It was only my second day on the job. I felt so responsible, so self-reliant, so much in charge of putting my own food on the table. Granted, it was eighth-grade cafeteria duty in Akron, Ohio. And it was a job that would inadvertently be given me.
I had just turned 13 — at last, a teenager. Yet things were starting to head south. My grades had been suffering since leaving elementary school. There I had been editor of the mimeographed newspaper, running articles wondering what was inside the satellite known as Sputnik. I was the school's Red Cross representative to city meetings. I was one of four projectionists who operated the movie equipment. I was city bowling champion for my age group.
Now I was navigating the halls of a new world, one of male dominance, where guys named Butch or LeRoy, sporting flattops with ducks, practiced the art of shoulder bumping, practically knocking you over. In this Rebel Without A Cause world of 1959, if you didn't give as good as you got, your shoulder bumper owned you. Suddenly I was just another average student, regularly shoulder-bumped by the jerks.
Fifth period was the first period after lunch. I had study hall, a perfect place for squelching belches. One day, I was deeply immersed in a Classics Illustrated comic book version of Moby Dick so I could write a book report. Michael, sitting next to me, jabbed me and said that they just asked for a volunteer to help refill the ice cream cooler. An ice cream lover, I raised my hand without confirming his story.
The study hall teacher came to me and said to follow her to the cafeteria office, at the other end of the room. There would be no ice cream. I was dropped off with Mrs. Moehler, the cafeteria's manager, who seemed to hover over every activity connected to lunch hour in the cafeteria.
Mrs. M. thanked me for volunteering and said that my job would be to help her count each day's cafeteria receipts and put all the change into rolls. For this hour spent with her instead of study hall, I would be entitled to one complete lunch, with dessert, every day, free of charge. And thus, I could earn the gratitude of my hard-working parents. As a bonus, I would get to operate the electric coin counter.
The coin counter looked somewhat like a record player with raised sides around the rim. Pour in the coins, turn the machine on and it would spin, pushing the various coins into five separate slots in neat piles. From there, they could be inserted into the paper coin tubes kept in the drawer of the desk. The machine even gave a running total value. Much more fun than spending fifth period making spitballs or, even worse, actually studying.
The next day, before getting to my counting, it was time to eat. Wending through the lunch line I came upon Barbara, one of two cashiers. Mrs M. swooped in to tell her that my lunch would be free from then on because I was doing special work for her. Barbara gave me a look that I interpreted as meaning that I had suddenly become a man of mystery to her. I must point out that Barbara was hot. I savored the moment.
Alas, in the next hour I was to look quite foolish, fortunately away from Barbara's view. I was in the office, and had poured a bunch of lunch-hour coins into the machine and turned it on. The drum began spinning, spitting coins of all values everywhere but in the neat piles they were supposed to be in. Mrs. M. heard the commotion and came running in from the kitchen and reminded me that I had to be sure that there were no coins stuck in the emptying slot before turning the counter on. I was embarrassed, but a quick learner, if no longer a good student.
By the end of the school year, Mrs. M. told me that she was very happy with the work that I had done. As a reward, I would be allowed to continue, or choose any other student job in the cafeteria. The second cashier was moving on to high school, leaving her job open. I took it. For 50 minutes, I would get to stand 20 feet away from Barbara with both of us facing each other.
As a bonus, I deduced that roughly half of all the girls in the school would pass through my lunch line and hand me cash. We would be exchanging smiles and maybe even conversation along with change given. I would still have to dodge the occasional coins tossed haphazardly by Butch or LeRoy as their way of confirming male dominance from across the counter.
And Michael, who "volunteered" me for cafeteria duty? He never did figure out why I regularly forgot to charge him for dessert when he passed through my line.
Thomas E. Harvey is a semiretired advertising designer and copywriter living in Largo.