I spent my first year of college finding independence and re-inventing myself, forty miles from home in Brookings, SD. Baby steps. Brookings was a town of about 15,000 people, which grew by 7,000 when classes were in session at SDSU. I could have returned to my awesome tour guide job in De Smet, but that would have entailed moving back to my parent’s house, which was unthinkable. Two friends and I rented a small two-bedroom house near campus for the summer and got jobs. I got my first waitressing job at Howard’s Restaurant, an independent family-style place on 6th Street. The owner, Howard, was the main cook. Howard was a chubby man with a pointed face who taught me that orange juice is like gold and nothing is free. He had a young guy who worked the grill and a crew of waitresses, four or five of us, the others all with experience and drive. I felt out of my depth when I started there, but was sure I would catch on.
Howard’s had amazing hand-dipped shakes and malts; egg-nog and butterscotch were my favorite, but his specialty was fried chicken, the preparation of which fell to the wait staff. While the others were jockeying for the good shifts out in front with tip-leaving customers, I, unaccountably intimidated by both the customers and the other waitresses, slumped into the back room and pried half-frozen chicken pieces apart so they could be batter dipped. I found out that my hands are painfully sensitive to cold and that I hate the wimpy side of my personality that trembled rather than demanding my share of shifts out front. No one was doing great, because even though the food was decent and reasonably priced, the traffic just wasn’t there. They made me choose a different name because mine, Lynnette, was too similar to one of the other waitresses, Annette, which was confusing. I refused to go with Lynn, so I took Val, from my last name, Vallery. Val became my alter-ego, and not the fiery kick-ass alter-ego I would have enjoyed, but the one who was trying to warm up her hands and wondering how she was going to pay for both groceries and rent.
Halfway through the summer I saw an ad seeking a manager for the Peanut Shack at the mall. Peanut Shack was a counter-front shop that sold fresh-roasted nuts, popcorn, and a variety of candy that we either freshly prepared or purchased. The manager’s job was to work shifts, hire and train staff, schedule other people to work shifts, track inventory, keep my mouth shut when the owners came in and grabbed a handful of cash out of the register to go shopping, and balance the cash drawer as well as possible under those circumstances. I rarely saw the owners except when they stopped by for money. I enjoyed the autonomy. The mall was small and in summer doldrums. Most of my customers were people who worked there. I stocked the Jelly Belly jellybean jars, I roasted cashews and other nuts, and made nut clusters with white, milk and dark chocolate. I dipped potato chips in chocolate and begged people to try them, because they were amazing. I made a homemade version of Almond Joys that taught me to love coconut. I could eat as much of the popcorn, nuts and handmade candy as I wanted, and got a discount on the candy purchased from headquarters. I loved the products, but quickly got sick of eating them as my main sustenance, and daydreamed of pot roasts and lasagna. When my parents gave me a beautiful Black Hills gold ring for my birthday, I was disappointed. My heartfelt desire was three big bags of groceries. They had no idea. Of course, I also spent some of my hard earned wages on cheap 3.2 beer at the Lucky Lady, the only bar that served 18-20 year olds in town, but I couldn’t have bought much of a pot roast with what I spent on happy hour brews.
I counted boxes of truffles and caramels and jellybeans, and cartons of raw nuts and chocolate for melting. I worked as much as I wanted, and more, when my meager staff didn’t show up for their assigned shifts. One day a woman came up to the counter and asked if I had any jobs. I looked at her in disbelief. Her hair was greasy and snarled. She stared at me blankly, breathing heavily through her mouth. Her blouse was misbuttoned, gaping open between her unrestrained breasts, and didn’t match her stained polyester pants. “Nope, no jobs here,” I told her, and she shoved a paper at me to sign for the unemployment office, attesting to the fact that she had indeed applied for a job at the establishment. The light went on–she had dressed, not for success, but for failure. Mission accomplished, signed and good-bye.
This was also the summer I rode everywhere on my big sister’s ten-speed bike, which she had given to me for my birthday a few years before. It was my sole mode of transportation until the accident. I was approaching an intersection where I had the right-of-way and the cross traffic had to stop. Seeing a car approaching the stop sign, I slowed slightly to make sure they were really stopping, then pedaled forward. The driver came to a complete halt, and then, when I was just past the center of her grill, she went, knocking me across the hood of her car onto the street and crushing my bike beneath her tires. “Don’t move! Don’t move!” she and a few passersby insisted, and a police officer showed up, but spent most of his time talking to the driver, who told me her husband owned the Taco John’s. Eventually the hot, gritty asphalt became too uncomfortable and I crawled to the curb, surveying my road rash and crippled bike glumly. The driver took me to Kmart a few days later and bought me a brand new Huffy ten-speed that cost probably a fourth of what my sister had paid for her bike, but I didn’t know any better. I named it Grace, and instead of becoming nervous about riding, I started edging toward a daredevil mentality, blazing through town in the dark of night, alone. That was where I found my kick-ass alter-ego.
At the end of the summer I went back to classes full-time, and declined an invitation to stay on with The Peanut Shack. Weeks later the owners went into bankruptcy and the store was closed for months before anyone else took it over. Howard’s Restaurant eventually folded and remained vacant a long time as well. Summer is tough going for business owners in a college town, and it isn’t a picnic for the people who work for them either. I never took another job in the food service industry, though I deeply respect the people who are great at it. For me, there were other worlds of work to explore.
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