Summer jobs, 1970-something

My first summer job was Saturday receptionist at the real estate office across from the Corner Café on the corner of Johnson and Elizabeth Streets in Alberni. I was 14 and I could barely type. It didn’t matter. My dad was the boss and he only hired me to answer the phone so he could drive around town or maybe venture over the hump to Nanaimo. “Cook’s tours,” he called them.

In those pre-cell-phone days, when even then a realtor had to be available 16/7 (most prospective buyers respected off-hours from about 11 pm to, say, 7 in the morning) a missed call could easily be a missed commission, so if you wanted—needed—to drive around checking out multiple listings, you had to have someone answering the phone at the office. Sandy, the regular secretary, who could type, it seemed to me, about 4,000 wpm, had weekends off, but prospective house buyers—and sellers, too, for that matter—don’t take weekends off. In fact, Saturdays were prime open house days. If Dad had an open house, all Cook’s touring would come to a halt and he’d put up a temporary sign at the corner of the street where the open house was held, with an arrow pointing in the direction of the house. Then he’d fan out listing sheets on the kitchen table and hope for a good show with not too many lookie-loos.

I mention the Corner Café because the reception desk at the real estate office was ideally positioned to provide a vantage point from which I could see who was coming and going for coffee or an open Denver sandwich with soup of the day. Not that I could actually see what the café patrons were having for lunch, but the open Denver was the Saturday special, and for $1.99 including soup and a bottomless cup of coffee, you can bet most diners ordered that.

Sandy’s typewriter was an IBM Selectric, from a line of electric machines that revolutionized typing in the 1960s by using a “typeball” the typist could change to print different fonts in the same document. Imagine the possibilities! According to Wikipedia, the Selectric also replaced the traditional typewriter’s moving carriage with a paper roller (“platen”) that stayed in position while the typeball and ribbon mechanism moved from side to side.

IBM Selectric typewriter, photo reprinted from Covington Innovations.

IBM Selectric typewriter, photo reprinted from Covington Innovations.


These features were wasted on me, but I loved the Selectric anyway. It thrilled me to insert a sheet of paper and guide it down until it engaged, then watch it magically roll into position, ready for me to type my latest poem or short story.

Fortunately no samples remain from these early days in my writing career.

Later, after Dad fired me for some misdemeanour I can’t remember (possibly forgetting to lock the office door behind me when I left one time), I was hired as a salad prep girl at a fast-chicken franchise at the top of Redford Street. There were two fast-chicken outlets in the Alberni Valley in those days, and my sister Becky worked at the other one—Brownie’s, on 3rd Avenue flats. At school they called us the chicken sisters.

Part of my job was to prepare enormous batches of potato salad. You might expect this task to involve peeling spuds, but no, the potatoes came dehydrated in plastic bags. I simply emptied a bag into a large, rectangular stainless steel bin, poured in boiling water, let the concoction sit a few minutes until the potatoes fluffed out, stirred, then added measured amounts of chopped celery, shredded carrots, salt, pepper, and mayonnaise. Then I rolled up my sleeves, rewashed my hands, and dug in up to my elbows until the whole she-bang was well mixed. Finally, I scooped it into three different sizes of styrofoam containers and stacked them in the walk-in fridge.

In between the mixing and the scooping, I’d wash my hands again at the big-box stainless steel sink with its super-sized drain. It was there at the sink that I realized with horror one day that my favourite ring had slipped off my finger and disappeared down said drain forever.

Or so I thought until three days later when an irate customer stormed into the front of the “restaurant” and demanded to see the manager.

“I found this ring in my potato salad!” she bellowed. “It completely disgusted me. I could have choked on it and died. Or my child could have choked on it and died!”

The manager sheepishly gave her a refund and a coupon for a bucket of chicken. And then she delivered her parting shot: “I wouldn’t have minded so much if it had been a nice ring.”

I thought it was a lovely ring: small disks of turquoise, jade, and amber shaped as a flower and set into a sterling silver circle. The kind of ring you might find in those days in a store that sold bead curtains, huaraches, and hookah pipes.

Miraculously, I wasn’t fired for this incident. I churned out coleslaw, macaroni salad, and potato salad for several more months, earning $2.65 an hour. Each time I immersed my arms up to my elbows in mayonnaise, my boss asked if it was going to cost him a bucket of chicken, and then winked.



This story was provoked by a post at Matilda Magtree in which Carin describes her first summer job picking strawberries. Carin was sparked in turn by Gwen Tuinman’s tobacco-picking memories. Now let’s hear about your first job.


8 Responses to “Summer jobs, 1970-something”

  1. Judy Jaarsma

    What a great story about your first summer jobs!

    I will just make my answer to your query very short. My first summer job was the summer that I was 15 years old. I worked at the Kitwanga General Store! 🙂 What goes around, comes around. … I am heading over there now to check off the incoming hardware!! 🙂

  2. commatologist

    Judy, that’s what I call staying power! I’d love to hear about the differences then and now.


  3. Gwen Tuinman

    I’m so glad you wrote about this and very appreciative my post sparked those memories. When I was younger, I thought those days would never end, but now I find them fun to remember.

    Your typewriter looks very familiar to me. In highschool, when I learned to type, the room was filled with about 30 of them, clattering away at the same time. The timed testing was so stressful. And erasing? Yikes, no copy, paste, or delete. Do you remember wrestling with erasure paper?

    • commatologist

      Gwen, I do, and the clatter of 30 typewriters! I also remember that our teacher, whose name escapes me, would offer a 25-cent reward to the girl (I’m sure there were no boys in the class) with the fastest time. However, errors counted against your time, so you had to be fast and accurate to win a quarter.

  4. carin

    Typing class. Mr. Vangeloff. He had a comb-over and kept telling us to stop flapping our ruby red lips in the breeze. A great teacher, actually, quite mad. And memorable. And I learned to type at the speed of light in his class! He also taught ‘business machines’, which amounted to adding machines the size of a cash register. And maybe something else. The picture above brings back a million memories. After the Selectric’s exciting advancement to white out TAPE (Gwen, I remember the erasure paper too!) the move to a word processer that cut and paste (albeit s-l-o-w-l-y) was a mind blower. I’m not especially fond of technology… very slow to whatever the current party is. I used that word processer for my writing until two thousand and something. And didn’t get an internet connection ’til 2005. Ah, the memories you’ve inspired Gwen, and now Leslie! Cheers.

    • commatologist

      I’m a bit of a late adopter, too, Carin. I still don’t have a cordless phone at home, and my cell phone is the antiquated flip style, which pretty much eliminates texting. But I remember in the early 90s sitting in front of my first computer, a big clunky dinosaur of a thing, feeling SO frustrated because it couldn’t DO anything, as in interact with me. I was craving the internet before I had even heard about or imagined it. And now that I have it, while I appreciate the way it connects me to the world’s biggest library and to people and ideas and sparks and yeast and my family who is so far away, I sometimes wish I could return to the mindset I had before the internet. And I wonder a lot what the world would be like without it. I just finally updated my writing tab and I included a link to an interesting article by one of the most brilliant youngish writers out there, Jonathan Safran Foer, where he talks about how these technologies are creating “diminished substitutes” for human contact. Not to mention the time suck.

      But I’m just flapping my ruby red lips in the breeze.


  5. Diana Z

    One of my first jobs as a teenager in high school was at a printer that was owned by friends of my parents — Papyrus Printing in Prince George. I was hired for a few days to help assemble booklets for various print jobs. I remember one booklet was for an auction and another was for a local farm festival of some sort.

    What I remember most about that job was the amazing smell of the paper and the ink, and trying to read some of the booklets as I quickly put them together.

    To this day, I love to crack open a freshly printed book and drink in the fabulous smell!


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