[Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory]

[Garrett County Press]

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Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory
by Mickey Hess
2008
ISBN: 978-1891053078
$13.95

Excerpt from
Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory
by Mickey Hess

One

I started working as a Freezee Pops ice cream vendor during my first semester as a faculty member at Indiana University Southwest. I had spent all week working on arrangements to bring two Icelandic writers to campus: reserving plane tickets and hotel rooms, securing funding from departments and offices all over the school. I saw the Freezee Pops ad right after I met with the Vice Chancellor, and I called their number still in professional mode, asking for more details about the job.

"Man, if you don't know what driving an ice cream truck is, it's just cruisin' around, sellin' cones."

As simple as they made it sound, I would have to sit through two training videos before they handed over the keys to the ice cream van. One was all about safety concerns, and the other they called "Sales Techniques." A guy who supposedly founded the company sat down on his desk and told the camera, "Kids want to spend their money. If you see a child has more money, try to nudge him toward a more expensive item. Remember, kids want to spend their money. I can't stress that enough. If a child goes home with an extra dollar today, then that will be one less dollar his mother gives him the next time your truck comes by." He looked smugly into the camera, folded his hands in front of his knee, and nodded twice. It was an awkward pause. I wasn't sure if he was trying to let that last message sink in, or trying to think of what he wanted to talk about next.

Freezee Pops Ice Cream is located in the shittiest part of town, surrounded by strip clubs and adult bookstores. The only connection I can make is novelties. The other businesses on South 7th Street sell vibrators and anal beads and we sell Oreo Chip Burgers and Bubblegum Sno-cones. They have broken neon signs that look as bright in the daytime as they are probably ever going to look at night. So many bulbs are blown that I can't really make out the names of the places, but I think one is called IRLS IRLS GIR. That one might be the Swedish strip club.

Freezee Pops doesn't really have a sign at all besides "No Trespassing." Steven, the owner, explained to me that drivers for other ice cream companies would sometimes climb the fences to sabotage his trucks. "I know it sounds ridiculous," he said, and it did. The Freezee Pops headquarters reminds me of a fortified compound, the kind of place where cult members would live. It's very secure, and very selfsufficient. They have their own garage and mechanic on site, and an enormous freezer with enough ice cream to outlast a standoff with the federal government. Steven only opens the gates twice a day: in the morning to let the drivers get into their trucks, and at night so they can return them. When he shows up late, all the trucks line up outside the strip club across the highway.

Steven put on his glasses when I handed him my application, but he seemed to peer over the top of them as he read. "Let's see ... three years teaching at the University of Louisville, one semester at IU Southwest ... you know how to drive a stick-shift?"

***

Side jobs have been a necessity. Over the past three years I have taught every class I've been offered at pretty much every college or university in the Louisville, Kentucky area, but in the summer there aren't many opportunities. It's like trying to pick fruit in the off-season. Teaching in the summer hinges on how many students sign up for the class, so I don't know if I have a job or not until the morning the summer classes begin. I teach as adjunct faculty, as a part-time instructor, so even if my own class fills up, it can be taken over by a full-time professor if theirs doesn't. It's horrible. Fifteen minutes before I'm scheduled to teach, I can go from copying my syllabus to looking through the employment section of the student newspaper.

Teaching part-time you can have all the appearances of job respect. Outside work, people are impressed when you tell them what you do for a living. But on campus, you share a five-desk office with forty other people and get paid a flat, per class rate. No benefits, no health insurance, and around one-fifth of the salary a real professor would earn. It's the only professional position I can think of that works that way. You don't see any part-time hematologists or adjunct surgeons. You can't leave your doctor's office and see him two hours later making sandwiches at the place down the street. For the past three years, I've had to scramble for jobs, piece together all the classes I could find, and when there weren't any I worked as a waiter or a library assistant. I might teach until ten one night and be up at eight the next morning for my class at a completely different school. Sometimes I'd teach at three different universities in the same day. Any routine I settled into would be broken within fifteen weeks, when the semester ended. Part-time jobs in the summer were an extension of that. I ended my classes in April and two weeks later I was waiting tables at Acapulco Bar and Grill.

During the fall and spring I taught courses in college writing, but in the summer I learned how to pour tea from the side of the pitcher and convince people to try our Mexican Eggrolls. At the end of the night, I'd take all the cloth dinner napkins off the tables and replace them with blue paper napkins for lunch. Then I'd bring out the clean silverware and marry the condiments, which means pour all the nearempty bottles of ketchup or mustard into fuller bottles to make it look like we'd just bought them, and wipe them down so they didn't look as old and crusty as they really were. The restaurant had these little plastic connectors that went between bottles to make sure nothing was spilled. "Ketchup to ketchup or mustard to mustard," the manager told me. He had this joke he always made about mixed marriages. Acapulco was one of those upscale Tex-Mex bar and grill kinds of places. It wasn't a chain, but it was too fancy to offer you free chips and salsa. I could watch people as I handed them the menu and they realized it was pricier than they'd expected. They'd nod in sort of a slow acceptance, and then watch things very closely to make sure they got what they were paying for, or maybe hoping to catch a slip-up that would keep them from having to tip, or to pay for their meal in the first place. People might send back a margarita because of too much or not enough salt. "I wanted salt on the glass, not in the margarita," but the free meal situation didn't come up too often. The owner was pretty discouraging. The only time she actually told me to make the offer was when somebody found a thumbtack in her salad.

On breaks I worked on lesson plans, put together my syllabus for the fall semester. The other servers used to make jokes, warn me that some night my students were going to come into the restaurant and I'd have to card them and refill their Diet Pepsis. It wouldn't have happened, though. I never carded anybody. It just never occurred to me until it was too late, like when those prep school kids gave me the thumbs-up when I brought them a margarita. I got to know the rest of the servers and dishwashers pretty well. Most of them were college students, half of them studying to be teachers themselves, so we had no problem identifying with each other. The cooks, though, seemed a little mistrusting of me, like they weren't sure what I was doing there. They were nice enough, really. They just always made me feel like the new guy. I don't know, maybe they should have been a little suspicious of people. They were always buying pot out the back door of the kitchen from some kid who came by on a bicycle.

My job at Acapulco paid my rent through the summer, and sometimes actually exceeded what I got paid for teaching. So it was back and forth, restaurant kitchen to the English Department.

***

I grew up in times that taught me that it never pays to care about something, and that effort outside your personal artistic endeavors leads only to exploitation. Passion for starting a band, writing a zine, running your own record label -- all this was ok -- but caring about a job was in no way acceptable. Jobs were best tolerated, sat through with as little responsibility as possible. And a career? Just a job with more headaches.

I've been teaching at universities since I was 23, but teaching part-time has never felt like a true occupation. My friend Chad even pointed it out, how weird it was for one of us to have such a serious job as teaching college. But it was part-time, and it didn't have all the negative, soul-crushing aspects that usually come along with someone's first serious job. Beyond teaching, my only other obligation was office hours, which seemed unfair since I didn't have an office (seriously, at one school I didn't even have a mailbox, just the bottom half of a cardboard box with MICKEY written in magic marker). I did most of my work at home, all the lesson plans and research and responding to student papers. Chad, who knew even in seventh grade that he was going to medical school, used to make fun of me. He understood about jobs and success before I even started to think about it. Chad has known me longer than almost anyone has, and he pointed out how funny it is that I'm becoming such a professional, how strange to see me actually care so much about teaching, actually put so much time into it after I'd laughed at him for owning a planner. "I'm really impressed," he said, and I couldn't tell if he was being serious or sarcastic. The last time he'd said he was impressed with something was when I showed him this cool break dancing move it took me a whole year to figure out.

But there was some responsibility to it. I could feel it creeping in. Teaching felt different than working at Acapulco. I cared about what kind of job I did. I felt like I could be good at it, and with four schools within driving distance, I could piece together a decent living. One semester I bet another instructor to see who could teach the most classes at once, and at how many different places. I capped out at seven, across four different schools, but he did ten. Ten. It was insane.

Teaching so many classes, though, started to feel like a job. Between teaching and commuting, I don't necessarily have a lot of time left to be anything besides a college instructor. It's becoming a part of me, a big piece of who I am.

So how do I deal with this new responsibility? By driving an ice cream truck.

***

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