From Behind the Counter

While it’s wholly possible to develop culture shock or be completely unfamiliar with the way things are done while living in a new country, I managed to carve out a little space of my own that felt like it had been transplanted in Massachusetts all the way from Singapore. It was simple – I cemented my status as an experienced ice-cream scooper.

My first job at sixteen was at an ice-cream shop, which I stayed at for a year. I was paid five Singapore dollars an hour, which at that point worked out to about $3.50 USD. There is no tipping culture in Singapore, so there really wasn’t any incentive to be anything other than a human conduit for flavored frozen dairy products, but it was my first foray into paid employment and I was eager to do well. The job fit all my self-imposed rules: no hats or other forms of embarrassing headgear, and no morning shifts. There had been no formal interview process, or rather; there was no interview of any kind. I wrote down my phone number, age and address in a notebook, and someone called me back two days later, asking if I could start later that week. I was hired.

I had just graduated from secondary school and I didn’t have anything better to do, so for a month or two I powered through five ten-hour shifts a week. There was a two-week adjustment period for me in any new environment. At work, I held my arms up, bent at the elbow and the wrist, in awkward T-rex stance, unsure about what to do with my body when I wasn’t scooping ice cream.

The shop itself was tiny, having only enough space for one ice cream display case, a granite frost top, and three tables for customers, with some outdoor seating. Our business model was basically the same as Cold Stone Creamery – we had a bunch of different toppings that we smashed into your ice cream if you so chose, ranging from gummy bears to M&Ms to brownie bits. I personally thought it was a rip off, because you would get significantly less ice cream and you would have to spend more time chewing than actually enjoying the flavors. Also, it made my job more difficult, having to remember multiple different orders placed by customers who mulled over their options and changed their mind like they were buying a house, instead of making a $4 purchase that would be gone in a few minutes.

On weekday afternoons, students from the two nearby secondary schools would stream into the store in groups of threes and fours and gossip for hours. The Catholic all-girls school Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus and the all-boys Saint Patrick’s school were across the road from each other, linked by a pedestrian overpass. The joke was that this bridge was responsible for bringing together the girls and boys, and was the place to meet after school to find dates.

The girls would take off the belt that cinched their royal blue uniform at the waist, their pinafore dresses billowing out to allow space for ice cream and slouching in their seats. It wasn’t a good look, but I supported the girls’ need for comfort. The boys would yank off their ties and snap open the top two buttons on their white shirts. They were only two or three years younger than I was, but I developed a slight superiority complex, having left the world of math homework and uniform inspections at the morning flag raising ceremony behind. It also helped that I was taller than most of them, and could literally look down on them as I handed them their ice cream with a smile. The only problem was that they were free to leave, and I was bound to my spot behind that counter for several more hours.

When school started, and I wasn’t working as often, my friend Sylvia and I would occasionally sit in the shop and do our homework, and my manager Kelvin would supply us with scoop after scoop of ice cream. Our study breaks consisted of taking turns lazily careening around on Kelvin’s BMX bike in the carpark round back.

When I finally quit my job, I was getting paid a whopping fifteen cents more than when I had started.

***

My sixth job at twenty-three was at an ice cream shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I earned $9/hr plus tips, and countless pints of free ice cream. Toscanini’s has a decal on the floor to ceiling windowpane that proudly boasts “The World’s Best Ice Cream” as decided by the New York Times. Most people don’t mention this but the occasional self-assured guy moseys up to the counter, saying too loudly, “THE WORLD’S BEST, EH? This better BLOW MY MIND, RIGHT?” At first, I would nervously giggle and say, “I guess!” but I moved on to simply saying, “Sure.”

My favorite people that I worked with were Mike and Harry. They were brothers in their late twenties who lived together in Allston and always wore beanies when they were working. Their preferred vernacular involved phrases like “right on,” “sick,” and “totally dude.” I dubbed them the “beanie bros” and they always put the best surf and slacker rock on over the overhead speakers.

In December, my boss Gus still turned up to make ice cream in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts. He was a funny and gregarious man who has a legion of friends and admirers always asking if he’s in that day. It seems like he would do just as well being a politician, rather than being an ice cream maker. I would go into the back office, to tell Gus that someone was looking for him. “I just sat down! When will they stop?” he would exclaim, but then dutifully left his seat to come out and talk to his friend.

When I quit, I swore to myself that my ice-cream adventure was going to end there. It’s not the most difficult job ever, but you do get wrist aches, long lines even during the winter, and some difficult customers. It did teach me to remember that service staff deserve respect and kindness, even if they aren’t at their friendliest. I recommend any teenager or young adult to spend some time working at a café or coffee shop to experience what it is like from behind the counter.

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