When I was between years of college in the mid to late 1980s, I had summer jobs that were never that great, but I have fond memories of them, nonetheless.
I had a cool, relaxing job at a public library shelving books at my own pace in a quiet, air-conditioned building for three months. Another summer, I worked in a video rental store, which, even though I got let go from that job after three weeks, had one thing going for it: I got to watch free movies.
My worst summer job to date was at a prestige ice cream shop selling prestige European-sounding ice cream located in a prestigious college town. I will keep the names of the ice cream company and town confidential so as not to incriminate the innocent, or get me in legal trouble.
Walking into the place for the first time one afternoon in mid-May after seeing the “HELP WANTED” sign in the window, I was stunned to see no one in there except the manager. “It’s a slow time now,” said the heavily made-up blond, thirty-something woman. Her thick southern accent surprised me, as I hadn’t heard many in that town before. She pointed me to a table to fill out a job application.
As I approached the counter and looked at the vats of different flavored ice cream behind a glass window, I noticed how low they were. I have short arms and wondered how I would reach the bottoms when the ice cream was getting low.
“Do you think my height and my arm length are going to be a problem when the ice cream gets low?”
“I don’t know. Let’s see. Come on over here and let’s take a look.”
I walked behind the counter and over to the vat that looked the closest to empty. Leaning over and pointing my imaginary scoop toward the ice cream, it did not look impossible.
“You should be fine. And you’ll have time to practice before it gets busy in a few weeks. Once the kids get out of school, it can get pretty crazy around here.”
As I sat at a small table and filled out the application, she asked me if I could work weekday afternoons. I said yes, and that was it. She told me I could soon begin my “trial period” at this establishment.
It was either the next day or maybe two or three days later (it was over thirty years ago, OK?) when my time in this strange, cold, empty ice cream universe began. The manager began teaching me how to wipe down the tables and the surprisingly rigid routine of filling ice cream cups and cones.
There was a scale with a small hole to put the filled cone in or the cup on top of. It had to measure EXACTLY four ounces for a single scoop, eight ounces for a double, etc. You get the picture.
The manager told me to NEVER put any more or less ice cream in the cone or cup. This scale was by the back wall, several feet behind the counter so the customer could barely see it, but apparently, we could not be creative with the scoop sizes.
Did I mention this was a prestigious, European-sounding ice cream brand? It was the most expensive ice cream per scoop I’d encountered in my life. I was more familiar with “31 Flavors” at the local shopping mall.
Of course, I followed the letter of the ice cream scoop law while I was being “trained.” I put “trained” in quotes because in the middle of my second or third day of training when I barely knew how to make a third of the sundaes on the menu and had waited on only about five customers total, the manager told me she was leaving me in charge of the store for a little while. There were no other employees in the store.
“What?” I asked in disbelief.
“I have to get my kids’ hair cut. It’s the only appointment I could get for both of them together. I hope you don’t mind. You basically know what you’re doing and I won’t be gone long.”
Terror began to creep up my spine as she got her purse and told me she was a single mother who had recently changed her children’s first names after her divorce from their father. I think she said her kids were preschool-age.
Opening the door, she said it was the slow season, I probably wouldn’t get any customers, and I should wipe the tables again.
Then she left.
I wondered if I would ever see her again. She seemed out of place in this town with her accent and overdone makeup. Maybe she had taken her kids from her husband, driven up the coast, tied up the real ice cream store manager and was now pretending to be her, wearing her uniform and visor! It seemed crazy, but she did tell me she had recently CHANGED HER CHILDREN’S NAMES!
I watched a lot of TV “movies of the week” at this time in my life.
I tried to keep myself distracted by wiping every object in the store with a wet rag. All I could hear was the buzzing of fluorescent lights. I think I did sell a cone or two to a couple of confused-looking customers, but other than that, I had the place to myself. Mercifully, no one asked for a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.
I’ve never been so happy to see a woman I thought might possibly be a kidnapper walk back through the door in my life! I should have left this job that very day, but I had nothing else to do that summer, and it was good money.
As the spring afternoons wore on and I learned how to create more ice cream-based treats, I helped welcome other new employees to the store. They were even younger than me, as I recall, and could only work after school hours. This meant it was still just me and the manager to mind the store between noon and four o’clock.
This worked out OK until the first afternoon the temperature went up into the eighties.
Suddenly, there were LINES of customers for ice cream. I had to scoop out the ice cream and weigh each order as well as give customers tiny spoons to taste flavors with. It was finally getting warm in the overly air-conditioned store.
As the ice cream in the vats got lower and lower, I found myself struggling to reach in and scoop it out as fast as new customers were asking for it. I would chuckle and tell them it would “be just a minute, I have short arms”, and I don’t remember anyone getting impatient or irate.
The manager politely requested that I “try to get faster” with the scoop, but she said I was doing fine so far.
The first cooler day of the following week, the manager told me she had to go out for “a little while again.” This time, I was not that nervous. She was the nervous one because, earlier, she had told me the store was due for an inspection by the corporate higher-ups. This is the reason she and I had been doing a lot of wiping, even of things I’d never wiped before, like faucets and trash cans.
Now, the manager had to take one of her children to the doctor for a checkup, and, of course, it was when she was away that two or maybe three inspectors arrived. There were at least one woman and one man, maybe more, in professional business attire. Their appearance and demeanor did not exactly “scream for ice cream.”
They looked all around the store and asked me lots of questions. I told them I’d only been there a few weeks and didn’t know a lot about some aspects of the store, such as the kitchen-type room in the back with the big sinks and cupboards for cleaning sundae dishes, scoops, etc. It was actually kind of a mess, with dirty dishes all over the counters and cupboards that would spill out dishes when opened.
“Is it always this disorganized?” one of them asked.
What could I say? Even in my early twenties, I knew it was best to tell the truth, no matter what the cost. “Uh, well, yes, this is what the kitchen usually looks like when I’m back here. Yes.”
It turns out the truth may have cost me that job. The next day, the manager took me aside and said the words I still hear in my head sometimes in that high-pitched voice with the southern accent:
“I don’t think it’s working out.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Uh, what — ?”
“You just can’t seem to scoop the ice cream very fast, and when the rush starts in about a week, I don’t think you’ll be able to handle it. Remember, you are still here on a trial basis.”
That was my last day working there. It seemed strange timing that I would be let go the very next day after I had talked to the inspectors. I’ll never know if my scooping skills or my comments about the kitchen, or both, lost me that job, but once it happened, I was relieved.
To this day, there are still some desserts on that menu I don’t know how to make.
This story was originally published on Medium.com.
About the Creator
An older Gen X-er, my childhood was surrounded by theatre people. My adulthood has been surrounded by children, first my students, then my own, and now more students! You can also find me on Medium here: https://medium.com/@becklesjm