Led Zeppelin Saved Me from the Cornell Dairy Bar

12 Jun

Led Zeppelin Saved Me from the Cornell Dairy Bar

I like to think that Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” pulled me through the summer of 1972. Music can do that sometimes. I believe that it was the top song that summer. It certainly was played by Ithaca, New York DJs the most of any during that time. I was working at that infernal Cornell Dairy Bar in between my freshman and sophomore years of college. It was my first real job outside of babysitting and I wanted to make a good impression. I have terrible manual dexterity and found myself constantly making mistakes on the cash register, which I would then try to make up on succeeding customers. The accounting office hated me. Not only was that a problem, but I also didn’t weigh the cheese appropriately. Apparently, I didn’t sight the scale correctly. I remember Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway” accompanying me as I reweighed some cheddar cheese on a scale in one of the back rooms. It was a very comforting song, which would cause me to imagine myself gracefully maneuvering a stairway up to heaven that was strewn with flowers, and became more and more surreal the higher it climbed. It took me completely away from my day-to-day-drudgery.

I was being introduced to the reality of the working world. Babysitting had its own reality—being sprayed by a little penis that I had forgotten to cover with a diaper, or discovering when attempting to graze through the kitchen that all the couple had for me to eat were baby pretzels. These were minor events, however. I usually enjoyed the kids I babysat for and managed to do a very good job of grazing my way through the average kitchen—I knew the way to take a handful of bugles and make sure that the level of the box was still the same, how to surreptitiously carve off a piece of ham from a hock in the fridge so that no one would notice my theft.

On the other hand, working in the Dairy Bar offered up an entirely different prospect in my life. It was becoming evident that I would have trouble with any kind of job that required quick movements of my hands—my difficulties working on a cash register were not far from my difficulties in typing class in high school. I was also discovering that jobs in the real world involved a fair amount of repetition, unlike babysitting, where if I were bored with a John Wayne western I could simply turn the TV off. I met my first black racist, a guy who refused to take change from my hand. The register did make change, but I preferred to hand the change over to the customer to give the experience a personal touch. Another cashier explained that he hated white people. For some reason it had never occurred to me that black people could be racists. He would make me set the change down on the counter, so he could pick it up.

At home I could smile and be polite and get positive results from my parents, but the same tactics didn’t work on the job with my superiors. Two of the girls were daughters of professors in food science; when they told dirty jokes and slacked off, no one said anything to them. We did have a lot of down time, but nowhere to sit, which was hard on the legs, and I figured they were bored. They would also conduct mock apologies, saying that they shouldn’t tell dirty jokes in front of me, because I was so “sweet.” I hated anyone calling me sweet. When I made mistakes I always heard about it—from “You wrapped the cheese wrong,” spoken by the manager, who was actually a pretty good guy, to “I could have done a better job conducting the inventory without walking in there,” from the head boss who had asked me to count the number of milk containers in the freezer. The one cashier I liked, Ellen from NYC, was very kind and a hard worker. She was an Animal Science major who desperately wanted to get into the Veterinary School, the hardest graduate department on campus in terms of acceptance rates. I never found out if she made it or not, but she definitely made up for some of the other people I had to put up with at the time.

Later that summer I received a letter from my cousin in Florida, telling me she had observed that “[I] took a dim view of life” when she had visited earlier in the summer, and that she thought my life would improve if I accepted Jesus Christ. The fact that I was already a Christian, albeit a suffering one, seemed not to make a difference to her. I’ve never understood why born again Christians feel it necessary to try to convert those of us who are already converted, but apparently I had made a bad enough impression that she felt so compelled. She, of course, had not been working like I was at the Dairy Bar and had no conception of how I felt. She was several years younger than I and had not had a serious job yet. But I know I came home complaining every night with my feet aching. That must have been what prompted her comment. I was encountering life “in the first degree.”

Dating that summer should have gone well; both of the guys I met were good-looking and seemed pleasant enough. Unfortunately, things were not to work out. The guy from the Dairy Bar was tall and dark-haired. I’m choosy in that I prefer men my height (5′ 6”) or taller. When we went out, he seemed like a good driver, at least he did at first, and the conversation went easily enough. However, when the talk became more serious, I found out that he’d had a bad accident when driving in the Catskills several years back. “Bill” was driving along, minding his own business, when some guy threw one of his children in front of his car. He had no time to stop, and hit the child, resulting in the child’s death. He was haunted by the accident and talked of it constantly through the first night I was with him. Although he was not to blame, he’d had to testify in the lawsuits that ensued and it had overtaken his life.

At nineteen, I had very little to draw on besides my grandmother’s death when it came to experience with grieving, and really had no idea what to say to him. I also suspected there might be more to the story, although he seemed genuine enough. I wondered just how good a driver he really was. He had a flat affect as well, which made me think that he might be disturbed in some way, but that could have simply come from shyness.

In addition, it seemed improbable that someone would throw a child into the road. That was before I knew the depths of degradation some people would go to. At the Midwestern college I attended there were a number of people, most of whom I met after freshman year, who were extremely unkind, and some who were even dangerous, including a Vietnam vet, who trained his gun sight on his fellow students as they walked across campus. I didn’t even bother reporting him, because he was a football player, and pretty much a mini-god on campus. I was also scared of him and didn’t want him to focus anymore attention on me after the one date I had with him.

I was looking for someone who I could spend a lifetime with and I was rigid enough to think that candidate should not be blue collar. I was naive—not only would I end up spending a long time with blue collar guys, but I would end up being a blue collar employee myself when I worked for sixteen years as a waitress. A white collar life was definitely what I saw in my future.

The second guy was a bearded Cornell student, much closer to my imagined boyfriend. We met at the Haunt, a teen hangout in downtown Ithaca. He acted very interested, but balked when my mother said I couldn’t go to his apartment. I should have overridden her, but thought I should respect the fact that I was living in her house, only to realize later that he was one in a series of missed opportunities. I only mention him because of that. At school, of course, I was on my own with many more opportunities to meet guys, but there were still those sheltering arms. In Ithaca I felt as though I were in a cloister.

I probably would have made a good groupie, except I had no money to get around to many concerts. The closest I came to being one was at an Alice Cooper after concert party in Cleveland where I was propositioned by Michael Bruce, one of Alice Cooper’s guitarists. Something made me turn him down and I was driven home by a cute and “safe”college student in Alice Cooper’s security detail. My grandfather made sure to tell my mother that my girlfriend and I came back to his house separately, and I heard about the incident for years afterward. The rock world did seem very exciting to me, but when I had my chance to investigate it, I turned it down. Lack of nerve, I guess. I was still pretty shy back then.

In summing up, the summer of 1972 remains a rather dismal memory in my mind and consists mainly of wrapping cheese in cellophane, especially cheddar, which New York is known for, weighing and reweighing it, and then stocking it on the shelves. The customers were usually friendly, although they did get a little confused when I tried to make up my previous mistakes on their receipts. The best part of New York being a dairy state was that my grandfather and uncle were dairy farmers, not that I had the opportunity to work in the Dairy Bar selling Cornell’s milk, cheese, and ice cream.

“Stairway to Heaven” made me feel hopeful that things could change in my life, and it still makes sense to me, even if the words no longer resonate for Robert Plant, who continues to resonate himself despite that fact, as does Jimmy Page. My favorite section of the song talks about the fact that one can always alter the course of one’s life.

3 Responses to “Led Zeppelin Saved Me from the Cornell Dairy Bar”

  1. vickeya June 12, 2013 at 5:47 pm #

    Interesting read. Definitely feels more complete than the first time I got to read it. Nice job!

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