Why I'll Always Rate My Teenage Jobs As Some Of My Best

Photo: James Bridges/Monarchy/Regency/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
Liv Tyler plays a student working in a record store in Empire Records (1995)
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I got my first job at 13 when an older girl on the school bus rather earnestly told me that she was retiring from waitressing to concentrate on her GCSEs. Her weekly shift (Sunday 10am-5pm) at a local pub in Berkshire offered everything I longed for: adventure, independence and money (a whopping £3.50 an hour cash-in-hand plus tips). I wanted it badly. Once I'd convinced my parents that my Sundays would be better spent carrying plates of roast beef rather than doing homework, I called the pub that evening offering my (non-existent) skills. After a brief interview I was given the job, despite it being entirely illegal for me to work at that age. I felt like I had arrived.
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After that, I never really stopped working throughout my teens. From the pub I went to a Saturday job at a bookstore, which was totally pointless because I spent pretty much my entire earnings on their stock, taking full advantage of the 35% discount offered to employees. It was where I had my literary coming-of-age, discovering for the first time the teen girl canon including The Bell Jar and Bonjour Tristesse, before graduating to Dostoyevsky and Conrad. I wasn't better off but I was certainly better read.
During my breaks I'd have my head in whatever I'd just spent my latest pay packet on, while I mindlessly ate soggy cheese and tomato sandwiches I'd brought in from home. It was perfect. The store no longer exists but my time there drew a path that I can now see all around me, from my bookshelves – dog-eared copies of Toni Morrison still speckled with tomato juice – to my current employment as a writer and editor.
At 17 I started the job I look back on most fondly: waitressing in a small café-bar among a cast of characters destined to become my best friends in the world (for a few months at least). It was the summer after I finished my A-levels and I was saving up to go travelling. I had zero responsibilities in life other than ensuring the coffee machine was clean and making my new pals laugh. Real life came quickly: mind-bending crushes; lock-ins that went on until sunrise; getting taxed.
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It was around this time that we discovered the ultimate 'first job' film, Empire Records. Although a massive flop when it came out in 1995, the story about a bunch of tight-knit teens working in an independent record store went on to become a cult favourite. Our skirts weren't quite as short as Liv Tyler's or Renée Zellweger's and the guys weren't quite as hot as AJ (real name unknown), but we could relate to a group of young co-workers waiting for their lives to start, who bonded by bitching about customers. And the soundtrack was banging.
By this point I'd decided my dream job was to be a journalist; I remember telling one of the bar guys who was on summer break from uni where he was studying film that I wanted to do work experience at Empire magazine, and him giving me a list of all the movies I needed to watch. I never did get that placement but all the research I did was probably even more valuable.
It's far too easy to romanticise all of this when of course, in reality, these jobs can suck. You can be subjected to garish uniforms in every colour of the rainbow, the money's not great, and shifts will inevitably interfere with your social life - all drawbacks I'm sure people working these jobs today would recognise. Then there was having to work an all-dayer with the guy you'd had a make-out session with in the staff toilet (everyone lived with their parents so all fooling around had to be kept strictly on the premises).
Despite now being in a job that I adore and feel privileged to have, I'll always consider those carefree days earning sub-minimum wage and learning about Frank O'Hara and Seven Samurai and who I was going to become as some of the best I've ever had. And is that not a real dream job?

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