About two months ago I started working at an ice cream and fried food restaurant ten minutes down the road from my house, a place my parents used to bring me when my brother and I were kids. It's called Johnson's and has been owned and operated by the same family since 1949, and it's probably looked the same ever since.
Inside there is this glazed-looking wood paneling all over the walls, which sounds pretty ugly (considering all the tables and chairs are the same glazed-looking wood material) but it's actually pretty charming. There are a bunch of retro Coca-Cola clocks behind the ordering counter and our menu is displayed on a series of (yet again) hanging wooden panels and chalk boards. We have an old time clock (that doesn't actually tell the right time) and every time I come in and out of work I slide my card into it until I hear a click. There's no iPads, no computers, just a bulky, faded cash register and pads of paper I take orders on and call out to the line of cooks in our restaurant-code language.
The people I work with are probably more charming than the oldies décor, though. We have a small staff because the business is family owned, so everybody knows everybody. Growing up in a small town, I was kind of over the whole everybody-knows-everybody thing, but here, I like it. I requested a whole week off work to go to Italy with my family, and my boss, Sue, gave me a few extra days off-some before I left to pack and some after to recover from jet lag. She didn't have to and I didn't ask her to, but she did. She also didn't have to ask how my trip was and where I went in Italy, but she did, the day I got back, along with a bunch of my coworkers. It feels good to feel cared about, to feel missed. It feels good for people to notice you were gone.
Another manager of mine, Rob, has the sweetest heart. You wouldn't guess it at first, because he's a burly guy and his bottom lip kind of juts out like he is all tough-looking, and he's always throwing swears out and yelling that he can't hear us shout the orders, but underneath it all I know he's a softie. The other day, I was talking to him and he saw that I was wearing an elephant ring which my best friend bought me, and he asked, "You like elephants?" I told him yes, and a moment later he pulled out a small elephant-shaped paper clip he had found on the ground a few days earlier. "You can keep it," he said.
I also love the kids I work with. I know a lot more about them then I think I should know for only working some couple-hour shifts with them, but I wouldn't change that. I'm one of the oldest workers there-most are still in high school, going into their sophomore or junior years. Even though they're young and a little immature, it's fun to laugh with them and pretend for a moment that I'm not old and in college and have to act all sophisticated. My friend Abby and I, for example, chose to assign names to the three little birds that come sit under the ice cream window when it rains: Penny, Louis, and Garret. And while I name animals with Abby, I talk about boys with Jackie, who's only a year younger than me, and what college is like with David, who's going to be a freshman at UMAINE this year. It's fun to interact with everyone when we're not busy taking orders, to see the age differences and to be both immature and mature with them.
And it's not only others who I learn about at Johnson's, but also myself. I learned that I love interacting with people, contrary to my belief that I was shy and an introvert. Maybe I am those things, but I could still talk to a complete stranger for ten minutes about something as menial as full belly clams versus clam strips or something as meaningful as keeping God in your life, which one customer who came to my ice cream window was passionate about. The energy I get from making someone smile when I hand them their dinner or an ice cream is almost unmatched; it makes me realize that when I find a (real) job it's going to be something where I can help and surround myself with others.
I've also learned that I'm a lot stronger than I believed myself to be, and I can handle a lot more than I give myself credit to. This goes for a couple things. There's this one ice cream flavor, chocolate fudge brownie, that is so hard to scoop. For some reason, that flavor is always about five times more frozen than the others. Nonetheless, after building up some good scooping muscles in my right wrist, I am now able to (almost) seamlessly scoop a cup (or even a pint) of it. On a more serious note, there have been days that I went into work on little sleep, feeling like a mess because my life was messy at that time. There have been days that I had to work nine hours on the brink of tears and smile through every order I took. Every moment felt unbearable, but there I was at the end of the night, still smiling. Work is good like that. It clears your head for a bit and puts your strengths to the test. Just until you think you can't go on any longer, you do.
That's only one of the valuable lessons I've learned. I've also learned the value of elbow grease. At Johnson's, we have no cleaning service or anything of the sort: everything is cleaned or fixed by us, the employees. A list of the day's tasks goes something like this: bleaching the mops, scrubbing the toilets, mopping the dining room, switching out the (heavy) ice cream containers, restocking everything a restaurant needs to function, and taking out the heavy (and smelly) trash bags. But by doing all that, I've learned that a little elbow grease goes a long way and that it's good to do things for yourself, even the hard, annoying things, because there won't always be someone there to do them for you.
I only have about a week left working at Johnsons, and I feel sad about that, which is new, because I've never really felt sad about leaving a job. Maybe it's not the job, but the people I'm leaving. Maybe it's the feeling of growing and moving on, of leaving my small environment and going back to the city. Maybe it's knowing that so much has happened there in just a few months. Or probably, it's that so much happened in my life but Johnson's stayed the same. Johnson's has always stayed the same, since 1949. Yes, that's what I'll miss: something staying the same.