What Would Hemingway Do?

I no longer in retail, and I don’t regret it.  But I do.

In October 2011, I began working at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario–widely known as the LCBO, for the full name sounds like it’s pulled out of the Prohibition Era that the LCBO was created to end–a job that started at 14 bucks an hour, offered no guaranteed hours, gave no benefits until after five years–and even then, they were a trivial minimum offered only on condition of working a stipulated amount of hours per year that weren’t guaranteed to you–and left very little room for mental stimulation.  My job involved working a cash register, bagging orders, tearing down the load in the warehouse, and stocking the shelves.  I did the job for seven years almost to the day, until I left it for my more satisfying current full-time position as an associate editor for a magazine. (More on this later.)

The LCBO, Ontario’s government-run monopoly, which, although it allows wine and beer in grocery stores, maintains a tight control of distribution

Government-monopolized booze

Unless you hail from Ontario, you’re likely not familiar with the LCBO.  The retail outlet can find its origin in 1927, when Ontario, realizing that the prohibition of alcohol was an impossibility, lifted the alcoholic ban, flooding the country with the booze that never really left in the first place.  (During its eleven-year experiment with Prohibition, Ontario’s wineries were allowed to stay open, light beer was allowed to be manufactured and consumed, and breweries and distilleries were allowed to remain open for the export market.)

The LCBO was opened as a government-owned and -operated distribution and retail operation, a compromise between people who wanted access to booze and the lofty ideals of the temperance movement, rooted in a 19th-century Canada in which men drank heavily and abused their wives and children.  (In fact, temperance, along with the its sister movement of women’s suffrage, were the two largest causes championed by early feminists.)  The chain initially opened with 16 stores, four warehouses, and 16 mail order departments; two-dollar liquor permits were required to purchase alcoholic beverages.  The permits weren’t abolished until 1961, and although the LCBO had expanded to hundreds of stores by the ’50s, they weren’t friendly places: Customers had to have an alcoholic passport in order to make alcoholic purchases.  The passport displayed all of their purchases, and staff was expected to judge if customers were fit to consume alcohol; the passports stayed in place until 1962.  First Nations Ontarians weren’t allowed to buy booze until 1959, and women and visible minorities were effectively barred from working at LCBO stores.  Merchandise wasn’t displayed in stores until the mid ’60s, and it wasn’t until 1969 that the first self-serve LCBO opened.  (Prior to that, you had to go to a counter and ask a staff member to retrieve bottles for you.)

As a kid in the ’80s, I can remember going into LCBO stores with my parents; the stores felt like dreary, sterile buildings with bare cement walls; the outlets were seemingly designed to make you feel guilty about buying booze.  It wasn’t until the late ’90s that the LCBO began opening their big-box, customer-first stores, complete with its sought-after complimentary magazine, Food & Drink, which ended up, in a round-about way, to be my ticket to a more satisfying career.

First Nations Ontarians weren’t allowed buy booze until 1959, and women and visible minorities were effectively barred from working at LCBO stores.

The unintended side effect of the LCBO was the enormous cash cow that it became; for its 2016-2017 fiscal year, the LCBO had $5.89 billion in revenues, had a profit of $2.09 billion, and sent the province a dividend of $2.06 billion.  It is the world’s largest purchaser of alcoholic beverages, and even with the expansion of beer, cider, and wine sales into grocery stores, the LCBO holds a tight control on the distribution across the province, for grocery stores are obligated to purchase their alcoholic products from the LCBO’s warehouses.  This is telling, for of its two corporate mandates–social responsibility and fiscal profits–the latter seems to be the more important.  And, critically, the LCBO reports to the Minister of Finance.  (This is not necessarily a criticism of the LCBO; rather, it should be a recognition of how the government monopoly has evolved over the past 92 years.)

I Felt Trapped

I have two university degrees, both of which for over a decade failed to get me a position that I could have gotten with a high school diploma. I earned a B.A. in sociology and history from York University’s Glendon campus and a subsequent film degree from York’s fine arts faculty, which has since been renamed.  I sought the film degree because part way through my liberal arts degree, I had an epiphany that I should pursue a career in the movie business, mostly because I spent my teens and early to mid-20s watching movies, initially borrowing them from the library (remember when VCR was king?) and then spending all of my free time at Toronto’s old neighbourhood theatres, which by the ’90s had been converted to second-run theatres.  I had fallen into this false thinking that because I loved movies so much, I could earn a film degree, leave school, and then somehow enter the film business.  But three things eluded me: first, that I should spend my school years building up a portfolio of creativity that represented me, second I should build up a network of colleagues and mentors with whom I could have possibly collaborated, and third, that to make it into the creative side of the movie or tv business, you have to have immense talent and dedication.   I put none of the above-mentioned background work into getting into the field and participated in no practical school events that would have developed my skills.  (I also subsequently later realized that I don’t have a skill set to succeed in film or tv, for when I had my I.Q. test done in my late 30s, I realized that I am extremely low in the spatial intelligence needed to be in the visual arts; however, I have a near-genius level intelligence in verbal intelligence.)

After I finished my second degree, I was lost.  I had no job lined up, no money saved up, and no way to begin paying back my student loans.  While I was in school, my parents had moved to Erin, Ontario, a small town an hour’s drive northwest of Toronto.  So that’s where I was headed.  For about four months, I couldn’t find a job.  I eventually applied to a few temp companies, who placed me in positions in various factories and warehouses, including Canadian Tire’s distribution centre in Brampton, Ontario; a small electronics warehouse in Mississauga, Ontario; and various juice factories scattered across the Greater Toronto area.  I was even placed at a plant that processed chickens arriving from the slaughterhouse; luckily, the temp agency failed not only to tell me that it was a processing plant but also to wear appropriate clothing, so when I arrived, I wasn’t allowed do that job.  My longest placement with the various temp agencies was the Walmart distribution centre.  Walmart contracts out its distribution centres; they in turn contract out their hiring to temp agencies.  It’s a tactic that many large companies do, for they don’t have to go through the expense of hiring people, and if they want to get rid of somebody, the temp agency “reassigns” you to another client and never calls you back.  I was essentially working forty hours a week there but had to wait everyday for the temp agency to call me to assign me a shift.

Things Get Worse Before They Get Better

But temp jobs aren’t designed to last, and none of these did.  Nor did they provide me with enough income to be able to plan into the future, not that I had developed a plan at this point.  (If I had had the skill to plan for myself, I would have more effectively used my university days.)  So I picked up a few different jobs, including mucking horse stalls and working at Canada’s Wonderland, essentially a summer job that should have been for a high school student. 

All of these low-paying jobs were interrupted by months-long stretches of unemployment.  While still living in Erin, I drove to Guelph, Ontario, where I would get a non-profit agency to help me write my CV and come up with effective plans to pump out my resume.  At this point, I had no special skills and was still pumping out vague resumes intended for anybody who would hire me.  All this time, my mother urged me to apply to the government for disability payments.  I quite possibly could have qualified, if I had claimed a developmental disability, but going through the prospect of the difficult application process didn’t appeal to me, especially considering that I would have essentially been living the rest of my life on welfare.  I knew I was able to something; I just didn’t know what.

However, I wasn’t above using non-profit agencies dedicated to helping those with disabilities getting people into jobs; unfortunately, these jobs were entirely unsuited to me.  The first job was selling conference phones to businesses.  I have zero ability to sell, so that job lasted a mere six months.  Job number two was working at a call centre for RBC, the country’s largest bank; unfortunately, I’m not good at multitasking and quickly absorbing information, so I was unable to pass the training program.  At this point I was living on my own in Port Credit, Ontario, and had no job and rent to pay.  I quickly applied for EI and began pumping my CV out again.  I didn’t even have my own computer at this point–they were still somewhat expensive at this point–so I spent hours at the library, where I used the free computers to email CVs.  It took eight months, but I found a job.

I’m No Good at Talking on the Phone

The job: working at the call centre for the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC), the city-run agency that operates Toronto’s public transit system, including its buses, streetcars, and subways.  I was hired on a contract; the job was part time with no guaranteed hours, no benefits, although each shift was guaranteed to be eight hours, with a one-hour paid lunch.  I was hired to take calls in the TTC’s information centre, giving people routing information.  The routing information was easy for me (reading maps and understanding directions is one of my strengths), but I was stressed by the job: I was given only a minute and fifty seconds to give routing information to anxious people who would really slowly write the info down and then repeat it.  And people would yell at me, insisting that I was giving them wrong information.  I was kind of glad I didn’t get my contract renewed.  However, I was able to use that job to get into GO Transit, Toronto’s regional agency, where I would be doing public relations.  The majority of the job involved writing apology letters to people when their trains didn’t show up; however, after I was hired, I learned that about a quarter of the job involved talking to people who chose to phone in their complaints rather than email it in.  I lasted for almost eight months, when it became apparent to GO that I couldn’t deal with disgruntled people.  By this point, I was living on my own in Toronto, with no way to pay the bills, when, close to a year later, I landed a job, another contract, working at the YMCA, where I enrolled kids into YMCA summer camps.  It lasted seven months, and at the end, I was able to get another contract position at the YMCA: The YMCA had a government contract to place university grads into paid internships with non-profit environmental agencies, and I screened the applicants and filed their paperwork so they could work.  The job was great, but the  contract lasted only three months, and by January I was out of a job yet again.  I went a few months without another job, when I landed a job working the fall months at York University’s bookstore, stacking shelves with textbooks.  And it was this job that landed me the job at the LCBO.  It was my first time transitioning almost immediately form one job to another.

J’aime le LCBO

I got the job because I speak French; LCBO stores located in neighbourhoods with a certain threshold of francophones are required to have French-speaking staff.  So after going through the interview process at the LCBO’s flagship Summerhill store, I had an interview with a French translator, who rated my French as intermediate plus, which, at the time, was good enough to get you hired as French-language staff at the LCBO.  I was placed at a large LCBO store near where I live in midtown Toronto.  The store was ranked as the third- or fourth-busiest LCBO in the province; still, my shifts were rarely longer than five hours–occasionally they were six-and-a-half hours, and the only way to get enough hours was to work everyday–six months into the job, I was doing just that. (I even had to supplement my income by modelling for art classes. Read the blog!)  But the stress of working in a busy store every single day got to me, so when I found out that my store needed four people to work the midnight shift–come in at 11PM, break down the load, and stock the shelves–I jumped at it.  I didn’t have to deal with customers, I could listen to CBC on my phone while working, and I could keep to largely to myself.   And most importantly, I got my weekends off.  And I got forty hours a week.  And apart from being kept up on world events by listening to so much CBC, I enjoyed our lunches; we would take an hour and watch movies.  But working midnights is tough: by the end of the weekend, my body would be back to days, forcing me to nap on Mondays during the afternoon, it was hard to sleep during the summer, and during holidays, my family was unable to understand that I was having a hard time staying up to their schedule.  After nine months, I had to rebid for the midnight shift, and I lost.  I was back on days, with unpredictable hours.  I was working seven days a week and getting maybe 30 hours a week.

I Formulated a Plan

It was a Saturday in May 2013, and Toronto was having its annual Doors Open.  I was working a five-hour afternoon shift at the LCBO, so I didn’t have to be at the LCBO until 4PM.  I knew I was working Sunday too, so this day would be my only day to enjoy Doors Open.  I looked up some of the buildings that were open and decided to go to three buildings on Queen’s Quay: the Redpath sugar plant, the Corus radio building, and George Brown College’s then-brand-new campus.  I went to Redpath first, then off to Corus, and then off to George Brown.  

George Brown College’s Waterfront campus, where I had an epiphany

I walked around the first two floors of George Brown’s building but wasn’t all that impressed by it.  As I was walking down the stairs, I saw a stack of its calendars for continuing education, and, on a whim, I picked it up.  The first page I turned to was in the communications section, and it listed the department’s certificates.  I immediately noticed that it offered an editing certificate, consisting of classes in grammar, copy editing, and structural editing.  And best of all, it offered an internship class, where I could apply my skills and develop my resume.

Unfortunately, classes weren’t scheduled to begin again until September, but it gave me four months to research how I was going to pay for my these classes.  And I figured it out: Although I had almost no benefits at the LCBO, I discovered one that I could use.  It was a benefit that not too many LCBO employees took advantage of, but I decided I would.  The LCBO offered to pay for employees to take continuing education courses that could benefit their current position or could help them move into a position that they could reasonably expect to move into.  So in September, I filled out the forms, and in the section where the LCBO asked me to justify the benefits to the LCBO, I indicated that could move into the communications department, or, better yet, copy edit for Food & Drink.

I saw a stack of calendars for continuing education, and on a whim, I picked one up. The first page I turned to was in the communications section.

I was excited when they approved my initial two classes, and over the course of a year and a bit, I completed my certificate. My last course was the internship–again paid for by the LCBO–and after much arm twisting on my part, I was able to do a four-month internship copy editing for the LCBO’s much-loved magazine devoted to alcoholic beverages. (I actually did a second internship for a non-profit dance organization that also padded my resume and helped give me a deep appreciation for watching dance, despite the fact that I have two left feet.)

What’s Next?

I thought that once I had my certificate, I’d quickly become a sought-after freelance editor, and I would never have to worry financially again. It turns out that people aren’t hiring editors like they should, and although I had a couple of one-off clients, freelance editing never panned out. I quickly realized that were I ever to become employed in communications, I would have to market myself not only as an editor but also as a writer. (It actually makes sense: you can’t be a good editor unless you’re a good writer.) But I had no idea where to start, other than to start my own blog–you’re reading it write now–and submit pitches to magazines. The established magazines never replied to my pitches; however, I eventually started writing on other people’s websites. And although these websites–including a film website that was able to send me to major studio’s press screenings and the Toronto International Film Festival–didn’t have the money to pay me, they helped me pad my resume, so for the five years I applied to in-house writing jobs, I was able to pad up my portfolio to make somebody decide to take the bite and want to hire me. I never pictured myself writing for a magazine published by Ontario’s engineering regulator, nor did I really understand what engineers did before I took this job, but in a roundabout way, I owe it to the LCBO, who provided me with a job that barely paid the bills but also helped me get into a career. It wasn’t easy getting to this point, but I got here. So to the young man I worked with at the LCBO who, on my last day working at the LCBO, said, “Hey, do you think you can get me a job writing there? I like writing essays in school,” the answer is no. I didn’t put out all this effort for you. I did it for me.