My First Job

My first job that was not babysitting was working concession stands at the Erie Zoo. I was 16, and happy to be setting my feet on the road to experience and independence.

First jobs — just like babysitting and lawn mowing — are as much about figuring out what one wants to do or not do as earning money. To date, I had had two babysitting gigs, one for a neighbor on my street and one for a friend of my parents. The biggest perk of babysitting was snack food and cable television (this was the ’80s after all). I for sure was not going to go into childcare or teaching (God bless the people who do).

two polar bear in a zoo environment growl at each other.
Photo by Briesha Bell on Unsplash

The summer that I was 16, though, my best friend and I decided to apply to the Erie Zoo. The job description included selling tickets (merry-go-round, park train) and concessions.

I quickly learned that over the long-term, I didn’t want to work in a zoo. I loved animals, and for a bit as a child, I thought I would go into veterinary medicine. Reading James Harriet disabused me of that idea. Once I started at the zoo, I also quickly eliminated food service and working with the public as long-term professional goals.

Concession stand work was hot and sticky. Because this was my first summer at the zoo, I was assigned to stands that didn’t have cooked food. The zoo had a “main” concession stand that provided burgers, fries, chicken and fish sandwiches, and other snacks, where smaller stands primarily doled out animal crackers, ice cream, and chips.

The zoo also had a carousel and a train that went around the park, and a mobile popcorn stand. First-timers could also work in those areas, selling tickets or popcorn. I never worked the carousel; it was a punishment for anyone who came in with a hangover, and, again, I was only 16 and not the kind of high-schooler that got invited to house parties. I don’t recall selling train tickets, either.

I was either put in the concession stand called The Bear’s Den, which was across from the bear environments, and directly across from the polar bears, or the popcorn cart.

The zoo had three bear enclosures: grizzly, polar, and black, all in row. Families dutifully walked from one to the other. The Bear Den sold “bear food”, some kind of kibble that kids could toss into the enclosures and watch the bears try to catch. We put the kibble in a cake cone that also could be fed to the bears.

The summer I worked at the zoo, the female polar bear went into heat. Apparently, this was something that only happened every few years, because animal in captivity, and let me tell you: Nothing kills business like animals mating. More parents dragged their kids away from that enclosure than I could count.

A family would come walking from either the grizzly bear or black bear enclosure. One of the kids would point, and start to ask, “What are they doing?” and the parents would hastily whisk their kids along to the next animal. I remember observing to Nancy, the girl I was usually paired with in The Bear’s Den, that those parents were missing a great opportunity to teach their children about sex. (As a parent now, I have a little more empathy for the desire to avoid awkward topics in public.)

But as boring as the days in The Bear Den could be, at least there were snacks and shade. I dreaded being assigned to the popcorn cart. The popcorn cart was heavy and it was hot. My strategy was to find a sheltered spot to sell from, and try not to die of heatstroke. You weren’t supposed to stay in one place too long; the managers wanted you to roam around the zoo (hence the mobile part), but after a couple of weeks, I had a course mapped out. I knew the where the shade was, which saved me from sunburn at least. But that popcorn popper really cranked out the heat. I just drank water and prayed for my shift to be over soon.

Lessons Learned

Working at the zoo was a valuable experience in learning about my own limitations. I definitely did not want a career in the great outdoors, and food service sales certainly lacked appeal. Because the zoo was a non-profit, I only earned $2.10 an hour, which made me surmise that non-profit work was not highly profitable.

I returned to school that fall and decided to take typing classes in addition to my college preparatory academic work. After a summer at the zoo, a future desk job sounded delightful.

What was your first job?

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