£3.40 per hour
MY mate’s uncle was the bakery manager and a part time taxi driver. He had observed my impeccable customer services skills in the chippy van. Marie Clare and all her sisters worked for the company and I asked her to ask him to give me a job.
She rang him to his house from a payphone and put me on to him. I said I knew how to work a till and be nice to people. All lies. So he told me to go to the Park Centre branch that Friday night to familiarise the products and learn how to use the slicer. Then turn up at 9am the next morning for a start. That’s how easy it used to be to get jobs.
In 1996, the bakery business in Belfast was competitive. There was O’Hara’s, Kennedy’s and McErlean’s all selling their own signature products. People were loyal to these brands and wouldn’t give their business to a competitor.
This was a fairly low risk job compared to the chippy van but it did attract the odd weirdo. The customers varied from the normal person buying a loaf to the old biddy chancing her arm for half price fresh cream buns to the dirty old men asking for one of my buttered muffins.
I was ‘a floater’. This meant I covered shifts when someone phoned in sick. So I got to work in shops all over Belfast. From Saintfield to Ardoyne.
One day I was sent to the Falls Road shop to work. This was one of the busiest and heavily dined out on the fact it was that bakery where Bill Clinton bought a bap. There was a photo up behind the counter of the US President holding a paper bag with the McErlean’s logo. So there was me, sixteen and manning a famous bakery. But none of this mattered. I spent the hours looking at wee lads in Dunville Park and thinking about what I was going to wear out that night.
A wee woman came into the shop and asked for a sliced wheaten. Back in the day I was a slicing champion. I could get the whole unit into the bag and tied up before it even knew it was cut.
The owner of all the shops chose this moment to walk in for a spot check. To observe how his business was operating.
So I said hello to him and he grunted. The wee woman looked at him and muttered under her breath. I continued looking out the window and put the wheaten in the back of the slicer, then pulled the lever as I had done hundreds of times before.
The slicer started sparking and the blades were screeching. So I pulled the lever again and the slicer revved and revved. Eventually some product came out the other end. It was hard as a rock. I had only gone and put an acrylic display wheaten through a bread slicer.
I didn’t get fired but the owner rang Marie Clare’s uncle and referred to me as a fucking idiot. I wasn’t invited to work in Bill Clinton’s bakery any more.