There are plenty of summer jobs for young people in Massachusetts that feel ripped from a storybook version of adolescence, the gigs that adults can look at, feel the wash of nostalgia, and think. “Kid, you’ve got it good.”
The lifeguards and the ice cream scoopers. The Fenway ball boys and the kid who calls out the numbers on hot dog orders at Sullivan’s on Castle Island. The camp counselors and the teenager who tells you it’s your turn to go down the water slide.
Then there is the one that feels like you are actually in a storybook, the ultimate “no way” job.
“That’s what everyone says when I tell them where I work,” said Patrick Walsh, who, at age 22, is in his seventh summer pedaling a Swan Boat.
The lagoon at the Boston Public Garden, where the Mallard family settles in Robert McCloskey’s beloved 1941 children’s book “Make Way for Ducklings,” is a spot where fiction and reality nestle to create a warm cuddly space in the New England psyche.
“I can distinctly remember as a kid reading the book, then coming here and sitting in these rows,” Walsh said as he gestured to the red, wood-slat benches on the one-of-a-kind, pedal-powered dual-pontoon boats.
“Then you see the ducks in the water, and the swans swim by, and you go around Duck Island from ‘Make Way for Ducklings’ and you feel like you’re in a story,” Walsh said as he pedaled another lap around the pond, pulling on the worn wooden ropes that control the rudder.
On the bench just in front of him, a mother and her children are rattling off the names of the Mallards: Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Oack, Pack, and Quack.
The entire Swan Boat operation feels impossibly quaint and untouched by the outside world since 1877, when they were created by Robert Paget. At the time, rowboats were popular on the lagoon in the Public Garden, but Paget was inspired to create a new kind of boat by the opera “Lohengrin,” which is based on a German story in which a knight crosses a river in a boat pulled by swans to save his damsel, Princess Elsa.
Paget essentially combined the technology of a popular new contraption, the bicycle, with the fairy tale, and the Swan Boats were born.
The Paget family still owns and operates the classic boats — the oldest of the six Swan Boats in operation was built in 1918 — and a trip costs just $3 for adults and $1.50 for children.
“We want to keep it as something any family can afford,” said Phil Paget, who pedaled the boats as a teenager and now manages the young people who do, including his teenage daughter.
In addition to the Paget children, the other “operators” — they like to say they don’t drive the boats; they are its engine — fit into family traditions. When they find a good worker — almost exclusively city kids who can take the MBTA — they like to hire their younger siblings.
Walsh, who grew up in West Roxbury and now lives in Westwood, is the fourth member of his family to pedal the pond. It is, for many, their first summer job, which can be its own first glimpse of that thing known as adulthood and responsibility. Una Gavin, a 16-year-old from West Roxbury who will be a junior at Mount Alvernia Academy, is one of those in her first job. “I had to learn how to take the T,” she said. “And it feels really adult having a lunch break downtown. I’m growing up this summer.”
The job, though, is not without its demands.
In this case, they are physical. A fully loaded boat can weigh 3 tons — “I’d compare it to pedaling a bike up a long hill,” Walsh said — so the job tends to attract high school athletes. This year, they have several football players on staff, and the rule of thumb is that they take a break after three loops.
New employees go through a long training period before they are allowed to take a swan out on their own, a process the Pagets call “earning your wings.”
It is not a job without responsibilities — don’t hit the bridge — but in the case of the Swan Boats, many of those responsibilities are allegorical. The operators are conscious of being representative symbols of Boston for the customers, who come from all over the world.
Answering questions and preserving the aura cast by the book are part of the job, as is having your photo taken several hundred times a day. Walsh always smiles.
And then there are the weddings — brides and grooms ride nearly every weekend — as well as those who pop the question on the Swan Boats. The Pagets have been involved in all sorts of proposals, and they will slyly keep a few rows empty to give the couple some privacy.
At the end of the day, though, it’s a job, something the young people are just getting used to. They go home tired, and very hungry. “But a good kind of tired,” Walsh said, “like you’ve done something with your day.”
As Walsh finished up another loop, making the final turn around the island where Mr. and Mrs. Mallard settled to raise their family, the rhythmic whoosh of the paddlewheel pushing against the shallow water is hypnotic.