Mark Oppenheimer quit the best job of his young life because his new boss was an unbearable drunk.
During the March vacation of my sophomore year, I decided the upcoming summer I needed a paying job. The previous summer I had done childhood-type things, things that were either free, like loafing, or things my parents paid for: for example, I had spent two weeks at a tennis camp at Williams College. And my parents probably would have let me loaf and mooch for another summer. But looking ahead I decided that another summer of unproductiveness would be a bit undignified. What’s more, my material needs were growing. I had a compact-disc collection to tend to, occasional books to buy, the very infrequent rock concert to attend. It might be wise to earn some money.
So I spent that March vacation trudging to various places of employment, filling out job applications. But it turned out that while 15-year-olds technically could work in Massachusetts, most businesses wanted you to be 16. The two episodes of rejection I remember best were at CVS and at Steiger’s, the now-defunct local department store. At CVS, the manager gave me some line about how they couldn’t have anyone under 16 handling drugs. And at Steiger’s, where I was actually allowed to fill out an application, the store-marmish lady who interviewed me seemed about to hire me, but I blew it. “You’re 16, yes?” she asked me at the end—and it’s only looking back that I realize she wanted me to lie, because she was eager to hire a clean-cut, polite kid like me. But I told the truth, and was shown the door. Apparently 15-year-olds could not be trusted with Oxford shirts and braided belts.
So I had to make up my own job. As it happened, my high school debate coach, Mr. Robison, was in the process of starting a summer school, to run from late June to early August on our high school’s campus. He was telling me one day how busy he was—this was a solo effort, an idea the headmaster had permitted but given him no staff for—and I said, “Can I work for you?”
This was probably in April. Our school year ended in early June, and the promise of soon having a young helper, especially one he liked, was very appealing to him.
“Yeah, I think that would work,” he said, as he nodded, slowly, the idea growing on him as we stood there. Within five minutes we had settled on a start date in early June and on a salary of eight dollars an hour. In a summer when many of my friends would be getting the minimum wage of $4.35 an hour, I would be the most richly compensated minor I knew.
It was a marvelous summer. Being the office boy at the Loomis Chaffee Summer School entailed the following responsibilities, roughly speaking: answering phones; giving tours to wealthy Asian and European families hoping that a summer of English-language study in the United States would give their rather average children a prayer of getting into Harvard; depositing the application checks of said Asian-plutocrat and Euro-trash children; sending out their acceptance letters (they all got in); and flirting hopefully with the girls working on campus that summer—most notably Claire Magauran, a tall, strawberry-blond, just-graduated senior who was working that summer for the athletic equipment manager.
I worked for Mr. Robison the next two summers, in 1991 and 1992. During that time I grew about five inches, won some debate trophies, lost a lot of cross-country races, got accepted to college, became very interested in the classic rock played on WAQY, got a girlfriend (not Claire), graduated from high school. I went off to Yale, lost the girlfriend, didn’t make the debate team, learned how to get drunk. Freshman year was one of those formative epochs that simultaneously flies by and seems to last forever. It was thrilling but exhausting, and that summer I needed a rest. I wanted badly to go home and slip back into a comforting old routine. To regress a little. I could go back to my old job at my old high school. It would be work I knew, easy work, and my wage for the summer would be up to $10 an hour. I couldn’t wait.
But Mr. Robison was not to be my boss that summer. In June he began a year-long sabbatical, and his replacement as summer-school director was Ted Niederhoffer (or so we will call him), the school’s Russian teacher. I had never really known him in high school, but I remembered one time when I opened the door to the faculty lounge to look for a teacher who had asked me to find him there, and Mr. Niederhoffer had thundered at me, “You don’t open that door!” I was probably more offended than I had reason to be—after all, I really was not supposed to open that door; I should have knocked—and my pique was enhanced by my sense that I, as one of the school’s academic stars, had a bit of prerogative when it came to my interactions with teachers. I also think I was miffed to have to take correction from a man who, if one believed the rumor, missed the occasional first-period class sleeping off his hangovers.
But $10 an hour is $10 an hour, and I had no other job waiting for me, so in early June I checked back in to my old high school, working out of the orphaned office that Mr. Robison had commandeered three years earlier, once a supply closet for beakers, test tubes, and Bunsen burners, at the end of a sad, forgotten, dead-end hall in the Clark Science Center.
And initially everything went well. Mr. Niederhoffer was grateful to have me, deferring to my institutional wisdom about summer-school operations. At my suggestion, he had hired as my coworker Heather, a friend from high school who had also just completed her freshman year of college. It was good to be near Heather again; we had been on Student Council together, and she reminded me of a year ago, graduation time, when I’d been triumphantly finishing a long race rather than just starting a much tougher one. Also, my girlfriend and I had broken up the past December, I missed her, and Heather was one of my girlfriend’s close friends. The proximity felt good.
But soon I began to worry that Mr. Niederhoffer was sending out acceptance letters with typos in them; twice I caught such letters, which I corrected and had him re-sign. Once he misplaced an important letter, and once forgot that a family was coming for a tour. And I began to notice that all of these mistakes occurred after lunch; and that after lunch—which was always taken alone, at an undisclosed location—he would smell of alcohol.
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