by Allan Shewchuk

2018  July/Aug

City Palate, guide to the good life in Calgary Back Burner 2018 11 12 Allen Shewchuk Profile image

There is no more romanticized season than summer. Shakespeare had his Midsummer Night’s Dream. Gershwin wrote the libretto of Porgy and Bess around “Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.” Sinatra lost his love to the summer wind. Nat King Cole crooned about the lazy, crazy, hazy days of summer. And even Mungo Jerry extolled us to “shush right up and touch the sky” when summertime came. But, these are the breezy and boozy summers of adulthood. Of grown-up vacations and drinks on the deck. For one unlucky generation, summer is a hellish, hot, torturous time to be endured until school starts again. These are the summers of teenagers who have to survive the worst right of passage in life: the summer job.

At first, you may think I’m exaggerating. But, think it through: one day you are a pre-teen running barefoot through a sprinkler in the mid-day sun. There’s Kool-Aid in the fridge and popsicles in the freezer. The Dickie-Dee ice cream truck shows up now and then blaring “Turkey in the Straw” from the cheap speakers, which command all the kids from the neighbourhood to gather and get sticky together. There is no work, only hot dogs and corn on the cob and endless nights with no bedtime. And watermelon. And fireworks. And bonfires. Oh, and did I mention no work?

It all changes in a heartbeat once you are a teen. Suddenly parents whisper about cutting off allowances. There is crazy talk about getting up before noon and of having a bedtime in July. Mom and Dad are planning the summer road trip while you are being frog-marched down to Hire A Student to find a job for two months. And, while your parents are away you are expected to stay at Grandma’s where there are prison-like rules and all the bedrooms smell like mothballs and stale hard peppermints. Outrageous! What happened to the Kool-Aid and the popsicles? What happened to summertime and the livin’ is easy? The summer job – that’s what happened.

Why is the teenage summer job such a living hell? Because cruel adults save all of the worst jobs to be done all year until the summer when the poor, temporary, minimum wage student shows up. So if there’s a septic tank full of sewage that needs to be drained and scrubbed by hand, no regular employee is going to go near it. It will wait for the hottest week of the year in early July for the unwary 14-year-old to arrive to be greeted by “Here’s your Hazmat suit, goggles, noseplugs and rubber gloves, kid. Have a nice summer!” Gales of laughter and high fives ensue from all the other adult workers, and the poor teenager spends eight weeks in a pit reliving that horrific scene from The Shawshank Redemption involving the prison break by swimming through a sewage pipe.

And food business summer jobs are even more inhumane. I have a good friend who was traumatized in the ’70s when his parents got him a job at The Red Grille, which was the restaurant in the old Kmart stores. Seriously – who went to Kmart as a dining destination? My friend says the food was so bad that in the morning they would put out a steam tray full of beef in tomato sauce with a little sign that said “Swiss Steak,” and by afternoon, when the tray contents turned brown, they would just change the sign to say “Salisbury Steak.” The horror!

But the real horror was that the manager of the Red Grille had waited all year for my friend to show up as the summer help so that he would perform the annual changing of the grease trap. Apparently, the smell was so intense that not even a rat would’ve gone near the thing. The grease had congealed to the consistency of tar and not even steel wool worked on getting the metal clean. When my pal got home his family made him throw his clothes in the backyard fire pit and even after a month of intense showering, he still smelled like a giant stale french fry. But he needed the summer job and so he did the dirty work and suffered through it. Another teenager thrown under the bus.

So to all you teenagers reading this article, take note: if in any summer, the job you are offered involves anything approaching the phrase “Attention Kmart shoppers,” run as fast as you can.

Allan Shewchuk is a lawyer, food writer and sought-after Italian food and wine guru. He currently has kitchens in both Calgary and Florence, Italy, but will drink wine pretty much anywhere.