My Ohio: Experience Required

The real rewards from the summer jobs of our youth weren’t printed on a paycheck.

Working as a waitress in a greasy spoon was my first real summer job. Hundreds of these little restaurants exist throughout our state. They’re places where the stools at the counter are filled with regulars, and each booth has identical mustard and ketchup containers.

They’re decent little businesses run by hardworking people who serve oceans of coffee and plates such as Adam and Eve on a Raft — two eggs up on toast. Working there, I saw a cross-section of America: construction workers and sales reps, retirees and moms with kids.

Later this month, teenagers and young adults will be winding down their own summer jobs, getting ready to return to school or start their careers. During last year’s summer-employment peak,  the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported nearly 20 million 16- to 24-year-olds were working, primarily in the leisure and hospitality, and retail industries.

Summer jobs are a rite of passage. Every high school and college kid should have one, and the more unpleasant the work is, the better. Doing well in school suddenly looks a lot more important when you’re stuck in a job you can’t imagine doing past Labor Day.   

I had my share of three-month-employment stints. One summer, I was Miss JCPenney Paint Can. I wore a tiara and a large cardboard cylinder around me that was supported by straps over my shoulders. I passed out yardsticks in the paint department and endured comments like, “Hey, baby, I like your can,” from more than one guy who thought he was being clever. Break time was a little complicated. I always had to find someone to watch my cardboard getup. It wouldn’t fit through the door of the employees’ lounge.

Another summer I worked at an amusement park. The first day I was locked in a small room and handed a knife. (OK, I wasn’t really locked in, but the room had no windows and was filled with hamburger buns stacked to the ceiling.) I was told to cut off any green mold I found. I lasted three hours before
I begged to be let out, screaming something about child labor laws, although I had no idea what I was talking about.

To my amazement, I was promoted to snack-bar cashier, which was fun and a little heartbreaking at times. One day, an elderly lady looked out over a nearby lake and said to me, “I always wanted to see the ocean before I died. It’s very pretty.” Who was I to tell her she was wrong? I just smiled.

The summers I worked at a biker hangout were particularly memorable. The bar and pizza joint was the unofficial home of a local biker’s club. Members had been known to throw firecrackers in toilets, rip sinks off restroom walls and ride motorcycles through the front door into the dining room.

But the guys were incredibly protective and called me “College Girl.” When some unfortunate soul strolled into the restaurant and decided he was going to give me a hard time, two or three of my biker buddies would cozy up real close to the offender at the bar.

At that job, I learned to hold five beer steins by their handles in one hand and slide a glass down the bar to the correct patron. I also discovered that someone raw around the edges and wearing a biker’s vest could be kind and just.

Some young person is out there right now doing one of my former jobs, refilling coffee cups or arranging pepperoni slices on pizzas. It may take years before they realize what a gift a summer job can be. Sure, the tips tucked under a breakfast plate are the immediate reward, but the experience and insight are what end up paying dividends.

Sometimes you learn even more than you want to. Ever wondered how old that ketchup really is at the bottom of the container? Take it from me, you’re better off not knowing.

Jill Sell is a contributing editor based in Sagamore Hills.