Season in the Sun
Cool treats, swimming pools and baseball — three stories of "summer jobs" in southwest New Mexico.
By Jeff Berg
For the most part, summer never ends in this part of New Mexico, except that the calendar says so. This year, the summer solstice was on June 20, which is the first "official" day of the season, even though the thermometer has indicated otherwise since around Easter. So between now and the autumn equinox on Sept. 22, a number of things take place that might be considered seasonal — including work that elsewhere might be thought of as "summer jobs."
Here's how the summer shapes up for a few folks and their summer-y jobs:
Tanya Lilly and Chris Smart, Hawaiian Shave Ice
I met Tanya Lilly and Chris Smart when they were in Mesilla for the annual Cinco de Mayo celebration this spring. An amiable pair, they run a small business called Hawaiian Shave Ice, which is based in Tucson, but makes frequent forays into New Mexico for various events.
Lilly and Smart met in Hawaii, where they were both attending college. Upon graduation, they moved to Tucson, where most of Smart's family lives.
Lilly says that she and Smart have just begun their fifth year in the shave-ice trade. "The idea was conceived by Chris' mother, and we all work it. We are not a franchise — just a family-owned and -operated business," she explains. "We don't have any permanent location, preferring instead to vend just at fairs, festivals and special events. We travel a good bit, particularly in the months of June and September, and that is one of the perks of the business. Right now we confine our roaming to Arizona and New Mexico, but in the future we hope to branch out further."
When not on the road, the couple has also taken over his mother's accounting and tax business. "She passed it along to Chris, though she still works with us throughout the year," says Lilly. "Chris devotes most of his non-shave-ice time to that enterprise and I split my time between accounting and after-school education programs — when they get enough government funding to actually run."
Another perk of the shave-ice business is the flexible and mobile schedule. Lilly says, "It gives us a chance to travel to different areas, the freedom for leisure activities during the weekdays such as hiking and fishing, and its busy season fits into the schedule of our tax business perfectly — picking up when it dies off and tapering off when it begins to get hectic.
"We spend probably half of our season in New Mexico, and though most of our events are in the Las Cruces area we have a few other regulars in Silver City, Cliff, Aztec and Roswell," she goes on. "We are willing to give almost any special event a try, though we tend to focus on events that have entertainment of some kind. County fairs, music and wine festivals, ethnic festivals, holiday celebrations, we try them all."
As with most of us, high gasoline prices and recession have started to take a toll on the duo's chilly venture. Lilly says, "Business this year has been down a bit from prior years. We definitely notice the difference as people need to keep closer tabs on their finances and due to rising gas prices are forced to stay home and not travel long distances to go to events. The gas prices have hindered us a bit, too. It's increased our cost a good bit, which of course has meant that our income is lower. It also has forced us to spend more time at local or near-local events or else string several events in the same area together and not return to our home base between events."
So, just what is this treat that has been around for years? Tanya explains, "Shave Ice is Hawaiian, originating on the islands, and you can still find the original shave-ice stands there — one on the North Shore of Oahu and one in Hilo on the Big Island."
"Shave" is not a misspelling of "shaved" — the Hawaiian treat is indeed called "Shave Ice," no "d." The similar product found around the mainland is a sno-cone. The fundamental difference between Shave Ice and sno-cones is the consistency of the ice, Lilly says: "Shave Ice is actually 'shaved' with a razor blade so that the ice comes out in fine flakes very similar to powder snow. Sno-cones are ground or crushed and the resulting ice is very granular and the pieces are comparatively large.
"Across the US you can find different regional versions of similar products, but the only one I have found that comes close to 'Shave Ice' is 'Snow Cream.' This is found in the Midwest and East, and started when people would take snow and put cream and flavoring — usually honey or maple syrup — on it."
Lilly and Smart offer a wide selection of flavors that vary somewhat, but they usually have at least 14 at any given time.
"Usually two of them are sugar-free flavors," Lilly adds. "What most people don't realize is that flavors are regional. Depending on your location, you can go through one flavor or another that you wouldn't be able to give away anywhere else. Examples of this are Silver City and Vanilla, Roswell and Pickle Juice, and Las Cruces and Coconut. With the exceptions of the regional favorites, our most popular flavors tend to be the basics, Wild Cherry and Blue Raspberry. Older generations prefer the Wild Cherry and younger ones the Blue Raspberry — in no small part I think because they like walking around with blue lips and tongues."
Lilly and Smart have a local supplier of flavors in Tucson. Although they could blend their own shave-ice flavors, she says, "It is a very hot and time-consuming task and we avoid it if possible. We believe in quality, and hate to sell an inferior product, so among the distributors in Tucson we have done a taste test to see which flavors are the best from which supplier.
"It means that sometimes we pay a little more for our flavors, but the quality of flavor makes it worth it," Lilly adds. "We don't believe in selling a product that we, ourselves, won't enjoy eating. Both Chris and I find Strawberry to be our personal favorite, followed closely by Mango and Coconut."
Amy Dent, Aquatics Supervisor
Although Amy Dent's job is year-round, it is of course during the summer when things get hot and swimming pools get crowded. And this year, things could hardly be hotter for Amy Dent, the aquatics supervisor for the city of Las Cruces. Dent, at the ripe old age of 25, is in charge of a growing program that includes responsibility for the city's three public pools, a number of water-related programs including swimming lessons, aquatic fitness classes, the 100 Mile Swim Club, and community classes including lifeguard training, first aid and CPR. As if that weren't enough, she also oversees the City of Las Cruces' grant-funded Summer Lunch Program.
As explained on the city Web site, "Each of the three City pools serves free, healthy lunches to children 18 and under throughout the summer. Aquatic staff is trained in food handling and nutrition and conducts the program at each site. This is an excellent way for staff to get to know local children as well as educate the public about nutrition at an early age."
So, what does Amy Dent do in her spare time?
"Right now, this is about all I have time for," she concedes.
Dent, a Tucson native who came to Las Cruces about two years ago, says that her interest in swimming started at a very early age. "I've been on swim teams since I was four," she says, adding that has gone by the wayside for now.
Dent supervises a staff of 45. She says that's not nearly enough, however, to keep up with the demand created in part by the opening of the brand-new Laabs Pool. Among other things the new pool offers a water slide, which requires two lifeguards assigned to it at all times — one at the top, and another at the bottom.
Even with those precautions, Dent and her staff had already performed an incredible 23 rescues during the first four weeks that the pool was open.
She notes the lack of swimming prowess among the pools' users, and that getting parents to monitor their kids is difficult, too.
"I could use 20 more people if I could have them," Dent says. She will need even more staff once the city's second new pool, a "twin" of Laabs, opens up on the northeast side of Las Cruces sometime in July. Laabs Pool can take up to 200 bathers, but Dent said that she would like to have her staffing at a 1/20 ratio.