fingers) and help her flush out lingering food particles with flat ginger ale.

Charlie was another issue altogether. Nothing could possibly make a teenager fear aging more than an old man playing cowboy with his catheter tube. You see, Charlie had to be catheterized at night, and there is no greater revulsion than putting a condom catheter on an 80-year-old man’s atrophied penis. I had to shut off the human in me and pretend someone else’s hands were attached to my arms: Okay, so now I am touching his penis. Oh. Gross. And now . . . now, I am touching his balls. Sometimes, he’d get a little excited and grunt and giggle like a schoolboy. Thinking of it now still makes me gag.

To make matters that much worse, in the middle of the night, he’d yank off the catheter and the ten yards of medical tape attaching it to his nuts and he’d swing the bulging bag of urine over his head like a lasso. Urine sprayed everywhere, creating the scene that frequently greeted me when I arrived in the morning. If the night shift person announced that Charlie was still in bed, it was code for “Charlie is covered in pee and smiling about it.”

I doubt I would have worked there beyond that summer and the following events guaranteed none of the other aides would either. Charlie had Alzheimer’s, and a few times that summer he’d hopped into his truck and driven around town. He usually ended up in a neighbor’s driveway. The day the police found him wandering ten miles from home his children took away his keys and driving privileges. He was still allowed to tinker in the garage, even though he tripped and fell more than once, scaring the be-Jesus out of the help. In late August of that year he broke an arm, and his children put him and his wife in a nursing home. Mildred said she’d just die if her kids put her in “one of those places;” and she did just that.

They buried her two months later.

No. 8, Home Health Aide #2 (Age 16)

Quitter: A person who quits or gives up easily, esp. in the face of some difficulty or danger.

My mother and I sat at Minette’s kitchen table playing cards and drinking milky tea. We had a clear view of Minette as she lay on a mechanical bed in the living room. Her arms stretched out in front of her as she squeezed the remote control in both hands, growling and grunting as she tried and failed to find something entertaining on the console television.

“Shouldn’t we help her?” I asked. “Should I get her the TV Guide or something?”

“No, she’s fine. If she wants help, she’ll ask for it.” She laid down a full house and let out a small whoop. “Listen, Sandman. We’re only here for emergencies and she knows that. It’s what she wants. Once in a while she’ll come in the kitchen and we’ll talk for a while, but you shouldn’t worry about doing a thing unless she specifically calls for you. No fawning!”

“So I just sit here at the kitchen table until she asks for something?”

“That’s right.”

“I sit here the whole time?”

“That’s right.”

“Six hours. I sit here at the kitchen table for six hours?”

“That’s right. Now, I have to get to work and start making the biscuits. You know how those old farts complain if their biscuits aren’t puffy. I’ll be back this afternoon to take over,” she promised, stacking the cards and lighting a cigarette as she walked out the door. I instantly regretted offering to cover her shift.

Mom had been caring for 60-year-old Minette on a per diem basis, convinced when she began that Minette’s advanced emphysema would be a marvelous smoking deterrent, inspiring her to quit a decades-long habit. The job paid a nominal flat rate per shift and because of its lack of physical demands, it was an effortless way for my mother to supplement her earnings from a fast food restaurant. Except she still wound up with too much work and not enough sleep.

The drive from Estherville to Minette’s Okoboji home only took twenty minutes, but to an overworked, sleepless driver it was a painful eternity of near misses and automotive risk-taking. So when Mom asked for my help I took the bait. I had a hard time saying no to money. Or, maybe I had a hard time saying no to work. Or, perhaps I just had a hard time saying no . . .

This was one of those moments I wished I’d had the sense to say no thanks. Minette had emphysema. She’d suffered horribly for eleven years and was openly pissed about her imminent death. She was quite comfortable being mean and nasty to her caretakers, and passed the day mumbling insults from her sequestered throne in the living room.

“Can’t even remember which pills are which . . .”

“Too stupid to work a real job . . .”

Being sympathetic proved difficult if not impossible. On the one hand, she chose to smoke for years and had therefore drawn the bath that ultimately drowned her. On the other hand, she suffered a great deal in the final years of her life, and was probably hooked on cigarettes long before the medical community thought it might be a bad idea. Now, each gasp for breath made her ribcage bulge, her torso a grotesque barrel of air nearly splitting the thin skin covering it. Day after day—and with The End being the only end in sight—she woke knowing that her blue skin, matted hair and bedsores were part of a nightmare from which she’d never wake. 

“Sandy, I’m back,” Mom yelled as the screen door slammed behind her. “Hi there, Minette. What’s shakin’? I brought you a sausage and cheese biscuit.”

“No eggs on that, right?” Minette hated eggs.

“No eggs, I promise. I didn’t just scrape them off like last time.”

“Thanks, Pam. Your daughter was a big help.” I was? I hadn’t lifted a finger. Was she being sarcastic?

“Thanks, Min. She’s a hard worker ain’t you, Sandman.” Mom winked at me. “I’m going downstairs to check the laundry.” Laundry was the code word for smoking. Minette was jealous of smokers and Mom had to hide in the basement with her cigarettes. I listened to Minette’s lungs gurgling in the next room as I waited for Mom. I knew right then that I couldn’t—I wouldn’t—continue being her caretaker. I didn’t have to. I covered just one more shift before deciding I’d earn plenty of money working at my two other jobs; though I really enjoyed the brief time I got to tell people I had three.

Three jobs? All at once? Why, yes.

What an odd thrill for a young woman.

(And my mother never quit smoking.)