Let Inga Tell You: Bad summer jobs can be good for perspective and character

Inga works as a summer waitress on the Jersey Shore during college.
(Provided by Inga)

Both Olof’s and my parents were such proponents of child labor that it is probably a good thing there were no coal mines within commuting distance of our homes. There was pretty much no employment they considered beneath us.

Olof and I used to like to play “Who had the worst summer jobs?” Physically, I’d have to concede that Olof won. A native of Walnut Creek, he spent the summer after his freshman year of college as a roofer in the East Bay’s brutal 100-degree summer heat in a perpetual knee-crippling crouch position pounding nails hour after hour. “The only shade,” he recalls, “was a flying bird.”

So the next summer, desperate to get out of the blazing sun and hoping for a pay raise, he managed to snag a job in the Pittsburg (California — yes, there is one) U.S. Steel mill. It was a union job as summer relief help for which he was required to purchase both a hard hat and steel-toed boots, even though his actual job was cleaning the toilets and changing rooms. But hey — union wages! Huge step up.

It would not be too surprising that neither of our sons got much sympathy from Olof about their summer employment. A summer job cleaning toilets in an un-air-conditioned steel mill in the East Bay pretty much trumps everything.

I definitely can’t compete in the physical labor department, but when my sister and I were 7 and 8, our mother got us our first jobs: stuffing (seven inserts) and licking 1,000 envelopes for a local agency. At a penny apiece, it was much faster to lick the envelopes than use a wet sponge. It’s amazing we didn’t end up with brain damage from all that glue. I distinctly remember our little tongues desperately trying to produce saliva after the first hour.

Over the years, I did the standard summer jobs: babysitting, retailing and waitressing (53 cents an hour before taxes, 45 cents after; gold nylon uniform: $20).

I spent one summer as a clerk-typist for Scholastic Magazines in the book division in the pre-word processor days typing endless clean copies (with eight carbons) of a book called “No-Hitter” about all the no-hitters in baseball up to that point. (It’s cheap on Amazon, and no, don’t send me a copy. I’ve read it. Eleven times.) Every typo had to be corrected on all eight carbon copies with white-out, a toxic substance probably responsible for more brain damage in people of my generation than glue sniffing.

I hate to start comments with the words “kids today,” but truly, kids today have no idea what a boon to humanity the word processor is. Space travel and penicillin have nothing on it. I can say with some conviction that a world without carbon paper is truly a better place.

But my worst summer job by far was proofreading telephone books. And yes, this was a job. People got really touchy if their name or address or particularly phone number was listed incorrectly in the phone book because it was going to be a whole year before the next one came out.

People really depended on phone books. So some human — that would have been moi — sat there cross-checking the typewritten list with the microscopically printed galleys line by line. I could only surmise that the people I was replacing had been committed to a home for the numerically insane and were being taught Braille.

I’ve observed over the years that school guidance counselors don’t list 90 percent of the jobs that people actually end up doing. I’m trying to imagine, for example, some perky high school student’s yearbook listing: “Future goal: career in the phone book proofreading industry.”

Of course, there’s no requirement that summer jobs be ill-paid and boring, even if many of them are.

For both sets of our parents, summer employment provided cash for the expenses we were expected to pay, but I think they regarded it as character-building as well. Not that I was ever inclined to be rude to waiters or sales clerks, but working in those fields gives you a new respect for the job. Forget mandatory military service. Everyone should be required to work retail.

I mention all this because I often hear parents say at summertime that they don’t think it’s worth having their kids take a low-paying menial job when they could be doing something educational. Both Olof’s and my parents would have said that it’s all in how you define “educational.”

So are we better or even different people for our summer job experience? Different, certainly. Both Olof and I also would agree that most of our summer jobs were excellent incentives to pursue higher education in the hope of never, ever doing any of these jobs again.

Just as important as knowing what you want to do in life is knowing what you really, really don’t.

Inga’s lighthearted looks at life appear regularly in the La Jolla Light. Reach her at ◆