My niece entered the workforce in mid-summer. Not permanently. She didn't land a full-time job with benefits. She was hired on at Kennywood Park, which in this job market is about the same as landing a full-time job with benefits.
She is the third generation of my family to join the ranks of those working in the World's Greatest Amusement Park.
My parents met in Kennywood. My dad managed the Richardson's Root Beer stand and my mother made funnel cakes at Star (the food stand by the Logjammer). I worked at that one as well, along with a few other stands.
Those who work in the park come to know that all the stands have names. "Nugget" serves the dip cones. "Soda Fountain" serves burgers. Of course, everyone knows "Patch" serves the fries.
Another thing you gain by being an employee of the park, besides a nice summer paycheck, are stories. My mother told my niece one of her best the night we first heard about the new job.
At the end of the night, any food that is made in a stand that isn't sold has to be counted for the purpose of inventory. One night, a few hot dogs were unsold at "Tower," the stand across from the Lagoon stage. One of her co-workers took one of the unsold hotdogs and placed it back on the grill (crazy kids). For three days, it was cooked, over and over, until one day, an employee working the counter unwittingly sold the wrinkly, tired frank to a customer who then proceeded to turn around, walk away from the stand and collapse.
The young cook then proceeded to untie his apron string and back slowly, ever so slowly, out of the back door of the stand, figuring his life in the service industry was now over. It turned out the man was OK, and his collapse was not weenie-related. Still, the story remains a good icebreaker at cocktail parties some 60 years later.
Not only did my parents meet at Kennywood, but I also was engaged to my first fiance at the park on the Thunderbolt (at the top of the biggest dip), the proposal indicative of the entire relationship.
I loved Kennywood, but not on my first day of work there.
It was Italian Day. I sold little juice drinks out of a cart in front of the Merry-Go-Round. In addition to remembering the melody to "Georgie Girl" note for note, I recall that no one came to give me a break to use the restroom and my hands were in ice ... for 10 hours. I got home and threatened to quit, but I didn't.
I ended up working with people I still talk to today. I was in the wedding party of one of my co-workers. In Kennywood, I learned how to enjoy the early shift. I loved coming into the park when it was unoccupied, watching the gardeners water the plants, seeing everything shined up and waiting for the kids to get there.
I learned how to deal with irate customers (yes, some people can be nasty even on a beautiful day in Kennywood), mean parents and crying children by putting a smile on my face and doing my best (a talent that stood me in good stead in the classrooms where I taught and in the hospital where I am now employed).
Another thing I learned was that your reputation matters. If you were a responsible, reliable worker, the park would hire you back summer after summer, thus freeing you from having to look for a new job every June. I worked there for four summers.
Once you work at Kennywood, the park never really leaves you. Every former employee has something to tell. I can still sing the "Nighty Night" song word for word. I still love when the lights first come on, illuminating the summer dusk. I still look at the faces of the tired, uniformed teenagers walking out after their shift, glad their work day is over. I think to myself that their work life is just beginning.
So, to my niece, I wish nothing but the best as she starts on the long path to adulthood. Follow the Kennywood arrow, sweetie ... your future (and maybe a future spouse) awaits.
Elizabeth Bujdos, a former high school English teacher, works in guest relations at UPMC East.