I am grateful for my flexible and part time job as a grant writer at St. Vincent De Paul Middletown, but if were to take an honest assessment of my work resume, I couldn’t say it’s been my favorite job. Whether I am just being nostalgic or the place I am about to mention truly was the best place to pull a paycheck, I would have to put a gold star next to my run as a Dairy Queen counter girl, 1981 to 1983.
Of course, I was sixteen years old when I started, and back then I only needed money for my car insurance (and repairs), gas under a buck a gallon, concert tickets, and white Nike leathers with the black swoosh. I had scoped out working at the DQ even before I got my license on April 4th 1981.
Before the plastic was even dry, I raced over to the Middletown DQ and applied. Sure, I’d had other jobs babysitting since I was a kid, and I was employed to do office work at age 15 through a program called C.E.T.A. (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act that provided jobs to kids in low income families), but this was my first “real” and exciting job that I could drive to myself! No more begging rides to the excruciatingly boring UConn Extension Center (C.E.T.A. job) where I filed papers or recorded data from various state surveys! No more dollar-per-hour babysitting stints! I’d be making three and change at the DQ! The big time, baby!
I reported to work wearing chocolate fudge brown chinos and the red, white and yellow waffle-plaid DQ blouse with the hallowed DQ patch over my heart. I was a nervous and conscientious worker and asked tons of questions so I would do things right. I kept in constant motion filling lids and cup dispensers, swiping down the counters and topping off the sundae topping wells.
This impressed my bosses—all four of them. Ralphie and Madge* were the owners and had to be in their fifties. They may have been older, but who can tell when you are sixteen? They were old and to be feared. Their son Ralphie Jr. and his wife Sharon were also my bosses. Sharon was serious and hard-working, but friendly. She said I reminded her of how she started, when she married into the family. Ralphie Jr., was more of a laid back, being a son of a DQ dynasty. He seemed to operate at a slower speed as he flipped burgers at the brazier. Because we were closer in age, we talked about the Moody Blues and Led Zeppelin, groups not quite qualified as vintage rock, just yet.
I drew my first tube of DQ soft serve into a waiting, wafer cone, carefully turning it to create the iconic, signature curl. I did a fairly good job with a lot of praise from Sharon. Whew! There was a scale on the counter for newbies. Our first cones were subject to a weigh in. A small cone was supposed to be no more than three ounces, a medium five ounces, and a large seven. If a cone was grossly overweight, the bosses (except for Ralphie, Jr.) had us scrape the top half of the cone into a large cup and bring the base back to the machine to try for a more slender, business-savy size. The aborted top half of a cone would never be wasted, but made into a salable product for the next shake-ordering customer.
I learned fairly quickly how to make model cones. I prided myself on the DQ curl and would silently affirm myself with praise! Yes! Imagine my sheer elation when I could dip the entire enterprise upside down in the dip well! I developed expert timing and a deft flick of my wrist, and mystifying myself and customers, was able to right the Holy Grail of all DQ treats into its standing and upright position. I confess, there were times even in my later days of my DQ career when approaching the dip well with a virginal cone to coat that some freak fault of physics (a drop in the dew point or extra gravitational pull) caused the cold content to slide out with a perverse plop into the dip well!
Shoot! Before it all melted into a contaminated swirl, I’d use the stir paddle on the dip cover to quickly ladle the mess into a future shake cup. Often, especially when the bosses were out, we’d happily eat our mistakes. Thank God I had a sixteen year old metabolism or I’d have blown out the seams of my DQ pants and pop buttons off my blouse from the thousands of calories I ingest each shift.
I enjoyed working with kids my own age and encouraged my close high school friends to apply. They were coming in the nights I was working, anyway. We tended to do that as teenagers—flock to the places where friends worked on our days off, as we aimlessly drove around. Soon there was a small entourage of my Haddam-Killingworth high school friends working alongside Middletown co-workers-turned-friends. We had a blast especially on shifts when the bosses didn’t come in. We’d invent new sundaes to eat in the back and flirt with each other in-between rushes of customers.
At night we’d follow a militant-style list of breaking down the machines and cleaning every crevice of the joint. Madge and Ralphie, Sr. would inspect each morning and if the crew the night before didn’t do a dilly of job, there’d be hell to pay. A critical note, a DQ scarlet letter as it were, would be tacked next to the work schedule for all to see. My pals and I were seldom scolded because we feared the shame of our employers and really were hard workers. Those who didn’t care as much usually quit after a short stint.
The fact that we ate a lot of our “mistakes” and were otherwise unskilled laborers probably contributed to the fact that in the two and a half years I worked there, I think I got one three cent raise. The fall after I graduated and began attending college, I quit DQ because I lived on Southern Connecticut State U’s campus and worked in Hamden and New Haven in Fotomat booths. During summers at home, I didn’t go back to DQ. Our old crew had dispersed and I picked up a more lucrative job driving bundles of newspapers around in my little red Ford Fiesta. I had mornings off having to report to the newspaper dock at 2:30 p.m. and get my deliveries done in less than three hours. I made over $200 bucks a week and had Sundays off.
I’ve never found another job as fun and exciting as working at Dairy Queen though. Before the DQ was knocked down on Main Street extension, and a damned CVS was put in its place, I had the opportunity in the mid-nineties to go in behind the counter and make myself a cone…for old time’s sake. It was just like riding a bike, I tell ya! I could still form a perfect DQ curl!
Sometimes after a long day of searching for grants for the soup kitchen and food pantry I fantasize what it would be like to go back now and work at a DQ, in my mid-forties. I certainly wouldn’t have a fast metabolism on my side, but I bet I would still find it thrilling. I’d cheerfully take orders, make fabulous cones and sundaes, run a register, make change, clean the topping wells, take apart the soft-serve machine and clean and lube its oh-rings, sweep and wash the floors—all at minimum wage— for what, maybe a week?