The Essential Life Lessons of the Dairy Queen Sisterhood

by Melanie LaForce

I remember my childhood summers in three separate periods: the failed swimming lessons (ages 8–10), the Harriet the Spy tape-recorder years (age 11–12), and the era of Dairy Queen (ages 15–20). The DQ I worked at was idyllic. We sold only ice cream, so we never had to deal with fryers or meat, and for most of those summers only girls worked there: this provided critical opportunities for discussing breasts, scrunchies, and sexual intercourse, a subject about which I knew nothing for a long time. Dense with life lessons, my DQ summers taught me everything. Here are a few things that have stuck with me.

1. A smile doesn’t mean no one spat in your Blizzard.

We were good girls, and under the watchful eye of our manager Rick, we would never dream of tainting ice cream. However, sometimes Rick stepped out to buy bananas and we found the occasional justified vengeance ready to be served cold. I remember one unsuspecting girl who had hooked up with the ex of one of my esteemed colleagues: she came through the drive-thru on one such unattended evening. I don’t remember how we pinpointed her identity way back in the drive-thru lane, but by the time she got to the window, her Reese’s Cup Blizzard had a substantial amount of adolescent saliva added to it. The girls handed it to her, smiling. I was like, damn. Remind me not to blow Kelli’s ex.

2. You can always do better, masturbation-wise.

Jeni, one of my favorite coworkers over the years, was about 5 years older than most of us and so committed to the DQ life that she continued to take a weekly shift each summer even after securing her master’s degree. Jeni was the first woman I had ever met who openly talked about masturbating. We younger girls would sit on the stainless steel counter in our red polos, a wide-eyed captive audience as Jeni flipped her long blonde hair over her shoulder and drawled, “I loooove masturbating.” This was the 90s, and Midwest teens were far more repressed in the art of self-love than they are today; we did it but would never, ever have admitted to it. It was from Jeni that I learned about vibrators, thank god, because I had been masturbating unsuccessfully with a Conair curling iron for about 2 years.

3. It’s not stealing if you eat it.

Again, we were good girls. Rick was no dummy. He hired the honor roll geeks, the captains of the softball team, the colorguard team. However, if you put five teen girls in a room full of candy, they’re going to eat the candy. We all felt our snacks were fair additions to our minimum wage of $4.25/hr, and anyway there were buckets of Reese’s, brownie chunks, M&Ms. There were four taps that dispensed ice milk! (We didn’t think too much about why DQ’s product couldn’t legally be called “ice cream.”) It was the dream job for any pubescent mammal, hormones raging so hard that we never seemed to gain weight despite taking in probably 5,000 calories of refined sugar alone each shift.

When Rick would leave (I realize now that he made a suspicious amount of banana runs), we would put together a mini-version of our favorite snack. Mine was compact strawberry shortcake: I placed the cake-like substance at the bottom of a waxed cup, added a small amount of vanilla ice milk, some strawberries in syrup and mounds of whipped cream. My other favorite was chunks of brownie mixed with cold fudge. The cold fudge, used for Blizzards, was far richer than the hot fudge. The only thing we never ate was the coconut, because we all thought it smelled distinctly like ass.

4. Getting dirty means you did it right.

Working at the DQ was manual labor, and it was filthy. Sweetly filthy. By the end of each nightly shift, our bare arms and legs (because we were still allowed to wear shorts and sandals in food service in 1995) would be be covered with the sticky film of a hundred milkshakes. On busy nights, we used the ice milk taps with such frequency that the product often didn’t have time to freeze completely. Room-temperature ice milk would splatter across the room and leave our hair crunchy to touch. For me, being short created another hazard. I stood on tiptoes to refill the cherry syrup and would often lose control of the big jug, sending a cherry river cascading toward my abdomen, which always stained.

Electrical hazards abounded as well. Several times, when wiping down the hot fudge warmer with a wet rag, I’d feel an electric jolt. Even though the apparatus was supposed to be grounded, I finally had learn to just unplug the damn thing, or to not be an idiot and wipe down electronics with a wet rag. But I was always proud to wear my gooey DQ outfit out to after-work parties (meeting my other nerdy friends at the late-night coffee shop). The waxy cone-dip smeared across my forearms was a badge of honor, a symbol of hard summer work.

My learning experience at DQ has far surpassed any formalized education experience I have had. I’m still friends with several of my former DQ coworkers, and how could I not be? We cried together to Bryan Adams songs, looked the other way when one of us gave the cute boy a free Peanut Buster Parfait, and share the bragging rights of having made thousands of perfect ice milk twirls at the top of a waffle cone. When I learn that an adult friend was also a DQ employee, I feel a strong affinity toward her (and it’s always her). I know we share a similar coming-of-age. I know we are sisters of the DQ.

Photo via Gerald Stolk/Flickr

Melanie is a writer and researcher living in Logan Square, Chicago, IL who tweets @rileycoyote.