As an enterprising kid, I was always looking for and finding ways to make a little money. Whether it was doing errands for a neighbor, collecting bottles (before the advent of aluminum cans), or simply searching for forgotten change in phone booths (for those of you who remember such a thing), the urge to get my hands on cash of any denomination was paramount in my juvenile brain.
My primary goal for getting some cash in my piggy bank was to buy Christmas gifts for my parents. As I got a bit older, I became more self-centered. I wanted the latest fashions. My Mother’s practicality didn’t lend itself to the Mod fashions from across the pond. The British invasion was all encompassing. I wanted mini-skirts and empire waist dresses, chunky high-heeled shoes, and white lipstick. Earning my own money meant that I could invest as I pleased and I lusted for clothing.
The Onset of my youth offered numerous summertime employment opportunities. Those girls and boys who were hired to work the seasonal eateries or bag groceries at one of the two markets were looked upon as having achieved a higher status on the ladder of life. They had good paying jobs from Memorial Day until Labor Day. I aspired to join their ranks. Minimum wage as I recall was around $1.00 per hour – bonanza, and I’m not talking about the TV show.
Our home was in the center of that village, giving me easy access to The Copper Kettle, Karen’s Bakery, the 5 & 10, Polanski’s beach stand, and other retail and food venues. Most were seasonal jobs, but if you were lucky enough to be hired at the 5 & 10, well, then you could be sitting pretty until you graduated from high school. Of course, that’s if you were able to pass muster of the owner and his vigilant manager. The manager was a formidable chain-smoking woman standing about 4’ 2”, weighing 90 pounds, with a drill sergeant-like quality honed from years of being a Girl Scout leader.
When I was 14, I applied for and was issued a work permit. More prized than a learner’s permit, it opened doors where money could be earned. It was time to let the world know I was ready. I walked the few hundred feet to the top of our street and asked the owner of the bakery if I could work there. Seeing something in me that I didn’t see in myself at the time, I was hired. Or, perhaps it wasn’t so much an earnest quality of hard work and industry that oozed from my pores, maybe it was something more akin to desperation. At any rate, there were ten more teenage girls waiting to fill my sneakers if I failed; I just happened to be the first in line.
Things I remember clearly about that summer at the bakery are: getting up at 6:00 am every day of the week to start working by 6:45, the smell of hot bubbling vats of oil emitting from the back of the bakery, making coffee in an ancient electric urn, cleaning glass display cases where the mouth-watering freshly fried donuts and pastries were placed. The skill most prized by the baker’s wife was learning how to keep the glass free of fingerprints by using newspaper and straight ammonia. The smell of ammonia evokes long forgotten memories of nylon uniforms, hairnets, and an apron heavy with small change.
Oh, but there’s more: learning early on that a smile – no matter how difficult to produce at such an early hour – equated to an extra nickel or dime left on the counter for my tip, being prompt meant taking home greasy bags of leftover jelly-filled or plain donuts enjoyed by my family, tiny custard filled pies or what the baker’s wife called a ‘bride’s maid,’ a type of pastry shaped like an over-sized ravioli and filled with crushed almonds, brown sugar and secret succulent ingredients.
I loved that job and became pretty good friends with the owner’s two teenagers, a girl and a boy. These two kids were of course required to work in the bakery all summer, shoulder to shoulder with their parents. The boy worked in the backroom where hundreds of donuts and sweets were produced everyday. The girl worked either in the kitchen over the grill scrambling eggs or in the front with her mother and me working the take-out area or filling coffee mugs at the counter. Those kids never ever complained about spending their entire summer sweating bullets in the bakery.
In my unsophisticated brain, I believed that they and I were on equal footing, even though their parents owned the place. My thinking was permanently corrected when towards the end of the summer, the boy and I started to ‘like’ each other. His parents were tolerant of our longing looks and budding puppy love, I thought. When he asked their permission to take me to a movie, he was roundly refused and told within ear-shot of me by his father, “No, you may not take her to the movies or anywhere else. She’s from Onset.” I hadn’t known that this family owned several bakeries and were partners in other businesses and that their children attended private school in the Boston area and were being groomed for great things. I, on the other hand, had already achieved my highest goal to date. I was working for them. Suffice it to say, I moved on, my wounded pride to mend.
Between the ages of 14 and 18, I tried my hand at just about everything available. At The Copper Kettle, I learned to serve coffee without spilling any of it in the saucer. The trick is not to look at the contents of the cup. Try it at home. It works! I learned to write a food order clearly so the short order cook could read it and then gently haunt him to hurry up since the customer was waiting. I learned to start and complete one job at a time, so if I was filling salt shakers, I was to do all of them in a single go and not be distracted by the many other things waiting to be filled, cleaned, degreased, or replaced.
I scooped ice cream at the beach eatery where I also fried onion rings, French fries and clams. It surprised me to learn that the lard the owners used stayed in the fryolator year round. Apparently the board of health wasn’t fully engaged in the early ‘60s.
One fall, when kids in town were leaving for college or securing full-time employment in such far-flung places as downtown Wareham, Plymouth or Hyannis, or worse yet being drafted into the military, I scored a prized position at the 5 & 10. Joy of joys, this meant year-round employment. This variety store was a cornucopia of do-dads, pencils, first aid supplies, clothing, pots and pans, comic books and so much more. I learned how to use a manual cash register with ease, make change and count it back, bag merchandise, provide customer service, and stay busy. If it was slow in the store, staying busy became the most important thing to do. If you weren’t busy, you’d be sent home. I’d dust bottles of hand lotion, line up rulers, fold and refold sweatshirts, straighten up greeting cards and take inventory without being asked.
The following summer when they hired another girl with whom my dealings were, let’s just say, not cordial, she began a slow but steady smear campaign against me with the “Sarge.” It didn’t help matters that I was starting to develop that nasty teen habit of having an attitude. When I picked up my weekly earnings (paid in cash and presented in a small brown envelope with the following week’s schedule), I was shocked. Nothing had been written on the envelope. When I inquired about my hours, I was told quietly but firmly by the Sarge, “You don’t like working here anymore. Thank you.” Talk about Jedi-mind-control, suddenly it was true.
At some point in my career, I worked for about a month in the office of the local GP, Doctor Goldfarb. More accurately, I worked for his wife, Edith. As they awaited a replacement secretary, I was hired to do some typing. There was something about these two that endeared them to me. They weren’t overly warm or friendly, but they possessed a sort of gentle kindness.
Edith ran the business end of the medical practice but had never learned how to type. During my stint in their office she’d sit beside me and tell me the names and addresses of the patients. I carefully, but not too accurately, typed into the small square provided on the triplicate invoice, the contact information and then the diagnosis and associated fee. As you can imagine, I learned quite a lot about my neighbors and other people in town, but my lips are sealed. Edith was very patient with my limited skills, and I tried hard to get things right for Edith. I was saddened at her passing a few years later. The good doctor soldiered on for many more years.
There were the babysitting jobs (not my favorite) and the in-home salon work. I took up shampooing and setting a neighbor’s hair in rollers. Later in the day, I’d return to her house across the street from ours, remove the rollers and coif her hair using plenty of Aqua-Net hair spray. In those days, it was common to wash and set one’s hair only once a week. For this service, I charged a whopping five dollars. I worked on my Mother’s hair, too, but I did that gratis and for the practice.
All in all, I stayed reasonably employed throughout my high school years, something I look back on today with pride. I was able to supplement the household by buying most of my own clothing. I thoroughly enjoyed the two or three mini-skirts I acquired from the Sears and Roebuck catalog. As for my shoes, I lovingly polished those chucky high-heels until the soles let the rain in.
Thanks to summer jobs, I learned a great deal about dealing with people – especially the difficult ones. The humiliation I felt when I overheard the baker or when I lost my job at the 5 & 10 were character building. I learned that kindness can take many forms and that hard work won’t kill you. I learned how to manage money, no matter how little I might have possessed. I learned what would later be called a ‘can do’ attitude. I’m happy to report that it eventually replaced the teen attitude that had darkened my life. But probably the most important thing I learned was being willing to try and that failures are tools. I don’t think we let our kids learn the art of picking themselves up and starting again. It helps build stronger emotional muscles. Life is more often than not a process of surviving setbacks while striving towards the goal.
Today in my status as a semi-retired person, I credit those individuals who employed me decades ago with helping me become the person I am. Each one taught me life lessons beyond the cash payment I received while in their employ. Thank you Mrs. Holmes (aka Sarge), Harry Eaton, Mrs. Polanski, Doctor and Mrs. Goldfarb, Mr. and Mrs. Karen, Vera Gay, and Vera Dingman. You helped me, whether you knew it or not. You are not forgotten.
By Marilou Newell