We were promised cash. When you’re 16, $35 is a lot of money for 90 minutes on the job. My best friend Christine and I agreed: We’d make less behind the counter at the sandwich shop. This, a children’s birthday party venue in the wildly wealthy suburb of Westchester, New York, was to be our new office.
The parties themselves were pretty generic — there was a tea party, a pirate party, a princess party, a karaoke party, an animal party. In the beginning of our tenure there, a few other teens were employed to work parties. We called them “randoms” since they didn’t go to our high school, and Christine and I quickly edged all of them out to become the preferred employees. Every day, we dressed in required black pants (no jeans allowed, so we opted for the dressier kind our moms bought us for choir concerts) and scratchy oversized yellow polo shirts.
“You’re how old?” we’d shriek to the birthday child. If the party gods were in a good mood, the birthday child would be five. But the venue hosted birthdays for children ages one through 12. Ever successfully engage a dozen one-year-olds for an hour and a half? Didn’t think so. How about 12-year-olds who rightfully think they’re too old for baby parties? Exactly. But five was a sweet spot.
“Fifty?!” we’d shriek back. “No, five!” The kid would die laughing. The parents would give us, at best, a tight-lipped smile. More kids would arrive, we’d shriek at them some more, then we’d shriek at the parents, we’d shriek at each other, and then usually we’d shriek until the parents left either to get manicures next door or to drive their other kids to soccer practice. We would internally pray throughout this beginning party ritual that no parent would stay behind to sit at the tiny tea-party table. It was enough to look like a doofus in front of kids, but it was entirely different to have a room full of coiffed, rich, Westchesterian parents staring at us in pity for an hour and a half. Worse was when they’d stay and their shy child would, unsurprisingly, cling to them. We’d be blamed for being unable to get their kid to have fun at the party.
Those 90 minutes would be marked by various milestones. For the first 30 minutes, we’d play an on-theme game like walk-across-this-balance-beam-and-if-you-fall-this-stuffed-shark-is-going-to-eat-you (if it was an “under the sea” party) and sing some songs. Two-thirds of the way in, we’d do some sort of craft project (a mental image of a cardboard treasure chest with drippy glue and plastic gold coins is lodged in my brain where surely some other knowledge should be). In the final 40 minutes, we’d serve pizza: tiny congealed slices from the parlor a few miles away and delivered through the back door so parents paying an arm and a leg for this “experience” wouldn’t catch on to our mediocrity. We’d serve apple juice and ice cream cups. The parents would be responsible for bringing a cake or cupcakes, and we’d handle the serving. Then we’d take a group picture, hand out goody bags, and the party would be over.
If it was a more involved theme, the clown or the petting zoo guy — who we all knew was divorcing his wife — would be there to entertain. We’d just have to cajole the kids into thinking these people were cool. If the party was for a baby, our lives truly sucked. You can’t play games with babies. You can’t sing songs with babies. You can’t do crafts with babies. And so the dads would flirt with us while the moms looked annoyed, holding their crying, disinterested kids, and Christine and I would desperately try anything to make the time pass. Word of advice: Never spend more than $20 on your one-year-old’s birthday party. These parents were spending close to $1,200, and more often than not, the birthday child slept the entire time.
By the time we got to the pizza, Christine and I would know the party was almost done, which was thrilling enough to surge us through the last 25 minutes while hoping to hit a home run on the tip. We’d be in the back room wearing surgical gloves and quickly divvying up the pies into slices, betting on whether the parents would give us more money. Gratuity was included in the bill for the entire party, but sometimes nice parents would slip us an extra $20 to split. The nicest parents gave us each $20, but that didn’t happen often. We’d give out a last hoorah, beaming at the parents and gleefully shrieking “Sprinkles or whipped cream?” to children trying to grab ice cream off our plastic trays with their sticky fingers. “Your kids are so cute!” we’d shriek. So much shrieking, always.
The summer before our senior year in high school, Christine and I decided we were going to dedicate the entire eight weeks to the party hustle. We called our boss. “Any party, we want it. We’ll do multiple parties a day.” We’d get there on Saturdays at 8:30 a.m. and work the 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m., and 5 p.m. parties. We’d conserve energy during the first party, leave it all on the floor for 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., and have to summon the strength to carry on for the 5 p.m. We’d run to the back room between parties to shove pizza down our throats and chug juice from nearly finished bottles like junkies fiending for their next fix. During the more elaborately catered soirees (some parents ordered a tray of wrap sandwiches for adults), we’d swipe food as we packed up their to-go boxes, swallowing huge bites of ham and cheese and washing them down with Mott’s. We’d have to bring backup polo shirts in case we stained the ones we wore with cake icing or glitter or a child’s snot.
In between parties, we were tasked with cleaning the venue. There was a magnet board where we’d spell out “Happy Birthday, NAME” for the kid of the hour. One time we forgot to swap out the board, and Sophie’s birthday had been in full swing for 45 minutes before her mom saw that the sign said “Happy Birthday, Jasper!” We did not get an extra tip that day.
It was a time before Fitbits, but I would guess we walked a collective six miles per four-party day. I remember getting into my 2001 Toyota Camry sore and tired. I am nearly positive I contracted mono after working an over-the-top princess party for a nine-year-old who had supposedly rallied after being home sick from school for the week prior. I used to hide a bottle of Advil in the closet where the crafts and paper plates lived. I worked in snowstorms and hurricanes and 100-degree Sundays.
But when each party was over, we’d get about $20 in cash on the spot in addition to our paychecks of $10 per hour and any extra tip the parents left behind for us. When we started breaking our backs, we were making about $300 a week, all-in. Our friends were starting to get wind of our wealth and wanted to know how they could score a job hosting at this place.
“It’s not easy,” we’d tell them. Some didn’t believe us and would attempt a trial party gig, but they never returned. Christine and I continued to thrive. It’s been about 15 years since we last clocked in, but I saw Christine recently and asked her if the venue was still open.
“It’s been closed for years,” she told me. We reminisced about memorable parties, like the eight-year-old who went off-menu and requested a referee-themed birthday, forcing Christine and I to brush up on our nonexistent sports knowledge. Basic math tells us that birthday child is in his early 20s now. You know what they say—the 90-minute birthday parties are long, but the years are short. I haven’t had Mott’s apple juice since. It belongs in the back room of my teenage years with the yellow polo shirt stained with pizza grease and cake.