The summers that came and went as I clung onto my high school job
Revisiting a handful of teenage summers spent earning crust at a local bakery.
I was 14 and 9 months when I started working at the bakery, a franchise on the second-to-top level of a run-down suburban shopping complex. I don’t quite recall how I got the job. Like much of high school, the memory has dissolved in place of others. I suppose there was a resume, and—knowing my grating gregariousness and eagerness to please—an overly serious cover letter printed on thick, expensive stock. There was an interview and trial, after which I was handed my uniform: a baggy polo shirt, primary coloured culottes, an apron and a hat. The pay was fortnightly. The hourly rate was $6.36.
As far as casual labour goes, the bakery and I seemed well suited. Bookstores were precluded from my early hunt for cash—I was anxious at the prospect of dispensing recommendations to more erudite readers. Surf flagships, smelling faintly of coconut wax, were also dismissed—I wore shell bracelets and ROXY backpacks on weekends, but knew nothing of fibreglass boards. And as much as I liked juice, there was something unnerving about the freshly squeezed fruit industry, though I wasn’t sure what. Let’s just say the staff on blender duty at our local were consistently and generically beautiful in a way I was not: auricomous and tanned, with bleach-white teeth. After school, girls with French tips milled through the ground level food court, clutching green Styrofoam cups like bad designer bags. Juice packaging had reached cult status.
In contrast, the bakery felt enduring and salt of the earth, better tapped into the realities of everyday experience. Bread was a great equaliser, I told myself. It was rustic, wholesome, it didn’t play favourites; bread was the common man’s staple. During shifts, I’d sell hundreds-and-thousands finger buns to kids with grubby hands and to old men in Sunday suits. I slipped cheese and bacon rolls and vegemite scrolls into paper bags for corporate types, wrapped up apple and walnut logs for middle-aged mothers. The full stew of humanity asked me to slice their weekly loaves. I stood on tiptoe to grab them from the uppermost shelves: white and wholemeal and country grain bread, Vienna or pipe-shaped, a chewy pane di casa. The slicing itself involved a small amount of dexterity; once you’d run the loaf through a great silver machine, you had to grab either end firmly—being careful not to squash it—and lift the many parts as one onto a small shelf, where you’d quickly bag and seal it. The best employees achieved this manoeuvre in one gentle swoop.
Like many jobs in the food service industry, ours was home to a cast of oddball characters. We shared no clear demographic, but tended to emit a general sense of malaise. There was Chris, a baker in his 30s prone to acne breakouts, who shot my co-workers and I libidinous stares while we carried trays of hot scones from the oven to the shopfront. I used to sneak out the back, feign washing my hands, and eat dates straight from the tub with him. There was Marie, a plump Scotswoman of indiscernible age who worked day shifts and was sour in temperament. There were half a dozen girls my age, girls with braces and braids, all equally unqualified (but still required) to settle the till, or lug the day’s takings to the bank unaccompanied. The most singular character though—whose real name we were never told and whose nickname I will here omit—was the bakery’s franchisee: an erratic, vexatious man with a towering figure and a mop of black hair.
The Man was the reason casual sales associates left halfway through their trial period. Six dollars an hour was—well, it wasn’t great—but even with the bags of free bread thrown in and your very own name badge, it was difficult to feel liberated with him breathing down your neck. I grew to think of this place as a doughy tyranny, tiptoeing around The Man’s mood swings and odd requests, counting down the minutes until we could evacuate. The Man would time our toilet breaks. The Man would aggressively question our intelligence. Mopped floors were inspected with a nose to the ground. One shift, I went out the back momentarily and found The Man’s son watching a small screen with an air of boredom, his eyes glazed over. He was not watching cartoons or the news or Frasier reruns, but the live security footage of us working out front: the cameras were twisted to hone in on staff, not the registers. The Man hated talking, which I happened to be very good at. I suspected his son had been briefed to observe from afar, reporting back with a list of yappers.
On occasion The Man was nice, but for the most part, he was awful: a slightly batty conspiracy theorist who saw employees as swindlers-in-waiting. At the end of each shift, we’d pack two flour bags with leftovers for local charities, and a small bag for ourselves. The rest, we were solemnly instructed, must be stomped into nothing and thrown in the dumpster. The Man didn’t want us, or any charity, setting up some illegitimate shop.
Summers came and left. I overstayed my tenure at the bakery (Stockholm Syndrome, maybe), clocking in and out for three whole years. When I finally decided to resign, it was with great trepidation. I typed a lengthy resignation letter on the family computer, and folded my uniform neatly into a bag. On seeing me arrive at his counter, a lump of clothes under my arm, The Man barked “COME BACK LATER!” and stomped out of sight. I was deflated. I almost left. But then, I didn’t.
It proved to be of great comfort, in later years, that I’d hurled my uniform over the counter, that I’d yelled “READ MY LETTER” before a throng of customers, and stomped back toward the escalators, uncharacteristically vindicated. As I descended the grey conveyer belt, and as I stepped off it onto solid ground, the world unfurled anew before me: unhurried weekends tanning in the glow of January’s sun, weeknights in my parent’s living room watching terrible TV.