The Astounding Summer Adventures of Jenn-in-the Box

The summer job... The rite of passage that introduces the wide-eyed and fancy-free to the hemmed-in drudgery, mind-numbing repetition, quashed ideals, crushed spirit, and slavish inequity that is the adult working world.

My first true taste of it was my summer in The Box.

The Box was a five-foot-by-five-foot-by-ten-foot-high glass and aluminum room which served as the security and information desk for one of the dorms at my college.

This dorm during the summers had an unusual feature. It remained open during summer sessions-- not only for students, but for an array of outside invaders so varied and surreal, on any given day it was like Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Looking Out My Back Door" come to life.

Catering to out-of-town Pittsburgh visitors looking for dirt-cheap lodging, conventions of Charismatic Christians swept in... visiting dignitaries from Europe and the Middle East found shelter here... and international exchange students made themselves at home. Each offered their $8-$20 per night to gain a single Spartan bed with a shared bath and no air-conditioning...

Dorm hotel operations quickly served to level the playing field for high-end guest expectations.

My job during this time was to act as the front desk of the hotel, registering people for rooms, taking money, and listening to them complain that there was no maid service...

That the person who shared their bath smelled a bit...

And that the air-conditioner-- which didn't exist-- seemed to be broken.

This is why I needed to be in a room entirely enclosed in shatterproof glass.

The second aspect of my job was to act as dorm security, ensuring everyone had an ID who came through. So soon I knew all the students-- and what a remarkable mass of humanity it was!

Like the summer student who spent these three months in the same unwashed beige terrycloth bathrobe, boxers, knee socks, and a tweed cabby hat. By week three, the stench was noticeable-- and not improved for the airing it got when he went outside-- presumably to classes-- that way.

He was a popular complaint from the aforementioned guests sharing a bath.

Then there was "Sir Bob" as I called him, from the Creative Anachronism Society. Sir Bob would come downstairs in full knight regalia (he made his own chain mail-- very talented fellow!). He'd bow at The Box in a slight kneeling move on his way out, wish me "Fair morning, M'lady!" ---

("Fair morning, Sir Bob!") ---

And he would go on his way to slay some dragons or, say, class. This routine tended to befuddle any friends visiting me in The Box-- y'know, because they weren't aware I had connections at Court. But after a couple of weeks these things all seemed fairly normal somehow.

There was my newly-made friend, the perpetually confused British exchange student who saw fireflies for the first time and "thought he was going mad." I had to explain the little blinking lights were not, in fact, only in his mind. I also had to explain how our mailboxes worked, given he was afraid to investigate too thoroughly lest he embarrass himself in public...

Yes, this was the sort of Help we gave at the Help Desk.

And then there was Danny DeVito.

Well, okay, he wasn't really Danny DeVito. He was the dorm mailman. But at about five feet tall, and three foot wide, he had all the charm of Danny, right down to his wiry thinning hair, his big cheesy smile, and his love of trying to pick up women half his age and twice his height.

Like me.

Truthfully, this guy had singled me out long before my summer in The Box. On some strange premise that I looked like the pharmacist near his house, (oh yes, what girl doesn't fall for that sort of flattery?) he'd engaged me once in discussion at my own dorm with a bit too much gusto.

And now The Box was right parallel to the dorm post office, where Danny knew all the skinny on my daily activities.

When you spend 12 hour shifts in a five foot box... well... there really isn't anywhere to escape.

And I learned quickly that I had to be perpetually on my guard, because this balding little mailman had very small, very stealthy feet. So if I wasn't paying attention-- like, say, reading during lulls in the surreality and mayhem-- I'd suddenly find the man behind me, touching my shoulders or my hair.

Small pudgy fingers would knead into my shoulders, in a technique more reminiscent of bread making than a neck massage.

"You look tense," he once said.

"Suddenly I am," I recall scowling as I spun around in my chair. "Increasingly."

I was pretty sure my duties didn't involve fending off The Penguin in-between being security, information and hotel ops. But since this was in the early 90s, it wasn't a time where telling the Housing Department that the mailman continually "claimed to have a package for me" would have had a whole lot of effect.

And thus began the beautiful and much appreciated unified front to buffer Jenn-in-the-Box. My friend Austin-- six-foot-tall, strapping and, unbeknownst to Mr. DeVito, a total teddy-bear-- would spend what time he could afford hanging with me in the fishbowl to scare away the predator.

My friend Grace would bring snacks and magazines and camp out when she could.

Even other Desk Attendants off-shift would come by with checkers or Monopoly, just to keep my touchy-feely admirer at bay.

I think I never properly thanked them all for their kindness. So if you're out there reading-- thanks a bunch, gang!

Of course, my being remiss in the thanks department was largely to do with all the multi-tasking that took precedence.

Like having to translate a combination of broken English and mime to determine the diplomat from Kuwait needed me to call him a cab (he gave me a lovely souvenir Kuwaiti pen for my assistance-- in fact, I still have it!)...

Or having to talk a particularly charismatic Charismatic Christian down from the ceiling because she wouldn't be receiving fresh towels and linens each day...

Or helping my friend the confused Englishman understand denominations of American small change...

Or getting a big enough layer of Lysol hovering around the entryway for when Mr. Bathrobe trucked on through...

Even making sure to acknowledge Sir Bob's "'til the morrow, M'lady."

So at the end of the summer, on my very last day, the head of Housing called me into her office.

She said, "I've heard great things about how you handled the desk this summer. From what I understand, you're one of the best desk attendants we've had."

I was both surprised and embarrassed. "Why, thank you."

"I would like to extend the position to you year-round. We don't want to lose someone like you. How do you feel about that?"

In that instant, an entire year of chaos, of IDs, and beige bathrobes, and stench, and diminutive mailmen with pokey fingers, and 12-hour-shifts and walls-- high walls and narrow spaces-- came flooding to me in one choking, anxiety-ridden, heart-pounding, claustrophobic moment...

I cleared my throat as I waited for the blood pulsing in my ears, at my temples, to subside just enough so I could hear myself.

"I really appreciate it," I said with a smile, "but I think I'll have to pass. I feel I need to be able to truly focus on my studies this year."

And somewhere far off in the distance, Braveheart shouted, "FREEDOM!!"

Vote for this post at Humor-blogs. A vote is even better than a cool souvenir pen from Kuwait!


Da Old Man said...

This is the best "How I spent my summer vacation" paper ever. Maybe the mailman was a jerk, but you did get a great post out of it, so it wasn't a total loss.

Tara said...

Abolutely excellent reading, Jenn. It sounds like an interesting, if horrifying summer, and at least you picked up some good stories to tell. I got a good chuckle out of "the Penguin" reference.

Unknown said...

Da Old Man- I like to think that from painful experiences come the better humor stories. I do have Postmaster Danny DeVito to thank for that!

Robin- "Batman Returns" was out right about that time, too, so it really stuck in my brain when I'd see him. Thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

That was so funny!! Doesn't sound like a bad gig, despite the sweat, toil, tears, and Danny DeVito lookalike!

Or was that just the way you told it? LOL!

Unknown said...

Jay- The pro's were that the pay was pretty good and they accepted kids who weren't on heavy-duty financial aid.

The not really knowing what I'd have to deal with next, the lack of being able to leave the box to, say, get towels for the lady who was freaking out (and the fact that a LOT of people came to the desk very angry) was frustrating.

Also, I really was on 12 hour shifts. And one ran from noon to midnight on Fridays, then 8am to 8pm on Saturdays. So my friends would all be out enjoying the weekend, and I would only have enough time to go home, try to sleep for a few hours, and then go back to work.

The students actually thought I slept there all night, since I was there when they went to bed, AND there when they got up!

Anonymous said...

Hey Jenn,
I worked the desk while I was at college myself. However, instead of working at the dorm I lived in, I was assigned the main castle desk to watch over at odd hours. I think they we under the impression the small, innocent looking young girl with the large New Jersey attitude could scare the begeesus out of the unsuspecting wierdos that like to try and "tour" the castle after hours. I had some amazing experiences, met some truely bizarre people, and have a lot of stories from that experience.
Excellent post.


Unknown said...

Sue- I didn't realize you'd been a Desk Attendant, too, though I'd heard tales from our mutual friends about the Castle!

In fact, I'd just fired off an email to "the Rhet," "Austin," and "Grace" who all helped me keep my sanity during this time, to thank them.

The stories are what made desk attending worthwhile. :)

Greg said...

Wow, there's a summer job to remember (well, if forgetting isn't possible...). I was a mailroom attendant in our dorm for a while, which was often interesting, but rarely came anywhere near touching your experience.

Anonymous said...

not to gross you out but did you ever consider that the bathrobe started out white? We had a roommate once that we had to evict and I washed his tan sheets only to discover they were patterned and much lighter. disgusting!!!!!!

Aren't the SCA people just amusing, largely innocent and just not in touch with the rest of the world. LOL

Unknown said...

Greg- Well, as long as the mailman isn't touching YOU, it's all good. :)

Chyna- It's a distinct possibility, though I really do think it was beige. It might have been LIGHTER beige, though. Yes, possibly lighter beige. Along with the tweed cabbie hat and no pants but socks, it was a really interesting combination.

And yep, I actually quite liked Sir Bob. His elaborate in-character moments were among the happier parts of my day, really.

Anonymous said...

Oh wow, how cool. I really want to work at a help desk once and certainly in Europe because you wouldn't believe how mean we can be :D We've got unions to back up our meanness so :D It would even be unpolite in Europe not to be mean.

I can't believe you had so much fun. Could you explain the mailing system to me too? Just in case I ever go live in the States and my, you do look tense. I've got a great package for that :P

Unknown said...

Mani- I'll work up a nice "how to post a letter in the US" tutorial for you, complete with hard-to-read diagrams and bad English phrasing. (That's what our instruction manuals typically look like here.) That will give you the full experience. :)

You keep the package; it might get lost in International mail. :)

Miss Shirl said...

Mine wasn't quite as colorful. I sat in an air conditioned classroom working as a teacher assistant. :)

Unknown said...

Shirley- Indeed, that doesn't sound too bad at all!

Barry said...

Sounds like some fun times for a fisrt job

Unknown said...

Barry- I'd done a bit of babysitting and other more minor gigs before this, but this was my first full-time one. Thanks for popping by!!

Anonymous said...

Wow, twelve hour shifts and you weren't allowed to leave your box?? No wonder you didn't want to take it on permanently! I dont' blame you!

There's an award for you over at The Depp Effect!

Unknown said...

Jay- I would leave briefly-- locking the Box-- for bathroom breaks. Other than that-- no, we had to stay in the box.

Sometimes I would sit in the DOORWAY of the box, so I could see the daylight. :)

Thanks so much for the nifty award, Jay- I feel all special. I think you are my first award from the UK. I feel like Cabbages has gone international now. :)

MYM said...

Very eventful, and good decision in the end :)

My first job only proved to me that I needed to marry rich.

Bee said...

That is too funny! I don't think I would have survived! :o)

Anonymous said...

I thought I had some bad summer jobs: from convenience store/deli clerk in high school to janitor in college. Then bad jobs, period, after college: working in a Christmas wreath factory for five years, a light powder plant for three months...I think your job takes the cake, though.

I also wanted to say that I really enjoy all of your posts. I'm so glad I discovered you through Most of those there (myself definitely included) pale in comparison to the humor you put out consistently every day in your posts. Keep them coming. I know I'm not the only one who loves them.

Unknown said...

Drowsey- Ha. Well, maybe if you keep blogging about him, your true love Vincent D'Onofrio will come take you away from all this. :)

Bee- Well, there are plenty worse jobs, but this one sure was unique. :)

UnfinishedRambling- College janitor would have to have been quite a treat-- I feel for you there. And a Christmas wreath factory? Somehow I imagine there are stories there, as well.

Thank you so much for the note. I'm always glad to hear folks are enjoying the posts. I have fun writing them.

Alice said...

Holy crap! I laughed so hard at this line:

"You look tense," he once said.

"Suddenly I am,"

Isn't terrible how one creepy individual can totally turn you off of something. It's so unfair.

Great story!

Unknown said...

Alice- Oh, he was such a trip, that guy.

In retrospect, I'm sure he harassed some of the other girls, too, but I never got to compare notes about it.

Anonymous said...

I worked in the evidence dept of a police dept while in college and while I adored the job there was this creepy guy who would sneak up behind us while we were working and start "massaging" our shoulders. He was an A+ creepy slime ball. Surprisingly enough he was also the Sex Crimes Detective (Creep patrol) which just made it worse. We never left our backs to him when he was around. He also looked like this flasher they kept trying to bust around town. Yes as a little private joke ot myself I'd put him in the photo lineups. I'd get vetoed each time but I did enjoy doing it anyhow.

Unknown said...

Chyna- G-ah! Heh, based on what you're saying, I wouldn't be surprised if he was out there in his beige trenchcoat and socks. :)

Pretty cool college job, though!