When I was a kid at summer camp, my cousin was the camp's dishwasher. When I walked down the serving line in the cafeteria, I'd look for my cousin washing dishes in the back. Sometimes he worked on the serving line, slopping glop on the kids' plates. When he served me, he'd see me and say "Hey Pete, how's it going?"
All the kids around me never failed to notice the special attention I received. With my tray in hand, I'd strut to my table and brag, "That's right, I'm tight with the camp dishwasher."
The other kids were impressed.
At the time, it was such a big deal that I would have never dreamed that I would, one day, grow up to be a camp dishwasher myself.
* * *
I hadn't set out to wash dishes at a camp. I had been on my way to a dishwashing gig at a resort in the Virgin Islands. But when I was passing through the punishing heat and humidity of Louisiana, I realized I didn't want to spend another summer in the heat. The Virgin Islands seemed less appealling.
I wanted to go somewhere where I could wear pants all summer. I scratched the Virgin Islands and decided instead to go to Alaska. I made it only as far as Oregon when a friend invited me to go to Maine. Maine sounded like it could offer some good pants-wearing weather. So I went down to California to meet up with her. While I waited for her to get ready for the trip, I got a call from my friend Jon who said they were having trouble with the teenage dishwasher at the summer camp where he was working up in the Sierra Nevada mountains. He invited me to come and take over the job.
"What's the climate like up there?" I asked.
"The climate? Oh, it's warm during the day but it gets kinda chilly at night."
"Chilly?" I said, my interest heightened. "So I could wear pants up there?"
"Sure you can wear pants," he said. "You can do whatever you want."
It was a deal. Maine would have to wait for some other summer.
* * *
That first night at camp, after dinner, after everyone else left the dining hall, one of the teenage employees remained behind while I washed the dishes. He introduced himself as Robert. As he stood watching me work, he asked, "So how many dishes can you wash in an hour?"
"In an hour?" I said, "I have no idea."
"Oh," he said, "I thought you were supposed to be really fast or something."
"I'm not very fast," I said, more honestly than modestly. But then I boasted, "I do think I'm a pretty good dishwasher though."
Robert had nothing else to say after that. He looked sort of dejected as he walked out of the kitchen. Later that night I learned that Robert was the teenager that I was replacing as dishwasher. I felt sorta bad, especially when I found out that the camp manager had told him that he was such a useless dishwasher that they were going to have to bring in a professional to come in and crank out the dishes. Enter me.
The odd thing is that the camp manager told Robert that without knowing anything about me. He didn't know that he actually had hired a professional itinirent dishwasher, a real ringer, to replace Robert.
* * *
The morning after my arrival at camp, I showed up for work at the messhall at six-thirty a.m. It was just me, Robert, who now had a job assisting around the kitchen, and the cook, Melissa who was making pancakes. Just after I introduced myself to Melissa, Robert innocently asked her if he could have blueberries in his pancakes.
When I was a kid at summer camp, my cousin was the camp's dishwasher. When I walked down the serving line in the cafeteria, I'd look for my cousin washing dishes in the back. Sometimes he worked on the serving line, slopping glop on the kids' plates. When he served me, he'd see me and say "Hey Pete, how's it going?" When I was a kid at summer camp, my cousin was the camp's dishwasher. When I walked down the serving line in the cafeteria, I'd look for my cousin washing dishes in the back. Sometimes he worked on the serving line, slopping glop on the kids' plates. When he served me, he'd see me and say "Hey Pete, how's it going?" "You fucking bastard!" she yelled. "All you ever think about is yourself, Robert. You're so fucking selfish."
Whoa! It was only six-thirty in the morning and I'd only just met this woman and already she was screaming and cursing at this fifteen-year-old kid. Something didn't seem right.
As soon as she finished yelling at Robert, Melissa flashed a sugar-coated grin at me and asked, "Pete, would you like blueberries in your pancakes?"
Now I knew something was wrong.
"Uh...no thanks," I lied. "I don't like pancakes."
* * *
It didn't take long for me to settle into both the surroundings and the job. Washing dishes at a summer camp was not unlike washing dishes at a restaurant except instead of rats and mice in the kitchen, there were chipmunks and squirrels. Instead of cockroaches there were mosquitos. And instead of whiney spoiled restaurant customers, there were whiney spoiled campers and their counselors.
It was a municipal camp, run by a city in California that sent its eight-to-twelve year-olds up to the mountains to get 'em off the streets for a week at a time. It was a pretty low-budget operation. No horseback riding or canoeing here. But there was a horseshoe pit which was all that I needed to be happy.
It was a pretty comfortable set-up and I enjoyed myself. I was wearing pants in the middle of summer, I was washing dishes, I was eating all the free food I wanted, and I had my own cabin that sat on the ridge of the mountain overlooking the valley a thousand feet below. Basically I was getting paid to live the high life. If it weren't for those damn annoying loud-mouthed campers, the place would have been perfect.
Actually there was one very large downside to the job and that was having to endure Melissa's barrage of verbal assualts on Robert while I washed the dishes. Anytime the camp director was out of earshot (which was most of the time), Melissa jumped on Robert's case for the slightest reason. She called him every name under the sun: "You stupid motherfucker, you goddamn bastard, you fucking asshole." She made him do the most menial of tasks. Once she even told him she was going to make him scrub the entire messhall floor with a toothbrush.
For whatever reason beyond Melissa's assertion that Robert was a lousy worker, she just didn't like him. Her intent for heaping all this abuse on Robert seemed to be a way to provoke him. For if he as much as called her any of the names she called him, she would have him immediately fired.
I was amazed at what incredible restraint Robert showed during Melissa's rantings. I kept waiting for him to explode but he never did. Much to Melissa's displeasure, Robert took all the abuse she heaped on him without complaint. He never once talked back to her or even so much as looked cross at her. Robert simply looked her in the eye while she yelled.
When she was done, he resumed his work.
Whenever I asked Robert why he didn't yell back at Melissa, he always insisted that she didn't bother him. I didn't believe him though. It seemed obvious to me that he thought she was a pain in the ass but that he resisted indulging her in a fight because he didn't want to get fired and have to leave camp. After all, since he was only fifteen years old and this was his first camp experience of any sort, he was much more of a camper than an employee. He got along great with the kids and always wanted to be involved in all the activities. Since Robert and I were responsible for cleaning up the mess hall after dinner, I was intimately aware of the fact that he was a lousy employee, but that didn't make him a bad guy.
Every night, it was tricky to keep Robert working since he was always focused on making it to that evening's activity, be it the campfire or the night hike or the dance or the talent show. Often I cut him a deal, he could leave early if he would just sweep the floor. I'd do all the rest of chores. I'd wash the dishes, take out the garbage, mop the floor, everything. But just getting Robert to simply sweep the floor was a nightly monumental task.
First he'd have to find the right CD to play while he swept. Then he had to talk to me about all the pairs of Air Jordans he was going to buy with the money he was making. Then he would show me the act he wanted to perform at the next talent show by singing into the broom handle.
"Robert," I'd tell him, "just sweep the floor and you can leave."
Then he'd have to make himself a sandwich. Then he was off to the bathroom. Eventually he'd disappear with the floor only half-swept. I didn't mind though. This was actually my favorite part of the day, when I was finally left alone in the kitchen washing dishes and there weren't any kids or Melissas around yelling and screaming. It was very pleasant.
* * *
One summer, my mom sent me and one of my sisters to five different summer camps. Wow, we thought, our mom must really love us to send us to five camps. Little did we know at the time that she actually just wanted us out of her hair. They were all city or church camps designed to get low-income kids out of the city.
I suppose there were some things I liked about camp. I did enjoy being out in the woods and seeing stars and bugs and dirt and stuff. But I hated how camp-life was so regimented. Constantly, twenty-four hours a day, I was told what to do and when to do it and how to do it. None of my teachers or my parents had ever told to do so much.
At one camp in particular, in adition to enduring the constant shadow of authority, I had trouble getting along with the other kids since so many of them were from the suburbs. It was the only time in my childhood that I ever interacted with kids from the suburbs. I was easily intimidated by them because they all lived in houses and had their own bedrooms and had swimming pools and lawns. They weren't much fun to be around.
The best time I had at that camp was the day I fainted from the heat and was taken to the infirmary. The nurse put me in a bed and turned on the radio. Then she left me alone. I didn't have to do anything. No archery, no arts and crafts, no hiking, no forced interactions with kids I didn't like. I didn't have to do anything but lay there and stare out the window at the trees. I was perfectly content.
When the DJ came on the radio and announced that Thurmon Munson died in a plane wreck, I bolted upright in bed. I couldn't believe it. Thurmon Munson was dead. This was incredible news though by no means was I a Yankees fan. In fact, I hated the Yankees. But if I had like a Yankee, it would have been their catcher, Thurmon Munson.
I was instantly cured of my brief bout of heat stroke and ran and caught up with my group. "Hey guys, I just heard on the radio: Thurmon Munson died."
My news was met with blank stares.
"Who's Thurmon Munson," one of them asked.
"What do you mean, 'Who's Thurmon Munson?'" I didn't get these suburban kids at all. They didn't even know who the hell Thurmon Munson was. No wonder why I couldn't get along with them. I had to anxiously wait out the rest of the week until the camp ended so I could go home and talk to the guys in my neighborhood about Thurmon Munson's death and how it would affect the Yankees' chance of winning the pennant.
* * *
At this summer camp dishwashing job, I came close to quitting when the counselors kept punishing the bad kids by making them wash the dishes. I felt they were sending the wrong message to the kids. Dishwashing should have been a reward, not a punishment. Besides, it was a pain in my ass having all the troublemakers underfoot in the kitchen, making a poor effort to do my job. And they weren't any help either since I'd have to re-wash all the dishes they hadn't properly sanitized.
After I complained enough, the practice of sentencing the bad kids to the dishes ceased. But I was still on the verge of quitting because of Melissa's relentless treatment of Robert. She never ran out of reasons for yelling at him. It got to the point where anytime she filled the air in the kitchen with one of her venomous tirades, I would just leave and go for a walk.
Finally, after weeks of hearing her spew and after many many walks, I couldn't take it anymore. I went to the camp director and did something I'd never done before in my life: I asked an employer to fire a co-worker.
"Fire Melissa?" he said. "That's funny that you should ask me to do that because she was just in here yesterday asking me to fire Robert."
"But Robert's not the problem," I said. "Sure, he's a lousy worker but he's not making anyone's life miserable. In fact, he's pretty fun to have around."
My plea went unanswered. The camp director's solution for keeping the peace was to not fire anyone.
* * *
What kept me from quitting were thoughts of the coming fall. I had agreed to stay a few weeks longer to winterize the camp, clean the dining hall and put everything away and get the camp ready for the coming winter when it would sit under twenty-five feet of snow.
When that long-awaited last day finally arrived, there was no one more excited than me. The kids were leaving. The counsellors were leaving. Melissa was leaving and I'd never have to see her again. The other employees all had to go back to school or their real jobs. I was basically going to have the place to myself.
I took a special pleasure at watching the kids get on the busses.
But then something strange happened as soon as the busses began to pull away: I started to feel lonely. And then one car load after another, filled with counsellors and employees drove off. As the procession passed by me as I sat on a picnic table, counsellors called out, "Goodbye Pete!" Somehow all these counsellors knew my name. I didn't know any of their names. In fact, I often had trouble deciphering telling the counsellors apart from the campers. I had never even talked to them and now that they were all leaving, I realized I was going to miss them. The solitude of the fall wasn't so appealling now. I'm not very good at being the one left behind. I always need to be the one leaving. I realize it's a huge reason why I continually travel, because I don't want to be left behind. Whenever I'm at a bus station or a train station with a girlfriend, I have to be the one getting on that bus or that train. To me, living in one place for a length of time just means watching all the neighbors and all the friends move away. Being left behind, in that void, is just about the most frightening feeling I know of.
Within twenty-four hours, the population of the camp went from one hundred people to one person. I was left alone in that void and it felt creepy. To face this sort of grief, I immerse myself in the void. I seek any and all remaining signs of the departed party as if to remind myself even more so that they are gone.
After everyone left , I found myself strolling aimlessly around camp. I moped around the empty mess hall. I walked across the empty basketball court and passed the empty swimming pool to empty cabins. I entered the cabins one by one almost as if to assure myself that indeed I was alone. I was about halfway through inspecting the forty-odd cabins when I found a quarter and a some pennies on the floor in one of the cabins.
This cheered me up a tiny bit.
As I bent down to pick up the coins, I thought how lucky I was that they hadn't fallen through the half-inch cracks between the floor boards. But wait, who's to say that coins hadn't fallen through the floorboards?
I rushed outside and bent down and looked under the cabin. Right off the bat I saw a dime laying in the dirt. I crawled through the cobwebs and dust, through the eighteen inch high space beneath the cabin and found more change. Coins had been falling through these floor boards for years, for decades, without anyone recovering them. There was no telling what sort of treasures sat beneath these cabins.
For hours I searched until I had scoured beneath every cabin. I was covered in dirt and cobwebs but I didn't care. I wasn't even lonely anymore. It seemed ridiculous that I had even been mopey about everyone leaving. There would be other times, other people. In the meantime, I raced back to my cabin and spilled the change across my sleeping bag and counted it. Sixteen dollars and sixty-one cents.