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The Girls

I woke up at five that Saturday morning. I showered and ironed my uniform. Got dressed. Put my hair up. Attached my gray nametag to my vest and thought about the blue one that would come in the mail after my 18th birthday, the one that would mean I was an adult. I looked forward to longer hours, shorter breaks, and being taken more seriously as an employee.

I snuck down the stairs and tried not to wake my mom up. She woke up, as she always did, and offered me a ride. I told her it was early and she should go back to sleep. I liked the walk, even when it rained. The day started sooner, and I watched the sun come up.

As it was, I clocked in at 7 and opened the store. My first responsibilities were to stock the shelves at the front with gum and to chat with Tom, the store manager, and ask him how his week had been. Tom was the one that hired me, as a cashier rather than a bagger. He complimented me on my work ethic and my willingness to come in on short notice. A traditional southern gentleman, he never let me or any of the girls collect carts in the parking lot and made the boys do the heavy lifting.

I liked my work. I took pride in it and wanted to do more of it. I thought being more efficient would get me more hours. On slow days I would memorize the look-up numbers of produce items and practice coding them in. I learned to bag a gallon of milk with one hand in a single motion. Some days I would drink four cups of coffee starting in the early morning to keep lines from forming at my register.

A month after my May birthday, I wasn’t getting more hours than when I was a minor, I still took two breaks on nine-hour days rather than one, and most importantly to me, I still hadn’t been upgraded to the blue nametag that meant I was an adult. I went to my supervisor Raul and politely reminded him to order my new nametag. He told me he had no idea I’d turned 18 and would order a new one the next chance he got.

Around that time, the store manager, Tom, stopped coming into work and there were rumors that he had resigned. I didn’t think much of it. Still trying to get more hours, I covered a friend’s shift the afternoon of July 4th, a typically busy day. Raul came to talk to me on my break and thanked me for taking the extra shift. He told me I looked good that day, better than normal, and asked me if I wanted to go out on a date. Out of surprise and respect for his title, I said okay.

The next day, he picked me up at my house. He drove fast and played loud music in the car. As a joke, he brought my new blue nametag with him to the date and congratulated me on my adulthood. After dinner, he wasn’t talking much, so I carried most of the conversation. He told me how much he hated his job. We talked about our coworkers, about who would be promoted and how much my other superiors made. I thought I should be getting home because I opened the store the next day, but he kept driving until one or two in the morning. He asked me if I thought this was going anywhere, and I said no in a way that I thought he couldn’t hold against me. He finally drove me to my neighborhood, but passed my house and took me to the park. He played on the playground like a kid while I sat on the swings. He said he knew I wasn’t attracted to him but that he would win me over with his personality. I could feel him manipulating me and decided it was better not to respond. He told me why our manager, Tom, didn’t work at the store anymore. He’d taken one of the young baggers to his apartment and Internal Affairs was conducting an investigation of her attempted rape. I didn’t want to know that about Tom. I saw every conversation I’d had with him in a new context and realized I’d been naïve. I left Raul at the park and walked home.

The next day I opened the store. I drank six cups of coffee to stay awake, having been at the park with Raul until about 4:30. There was an empty space on the manager wall, next to Raul’s picture, where Tom’s face had been. The coffee didn’t react well with my stomach and I went home feeling jittery and nauseous.

I stayed in bed the rest of the day, falling in and out of sleep. I thought about the nature of my work at the store, and came to the conclusion that my morning conversations with Tom, in retrospect creepy and possibly predatory, were as much a part of my work as bagging groceries. Staying out all night with my supervisor was my job as much as stocking the shelves.

I’d thought too literally about my work at the store. Working harder would never get me the hours I wanted. I befriended Raul, and I came to him directly asking for more hours. It was no problem at all, he said. I could work every day of the week, he said. I told him that’s what I wanted. I told him my younger sister had applied to the store a few months back, and he should check on her application. He hired her within a week. Seeing my sister in the uniform for the first time, I was at once proud of her, worried for her, and proud of myself for getting her the job. She looked just like me, naïve and eager to work. I thought about my time at the store and wondered if she would have a similar experience, but I took the gray nametag she wore as a symbol of her innocence and consoled myself.

My “senior summer”, my father decided, was to be the time that I got my first job so that I’d have some spending money for college.  I toyed with the idea of getting a newspaper route before I realized that the romanticized, leisurely tossing of newspapers was no more and that I would have to wake up at two in the morning, drive to the warehouse, and then drive my route.  It was late June before I made any real progress; most of the applications I sent in did not solicit responses from my potential employers, which was very discouraging.  But I finally received a call about an interview at Chipotle, and at that point in time I probably would have worked anywhere.

That interview was fairly terrifying: it was a group interview, and so I felt like every time I said something the people following me would try to one-up me and say whatever they could to make me look like the worse candidate.  So I just resorted to a sort of pained, consistent smile in the hopes that a positive attitude would go further than boasting.  I guess it did, because I got an email a couple days later with an excessive amount of electronic paperwork attached to it.  And then it was July and I was starting my first day of work, garbed in my black Chipotle t-shirt and hat (one of each) that were washed a less than desirable amount because I had to wear them every day that I worked.  I started off doing dishes, assumedly because that was a universally known sort of task (even though I struggled with it at first).  Soon, I moved on to pressing tortillas, loading up burritos and bowls, and wrapping and packaging tacos, burritos, and anything else that customers felt was necessary to consume.

There wasn’t much to complain about; my boss was an outwardly happy twenty-three year old with two kids who liked to sing show tunes but also wrestled and played football in high school, which made it very easy for all of us to relate to him in one way or another.  I loved opening the store – preparing the ingredients and stocking everything up while music blasted from the back and people talked about their nights and weekends and gossiped about coworkers who weren’t present.  I became a regular opener (starting at eight every morning that I worked), and got closer to the other openers.  There were two different basic types of people who were employed there: students and young people trying to support their families.  I don’t quite know how we got along so well, because there was definitely an unspoken gap between the privileged and those who were depending on their next paycheck to feed their children.  But it worked, and the dependency we all had to have on each other brought us closer together.  I worked the line, and so I had to communicate with the grill guy behind me about what we were going to need more of.  If I didn’t, we would accumulate a line of angry customers waiting for steak, and the grill guy would get mad at me because it looked like he wasn’t doing his job properly even though it was I who had messed up.  But as long as I made up for it, no relationships were ruined by those sorts of things.

I liked working, although some days eight hour shifts, or even nine, could be brutal.  There were inside jokes: when an attractive girl walked in, one of the guys in the front would yell, “Hard flour tacos!” (because no such thing existed) so the guys in the back would know and could come check her out.  And I’d make fun of them on occasion, when I thought they picked questionable girls or when they realized that someone wasn’t as pretty up close as they’d originally thought.  There were a lot of good days, but there were also days when people would come in with terrible stories about their lives; things happened that I couldn’t even fathom.  One day, my friend didn’t show up for work – my managers were very upset because we couldn’t open without him; he was the only grill guy for the day.  We ended up opening an hour late, and one of the managers had to drive to his house and pick him up.  Which, when I think back on it, showed how different this job was from others.  Most employers would never make the trip to someone’s house twenty minutes away so that they could make it to work, but this community was different.  Anyway, it turned out that my friend’s girlfriend had left him with his two kids while she went to the grocery store with the express purpose of preventing him from going to work.  So when the manager showed to pick him up, they both had to stay at the house until his girlfriend got back.  When they knew she was almost there, they left the kids in the house and came back to work (I wasn’t sure how I felt about that decision).  The phone rang almost immediately when my friend got to work; it was his girlfriend threatening to call CPS.  Then two more rings.  The police were trying to analyze the situation and find out whether my friend was to blame.

This was a world I’d never really been introduced to before; one with a completely different set of hardships then the sort I’d been exposed to all my life.  While I was trying to make a few hundred dollars to spend at college, others were trying to provide for their families, families they’d unintentionally started at young ages.  I think the most valuable thing I gained from working at Chipotle was an appreciation for the people who will spend their entire lives, for one reason or another, working somewhere that, while it was a positive environment, I could never have pictured as more than a summer job.

Liam will not get in the boat. I can see his eyes start to water and I know that if he cries it will sting because his face is chalky white with the oil-free sunscreen his mother slathered on him this morning when she dropped him off. By the end of the summer she will take off his training wheels and he will bike to sailing by himself. A few years from now, I will babysit him and he will refuse to eat his vegetables like any moody pre-teen. A few decades from now we’ll send our own children to sailing and they will babysit each other when we go out. As our laugh lines etch themselves into wrinkles and summer tans turn to sunspots, the weight of the age difference between us will lift and we will watch our grandchildren sneak beers and dance at the Clambake.

But right now Liam is a scared eight year old and I am his sixteen-year-old junior instructor and he will not get in the boat. This is my second summer as a sailing instructor. This year, Liam’s two front teeth have grown in and jut out over his trembling lip and I am finally free of my braces. I coax him into his Opti with promises to come out in the motorboat right away. I hold the boat as he clambers in. From the sand I helplessly yell, “Tiller towards trouble” as he nearly collides with the dock. “You’re doing great!” I shout, giving him the thumbs up as his blue eyes widen in panic.

This is my job. Get kids in boats. Encourage them. Tell them they’re doing a good job. Don’t let them cry too much. Don’t let them hit anything. Try to teach them the points of sail. Try to teach them how to rig. Make them de-rig. Try to teach them knots. When there is no wind, make up something to do. When there is too much wind, make up something to do. Don’t let Tom be too harsh. Never let them go home crying. Try to get them to come back tomorrow.

The head instructor, Tom, is a local. He is from Barnstable and he doesn’t get this place. He sees over-privileged people with their own beaches and he wonders why our ‘yacht club’ is a mouse infested shack and doesn’t understand that we like it better this way. He doesn’t know it but this will be his final summer working here. Next summer, he will be fired because the kids hated him and he will start working at the boatyard off-island while I do a fancy pre-college program in Boston to pad my resume. I won’t see him again.

The same happens with all the instructors we have had. Some get fired, some move on, and they remain only in scraps of memory and remnants of stories they leave behind. No one will forget me though. I am part of the fabric of this summer community. I love these children inherently. I do not like all of them. Some complain. Some misbehave.  Some are rude and some are whiny. I get paid minimum wage while my peers drink on the beach. While they stay up all night hot-boxing the lighthouse, I make my curfew because I have to wake up for work. I feel alienated from them; in their eyes I am too straight-edged, too naive. I tell myself that I have a purpose, I get a paycheck, and I will be more prepared for the real world. But sometimes that is hard to remember and I know that their wealth will eternally cushion them from reality. But when I walk into the beach club for lunch I know the name of every single child.

And they know me. In a few years it will not matter who is the best at beer pong and who made out with whose houseguest. Each of us will be adrift, taking on the world all by ourselves. We will return to the island and be happy to see these other people who saw us cry at sailing class. Liam and his friends will take over the lighthouse from us, just as we took it from his parents and ours.

Of course, my job was about logging hours, making my own money, learning patience and gritting my teeth in the face of discomfort and difficulty. But peeling back the external lessons of work, it gave me a direction; it made me feel valued and beloved by my community. I am connected in a way that work rarely makes one feel in our larger alienated society. Liam is getting to be a pretty good sailor; perhaps he’ll be an instructor one day too.

By the fifth time I had to climb up and down those three flights of stairs in my high school’s language building, I was pretty sweaty and pretty pissed. It made absolutely no sense to have the language media lab with the copy center and the main teacher offices at polar ends of the building. The air conditioning in the entire building had been broken since day one, coinciding perfectly with this summer’s annual heat wave. The white plaster walls in the classrooms were practically as sweaty as the bodies of the almost forty total students, who each day were forced to congregate as a whole group in the main classroom after lunch.

This past summer, I worked as an Assistant Instructor for a Chinese language program hosted by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) that ran a four-week session at my high school. Whenever I was asked in a conversation regarding what exactly I did as a teaching assistant, I always struggled to find a way to come up with a job description that would make sense to others while also accurately encapsulating the essence of the job. The first week, however, could pretty much be summed up simply by one word: paperwork. In the weeks preceding the program, each student was supposed to turn in approximately eight different forms concerning health issues, field trip permissions, and other official matters. It was my assigned task to contact all families and attempt to wrangle these various forms from them. Usually I communicated through email, and I always found it amusing when I received replies back that addressed me as “Ms. Agsten.” Little did the senders know that I was actually an 18-year-old intern and not one of the official Chinese teachers. (A parent even called me one night with a question because she thought I actually ran the program!) When the session finally began, the stack of papers I had to go through, organize, photocopy, and arrange in binders was enormous.

Based on the exorbitant amount of communication I had to do with the parents and students, I think “English Liaison” or “Parent Coordinator” would do justice to my role in the program. Then again, such titles wouldn’t cover the other odd jobs that I did throughout my time in the program. On a given day, my schedule was pretty much determined by what the head teacher needed to get done. It always astounded me how so many tasks could be crammed into one day. I always left work with tired feet, a few paper cuts, and a new appreciation for secretaries and Stairmaster champions alike. Some days would be filled with somewhat meaningless assignments, such as endless photocopying (hence the running up and down of the stairs) or computer database entry. Other days, I would have to create a PowerPoint about the Dunhuang caves to present to the students in preparation for a fieldtrip to Chinatown in New York City, or help run an afternoon cultural program involving kungfu or traditional Chinese dance.

For a full week, I even had to step in for the Level 4 teacher who decided to take an impromptu vacation. While that week was certainly more literal in terms of accurately acting as my job title suggested (an “Assistant Teacher”) I dreaded that week more than Paperwork Week. The kids in the class were fully aware that probably I knew less Chinese than some of the most advanced speakers, and thus they readily took advantage of that knowledge. To say that the class was out of control or wild isn’t necessarily how I would describe the situation, but I did overhear some of the kids discussing over lunch how my week “teaching” them was the most fun they had in the entire program.

In 2009, the summer before I entered high school, I participated in the program myself as a student. Four years later and a mere 28 days after I graduated, I was back on campus working on the teaching side of the program. It was a strange feeling standing at the board of my old Chinese classroom instead of sitting at a desk. Even stranger was seeing teachers again strolling around campus and interacting with them as an alumna of the school. Working for the Chinese program this summer acted as a transition period between high school and the next step in my educational career; it was like a full circle completing itself.

I grew up dividing the year into two seasons: sailing and non-sailing. Whenever the non-sailing time came around, you could be sure to find me scribbling madly on the corners of my agenda, a rushed sketch of an Opti visible after I drew my hand away from the paper. I would gaze out the window during class, staring at the trees wondering how it would feel to be sailing through the breeze instead of sitting in class listening to my teacher drone on. Any sight I caught of the ocean made my heart beat a little faster- I would strain to spot any familiar boats as we drove by wintery harbors in the car. It’s safe to say I was hooked on sailing by the age of ten.

When summer finally rolled around, I was in the zone. From 9-4 everyday I was sailing. My bleach blonde ponytail whipped through the salty air as I tried to eke every ounce of speed out of the seven foot nine inch bathtubs we sailed, fondly known as Optis. My sailing instructors were my idols. Bob, Emma, Annie, Charlotte, Doria, and Dave were the coolest human beings in my life. I knew I wanted to be just like them when I grew up. They were the epitome of summer: lounging in the Whalers, they blew their whistles and yelled themselves hoarse all day long. “Tiller towards trouble!” “Abigail!” “Avoid collisions at all costs!” “Abigail! I mean it!”

I was counting down the years until I could finally join their ranks. Fourteen was the magical age.

My first day of work marks the moment I knew I was old. Pauline the Junior Program Director handed me a white polo. I traced my finger over the embroidery, pausing on BHYC Junior Apprentice. This was the big leagues. I had finally made it.

The kids trickled in, running and screaming. I went to get my first cup of coffee. Why were all the kids so annoying this year? Everyone seemed so little, and I felt so old. Then I looked at my fellow instructors and felt tiny compared to them. They knew what they were doing and were so much older than me. Did they think I was just as tiny and annoying as the kids around me? Did I even deserve to be on the staff?

From that moment on I completely lost all the confidence and excitement that had been building inside me ever since I’d set my sights on working for the BHYC. I was afraid to talk to my fellow instructors even though I had acted nuts around them my entire life. The sudden change in authority made me feel as if I was pretending to be older than I was. I was still a crazy kid at heart, but felt afraid to say anything because I didn’t want the other instructors to think I was immature or trying to steal their authority. I was terrified of telling the kids what to do because I didn’t want to seem too bossy. It was a weird place to be stuck in; too old to be in the sailing program but too young to be on the same level as the confident, tan, cool instructors I wanted so badly to emulate.

As the summer wore on, I made friends with some of the kids and they started to like me. However, I could never convince myself that they respected me. It felt so strange to be on the other side of the whistle.

Three summers later, I now know that it is crucial to approach each summer with confidence. If the kids sense weakness on day one, there goes your chance of being taken seriously. My solution: get the kids laughing and on my side, then order them around. If they don’t behave, in the water they go. It’s simple, and now they think I am the cool scary instructor who will throw them in the ocean if they get too sassy. Dealing with these monsters has given me the confidence to take on anything!

Please take a close look at the six following conceptual art pieces by Hans Haacke. The blurb prefacing each piece usually explains a bit about the context and mechanics of the artwork. The text is tiny, so click on each text to zoom in. Some of these pieces involved viewer participation, so try to get a sense of what museum visitors were called upon to do if this was the case. Something to think about: Haacke is fascinated by institutions, networks, and corporations. What do these things have to do with art? What kinds of questions is Haacke asking about the place of art in a larger economy?

1. Nachrichten (1969-70)

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2. MOMA-Poll (1970)

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3. Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971 (1971)

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4. Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum Board of Trustees (1974)

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5. On Social Grease (1975)

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6. Mobilization (1975)

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