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.
“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.