Thursday, August 25, 2016

My Summer Jobs: Finding Tadpoles, Dead Babies, and the Motivation to Succeed in School

I've already discussed my first job and the life lessons it taught me. That post was so popular it warranted a sequel!

My second job was at Mobil in West Hartford during the summer after I graduated high school. I didn't pump gas or do anything with cars, I just worked the register and took inventory of the small store. I also had to close and lock up by myself, so it was beneficial in the sense that I learned to handle a lot of responsibility. Other than that, it was exactly as unremarkable as you'd expect. Two memories stand out: another employee, a woman in her 20's from Washington, D.C., told me about go-go music, a genre I had never heard of at the time; and one night I took a cigar from the glass case behind the register and smoked it in the garage next to the store. I got about 8 puffs in and gave up.

That fall I went to Storrs. I worked for UConn's dining services off and on for the four years I attended. It sucked and I gained no skills whatsoever (I was the best grilled cheese chef in the world long before working there, word to Emeka Okafor). However, I often ate for free, so I guess I got something out of it.

The summer after my freshman year I worked for the West Hartford Public Works department. I mostly sat in the passenger seat while an old racist white man drove around town looking for potholes to fill in with the tar we had in the bed of our big yellow truck. We didn't look very hard, mind you. Oftentimes, he'd park in front of his house and go inside while I waited in the truck. I never knew what he was doing, but I'm pretty sure there were no potholes in there.

After a couple of weeks, I was given a truck and one responsibility: mark all the storm drains in the city. Me and another young part-timer drove around town and spray painted orange marks in the middle of roads. These marks indicated the location of storm drains, which let plows know where the drains were during the winter. It was extremely monotonous. It was always hot. We worked from 6am-2pm, so we were always tired. Before summer ended, we had to do every single road. Fun fact: there is never a good time to spray paint a main road.

Once we got into a groove and figured out what we were doing, my slacker training kicked in. For the first couple of hours each day, we'd find a secluded parking spot, turn on the air conditioning, crank up Howard Stern, and rest. When I saw another truck from our department doing the same thing in our "secret" parking lot one day, I knew we had nothing to worry about. It amazed me how many other town and state vehicles we saw there. More than anything else, this job taught me that slacking is acceptable and often expected, especially at a town job.

The next summer, there were no openings in that department so I worked with Leisure Services. Most of the employees I worked with were part-timers the same age as me. Our headquarters was at Buena Vista golf course, but mostly we took care of the public pools in West Hartford. Each part-timer was assigned one pool, and I got Beachland. We had to test the pH levels and clean the locker rooms every day, and we had to vacuum the pools every other day. I always did everything I was supposed to do. At first, I took my time, and I would get back to Buena Vista around 10am. Then I got faster and faster at everything, but instead of going back to Buena Vista at 10, I would just hang out at Beachland for a while, sitting in my car listening to Howard Stern.

Basically, for about 4 summers, I was a paid Howard Stern fan.

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We shared a special bond...

Before the pools were filled for the summer, we had to clean them out, and there were plenty of dead squirrels and various trash in the empty pools. Once, we found a dead squirrel underneath a fridge in the lifeguard's room. We had been working there for about a week when we finally found where the vile, stomach-turning odor was coming from.

Some of the pools needed to be painted before they opened. That was a job we all hated because it was inevitably hot and bright, and we were in these giant concrete holes that kept getting brighter and hotter as we applied layer after layer of white paint. It was very disorienting and we had to make sure to occasionally walk out of the pool to regain our senses.

Image result for matrix neo morpheus all white background
It kinda felt like this at times...

Anyone who works with public pools knows there is inevitably going to be some poop. I found poop only once in the pool, because I was usually gone by the time people got there and lifeguards were on poop patrol during the day. More often, I had to deal with the poop, and discarded poop-filled underoos, in the locker room's stalls. I figure that balanced out all the Howard Stern.

After the pools were taken care of, everyone went back to Buena Vista, where we had a lot of random duties (as opposed to the random doodies at the pools ha!). Mostly we mowed grass. We also had to clean the headquarters where we stored our equipment. Sometimes we'd go with our boss to other golf courses or parks around town to fix or clean something. On the good days, when the boss wasn't around much, we would soup up the maintenance golf carts and drive around the course recklessly. We beat the hell out of those carts. I'm seriously shocked they didn't just fall apart. One time, when I was driving myself around and trimming the grass around the golf tees for the 5th time in a week, I zoomed down a hill and took a sharp turn at the bottom. Of course, I tipped over into a small ditch. I couldn't pull it out myself but a couple golfers walked by and helped me get it back on all fours before my boss found out. I took it a little easier around corners that day.

Once every summer we had to scrape the algae out of the pond at Buena Vista. About 4 or 5 guys held the ends of a long thick rope. We'd walk on opposite sides of the pond along the edges, with the rope taut above the pond. When we got to the middle, we'd slowly lower the rope until it touched the surface. Then we'd walk together towards one end of the pond, dragging the rope as algae slowly piled up behind it. Once we got to the end, we'd use rakes and pitchforks to drag the giant algae clumps out of the water. We did that a few times until we could finally see the water in the pond again. There had to be 3 tons of algae. It was slick and gooey with a foul odor. It was also full of insects, and best of all, tadpoles of every evolutionary stage. There were big, fat, green slimy balls with no features; there were green blobs with a fish tail and semi-developed eyes; and there were even green orbs with long frog legs. Some were still living and trying to swim or jump or...something.

Stare into your soul?

We'd toss the few living ones back into the pond. The dead ones we'd pick up and toss at each other, obviously.

Our boss was an interesting guy. He was meticulous, to say the least. His truck and his work area were impeccably clean. He was always on the go, always working. Basically, he was the complete opposite of the guys I worked with at Public Works. He was the antithesis of a town/state employee. Some of the other full-timers even made fun of him because he worked so hard (or worked at all). But he did instill in me attention to detail when cleaning. I still don't enjoy cleaning (who does?) and when it comes to my own place I can still be messy, but when it comes to my workstation, I've noticed I'm definitely more diligent than most. When I first started working there, sweeping the corners was a big joke to kids who had worked with him before. They all had the experience of sweeping for hours only to have Jimmy come and tell them they missed the corners, which they absolutely had. I still notice the dirt in the corners of any room I enter.

He also had catchphrases. "God Bless America!" was his go-to response to everything. A guy cut him off in traffic? "God bless America!" A kid showed up late for work? "God Bless America!" He got an extra McNugget with his lunch? "God bless America!"

Another catchphrase was, "Good to go, guy!" That meant he was ready to move on to the next activity. And yes, he called everyone guy. That still annoys me.

I worked for him and Leisure Services for 3 summers, including after I graduated college. That year I stayed on into the fall, as I learned that a Bachelor's in English isn't the most practical degree.

Although the pools were closed and the golf courses were winding down, my boss found plenty to do. He went all over town, providing his maintenance expertise to every building that needed it. And, apparently, they ALL needed it.

One place we often went was the cemetery. As a kid, I played in the cemetery a lot. It sounds morbid now, but at the time it was just a wooded area where we could ride bikes and explore in peace. So it wasn't too abnormal for me to spend time there. Not like I had a choice in the matter.

My boss had to (chose to? I really don't know if this was part of his actual job or more of a hobby) measure different burial plots for new caskets. Each plot needed a certain amount of space around it. Whenever they wanted to put a fresh dead body underground, they had to make sure they weren't going to accidentally dig someone else up. There was a map of the cemetery that showed where every casket was supposed to be, but the ground isn't always 100% stable and the records were very old. If one measurement was off, everything was off. Since x-ray technology was unavailable, my boss used an old fashioned method. He took a thin metal rod, about 6 feet long, and shoved it into the ground. If there was no resistance, there was no casket. To measure a new plot, he poked the ground in several spots until he found the surrounding caskets. That let him know how much space was available for a new one. 

This was considerably creepier than my childhood bike rides through the cemetery, but I figured the chances that he would start a zombie apocalypse by crashing through an ancient casket were slim, so I was mostly okay with it.

One day, it became not okay. Not okay at all. The opposite of okay. Okay wasn't even visible in the distance. We were no longer in the vicinity of okay.

This guy was nowhere to be found.

My boss had to measure an area for a new plot right next to a small headstone. The headstone had birth and death dates very close to each other, meaning this was a baby's final resting place. Already it was becoming a little more uncomfortable than usual, but my boss treated every job the same. Out came the rod.

He dropped to his knees and started shoving the rod down as hard as he could. On the 3rd or 4th thrust, we heard a giant "crack!" My boss said, "Oops! I think I found it!"

Then, with a grin on his face, he uttered the most disturbing thing I've ever heard (outside of a Donald Trump speech):

"I probably went right through his skull!"

Did he need to add that? No. Did he enjoy the look on my face as he said it? Probably. Did I start looking for a new job when I got home that day? Definitely.

Ultimately, I'm grateful for the work experience I gained during these years. It motivated me to finish school, get my Master's, and never work a blue-collar job again.

Also, when the zombie apocalypse eventually starts, I know exactly who to blame.

I Love You All...Class Dismissed.

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