Wet Hot American Summer

You scrubbed radioactive toilets. You fleeced tots at carnivals. You ground the beaks off baby birds. You sent City Pages your summer job stories--and we didn't even give you minimum wage in return.

When I dream about that summer I dream about trolls. Gnarled noses, googly eyes, orange, green, and blue tufts of plastic hair. Spinning around and around. And Ping-Pong balls. Ping-Pong balls flying past me from every direction. Ping-Pong balls that are never supposed to land in the smooth glass dessert bowls because then I'd have to give the customer one of those damned trolls and Mike the teenage manager would suspect me of stealing because no one is supposed to win the carnival games.

It was the summer of 1992. Bush pere's recession. And nobody was hiring summer help. Nobody except Whalom Park (For a Whale of a Time!) in Lunenburg, Massachusetts. A sad, rusty park staffed by teenagers paid minimum wage, nine to ten hours a day, six days a week. We pulled the levers on rickety rides and stood in sloppily painted game booths handing out Ping-Pong balls, bean bags, and squirt guns.

Only, remember, it's the recession. Nobody has any money for amusement parks. And those who do certainly aren't coming to Whalom Park. And those few who do come to Whalom, well, they're looking to get their money's worth.

Sean Smuda

When the schedules were posted every morning there was always groaning from people assigned to the particularly busy games (those hell-begotten trolls!), the ones that didn't have any shelter from the sun (the Sidewinder, an unwinnable bowling game), and the squirt-gun water-balloon race because it was always broken. And a broken game wouldn't mean any relief from work, oh no, because it was the recession in Massachusetts and closing a booth that brought in about three dollars in quarters every hour...well, that wouldn't be prudent, now would it?

The squirt-gun water-balloon race was popular because it involved guns. And water. And loud bangs when the balloons popped. Never mind that two of the guns didn't have enough water pressure to fill a thimble, never mind a balloon. Most people shrugged--all in fun anyway, right?

But one Saturday morning the matriarch of a large family who has obviously traveled a very long way to have their whale of a time, decides it is not all in good fun and that it very much matters that two of the guns in the squirt-gun water-balloon race don't have a chance of winning. This is my problem because it certainly isn't hers, Tricia. And what are you going to do about it, Tricia? And just who do you take us for, Tricia? And when are we going to get our 50 cents back, Tricia?

She's in my face and using my name the same way Chris Rock uses the word "motherfucker," and I'm soaking wet from malfunctioning water guns and standing in an enclosed booth all day and, honestly, the sweat of real fear. And in this moment I learn the most important lesson I have learned so far about dealing with customers and upper management: I just stare at her. I don't answer her charges. I don't make promises. I don't care about her or her 50 cents or the squirt-gun water-balloon race or Whalom Park or Lunenburg, Massachusetts.

I finished out the summer wearing Karen's name badge. One day I told the manager that if he assigned me to the troll game again I would simply walk out. "Whatever," he said. And he did and I did.

Tricia Cornell, 30
Minneapolis, Minnesota

 

Riding Around in Sweatpants, Dotted with Oxy

I spent the first 10 years of my working life delivering the Sacramento Bee. This was in the late '80s in a neighborhood where the streets were named after Civil War battles and every fifth house looked the same. Automatic sprinklers shot up at 5:30 and motion detectors clicked on front lights and I was there to see it.

At first the route was a struggle, but it quickly came to resemble a sleepwalk. I once dressed, folded, and delivered to 90 houses and was back to bed in 25 minutes. That was with porched papers as a rule and a beat-up girl's Schwinn cruiser as my transportation. As heavy as it was, the bike was essential. With its big cushiony seat and gigantic whitewall tires I could ride over curbs and not even feel it.

My father, however, was a man whose idea of work meant that you did things the hard way. So when he saw that the route had gotten easy, he decreed that my brother and I would have to pick up another route--a daytime route.

What was nice about delivering papers in the morning is that no one, especially my classmates, would ever see me riding around in my sweatpants, dotted with Oxy and wearing a neon shoulder bag full of papers. It was a furtive pleasure, having all that morning silence to myself. What was leisurely at the start of the day, though, would become a slummy, sweaty, altogether unflattering affair in the Sacramento sun. It was the job equivalent of wearing your Boy Scout uniform to school: It invited ridicule.

What was worse is that we would not even be delivering a paper--it was an ad supplement, the kind of thing everyone but retirees picks off their driveways and throws away with annoyance. My friends Damon and Steve had such a route, which they delivered in about five minutes in Damon's white BMW. Occasionally they simply dumped all 100 or 200 of the circulars into a trash bin and went to Dairy Queen.

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