I was seventeen and sticky. It was the summer of 1989, and I was off to college in a few months. The Massachusetts town where I grew up was decidedly blue collar, filled with teachers and nurses and the occasional sales manager. My friends and I fell asleep to the sound of our parents arguing about car payments and tuition. It was our soundtrack, this din of worry. If you were young, you were expected to have a part-time job.
I got one, scooping ice cream at Chadwick’s, a local parlor that specialized in sundaes and giant steak fries. Summer jobs are often romantic; the time frame creates a perfect parenthesis. Chadwick’s was not. Hard and physical, the job consisted of stacking and wiping and scooping and lifting. At the end of my shift, every removable piece of the restaurant would be carted off and washed. Vinyl booths were searched and scrubbed. This routine seemed Sisyphean at first, but I soon learned the satisfaction of working at a place that truly closed. I took great joy in watching people stroll in after hours, thinking they could grab a late-night sundae. I would point to the dimmed lights and stacked chairs as proof that we were shut. It was deliciously obvious and final.
Chadwick’s was one of those fake old-timey restaurants. The menus were written in swoopy cursive. The staff wore Styrofoam boaters and ruffled white shirts with bow ties. Jangly music blared from a player piano as children climbed on counters. If the style of the restaurant was old-fashioned, the parenting that went on there was distinctly modern. Moms and dads would patiently recite every item on the menu to their squirming five-year-olds, as if the many flavors of ice cream represented all the unique ways they were loved.
There was a performance element to the job that I found appealing, to begin with. Every time a customer was celebrating a birthday, an employee had to bang a drum that hung from the ceiling, and play the kazoo, and encourage the entire restaurant to join him or her in a sing-along. Other employees would ring cowbells and blow noisemakers. I would stand on a chair and loudly announce, “Ladies and gentlemen, we are so happy to have you at Chadwick’s today, but we are especially happy to have Kevin! Because it’s Kevin’s birthday today! So, at the sound of the drum, please join me in singing Kevin a very happy birthday!”
I wasn’t sure yet that I wanted to be an actor. I was planning to go to Boston College as an English major and maybe become a teacher, like both of my parents. But when I stood in the dining room and demanded attention I was reminded of things I already secretly knew about myself. I wasn’t shy, I liked to be looked at, and making people laugh released a certain kind of hot lava into my body that made me feel like a queen.
This feeling didn’t last long. I’m not sure when the worm turned. Maybe it was during one of the many times we announced the BellyBuster. The BellyBuster consisted of mounds of ice cream in a giant silver bowl carried in on a stretcher. The busboys would have to pretend to struggle under the weight of this giant sundae as they lifted it onto the table and handed a giant spoon to the maniac who had ordered it. I would ease my pain by exchanging looks with one busboy who was always slightly drunk, and the ex-junkie cook who was always slightly grouchy. The cook spoke in bumper stickers when describing his disposition: “Of course I’m mean. It’s hard to be happy when you are standing this close to the fire.”
But the teen-agers were the worst. Teen-age boys, especially. They would file in, Adam’s apples bouncing, and announce it was their birthdays. Since Chadwick’s operated on an honor system, I would have to look into their sweaty, lying faces and smile like a flight attendant. Some of them would order their sundaes while asking me to “hold their nuts.” Was this the life of an actor?
I quit when the summer ended. I had started forgetting to charge for whipped cream. I was failing to use the ice scoop. A customer told me I was banging the drum “too hard.” She was right. I was angry; I wanted to be gone. It’s important to know when it’s time to turn in your kazoo. The nights would end with the wait staff in the parking lot, sitting on a car and drinking beer as we counted our tips. The boys would undo their bow ties and suddenly look weary and handsome. I would change into soft jeans and throw pennies at the dumpster. I was aching for what came next. I felt my whole life stretched out before me like an invisible buffet. I turned toward my future, mouth watering.
"Making people laugh released a certain kind of hot lava into my body that made me feel like a queen." - Amy Poehler
I had the pleasure of doing a podcast with Dennis of Dennis Has a Podcast! We talk hockey, comedy and just getting out and trying new things. It was such fun. Check out the episode here and it’s also on iTunes. Listen, subscribe, go on an adventure!