Slate’s Best and Worst Summer Job Stories

Arts, entertainment, and more.
May 28 2013 12:15 PM

Our Best and Worst Summer Jobs

We look back fondly—and not so fondly—on the gigs of our youth.

Illustration by Charlie Powell.

Illustration by Charlie Powell

Surely one of the greatest downsides of becoming an adult is the disenchantment of summer. Yes, it stays light out longer and many of us get a week or two of vacation; but, in general, the magic and tantalizing potential that those warm months held in our youth is gone. Perhaps one of the most sorely missed charms is the venerable summer job, those short-term experiments in employment that provide not only a little spending money, but valuable life lessons as well. So, with Memorial Day just behind us, and the season officially in full swing, we pay homage to the summer job with a series of recollections—some traumatic, some glowing—from Slate staff. Please enjoy, and if you feel moved to share your own tale, follow the instructions at the bottom of the page.

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The Art Shack

I worked in the Art Shack of the Chilmark Community Center on Martha’s Vineyard. Imagine the most privileged children in the country kneading clay into your hair. One kid was prematurely world-weary and just sat in the corner eating papier-mâché. At least I learned how to braid hemp!

–Katy Waldman, assistant editor

The Poisonous Pachysandra Patch

My first summer job was the summer before I started college. Because I hadn't found anything better (or, in fact, looked for anything better), my father arranged a job for me as a groundskeeper at a local apartment complex. Most days I mowed and trimmed lawns and worked myself into a nice nasty sweat in the humid D.C. summer weather.

One particularly hot day, I was given the task of weeding a patch of pachysandra. Since pachysandra thrives in well shaded areas, that's exactly where this patch was located. Shade beats sun.

"Just watch out for the poison ivy," my supervisor instructed me. "You know what it looks like, right?" Of course I knew what it looked like: I was a Boy Scout, and camping in the woods had been a part of family vacations since I was very young.

Humid weather, though, is humid weather whether you’re in the sun or in the shade. As I weeded, I wiped my brow with my forearm to clear the sweat. Of course, within hours a poison ivy rash had broken out all over my face.

The next summer I signed up with a temp agency to do miscellaneous office jobs.

Doug Harris, Slate’s chief architect

Herding Brats

Ever since puberty, I haven’t been a fan of young children—I don’t indulge them, and I don’t like being around them. So it was probably a bad idea for me to apply for a job where I would have to spend several months with them on a daily basis—but it was the summer between my sophomore year and junior year of college, and I needed something that would both look good on my resume and pay me well.

I spent June through August of that year, five days a week, 12 hours a day, at a performing arts camp in Chicago, and it was by far the worst job I’ve ever had—though to my 19-year-old self, the paycheck seemed big enough to make it worthwhile (at first). After applying to be a choreographer with the preference of working with teenagers, I was hired as a mere camp counselor, tasked with shuffling a group of 5- to 8-year-olds from activity to activity for the majority of my employment, which required no creativity whatsoever (unless you consider figuring out how to deal with a 6-year-old who isn’t potty-trained “creative”).

Sadly, the majority of the youngest kids were there only because their (usually wealthy) parents had nowhere else to put them while school was out, and they didn’t really want to learn how to do a kick ball change or sing about how the sun will come out tomorrow. They didn’t pay attention, and many misbehaved. One deceptively adorable 6-year-old girl was actually a brat who would scream any time she didn’t get her way. She seemed to know she was cute, and she would bat her big brown eyes in the hopes of melting my heart rather than getting sent to time out. (It never worked.)

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To top it all off my boss, the camp founder was kind of a creep among a staff made up almost entirely of women—he once asked me if I was dating anyone, and then wondered aloud how it could be that I was single. Thankfully, this particular summer camp no longer exists to make young college students like me want to pull out their hair. I’ve since learned that my former boss shut the operation down and disappeared soon after, accused of fraud.

Aisha Harris, Brow Beat assistant

Andrew Clark, 15, looks over his shoulder while mowing a field.
With Memorial Day just behind us, and the season officially in full swing, we pay homage to the summer job

Photo by Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

Gardening, Good and Evil

The summer just after high school, I got a job as a gardener on the enormous estate of a tech mogul who lived in my hometown. The gardening staff numbered about eight—half full-timers, half summer scrubs like me. We worked in sweltering heat and pouring rain. I was the unhappiest and worst gardener in the history of gardening. Yet I somehow lasted the summer, neither getting fired nor harming myself with pruning shears.

Here were my assigned duties, ranked from dreadful to tolerable:

Weeding. If you’re in an office right now you can replicate this task. Get down on your knees. Hold your face close to the Berber carpeting. Now pick bits of lint out of the carpet and place them in a bag. No, don’t stop. Keep doing this. FOR THREE HOURS. Also, for the sake of realism, you might arrange to get rained on and have ants bite you.

Edging. You can define a pleasing edge on a flowerbed by cutting a deep furrow, lining it with a plastic retaining wall … oh, I’m bored just describing it. The important thing to know here is that the motorized edging tool is a wildly spinning blade that can hit a rock, jump erratically, and define a pleasing edge between your ankle and your foot. I lived in constant fear of de-foot-ment.

Watering. Hold a hose and aim a spray of water at the base of various plants. This felt like when you need to pee really bad after a long night of drinking, only instead of taking a minute or two this took a full hour and offered zero feeling of physical relief.

Mowing. I hated carefully mowing the chessboard patterns on the “show lawn” at the front of the mansion. But I did enjoy careening around on the riding mower, grinding up huge swathes of open meadow. Don’t make me feel guilty about the cloud of butchered grasshoppers floating in my wake.

Backhoeing and dump trucking. The badass side of gardening. You’ve not known true bliss until you have operated heavy machinery as a teenage boy. I’d scoop up giant globs of mulch with the backhoe (just like an arcade crane), plop them in the back of the dump truck, drive through the hidden reaches of the estate listening to loud rap, and then dump an avalanche of bark chips in the precise wrong spot—thus killing a rare and beautiful $6,500 plant. Pure delight.

The next summer I was a telemarketer, which was in some ways better but also made me want to self-harm with pruning shears.

Seth Stevenson, contributing writer

Health Grade … Pending

The summer after my sophomore year  of high school I was hired for a job at America’s finest music/food/pale-upper-arm festival, Milwaukee’s Summerfest. I was to work in the Fest outpost of a niceish suburban restaurant in what I believed to be a position as a cook or a register guy.

Instead, on the broiling-hot first day of Summerfest, I was taken to a windowless, stifling room behind the kitchen and given an apron and an enormous recycling-bin-sized tub of raw, oozing steaks. “You need to pound those flat,” said my boss, who I realize now was like 23, max.

I looked around the room. “With what?” I asked.

“We usually just use these,” he said, pointing at the big 128-ounce cans of diced tomatoes stacked on the shelves above the counter.

And so for five hours I pounded steaks, over and over, with heavy, slippery cans that had, presumably, just been removed from the dusty, mouse-infested storeroom where they’d sat since the summer before. I washed my hands, sure. But did I wash the cans? The counter? Nope. Hour after unrefrigerated hour the level of steaks in the tub lowered as I splattered the cans, the counter, the shelves, the wall, the ceiling, and myself with blood. I took a short break, during which, God help me, I ate a steak sandwich from my restaurant. Then back to the smashery I went.

At 4 p.m. I took off my apron and threw it into the corner. I scrubbed my hands and arms and told my boss I didn’t think this job was for me; he shrugged and handed me a $20 bill. I’d made plans to meet friends that afternoon, and I shall never forget the looks on their faces when I sauntered up to them at the entrance, dripping with gore, my shirt and shorts and socks and shoes drenched in blood but for an apron-shaped area on my front that was merely drenched in sweat. After an hour I could no longer take my own stench and I threw my clothes away in a public bathroom, changing into a Summerfest-branded T-shirt and shorts I’d purchased at the Fest. Their cost: $25.

—Dan Kois, senior editor

Porta Potty Paparazzi

When I was 19, I worked as a waitress at an upscale restaurant in a New England vacation town that had its share of wealthy and famous visitors. The restaurant was owned by a couple—the husband was a sweet, mild mannered chef, and the wife was a mean-spirited, venomous manager. Every shift she hissed insults and criticisms about all the things I was doing wrong, from how I cut lemons to how I wrote out checks, to how I greeted the guests. Once, while I was in the middle of taking a table’s order, she walked by and swatted me on the legs because, as she later explained, “I didn’t like how you were standing.” When she was out of earshot, the other servers and I meanly joked that her then toddler who’d been a preemie must have come early in order to get as far away from her as possible.

A pet issue of the owners’ was how the water service in town was extremely expensive, and they therefore insisted that only customers could use the bathrooms. This limitation included not only noncustomer walk-ins, but also the staff as well—we were all invited to visit a Porta Potty in the parking lot should the need arise. One empty afternoon after lunch service, I heard a familiar voice as I was putting away silverware. Across the dining room, I saw that it was Meg Ryan, politely asking the Jamaican line cook if she could use our bathroom. I stood open-mouthed as he nonchalantly explained (as he had many times) that per the bosses’ orders, the bathrooms were for customers only; she could use the Porta Potty outside. Meg Ryan said thank you and headed out to the parking lot to take the cook’s advice. I rushed over to gab with him about how he’d just denied a movie star use of our bathroom, but he’d never heard of her. When we told the owners the story later, they were thrilled—that he hadn’t broken the policy, even for a Hollywood starlet.

—Katherine Goldstein, innovations editor

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