For my first summer job, I was recruited when I was 16 to pack fish for South Kitsap Bait Sales in the state of Washington, right off Puget Sound.
The other girls and I were approached because we had dexterous hands and nimble fingers due to the fact that we played piano. (I didn’t really play the piano; it was more like I took lessons at Mrs. Drake’s across town). The job paid $2.30 an hour and also by-the-piece, which was pretty good summer money in 1977.
For this job I stood at a table at the bottom of a big, metal chute through which fish of various sizes were shot down to me. I had to grab one and then quickly size the fish, which necessitated picking up the ones nearest to me and either arranging them neatly on a plastic foam tray or tossing them to whoever had that size and needed more fish (even though the stream of fish down the chute was fairly steady).
I usually got assigned the 6-inch fish, which, I felt, fit most neatly on the white trays. After the fish were sized and arranged in two rows of six on the trays, we wrapped them in plastic wrap then threw the whole package into a wheeled cart that someone dragged to the wall freezer.
This was a lot harder than it sounds, even with our extra dexterity. Most of the fish excreted something rather gooey upon dying, their scaly bodies were stiff and sometimes cut our fingers. We stood for eight hours (with two 10-minute breaks and a half-hour for lunch), and the whole operation smelled horrible.
The fish gills stuck to your coveralls, small fish that didn’t make the grade lounged on the ground at our feet, and everyone was wet from the splashes of the fish as they made their way down the chute. And the dead fish smell lingered, especially when it rained, which it did (and does) pretty much every day in western Washington.
I lasted 10 weeks at that job and only because of the other piano-playing girls. We had laughs, mostly at the expense of the dead fish, which we blamed for everything from bad grades to relationship troubles. Damn fish.
By the end of the summer, I had earned more than $400 (less FICA) and learned some valuable lessons from my time as a fish-bait packer.
First, I don’t like to play the piano or pack fish.
Second, just because you’re recruited for a job, that doesn’t mean it’s a good job. These things should be investigated.
And finally, I knew I would do anything and everything to never have a stinky, manual job like that again.
The vision of those dead fish shooting down at me would encourage and empower me whenever I was challenged and thought I couldn’t finish. This was especially true in college, on which I spent that $400 as an investment in my human capital and as insurance against any future fish-packing jobs.
As students across Long Island start to search for summer work this year, I would like them to know that no job is beneath them and every work experience can be positive if you earn some money, laugh with your co-workers, expand your skills and work steadily toward your future.
Summer jobs are just a beginning, a temporary place where you start your journey. And I definitely don’t regret that I packed fish for my first summer job.