A story in today's Wall Street Journal examines the intensifying competitiveness of the lifeguarding job market. Beach lifeguards in California make $20 an hour and barf during lifeguard training, which is like boot camp sort of, and instructors ask things like "Are your fun buckets full?" and no one answers. And while this has nothing to do with that, I'm going to tell you about the time I was a lifeguard, back in high school. The high school summer job, you see, is a moribund tradition, but back in Generation X dead-end minimum wage jobs were relatively easy to find and in middle-class suburbs it was expected you had one. What the fuck else were you going to do? (Catholics don't do camp.) And fuck if lifeguarding wasn't the best fucking job in the universe. You get paid to sit. And tan. And thus enjoy the rare opportunity that is looking good in a swimsuit. And occasionally clean things that aren't particularly dirty to begin with, because they've got chlorine bumping up against them all day. I started at $4.65 and worked my way up to $10 as a "pool operator."
Becoming a lifeguard involved no small amount of courage for me, as I was a really big dork, and lifeguards tend to be Abercrombie people, something I vaguely aspired to be, until I realized they thought Dave Matthews was really good. Becoming a pool operator also involved some sort of basic chemistry test, where I learned boys really do think you're stupid if you're blonde (lifeguarding involved becoming very blonde) and will be utterly shocked if you outperform them on a science test, even if they are incredibly incredibly dumb. (Boys never realize how dumb they actually are.)
Being a lifeguard involved a lot of swinging around a whistle and accidentally hurling it into people's eyes and such, and being stalked by kids in crappy condominium complexes off Route 1. No one liked to work those pools — they wanted big middle-class country clubs, with social lives and shit — but they paid better. So you'd periodically find yourself wheedled into a few shifts at, say, Meadow Woods — "Ghetto Woods," it had been so cleverly nicknamed — thrust into the disturbing position of keeping company to kids who clung to lifeguards with the sort of immediacy reserved to kids who know you will abandon them. As I grew bored of Dave Matthews, I grew fonder of those kids.
The summer job is supposed to instill in high schoolers a deep-seated sense of the imperative of a college eduction. Working minimum wage jobs is so taxing, the legend has it, that you'll never want to drop out having worked one. But a part of me — uh, probably the lobe that houses caffeine addiction — wanted to stay at my most taxing summer job, at a busy Starbucks, forever. It was enforced laziness that made me want to get out. And I am a fucking lazy person.
But laziness is a double-edged sword. I might have liked the The Iliad had I read it in a more controlled climate; I should have read more when my brain was not so damaged. Instead lifeguards taught me new ways to damage it, and I got my last tan and learned a little about how fucking depressing life is when you slow it down a few speeds.
Sink Or Swim [WSJ]