All true snowboarders have at some point pushed buttons, hauled crates or stacked shelves through the long, hot summer months in order to fund their winter adventures, and no doubt all snowboarders have tales to tell of their worst jobs. However, few have such a varied and abysmal curriculum vitae as Scott Penman.
At 15 my old man advised me against leaving school to rebuild and restore Ape skatepark in Thornby. It was run by a Turkish bloke affectionately known as ‘Turbo Trash’ who had a top lip to rival a Mario brother. “Scott Penman, your time is up!" he would bellow over the PA system. Either that or his catchphrase, well-mimicked by everyone with a laminated membership card: “Do your helmet up!"
I think the main reason I wanted to take on the failing business was to abolish the under-16s helmet rule. That, and what kid wouldn’t want to own a warehouse in an industrial estate filled with sketchy ramps? I’d have had about a decade on Rob Dyrdek and his Fantasy Factory. It even had a foam pit: a rat-infested mound of bust couches and mattresses filled with enough odd shoes and lost wallets that, if Turbo Trash had only cleared it out, he could’ve probably covered the overheads for another few months.
The park eventually closed, and the ramps were burnt. Unable to raise them from the ashes I instead stayed on at college, my dad convincing me I should at least get the qualifications needed to get to higher education. While classmates fretted about UCAS points, I found the whole thing pointless. I remember having to do a mock university interview in my final year: “Mr Penman, do you feel you have what Oxford is looking for?’’
Obviously not; I cheated through every exam I’ve ever had to do, often with such ingenuity that I should’ve been given passing grades regardless. I couldn’t wait to leave school, and the idea of further education felt like elective torture. We don’t need no education – I’m going to work in the mountains. I’m going to heli-drop from choppers, guide pros round secret powder lines in Alaska, shape huge park kickers and grow a masses of facial hair.
Well, you don’t need an education to be a beard farmer, but mountain guides, park shapers and helicopter drivers are all vocations reserved for the learned. And I still can’t grow a fucking beard! I was however educated enough to wash pots in a restaurant and that got me on the hill every day. Now all I had to do was go pro so I could live off the endorsements and video game royalties!
Just as the beard never grew, the big cheques and contracts never materialised either. As the snow melted – along with my dreams – I had to return to the UK, to a deserted home town. My friends had all gone to university, other than the numptys who’d done nothing but smoke weed all though their adolescence. At least that meant I had people to smoke weed with in between agency work that would enable me to save for the upcoming season.
I had to become accustomed to a variety of shit jobs. Without an education, experience and only June-through-September - soul willing - to swap for tender, options are limited. Even Tacky-Ds won’t bother putting you through nugget training if you’re planning on fucking off as soon as there’s word of a bar job waiting for you in the mountains. Over the past decade of seasons, my summer work experience of shit jobs reads as such:
People say that it’s satisfying working with special needs people. At this job, I was in a office full of them. If you want to get ahead in student finance you start at the bottom, taking loose finality documents (P45s, gas bills etc) from students and making a paper sandwich between orange sheets that the scanner can recognse. I’d make big pointless Scooby-Snack-size meals for an industrial scanner, the only saving grace being that you could listen to your iPod. I’d hammer hours of audiobooks, avoiding managers’ glares as I’d blissfully make origami, trying not to get dribble on my shoulder from the oxygen thieves next to me. I never got moved up in the student finance game - I didn’t quit, wasn’t sacked. Just stopped going.
One shady office building down a back alley off Grange Road in Darlington hosted a telesales lair of horrid people, working on commission mis-selling extended warranties on Sky boxes - a complete con! If there is a hell then I can be quite sure I’ll be there along with the rest of the mis-sales team.
I would cold-call people like your gran and your old uncle Bill. I would prey upon pensioners that didn’t know any better with a script designed to mislead Sky customers into believing that their home entertainment system was covered in case of malfunction (which it wasn’t), that we would be actually saving them money (which we weren’t), that we in fact already had their bank details (which of course we didn’t). A huge poster on the wall next to the daily targets would display the first four digits used on every bank’s cards. Every time I got someone’s bank details I earned a tenner commission, as well as a basic wage as long as I hit my targets.
I was making 500 quid a week, wearing blinkers on my morals, until a lady had to rest the phone down to open her wallet as she only had one arm. That was my last call for Starlight Repair. I’ve held a feeling of guilt in my stomach from that stint of employment for years and always will. I feel deeply ashamed and would like to apologise to anyone affected by one of these Sky box scams – they even made it on to Watchdog!
Starlight Repair was closed down not long after my five week stint. I even saw the owner down the job centre some years later a horrid-looking scallywag caricature still licking his fake front four teeth like he always did.
More telesales, but actually selling a service this time, providing budget template websites for a hundred quid. Four pages, eight photos, useless designers and terrible customer service - we’d promise the world and deliver just a slither. Complaints were high but sales were too, and each one got you a bottle of booze. I could’ve opened an offie at the end of my first month.
I’d target dance schools, the idea being I’d be able to give ‘em a bit of charm. I must’ve called every dance teacher in the UK: jazz, ballet, tap... none of them bitches were safe. I sold websites to tiny tots’ dancing clubs and sassy strippers with pole classes to promote. I even pitched websites to escorts.
Every sales guy who could do it thought they were the Wolf Of Wall Street. All of’ em had a coke habit, a shit sports car and a delusions of being the bollocks. I killed myself trying for sales in that first month or so, fuck knows why. I guess it felt good to be the best, marking tally lines on a white board and sniffing white lines off a phone book. That’s what turning up to work in a tie will do: cut off all the sense to your head! It all lasted a few more months, ‘til they blocked Youtube on the system and I was out!
Stick in at school kids, or you too could end up working night shifts in the Aldi distribution centre.
When I went for the education day, them crafty German supermarket PR teams had prepared a training video that showed clean-cut members of society working together to help feed the world, all the while having great fun as they swooshed around on folk lifts and pallet trollies. These little scooter cart things looked like a yellow version of what Storm Troopers would ride to the Death Star canteen. Unfortunately, five minutes into my first shift I knew it wasn’t going to be as fun as working for Darth Vader.
It did, however, have its own evil robotic voice controlling the entire goings-on in the warehouse. Plugged in to a headset, she would dictate the amount of boxes of bananas, turnips, blueberries or bags of salad you would have to load onto your pallet trolley. You’d scoot your cart two feet and read her out the number displayed on that section’s area tag.
“37’’ I’d say to this electronic bitch in my head, whilst eyeing up the heavy boxes of bananas. “Take twelve" she’d say. “Fuck twelve heavy boxes of bananas" was my usual reaction, but there was no arguing with that cow. “38" I’d say as I scooted another two feet forward, still knackered from the banana-tossing and praying she’d come back with a single digit, ‘cause boxes of pineapples are heavy bastards too. “Take fourteen." She never once said please.
Usually with manual labour there’s a lot of banter that keeps you going, but with only the robo-bitch to converse with the atmosphere was like Auschwitz - zombies in hi-vis jackets. Aldi was back-breaking work, especially as I was coming back from a broken back! There’s lots of backs in that sentence, but I’ll never go back to Aldi!
We were Nazis in a Christmas tree concentration camp, up in the Black Isles of Inverness. Trees would be brought in by the thousands. Netted and helpless, they were labelled and piled in order of value. We would pack trees into coffin-shaped holes; 60 of the infant trees would fit in a single coffin, or 25 of the old-timers, then we’d crush them down. I can still hear the branches breaking off each other as I pulled down on the hydraulic lever, sealing the trees’ fate before they were tied off and sent on for retail.
We’d move around 2000 trees per day, rain or shine (or snow), from 6am ‘til you couldn’t go anymore. We’d live on-site in caravans, while some slept in their cars. The job would usually last a month with no days off and no rest, making it an ordeal both physically (tendonitis and repetitive strain would kick in after the first few days) and mentally (the trees would haunt you as you lay awake at night, the count constantly rolling through your mind).
As much of nightmare as it was, it was also satisfying to be working outdoors with mates, all in the struggle together, stacking money for the upcoming season. We’d come away fucked but with usually the best part of four grand banked. If you bought a Christmas tree from Homebase anywhere in the UK over the last four years, there’s a 25% chance I touched it – either me or Angus ‘Das Goose’ Leith, anyway.
That job would give me a weird feeling about Christmas for ever more, knowing the brutal parts of the industry built around Jesus’ birthday. I just thank his old man that Angus’ brother didn’t have a contact on a turkey farm…
I have to remind myself that it’s all a matter of context, though - some people don’t have a choice. Some people have a mortgage, or a family to look after, a dependent or thousands of pounds of debt. They struggle all day in working conditions far worse than mine, stuck on a treadmill chasing a carrot that they’ll never be able to enjoy. Some kids are put to work making skate shoes they’ll have to wait a decade to fit into, let alone afford.
Forget about snowy mountains; millions of kids are right now working mountains of rubbish, digging in waste to collect plastic to swap for pennies. In an age where the slave trade is more prolific than ever, writing titbits about jobs I didn’t much like to fund my travels around the world makes me feel like a cunt.
So every time you’re having a bad day, annoyed that someone in the office keeps nicking your almond milk (that was me by the way), every time you’ve been overtaken or under-paid, think of a little brown boy working in shit. It won’t make you feel better, but it’ll put it all in perspective!