My sister got a job at Graeter’s before they hired me on. This was back when their Kenwood store was still in the old mall, on the end near Wilson’s Paints and Thriftway. The interior was a riot of pink and maroon and red, with high-backed faux red leather chairs and tiny round tables and displays of candy and cookies. There were mirrors on the walls (which I guess created the illusion that the long, narrow space was wider) and the counter ran down almost the entire right side; baked goods toward the front, soda fountain toward the back.
It took a little while to get the hang of things. If the scoops were too big, Ruth, the manager, would let you know. You figured out fast which blender had a tendency to get gummed up and go haywire, spewing milk and ice cream all over your face and apron. And when someone ordered a WEBN Sundae (three scoops of vanilla, bittersweet chocolate sauce, and marshmallow, if memory serves—mixed by hand until liquefied, and poured into a tall glass sundae dish), the others would point at the new guy (me). Nobody wanted to spend five minutes churning all that in a metal blender cup when the line was all the way down the counter and out into the mall. Which happened a lot.
I was between my first and second year of college during my first tour. Having spent the previous summer slaving in the hot sun at a greenhouse working for a preternaturally angry florist, dishing out ice cream in a nicely air-conditioned mall sounded just fine to me. The other kids were still in high school. We cracked wise and ruled the roost, though the “bakery ladies,” as we called them, kept us in line. Ruth was a stickler for the rules but sweet. Ailene was a model of efficiency. Erlene and Lynn and Weenie (who still works at the Kenwood store) were fun and I could usually make them laugh. Mary was always on the verge of quitting but stayed for years. And you didn’t want to get on Della’s bad side. “You got a problem?” she’d ask. It was a rhetorical question. “I got the solution,” she’d quickly answer, squinting hard. You could protest but it didn’t matter. Once you were on her list it was hard to get off of it. I’m probably still on it.
A year or so later, Graeter’s moved out of the mall and into a stand-alone store across the street, next to a Burger King. I came back and worked another summer. I loved it. Being a soda jerk still ranks as the best job I have ever had. It didn’t matter how long the line was or if a thunderstorm had knocked out the freezers and the ice cream was melted (which happened once). We had it and you, dear customers, wanted it. Badly. That is the power of ice cream.