It is the thing your parents make you do. It is the place where you first fall in love. It is the way you learn the disturbing truth that many people's work is tedious. It is what you will be nostalgic about -- but not for many, many years. It is the last time you will have to know how to make a lanyard.
It is the Summer Job, that moderately distorted Introduction to Adulthood -- accurate to the extent that it introduces kids to paychecks, taxes and getting up early, false to the extent that come Labor Day it is over.
Like many rites of passage, summer jobs go badly more often than they go well. Just ask any of the 3 million 16- to 24-year-olds who joined the labor force after school let out. Too many lawns mowed. Too many hours spent scooping ice cream (resulting in frostbitten fingers and weight gain). Too many waves of heat rising off the french fry vats. The right summer job pays okay-to-well, gets you outside, keeps you awake through the afternoon. The wrong job makes you stink.
"My worst summer job was when I was 16," says Montgomery County school Superintendent Harry Pitt. "I worked in a fish store. I cleaned fish, scaled fish. Every night I came home and the whole neighborhood smelled me coming."
But everyone knows if Pitt had had the good job -- the Real Summer Job -- he would have avoided that smelly humiliation. The Real Summer Job is, of course, lifeguarding, that classic endeavor that keeps you close to water and away from all scents other than coconut oil. The lifeguard bestrides the pinnacle of summer employment: outdoor work, opportunities for romance, strong element of boredom, chance to show off your body, most likely will not be pursued as an adult career path.
But not everyone can be a lifeguard -- just one more example of the essential unfairness of life, one more lesson summer employment can teach.
What Parents Suspect About Summer Jobs
There are no reliable statistics on how many teenagers make a summer job of looking for a summer job, but anecdotal reporting suggests that the numbers are high.
The Awful Ones
Paul Ruffins, who now works for the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen, remembers one youthful spring spent laboring at a Friendly's. When he was not scooping, he was stationed in the zero-degree freezer, hefting newly arrived 35-pound cartons of ice cream.
"First of all, when you work with ice cream you get chocolate forearm and strawberry elbow," he says. Second of all, there was the prospect of the upcoming summer increase in ice cream deliveries. "You stood there, in your hat and mittens, and if you were going to do it well, you had to rotate the ice cream when the new deliveries came in -- lift the old cartons down in front and put the new ones on the shelves.
"As the summer started, I decided it was time to move on."
Chris London, 21, is a camp counselor this summer. He has had enough of retail work. "I worked all over Georgetown," he says. At one record store, the managers discovered some thefts, decided it was someone on the staff, and went about dealing with it as they saw best. "Because it was the type of music it was, they thought it was a black person," says the young black man. "And I worked in classical. They accused all the black staff. I just quit."
Summer jobs are made to quit.
They blanket the city every summer, jangling with enthusiasm and newly found expertise, secure in the knowledge that they have the kind of jobs that are made for the re'sume'. On buses to the Hill from Georgetown and Glover Park they speak loudly -- "Well, my member thinks that ..." As if guided by some mysterious intern pheromone, they are drawn to obscure receptions and happy hours, seeking free food. They live in group houses furnished with milk crates and piles of newspapers and play frisbee in the living room. They read constituent mail. They make photocopies. They mill about. They are almost all unpaid volunteers (thank you, Mommy and Daddy). But of course at the end of the summer they do get pictures of themselves with their members. And then they are gone.
"You go out after work, and it's just interns everywhere," says Natalie Fousekis, a recent college graduate volunteering in the office of Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.). With 40 of her kind working in his office each summer, Wilson is believed to be the most-interned senator.
About 4,000 work on the Hill each year, 2,500 of them in the summer. "Thank God they don't drive," says Hilary Lieber, director of the Congressional Intern Office. "The traffic would be terrible."
The Summer Job as Window Into Character I
"The summer job which made me a psychologist was at the age of 12," says Dr. Joyce Brothers. "I took a job for which I had no working papers, as a counselor at a camp for 'problem boys' -- boys who had been in trouble with the law for rape, arson, beating people up. I took care of a dozen 14-year-old boys.
"For the boys to go to the bathroom, they had to walk through my bedroom -- it wasn't a very well-organized camp. One night I had a sense something was cooking -- you hear a lot of giggling. The boys all walked in totally nude, all with erections" -- here the thoughtful and media-wise psychologist pauses to advise, "If you can't say erections, say 'in a state of excitement.'
"Should I have freaked out or panicked, we would have been in big trouble. I just went on painting my nails and as they walked into the bathroom I said in my normal voice, 'Boys, make sure you flush the toilets.' When they came back through, they weren't excited anymore. That was the end of the problems for the summer."
How to Make the Best Of a Bad Job
Find a larger meaning in it.
Rep. Fred Grandy (R-Iowa) spent one youthful summer doing "retail espionage." According to his spokeswoman, Georgia Dunn, he visited department stores and cased the prices on "specialty men's work clothes -- shoes, engineer's caps, overalls."
"This was an experience that paid dividends when he moved back to Iowa," says Dunn. "He told me, 'When I campaigned through rural Iowa, I knew exactly where to look for the best pair of work shoes.' And to sum up the experience in a more existential light, there is a purpose for everything we do in our life, even though we may not realize it at the time."
Natalie Fousekis has spent her share of time in Sen. Wilson's mail room opening and sorting the tens of thousands of constituent letters that arrive each week. "That's not one of my favorite tasks, but you can still learn something," she says.
"Well, you see what the big issues are to people," she offers, then laughs. "If you're going to do it for three hours, you've got to get something positive out of it."
Kids, Kids Everywhere
At a roller-skating rink in Prince George's County the counselors stand and watch their charges. Small children skate over and drape themselves from the counselors' arms like hanging moss. They stare up at the giants and beg for money, or candy, or attention, or something, anything. Their eyes are filled with yearning and love and imminent boredom.
Being a camp counselor is like being a senior in high school. You are bigger than everyone else. You know how life works. You are perfect.
"The impact you have on these kids!" says Delores Colbert, director of the older camper program at the Southeast YMCA Camp. "You get out of the car and they're, like, 'DELORES!!' They'll do anything for you."
It is a position of sweet and frightening responsibility, and the fear is drummed into counselors along with the idea that this is not a Job, this is a Calling. Listen to Tracey Williams, 22 and the director of the Southeast Camp younger camper program: "I always tell people I'm interviewing, you can work anyplace else -- the drugstore, the mall -- and you can burn the store down and the insurance will pay for it. But if anything happens to these kids, you'll be on the news that night."
It is a responsibility that some find daunting. "I look on this as a test," says Marni Mintener, a 19-year-old Howard University student. "I'm not positive I want to go into education, but I figure if I can survive this summer with these crazy kids I can do it."
Mintener is a willowy and graceful and disciplined former gymnast who has worked with children before, but that was at a gymnastics camp in Wisconsin, where her charges were willowy and graceful and disciplined current gymnasts. Here, the kids are just kids. They lose their shoes and socks, they talk back, they form rowdy clumps and race around rooms.
They also offer painful moments of insight into small lives. "One kid came up to me and said his father is in prison," remembers Mintener. "That crushes you. One boy was crying, and he said, 'I miss my daddy!' I said, 'Don't worry, you'll see him when you get home.' He said, 'He's dead. He died two weeks before camp started.' You can get depressed too, and you have to shake that off."
The Summer Job as a Window Into Character II
Phyllis Schlafly makes it clear -- the job wasn't just for the summer, she did it during the year too as she worked her way through college. But if you want to know, yes, she'll tell you. "I fired machine guns and rifles, testing ammunition on the night shift."
The Fruit Man
Sam Jannotta reads Noam Chomsky. He reads "The Unbearable Lightness of Being." Between chapters, he sells fruit.
Seated at a card table covered with neatly stacked pyramids of fruit at 17th and L streets NW, Sam Jannotta has managed to make street vending an intellectual pursuit. A graduate of St. Mary's College recently back from a trip to Costa Rica, he is figuring life out, deciding his future, selling plums.
"A friend of the family did this and she made a good amount of money over the summer," he says. "She worked this corner and said it was very good."
Jannotta has his books to keep him company, but he also has made friends with the other vendors. "The Ben and Jerry's ice cream guy, he comes by and hangs around. It's a great summer job. You get to meet people. You get to be outside. The weather hasn't been so bad. The worst thing is you have to get up at 5 every morning to buy the fruit."
The Catch-22 Of Summer Jobs
You cannot be a waitress until you have waitressing experience. This is the adolescent equivalent of a Zen koan.
The Sad Fact About Summer Jobs
You are young. You are strong. You can work like a horse. You are slave labor.
"I worked in a fast-food pizza place," says Mintener. "The management was awful and they expected me to run basically the whole store. I was at the counter dealing with customers, I had to bus the tables and wash the dishes and keep the salad bar filled. I lasted almost a month."
Sometimes they try to make you forget you are slave labor. Do not be fooled.
At Kings Dominion, for example, the 3,500 summer workers can choose from a variety of jobs from retailing to landscaping. Some choose to be "area hosts."
"It's basically street-sweeping," says the somewhat embarrassed spokeswoman, Serena Barry. "They get the message sooner or later."
Final Words of Advice
Just remember, the best thing about a bad summer job is this: It is a summer job.