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.

There were two Fathers who regularly came down to the kitchen. One of them, Father M., the throat clearer, served as a sort of liaison to the cook. He also liked to get a good full look at me each day. While he was always pleased at how I remained below budget in my food purchasing, he represented the Fathers in their wish for more meat. Father M. wondered if, instead of chopping meats to use in sauces, stir-fries, or soups, I could give the meat a more central role. They had in mind the kind of meal where the type and cut of meat served is the simple answer to what's for dinner. For example, "pork ribs" or "flank steak."

Father K., the other priest who came down to the kitchen, did not partake of the meals I prepared. Instead, he made his own dinner out of liver powder and warm water. He would mix his gray meal in twilight's solitude, using the kitchen's blender after I had turned out the lights and started on my bike for home. I always rewashed the filmy blender when I arrived the next morning, hoping that Father K. had, somewhere in his life, bright colors or stirring poetry.

One late afternoon, having tucked a meat-laden lasagna covered with foil into the 350-degree oven, I crept upstairs to explore the mysterious Catholic hallways between the sanctuary and the Fathers' living quarters. At one door, I heard men's voices chanting in Latin. I cracked the door just wide enough to see a small, dark chapel in which the 10 hungry Fathers joined their voices in prayer.

Juli Hagstrom, 46
Marine, Minnesota

 

The Cheap Motel You Call Home

The summer after my sophomore year in college, and I decided, through no apparent logic, to try my hand as a journeyman roofer. The pay for this particular position was a whopping 50 cents more an hour than its union counterpart, and I continued down this one-way comedy of errors under the theory that 50 more pennies an hour was worth the unspeakable cruelties that the job bestowed on me.

For starters, I quickly realized that a journeyman crew of roofers is largely made up of the homeless. And not the passive sort of "I live in a homeless shelter" homeless but the "I live in a cardboard shanty by the railroad" homeless. Which is a much more proactive and interesting bunch--fellows invariably addicted to bathtub crank and cheap booze and hopelessly mired in childcare debt. One 17-year-old journeyman (with whom I had the honor of sharing motel accommodations) had two children with two different ladies. And as we pulled into an anonymous Faribault motel, he informed me that he had recently gotten a third lady pregnant. The crew and I bought him a Father's Day card in a demonstration of roofers' humor.

The dank motels where we stayed featured rooms with two beds, a permeating stench of Old Gold tobacco, and TV sets that functioned on a day-to-day basis. Most of them also housed centipede kingdoms that were constantly at war with the sugar ant tribes that resided in the bathroom.

Work began at 4:30 a.m. Because of the precarious practice of "tearing off" roofs smothered in a substance called pitch (since banned from new construction by the EPA), it was best to get the majority of the days' "tear off" work done before the sun directly struck the roof. Pitch is a dry powder that daily turns into a viscous resin when heated. This stuff is useful for filling in holes and leaks, and for burning skin upon contact, in either its resin or powder form. One day I frightfully removed my pants to find a hole burned in my thigh from a few specks of pitch that worked its way past my belt. Roofing in the morning hours between five and eleven requires heavy garments that cover as much of the body as possible. Some mornings I had to stifle laughter at the humorous sight of a dozen full-grown men wearing T-shirts on their faces with mouth holes cut to fit smoldering Pall Malls.

Another great aspect of this summer job was that the day wasn't over until the roof patch being worked on was appropriately "dressed." This, of course, was due to the tendency uncovered roofs have toward leaking. And so work usually finished for the day sometime around 7:00 or 8:00 p.m., although on more than one occasion during my three months in hell, we worked past 11:00 p.m. For those keeping score at home, that's roughly an 18-hour stint.

More frightening than the actual work were those rare occasions when work was stopped due to inclement weather. The entire crew would, surprise, head straight for the cheapest bar in town and proceed to get inebriated well beyond mere oblivion. Scraps were par for the course, but a certain camaraderie existed among the drunken and destitute. I mean, when you hear a grown man sob about not being able to see his children it really hits home. Or at least the cheap motel you call home.

There were other perils too numerous to describe: the hungover lift operator who severed the gas line, or the chronic boozer who teetered on the edge of a 14-story school building, holding my arm while the foreman leapt across the rubble to help. After that summer, when I returned to college, I finally started to make the Dean's List consistently. I'd seen the alternatives and cheap crank, cartons of unfiltered Old Golds, and a shitty hourly wage had lost their appeal. Go figure.

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