Guest Column: Memories from a working girl in white

One small and unexpected delight in getting older is having access to my earnings record on the Social Security website. I marvel at the fact that the first two entries in 1967 and 1968, ages 15 and 16, show earnings of $14 and $7. (Was I mostly paid under the table? I hope so!) Those first jobs, during summer vacation, proved to be tortuous intros to working life. Days spent watching a slow-moving clock, feet aching, earning $1.40 an hour, waiting for my shift to end so I could join my friends.

I grew up on the Jersey Shore, our house a few blocks from the beach, the center of all summer activity. My first job was as a counter girl at a boardwalk concession working for Mr. and Ms. Isola, a middle-aged couple who ran a no-nonsense operation. The stand, which sold typical beach fare — burgers and fries, soda, ice cream and candy — had no seating. One counter, open to the west, faced the boardwalk, the other faced the beach to the east. Customers in bathing suits walked up a ramp from the sand and I took their orders, my gaze often distracted by the scene beyond them: the hot sand dotted with umbrellas and the sparkling Atlantic beyond, accompanied by the muffled shouts of kids playing in the surf.

I would dutifully take orders, pass them to Mr. Isola, the cook, and quickly do the math in my head … three burgers with fries and sodas, plus a Creamsicle and an ice cream sandwich. Marching over to Ms. Isola at the register, I would hand her the money, tell her what the bill was and then she would ask me what they had ordered. This interrogation persisted for weeks, until my math skills were reliably established. The worst days were when my girlfriends were basking on the beach in full view, while I did the endless math exercises in the hot, greasy shack, just yards away from the fun and my friends.

My next job was worse and thankfully short-lived. My girlfriend Dana and I answered an ad for aides at a nursing home, early shift, starting at 7. In our white uniforms, white stockings and shoes, we showed up expecting what, I don’t know, but certainly not the assignment we were given. Our job was to change the bedding and clean up the patients after a night of soiling the sheets. It took two aides, one to roll the patient over and the other to wipe. The men and women, all bedridden and a few with bed sores, emitted odors that turned my stomach. We tried covering our noses but the visual impact was equally shocking. We quit soon enough but in retrospect, the patients deserved far better than two squeamish teenage girls tending to their basic needs.

In 1970, the summer before college, I started a job that paid real money. The record shows I made $1,013 — more than $6,000 in today’s dollars and an ample amount to start my college career. My mother had arranged the job. I was to be a nurse’s aide at Marlboro State Mental Hospital, where she volunteered and served on the board. I was assigned to work in the children’s “cottage,” as all the institutional brick residences were called. I worked the day shift, 7 to 3, and again was dressed in white down to my shoes. The day began promptly at 7, with a staff meeting in the nurses station at which notes from the night shift were read and discussed — who “evacuated” their bowels, who had to be restrained. Next, the young patients lined up for their meds, each dose kept in a small plastic cup, exactly like a scene from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The drug of choice was Thorazine and the only hope for controlling the often self-destructive behavior of the children. After breakfast, we all adjourned to the playground, where the autistic patients hair-twirled or rocked in silence while the older children, some just a year younger than myself, hung out in groups and talked.

It was a surreal and unsettling experience, especially as I got to know the teenagers. Delilah, 16, with jet-black hair and a pretty face, had attempted suicide. As I got to know her better, it became clear that her parents had committed her to Marlboro for expediency’s sake. The line between mental illness and teenage rebellion was too thin for comfort. With the recent Kent State shootings, the Vietnam War raging and the emergence of the women’s movement, I felt a kinship with Delilah, my own rebellion taking shape against my perceived hypocrisy of the older generation. This was the summer when I first experimented with drugs, running with a fast crowd and often staying up all night, only to don my uniform at dawn to make the trek to Marlboro. By the time I left for college that September, I knew I would never again take a job that required a white uniform.

My record shows earnings of $999 for the summer of 1971, an unlikely amount that must have been an accounting dodge by my employer. The summer after my freshman year, I joined a group of college friends renting a house in Ogunquit, Maine. I had visions of a WASP-y, lobster-filled summer, fueled by my discovery at college of preppies whose families “summered” on the New England coast. The reality was that I biked the hilly two miles into town (and back), where I worked for a nice Jewish family from Brooklyn at their variety store. I sold flip-flops, inflatable rafts, beach towels and other summer gear. My friends were busy with their summer jobs. Few lobsters were consumed and I left Maine feeling decidedly not WASP-y.

I have no memory of the work that earned me $530 in 1973 but I clearly remember my summer job after graduation in 1974. I was living on West 102nd Street in New York City with my boyfriend, who drove a cab. Easily the best job of my youth, I was a lifeguard at a rooftop pool on East End Avenue overlooking Gracie Mansion. Again, I biked to work but this time, it was a flat and fast crosstown express. Once at the pool, which was almost always empty on weekdays, I would swim back and forth, counting the laps until I hit a mile. This was also the summer of the Watergate scandal and the memory of listening to Nixon’s resignation on my transistor radio on that sunny rooftop is still vivid. By summer’s end, I was incredibly fit, very tan and clueless about what to do next.

In another two years, I would be working full time. According to my earning record, I broke into a five-digit income category for the first time in 1976 — $10,058 for my job at Rolling Stone — and from there the numbers continue their satisfyingly upward climb. The record shows almost 50 years of a working life, from that 15-year-old counter girl to my last job as creative director of Women’s Wear Daily. During those 50 years, Marlboro Hospital was torn down, the Isolas’ snack bar washed into the sea and I traveled on a voyage of self-discovery, which revealed talents and skills completely unknowable to the working girl in the white uniform.

Photo credit: Patrick McConahay/flickr

The author, of Southold, is retired from a career in magazine publishing. She was creative director at Women’s Wear Daily and a longtime art director for the New York Observer.