Toronto, Winter, 2012. In utter desperation, I answered an ad on Craigslist – 2 or 3 days, a 4 hour/day commute, back-breaking grunt work, BUT cash at the end of the day. No paperwork, just cash. Sweet!
Many of the jobs I held back in the late 70s-early 80s — toiling as a construction labourer in sub-zero temps in Edmonton, back breaking-hand ripping tree planting stints in the Rocky Mountains, washing dishes for gorbies in Jasper, mindlessly polishing car handles in auto parts assembly plants, and bartending for spoiled rich kids and lost locals in small town Canadian resorts, and in Legions filled with forgotten veterans. They were all diamonds in the rough. I pulled out of them unique experiences, stories, and a long list of characters to populate my stories.
This job promised nothing.
From the boardroom to the loading dock.
This was a ‘survival job’ in a forklift parts warehouse, 2 or 3 days of clearing out part of the warehouse and constructing storage racks. Lift this, sweep this, push this, pull that. I love this physical stuff, still I thought I’d moved on from these types of jobs back in the early ’80s when I wanted something better, and went to university. Decades later, the real world has come back with a vengeance.
Now instead of the phony world of polished shoes, creative attire, gladhanding and upwardlymobilespeakact, I’m decked out in T-shirt, jeans, and work boots; my hair is a wild curly mass of salt and pepper, best described as a scruffy bird‘s nest. Instead of pushing paper and kissing ass, I’m here to lift, push, carry, and count parts; large parts, tiny parts, heavy parts, light parts. So, along with two young down n’outters, we go about our tasks with measured gusto. Not here to impress with our dress, just what’s asked of us, get paid cash at the end of the day, and hope to be called back tomorrow. That‘s it.
The cast of characters found at the bottom of the barrel.
The full-time shipping guy hustles here and there, scowling, head down, muttering to himself and occasionally to us in Urdu-tinged English. We never caught his name, so buddy one and buddy two call him buddy. Odd. They know each others names, but they still call each other buddy. This could either be really simple or quite confusing. By the end of that day, they named him Pedro because they couldn’t understand what he was saying, therefore he wasn’t one of them, so not a buddy. I guess they figured he was speaking Spanish. More than likely they couldn’t be bothered to give a moment’s thought, and definitely not the dignity of challenging their synapses.
A few days go by and I’m finding out bits and pieces of buddies stories.
Buddy number one, ‘Warehouse Mike’, appears to be the prototypical go-gett’um working class guy. Ambitions to run his own business. Moving company. Simple. Just what the owner of this place wants to hire.
I like him.
But, I start to learn that this Canadian who could readily replace the immigrant is saddled with a co-dependent crack-addled girlfriend whose part-time job is as a prostitute. Endless cellphone interruptions take him off to miscellaneous areas of the warehouse where he can reassure his paranoid ‘better’ half that he is really working and not screwing someone. Then, the inexplicable lapses in showing up for work, and the countless unproductive hours are hard for the owner to miss.
And then there’s buddy number two. What’s his story? Ex-street kid whose every second word is ‘fuckin’, doesn’t seem worth the trouble to get to know though he’s constantly jabbering about himself and his racist views, and the fact he’s milking the welfare system that favours street kids over those stupid bastards who should know better and have more advantages – the middle class.
I don’t like him.
And then I learn that he’s saddled with an ex-street girl/older woman and a baby, BUT they’re working together to push away all the bad people they’ve been hanging with, get the hell out of their crackhead apartment building, and grab something better.
I like him.
‘Warehouse Mike’, well, as long as he’s saddled with his girlfriend, he’s destined to spiral ever faster into oblivion. He admits she’s the problem, so why doesn’t he bolt?
In a hasty 15-minute break I find out. He revealed that he was adopted, fostered out, kicked out, then came the stealing, lying, violence, assault, prison, rehab, etc., etc. He asks, Why wasn’t there a way to figure things out?
I like him.
And then, he’s gone. He didn’t show for work the next day or ever again.
He left behind his steel-toe work boots.
I take them.
Languishing in purgatory.
This is 21st century empire building – one forklift part at a time.
This is becoming a hidden gem – a microcosm of globalization’s impact at the grassroots level, the source of a book idea, and a bald-faced example of why white Canadians have been passed over for all those jobs we once thought were our right because we were born in this country. We got lazy. Birth is a lottery, and it only after the end of men, that this notion is hitting home.
It’s weeks later. Warehouse Mike and the Street Kid are history, and it’s just me and my Karachi-born friend working the warehouse. As the hours go by, I start to learn about this high-energy, intense, perpetually scowling brown dynamo.
For the first time in a month, we talk.
He loosens up as I tell him about my life, how the hell I wound up here doing this. In turn, he tells me that he once had a business, he once had a real good life … one in which he made lots of money. He had a business selling exotic imported BMWs from Japan to the Saudi 1%. And then …
Here we go, same old song. He made a lot of money, spent a lot of money on wine, women and song – an enlightened Muslim, if you will. From ancient times to just a few seconds ago, that siren’s song has stayed unchanged. I too, fell for it – hook, line and sinker.
So, here we are in 21st century purgatory, doing penance for our ‘crimes’.
Just as think this tidbit is post-worthy, he hits me with another. Not only did he leave behind this cash cow of a business behind in Dubai, but as an immigrant … he has to just forget about the two university degrees he earned from a prestigious university. That sealed our connection, and sadly, we were now communicating on the same plateau. No longer the anonymous ’Pedro’, he has morphed into a representative of all that is wrong with this unjust world.
We joked about a lot of things after that. None more so than recognizing that we are now languishing in purgatory here – slaving, breaking our backs, and risking our necks for a business that makes really good money importing cheap goods from those regions of the world where 22 cents a day is considered a fortune, paying the freight costs, and reselling it to equally unscrupulous mechanics looking for any edge that’ll save ‘em a buck so they can gouge the end user. And as each trendy disadvantaged region gets exploited, these barely educated regular guys can look like hero to his kids by bring home the latest tech gizmo, the sleekest kitchen appliance, and a house that’s the envy of the neighbours.
I have two university degrees, sacrificed years of time, energy, relationships and money to attain those pieces of paper, and … there you have it.
My Karachi-born friend is in the same boat. So, here we both are … breaking our backs, risking our necks, instead of exercising our minds, to get the parts outs, while getting covered in all sorts of exotic, but toxic dust, all over us … for survival wages that’ll only stretch as far as the next payday … maybe!
This is the taste of 21st century globalized purgatory!
The 1% has triumphed. They live by the motto … ‘you won’t make money if you care about people’.
And so, he and I, as we momentarily stretch between lifting and pushing an endless stream of 100 lb. pieces of inventory from the floor up to racks 10 feet high, begin to think that despite all our education and potential … we are both only one slip of the balance from plunging head first to the concrete floor below with 110 lb parts adding insult to injury. The fact that that part that caused out permanent injury, let alone, fatal injury was made by anonymous (probably trafficked) workers for pennies a day, shipped by a global network of transportation giants for pennies, to our loading dock – is definitely not lost on us — for we have yoooooniversity degreees. So that must mean, we’re smart!
I have two degrees, but never have I felt so stupid.
Once, we were Men
Early one morning on the way to work, I spied a young woman reading a book – yes by God, a printed book – alone in a greasy fast food java pit stop before work. The mix of anxiety, frustration etched on her face shouted out that she was desperately trying to be swept away into the world of her imagination instead of heading to her daily grind. She lingered on page 167, reading and re-reading the same line, clinging to every word, chewing on every letter, waiting for her white knight to come. He fails to arrive … again. Dejected, she steels herself and dashes out into the day, clutching her book to her breast for safety.
That moment slammed home a very important lesson in the neo-renaissance of men.
As a youth, I fell in love with movies, made a couple, wrote several screenplays, and still tend to write in images. But, as I edged closer and closer to homelessness in the abyss of the 21st century, it became blatantly clear that it was books — yes, by God, printed books — not more Hollywood blockbusters, that needed to get into the hands of as many people as possible.
Even hobos can get their hands on books and so too, can the neo-hobos of the 21st century — the formerly middle class man.
When you’re a down and out father, giving the kids two whole hours of being swept away in an unusual sea of relief is sometimes too much to resist … but then, comes the crash. The bellies are growling, the minds delirious with hunger, and the kids are fearfully asking ‘What’s for dinner?’
That choice is only available when you’re a lone hobo … riding the rails from the 1870’s thru’ to the 1940s and now again, in the 2000’s. If you’re on your own looking for work across the nation you can ‘indulge’ in two hours of ‘relief’ from the everyday trials and tribulations.
In the Ghost Kingdom, not everyone can afford to see a movie. We all have tough choices to make that have no correlation to the latest entertainment schlock that airs nightly with vomit-inducing regularity. In the Ghost Kingdom, not everyone has electricity, in fact, more often than not, it along with heat, TV, and phone — have been cut off … by the curiously privatized commodities that our elected governments should be regulating and protecting us from if they want to have any chance of being proclaimed the most liveable places in the world … by impartial organizations.
So everything’s been cut off, you’re in the dark, the kids cuddled under blankets, confused, feeling vulnerable … not like their friends! Grab a candle or flashlight and … read! Read anything laying around. Read to your kids! Bond! It doesn’t matter what you read … just read! Knowledge is power, and right now brother, you and I both need all we can get! But guess what, all is not lost, we can join a local library and check out — for FREE — the font of the world’s wisdom, the musings of history’s greatest minds, and the foundations of our renaissance.
If the seers like Jon Jeter (Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People … http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-393-06507-7) are right and we are being cast out on our own to fend for ourselves like in the Dark and Middle Ages, then we need to take charge of our own destinies, our own bodies, our own minds.
Everyday, I see clusters of men waiting at bus stops, outside temp labour agencies, and numerous alleyways. Most look stunned, dazed and confused, deep in their thoughts about mouths to feed, past glories, working in purgatory, or trying to make sense of the blasted bits and pieces of the lives they thought they were going to make. Some still ape the early bravado of their youth when all seemed within reach. Impenetrable. Invincible. The world as they knew it was theirs for the taking. I want to write for them … for you. For your survival and your revival. Once we were men. But the world changed all around us. We were emasculated by forces beyond our control.
Like the Romans who watched their city burn to the ground, we got distracted by the ‘bread and circuses’ of globalization, the greed of the few, and the pro sports and it’s multi-multi-multi-million dollar glory boys that we are brainwashed into cheering for … guess what, while they were shootin’ ‘roids in the same desperate urge to maintain their status and manhood … we were being robbed of our self-esteem, our manhood.
It is no longer okay to discriminate against readers in the workplace. He all have the right to enrich our lives, to stretch dream of deeper possibilities than who the latest
So, stuff a book in your backpack. Wedge it next to your daily ration of pasta or rice and sauce you’ll reheat at 12:30, your work boots you’ll lace up with resignation, and those fresh socks you’ll put on for the 2-hour bus ride home so you don’t smell of sweat, dirt, and stale dust.
Make room for a book you can pull out and read on break without attracting the derision of fellow workers or disdain of employers thing, oh, a reader … well, he may not be suitable meat for further work.
Books that can be packed away so you can defiantly say to yourself, “Okay … let’s pretend I can’t read for a while so I can make some money. See you after work”
Don’t let the bastards win!