Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Summer Job

On the way home from the last Torah session for a while, I was listening to The Story on Public Radio. This is a show where people tell stories about their families, about themselves, about incredible/ordinary events that have occurred in their lifetimes. In this particular show, a woman was talking about a summer job she had held 20 years before, when she was a college student on holiday at Cape Cod. The job was selling timeshares, but it turned out that the whole thing was a scam, and she realized that when people would rush out to the bank immediately to cash their checks, lest the money run out before they got there, which apparently happened sometimes. She told one story about a diabetic salesperson who binged out on Twinkies and died. The other salespeople ripped apart his room because it was rumored that he hid money in there. They tore the tiles off his ceiling in case that's where the money was hidden.
The host of the show invited others to write in and tell him about their own summer jobs. I thought then about a job I had when I was first in college. It was the summer between my first and second year of school, in late 1972. I was broke because I didn't work while school was in session. So when my friend's parents, concentration camp survivors who seemed to know every Jewish person in the United States, suggested that I take a summer camp job along with their daughter, I agreed to do it, even though I had never been a camp sort of person, to say the least.
It was a job as a nature counselor. I didn't have to take care of a bunk of kids by myself, which was a selling point for me because the prospect of doing that didn't sound particularly good. I had only been to camp once myself, and it was not a pleasant experience. I was locked outside my bunk naked and tormented in various ways by the girls in the bunk. I seemed destined for torture of all kinds in a place where difference is tantamount to a "kick me" sign and the only real law is the law of public opinion.
My friend was the art counselor, and perhaps because of the connection between her parents and the Camp Director, a cigar chomping drill sergeant type, she didn't have to look after a bunk of kids at all. I, on the other hand, did have to watch over children, along with the music counselor, who I remember as a short girl with particularly large breasts, lank hair, and a whisky-rough voice who, at the piano, would work herself up almost to a faint, flinging herself at the keyboard. She told me that during the regular year, between classes, she worked in a peep show, as a dancer. She showed me how she would dance, though of course, with clothes on. It was perfectly safe, she claimed. The men couldn't touch her through the glass of the cage. However, if they paid more money, she could take them to a small room, where they could put a hand through a small opening and touch her breast or watch her masturbate.
The children in our bunk were the very smallest and most vulnerable children at the camp, from 4 to 5 years old. Their parents were mostly rich, many married types who dumped the kiddies at camp and took off for Europe for 6 weeks. These children would weep piteously every night, and we would have to soothe them, singing them to sleep and telling them stories. I remember feeling very sympathetic toward these helpless tots, indignant that their parents seldom answered their letters, which we helped them to write, and it was clear that the future held long therapy sessions or worse for them. But I didn't have the first idea how to take care of or talk to these kids. I was not ready for the responsibility and had no resources to draw on, being an only child, who only rarely babysat, the youngest in the immediate family. When discipline problems arose, as they did daily, I had no one to ask for advice, since the camp director was worse than useless, and the staff were all as young and clueless as I was.
It was a Jewish camp, and the guy who ran the camp exploited the staff, making them work 6 1/2 days per week, and listening in on their phone conversations at the one and only pay phone at the camp. At night, after lights out, our work was not finished, though we had worked a 10 hour day. We still had to patrol the bunks for a 2 hour shift, making the circuit gingerly, with a flashlight, looking for intruders or bears.
The director made every staff member, even the non-Jewish ones, go to services, and even had the right to dictate where someone went and what she did on the one evening a week she had off.
Though I liked being a nature counselor, and accumulated a raft of fans who liked to help take care of the menagerie I put together--the gerbils, frogs, lizards, and fish--I did NOT care for the atmosphere in the camp, which was distinctly military, if not fascist, and the totalitarian control the camp director held over all of us.
One day, perhaps a month into the session, I called my parents and told them I had had enough. The camp director, or his spies, were listening in, and hung up the phone. My father got into his car and immediately drove the 4 hours up to the mountains to take me home. There was lots of screaming and yelling, with the camp director shrieking that he would sue me.
I felt terrible about leaving those children, who had been abandoned by everyone else, especially about leaving them with the art counselor, who was not the kind of person I saw as particularly appropriate as a surrogate mother, though I probably would have judged their real mothers that way as well. But I was feeling oppressed, and at the miniscule salary he was offering, I was not about to be a slave to this person any longer, particularly since he charged big bucks to the parents of these children. So I left, and never took a job like that again. I do not believe I was ever paid for any of the time I spent at this place.


Lou said...

Oh my gosh, what an experience!

Robbi said...

Yes, hideous.