- Babysitter. My first babysitting gig, aside from helping my mom in the nursery at church from early on, was wataching a newborn across the street in third grade. I was probably really hired as an early warning system for my mom, at home across the street, but I never called her. Throughout high school I babysat an unbelievable number of hours at 50 cents an hour. My regular gigs were mainly with three families: three spoiled preschool daughters of my dad’s racquetball buddy, who underpaid and made it worse by giving the money to the girls to give to me, who then refused to give part of it up; the four kids through the backyard, two older boys who bullied my own brother, and two girls much younger—while I would be getting the littles in bed, the boys would raid the cookie jars and I never knew if I should just let the parents assume I ate a ton of cookies or admit that the boys were not always in my control—to make THIS situation worse, the father would often insist on driving me home around a long block in a dubiously sober condition, when I just wanted to run the 400 yards through our backyards to home; and a family of two sweet boys, and later a little girl, who never had ANYTHING to eat in the house—I sat for every Viking game and a weekly gig I later learned was AA for five long years, got the job when my next-door-neighbor dropped the younger boy off the changing table and broke his arm, but didn’t own up to it. In my junior year, I bought my own $1800 Loree oboe with my earnings. That’s a lot of 50-cent hours.
- Substitute Paper Person. The same neighbor who dropped the toddler off the changing table and got me my steadiest babysitting job had a paper route, and would ask me to sub when she went to figure skating competitions out of town. This usually meant a Sunday substitution, which meant heavier papers, more configuring of sections and advertisements, and more unfamiliar delivery addresses, hard to read in the early Minnesota dark by streetlight. Once I learned that I wasn’t getting her full payment for doing the route (which may have been fair due to the horrors of collection my husband describes from his paper route, but didn’t seem so at the time), I was much less inclined to help her out. I will always be grateful to my wonderful, amazing, always-kind younger brother for helping me out on these mornings, in cheerful, selfless, encouraging spirits.
- Toy Factory Line Worker. The summer after my junior year of high school, I applied for jobs all over suburban Minneapolis within the radius I could get to on my beloved red Raleigh Grand Prix. Because my family was moving to Detroit mid-summer, and because I admitted that in applications, all I could get was this miserable factory job at Lakeside Industries. It was a real education. I worked on a line, with almost no bathroom breaks, standing for 8+ hours, snapping open box tops and bottom for Superfection, placing the game into the box at whatever breakneck speed the line was running at. We also made Barrel of Monkeys, Hold the Mustard, Pass the Ketchup. My boss, an alcoholic ex-con, really had it in for me and the only other college-bound high schooler, and made life as uncomfortable as possible, ultimately assigning me to the toy makeup room, where we worked in high heat, our bodies covered in plastic gloves, aprons, hair covers, and booties that melted onto our skin. I became a vegetable for those weeks, couldn’t read, or even watch television in the evenings, couldn’t focus on much of anything. I used to take a slight detour to walk by the woman who had just gotten a pin for working a drill press for 25+ years and gawk.
- Bank Data Processing Balance Sheet Checker. I spent the worst summer of my life, after living with friends to finish high school in Minneapolis, in my parents’ new home just north of Detroit. My dad got me a night shift job working in one of the bank data processing centers in his new company, in bombed-out Pontiac, with the wives of men who worked in the auto shops, plus a few unemployable guys who turned out to be drug addicts and thieves. Our job was to scan endless computer printouts of long account balances to find any mistakes and balance the totals. Some of these women were amazing at this surprisingly high-skill task; I was not. I ended up filling in where needed, answering phones (something I’ve never been good at, once accidentally cut off my own father when he called to talk to my boss). One memorable night a hugely obese co-worker answered the phone to a personal call, and immediately broke into wild wailing and sobbing; she had just had some medical tests, and I assumed a dire cancer diagnosis. In fact, Elvis had died, and half the office packed up and went off to Graceland for the next week.
- Work Study Jobs at Northwestern University. My first assignment, as a new music student, was filling in at lunch for the wonderful secretary of the Conductor of Bands. I played in an ensemble under said Conductor, and was scared to death of him, and of displaying ineptitude in managing his office. After I heard him call a couple of classmates on the carpet (literally) for various infractions, seeing their knees trembling above the figured carpet and hearing his stern, subdued voice, all the scarier for being so quiet, I had to get out of there; my unbelievably complicated patchwork of Music “Skills and Ensembles” for a single credit—piano skills, ear training, sight singing, chamber group and large ensemble, legitimated my escape.
My second assignment was in the Music Library, on the second floor of gorgeous, gothic Deering Library, looking out onto Deering Meadow off upper Sheridan Road in Evanston. I fielded patrons’ listening requests, finding the discs they wanted, placing them on a turntable, streaming the music into their study carrel. One night, not long before closing, a skinny student came in, needing to listen to some 15 selections and write up a summary of each for his freshman music theory class. I was impressed by his ability to make sense of each selection in only a few moments, after which he would ask me to play the next number. He got through the whole assignment in short order. And then forgot to take his work with him. I hunted him down the next day and handed off his assignment to him. 13 years later, I married him.
6. Summer Dorm Cleaning at Northwestern University
I had been promised a waitstaff job after sophomore year at a local country club, but when I called back close to my start date, the job had been given to someone else. I managed to find a job cleaning out undergraduate dorms at NU. Most of the middle-aged female staff took the train up from the South Side daily, and I was one of few younger workers. I quickly learned that very little work actually got done, that the expectation among my fellow “workers” was that we would sit around and gab and read discarded magazines, plundering any booty left behind by frazzled students as they departed, leaping up to look busy when a supervisor came around. This was when I learned how much harder and more stressful it is NOT to work than simply to do the task at hand. (And how free stuff can be fun.)
7. The Hut
The Hut was a roach-infested dump of a deli, just down Clark street from my first apartment. The owner, Burt, was a good guy, if a bit of a shyster. His “three egg omelets” definitely contained only two, and he made the cook use the old pancake batter until someone complained that the pancakes tasted off. But he gave jobs to runaway girls down on their luck, and didn’t exploit them. And he hired me with no waitressing experience, opening my world up to a series of wait staff jobs that eventually took me across the country in railroad dining cars. I got paid in cash, got to eat a meal during my shift, was largely my own boss, and loved my customers–cabbies and working men and an ever-changing cast of crazies and kooks who liked me for me and appreciated good service. I opened Saturdays and Sundays at 6, and loved coming into the dark diner, turning on the lights, setting out the Bennisons’ pastries and putting on the coffee, filling customers’ cups with coffee and their loneliness with conversation.
Mary Peckham for the Poplar Grove Muse