Last week, we at Slate shared our fond memories of the summer jobs we held when we were in high school and college, and we asked you to spill the details about your best and worst youth summer employment experiences, too. You didn’t disappoint. In emails and comments, readers regaled us with stories of waiting tables, picking produce, lifeguarding, nannying, umpiring, and scooping ice cream, among other responsibilities. We were sorry to see that most of your tales fell under the category of “worst” rather than “best”—but comedy is tragedy plus time, right? Below are our favorite submissions (lightly edited).
Children in the Corn
Every summer between the ages of 13 and 15, I marched the rolling fields of northern Indiana detasseling seed corn, indentured to a subcontractor for a major American agricultural supplier. Detasseling, in practice, meant eight hours of manual labor in the searing heat of July and August, performing the same task ad nauseam—pulling the tassels of pre-identified plants (called females) so that they would only be pollinated by other select varieties (males), thereby achieving the desired hybrid genome for their offspring. Although not apparently violating any child labor laws, the work was minimum wage, difficult, soul-deadening, and rife with indignities.
During my first summer, I soon found that I was highly allergic to corn pollen after a couple of passes through a field left me nearly blind, my eyes reduced to narrow slits by swelling. (I packed oral antihistamines thereafter.) And twice in three summers I sustained a bloody nose when the wrenching of an especially recalcitrant tassel led to abrupt nostril penetration from the tassel’s business end. After my first year, I swore I wouldn’t return, but the $500 I had earned that summer was a small fortune to a junior high kid—the green kept calling me back.
My first summer job was working in a hardware store. I had baby-sat for the owner's kids, and my mother taught with the owner's wife. There was no other way a (not-yet-out) gay kid with fantastic hair, in the middle of northern Minnesota, could have landed such a fine gig. Having no interest in the logistics of hetero copulation, the plumbing department was a poor place to put me on my first day. After telling a beefy bearded fellow, "No, we don't sell ¾-inch rubber nipples," the owner gave me a crash course in male/female connecting plumbing parts. More than once he asked if my father had explained any of this before today. My eyes got really big at one point, and he asked if I was beginning to understand. “That’s the new George Michael song on the radio!” I replied.
I spent the rest of the summer hidden away at the back of the store picking glass out of my fingers at the cutting station. It was a great job. At 16, all I wanted to do was look at boys, and boy-watching doesn’t get any better than at a hardware store.
The Feminine Mistake
My first summer job lasted two days. When I was 16, I went to work at the late, great Rocky Point Amusement Park. My boyfriend was a security guard for that summer, riding around in a golf cart for much of the day. But this being the ’70s and my being a girl, I couldn’t get such a plum assignment. Instead, I was assigned to one of the snack booths. I have numbered the child labor violations for your convenience:
For two sweltering days, I pressed reconstituted potatoes through a device that looked like a vintage Play Dough shape presser and fried the results (1), baked pizza (2), and fried the dough (3) that my manager had first thrown against the wall to see if it stuck. All this for about 11 hours, until about midnight (4 and 5).
I hated the idea of quitting my very first job, but after a first night of coming home with sore feet from Dr. Scholl’s (again, the ’70s), and two nights with grease on my clothes and skin and in my curly perm, my mother informed me that quitting was a fine option.
The Wrinkle-Free Summer
The day after my eighth-grade graduation, I was packed off to work for the summer at the North Carolina boarding school I was slated to attend the following year so that I could earn credit toward the fees.
I ended up in the laundry of the associated sanitarium where, without the benefit of air conditioning, I spent the long, hot days of my 14th summer folding hot towels; feeding wet sheets into the huge hot “mangle” that ironed them dry; pulling out and folding hot, dry sheets; and pressing cotton pants, shirts, and student nurses’ heavy uniforms by pulling down scorching overhead “presses” that instantly melted any tender flesh that contacted them (mine!).
I sweated buckets, guzzled water until I could hear it slosh in my stomach yet remained constantly thirsty, counted how many minutes of misery it took to earn each precious penny at 25 cents an hour, and promised myself that I would never own anything that needed ironing.
I was paid just enough to cover what I was charged for room and board for the summer. Every job I’ve had since has seemed easy in comparison!
Prelude to the Afternoon of a (Fulsome) Fawn
As an aspiring biologist, I had worked in research labs for most of my college career. But eventually I wanted the fulfillment of a “field” position, so the summer after my sophomore year, I accepted a job at a U.S. Department of Agriculture field research site working with white-tailed deer fawns. The hours were extreme—the fawns, only a few weeks old, had to be bottle fed every two to three hours starting at 6 a.m. and going until midnight, so the shifts were 5:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 2:30 to midnight.
Then the fawns, too young to be vaccinated, had an outbreak of a gastrointestinal infection that results in continuous, explosive diarrhea. The vet determined that the animals needed fluids at least four times a day to avoid dehydration. Guess who, as the least experienced summer crew member, got to hold said fawns while they received their fluids and evacuated the contents of their gastrointestinal tract? My college boyfriend informed me that I would be doing my own laundry, and separately at that. In the end, I decided that I preferred research labs, where aseptic conditions are required.
Back Room Blues
When I was 21, I was hired as a clerk at Hollywood at Home Movies & Magazines in Overland Park, Kan. The store, which opened in 1980 (and is still going strong), was staffed with highly literate film nerds, and it became a regular hangout when I was about 15. Every summer I would apply, and every summer the owner would take my application and patiently explain to me, again, that you had to be 21 to work there due to the “Over 21” section in the back of the store.
One afternoon, a few days after I had filled out another application and made sure the owner knew I was now 21, he called. “Levi,” he said. “I’m about to make your dreams come true.” I was interviewed, given a 50-question film quiz (I scored 49), and hired. I was a film major in college, so this was a honey of a job. The store specialized in hard-to-find or out-of-print movies, along with standard fare, new releases, and a magnificent collection of porn. It was three months of low-wage heaven.