Soaking in the sun poolside to splitting chickens with a bandsaw–whatever it takes to study abroad.
Between my twentieth and twenty-first year, the age when young men are fully-switched on to the decadence of the world, I sat in my parents’ den at the old soda fountain table trying to convince them I deserved to study abroad. Friends of mine were off to Prague and Vienna spending semesters at a time, sending back reports of a world so much bigger than our tiny campus. I had to do it, too. Couldn’t I? Please?
My plan—a month-long stint that August at a Spanish-language immersion institute in Oaxaca, Mexico, then, the following January, a jaunt to Sevilla, Spain where I would study the language and the history. My mom tried to figure out ways to say no to me, her only son, while my dad, a few beers deep and tired from working in the yard, had no problem playing bad cop. Simply put, there was no way they would pay for both trips, and even one of them would be a stretch. If I wanted to go to either place, I would have to pay for the trips myself. I was already employed as a lifeguard at an outdoor public swimming pool that summer, however that job wouldn’t cover all my costs.
I looked everywhere in Santa Fe for a job, and the fact that my lifeguarding shift was from 6am to 2pm meant any moonlighting would be done in the moonlight. I had no luck at restaurants (no experience), was too young for a bar, didn’t want to try retail, and found hotels didn’t offer many night jobs.
A last resort was one of Santa Fe’s fast-spreading health food markets; stores we natives chided because of the hippie/yuppie out-of-stater clientele that shopped there. I interviewed with Gloria, the store manager, who had a position I could start immediately. I envisioned the cash register. I had some friends who cashiered there and loved it. Gloria offered the butcher shop. I took it, not knowing a thing about meat other than how to eat it. All I cared about was Mexico and Spain. Mexico and Spain.
The killer nightlife I had established getting off at 2pm from the pool everyday ended immediately. No more rides around the neighborhood with my fellow lifeguards getting high, no more Miller High Life happy hours at 4pm, no more partying ‘til dawn in Diablo Canyon. Now I had exactly one hour to go from poolside in red shorts and a tank top to an apron and ball cap behind the glass case of meat.
I trained with Richard, the day manager, for one night, then was on my own every Monday through Friday, 3pm to 11pm, with a 30 minute break. He said I wouldn’t be responsible for cutting any red meat or using the meat grinder. He and his morning crew would do that, right about the time I’d be waking up in my lifeguard uniform. (I thought sleeping in my uniform would save a little time in the dark morning hours).
I would however, have to use the slicer, the rotisserie, and the bandsaw. I would also have to clean everything, including knives of every size and said meat grinder, which the day crew left covered with dried ground hamburger all for me. Oh, and I also had to put away all the fish and seafood, which meant individually wrapping each piece in plastic and laying them into a tightly covered tray bound for the freezer. The time it took to care for the fish imported to an altitude of 7,000 feet often kept me at the store close to midnight.
Every afternoon, Richard left a task list in addition to the daily chores. For example, quartering chickens. With the two-foot blade of the bandsaw whizzing vertically through a cutting board, I’d take the bald chicken by what would be its ankles, flip it upward toward the band so the blade could split it down its spine. The chickens that didn’t meet the bandsaw went on the spear, rear to neck, and into the rotisserie, where they would roast away into the evening. Having to handle their little bodies with latex gloves on, as though they were toxic waste, and their slight odor of wet animal began to get under my skin, not to mention on it.
My other job as a lifeguard, where I sat under the sun for thirty-minute shifts, then took a fifteen-minute break, was a vacation compared to the butcher shop. I ate, rested, dreamed of Mexico and Spain, and read. I had picked up Stephen King’s The Shining that summer, and it was no surprise my thoughts turned just a little sadistic with all those sharp metal objects around me every night.
When I took my thirty-minute break from the butcher shop, I’d move over to the service deli where I’d have the girls make me a tuna fish on everything bagel sandwich with tortilla chips. I’d pay with my 10% employee discount, gobble down my food, then go back to work. Often, I’d wear my hat backwards thinking Gloria might walk by and fire me for breaking dress code. If she had known how I secretly felt about all those discerning customers, sometimes scoffing silently when they asked for the their organic meats, she might have let me go right there. I wouldn’t have minded being asked to go, but if I had been fired, my Spanish fantasies would have spoiled as fast as the seafood. When I had to skip my breaks, which happened a lot, I’d leave an ounce or two of extra lunchmeat I had sliced for a customer, then eat it after they’d left the department.
Cold cuts were about all the meat I could stomach having spent so much time handling all that flesh. By the end of my run at the butcher shop, I wasn’t so crazy about burgers or steak, and fish and seafood, which I normally loved, fell down the list. And the chicken? I gave it up all together for years.
As the store cleared out every night, I was alone with my shop towels and sponges dousing everything with Simple Green and Windex, erasing all the traces of farm and ocean. When I had heard Sarah McLachlan wail for the hundredth time over the store stereo, I knew it was almost time for me to clock out, drive home, and go straight to bed.
But there was always that last customer that rolled in at 10:58 asking for just half a pound of turkey breast. I had learned to leave the meat slicer out for those ones, the customers I hated most. They represented all the pretentious health-conscious New Age transplants that wanted their food when it was convenient for them. All very ironic now, as I have become that guy, waltzing into my local organic market, trying to squeeze grocery shopping and healthful food choices into my otherwise packed day.
I eventually made it through the summer and both jobs. I even had a garage sale somewhere in there and eked out some extra funds. I hung up my apron, returned my hat, and resigned from the market. My job at the pool was ending, and as July wound down, I was getting ready for Mexico. Spain was a little farther away, and I’d have to work more during the school year and take a loan. I eventually made it there, too.
Giving up 15 hours in a 24-hour day seemed ridiculous back then, even if it was to save up for Mexico and Spain. But fast forward, and how much of my day now is focused on work, and taking care of those things that need me (i.e. wife, family)? It’s much more than 15 hours. What the summer of ’97 gave me was work ethic, or at least the understanding that you’ll always be working toward something. Back then I was learning commitment not just to a job but to the idea of hard work and what hard work can yield.
Cleaning knives and watching a pool are simply today’s version of presentations, sales meetings, business lunches, and deadlines. Rescuing a kid from a pool: daddy duty. Slicing lunchmeat: customer service. Each task and its completion build onto the next phase in life. It preps you for the next job, whatever it may be.
Image credit: Mark Coggins/flickr (original image cropped)