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.

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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.

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.