Shonda Rhimes is the writer, executive producer, and creator of the record-breaking series Grey’s Anatomy, as well as its spinoff series Private Practice and the ground-breaking series Scandal, which after seven award-winning seasons, introduced audiences to the first black leading lady in a drama in thirty-seven years. In addition, Rhimes is executive producer of the ABC dramas How to Get Away with Murder and Station 19. In 2017, Rhimes shifted television’s business model when she left traditional network television in an unprecedented agreement to produce content exclusively for Netflix. Her numerous awards include a Golden Globe for Outstanding Television Drama; a Peabody Award; GLAAD Media Awards; numerous AFI Awards for Television Program of the Year; two Television Academy Honors; and lifetime achievement awards from the Directors Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America and the Producers Guild of America. In 2018, Rhimes was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame. Rhimes holds a BA from Dartmouth College and an MFA from the USC School of Cinema-Television. Rhimes grew up outside of Chicago and now resides in Los Angeles with her three daughters.
Rhimes wrote “My Summer of Scooping Ice Cream” in 2016 for a special issue of The New Yorker dedicated to stories of celebrities’ first jobs. In the essay, the hardest working woman in television describes her teenage stint in an ice-cream parlor and explores the origins of her lasting work ethic.
I was not a tall girl. At sixteen, I was barely five feet three inches. That did not work in my favor at the Baskin-Robbins in Park Forest, Illinois. In order to get the smooth, hard ice cream out of the tubs in the freezer, I had to open the glass display case and lean down inside.
Once my head was in, I used one arm to brace myself on the edge of the freezer while, with the other arm, I gathered enough strength to violently jam the metal scoop into the vat of ice cream. The violent jamming was important. If I didn’t do it just right, go at it with enough force, I could find myself skimming right over the ice cream’s surface. That was always an issue. When I had only one foot on the floor, barely balancing on my toes, that skim would send me flying forward, at which point self-preservation kicked in. I’d toss aside the scoop and — eyes closed, slightly sickened by what was to come — put out my hands to cushion the fall.
I always had a soft landing. One hand in the Cookies ’n Cream. One hand in the Rocky Road. Submerged in ice cream up to my elbows.
That’s the curse of the job — ice cream everywhere. My uniform’s pink-brown-and-white striped shirt was crisp, cheerful, but by the end of each shift it was gummy and streaked with chocolate and pistachio and sorbet and mint chip. The clear plastic gloves didn’t help. Ice cream ran up and down my arms; it slipped inside the gloves; it stuck in the crevices behind my knees. You have not fully lived on this earth until you have tried to wash Pink Bubblegum ice cream out of your cornrows.
I didn’t need the job. I was an honor student and a volunteer at the local hospital, and my parents worked quite hard to make sure that I was on the path to a good college. They pushed me to concentrate on school.
But there was this tiny denim miniskirt, with buttons up the front. It barely reached the bottom of my butt cheeks; a sudden wind would have made it a crime in several states. It. Was. Fierce. Tiny denim mini was beautiful. Tiny denim mini was everything to me.
One March day, my mother gave me forty dollars to buy clothes for a dance. I bought the skirt. When she insisted that it be returned, I — newly indoctrinated into the churches of Janet Jackson and Madonna — refused. My mother calmly informed me, in a tone that suggested I had five seconds before I would meet my Maker, that when I had my own job I could buy any clothes I wanted. Until then, she would decide what I wore and what I did not.
Wanting to live, I returned the denim mini. And then, wanting to win, I walked over to Baskin-Robbins and, with all my honor-student charm, talked the manager into giving me a job.
I would like to say that I didn’t do it for the denim mini. I would like to say that I did it for the freedom the denim mini represented. I would like to say that I did it for the power the denim-mini fight gave me. If pushed, I might say that I did it because I was dumb enough to think I knew more than my mother. The thing is, though, when you boil it down: I did it for the denim mini.
I let a miniskirt propel me into the workforce.
I went home to face my mother, defiant. She laughed. Then she told me that, now that I’d committed to a job, I wasn’t allowed to quit.
“You picked a hard row to hoe,” she said, and went back to her chess game.
The rows were tubs of ice cream. The hoe was that scoop. On my third day of work, I came home covered in Butter Pecan and announced to my mother that she could not make me keep working. My mother looked at me. She did not say a word. She did not have to. We both knew who would win this argument.
And so I spent my summer days with my head in a freezer, balancing on my toes, sticky as can be, trying not to fall into vat after vat. When I did it right, I got a nice thick ball of ice cream into my scoop. Then I would carefully edge my way out of the freezer and put the ball in a cup, in a cone, in a sugar cone, in a waffle cone, in a shake, in a frozen drink, a banana split, a sundae . . .
It was my first job. I felt gritty; I felt real. There were time sheets and shifts and a manager and a uniform. I got Employee of the Month. I smiled at strangers and said, “You have a nice day!” I pretended not to be clumsy around the hot public-school boys who came to taste different flavors and left without buying anything. And I got paid. Minimum wage plus a scoop on every shift.
I never bought the denim mini. Turns out that minimum wage doesn’t go all that far. I also never ate much ice cream after that. But I learned responsibility. I learned to keep my word. I learned, no matter how hard it is, to keep scooping until the job is done
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