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* 03 September 2008 - The True Cost of Higher Education *

The other day, I was working on my monthly budget. Pretty simple stuff, really.
Just figure out how much money is coming in, how much each monthly bill takes out,
and then see how much wiggle room is left over. Aside from the standard monthly
bills for things like electricity, I have a few loans in there that will,
theoretically, one day be paid off. These loans aren't so bad, I suppose, because
I enjoy the benefits of what the loans purchased every day. To simplify things,
those loans fall into two major categories: my home and my education.

The home part is a no-brainer. The mortgage and associated costs are just part of
having a home of your own. Anyone with real estate know-how will tell you that you
make most of your money in property when you buy, not when you sell. And we
certainly made out well when we bought. My sales woman was a little old lady that
probably ran out of retirement funds and then decided that she was either going to
have to sell houses or work at Walmart. I vaguely remember verbally berating this
woman until she knocked $10000 off of the cost of our house. Then I chewed on her
some more and got a bunch of extras thrown in free. Some aggressive loan payback
in the first two years of owning the place moves us six years ahead of schedule for
paying off the mortgage. All in all, it has worked out pretty well.

The education is a different story. I had a variety of student loans that I
consolidated a while back. My post-bac engineering studies, masters degree,
computer science doctoral studies, and business doctoral studies all came together
like Voltron to form a big, honkin' monthly payment that was due to Sallie Mae once
per month. Add in my wife's student loans on top of that and we're suddenly giving
the house a run for its money in the loan department.
But, it could have been much, much worse.

Back around sixth grade, I began working to put away money for college. In our
household, it wasn't a matter of IF you were going to college, it was a matter of
WHERE you were going. I started my first job at a small mom and pop tourist trap
on one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York. I would spend six to eight hours
standing in the parking lot, directing traffic, handing out brochures, answering
questions, and spouting out rehearsed lines about how we had hourly sightseeing
cruises on the lake. Once the hourly cruise went out, I had about 15 to 20 minutes
to haul butt down the main street in town, putting flyers under the windshield
wipers of out-of-town cars and refilling the supply of brochures in the brochure
racks of the various other mom and pop tourist traps around town.

After a summer and a half of that, I started moving on up. No longer was I going
to fry like an egg out in the parking lot! I was relocated into the snack bar to
begin my next phase in tourist services. On the downside, burning yourself on the
grill making burgers and accidentally freezing your hands to the metal
milkshake-maker cups wasn't a whole lot of fun. But it was air-conditioned and
didn't involve running around to tackle innocent tourists that made the mistake of
wandering too close to you and your stack of brochures.

I learned quite a few tricks from my position in the refreshment area. Burgers
cook approximately four times as fast if you squeeze the bejeezus out of them while
they cook. They end up tasting like cardboard after you do that, but eh... who
cares? When you have to make twenty burgers as quickly as possible, you get what
you get. I also learned that hot dogs burst into flame if you put them in the
microwave for about 10 minutes, the flatter ice cubes are a better choice when
betting on the ice cube grill races, and that heating a dime on the grill before
tossing it out of the window where tourists scoop them up never really stops being

After I did several years in the refreshment stand, I moved on to the Holy Grail...
the dinner cruise boat. Normally, you work out front, then move into the
refreshment stand, work out on the hourly cruise ship as a deck hand, and maybe do
a stint in the gift shop. Once you put in your time doing all of that, you had a
shot at working on the dinner cruise boat. Somehow or another, they needed another
person out on the boat, I had been working there for ages, and the new crew member
had to be a guy to round out the mostly-female crew.

Working on that boat had its ups and downs. It was a pretty routine deal, usually
consisting of three-hour cruises that included a four course meal that was chosen
by the patrons ahead of time. I was, in essence, a waiter. As least, that is how
it first appeared. I certainly acted like one most of the time. I was assigned a
group of tables, took drink orders, brought food, cleared dishes, made sure
everyone was doing OK, and did general waiter-like things.

This was the "normal" part of the job.

Being one of the guys onboard, I also handled some of the other tasks that our boss
deemed too dangerous for the female crew members. This involved hanging off the
side of the boat to open and close windows, wrangling drunks, trying to snag
mooring lines with a hook on the end of a long, long stick, carrying soda premix
tanks up from under the bar, and anything else that happened to come up.

Aside from the normal dinner cruises, we had a few extra cruises that happened
throughout the week. They repeated each week through the summer, so if you dodged
the bullet this week, you'd probably catch the bullet in the next one.

There was a cocktail cruise that was just awful. The biggest problem with it was
that it fell immediately after a dinner cruise. After spending four hours
preparing the boat and serving a crowd of people dinner, we only had 15 minutes to
clean the boat and get ready for the next crowd of people to roll in. After
spending hours working, the last thing you want to do is be energetic and happy to
drunks at one in the morning. And these people misbehaved. We'd typically get a
few types of groups in to these things.

There would be the husband and wife that would just enjoy a few drinks for the
evening. They usually weren't too bad. Some variants on this were the "just
married" couple, a dating couple, the one night stand in the making that had
started in a local bar prior to the cruise, and even the occasional 80-year old
couple that took the cruise decades ago. They usually were pretty quiet, weren't
too demanding, and generally pretty nice.

Then we'd get the "girls night out" crowd. After loading up on strawberry daquiris
and pina coladas, these divorced soccer moms were out for entertainment.
Unfortunately for me, the entertainment they were seeking was usually the male
staff of the boat. More than once I had to run the gauntlet of grasping hands as I
used my drink tray for cover. They'd corner me and ask me questions about whether
I knew of motels in town that rented rooms by the hour. They would spank me as I
passed by, stuff money down their bras and tell me to come get my tip, and hand me
napkins with phone numbers. For anyone who thinks that this sounds like a pretty
sweet deal, let me tell you here and now that these women were not in the least
attractive. They were more like the bags that an attractive women came in a few
decades prior. Gravel-like voices from chain smoking, frizzy permed hair created
through a lifetime of abuse, and missing teeth all around. My ninja senses of
posterior preservation were honed to the highest level as I swung my tiny drink
tray around to protect myself.

One time, I had this really squirrely-looking woman come up to me and grab my
shirt. She got about two inches from my face and said that she couldn't feel her
hands anymore. Then she promptly vomited on me and keeled over. Classy!
Turns out she had taken a bunch of motion-sickness pills and then drank like
prohibition was coming back. We had to radio to the sheriff to send out a boat,
and they were kind enough to send out a medical response craft to pick her up and
take her to shore. I was left to ponder why she had to have drunk so much red wine
when I was wearing a white uniform shirt. Oh well.

I also found out that your tips go down exponentially when compared to the amount
of vomit that you have on you. FYI.

I had to get this one woman down off of a table when she started dancing on it.
She kept trying to flash me by hiking up her skirt, and I was busy trying to avoid
having her crack her noggin' open by falling off the table. I managed to coax her
down, but I didn't get away from her before she gave my crotch a squeeze and
smeared lipstick all over the side of my face in a very uncoordinated attempt at
giving me some lovin'.

One time, this couple ordered a bottle of champagne on the cocktail cruise, which
was a bit odd. Most people that celebrate events with champagne are on the dinner
cruise, not the cocktail one. I was opening the bottle for them at their table,
and I was doing it by the book the way you should when opening any pressurized,
corked bottle: remove the basket on the top of the cork, grasp the cork in your
hand with a towel, and gently work the bottle back and forth until the cork comes
out with a little pop. This particular bottle had other plans, however, and that
cork decided to go for a cruise of its own. The whole towel leapt from my hand as
the cork rocketed out of the bottle, and it sailed out of the window into the lake
with a quiet *plunk*. It was a good thing that I remembered that we're always
supposed to point those things away from people when we open them. I've heard
stories of corks firing into the ceiling above the bar, and even champagne bottles
exploding at the neck. The two shocked diners just stared at the bottle as I set
it down on their table and gave an "eh, what are you going to do?" shrug and left.

The teen cruise was another weekly event that most of the staff hated. I didn't
mind it so much, myself. Instead of wearing slacks and ties and such, we were
allowed to wear khaki shorts and sneakers. About a dozen sheet pizzas were cut up
for the kids, and they got all of the soda that they wanted. I usually stayed
behind the bar, handing out pizza and soda all night. Behind the bar with me was
one of the DJs from the local radio station. While there were a few different DJs
that I worked with, they were all really nice guys that saw doing the teen cruise
as something akin to jury duty. They'd tell me about how much they detested kids,
but would cheerfully handle the song requests with the kids with a very nice
"sorry, no way in hell" response. Well, there was one DJ that didn't even go that
far. I watched him hand out responses like "maybe if you were 5 years older, hon",
"come back when your voice changes", and "go away before I kill you" to any song
requests that came in.

One of the reasons why everyone hated the teen cruise is because there were no
tips. You could usually clean up on tips during most of the other cruises, though.
Tips were split evenly among the staff onboard, so even if a tip went to the
waiter directly, he was obligated to cough it up at the end of the night. The
bartender, captain, first officer, and bow officer all got a cut, meaning that
almost one-third of the staff was soaking up tips, rather than generating them. I
worked as the bow officer a few times (one step above waiter, kind of a combination
bartender and crewman), so this policy wasn't so bad on those particular nights.
But overall, I got royally shafted. I usually cleaned up on tips, bringing in $60
to $100 per cruise, but would only leave with about $30 to $40.

The first officer, which is a combination of a host, bartender, crewman, and backup
captain, would usually assign the wait staff to their tables. He did this with
pure tip maximization in mind. Three balding European guys with gold chains? They
get the pretty blonde waitress. Older couple? They get the oldest guy that we
had. I usually got assigned one of three types of customers: packs of middle-aged
women, French-speaking tourists, and gay men. I used to speak fairly fluent
French, so having French tourists wasn't much of a shock. The middle-aged women
were given to me because I was one of the few wait staff that they would listen to
while wasted. I could also do a decent job of holding them off with my tray-fu
skills. The gay guys just tipped well for probably the same reasons the
middle-aged drunk women would listen to me.

The posterior-protecting drink tray was in full action many, many nights.

First thing in the morning each morning was cleaning duty. It took about two
hours, and it involved cleaning the bar, vacuuming and mopping floors, wiping down
tables, cleaning windows, and getting everything ship-shape for the next round of
cruises. May mercy be upon you if you had to clean up the morning after a cocktail
cruise. I've walked across the dance floor area and nearly lost a shoe to the
stickyness of the floor because of all of the drinks spilled on it the night

I have had the unpleasant experience of cleaning, working three cruises, cleaning
the next day, and then working two more cruises right after that. If nothing will
convince you to go to college, I ask you to ponder this particular experience. It
sure kept me focused.

We were scheduled in shifts of two for cleaning, so you could usually swap tasks
around until everyone was happy. I preferred to mop upstairs and do the bar, but
the windows were usually the dealbreaker. No one wanted to do those because it
involved hanging off the side of the boat while docked. That meant the waves were
slapping the hull, and the ship was swaying back and forth. I lost many a roll of
paper towels to the lake while on window duty. Luckily, I never fell in myself.

One morning, my cleaning partner came in royally hung over. He had been having
some girlfriend trouble the previous night, and had decided to make the most of the
occasion. The waves were a bit rough that morning, so the boat was really swaying
a decent amount. I could see him standing out on the dock staring at the boat with
a look of dread in his eye.

"Look, just vacuum downstairs and then take off," I told him. No need to make the
guy suffer. He nodded his agreement and then started drinking some orange juice
behind the bar to stave off his pounding headache. After chugging down some juice,
he went to work. I could see him stumbling back and forth, and he would
occasionally grab onto a chair to steady himself. Things were not well within, and
I could tell pretty clearly that he wasn't going to make it.

Maybe five minutes later, he looked like a man with a mission. And that mission
was to unload whatever was in his stomach. The bar was too far away, and the floor
where he was standing had carpet. He took about one second to size up the
situation before he hurled himself towards the nearest window. This one was going
to be a photo finish, and it was definitely not going to be a picture to hang up
in the living room. He whipped open the window and let 'er rip.

Out and out it came. Bright orange juice erupted from his body as he hung his head
out of the swaying window and prayed for his own death. I put down the mop for a
second as a heard him empty his stomach into the lake. I poked my head around the
pillar to see what was going on, and gingerly walked over to the window he was
using as a porthole. Fish began to circle his contribution to the ecosystem.

I took this opportunity to look out the window and see the hourly sight-seeing
cruise pull up to the dock. Thirty-some old people were just staring at us as the
never-ending fountain of orange juice continued to flow. These people were perhaps
twenty feet away from us, on the other side of the dock. The captain of the other
boat just looked at us, with mouth agape. I just shrugged and offered a sheepish
smile. Old women were pointing and gasping with horror, while the old guys were
generally chuckling and swapping stories of when they were drunk back in the day.

To his credit, my cleaning partner picked his head up, surveyed the situation, and
offered a raspy "please enjoy the giftshop, and thanks for sailing with us today"
before hanging his head back down. I pulled him back in and walked him over to the
bar, where he swished out his mouth and then left the boat to head home. In
addition to doing all of the cleaning myself, I also had to track down a hose to
wash the layer of used orange juice off of the side of the boat. Swell.

All of that work for all of those years... all that time spent working my way up
the foodchain to where I was making the big money on the dinner cruise boat. I
stashed away every dollar that I could to put towards college expenses. I sighed
as I watched all of that hard-earned money go towards $150 calculus textbooks and
living expenses.

I worked so hard for so long. Now, I sit in an office in the air conditioning. I
work on a computer all day, optimizing algorithms on embedded systems and running
database queries through profilers. After 40 hours of work each week, I head
home and relax. And I look at those student loan payments each month and think
"man, I got off easy!"

Stay in school. Don't be stupid about paying way too much for tuition and such,
but don't let the cost of tuition be a dealbreaker for you, either. Oh, and keep
your drink tray handy for defense.

And please don't drink the night before you have cleaning duty.

When this .plan was written: 2008-09-03 16:03:49
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