Monday, June 27, 2011

Summer... Jobs... and Summer Jobs

When the large machine cut into the ground, it only took a few scoops to reveal a cache of of granite cobblestones from the days of horse-urine stained streets.  A $20 bill and an excited 3 year-old in tow made the operator's generosity go far enough to deliver a large stack of the cobbles to my house.  Cleaned, and stacked (hidden) behind a thick hydrangea in the courtyard, they await an autumn fountain project (mosquito incubator if it goes wrong).

Were they ballast from Portsmouth or rail cargo on an extinct rail manifest?  At one point, they were everywhere, but now you have to creep over to Acorn St. to see the rounded river stones still under foot.  Either way, they are worth recycling.

I spent a summer building a stone wall on the Cape during college, which even withstood a direct hit from an intoxicated landscaper's truck.  He wasn't fired, but when word got back to my father that I had mentioned possibly not working that summer, the drunk landscaper instantly had an indentured helper.  Things like "taking the summer off" and anything that even sounded remotely like young people trying to leech off of their parents were not dealt with kindly.  John Hughes would have you believe that "the rich kids" spent their time lounging around drinking and making fun of people.  While this did happen in some circles, the Northeast is unashamed about it's children working during highschool and college.  Unlike many families, Yankee parents don't like sending children to college with large wads of money, and while college was paid for, spending money came at one's own efforts during summer.  Some generous parents would pay their children a stipend or equivalency if they secured rigorous volunteer work for a charitable cause.

Some kids had impressive internships, but the rest of us taught sailing, painted houses and fences, worked for catering companies, lifeguarded, attempted to take census of birds at the protected beaches, and caddied for our friends' parents and our parents' friends.  Tourists were served ice cream and sandwiches by girls whose parents arrived by private aircraft, and in some cases, the parents themselves would get summer jobs as well.  In one house, the father worked at the boat yard stripping and repainting wooden hulls during the summers before he returned to his wildly successful Palm Beach law practice each autumn.

During the summer in question, most of my friends had Monday off (because they worked all weekend), and I walked over to the house of one fine gal on a warm and pleasantly salty-aired afternoon.  Her house had tennis courts, and she invited me for a game.  When I arrived, there were about ten or so sitting by the courts on their day off.  One could tell the job each had that season: painters flecked with whitewash, lifeguards deeply bronzed, and day-camp counselors drinking heavily.  Our grandparents had been friends, as were our parents, and now we gathered whenever possible as friends in our own right... all of us with summer jobs.  In a different yard somewhere, others gathered every day to drink, smoke, and get high in mid-day.  These were the kids who were given luxury cars and were not required to work.  They had "summers off."

I accepted a challenge for a game of tennis from my hostess.  We stepped onto the courts and I saw her make the motions of a serve.  A nano-second later, I heard something hit the fence behind me.  I turned around, and a tennis ball was bouncing to a stop.  I accused the hostess of ventriloquism.  She served again, and this time I saw a flash of yellow/green go past me.  I looked over at my friends, all of whom immediately  looked away and rattled the ice in their glasses.  One staunchly honest gal (a Pennsylvania Quaker) confirmed with a charitable shrug and half-smile that the serves were fair.  On the last serve, the speed was patronizingly reduced, and I lunged impotently at the ball which slipped easily past me.  A heckle about my successful senior year of lacrosse was quickly launched at me, followed by laughter, and I sulked off the courts to a can of club soda.  Even the lovely Quaker gal giggled at me.

That summer I learned about the dignity of work... of showing up every day on time, of not equating the collar-color of the job to differing worth, and of self reliance.  While other groups of 20-somethings crashed their cars and had to fly in family lawyers to "handle" things like DUI's and date-rape accusations, the majority of us spent our summers walking, biking, or driving to dawn-start jobs where we were worked raw.

Non-sequitur Nantucket Reds/RL loafers shot

These days, I worry that my son will be the only one working when he's older.  I hope that he will be able to extract pleasure from more simple moments, and to not equate "luxurious" with "expensive".  He and all of his cousins will work when they're older, but will their peers?  Parents these days try to shield their children from far too much, including the toil and dignity of work in any form.  Stick-to-it seems long gone (if the current batch of young employees is any indicator), and stardom and internet fame seems to cue children to seek instantaneous results instead of belief in perspiration.  In the future, a young man or gal of any background who dresses well, shows up on time, and perseveres may well own the country (if it's still available)... he or she will have few competitors.

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