No. 9, Fast Food Counter Girl (Age 16)

Legend: a collection of stories about an admirable person or a person who is the center of such stories.

My mother became manager of the Estherville McDonald’s after paying her dues as a burger flipper, salad maker, and super-speedy biscuit baker. It never crossed our minds to be discomfited by her fast food career, as she was always quick to remind that “a job is just a job,” and to be being completely honest, Mom was the fastest burger flipper and biscuit baker west of the Mississippi. I was far more embarrassed as a sixth grader when she worked at the beef packing plant—and that wasn’t because of what she did, but because of her blood-soaked clothing and the pieces of flesh clinging to her bib overalls at day’s end.

After work she’d retrieve us from school in our copper Ford pickup, then drag us into the grocery store bloody clothes and all, opening a carton of cigarettes and smoking through the aisles, lightly quashing her butt out on the floor then quickly lighting another. Sometimes she’d poke a finger in her nose and crank her arm a good turn or two when I looked in her direction. Then, for extra effect, she’d pretend to deposit the tiny payload in a seam of her overalls, hee-hawing at how horrified I was by her behavior. Sixth graders are fragile, and it didn’t help that my mother has never been bound by social convention. 

In September of ’85 my mother suggested I work for her at the Estherville McDonald’s, as it was impractical commuting to the McDonald’s in Okoboji once school had started. I said yes when she promised a raise to the tune of $3.85 an hour, though it seemed a foreseeable nightmare switching to a small town McDonald’s after a summer working in Okoboji. At the Okoboji McDonald’s at least six crewmembers and as many as three assistant managers closed the store on weekends. Plus, I didn’t know many of the customers; most were tourists and drunken boaters.

Now I would be working in Estherville, where it was just one employee and one assistant manager closing a store with twice the square footage. And instead of vacationing strangers, the customers were my classmates, friends, and relatives. I would also be working with my mother—the legendary Pam Breiner. Everyone loved working with her. Not only did she sport trendy hairstyles (at the time it was short with the top half platinum and the lower half her natural black—the skunk, I think it was called), but she laughed constantly, swore under her breath, was compassionate to a fault, and yelled “Oopy!” whenever she farted—which was often.

(A short aside: In regards to Mom’s relentless gastrointestinal output, my younger sister Charity said to me just last week: “Farting—I think it leaked out of Mom when she died, and went into us, her mad farts. I bent over to put clothes in the dryer the other day, and out, totally spontaneously, flew one of Mom’s “quacker” farts, and I actually looked around like, where the hell did that . . . Oh my God, that was from ME?!?) 

Working with my mother was a traumatic fusion of pride and humiliation, though I never displayed either emotion, I was too busy trying to impress her by forcing my face into an “I love working” mask and resisting the urge to whine. Mom had long before taught us to value employment (or at least the necessity of it for existence). We couldn’t always count on dinner or domicile, but we could count on Mom headed off to work in a frenzy, a genuine smile on her face, returning with an exhaustive plop in a tattered chair for a cigarette, a sense of satisfaction knowing a job was well done. I both respected and loathed her zealous work ethic—it was a tremendous burden to labor at her caliber, and a tragic reminder that hard work sometimes gets you nowhere. Look where it got her.

Serving the Estherville McDonald’s endless stream of customers practically on my own proved exhausting. To sustain myself during nightshifts, I’d sneak into the cooler and stuff an entire cheese Danish in my mouth. Too often I’d be found and hurried along to deal with a rush, with no time to wipe the icing from the corners of my mouth. A dozen cars would be beeping for window service and there would be a line at every register, even the ones clearly marked closed. Having so recently been a drive-thru superstar in Okoboji, I was frustrated by the inability to demonstrate my fast food skill set under these circumstances, and was constantly filled with bad worker shame. I desperately wanted to give jobs my all, far beyond their ability to give back. In doing so, I knew I wouldn’t feel bad if I filched or left on short notice.

It became clear my days were numbered when I tried to cut myself a short month after I’d started. The plan was to slice my thumb, then arrive at work and show the open wound to the manager on duty and ask, “Does this need stitches?” Then I’d be hustled off to the doctor and not have to work my shift. Seriously, it sucked that much. I locked myself in our upstairs bathroom and tied a bandana around my left thumb, tourniquet-style, and waited until it was bright purple and tingly. I held it under running water and started slowly etching into my thumb, trying to envision a quick and painless whack into the bulging skin. It would split open; a yawning hole relieved of pressure, splaying out to reveal those hidden layers underneath.

Resting on my elbows, I scraped the blade back and forth, casually wondering if this particular activity might warrant a trip to crazy town. In the end, a simple lack of courage prevented me from joining the ranks of self-mutilators that day. I couldn’t bring myself to bring the blade down hard. I could barely filet a callus. So I gave up the butcher project and went in for what I decided was my last shift. I knew Mom would understand. My imminent exit was a lovely little secret . . .

That night I ate my cheese Danish outside the cooler.

No. 10, Bus Girl / Pizza Maker (Age 16-17)

Tip: A small sum of money given to someone for performing a service; a gratuity.

“Taco pizza?” I said as I peeked inside the cardboard box Lisa brought home from work. Inside was a cold pizza covered with wilted lettuce and shriveled tomatoes. A dozen packets of taco sauce were crammed under the crust.

“It’s totally awesome,” she squealed. “Have a slice.”

“It sounds totally sick!” Cheddar cheese and ground beef belonged on a bun with ketchup, not on a crust. Still, my hesitant nibbles turned into enormous bites, and before long I had eaten half of her dinner.

“Jesus Christ, were you hungry? Don’t they feed you at McDonald’s?”

“Tonight was my last night. I had a cheese Danish.”

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. I love those things.”

“No, I meant did you seriously quit.” 

“Oh, yeah.”

“Really? We need someone to bus tables down at Paul’s.”

“Really? I’ll apply tomorrow.”

And so I did just that, locking in job number ten without missing a day’s pay in the transition. Of course, the only thing I knew about Paul’s Pizza when I signed up for dish duty was that when Lisa came home from her shifts she smelled really bad. She stunk. I never thought to connect the dots and just assumed she was boycotting deodorant again. Turns out it was actually onions, and I’d soon have the same stinky cloud following me around. 

As you might imagine, there is nothing exciting or even interesting about bussing tables, and so in between the stretches of time I spent standing on concrete hunched over a stainless steel sink full of dishes—stretches of time I can accurately trace to the birth of my very first spider veins—I ate pizza. Lots and lots of pizza. I tried every permutation of ingredients, searching for that perfect combination of greasy meat and vegetables.

It was my senior year of high school and I’d completely given up any attempt to live as a culinary ascetic—and had packed on seventy pounds. Let me put that in perspective. I consumed an extra quarter million calories beyond what my body needed—in just under a year. This weight gain coincided with (or perhaps catalyzed) an extremely late burst of physical development. I cleaned tables and washed dishes and had far too many people watching as my body began to bust open at the seams.

“Hey, Sandy! Can you get table ten?” I wiped my hands on my apron and grabbed a bus tub, pausing to look through the smudged circular window. To the left of table ten were a few girls from my senior class; to the right of table ten were some jocks. I pushed open the swinging doors and headed straight to the table, looking into the bus tub so as not to meet anyone’s eyes. I loaded up the dishes and thought I’d gone unnoticed when the table of girls started whispering.

“It looks like someone’s been eating too much pizza.”

“Shut up, she’s standing right there.”

“Oh my god, that is so sad.”

As though on cue, the jocks filled in the balance of my humiliation by laughing and elbowing each other, their snickers punctuated with mooing and oinking. I fought back tears and wiped the remaining sauce from the table before heading for cover in the kitchen. 

If only that experience were an isolated incident. As one of the few bus girls I spent way too much time sweating in that dining room. And Paul’s was always short workers so there was never a break. Not for me. Nor for the pizza makers (which was sometimes me, but not often enough). A handful of shifts were so busy unattended pizzas spilled from the motorized oven onto the floor.

One night in the middle of the madness, Lisa stepped on the end of an industrial mop, causing it to pop up and whack her in the mouth, just like in a cartoon. It bloodied her face and snapped off half a tooth. She was whisked away on a dental emergency (we were all jealous) as pizzas continued to fall like stones.

“Sandy, get over here and help make pizzas! Let’s go! Let’s go!” someone called from the pizza line. I took a towel and followed the bloody path out the back door, then hustled to join the pizza makers, wondering all the while who was going to do the dishes. After a few pies passed my station, the manager starting yelling.

“Sandy! Cheese!”

“Huh?”

“Cheese!”

“What?”

“Cheese!”

“Yeah, I put cheese on them.“

The manager turned to me, exaggerating her annunciation and gesturing with her hands like one of us was deaf (not sure which one, but one of us).

“Please. Go. Get. More. Cheese. Out. Of. The. Cooler.”

Good Lord. She could have said that in the first place. I allowed a moment of fantasy in which I called her a bitch and we rolled around on the floor, me pulling her hair like my sister pulled mine when we fought, then I went into the cooler and stuffed a handful of mozzarella in my mouth. My head was still tipped back when Cheryl the Delivery Girl burst in.

“What are you doing?”

“Um . . .” I swallowed as much of the cheese as I could, choking a bit (my mouth was dry). “I’m refilling the pizza table. Lisa broke a tooth in half so I’m filling in.”

“Can you help me load up my car for the next delivery?” Cheryl stood just inside the cooler door organizing a pile of wrinkled money and checks.

“Do you always carry that much money with you?”

“No, these are my tips.”

“No way! Those are your tips?” There were some fives and tens mixed in with the singles.

“Yeah, some nights I make over fifty bucks. Grab some taco sauces, will you?” Just then my boss flung open the cooler door.

“What the Christ in Hell are you doing in here?” she yelled.

“Um, I was uh . . .”

(Hopeless.)

Eight months, hundreds of bus tubs, and thousands of unneeded calories later, I was hanging out with Lisa while she got ready for the prom I wasn’t invited to. I’d decided to work instead of going stag with all the other dweebs, knowing I’d stand by the wall and be universally ignored. Instead of satin and uncomfortable sandals, I got to squeeze into my requisite polyester slacks and a horizontally-striped shirt that gripped the expanding chest I no longer wanted.

I told Lisa, “I’m thinking of being a delivery driver.”

“Doubt it. For starters, you have to be eighteen. Don’t you know everybody hates the delivery drivers?”

“No. Why’s that?”

Duh. Because they make tons of money and never have to smell like onions.”

Hated or not, the more I thought about the cash, the faster I filled with Tip Envy. I promised myself I would one day be a delivery driver. I just had to get my hands on some of those tips. Why was I never the one to get tips? Where were my tips?

“Are you going to stop by the dance later?” Lisa’s voice tugged me from my reverie.

“Yeah, right. I’ll just swing by at midnight when I smell like Farmer Dan’s onion fields.”

“Okay!” Lisa shouted over the blow dryer, her feathered blonde hair shielding her eyes from my envious stare. I reached up and shoved a handful of frizzy curls behind an ear.

To say I was happy to be finished with high school is an understatement. I quit working at Paul’s Pizza as soon as I tore off my tissue paper gown, then immediately signed on for a second summer at McDonald’s in Okoboji. Lisa was nary a shadow behind me. Finally, we’d be free of the tang of onions.

It was far better smelling like French fries.

No. 11, Coupon Book Delivery Girl (Age 17)

Hoodwink: To deceive or trick. 

Midwesterners, bible beaters, and countless other Holy Rollers have a reputation for giving everyone—most notably solicitors and traveling salesmen—the benefit of the doubt. Trust now, ask about stopping payment on the check later. My lapsed-Catholic mother was no exception, and let anyone who wasn’t an ex-husband into our home. All they had to do was knock. Avon, Amway, Mary Kay—my mother either bought the shit or sold it. Did she need encyclopedias for her children? Why, yes she did! How about a badass vacuum for our rugs? How did they know? Got Jehovah? Well . . . they were always invited in for coffee.

I remember thumbing through piles of Watchtower magazines, wondering why my mother was interested in such an amateurish display of cartooning skills. As far as I knew, Jesus was just a creepy figurehead on Granny Idela’s walls, his holographic eyes always following me around, watching me pick my nose, knowing when I touched myself under the covers. Outside of weddings and Lisa’s and my brief tour of remedial catechism we never went to church (yet were routinely threatened with eternal damnation). When I was a pre-teen a friend’s older sister once asked me if I was a virgin. I actually thought “virgin” was some kind of religion, and so my answer was, “No, I’m Catholic.”

The phony coupon book hoax was one of many sales campaigns traveling through our area that summer of ’86. Oblivious to any imminent deception, I followed the instructions in the Estherville Daily’s (tiny) Help Wanted section and arrived unannounced at the Palazzo, the motel where I took my first job and still worked occasional shifts. The advertisement said drivers were needed to deliver coupon books. It also mentioned a flexible schedule and tips. Tips? I could hardly believe my luck. I was already working as many hours as possible at McDonald’s in Okoboji in a tardy effort to save for my freshman semester at Iowa State University. I was convinced a job with tips might put the kibosh on my financial worries.

There was definitely something seedy about running a business out of a motel room, and my skin hardened into gooseflesh when I put my hand on the doorknob. I relaxed when I smelled the familiar odors of soiled comforters and neglected carpet, when I saw two beds pushed against a wall unmade. Every head looked up when I entered. I recognized a few housewives, some retirees I’d seen guzzling coffee at the Estherville McDonald’s (free refills for old farts), and my math teacher’s daughter.

“Um, yeah. Hi. I’m here about the delivery position?” It came out as a question even though I’d rehearsed on the drive over. A woman with arms the size of pencils walked out of the bathroom and approached me.

“Hi! I’m Sherry. Did I hear you say you want to deliver?”

“Um, yeah.” I stepped backwards a foot as she leaned into my personal space. Her breath smelled like cigarettes and Crest.

“Okay. Well, as a driver you are in a contracted position so you don’t need to fill out any paperwork. You get $2 for each book you deliver plus ten cents a mile and any tips the customers give you. Does that sound acceptable?”

“I guess so.”

“Alright, just sit down here until we have a run for you.” 

She handed me a map of rural Estherville and I settled into a club chair with oily stains on the arms, careful not to let my skin touch the fabric. I listened as the telemarketers cold-called Estherville residents and sold nearly every one of them a coupon book filled with hundreds of dollars worth of reduced prices and free stuff. Callers were going through the phone book one name at a time, hunting down the penny-pinchers and promising them cheap haircuts and free ice cream cones. The coupon books were sold with unbelievable ease. A tinny voice crackling through a phone’s receiver was all consumers needed to give away their credit card numbers and first born children. Housewives and retirees were snapping up those coupon books like two-for-one boxes of Hamburger Helper.

At last it was my turn to deliver. It was not the paradise I’d expected. I got lost trying to locate the rural residences (every single one of them), and drove up and down miles of dirt road playing connect-the-cornfield at unsafe speeds as I beat on my steering wheel and cried. I quit three hours later. I wasn’t going to waste another minute breathing in dirt and allowing my Le Car to fill with a bouquet of manure each time I opened the window. How in the hell was I supposed to get any tips?

I pulled up to a tiny diner in the middle of a town I never knew existed until that moment. I hopped into a Superman-style phone booth on the side of the building and called the one room office at the Palazzo Motel.

“Listen, um. I, um, have a flat tire? So I’m, uh, not going to be able to finish.” I tried to sound flustered.

“Are you sure you have a flat tire?” was the accusatory response that came from the receiver. Perhaps I wasn’t the first flat tire that day.

“Um, yeah. I called my dad and he’s going to come and change it for me.” I could hear the skinny lady whispering to someone. “Um, yeah. So listen,” I went ahead and interrupted, “I’m not going to be able to come back in so I guess umm . . .”

I pulled the phone away from my mouth and heard her talking as I dropped the receiver into its cradle. I went into the diner, got an ice cream cone, and drove home.

Mildly embarrassed by my flat-tire tale, I never returned to get paid the promised pennies per mile. Instead I kept the coupon books I was supposed to deliver, figuring I was coming out on the good side of the deal since they cost $30 each. What the retailers, the buyers, the telemarketers and I didn’t know at the time was that soon the coupon books weren’t going to be worth the paper they were printed on.

Within a month the majority of Estherville’s shopkeepers, storeowners, and restaurateurs were forced to invalidate the coupons. It was a huge scam in which the retailers took a beating. They’d paid a huge chunk of cash to have a coupon in the books, believing a sales pitch about how it was a sure-fire way to increase business. Only the books were so popular all the hairdressers in town were giving every haircut for free, the dairies were running out of ice cream, and the fast food restaurants were running out of fries.

And I never got any tips.

No. 12, Corn Detasseler (Age 17)

INFLORESCENCE: A flowering or blossoming.

I longed to be a corn detasseler ever since my days as a corn roguer. There is no logic for this desire beyond the speculative delight of not having to carry a hoe. That, and most people I knew who’d done it came away with fistfuls of cash. It was a two-boon job: money and hoelessness. Searching for anything more interesting will likely prove futile.

Sure, I could tell you how the corn dust made my fingers swell to the size of quality German sausages. I could tell you the spicy skin problem then spread to my arms and legs, making me look like I’d gone skipping naked through an acre of poison ivy. I could tell you detasseling is the second step employed by farmers to assure the genetic purity of seed corn, performed by riding machines or by walking the fields on foot. I could teach you how the male portion of the corn plant—the pollen-bearing inflorescence called the tassel—is removed from all female plants to avoid self-pollination or contamination. I could start with this (and it appears as though I have), if only to lead you through the details and on to the next transition . . .

My friend Sampson was working as a crew chief the summer of ’86. I was recruited to help a small team with half a dozen acres, a job too small for professional riding crews. He said he’d pay me $5.75 an hour. I signed on pronto, imagining detasseling corn to be far easier than rogueing it, and knowing that working with friends made even the worst jobs manageable. Besides, I thought if I had a great tan no one would notice my dimpled thighs.

Sampson was transitioning from an unrewarding first year at a state university to a musical theatre school in New York City. We were both on the fringe in our small community. Sampson’s family lived in a trailer park, and it was no secret that my family kept tarantulas and hermit crabs as pets, not to mention the prolific bat population in our attic. We were both in swing choir.

Sampson was a terrible crew chief and together we were the world’s worst detasselers. He thought nothing of shirking his responsibility to the farmer who’d hired him. He, too, was in it for the tan. When the rest of his crew was working, Sampson and I would duck out of view and run ahead a couple hundred yards. We’d trample a small area of corn and make a fort, sitting down to rest and eat melted jellybeans until the other detasselers were within earshot.

After a couple days I tried (and failed) to cajole Sampson into actually working. I liked horsing around just as much as the next girl, but I was embarrassed by our performance and concerned that our shoddy detasseling might come back and bite our asses.

There was little motivation (melanin or otherwise) to continue after the first week. Never mind the corn rash. It was loath to be remedied, my skin far too traumatized to make any money worthwhile. My solution, as always, was to tender my resignation and work more hours at McDonald’s.

I whined to Lisa about my suffering. She half-listened, simultaneously chewing her fingernails and smoking.

“I don’t have any near enough money for school and I don’t even care. Detasseling sucks.”

“You know,” Lisa cut in, “if you don’t mind putting off college we could join the military and do the buddy system.”

“The buddy system? What the hell is that?”

“Well, if we sign up together we can attend the same boot camp and get a bunch of money for college when we’re done.”

“When would I be done?”

“Four years.”

“Four years?”

“Yeah, and I can get stationed near Jeff.” Jeff was Lisa’s new husband. He was in the military.

The following week Lisa and I filled out our paperwork and sat for the mandatory tests. Shifts at McDonald’s dragged on interminably as I waited for news about the status of our applications. A week later Lisa and I went in for the results. We waited on a dusty tweed couch, holding hands as we giggled about the haircuts we’d have to get for boot camp. Lisa was called in first. I was called in less than five minutes later. She rolled her eyes and flared her nostrils on the way out the door.

In the office I sat ramrod straight in a metal folding chair, the only chair in the room other than the one the recruiter sat in. His hands gripped the sides of a manila folder. He wasn’t smiling. “I’m sorry, Miss Breiner. The United States Military is denying you entry.” My mouth fell open and his voice faded into a soft drone as it listed my positive qualities, weaving in some benign indication that I was a slight psychological risk. Slight.

“Lisa!” I screamed across parking lot outside the recruiter’s office. “They said I can’t join the military! Can you believe it?” She stubbed a cigarette out on the sole of her boots and flipped her Farrah hair from one shoulder to the other.

“Well, I got in but I can’t go because apparently I’m pregnant. Can you believe that?”

I let out a tiny scream. “Oh my god, let’s go tell Mom!” We hopped into her aging Fiat and drove home to share the news. Before we reached the town line I’d forgotten all about the military.

Lisa and I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting at the kitchen table drinking milky tea with Mom. She was excited about her first grandchild but not about becoming a thirty-eight-year-old grandma.

“Well,” Mom sighed, chugging the last of her tea and wiping her mouth on the shoulder of her T-shirt. She lifted a cheek and let out a fart. “At least Sandy’s going to college.” Mom winked at me, “You’ll make us all proud, won’t you, Sandman.”

(No pressure or anything.)

Sure Ma, I thought, I’ll make you proud. I’ll just pave that road to riches with money from student loans.

Sallie Mae was destined to be my new best friend.

No. 13, Multi-Restaurant Delivery Girl (Age 17)

CHARACTER ACTOR: An actor who lacks some of the admittedly subjective physical attributes associated with movie stars: too tall, too short, unattractive, overweight, or somehow lacking an ephemeral “star quality.”

Most incoming freshman have only a vague idea of how dining services operate, how to register for classes, what those classes should be, or how to schedule those classes around Days of Our Lives and All My Children. Ideally, parents travel with eager new students to a summer orientation where said student is tossed into a sea of colored pamphlets and information overload. Hordes of preppy, soon-to-be sophomores guide them around singing praises of the school, zealously demonstrating their membership in Brown Nosers of America. Students unable to attend summer orientation catch a last-minute session a few days prior to the start of fall classes (sans parental units). I was one who waited until the later orientation, and so had to register for classes over the phone. Somehow, I wasn’t instructed to sign up for freshman English—who knew? Talk about poor planning. I was doomed.

If your parents didn’t go to college—and mine didn’t, in fact, my Dad only made it through the eighth grade—then there is little or no concept of the college experience. Orientation? Care packages? College savings? Huh? Mom filled out the financial aid forms and, after that, I was on my own. On campus I got lost trying to find this magical orientation and so dismissed it entirely, losing out on vital information about securing work-study positions to supplement my student loans and non-existent savings. I was up crap creek without a paddle or a lifejacket or any ability to swim. I swore I wasn’t going to work in a fast food joint again, and I wasn’t sold on the idea of wearing a hairnet in the cafeteria. It was bad enough I had braces on my teeth and a body I cried about every night before I went to sleep; I didn’t need a hairnet and fry-pimpled skin to completely rule out any chances of companionship. But I was fortunate enough to have a car, and just down the street from my dormitory was a place advertising several delivery positions with flexible schedules and lots of tips. Tips. I gazed to the heavens, dreaming of bulging pockets and endless trips to the vending machines for Twinkies and cheese sandwiches. I would get my tips.

The business was brand new, started by a former student bored with having been limited to pizza and sub delivery while in college. He created a service that delivered food from a large selection of restaurants—even diners and ice cream shops. My Le Car would be a trusty steed for delivery. Young women have strange relationships with 4-cylinder engines and stick shifts. I felt as though I ruled the world, zipping and darting and shifting and beeping and laughing at my auto-efficiency and self-proclaimed bad-assery because I could drive a manual transmission. So I zipped and darted down the street to Hungry Cyclone’s headquarters for my first shift as a delivery driver in a city I had lived in for less than ten days.

I ended up with just three delivery runs that night and $7 in tips. Ouch. That was far less than the thirty or forty dollars I had been hoping for—even if I figured in $4.25 an hour plus ten cents a mile.

Apparently the owner didn’t think about the fact that the rib restaurant, the ice cream shop, and the cookie store had no experience in high volume takeout service. Drivers were left waiting while rib juice leaked into our upholstery and French fries stunk up our cars. It was chaos for everyone involved. I got lost without exception and each time showed up with cold food (or warm, whichever was least desirable). Lobbing burgers to last-call drunks from behind the safety of a stainless steel counter sounded like paradise as the hours passed and the pizzas chilled.

After my first night I arrived at my dorm room in a cranky mood. My roommate Beth was all smiles.

“A package came for you today, Sandy. It’s really heavy.” I looked at her pale face. An unknown stress had manifested itself as cold sores that circled her mouth and crawled into her nose. I wondered what she looked like at the end of a semester.

“Thanks.” I took the box and set it on the bed. “Hey, this is from my Granny Idela. It’s a care package.” I could only imagine what was inside. As a child, I thought all grandmas had faux-leopard walls and faux-leopard furniture, and dressed in sequined gowns and blonde wigs and looked a lot like Dolly Parton. I thought all kids went to dive bars on the Jersey Shore to hear grandma sing and play drums in her country band, Idela and the Country Cream. I even tried to emulate her musical prowess that semester by auditioning for and landing a spot as a snare drummer in the university orchestra. I loved walking to campus with drumsticks hanging out of my back pocket. Maybe I should become a classical snare drummer? That would be cool. Except I quit—rather, I quit showing up—after just two rehearsals, mortified that I had to count in silence through 117 measures of rests, only to play a single par-a-diddle or flam before counting 60 more. Ugh. Boooring.

Looking down at the box, I noticed her usual salutation: To the Most Beautiful and Talented Granddaughter in the World. Each of we granddaughters was the most something, it depended on her mood. Grandma employed a ruler to guide her handwriting and all the letters were flat on the bottom, the tops were curls and swirls. I used a knife to cut the half-dozen layers of tape. “Are you ready?” I asked Beth.

“Sure, whatever,” she said. “I just hope there’s chocolate.” I removed the contents of the box one thing at a time and piled everything in the center of the room. Three-fourths of the stuff was wrapped in tissue, wrapping paper and ribbon. Beth’s eyes bulged as I removed the following from the 16″ x 16″ x 22″ box:

  1. 1 wire-bound college-ruled notebook, 50 pages
  2. 1 wire-bound wide-rule notebook, 40 pages
  3. 1 wire-bound college-ruled notebook, 50 pages
  4. 1 wire-bound wide-rule notebook, 40 pages
  5. 2 5-pack index dividers w/tabs
  6. 1 wire-bound college-ruled notebook, 5 pages
  7. 1 8-ounce pack Gevalia coffee
  8. 2 13″ x 7″ x 4″ plastic Sterilite storage boxes w/lids
  9. 1 cassette tape “Kings of Swing” big band swing
  10. 1 miniature screwdriver set
  11. 1 Electrex quartz travel alarm clock
  12. 2 lightbulb magnets (blue and yellow)
  13. 2 self-adhesive plastic hooks
  14. 1 purple pencil sharpener
  15. 1 chip clip
  16. 1 100-tablet Walgreen’s multi-vitamins (expired)
  17. 1 Golden Choice sesame cookies with honey
  18. 1 rose petal perfume (1/2 oz)
  19. 1 silver-tone bracelet
  20. 1 silver-tone ring with abalone hearts
  21. 1 silver-tone ring with oval abalone
  22. 1 silver-tone mesh bracelet with abalone ovals
  23. 1 small denim pouch
  24. 1 brown beaded necklace with faux pearl doves
  25. 1 pair brown beaded earrings with faux pearl doves
  26. 1 silver-tone necklace with half spade decor
  27. 1 small powder-blue washable feather duster
  28. 3 6-packs AA batteries (expired)
  29. 1 giant bottle Eau de Jontue fraiche cologne
  30. 2 toothbrushes (1 soft, 1 medium)
  31. 1 pink and teal vinyl pouch (reversible)
  32. 1 nightlight
  33. 2 mini spiral notebooks
  34. 1 pack Blackhorse Tavern playing cards
  35. 1 strawberry Kissing Potion
  36. 2 loose AA batteries
  37. 1 pair high-tech toenail clippers
  38. 1 tube Hair Away
  39. 1 bonus pack (30% more) Thin Mints
  40. 1 Belwood alarm clock radio
  41. 1 pack loose-leaf paper
  42. 1 flower-embossed leather purse
  43. 1 bottle 100 tablets Theragran M (expired)
  44. 1 bottle 30 tablets Theragran M (expired)
  45. 1 flowery compact with mirror
  46. 1 auto maplight
  47. 1 auto spotlight (plugs into lighter)
  48. 1 plastic hanging hosiery caddy
  49. 1 red, yellow and blue placemat
  50. 1 threaded sewing needle
  51. 2 pins with purple and blue heads
  52. 5 safety pins
  53. 4 mini threads
  54. 1 pair scissors with rubber finger guards
  55. 3 packets powdered Alpine spiced cider
  56. 2 packets Carnation hot cocoa mix
  57. 1 Revlon white plastic comb
  58. 1 wooden back scratcher with brass hand
  59. 1 bag rubber bands
  60. 1 one-cup coffee brewing device
  61. 4 shopping list coupon caddies
  62. 2 pencils
  63. 1 shower clip with plastic handle
  64. 1 Quantas travel toothbrush w/ paste
  65. 1 vinyl travel bag from Time Magazine
  66. 1 even bigger vinyl travel bag from Time Magazine
  67. 1 tan wash rag
  68. 1 tan hand towel
  69. 1 white hand towel with Christmas tree
  70. 2 moss-green bath towels
  71. 1 pink and black alien-head key chain

I sat back on my heels and looked at Beth. “Have I mentioned anything about my grandma?”

Granny IdelaGranny Idela

I coasted down the street to my second shift at Hungry Cyclone and grudgingly loaded empty cold bags and a hot box into my car. The hot boxes were kept warm with a Sterno; a tin cup holding flammable gel that warms when ignited. A few hours into this second shift of zipping, careening and pissing people off with lateness, my mighty LeCar filled with creamy smoke. The Sterno had tipped over and its weak blue flames had ignited my car seat. It quickly burned through the upholstery and started melting the foam underneath. The acrid smell caused me to swerve around corners, barely missing blurry pedestrians as my eyes burned and squirted tears. I managed to pull over and pound out the flames, tipping a pizza on its side and spilling hot Sterno gel as I threw the hot box to the floor. I immediately headed back to the shop and—like a true drama queen—explained my plight to the owner, cut my shift short, and raced out the door.

I didn’t take another job that semester; instead, I tried to be frugal with the tiny amount left from my student loans. I partied like a true freshman. I wanted to recreate my earliest recollections of getting drunk, when my body hummed and my face felt sparkly. Unfortunately, I seemed to continue skipping over the fun part and went from slightly buzzed to passed out cold. I spent entire weekends with crippling hangovers. Halfway through the semester I quit going to classes because I decided I was going to be an actress. Why not, I thought; I was in plays in high school. Sampson was already in New York City and was urging me to audition at the theatre school he was attending (I think he just needed a roommate). And Granny Idela needed a grandchild to gain the fame and fortune that had somehow eluded her.

I figured I would need to lose some weight if I was to be an actress (I had packed on 50 pounds in the past year). But instead of abstaining from excessive eating or engaging in exercise, I borrowed twenty dollars from my roommate to buy laxatives, thinking I could shit out all the donut calories. I went so far as to spend an entire afternoon lying in bed, dangling a hammer over my face, thinking if I broke my jaw just a little I could get my mouth wired shut. Liquid lunches would guarantee a stage-worthy body.

Only I couldn’t do it. Not only was I was afraid of the pain, but having a hammer fall on my face would require a fairly elaborate explanation, not to mention a lengthy trip to crazy town. I’d just have to be a character actress. So after a single semester of college I returned to Estherville to prepare for my audition at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. In the interim I’d have to return to McDonald’s and apply at the local egg processing plant where they always had openings.

I told Mom about the new plan and she said, “Whatever you want to do, Sandman!” Her habit was to always tell me I was the smart one (I wasn’t), the one who could do anything I tried (I couldn’t), the one who would be rich and famous (I’m still hopeful) and—I always found this a curious declaration—the one who would buy my own jewelry. What little guidance I’d been provided had long before been withdrawn. I knew only what was expected in the end.

A Bit of Background: Part I, Serial Movers

My first few jobs took place in the 80’s, a time when everybody in our family and circle of friends was either broke or had just bought their tickets. My parents had a good run when the Estherville beef-packing plant was open, with my mom slicing and dicing the cows and my dad hauling them off in his eighteen-wheeler. Still, they were not immune to a failing economy, and right around the time I started job number four my parents’ money troubles got the best of them, and they lost our house on South 10th Street. We were doomed to be renters, again. The house we moved into on North 8th Street would be the fifteenth place we’d set up residence in our short lifetime. Lisa and I were well-seasoned movers by then, and generally looked forward to once more reassembling our belongings.

To me, it seemed we were always moving, always hurrying, always packing up and getting the hell out of somewhere fast. I look back and wonder if the kinetic fallout of such urgent change was among the reasons I continually hurled myself from job to job. It is fitting, I suppose, to enumerate the many places we lay our heads and greeted the day, if only to illluminate the reality that whether you are an adult or a child, life has the ability to just drag you along behind it. Sometimes by holding your hand, and sometimes by clutching onto your hair while you play dead.

That being said; Where we lived and a wee bit of how . . .

Lisa and my first home was near a United States Army facility in Kaiserslaughtern, Germany, the second in Vogelweh, Germany, followed by several towns in Pennsylvania: first Hulmeville and Bristol, then, when Mom divorced our father and hooked up with a new guy, we moved in with the new guy’s mother in Langhorne, and later into a two-family in Plumsteadville. Leaving Pennsylvania, we spent a short stint with our maternal grandma in Bordentown, New Jersey. In the midst of all this, my mother began having fainting spells and was prone to blacking out at work.

After one of these fainting spells a coworker stood over her. With his thin face, plank straight hair and scraggly beard, she thought she had died and was lying before Christ (Seriously, he totally looked like Jesus). He turned out to be her savior nonetheless, volunteering to take her to the hospital and then—after a whirlwind courtship—asking her to move to Iowa once he got settled there with his parents and six younger siblings (See Prologue). Most 18-year-old men would run screaming from a 24-year-old divorcée with two small children. But this scrawny hero was destined to be our Dad.

Then came Iowa, but not before Lisa and I were sent into foster care where we remained for a year, from Christmas through Christmas, while Mom detoxed and spent some time in the clinker. Does it really matter why? Let’s just say she couldn’t vote anymore.

After arriving safely in the Midwest, we first stayed with our new father’s family in Estherville, Iowa. We only stayed with them a few months, but Lisa and I would spend many summers on their farm, building forts, riding horses, playing Land of the Lost, and exploring the mysterious miles of forest in their backyard. Our first official home in Iowa was on South 9th Street, the second a house near the City Swimming Pool, after that a place on North 6th Street, then on to a glorious farm in Dunnell, MN, where Lisa and I played hard and sleuthed through the dozen empty barn buildings and acres of gooseberry bushes and mulberry trees.

In the third grade, my parents picked us up again and returned to Estherville, Iowa and moved into a run down two-bedroom on South 2nd Avenue. It had a big yard and was close to school, and the brick garage had cool nooks for Lisa to hide her cigarettes. It was really a dump, but it felt like home during family epidemics of chicken pox and scabies, and it was the last place my parents rented before buying their very first home located just around the corner—the one on South 10th Street that they’d just given back to the back to the bank.

Site User Manual: What to Expect

My intentions with this site are to post individual narratives from each of my 74 jobs. These tales will be posted one-by-one at a pace I’m unable to predict or even contemplate at this time. I might do them in order. I might skip around. I might take requests. I might go on vacation. The majority of the text will be cannibalized from a book project I’ve kept tucked into a drawer for the past few years (a very, very large drawer). The format of this site will always be a work-in-progress. You’ll have to keep checking back or subscribe to receive email updates . . .

Whatever methods I choose to unfold the details of my serial work, The Serial Worker should remain a venue for fellow workers of the world to read about or discuss the tragicomical realities of the chronically employed. And what shitty, horrible realities they usually are.

Shitty, yes. Horrible, perhaps. But also hilarious, and insightful, and rife with the very passions and anger and fears which make us human.

You never know, perhaps The Serial Worker will help others find clarity in their toil, or reveal new ways to find humor in the stupid, asinine things our employers make us do for money.

At the bare minimum, The Serial Worker will slowly reveal the clandestine truth which keeps us workers smiling, a truth that toes the line of revenge (or at the very least, complacency), and that truth is:

The average Joe Worker does some really strange things when no one is watching.

Enjoy.

The Serial Worker’s Job List

ESTHERVILLE, IA

1.   Housekeeper (Age 12-14)
2.   Corn Roguer (Age 13)
3.   Ice Cream Counter Girl (Age 14)
4.   Family Restaurant Counter Girl (Age 14-15)
A Bit of Background: Part I, Serial Movers
5.   Sales Clerk (Age 15)
6.   Drive-thru Counter Girl (Age 16-19)
7.   Home Health Aide #1 (Age 16)
8.   Home Health Aide #2 (Age 16)
9.   Fast Food Counter Girl (Age 16)
10. Bus Girl / Pizza Maker (Age 16-17)
11. Coupon Book Delivery Girl (Age 17)
12. Corn Detasseler (Age 17)

A MOVE TO AMES, IA

13. Multi-Restaurant Delivery Girl

(BACK TO) ESTHERVILLE, IA

14. Egg Factory Worker

A MOVE TO STATEN ISLAND, NY

15. Dental Office Receptionist

(BACK TO) ESTHERVILLE, IA

16. Bean Walker

A MOVE TO NEW YORK, NY

17. Abortion Rights Phone Solicitor
18. Nightclub Pass Distributor
19. Student Janitor
20. Display Setup Grunt

(BACK TO) ESTHERVILLE, IA

21. Tour Boat Bartender

A MOVE TO IOWA CITY, IA

22. College Cafeteria Worker
23. Grocery Cashier
24. Medical Records Filer
25. Caterer
26. Newspaper Intern
27. Artist-in-Residence
28. Preview Arts Writer
29. Research Assistant
30. Arts & Entertainment Editor
31. Grocery Deli Worker
32. Overnight Grocery Stocker
33. Test Scorer #1

(BACK TO) NEW YORK, NY

34. Assistant Historical Romance Editor
35. Waitress
36. Dog Walker

(BACK TO) IOWA CITY, IA

37. Bartender
38. Pizza Delivery Girl

A MOVE TO PORTLAND, OR

39. Cocktail Waitress
40. Independent Living Guide

(BACK TO) IOWA CITY, IA

41. Motel Desk Clerk
42. Eldercare
43. Curator
44. Taxi Driver #1
45. Taxi Driver #2
46. Golf Course Flower Girl
47. Test Scorer #2
48. Prep Cook
49. Line Cook
50. Food Co-op Cook
51. Bread Baker

A MOVE TO WEST DES MOINES, IA

52. Bread Baker/Retail Manager

A MOVE TO BOSTON, MA

53. Cable Company Receptionist
54. Biotech Receptionist
55. Retail Bakery Manager
56. Software Company Receptionist
57. Gift Wrapper
58. Ice Cream Counter Girl #2
59. Executive Assistant
60. Women’s College Receptionist
61. Agency Liaison
62. General Contractor Receptionist
63. Office Cleaner

A MOVE TO WILTON, CT

64. Eldercare #2
65. Dog Sitter
66. Seamstress Assistant
67. Gift Wrapper #2

A MOVE TO FAIRFIELD, CT

68. Jewelry Store Bookkeeper

(BACK TO) NEW YORK, NY

69. Executive Assistant #1
70. Executive Assistant #2
71. Executive Assistant #3
72. Executive Assistant #4

A MOVE TO GREENFIELD, MA

73. Light Industrial Employment Specialist
74. Office Manager