The Soda Jerk Apprentice
by Gordon Hesse
Probably most of us have had a summer job that sticks out more than another: either because it was great or something far worse.
Although I’d had summer jobs at the Jersey Shore since I was 8, it wasn’t until I was 15 when the job really required much more than showing up.
One summer I’d picked up liter at the Hob Nob, a genuine tray-on-the-car-door burger and fries drive-in.
Then it had been selling papers at a newsstand, back when there were 15 daily papers covering NY, NJ and the county.
I also worked at Flo’s Drive-in & Bat’em out, retrieving baseballs from the mosquito-infested wetlands behind the three-story nets and loading pitching machines. I also got free time in the batting cages, though it didn’t seem to improve my Little League batting that much, though I did get to be a better switch-hitter.
Finally I got my big break—literally. I worked a bike ride away at the Treasure Chest Gift Shop, on the Seaside Heights Boardwalk and broke half the ceramic merchandise on the shelves. I was at that awkward age when my body grew ahead of my ability to work it. I felt like I put on big floppy clown shoes every morning and wore catcher’s gloves whenever a customer would ask me to reach an item that had a sign that cautioned “If you break it you bought it.” Of course I’d knock down two adjacent Hummel figurines or delicate spun glass items. I spent much of the day in shame as the owners, two older partners named Granger and Kling, ate the losses that must have been in the hundreds of dollars.
Whenever they’d decide I’d done enough damage, they’d have me go to the basement and run labels off a handcranked machine. How much damage could I do there? I’d get the prices wrong, or put the wrong storage zone number on and then they couldn’t find stuff to be restocked. I can still hear Granger’s voice pleading with me: “Gordon, will you please JUST THINK!”
It really wasn’t so bad. Just when he’d seared my ears, they’d balance things out by inviting me to have a lunch of cream cheese and olive sandwiches at their apartment above the shop.
Midway through the summer, though, I got a job offer to work at Scott’s Sweet Shop as a counter attendant and “pearl diver” (slang for a dishwasher). I’d work walking distance from home, get to learn how to make ice cream floats, milkshakes and sundaes; listen to the jukebox and work with pretty waitresses, namely Mrs. Scott’s daughters: Anna Jean and Sandy.
Mrs. Scott was about 5’4” and had a curly ball of hair and chain-smoked when she wasn’t working the grill. She was kind and,
whereas Granger and Kling seemed to view me as an aberration, she perceived me as anendearing klutz. And I wasn’t about to disappoint her.
Annajean was sharp older daughter: With total confidence she could take orders for a table of 12 without writing anything down. She got BIG tips.
Sandy, on the other hand was more dower and closer to my age, but still fun to kid around with. After three days I had learned where the food supplies were kept, how to clean the grill and floors at closing, and even take a few orders at the counter. And, under the tutelage of Mark French, I was shown how to make ice cream desserts, graduating from simple cones, to milk shakes and malts to sundaes.
Now Mel was a bit priggish and was hopped up to go in the military. He was my first exposure to the Officer Candidate structure and he applied it to functions within Scott’s. He made it clear he was always in control and I should perk up my ears like a dog every time he gave an instruction.
Finally, when I graduated to making sundaes, I was about to reach the pinnacle of being a soda jerk. I would learn how to make an ice cream masterpiece: the Banana Fudge Royale.
I watched attentively as Mel set the fluted glass pedestal sundae dish where the ice cream would be dished out. Then with the care of a surgeon, he carefully peeled the banana, then performed longitudinal slices which he set in the flutes of the dish. Then he scooped out the ice cream flavors—I think we had four, so there was a good chance it involved vanilla and chocolate—then with a dramatic flourish of the thin long-handled ladle, poured a dollop of the hot fudge over the ice cream. He was in showman mode as everyone’s attention was drawn to his instruction of the ignorant apprentice. Finally, it was time for the whip cream and a cherry for visual punctuation.
He reached for the canister of whipped cream, but when he pressed the nozzle, it sputtered a CO2 fart, a few globby drops of cream and no more.
This was industrial strength whipped crèam, by the way. It came in a drab grey canister with metal rings around the top and bottom. It accepted different types of black nozzles that were moved to new containers when the old canisters were spent and recycled.
Rather masterly, Mel said, “Get another whip cream out of the walk in refrigerator.” He didn’t say please
Dutifully I walked the length of the counter to the backroom area and retrieved a canister from the walk-in refrigerator. As I had seen before, I shook the canister.
“You’re supposed to shake them, right?” I asked before I handed it to him.
Then I backed away to observe his final flourish.
When he hit the nozzle it made a weird sound“Kweeeeeshhhhhhh” and spewed whip cream in all directions, coating Mel, and leaving an impression on the wall that looked like Wiley Coyote from a Road Runner cartoon.
Of course I had been behind Mel, so I didn’t get any on me.
The diners at the counter broke into a roar of laughter.
The laughing outburst had barely begun to subside when it was renewed in a second wave when Mel turned around to reach for a towel, revealing a face and chest coated with the splatter.
It was the best day of my life!
© 2017 Gordon Hesse
© Jonathan Brown Photography