Burnt popcorn, short skirts and other summer-job adventures

Friday, June 23rd, 2017 - Resume

Every year, after school lets out, students fan out in search of temporary employment before classes resume in the fall — a chance to earn a little money and, it’s hoped, more than a little life experience.

We asked a group of Gazette journalists to reflect on those formative first jobs, and the lessons they learned.

Stressful times at the Cinéplex

Safia Ahmad, reporting intern

I was 15 years old when I got my first summer job. While most of my friends were busy having fun, I was eager — eager — to be independent and an adult.

The idea of paying for my own things and being responsible didn’t scare me like it does now, at the age of 24.

In July 2008, I started working at the Cinéplex Forum, then known as AMC Theatre. I was both excited and nervous. Most of the employees were at least 18, and had been working there for years — long enough to form cliques. Talk about intimidating for a hormonal and insecure teenager.

Thankfully, a friend of mine also got hired. Unfortunately, we never worked together.

We had a uniform: red polo, black high-waisted pants and a black baseball cap. I felt like the biggest dork ever.

The job itself wasn’t difficult, but when you already don’t feel confident and everything is new, even the simplest things — like ripping tickets and telling people what room their movie is in — were stressful.

Burning the popcorn at the concession stand — which happened on my first try — made me want to avoid the concession area all together. Every time I received my schedule, I would pray to be assigned anywhere but there.

Over time, I got used to the job and the people. Plus, I got to see free movies, so that was pretty cool.

Socially, I was never sure where I stood until I quit four months later to focus on school. On my last day, a few employees bought me a chocolate cake and made me a card. I was truly touched. What a great way to end my first job.

‘It’s Cott to be good’


At the Cott Beverages factory in Laval, “I was a gangly 16 year old but a Teamster nonetheless,” writes Andy Riga.

Joshua Berlinger /

The Canadian Press

Andy Riga, reporter

I distinctly remember the end of the first day of my first summer job.

I got home at 4 p.m. and collapsed on my bed. I didn’t get up until I was awoken for Day 2, at the ungodly hour of 5:30 a.m.

My parents were amused by my exhaustion. Italian immigrants, they both worked tough factory jobs for decades — my mother as a seamstress on Chabanel St., my father as a machine operator for a bottling company.

It was June 1983 and I was a gangly 16 year old but a Teamster nonetheless, working on the shop floor at the Cott Beverages factory on Chomedey Blvd. in Laval. (You might remember the slogan: “It’s Cott to be good.”)

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” data-medium-file=”http://wpmedia.montrealgazette.com/2017/06/cott-jpeg.jpg?quality=55&strip=all&w=286″ data-large-file=”http://wpmedia.montrealgazette.com/2017/06/cott-jpeg.jpg?quality=55&strip=all&w=640″ class=”size-medium wp-image-1028340 alignleft” src=”http://wpmedia.montrealgazette.com/2017/06/cott-jpeg.jpg?w=286&quality=55&strip=all&h=300″ alt=”” width=”286″ height=”300″ srcset=”http://wpmedia.montrealgazette.com/2017/06/cott-jpeg.jpg?w=286&quality=55&strip=all&h=300 286w, http://wpmedia.montrealgazette.com/2017/06/cott-jpeg.jpg?w=572&quality=55&strip=all&h=600 572w, http://wpmedia.montrealgazette.com/2017/06/cott-jpeg.jpg?w=143&quality=55&strip=all&h=150 143w” sizes=”(max-width: 286px) 100vw, 286px”/>My shift: 6:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m., with a half hour for lunch. From the parking lot, a blast of a canteen truck’s horn would announce the two coffee breaks.

I’m not sure what the deal was — if it was in the contract or just an informal understanding — but the sons of workers seemed to have first dibs on summer jobs.

We the sons were given menial tasks — sweeping up, sorting returned bottles by size and colour, moving cases from one pallet to another. On good days, we’d be placed along a production line, watching for broken bottles; it was a reprieve from the bending, twisting and hoisting.

I don’t remember how many weeks I worked but I made an astronomical amount that summer: $1,146.72

My parents wanted me to start making and saving money (spending it wasn’t really an option). I suspect they also had an ulterior motive: to make me understand what it meant to work and to realize that I didn’t want to end up in a tiring, monotonous factory job.

Lessons learned, though I did spend a summer two years later in a West Island factory, installing seat belts on cars imported from the Eastern Bloc. But that’s another story.

Flexing muscles at the collection agency


“I was a quiet literature student who hated confrontation,” writes Louise Solomita. What could go wrong?

BrianAJackson /

iStockphoto

Louise Solomita, city editor

It was the very beginning of summer and I needed some quick cash to go backpacking through Europe. My longstanding part-time gig at a Laval café wasn’t going to cover it. So for a brief but memorable period, I became that most hated person on the other end of the phone line: a collection agent.

How bad can it be, I asked myself before starting. I would be paid $10 an hour (!), and it would only be for a few weeks, anyway.

I was a quiet literature student who hated confrontation. What was I thinking?

The first few days were the worst. Wearing an uncomfortable headset, I stammered and mispronounced names, was ridiculed, bullied, threatened and hung up on.

Worse than not meeting my daily collection quotas, I sympathized with the people I was calling. They often had bigger problems to deal with, and I felt their rage toward me was justified. (“I have children to feed, what’s wrong with you?” “Those CDs were only supposed to cost a penny!”)

I stared obsessively at the clock and looked longingly out the window of that dreary north-end Montreal office.

But then, something happened a couple of weeks in: I started to get the hang of it. My voice rose over the debtors’ protests, and I became threatening and convincing. (“Do you really want us to keep calling over and over?” “No — YOU listen to ME, sir!”)

My boss bought me a jelly doughnut after one shouting match that left me pink in the face but weirdly exhilarated.

When I abruptly quit a few days before my flight, I was relieved. This new, aggressive me was not someone I liked. I learned that despite my calm and friendly exterior, there’s a pretty scary person not too far below the surface — she just needs a little incentive.

Trying to look busy at the lot


“I was allowed to read a book if it was raining,” Michelle Lalonde recalls of her time in the small wooden hut of the parking lot where she worked in St. Catharines, Ont.

roibu /

iStockphoto

Michelle Lalonde, copy editor

The great thing about my first summer job, which was as a parking lot attendant in the dying downtown core of my hometown when I was 14, was that every subsequent job I got — lifeguard, waitress, journalist — seemed infinitely more glamorous and fascinating by comparison.

This was in St. Catharines, Ont. Our neighbours owned a tennis specialty store downtown called The Racquet Shoppe and its adjacent parking lot. (Why the archaic spelling of “shop”? I would have many quiet hours to wonder.)

Like the downtowns of many North American cities in the 1970s, ours was dying mainly because a huge covered mall had opened across town. I doubt the parking fees even covered my wage, which was below minimum.

The job involved sitting in a tiny wooden booth, just big enough for me, one chair and an AM radio. My job was to hand out tickets to the very occasional customer, and tell them they had to pay the clerk at the Racquet Shoppe. I knew this job was cooler than a paper route, or babysitting, but only slightly. 

Very rarely, somebody from school would happen by. I would try to look cool and busy, which was difficult. They would inevitably ask me whether I was allowed to move the cars around. “Nah. I don’t have my license.” Saying this was, of course, humiliating.

I was allowed to read a book if it was raining, but mostly I sat there listening to the radio. I credit that job with my inability to forget the lyrics to all the saddest songs of the late 1970s. Songs like When I Need You, All by Myself and Beth still bring me back to that little booth, singing along with the radio at the top of my lungs, often with tears in my eyes. This was occasionally embarrassing, when a customer would surprise me by knocking on the door.

I don’t think kids today, with their cellphones and unlimited Internet access, get to experience that level of excruciating, character-building boredom and loneliness. The poor things.

That drunk guy at the dep


Claire Loewen at the Plateau dépanneur where, as an 18-year-old, she learned “how lottery tickets work, how to balance a cash, do inventory and deal with drunk people.”

Pierre Obendrauf /

Montreal Gazette

Claire Loewen, reporting intern

In the summer of my 18th year, I worked at a dépanneur in Plateau-Mont-Royal.

I passed the time by making conversation with pretty much anyone, and phoning my friends, whom I would promptly hang up on as soon as a customer came inside. That customer was usually a drunk guy named Eric.

Eric would come in many times a day to give me three empty beer cans, in exchange for 15 cents in returns. It was a nice routine, when he wasn’t trying to rob the store.

Once, Eric dropped a can on the floor, which sprayed everywhere. I yelled at him to “sort d’icitte sinon j’te jure Eric. Aweille!”

Not all my dep relationships were as funny. Some of them I don’t even remember. But they remember me.

The next year, after I had quit, my friend sent me a missed connection ad she found on Kijiji. It had been posted a month prior.

The ad read: “Claire — Concordia — Journalism. You used to work at a dep down the street from my place.”

Oh. My God. That’s me. 

“I kept waiting for you, but you never came back. Hope your life is good. I wish we could have bonked on your smoke breaks.”

I still have no idea who wrote it.

It was creepy, but the job made me laugh — and it taught me a lot.

Yes, I painstakingly learned how lottery tickets work, and how to balance a cash, do inventory and deal with drunk people — but I also got the hang of standing up for myself.

The biggest thing the dep taught me is that relationships work best when you set your biases aside.

Even a person you would never speak to under different circumstances can teach you about yourself and help you grow. Some of the best relationships in our lives are the short ones we stumble upon.

Beware of Arctic mosquitoes

Jillian Page recalls earning $1.75 an hour in what was then called Frobisher Bay — now Iqaluit — better than the minimum wage of $1.25.


Jillian Page recalls earning $1.75 an hour in what was then called Frobisher Bay — now Iqaluit — better than the minimum wage of $1.25.

Desmond Allard /

Montreal Star

Jillian Page, copy editor

The summer of ’69 was all about firsts for me, thanks to my first summer job.

There was my first glimpse of the midnight sun during my first trip in an airplane, en route to what was then called Frobisher Bay, now Iqaluit. There was my first meeting with my Inuk stepmother and my subsequent exposure to Inuit culture along with a sweet summer romance.

And there was lots of work: I was a general labourer with the Northern Canadian Power Commission, even though I was a few months below the legal work age. My dad worked there and he got me in. Salary: $1.75 an hour, better than the minimum wage of $1.25.

NCPC ran the plant providing electricity for the town, and the diesel-powered generators were almost deafening. So I was happy, at first, that I was loaned out to a surveyor as a rod person. He was surveying the land for a hotel and apartment complex that had to be constructed before the Queen’s tour of the Arctic the following summer.

I soon learned that mosquitoes are very large and plentiful in the seemingly barren Arctic, and I gave a lot of blood in the name of that project.

Back in the plant, my chores included cleaning cylinders in the generators, helping a welder reinforce various joints throughout the plant and helping to lay a concrete base for a new generator. I often worked side by side with cheerful Inuit youth, who loved to sing songs like Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da and Proud Mary on the job.

At sealift time, I helped out in the evenings by stacking boxes of booze at the liquor distribution centre for the Baffin Islands.

It was a rewarding summer for me in many ways, and I would return to work there the following summer.

Steak, fries and short skirts


Charlie Fidelman quit not long after “the manager called me into his office and told me that my uniform was not to his liking.”

JOHN KENNEY /

Montreal Gazette

Charlie Fidelman, reporter

I got fired from my first summer job after only six weeks. It was a steak chain in Vancouver. I didn’t even eat meat. And scraping plates clean of leftover food almost made me sick to my stomach. 

I hated touching the greasy plates. Or feeling my fingers slip on leftover ketchup smears. But I was glad for the job because it made me feel grown-up at 16.

We had to wear a uniform, at least the waitresses did. A white blouse and a blue skirt. I had a beautiful skirt that was hip-hugging and elegant to mid-calf. 

At the end of Week 3, after I got the hang of things, the manager called me into his office and told me that my uniform was not to his liking. It lacked the right ambiance for his family diner. It had to be above the knee. 

Well. That pissed me off before I even knew why. What do my knees have to do with selling cheap cuts of steak and fries, I asked him. 

Those are the rules, miss, he said, glancing at my thighs. If you want to stay on the job you’re going to have to shorten the skirt to a mini.

I was young, stubborn and indignant. No way was I going to wear a postage stamp size fabric to work at a cheapo steakhouse. Because of an arbitrary rule, when that had nothing to do with the quality of my plate slinging?

So I continued to pick up plates and deliver steaks for another three weeks, gagging at basins of food-encrusted dirty dishes in the back. I can’t remember what kind of excuses I gave that sleaze-ball manager. The short skirt was in the wash, or the dog used it as a pillow. 

When he fired me, he had no complaints about my actual work. He told me so. I learned that summer, luckily so early in my work career, that I have a distaste for stupid, for an eyeballing atmosphere and for mediocre restaurant chains. To this day I’m glad I saved my knees for some higher purpose.

At the sawmill, wear a hard hat


At the sawmill where René Bruemmer worked, in Chapleau, Ont., “an ominous sign indicated how many days since the last accident.”

Jacques Boissinot /

The Canadian Press

René Bruemmer, reporter

I got work at the sawmill in Chapleau, Ont., located 12 hours west of Montreal in the heart of forest and lake country. My cousin was a manager with the owner company, which meant I was looked on as “one of the manager’s relatives” by the full-timers, and had to work to prove myself. Pay was about $10 an hour, decent money for a 17-year-old in the mid-1980s.

I started with planting trees in the sandy fields near the mill. Sawmill rules required hard hats, so I wore a dark green one in the open fields in the baking sun. Locals used the area to snowmobile in the winter and killed all my trees.

In the mill, an ominous sign indicated how many days since the last accident. Co-workers quickly brought me up to speed: one guy was on extended leave due to a three-inch splinter in the eye. Another was on permanent leave because he fell into the de-barker, a conveyor belt with spiky metal wheels that gripped fresh-cut logs, then spun rapidly to remove the bark. Legend had it the fatality was discovered when the wood chips started coming out red.

I was struck in the head by wayward pieces of lumber twice that summer. I learned to appreciate my hard hat.

My main job was to watch lumber stream by on a conveyor belt, picking out stumpy off-cuts that could clog the works. Despite the din, I nodded off often. It inspired a lifelong aversion to boring work.

The muscled men and women who wrestled raw boards all day working on the line would wear out a pair of work gloves every week. I was offered a “real” job working the line the next summer. I had liked the solitary beauty of Northern Ontario and the pride of working at a tough job, but I missed my friends. I found work in a hospital kitchen in Montreal instead, where I did not save nearly as much of my earnings.

$1 tip for a 40-cent milkshake

Patricia Crowe, copy editor

I was 16 in 1974, ready for my first “real” job beyond babysitting. I was a few weeks into working behind the lunch counter at Woolworth’s when I got a better offer. I remember two things from my short-term short-order stint: my pay came in a small envelope and included small bills and dimes and nickels; not all toast is created equal.


“I was a terrible waitress,” writes Patricia Crowe, “and my customers let me know it.”

Chris Parry /

Postmedia News

Who knew a customer could be so fussy about how brown a slice of bread gets?

I left there and worked the rest of the summer at the much more glamorous A&W at Peel and Ste-Catherine Sts. As it turns out, I was a terrible waitress — and my customers let me know it. I left orders tucked into my apron forgetting to give them to the kitchen, mixed up who asked for what, couldn’t make a proper milkshake.

My saving grace: I am not clumsy. I quickly mastered carrying a tray weighted with mugs of root beer floats and a family’s worth of burgers, fries and onion rings. To this day, it is a useful skill.

I also learned something less practical, but just as enduring. One afternoon, after one of those mornings when a tour bus load of people lined up outside the door before we even opened, an “older” woman, in her 30s maybe, ordered a milkshake. I think it cost about 40 cents. I don’t know how good or bad it was, or how long she had to wait for it, but she smiled when I took it to her. And she left me a $1 tip.

Forty-three years later, I am back where I started. I am an editor at the Gazette — at Peel and Ste-Catherine. Instead of trays, I try to make sure stories are balanced. I serve up bad news, tragedy, corruption, disaster, but also other stories, of kindness and generosity, that are worth telling, too.

I always overtip.

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