Wednesday, May 30, 2012

summer jobs, part I: Twisters.

For the first thirteen years of my life, every summer was dedicated to the lake. Sure, I might have the occasional swimming lesson or summer camp that would interrupt my lake-filled summer, but that was all secondary. For the most part, my summers were spent at my discretion, which usually meant accompanying my family to Lake Poinsett.

Lake Poinsett didn’t have very many dining options nearby. There were a few c-stores and a couple of restaurants, but after a day of boating, you don’t really want to sit down with a menu and order steak. Finally, a restaurant came along to fill the void: an ice cream shop called Twisters.

Twisters was a lot like Dairy Queen. Their food was standard summer fare: hotdogs, burgers, fries. However, Twisters did have broasted chicken and (most importantly) ice cream. After hours of swimming, my family and I happily sloshed into Twisters and devoured our hard-earned ice cream cones.

The owners, Jim and Mary, were the nicest two people to ever walk this earth. They got to know everyone who walked through their door, and if there was time, they would join us at our table and chat. I looked forward to trips to Twisters not just for the ice cream, but for the chance to see Jim and Mary.

One Labor Day, we stopped in at Twisters to get our last fix before they closed for the season. Jim sat down with us, but this time he had a question for me: “How old are you?” I answered that I was thirteen. Jim asked if I’d be fourteen by the beginning of next summer. With an April birthday, I certainly would. Right then and there, Jim offered me my first summer job. I readily accepted, feeling like an adult already.

Summer 2001 was upon me before I knew it, and that meant my first day at Twisters. In South Dakota, you can work at fourteen, and I was more than ready to do so. Of course, I’d never had a paycheck before – birthday money and allowance made up my meager income. I was thrilled to be earning minimum wage, and I immediately began to compile a list of things I would buy with my riches.

I learned the ropes at Twisters fairly quickly. My responsibilities were similar to soda jerks across the nation: I took orders, made ice cream treats, ran the cash register, and did whatever food prep/cleaning tasks that needed to be done. I was the only fourteen-year-old on the staff that year, and that meant I couldn’t work past 9 o’clock (Twisters closed at 9, so I never had to mop the floor or do any of the less-than-pleasant closing duties).

For the first couple of weeks, I was in heaven. I got to hang out in one of my favorite places with the nicest people, and I was getting paid to do so! My friends and family would come to see me, and I could show off my new ice cream-making skills. Jim, a fellow Simon and Garfunkel fan, would let me bring my Simon and Garfunkel CDs into work so we could broadcast them over the stereo. Jim and Mary allowed free soda for employees during their shifts, and I would write a movie quote on my white Styrofoam cup, beginning my several-year tradition of “quotes of the day.” Best of all, as I was learning how to properly make cones, I was allowed to eat my mistakes. Yes, that was the life… until I found out that Jim and Mary were selling Twisters.

I was saddened, but I understood. Jim was a teacher, and he didn’t want to spend his whole summer working (Twisters was open seven days a week, Memorial Day through Labor Day). Mary had a full-time job, so working at Twisters during her spare time was getting exhausting. They were wonderful bosses, and I was sorry to see them go.

The new owner began training a few days before the Fourth of July – Twisters’ busiest weekend. She seemed ok at first, but I quickly learned what she was really like. Henceforth, I shall refer to her as the Dragon Lady.

In my working life, I have been blessed with some truly great bosses, Jim and Mary being the first in this long line of fantastic employers. Fortunately, I’ve only had one awful boss, and that was the Dragon Lady of Twisters.

After Jim and Mary trained the Dragon Lady in, they stopped working regular shifts and offered to be available for emergencies. The Dragon Lady was artificially nice when they were around, so we all spent our days hoping for an emergency.

Earlier, I mentioned that Twisters served broasted chicken. That chicken was the pride and joy of Twisters, and people just loved it. Our chicken meals came with coleslaw or beans, and I was someone deemed the coleslaw dressing maker. I would make gallons of this dressing at a time, which was quite the feat. I spent much of my time at Twisters digging mustard out of a giant vat, which would stain my skin a fetching shade of jaundicey yellow. “Evil Yellow Mustard Hand” would be a good name for a supervillain, don’t you think?

I spent two summers at Twisters, the second of which was entirely under the Dragon Lady’s jurisdiction. I was shocked when she called me back for the second summer: after spending all of last summer admonishing me for being too generous with the size of the ice cream cones, I figured I’d be on my own. Against my better judgment, I accepted Dragon Lady’s offer of another summer of employment. When you’re fifteen, you take what you can get.

During the previous summer, I had earned the unfortunate title of Champion Chicken Breader. Allow me to explain: all our chicken for broasting came to us, unbreaded, in boxes. One box held around one hundred pieces and would fill up one rather large serving pan. When the cook was getting low on chicken, someone had the less-than-pleasant task of gloving up and rolling the slithery chicken parts in breading. Aside from getting breading all the way up my elbows, I didn’t really mind. It gave me a nice break from answering the phone and making root beer floats.

I really was a champion breader: I wasted almost no breading, and I expertly stacked the pieces so that they wouldn’t topple over in their pan. Every once in a while, though, I’d run into an obstacle that would thwart all champion chicken breaders: green chicken. Every now and again, we’d order more chicken than we could sell, and the chicken would go bad. My solution was to throw away the green chicken. Dragon Lady’s solution was to tell me to “just bread it; it will be fine once it gets fried.” Horrified, I still threw away the green chicken when Dragon Lady wasn’t looking, and I warned everyone I knew not to eat the chicken.

As the summer wore on, Dragon Lady got crankier and crankier. She fired one of my coworkers because my coworker had the day off and couldn’t come in right away when called to come in when the night became unexpectedly busy. My family and I had taken a trip to Colorado that summer, and when we were pulling out of my aunt and uncle’s driveway, the rear axle stabilizer on our minivan broke. No one had the part we needed, so Dad had to get the old one welded, which set us behind a day. I was scheduled to work at Twisters, so I called Dragon Lady and informed her that we were stuck in Colorado for the time being. She reacted like I had just told her that I had stolen all of the money from the cash register. Dragon Lady ended the conversation with a snappy, “Well, you’d better be here the next day,” and hung up on me.

When the Dragon Lady wasn’t around, though, my coworkers and I still managed to have fun at Twisters. During that second summer, the Dragon Lady bought the little chunk of beach across the street. She installed a dock so boaters could park, run up the hill for their ice cream, and be on their merry way. The ice cream business was notoriously slow during the week, so on hot days, my coworker and I would wander across the road to the Twisters dock and dip our feet in the water. We always took the phone with us, and we always kept an eye on the road for potential customers. 

When Twisters closed on Labor Day, I decided that there was no way I’d be going back to work there next summer. The following summer, I would be sixteen and hopefully have more employment choices. Dad made his expectations clear: “Either you get a job, or you work for me… and I don’t pay very well.” Even picking rocks for Dad would’ve been a welcome alternative for another summer with the Dragon Lady.

Luckily, I did find another job: working at the local church camp (which is a story for another day). It was just down the road from Twisters, so I would occasionally stop by for an ice cream cone after work. One day, I was eating at Twisters with my parents, and the Dragon Lady approached our table. “Calla,” she rasped, “do you have any of your Twisters shirts?” (We had been issued red t-shirts with the Twisters logo in the corner.) I replied that I only had one, and she barked, “Bring it by sometime,” and promptly retreated. I gave my parents a “did that just happen?” look, to which my dad answered, “When we get home, you’re going to put that shirt on and help me change the oil in your car. If you ‘accidentally’ spill some oil, that’s just too bad.” Upon further discussion, we decided that I shouldn’t return the shirt at all: if the Dragon Lady wanted it so badly, she could come and get it. The Dragon Lady actually did call me a week or so later, asking about the shirt. I informed her of my incredibly busy schedule and offered to leave it on our front porch for her to pick up at her convenience. Believe it or not, she actually sent one of the cooks to get that shirt.

When my sister turned fourteen, she got a job at Twisters. I could hardly believe it, considering she has the same distinctive last name as me and was often seen at Twisters with me – the Dragon Lady had to have known we were related. Anyway, Darrah informed me that things had really taken a dive since I had been there: the Dragon Lady had taken to keeping vodka in her Styrofoam drink cup, and she had put a stop to Jim and Mary’s policy of free soda for employees. Best of all, there was a sign in the backroom stating that all employees must return their red Twisters shirts, or else they won’t be getting their last paycheck. I’d like to think that I was responsible for that sign.

So, my friends, that is the story of my first summer job. My first summer job experience was probably not much different than most; everyone’s first job is kind of crappy. Thankfully, my jobs have more or less improved since then. However, I’ve still got some decent job stories. Stay tuned for the next installment of summer jobs: the church camp!

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