The Chronicle Review

Summer Jobs

John Macdonald for The Chronicle Review

July 11, 2010

For a few more languorous days, my 19-year-old, Matt, will sleep late, veg out in front of reruns of Family Guy, and otherwise imitate a slug. The easy life will come to an abrupt end next week when he starts his first of two summer jobs—working as a part-time chimney sweep. Up here, in northern Maine, chimneys can get pretty black, and Matt is likely to come home looking like a charcoal briquette on legs.

Eating soot is merely a tune-up for the real work that awaits in mid-July—raking blueberries alongside Haitian migrant workers some 70 to 80 hours a week. The pay is fixed to how many pails of berries he can fill. It's notoriously back-breaking work, but in these parts it's also a rite of passage for many young people. For their entire lives, they'll dine off tales of sweltering summers in the blueberry fields.

Much as I cherish my time in the classroom—I've been at it for three decades—I still believe summer jobs are often the defining experience of the college years. Sometimes, the grittier and more physically demanding the jobs, the more insight they yield about character—our own and others'—about the nature of work, and about how we define class. For the pampered, for the snob and the anointed, it can be a much-needed vaccine against a life otherwise spent avoiding the world around them.

It was 41 years ago this summer, following my freshman year as a classics major at Brandeis, that I put away my Tacitus for a timecard and went to work in a dress factory in Boston's legendary "Combat Zone." I did whatever needed doing—unloading the rolls of tartan wool on the loading docks, stacking them by clan, retrieving them when the dress cutters called for them, carrying the broken saws through the streets of Chinatown to be repaired, making boxes in the shipping room (in those boxes headed for my home state of Ohio I scribbled a plea to be rescued—help never came). I took hampers of cut goods to the floor below where women wearing kerchiefs and speaking in strange tongues grabbed them and frantically fed them into their sewing machines, doing piecework and arguing over who had first dibs. I also wheeled racks of finished goods through the streets, dodging traffic, cursing curbs, and delivering dresses to the service entrances of department stores.

What did I learn from all this? Well I learned how far $2.75 an hour goes. I learned the names of a couple dozen tartan plaids—Black Watch, Stewart, Buchanan, MacKenzie, MacLeod—and how to line up the bonded cloth on the long cutting tables, matching each blindingly similar pattern with the one below. I learned to say hello to the hooker who worked that stretch of Essex Street—Mississippi was her name—and where Boston Shorty could be seen shooting pool. I learned from the cutters where the best blue-plate specials were, and Bert, the senior cutter, narrated lunchtime tours of Boston, both the seedy and the proper sides. I learned to hate the scent of lavender cologne that my boss doused himself in, to tune out his boasting of indiscretions, and to walk away when he tried to bait me into a fight. I learned that the line between the kids who got to go to college and those who did not had less to do with brains than accidents of birth, and that sweat is the great equalizer.

Some of my friends that summer of 1969 had far cushier jobs in air-conditioned offices, and some had internships as rising stars. But I had no regrets. Well, maybe one. For a shot at time-and-a-half (four bucks an hour) working Saturday, I passed up a chance to go to a concert with my buddies. It was Woodstock.

The next summer, I worked in a Capitol Hill bar washing dishes, working alongside the short-order cook, Archie, who had just gotten out of prison. One of my many duties was to remove the petaled radish from the incoming plate, plop it in a glass of water for a moment, then delicately place it on an outgoing dish. (I learned not to eat radishes and to avoid garnishes altogether.)

I worked for the gas company that summer, too. I was a flagman on the road to the Pentagon, bringing generals to a complete stop. I also ran a jackhammer and a three-footed tamper, poured tar, and was lowered by rope into mud-and-water-filled trenches to shore them up. There was something liberating about working without a shirt, listening to the stories of my co-workers, Deacon Jones and Magellan Wiggins, and riding in the back of an open truck cooled by a 50-mile-an-hour stretch of road. At the end of the day, I showered away all that grime and never before, or since, have felt so clean.

My older son, David, worked a summer at Panera Bread, making sandwiches, soups, and salads, and cleaning up afterward. His spendthrift ways with our money were replaced with miserly ways with his own. He also learned that actions had consequences. He could not pick up his final paycheck until he came up with 50 bucks—to pay for carving his initials into the cutting board.

I have heard parents say that the true value of such work is to be found in the negative—that it teaches children what they don't want to do with their lives. That suggests that the purpose of an education is to avoid such work. I don't buy it. Immersing yourself in work of any kind is an unalloyed good, and the last thing the privileged should promote is greater distance from the rest of society.

Amazing how the memory of a simple blister or a sore back stays with you. Cumulatively, it can change the way management and labor get on, inform the discussion of workplace safety and regulation, and create a society that is more inclusive. It can also alter the trajectory of one's ambitions and priorities, as it did mine.

As a parent and professor, I've come to believe that there are some lessons that just have to be lived to be learned. In each of my summer jobs I was but a minor character in a narrative that was not at all about me. To be no one's darling, to share the weight of something too heavy to shoulder yourself, to win respect a day at a time—those are worth more than time-and-a-half. Rarely do those jobs show up on anyone's résumés in the years after, but they often make us who we are.

As for Matt, I have forewarned him that the work in the blueberry fields will not be easy. To his credit, he says easy is not what he's after. Truth is, I envy him.

Ted Gup is chair of the journalism department at Emerson College. This fall Penguin Press will publish his book A Secret Gift: How One Man's Kindness—and a Trove of Letters—Revealed the Hidden History of the Great Depression.