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.
My first summer job was as an office manager for a dentist. I was 18; the dentist was approximately 400 years old and crazy. He should have retired years ago, but he and his wife "got along a lot better when they didn't have to see each other all day." On my first day, the dentist’s wife came in to "train" me: Don't let the dentist eat any candy—he's diabetic. Don't give the dentist any cash—he'll buy candy. Don't let the dentist leave the office—if he does, call the dentist’s wife immediately. Bizarre training complete, she left. Seconds later, the dentist asked if I had any chocolate.
My real job was to baby-sit the dentist. I constantly searched for contraband candy. (I can pick up the scent of a Snickers bar from 50 paces.) He wanted me to cold-call random people to see if they'd like to schedule a dental appointment. (They didn't.) He once left the office to go fishing while he had a patient in the chair. (I called the dentist’s wife, who told me to "stall" while she checked all of his local fishing holes.) It was ridiculous and exasperating, yet he was always kind to me.
I was a camp counselor, and one part of my job was transporting campers from activities and back in a military Humvee. It was called a GOAT, and it apparently boasted the ability to drive under water. It was huge, old, and beat up. I already knew how to drive a standard transmission, but apparently I missed the training session where they mentioned that it had a bad parking brake and tended to pop out of gear when parked.
I was driving four girls to the lake. I parked in the lot, set the brake and gear, and knocked on the window to let the girls know they could put down the ladder and climb out. Then I climbed through the window (it did not have a door) and jumped to the ground. That's when it started rolling. The ladder was shooting sparks as it dragged on the concrete, the girls were bracing themselves against the back wall, and right in its path was a row of insanely expensive parked cars. I had to chase it down, climb through the window, jump into the cab, and stand on the manual brakes. It ground to an excruciatingly slow stop, 2 feet from a canary-yellow Lamborghini Diablo. Sometimes I wonder: Would it have flipped that car across the lot or gone over it monster-truck style?
–commenter Stitch Witch
I worked in a video store the summer between my second and third year in college. They hired me for two purposes: A) inputting every single movie in their recently bought computer (which I did between 5 a.m. and opening up the store at 9 a.m.) and B) managing the store between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m.
At least once a week, a boy younger than 18 would try to rent an X-rated movie, only to end up yelling, "You wear an earring. You should be cool!" (or something to that effect) when I refused.
Halfway through the summer, a 10-year-old boy comes to the store with "a note from his dad" requesting an X-rated movie and authorizing the kid to act as a courier. The note was full of spelling mistakes, so I told the kid his trick wasn't going to work and sent him back home, adding a sarcastic remark alongside the lines of "less porn, more time with a dictionary." An hour later, his irate father (who had actually written the note) showed up to berate me for not giving his kid the porn VHS and for criticizing his spelling and grammar.
–commenter Svlad Cjelli
When I was 16, I cleaned rooms at a cheap roadside motel. We were on the way to Sturgis, S.D., and bikers would bring their greasy, muddy bikes into the room and leave messes for me to clean up. The worst, though, was the attempted (?) suicide. I will never know if the guy I found was comatose or if the paramedics just said that so I wouldn't freak out.
The Crap Summer Job, Literally
I'm a firm believer that a crap summer job is a good thing. It should make a young man or woman aspire to something more. Do you really want to be doing that when you're 35 and have kids?
My crap summer job was with a septic company when I was 16. Basically, these trucks go out, find the covers for the septic tank, and then suck out everything that goes into the septic system. I have no idea how they got away with hiring a 16-year-old to help with this job.
Favorite part of the job (sarcasm) was using the 6-foot pry bar to break up clumps of unspecified items in the septic tank. It was truly a horrifying job. Also, the old timers would always help educate me: These brown-covered things are feminine products, those brown-covered things are baby wipes. I gag now just thinking about it.
While it paid well, for a teenager, it definitely spurred me to want something different for my life.