Thursday, December 14, 2006

Bad Jobs, No. 1

Tomorrow is the last day of my part-time, temporary job at Sandra Bullock's company. What was intended to be a ten-week assignment lasted six months, but as of tomorrow, it will be over.
With that, it recedes into a long and undistinguished laundry list of jobs, not careers, that I've had since I turned 16 and plunged that scooper into that first tub of Baskin-Robbins ice cream.

Earlier this week, I had a dream that I was ironing my khaki pants and white shirt, preparing for another shift at Aqua, a restaurant I worked at in 1992. When I finished, I went outside to find that someone had stolen my car. So I came back inside and saw that someone had also stolen my laptop, and Shack. I went to take a shower and there was no water pressure.

So maybe I'm a little bit worried about losing this job, which had been working out pretty well. I knew that I could be cut loose at any time, that every day I went past the original 10 week schedule could be my last, so I wasn't surprised. And yet I've still spent the past week looking for subtext that would suggest that I was actually being fired due to poor performance. This would make more sense to me than simply having a job's life expectancy run out.

Today I was training a 24-year-old guy to be my replacement, and he asked, "What's been your favorite job?" Unsurprisingly, it took me several minutes before I could come up with an answer. Finally, I mentioned a few seasonal jobs I'd had coaching high school baseball and high school volleyball. I am 41 years old, have two advanced degrees, and that was the best I could do.

If he'd asked me about the worst job I'd ever had, competition would have been much more fierce. Beginning with my first job, two days working as a TV repairman's assistant, the road has not been as smooth as I'd imagined it would be when I was 5 years old and wanted only to grow up and drive a cement truck at West Point. Would that have been regular Army or civilian contractor? I don't know.

I'm not sure where and when the split with a normal career trajectory happened. Maybe my first post-TV repairman job, at Baskin-Robbins #432, created a template I have not since been able to shake.

I got the job because my sister, Noodles' Mom, had worked there. Also, I loved ice cream. Who in my family didn't love ice cream? Unlike the sorbet-inclined Jawa, my family ate ice cream by the half-gallon. During the dark years of 1974-76, when our idyllic small-town Pennsylvania life was crumbling into dust, my dad still made sure that we got Breyer's hand-packed half-gallons at least once a week. Several years later he told me that it was "medicine."

Baskin-Robbins was a middlingly hip job for a sixteen-year-old in my town. Eventually, several people from my high school would work there, but that came long after I'd been dismissed by the owner, Harvey Lucas. The kid from across the street , Lord Vader, worked there too, but he went to the Catholic high school (which he now resides over as school president).

It wasn't a difficult job and it had more cache than working fast food. The only problem was that Harvey Lucas was insane.

Harvey Lucas was probably younger than I am today. I've heard that he still owns that Baskin-Robbins, that he used to own several but had downsized over the years. One of my friends worked for him into his 30s, which we all thought was odd except that this particular friend had somehow stopped aging, both physically and emotionally, when he turned 19. At the time -- 1981-82 -- Harvey owned only the one store, on Tustin Avenue and Walnut, in Orange.

The store sat one spot in from the corner, on which sat a Kentucky Fried Chicken (or was it an Arby's) from which Harvey, or someone associated with Harvey, would spy on us. He wanted to make sure we weren't giving away ice cream (we were), that we weren't being rude to customers (we were), and that we weren't serving scoops that weighed out at more than .16 of a pound (are you kidding?). He also had a spy camera on us, but it was inoperational. I learned that when Joe Sparks flipped it off with both hands one night. There were no repercussions.

The KFC, Baskin-Robbins and a few other stores were laid out around a central parking lot, in which my first girlfriend, Amber, and I would lean against our cars holding hands, after we got off work. That way, my parents would not know I had a girlfriend. Why this was important to me, I don't know. But it was.

My dad was unimpressed by Amber. Maybe that's why I kept the relationship a secret. He thought she was "a dud." He liked Ann Lundquist, who is now a chiropracter with her office a few blocks away from Baskin-Robbins, on Chapman Avenue. Ann Lundquist treated everyone like they were either 10 years old, an idiot, or a 10-year-old idiot. And she loved Garfield. But she had personality, which my dad liked.

On prom night, I drove up to Amber's house in my 1965 Alfa Romeo, impressing her family much more than I would ever impress her. So impressed were they, in fact, that her mother called my mother later that night to drunkenly share her pleasure at her daughter's choice of boyfriend. Or at least that's what I've been told.

I've always liked to think that later, after Amber dumped me in the parking lot of the Orange Mall, her family gave her a long lecture about making good choices.

Speaking of good choices, I'll intellectualize and say that my relationship with Amber killed my burgeoning career at Baskin-Robbins #432. Every week, Harvey Lucas would post the schedule. Then I would go up to the schedule and begin calling people to see if they'd switch shifts with me so that I could work with Amber. Later, when I'd been booted to the curb by both Harvey and Amber, one of the reasons he gave (I heard) was because I'd been changing the schedule.

But we will find, in time, that there were much more nefarious forces at work.

And so it went throughout my Junior year of high school. I put in a few nights at Baskin-Robbins, sometimes having a good time with Lord Vader and the wise-beyond-his-years Mike. I ate ice cream by the barrelful, like everyone else, and even once met a celebrity, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Pat McInally, who became my favorite football player for years afterward.

Sometimes it was good. Sometimes we'd all hang out in the store long after closing, or drive down to the beach and walk up and down the sand until sunrise. Lord Vader and the wizened Mike and I watched the embryonic "Late Night With David Letterman," laughing when we learned that Dave was once married to Lord Vader's cousin.

Sometimes it was bad. Sometimes we'd be raising the roof to a store full of ice cream-craving customers, only to see a familiar Corvette pull into the parking lot, followed by a familiar pair of brown polyester pants, Earth Shoes and a silver velour v-neck striding into the store: Harvey Lucas.

He was disco long after disco had died. He was also Jewish, one of the few Jews then in my life, which made finding my identiy as a Jew nearly impossible. Who wants to be part of this? I thought. Harvey, determined to squeeze the last bit of life out of the Me-Generation, had a young girlfriend: Linda. That she was had a chronically dour expression and worked at the KFC across the way was inconsequential. She was young. And her job gave Harvey the perfect excuse to sit in the KFC and spy on us.

One night I remember giving out sundaes to all of my friends. At that point in my social development, ice cream was capital. I was closing in on mainstream adolescent acceptance, finally, and if I could hasten my social growth by handing out some of Harvey's ice cream to football players and cheerleaders, I was going to do it.

Fortunately, I'd completed my underhandedness before the Corvette pulled up. Harvey got out and went into the Kentucky Fried Chicken to hang out while Linda worked. As he sat there, the tension in Baskin-Robbins #432 grew. Where Lord Vader and I may have played trivia with the gathered masses, we were now subdued. And once subdued, the terrible reality of what we'd sold ourselves at $3.65 an hour to do was starkly outlined.

Imagine a sea of zombified faces holding pink paper "Now Serving!" numbers. They are growing impatient and hungry. To this day, I've never seen expressions as blank as the ones worn by people waiting for ice cream.

Now imagine that you are what stands between the crowd and their ice cream. You can be generous or stingy. You are wearing brown pants and a white, pink and brown striped shirt, plus a brown baseball cap. Your forearms are sticky, covered with ice cream. They smell like sour milk. It could be raining, terrible ice cream weather. And still, they come.

Harvey is sitting at a table in the KFC, watching. He makes no effort to hide his intentions. He can tell, from across the parking lot, if you are doling out heavy scoops. And what if, at that time, a group of your friends comes in? Or your family? How can you explain, while miming the appearance of business-as-usual, that business is anything but as usual, because Harvey Lucas has unfolded his brown polyester pants across a bench at the KFC a hundred feet away?

On this night, I remember, I made a pint for someone. We had to weight the pints, too. I think they were supposed to come out at .90 of a pound, but that doesn't sound right. What I do know is that my pints were usually way over. Call it laziness, hubris, whatever.

So I make the pint and think nothing of it. I couldn't even remember the face of the person who'd bought it. Nothing about their demeanor seemed out of place.

Forty-five minutes later, the crowd had thinned, and we were relaxing, walking around with wet washcloths, pretending to clean the counters. In comes Harvey Lucas with an evil gleam in his eye.

"Did you make this pint?" he asked.

It was at this point that I learned to fear and loathe authority equally. I knew I was busted, but wanted it to be Harvey's fault, not mine.

"Uh...I think so?"

"You think so. I watched you. And it's way overweight."

"Oh, uh, I, uh..."

"If you want to get fired, keep making them this heavy."

With that he smiled, threw a crumpled up pink paper "Now Serving!" number at me, turned and walked out, leaving the pint on the counter.

How different my life might have been had I not overpacked that pint. Or had I been savvy enough to pick out Harvey's spies from the crowd. Maybe my later run-ins with bosses -- strangely enough, often named "Dave" -- could have been avoided.

Or if I had been someone other than me, someone capable of feeling contrite, able to apologize to Harvey and then toe the line afterwards, I would now be speaking to you from a CEO's chair.

Unfortunately, I am me. This is the sad conclusion I must face every time a bad job falls apart. Instead of bowing to the pressure, realizing that I had to keep my job, not only for money but for the guaranteed time with Amber, I took a defensive position.

Embarassed, sweating and worried, I loudly proclaimed that I would now ALWAYS over-pack my pints. I would serve scoops DOUBLE the size specified in the training manual, and I would give away ice cream to family, friends, cute girls, marginal professional athletes and anyone else who happened to catch me in a generous mood. Screw Harvey Lucas, his Corvette, his velour v-neck sweater and his growing empire of Baskin-Robbins stores.

Amazingly, it took a few months to catch up to me. Harvey was after me, I knew that, but I managed to stay out of his way. Post-work hijinks continued, all of us packing into Lord Vader's Volkswagen Thing for trips to all-night restaurants.

But then, inevitably and finally, I went too far.

Harvey was socially retarded, but he knew that as the leader of several potenially disgruntled teenage employees, he had to make obvious efforts to show us that he cared about our morale. To that end, he placed a small poster featuring a cheerful Smurf on the wall next to the schedule. "Have a great day!" it said. One night, after closing, I took on that Smurf, pouring all of my anger and resentment into its benign goofiness, as Ann Lundquist cheered me on.

"HAVE A CRAPPY DAY!" the Smurf now said. He'd taken a turn for the dark side and now wore a dangling cross earring, dark glasses and several tattoos. Garbage was strewn across the Smurf landscape. This Smurf would not be boosting anyone's morale. I made sure of that.

The following week, I went in to check the schedule. I wasn't on it. That was how I found out I'd been fired.

Immediately drenched in sweat, my heart pounding, I went over to the KFC, where Harvey was, as usual, sitting around. Maybe it was a mistake, I lied to myself. "Uh, Harvey?" I said, suddenly nothing like the bold rabble-rouser who'd defaced the Smurf.

"Yes?"

"I'm not on the schedule."

"I know," he said, spreading his hands out. And I will never forget what he said next: "We don't need you anymore."

I went back into the Baskin-Robbins. Amber was working. I told her what had happened. She took the diplomatic route, which was not only far less than I'd been hoping for but also a hint at what the other shoe would look like when it dropped. Raw, hurt and on the edge of tears, I walked out to my car and drove home.

And that was that. No one quit in protest. No one went and talked to Harvey. They all continued working there, minus one co-worker, me. A week later, I'm told, they had their regular Saturday morning staff meeting, where Harvey told them that "someone had defaced the Smurf poster in the break room," but that "action had been taken." Unsurprisingly, Ann Lundquist didn't stand up and announce that she had been there, egging me on.

After a few weeks, I returned, sheepishly, to the Baskin-Robbins post-work social world. This proved that I was not only a bad worker, but also had no dignity. Amber dumped me a few weeks later.

In the years that followed, my dad, whose taste for Baskin-Robbins ice cream was in no way lessened by my firing, returned often to Baskin-Robbins #432, often speaking to Harvey when he was there. Eventually, he decided to pretend like I'd never been fired but instead had worked there for awhile and then quit. Harvey complied, thankfully, always dutifully asking not only about my sister, but also me.

Every bad job I've had has taught me something, though not everything I've learned has been good. Having Harvey Lucas as my first boss was probably not the best situation for a guy with my particular foibles and flaws. Sadly, he would not be the last boss I'd do battle with, nor would our battle be the worst of my working life.

14 Comments:

Blogger Bud and/or Marsi said...

one of my best friends in high school worked for the same guy at the same place in '90-'91. he complained about him all the time..... and i ate a lot of free ice cream. small world.

5:46 PM  
Anonymous Gedalya ben Yitzhak said...

There is some justice in this world. B & R gradually cut Harvey down to one store on Chapman Ave. In a fit of pique he dumped the franchise for some no name cooperative and then lost that also. All of his stores are now owned by an incredibly hardworking Vietnamese man. This, as of winter 2004.

Harvey still had that same Corvette and the polyester pants. I never paid attention to the Earht Shoes.

7:04 PM  
Anonymous Noodle's Mom said...

Didn't anyone ever tell you that Harvey hated boys??? He always treated the boys like crap. I gave away ice cream, gained 20 pounds, and was pretty mean sometimes to some of the customers...but I was a girl. He was still the creepiest guy in the world, but his father was worse. He'd shuffle in to do a shift and terrorize all of us.

2:50 PM  
Anonymous anotherlefty said...

Being a good worker, and faster than others does not protect the temp.worker. I have been told with a smile that I was the best and fastest underwriter they had, and in the next breath, gotten laid off because the law said they had to keep the dumb, slow, staff person, not the smart, fast temp..

Besides, Harvey is a twerp, always was, and always will be. Since he couldn't control his kid, he tried to control his employees.

7:33 AM  
Anonymous Marky said...

I also toiled in the ice cream business during high school, under the Haagen Daz brand, where they forced me to serve hollow scoops. Later, I defected to a rival frozen yogurt store nearby. Much easier and better looking female clientele.

6:10 AM  
Anonymous Roger A. Hunt said...

I had no idea that all that "free" ice cream came at such a high price. If I had known, we would have gone to Swenson's.

Oh yeah, I remember the Smurf episode. What kind of a man defaces a harmless smurf?? (to be said like Niedermeyer). Really the question is, what kind of a man doesn't see the humor in "Punk Smurf" wishing the employees to have a "crappy day."

If it makes you feel any better, someone drove through the front window of B&R #432 the other day. No doubt, on that that day, Punk Smurf's wish came true.

2:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Karma Happens! It will be your turn next!

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