My first job was at 15. My mother has a saying: “first time, worst time.” This applies to most things in my life, but especially here. I don’t recall exactly when the conversation took place, but at some point it was understood that I would get a summer job. I think my parents assumed it would teach me responsibility and keep me away from boys. One of those things is true.
At the time, my family lived in Provincetown, on the tip of Cape Cod. The first landing place of the pilgrims (before they moved on to Plymouth) and the last left turn in Massachusetts. It also happens to be a gay tourist mecca, with the population soaring from 4,000 in December to 40,000 in June. Walking down Commercial Street on any given evening you’ll find drag queens dressed as celebrities (Judy Garland, Cher), celebrity drag queens (Lady Bunny, Hedda Lettuce) and actual celebrities (Lilly Tomlin, Margaret Cho, k.d. Lang).
As an unemployed teenager on Cape Cod, there’s not much to do outside of food service. Some friends donned park service uniforms reminiscent of the Mounties and sold beach passes. A few joined landscaping crews, careening down Route 6A in trucks rusted by the salty air. One babysat Howard Zinn’s grandchildren. I began my career in a “gourmet” fast food shack on the end of the pier. The restaurant was about the size of one of those sheds they sell at Home Depot and had the same quality of airflow. Except here, my hippy boss attached a walk-in fridge, a tiny kitchen and seven or eight high school students who mostly despised me because I was new in town, had not yet discovered the virtues of smoking marijuana in the morning and could not run a cash register. What ensued was a summer of hazing and tears. I ran the broken frappe machine that exploded every time I approached it, leaving me perpetually covered in ice cream for ten-hour periods. I was sent to collect buns from the Portuguese bakery where no one spoke English and consistently seemed irritated by my presence. I was locked out of the bathroom while my boss smoked pot with my thirteen-year-old coworker, a young man everyone called “Shake.”
The reward for all this, of course, were envelopes full of cash, fat and thick, handed to me through the delivery window on Friday afternoons. Who cares if I saw the line cook drop a breakfast burrito on the filthy floor and re-wrap its exploded contents in a new tortilla? Who cares that my boss once patted my ass and assured me, “You’ll lose weight working here!”? Suddenly, I was the richest I had ever been.
Once I upped the quality of the dining establishments I applied to and stopped wrapping basket after basket of fries alongside my peers, things improved. Mostly, my coworkers were older gay guys who had been servers for years, earning cash in the tourist season to fuel their entertainment careers or pay for their summer shares. Drag costumes are expensive. So are the needs of the aging stand-up comic. So are drugs.
I once sold a $500 pizza. There was a little bell we were supposed to ring whenever someone ordered the gimmicky monstrosity topped with caviar and gold leaf and washed down with a bottle of Cristal. All season long, the bell had remained silent. Taking the order over the phone, I felt as though I had won something magical, even though my reward was simply gloating. I rang the bell and waited eagerly for the pick up. The whole thing turned out to be a remarkable let down, with 50 friends going in on one pizza for someone’s birthday. Handing over the box and the bottle, I didn’t want to disappoint them. I thought about what it would be like to share a soggy golden pizza with 50 of my closest friends on the beach.
Sometimes chefs would come in too drunk to cook. On more than one occasion, hot bags of garbage tore open all over my lower half. I drank entire swimming pools full of Diet Coke mixed with cranberry juice. There were the usual flirtations with dishwashers and customers. I met celebrities. Playwrights, poets and authors, mainly. Every once and awhile someone would call, mentioning they’d seen Julia Stiles at the A&P or Debbie Harry at the salon.
While I was hostessing the summer after my sophomore year of college, my boss would play two John Mayer albums over and over and over again. As in, I had to wear pleated khaki pants, an over-sized, tucked-in Izod polo and listen to John Mayer for the entirety of my shift. I would get emotional about my boyfriend and my future all by myself while rolling baskets of place settings before the dinner shift and thinking, “I hope no one ever finds out about me & John Mayer right now.” One afternoon, while listening to “Why Georgia?” I looked out the window to see a dark, skeletal figure peddling toward me on a bike as old as he was. The first pair of words to enter my mind were “Ichabod Crane.” The second were “John Waters.” And indeed, it was. Waters made a little loop around the parking lot and motioned for me to come outside. I smoothed my chinos and scurried. “When are you folks opening for dinner this evening?” he asked. I did my best to answer while sincerely questioning my grasp on reality.
The following summer, I was working at a haunted deli, about to enter my final year of school. Waters reappeared, like a blessed omen, assuring me that my post-grad life would not involve reaching into freezing barrels of milky water to retrieve mozzarella balls (even though I must admit it is a somewhat pleasant sensation on a hot August afternoon). Every other day I made him a turkey sandwich on wheat with the kind of attention you lavish on your first love. Toward the end of the season, a buddy of mine came to visit and we managed to get invited to a birthday party Waters was throwing for a friend. We drank bottles of beer, danced to endless Mary Wells tracks played by Stephen Merritt and never met the birthday girl.
At the end of the evening we blew our cool (there wasn’t much of it) and asked for a photo. He obliged, insisting he cover his mustache, as he was “not properly made up and in no condition for this sort of thing.” With that, John Waters succinctly summarized my first years as a working woman.