Tuesday, May 10, 2011

My First Job

My first job was scooping ice cream at Baskin-Robbins. I was able to work there even though I was only 14 because my older sister already worked there, and also because my boss was an unscrupulous sleazebag who figured he could pay underage employees even less, and treat them even worse, than older kids. His name was Larry.

He really did look like this. Only viler.
There were 31 reasons why Baskin-Robbins was an excellent place to work. Peanut Butter and Chocolate was my favorite (and still is), although the salty-sweet crunch of Pralines ‘N Cream was incentivizing, too. But working in an ice cream shop was more than just stuffing yourself with frozen treats, especially because Larry considered unauthorized consumption a firing offense and wasn’t above spying on us from the parking lot, watching for impromptu tasting sessions.

She's going for the Nutty Coconut!
Move in!
First there were the uniforms. In the early 80s, these consisted of a lot of brown polyester - shirt (replete with pink and orange stripes), pants, and hideous trucker-style cap. The polyester pull-on pants I wore had the advantage of stretching as I gained milkshake-related pounds. Which I did, oh yes. I was a fat girl scooping ice cream. In polyester stretch pants. Scheduling around my social life was not a problem in those days.

I found this by Googling "Baskin-Robbins uniform."
 I see I'm not alone in my reminiscences.
But the primary advantage of synthetic uniforms was washability. Working at Baskin-Robbins was by far the messiest, filthiest job I’ve ever had. I’m not talking drips of ice cream or smears of hot fudge. I’m talking mud pies.

Larry made pretty decent money with his mini-chain of three Baskin-Robbins locations. But his real cash cow was selling ice cream pies to local restaurants. He had contracts with several places, and every Saturday he set his juvenile workforce to making dozens, sometimes hundreds, of sweet sticky desserts. The most popular was the mud pie: Jamoca ice cream piled high in a cookie crust, hand-smoothed, coated with fudge sauce, and garnished with whipped cream and chopped nuts. I wish I could say it was delicious, but if Larry was vigilant about pinching free samples from the ice-cream tubs, he was a complete asshole about his pies. I never got so much as a sliver for all my hard work.

Restaurants charged more for this one slice
than I earned making the whole damn pie.
Mud pies were made on an assembly line. You had your scoopers, your smoothers, and your garnishers. Speed and precision were crucial, and the whole operation took place under the watchful eye of Larry, who randomly pulled pies from the line to make sure they conformed to his standards of weight, shape, and attractiveness. If any pie weighed out at an ounce more than the maximum, you were likely to feel his sleazy, sarcastic wrath.

"No, no, you're doing it wrong!
Back to Poland with you! (pinch)"
The pie garnishers were also responsible for carrying the completed mud pies to the freezer, where they waited until it was time to deliver them. The scoopers and shapers got quite a physical workout as they filled and formed the pies, and it could be a messy process; but the garnishers got the worst of it. Because it would have been inefficient to carry each pie 20 feet to the freezer as it was completed, they were taken back a half-dozen at a time. And so, like a waitress stacking multiple orders up the length of her arm, the garnishers would juggle multiple mud pies covered with sticky fudge and lard-fortified whipped cream across the length of the store. I usually ended up being a garnisher.

At the end of an eight-hour shift, I looked as if I had starred in a Three Stooges short. I was covered with pie. The edges of the cookie crusts would break off and get ground into my hands, the fudge rubbed against my loose-fitting shirt, globs of soft Jamoca ice cream landed everywhere. I learned quickly to keep a pair of cheap shoes just for work, since they ended up irredeemably stained and smelling like an unplugged refrigerator. So did my uniform, but since I normally had to be back at work on Sunday morning, it had to go through the wash and come out clean.

At age 14 I was often working 30 hours a week, and sometimes more. I once worked 32 hours in three days, for the whopping sum of $3.50 an hour, when Larry had no one else to do it. Turnover was a pretty big problem in this operation. The teenage work ethic is notoriously spotty, but mostly kids got burned out on working for a cheap, foul-mouthed, sexually depraved prick like Larry. He liked to compare the breast sizes of his female workers, which alienated the girls, and he encouraged his male workers to join in, which alienated the guys (mostly because, present company excepted, they wanted to date these girls outside work).

If he hadn't been terrified of his wife coming in,
I'm sure he would have tried to pass this off as "team building."
So why did I put up with it? Why was it me who stepped in to work when half the staff quit over a weekend, who came home literally coated with ice cream for more than a year and put up with Larry’s crap shift after shift?

I think I was stupid.

No, really.

But besides that, there was the money. When you’re getting ten dollars a week in allowance money, and then you start getting checks made out to you for sixty, seventy, even eighty dollars a week, even a stupid kid realizes this is a Big Moment. The moment you realize that money is fun. Money is freedom. Money is satisfaction of desires.

And in the 80s, it bought a lot of hair gel.
And then your life is ruined forever and you never return from the state of hollow consumerism that governs your existence. But in that moment, you learn the most fundamental truth of all truths on Earth: If I do this, I get that.

It gets more complicated than minimum wage for ice cream, later on. And you learn to negotiate just how much of this you're willing to exchange for a unit of that. But I had to start somewhere. I started pretty much at the bottom, which after all is better than ending up there.
And I did learn one extremely valuable lesson. Never order mud pie at a restaurant. You do NOT want to know where that shit has been.


  1. Very interesting story! What Baskin Robbins location was this? I worked at one where the previous owner was named Larry, but the owners were Chinese. Just curious if it might have been the same store:) I took pride in the shirts, but by the time I worked there they did away with polyester stretch pants and allowed us to wear corduroy brown with white high-top tennis shoes:)

    1. This was in a shiny suburb of Dallas. :) It was next to a Safeway. They're both long gone now.


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