When I graduated from Queen's in the spring of 1996, I needed a job. Unfortunately, I had a degree in Film Studies. I don't think that prospective employers were exactly howling for my services. I say "I don't think" because I really didn't even try to find a ‘real' job. I wanted to find something in Kingston so that I could extend my relatively carefree beer-swilling, pot-smoking student days for at least another year. Most of my friends were still gonna be there, so what the hell, right?
Even more unfortunately, the only summer jobs going in Kingston were strictly of the joe variety. And there were thousands of Queen's students, most of them with better resumes than mine, competing for them. Time was getting tight; it was moving on towards the middle of April and I had about two weeks to find something or return to the purgatory of my parents' basement in Sarnia.
And then I caught word that a downtown hamburger establishment by the name of Lick's was hiring. Indeed, the guy I'd talked to had scored three paid training shifts on the spot that very afternoon! I hustled my way on down to the joint. It was a weekday afternoon and the place was deserted. I asked the manager if they were hiring and he said they were and would I like to interview right there and then? Three or four questions along the lines of can-you-breathe-and-walk-at-the-same-time? later and I'd been blessed with three training shifts! I was saved! No basement in Sarnia for me! But as we got up from the table where the interview was conducted, the manager suddenly became very serious and asked the question which would haunt me for the next three months; "You do know we sing here, don't you?"
Well, no. I didn't. In the four years I'd spent in Kingston, I'd never been in the place. But I pretended I knew what he was talking about. Sure, I was an outgoing person. Sure, I smiled all the time. Sure, I had no problem with singing in public. You see, I can lie quite adeptly if I need to, and I needed this job. The specter of life in Sarnia loomed before me, terrifying me with visions of Saturday nights spent watching action movies and drinking Coors Light with my former friends from high school.
I thought I'd known what it was to be embarrassed. I thought I'd lived through my share of humiliation and chagrin. At Lick's, I learned new definitions of these words through treatment no self-respecting medieval emperor would have subjected the lowest eunuch to. I should have known something was up when I found work that easily in Kingston, a town where, as a student, you have a better chance of getting hit by a pickup truck than of finding a summer job.
You see, the "humanistic approach" mentioned above apparently alludes to Lick's seeming determination to subject its employees to pretty much the most degrading and patronizing treatment imaginable. And by "life skills" they must be referring to their on-the-job training regarding the ability (so important in today's workforce) to eat untold buckets of shit and smile (not to mention sing) as you do it.
Here, by way of example, was the procedure I had to go through in order to prepare lettuce to be placed in the display cases; first, the shift manager would ask me to get, say, eight heads of lettuce from the cooler and put them in the sink in the back room. I would go and do this. At this point, and no later, I had find the manager and ask them to come back to the sink and verify that I, a university graduate, had correctly counted to eight. The manager would then duly note this on their clipboard and move off, leaving me alone to wash the lettuce and break it into pieces suitable for placement upon hamburgers. When I had completed this task, I had to track the manager down so that he/she could verify that I had adequately cleaned the lettuce, broken it up correctly and discarded no useful pieces of the lettuce. Again, they would note this and leave. Finally, I had to place the lettuce in bins, drying it with paper towels as I went. When all of the lettuce had been placed in the correct bins, I had to once again track down the manager so that they could verify that the lettuce was suitably dry and ready for storage. Not only was this process incredibly humiliating, it was also terribly inefficient; if the manager was busy evaluating someone else's awesomely simple tasks (as they very often were, since everything had to be evaluated and verified), I could do nothing but stand around with my thumb up my ass waiting for them to free themselves.
And then there was the singing. In theory, we were all supposed to sing three songs for every customer who came into the store and ordered something. In practice, this meant that we were singing pretty much all the time. There were songs about hamburgers. There were songs about fries. There were songs about how great Lick's was. Most of the songs were based on the melody of famous pop songs or TV themes. I have sworn to never again actually sing any of the Lick's songs, but as a special treat to those of you who actually read what I write, I will transcribe one of them here;
"Lick's, Lick's, Lick's"
(sung to the tune of "Faith", by George Michael)
Well, wouldn't it be nice?
If I could have a homeburg?
One plump and juicy homeburg?
...[a couple of lines I forget]...
Well, you gotta have Lick's, Lick's, Lick's!
You gotta have Lick's, Lick's, Lick's!
The singing never ended. Each crew had to begin each shift by walking up the stairs singing a song in unison. It was supposed to be spontaneous and fun. If no-one had sung anything for a long time (i.e. a couple of minutes), the line cook (i.e. me) was supposed to kick-start things by breaking into song. I promise you that you have not been truly embarrassed until you've been openly laughed and pointed at by a couple of stoned townies as you sang a song about hamburgers based on the theme from "The Flintstones". Or until you've sung the "Lick's Rap" in full view of a couple of attractive members of the opposite sex while wearing a painter's cap reading "I LUV LICK'S".
And then there were the labour violations. All employees had to show up 15 minutes before their shift began (unpaid) for a special pep talk regarding what they were going to work on that day. When the restaurant closed at 11 PM, the manager gave all of the employees a time (which varied depending on how busy the place had been that night) by which all of the cleaning had to be completed. If you weren't done by that point, you worked the rest of the night for free.
And as a final kick in the balls, before you could leave for the night you had to sit down with your manager and be evaluated in another unpaid session. Typically, the manager would ask you which star you think you deserved. That's right, you were assigned a star, just like in kindergarden, which was placed beside your name on the schedule. A gold star meant perfection or damn close to it, silver meant pretty good, red was average, blue below average and green...well, no-one ever got a green star, so I always figured that you had to blow something up or beat up a customer to get one. This was meant to be a motivational tactic, since each star was worth a certain amount of points and at the end of the month the full and part-time workers with the most points won $150 and $50, respectively. I always aimed to get a red star; anything higher and it meant you'd successfully kissed a lot of ass that day. Anything lower and you caught a lot of shit for your troubles. In three months, I only got one gold star, and that was about a week before I quit. It was definitely a sign that I had to get out of there before I got any better at my job.
What Lick's "humanistic approach" towards its employees actually amounted to was an "if you don't like it, you can quit" attitude. And people did, in droves. There was a large board which listed the schedules in the backroom; people were listed from top to bottom with the person who had been there the longest at the top and the newest member of the Lick's team at the bottom. At any given time, I would guess that the place had 20 to 25 employees. When I quit at the end of July, I was in the middle of the list, which meant that an average of one person had quit or been fired every week I was there. The place went through workers like cheap toilet paper and treated them as if they were.
I wish I had a good quitting story, that I'd told them they could take the job and shove it up their homeburger-shitting asses. But, the truth is, the place just wore me down. I'd been wavering on the issue of quitting for...well, as long as I'd had the job. I hated it more than anything I'd ever done, and I'd had some pretty crappy jobs. But on the other hand, I didn't have anything else lined up, and if I didn't have a job, I would have to return to Sarnia in September.
I don't remember the thing which pushed me over the edge. I do remember that I wasn't explicitly planning to quit as I rode my bike to my last shift. Something must have happened, though. I finished up my shift and, as the manager and I sat down for the nightly evaluation, I told him I was quitting and that he'd better give the rest of my shifts for that week to someone else. He didn't even ask why, he was that used to people quitting.
Do I have anything good to say about Lick's? Well, on one hand, the food is pretty good. And getting the job allowed me to stay in Kingston, which allowed me to get a job at Subway after I'd quit, which (for better or for worse) indirectly set me off on the path I have chosen for myself since then. Who knows what would have happened to me if I'd been forced to return to Sarnia? And since my rent was only $125/month that summer, I only had to work two or three times a week in order to save enough to pay the rent and afford beer.
But, on the other hand, no. The place fucking sucks.