March 16, 2014

Dairy Queen Days

On our way out of Fargo today, Sam and I took the kids to a very special restaurant:

I worked here for four summers, one school year, and a couple of winter breaks during high school and college. I will always think of it as my Dairy Queen.

I began working there shortly after my 16th birthday. I was not a naturally gifted employee. I was clumsy, messy, and unfamiliar with basic tasks like mopping and washing dishes. Dairy Queen taught me what my kind, indulgent parents hadn't. 

My training included coming into the store early in the morning, ringing up fake purchases on the cash register and practicing my sundae and cone creation technique. With continued effort, and many mishaps, I eventually learned to make perfectly shaped balls and curls. 

We had a poster similar to this one hanging in our store. I relentlessly compared my cones and sundaes to these, even though they were obviously plastic models (if you looked closely, you could see the seams). 

Before it was called "Grill and Chill," my store was a "Brazier," which was DQ lingo for a store that served a full fast-food menu and stayed open year-round, unlike those wimpy Dilly Bar stands that folded before the first snowfall. This meant that, along with my soft serve education, I learned how to cook burgers, fries, and onion rings. I mixed up 20-gallon buckets of barbecue sauce and I felt powerful wielding a tartar sauce gun.

My favorite job was cake decorating. I got to hole up in the basement, listen to my R.E.M. and Pink Floyd CDs, and trace patterns on blank cakes using an overhead projector and tubes of sugary, colored gel. I was pleased to see that my DQ still sells gel cakes, instead of the pre-printed designs I've seen at other stores. I like to think that cake decorating is a form of artistic expression for another teenager trying to figure out his or her place in the world, one stranger's birthday at a time.

I enjoyed feeling like my job was making people happy. Customers came into the store wanting a treat, and I provided it to them with a smile. It was a pretty good gig.

But the best part of the job, by far, was the people. When I was the awkward, mostly inept 16-year-old, I found kind and patient managers who were willing to train me. When I left for college, they reassured me that my red-and-white striped shirt and my foam visor would be waiting for me the following summer.

Each time I returned, I was a little more confident and had an easier time making and sustaining friendships with my coworkers. I learned something that has been reinforced throughout my career: Whom you're working with often matters more than what you're working on; surround yourself with good, fun people who allow you to be yourself, and you'll be happy.

My final DQ summer, when I was 19, I was promoted to shift supervisor. I was competent at my job and even reasonably popular with my coworkers. There were inside jokes, late-night outings after closing, and a road trip or two. I wrote a poem on a coworker's cigarette pack to impress him, and it actually worked. We dated for a couple of months before realizing such things can't last. It was a teen movie summer: young people behave improbably, friendships forge quickly, there are blurry and loud party scenes, couples pair off, and everyone gets melancholy as fall approaches because they know it can never be like this again.

Today, I walked into Dairy Queen as a customer, as a mom, looking wistfully across the counter at a place that I so clearly remember occupying.

Parts of the store have been remodeled since I worked there, but familiar pieces remain. The soft serve machines and ice cream cone racks appear to be unchanged. If you let me back there, I could make a picture-perfect Peanut Buster Parfait, right down to the curl. I'd be baffled by the new menu items, like quesadillas and grilled sandwiches, but the soul of DQ was always in the treats anyway.

Evie ordered a Mint Oreo Blizzard, which happened to be the first thing I ate after she was born. She enjoyed knowing that her dessert had a notable family history.

I asked the teenaged cashier who the longest-tenured employee was at the store, on the off chance it might be someone I knew.

"There's one lady who has been here 17 years!" she said, with appropriate incredulity. It wasn't anybody I knew.

I realized, then, that it has been 17 years since I surrendered my fudge-streaked apron. Most of the current employees hadn't yet been born.

And then I felt very, very old.

Thankfully, all it takes is a bite of a Blizzard to take me back. Although I'm not sure about these newfangled flavors... Perhaps I'll go write to corporate and ask them to bring back Reeses Pieces.

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