Our 10 worst summer jobs
You think your job sucks? Come join SN&R’s staff and contributors as we revisit those wistfully hellish stints in the porn arcades, munitions factories, funeral parlors and motel rooms of which summer memories are made.
What could be so hard about delivering flowers?
I was 18. Before I started my new summer gig, I’d envisioned myself thrusting dozens of red roses into the heaving bosoms of love-smitten ladies. Unfortunately, the flower shop where I’d been hired was right next to a cemetery, a few blocks from Stockton’s mortuary row.
My first day on the job, I was handed the keys to a powder-blue Ford Econoline and directed to load an arching metal rack into the van; on it rested an arrangement of carnations and lilies. “What do I do with that?” I asked. “That’s a blanket,” the florist answered. “It goes on the casket.” Then she handed me a corsage in a small box. I gasped, mortified at the implications. “The funeral director usually takes care of this,” she said reassuringly.
Minutes later, I pulled into the mortuary parking lot; the special florists’ entrance was around back. “Here’s the stuff,” I told the dark-suited guy inside, after I left the blanket rack on the floor, leaned some funeral sprays against the wall and handed him the corsage. “Uh-uh,” he said. “You’re responsible for setup.”
My stomach dropped like a boulder.
I picked up the rack, placed the corsage on top and followed the attendant down a dimly lit hallway. The place smelled sickly sweet, like dead flowers mixed with formaldehyde. My heart was pounding. I’d never seen an embalmed dead body.
Inside the tiny slumber room, or whatever they called it, was a dark wooden casket. The top half of the lid was open, and inside—underneath ripples of gauzy cloth and enough rosary beads to ward off half of Transylvania’s undead—was somebody’s grandmother, or at least the Madame Tussauds version. I gingerly lifted the flower blanket off the rack and positioned it atop the closed lower half of the casket. I tried to hand the corsage to the mortuary guy, but he insisted: “Go ahead. Pin it on her bosom.”
Yikes. I couldn’t do it without looking at her face, and her shriveled, waxen features were burning themselves into my retinas: future nightmare material.
Once finished, I picked up the now-empty rack and nearly ran out of there, as the mortuary guy laughed. Then I nervously smoked a couple of Marlboros in the parking lot.
A few jobs later, and I was an old pro.
I can recall one setup at a tiny church on Stockton’s south side, for two of three young black men who’d had the misfortune to be beating the wrong guy at poker. The loser had whipped out a pistol and—blam! blam! blam!—three dead guys and no more card game.
“C’mere, son,” an older, balding black mortician said, motioning me toward one casket. He pointed at the dead man’s right temple with a pencil. “Y’see that?” he asked me. “Slight discoloration, maybe. I used some No. 3 putty, sanded it down. Then I matched the skin tone with theatrical makeup. Can’t hardly tell, right? Of course, it helps when they use a small-caliber bullet, ’cause it ain’t nearly as messy.”
I didn’t deliver many roses that summer.
I scrubbed the toilet at top speed, folded the top sheet of toilet paper in a hospitality- service origami triangle and ran the bathtub faucet to clear any stray hairs from the shower. I’d already made the beds, dumped the trash and put out new towels and soap.
The manager watched me over the top of his stopwatch as I vacuumed with an enthusiasm unseen since The Donna Reed Show went off the air. When every inch of carpet was sucked clean, I faced him triumphantly. “Twenty-eight minutes,” he said. “You’ve got the job.”
When I’d left the University of California, Santa Cruz, Career Center that morning, I’d never expected the university’s resources would land me a job cleaning toilets that very afternoon! (Who says tuition is too high?) I’d never had a job before, so I’d grabbed every help-wanted slip that said “no experience necessary.” A motor lodge near the beach was my first stop, only because it was first on the bus line.
The manager was so thrilled I spoke English, he insisted I take an “aptitude test” immediately. This meant I cleaned a room for free while he watched. If I could do it in 30 minutes, I was hired.
I accepted the job. The pay was $2.50 per room. Cleaning one room every half-hour would bring my wages to $5 an hour—75 cents above the minimum wage at the time. In the afterglow of my 28-minute victory, it sounded reasonable. But halfway through my first day of work, I realized it was impossible. I had literally run during the test, but I couldn’t maintain that speed throughout an eight-hour shift. By the 14th room, I was making about $3 an hour.
I also hadn’t counted on the law of human nature that says, “If I don’t have to clean it, I’ll make the biggest mess I can.” I crawled all over those rooms picking trash off the floor, though the wastebaskets invariably were empty. I scraped chewed food off of walls, fished condoms out of showers and picked up towels smeared with excrement (using gloves, of course). Every disaster took longer to clean, for no extra compensation. $2.50 whether the guests made their beds or upended them.
After two months of trying to work faster with no success, I stopped cleaning mid-room. Wearily, I sat on the bed I’d just made. The Lost Boys was on TV. A vampire swooped over the boardwalk’s Giant Dipper roller coaster and pounced on a security guard. I looked out the window at the same coaster. I actually envied the guard’s gruesome escape from his menial job. When you’d rather be eaten by vampires, you know it’s time to quit.
Every young, insecure American male faces situations that demand daring. When confronting fears regarding heights, sex ed or threats of jail time for drug use, there were always words of encouragement from your teenage friends: Whatever you do, don’t chicken out! Step out on that ledge. Get to first base. Go ahead and take a puff. Just don’t chicken out, you weenie.
So, naturally, that’s exactly what I did. I went to work for Chicken Out.
As we all know, fast food will take anyone, and yet this was the only fast-food place that wanted me—at least without a haircut. Apparently, those who can, do; those who can’t, get hired at Chicken Out.
Chicken Out’s problems went beyond the name challenge. The company was bringing a new product onto the Phoenix market: broasted chicken. It’s a made-up name that is not really something between broiled and roasted. It’s pressurized boiling, which this summer job in the desert turned out to be. The owners emigrated from Kentucky at the worst possible time: June. It’s 112 degrees in the shade, and it’ll only get worse, pilgrim.
The tiny storefront was attached to a convenience store but, as a cost-saving measure, was not hooked up to its air conditioning. A swamp cooler threw some wet air over the kitchen, but it was no match for the boiling pots of oil and seared chicken meat that became the centerpieces of my life for three months.
The two elderly owners were talked into buying a franchise by their son-in-law, so they knew about as much as I did about proper chicken cooking and marketing, which was nothing. Their plan was to mail half-price coupons throughout the nearby urban sprawl and undercut the Colonel.
So, I was in charge of the broasters, and the owners ran the counter. It seemed easy: Just put lots of chicken parts in a basket, punch some buttons, lower the parts and clamp down the top, and then wait as the oil got super-heated and broasted the chicken.
But during the cooking process, the steam, infused with oil, would be released into the tiny, overheated kitchen. As the afternoon temperatures of the summer increased to about 115, the coupons came pouring in, and I was broasting, and I was roasting. Hot, slimy oil got onto and into everything. As a lyric at the time told me, grease is the word. My Converses couldn’t stop me from sliding across the floor.
So, I became the epitome of cool: a greasy, insecure teenager whose acne problem blossomed. And I worked at Chicken Out.
I thought it couldn’t get worse—until I encountered the grease trap. In those days before environmental protections, there was no recycling that I saw. I know a lot of the burnt, tired oil went somewhere after I poured it into buckets and left work. I think it went down the sink. And eventually, it slid into my nemesis, the grease trap. Other food places would hire out the revolting job of cleaning the putrid, coagulated oil from the trap, but not the Out. Decades later, I still gag at the thought.
After steaming the pots to get out the oil, and then swabbing the oily decks, I would take my slimy, sweat-drenched self out of there at closing time, hoping to get out on the town to spend my Out money and fulfill my dream of meeting a teenage girl.
One night, a friend met me in the parking lot and laughed at what he saw. He reached up and spelled out my name on my forehead by running his finger through the grease.
I spent the first 10 years of my working life delivering The Sacramento Bee. This was in the late 1980s in a neighborhood where the streets were named after Civil War battles and every fifth house looked the same. Automatic sprinklers shot up at 5:30 a.m., and motion detectors clicked on front lights, and I was there to see it.
At first the route was a struggle, but it quickly came to resemble a sleepwalk. I once dressed, folded and delivered to 90 houses and was back to bed in 25 minutes. That was with porched papers, as a rule, and a girl’s beat-up Schwinn cruiser as my transportation. As heavy as it was, the bike was essential. With its big, cushiony seat and gigantic whitewall tires, I could ride over curbs and not even feel it.
My father, however, was a man whose idea of work meant that you did things the hard way. So, when he saw that the route had gotten easy, he decreed that my brother and I would have to pick up another route—a daytime one.
What was nice about delivering papers in the morning was that no one, especially my classmates, would ever see me riding around in my sweatpants, dotted with Oxy and wearing a neon shoulder bag full of papers. It was a furtive pleasure, having all that morning silence to myself. What was leisurely at the start of the day, though, would become a slummy, sweaty, altogether unflattering affair in the Sacramento sun. It was the job equivalent of wearing your Boy Scout uniform to school: It invited ridicule.
What was worse was that we would not even be delivering a paper—it was an ad supplement, the kind of thing everyone but retirees picks off their driveways and throws away with annoyance. Every Wednesday, we loaded up our jury-rigged bikes and rode off into the neighborhoods to fling shopping ads at houses. It was miserable. Not only were we spotted several times, but also, dogs were awake, so we were chased constantly. People who were home threw the ads back at us. It was often between 105 and 110 degrees. After a few months of ad supplements, I began to hate my paper route.
I spent a high-school summer during the 1970s serving food (clear liquids, soft ones and solids) to hospital patients at the University of California, Los Angeles, Medical Center. The uniforms were pink, but the hours weren’t bad, and the pay was pretty good. I look back at the time I spent working there and still can’t figure out if it was my worst summer job or something else entirely.
In the massive basement kitchen of the hospital, we would load up food trays on tall rolling carts. Each tray contained a meal that was nutritionally designated for a particular patient on a specific floor. We’d ride the elevators to the wing we’d been assigned for the day, prep the food in the kitchen—i.e., microwave what was supposed to be served hot—and then roll around with our carts, serving the patients one by one.
The job was OK on the days when I served food to women on the maternity ward. People seemed happy; families were gathered. But most of the time, I supplied meals to postoperative patients or victims of accidents or diseases I’d never heard of. One morning, I served a clear liquid breakfast (clear broth, Jell-O and a cherry Icee) to a young man in a private room who had, literally, no legs. His body just stopped at the hips. I remember him trying to make it easy on me, joking around as I clumsily adjusted the mechanical hospital bed so he could sit up to reach the tray. Afterward, I returned to the kitchen with tears running down my face, embarrassed, wondering how I was supposed to feel.
The cancer ward was even worse. I’d lost my own mother to the disease about six years earlier, so this floor was emotionally wracking for me. I kept imagining my mother in the beds. When I came to pick up the trays on this ward, a lot of the patients had barely touched their food.
The scariest part of the job was serving meals in the out-of-the-way wing where doctors practiced irregular experimental medicine and therapies on terminal patients. All the servers hated this assignment. I’d push a red button and get buzzed through the “Caution! Caution!” double doors with my trays. Some of the rooms were marked with that yellow-and-black warning symbol that meant radiation was present. Uh-oh. I had no idea what was going on in there, but I always made quick work of it with my cart until I was out the double doors and back into the main hospital again.
A little while into that long summer, the L.A. bus system went on strike, forcing me to ride my bike for several hours every day, literally, just to get from our home in North Central L.A. to the hospital in Westwood. I didn’t consider quitting the job; I needed the money to save for college. So, I rode through L.A. on my old Schwinn clunker, avoiding Wilshire Boulevard and taking a less-traffic-clogged route instead.
Thankfully, the daily bike commute was only one way. After I’d finished the dinner shift, my dad, by then off work himself, would pick me up in our green Ford sedan. He’d throw my bike in the trunk, and we’d drive home through L.A. circa 1972, me talking all the way about the food and the mothers and the sick kids and the cancer ward. He’d just drive and listen while I processed it all.
I was living in a commune in Santa Cruz in 1971, and jobs were hard to come by for hippie rabble. I was making a little money playing guitar but not enough to make my rent and food, so when I heard about some gardening work, I went to see about it.
Tony was a handsome Italian with a handlebar moustache and a beautiful wife. The usual hourly wage in those days was $2; Tony was offering $3. I smelled a rat but took the job.
First day, Tony drives me to a working-class neighborhood and shows me three lawns to mow. I barely get the mower out of the truck before he drives away. As I’m finishing the second lawn, Tony returns and says, “We’re late. Load the mower.” Then he puts a nozzle on a hose and blasts the grass of the un-mowed lawn so it lies down wet. He knocks on the door, and when an old lady comes out, he says, “OK, Mavis?”
She squints at her lawn and effuses, “Oh, Tony, it’s perfect.”
Ten minutes later, I’m on the roof of a four-story apartment building raking eucalyptus leaves while Tony stands on the ground beside the manager and points up at me to prove he’s on the job, and when the manager leaves, Tony says, “Get down. We got a pizza parlor to clean.”
Thus began my summer of working for Tony. The flimflam man.
One morning, he picked me up and said, “We got some beams to save. You’ll be crawling under a house. OK?”
The beams, which were in perfect condition, were holding up the house of an ancient enfeebled woman. Tony had convinced her that she’d better give him $2,000 pronto, or her house would collapse. To prove he was saving her money, he had her call three contractors to find out how much they’d charge to replace the beams. My job was to crawl under the house and bang on those beams with a hammer for a few hours.
I couldn’t do it, and I told him so. “Four bucks an hour,” he said calmly. I shook my head. “Five.” I was sorely tempted; I needed the bread. But I walked away, and I never did get the last 15 bucks he owed me. The rat.
Author W.H. Auden pretty much sums up my worst summer job: “One cannot walk through a mass-production factory and not feel that one is in hell.”
It was the early 1970s, and I was in desperate need of a job. I was not afraid of hard labor. I had hand-swept shopping-center parking lots, picked tomatoes, washed store windows and even shoveled Sisyphean mounds of chicken manure to keep my ’58 Chevy Impala on the road.
The plastics factory was located on the outskirts of Rancho Cordova. I filled out the paperwork and was asked to start that very evening. So, there I was. Eight o’clock sharp. My long-sleeved shirt was taped shut at the wrists and neck, a surgical mask covered my nose and mouth, and my long hair was tucked into a wool cap.
My first assignment was to work next to the freshly paroled brother of a kid I knew from high school. Our task was to strip superheated mortar shells stacked on dangling metal poles that emerged every few moments from a huge oven. We pounded out a retaining pin on the bottom of the poles with a hard rubber mallet and then wrestled the shells loose. We wore two pairs of gloves to protect our hands. I had blisters by our first state-allotted 10-minute break, was too exhausted to stir up an antiwar conversation by lunch and had often been dragged along the assembly line by uncooperative pole-clinging shells by shift’s end.
I was reassigned the next night to smoothing the plastic inside of the mortar shells with a foot-operated sander. I was better at sanding through my gloves and my own flesh. Quality control returned much of my effort, and my inefficiency threatened to bring the entire assembly line to an unforgivable halt.
Two nights, and I was an emotional and physical wreck. My tenure at the company was cut shorter than a Britney Spears elopement. I called in sick the third day, officially quit on the fourth day and still have cold-sweat nightmares in which I am Mickey Mouse in a sort of machine-age version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
The meatpacking job seemed like a good idea at the time. In the summer of 1981, I’d just finished my junior year at college by failing half my classes—the ones that met before noon. I was waiting tables at an upscale pizza place, but because I had to work nights, it was eating into my party time. When a friend suggested we go down to Job Service and sign up to work in a nearby pork-packing plant—where the hourly wage was an outrageous seven bucks and change—I jumped at the chance.
I may have been employed as a meatpacker for as long as three days, because of the orientation. But I was hung over from celebrating my new job and didn’t pay much attention to the safety filmstrips or the knife-sharpening class. Really, I thought, how hard could it be?
The plant provided white coveralls, heavy rubber boots, a hair net, a hard hat, safety glasses, a rubber apron and white cotton gloves, which I put on over the top of my street clothes. Fortunately, I was far away from the aptly-named “kill room,” a sweltering hellhole where the hogs were gutted, washed and put on hooks to be sent to the cooler. Workers emerged from it with the dark-rimmed eyes of old soldiers, their white jumpsuits blotched pink and dark red, with blood spattered on their faces. They haunted the lunch room.
I was in one of the refrigerated finishing rooms, where meat scraps were separated from bones, using small, circular electric knives—“whizzers” that buzzed and vibrated. The point was very clearly explained by a big-bellied, balding supervisor whose hard hat kept slipping down over his eyes: “Throw clean bones.” He wanted skin in one tub, fat in another, meat in a third, and the bones tossed into a large plastic bin. Simple enough.
By lunchtime, my back and shoulders ached (I was too short to comfortably use the table), my legs and feet were on the verge of frostbite, and my hands—well, I don’t even want to go there. I couldn’t feel them. My fingers seemed to have frozen around the vibrating knife handle; I had to pry them loose. I had a slick, scummy sheen over the exposed skin on my face—from fat and meat that was vaporized by the knife and landed on me. The jumpsuit wasn’t really protecting my clothing—the T-shirt and jeans were greasy, too.
The second day was even worse. Halfway through the morning, I realized I’d managed to sharpen my whizzer improperly, and I ended up trying to scrape the meat from the bones with a dull blade. The supervisor was using some less-than-politically-correct language to describe me and my job performance when I suddenly realized that I was standing almost knee-deep in a puddle of fat, gristle and skin—and promptly threw up all over my rubber boots.
I left all the gear in the locker room and grabbed a six-pack at the Quik Stop. Fortunately, my waitressing gig was still open. Six weeks later, I got a check for a dollar and a half—my pay, minus the cost of the boots.
Kirstie Alley must have been hard up when she signed on as spokeswoman for Pier 1 Imports, but her job pales in comparison to my post as “cultural ambassador of wicker.” It was the summer of 2001, and having spent two post-college months back under my mother’s roof, I discovered that rent-free living came at a price. It turned out the “not under my roof” clause of our rental agreement was more than I was willing to bear.
Fortunately, a college friend was working at Pier 1 and said she could get me a job. She arranged a meeting with the store’s manager, and—voilà!—I was hired.
In no time at all, I was promoted to stockroom coordinator—yeah, me! I was to oversee and partake in the unloading, unwrapping and stocking of all of Pier 1’s “one-of-a-kind” merchandise. Two glorious mornings a week, I would roll out of bed, curse my alarm clock and arrive at the Pier 1 on Fulton Avenue, all before 5 a.m. Now, let me just say that the corner of Fulton Avenue and Arden Way isn’t the kind of neighborhood for an early-morning rendezvous— unless you’re looking to score some rock.
I would wait in the shadowy parking lot for my co-workers and the delivery truck to turn up, praying that my box cutter would be enough to fend off any ill-doers. Upon arriving, the trucker would grunt at me, shove the packing list into my arms and begin pushing the imported “goods” to the edge of his truck. When we were done unloading, my body was bruised, and so was my self-worth. The trucker would struggle back into the cab of his truck and drive off into the dawn—leaving us standing in a battlefield of wrapped wicker.
Box cutters in hand, we would spend the next six hours conquering layer after layer of cardboard, revealing … a Borneo settee, seven Shangri-La armchairs, an obscene number of papasans. On many occasions, my hand would slip, leading to a self-inflicted gash. By the time I quit, my wrists resembled those of what psychiatrists dub “cutters.”
Pier 1 has since shelved the TV commercials featuring Alley, upgrading to interior designer Thom Filicia, of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy fame. Alley, no doubt, has slipped further into obscurity, and I’ve traded in Fulton Avenue for a job in Midtown. Looking back, I realize that my cut wrists and bruised ego were a small price to pay for a roof of my own.
No matter what you’ve read so far, this entry is the nadir of worst summer jobs. You see, every night, without fail, I cleaned the sperm off the video screens while working the graveyard shift at a place called Adult World. I had a squeegee; a mop; industrial-strength solvents; and military- issue, elbow-length vulcanized-rubber gloves, and at 4 a.m. every morning, I would kick everyone out of the store and make my lonely pilgrimage, starting at Booth 1 and working my way to the dreaded Booth 16, the one in the far corner.
Booth 16 was Adult World’s own lil’ Sodom and Gomorrah, a 4-by-4-foot glossy black wonderland where any sin of the flesh that one might be tempted to do to one’s self in a semipublic sperm-caked broom closet could be tasted. I would find spent condoms stuck to the flickering screen like deflated balloons from a party long over, dildos and vibrators still squirming around on the slick linoleum like worms after a rain. Other bodily fluids appeared, but mostly it was sperm, building up in the nooks and crannies, becoming so thick that the coin slots would have to be regularly scraped to allow the quarters access. That was the essence of Booth 16.
But one night, my routine didn’t go as planned. After kicking everyone out, I shouted down the hall of booths that we were closing for an hour for cleanup, per usual. As the parade of Homo erecti zipped up and filed out, I locked the door from the inside and presumed myself to be alone until I heard the sound of change being dropped into the slots. There, in Booth 16, was a man who resembled a gigantic and crazed Mike Tyson, stripped of every stitch of clothing, socks included, going to town on himself while leering at me, knowing there were only the two of us in the whole place, and damn if I wasn’t a 145-pound punk-rock college student. An English major at that. Instantly, I became Don Knotts. And he knew it. And I knew that he knew.
“You need to get your clothes on and get the fuck out of here right now!” I said as intensely as a skinny guy holding a trash bag of used jizzrags could. He turned and beamed at me, knowing he had the, um, upper hand in the situation, whacking away with the worriless effort of a man on a leisurely Sunday-morning stroll. I went back into the store and paced around, trying to come up with a reasonable solution that wouldn’t end in some scenario that’s mostly associated with weak men showering in a federal penitentiary. A minute or two passed, and I was still in panic mode, when he came out from the darkness, fixing his tie and tucking in his shirt. Now he looked sheepish, a fallen satyr, wordlessly asking to be let out. I obliged and considered a final cautionary salvo, but, on second thought, I held my tongue, relocked the door and marched back to Booth 16.
Yet, all good things must come to an end. One night on my shift, while I was doing homework, Sacramento’s finest swooped down on the shop. The head flatfoot was old-school; he muttered “vice” out of the corner of his mouth while flipping his badge open, just like Lee Marvin would have. He had a fedora and cigarettes. Told me I was in big trouble. Distribution of obscene materials. He was closing the place down. I called the major domo at 3 a.m. and breathlessly told him that I had just been given a ticket and that the cops were pulling everyone out of the booths and arresting some people and …
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll get everything taken care of.”
Fast-forward to one year later. I was sitting on the stand in a courtroom, and the assistant district attorney was asking me to describe what he was holding in his hand.
I do have to admit it was pretty cool to have the judge ask me to repeat what I’d just said and to reply back, “A Squirmy Rooter, your honor.”
Eventually, the state won the case, and Adult World had to modify the video booths so the clerk could see what was going on at all times. No more “chimp slapping.” No more “man milking.” No more “meat processing.” No more mess.
Kids nowadays … they have it so easy.