The Harsh Reality of Reality

I am sharing a car doing 130km/hr in a 90 zone with a mumbling, bumbling Acadian from New Brunswick at the wheel, an ex-convict and a 21-year-old First Nations kid who looks up to the aforementioned dubious characters. The two crazies in the front have smoked half a pack of cigarettes each since Victoria 50kms ago and we are bound for a demolition site to strip asbestos tile floors. This is a long way from the days when I was getting paid to travel and ski. Tagging along with this raucous is what it seems I must do though if I am to earn a cent this week.

The past week has been a humbling experience and profound insight into the harsh reality of many people’s reality—searching for work, any kind of work. I am in Victoria, BC looking to kill four weeks until my partner finishes University exams and we can begin the summer. Thus far my quest has proved futile for someone who considers himself extremely employable, especially given the work I am trying to find- labouring, landscaping, data entry, etc. Admittedly when potential employers ask what my recent experience is and I relate skiing and managing a web based company, it doesn’t necessarily prove that I am perfectly adapted to mindlessly swinging a shovel for the day. Perhaps my history makes me particularly ill equipped. A brain is of little use to an asinine endeavor, but brawn certainly isn’t. To this I boast that I have tree-planted, a sure fire way to convince someone you can handle physical labour. This reference however, only prompts the catcall of the job seeking demographic during this Global Economic Downturn- “I would love to help you out, but things are tight at the moment and we aren’t hiring.”

Last week upon initially arriving in Victoria I woke up Monday feeling positive and expectant that it ought not be too difficult to find a job that would put some summer cash in my pocket and help me pass the days. I trawled the Yellow Pages online, calling landscape companies listed down the page. I rode my bike around the streets for three hours stopping at every building site asking if they were in need of labourers. I quizzed all my friends and acquaintances who ever had a connection to Victoria and might be able to refer to me. Still nothing. Nada. People were approachable and took my number in case something came up, but the resounding sentiment was that in the current economic climate, people were cutting their own lawn and postponing that renovation. There just isn’t much work out there.

A few people had mentioned a Casual Labour Pool on Johnson St at the Cool Aid Society. Only when I had expended every other avenue could I bring myself to front up. Initially I had been told that you wait on the street displaying your wears—steel toed boots, hard hats, callused hands, pants covered in spilt paint—and trades people would came by and select any workers they needed for the day. You received cash at the end of the day and you needed to show up again the next day if the job didn’t carry on.

I arrived at 8am and waited outside the Cool Aid office, which doubled as a bus stop. Every 10mins the amassed crowd of professionals, elderly, trades people independently on their way to their respective job sites, etc would dissolve into the next bus and leave me standing alone. Closer to 9am, a congregation of a dozen tattered and battered characters, smoking the butts of cigarettes they found on the street had gathered and filed inside the building when the office opened. I followed suit and sat in the waiting area next to a person who hadn’t washed themselves or their clothes since Y2K and across from a recovering alcoholic. I couldn’t help but feel confident that I would score a job given my present company. The wind in my sails faded, however, when I began to consider the kind of tasks that would be offered to the demographic of job seekers that I waited in line with.

As it turned out, I needed to make an appointment for an interview in order for them to try and place me in “meaningful employment.” The labour pool I was looking for was located around the corner at Labour Unlimited. I pedaled over and signed their forms and went home to prepare my lunch for a 6am start the next morning.

Labour Unlimited is a business that supplies labourers to job sites, charging out to employers at a higher rate and paying the workers at a lower rate, hence making a profit. The standard hourly rate is $10-11/hr. They ensure all workers have the necessary safety equipment and rustle up the work.

I arrived a few minutes before 6am the next day and waited with the somber crowd of men who puffed away on cigarettes and kicked their boots, scuffing the soles across the dewy cement sidewalk. The doors opened at six and everyone sauntered inside, signed the sheet to demarcate their place in the line before relocating the plastic chairs pushed into the few tables in the room against the back wall.

The waiting area was blocked like a penitentiary mess hall. Linoleum floors, bare tables with initials carved into the tops, buzzing fluorescent lights and a washroom at the far end with ripped squares of toilet paper scattered around the cubicle. Refolded newspapers were the only link to the outside world, but all the headlines spoke of financial doom and gloom- Nissan To Slash 20,000 Jobs, U.S. Unemployment Rate Hits 26-year High, Euro Drops As Recession Deepens Across Germany.

On one wall a television switched to the sports channel loops every 20 minutes, reporting the same up to the minute scores. Below, a counter with a faded computer monitor and nicotine stained keyboard acts as the pearly gates to employment. Behind, the staff mutter discretely what the latest job entails and what it pays to the lucky recipient being offered it while the city outside slowly comes to life with people making their way to more assured employment.

A portrait of the room however, would depict scuffed work boots jutting out at lethargic angles. The men—and occasional woman who would stir up a frigid sexual tension for a few moments before the men remind themselves to behave—seemed to be the most permanent furniture in the room.

Over the next half hour more men looking for a days work would shuffle through the door with heads hung low, sign in and take a seat. One cluster of men would chat about the hockey, while another supposedly well informed character articulated numerous conspiracy theories about US politics to anyone who would point an ear in his direction. Others would nip outside for a smoke, but most of us just sat there, waiting and watching the same sporting highlights over and over again. No matter how glorious the day outside reveled itself to be, the mood and prospects inside the office remained indefinitely grey.

I did manage to score a job that first day and timidly stepped past the unfortunate wondering the same things they were—why was I getting called up and not them? It was in Duncan, an hour away and this is how I came to be speeding down the road with Usher swearing over the top of some disjointed beat on the radio while Joe babbled and Bruce the jailbird relived the glory days as a boxer. Bruce was missing his front teeth and had lost his last job with a paper recycling company because he threatened to assault a client. He didn’t care. The client was asking for it and there are plenty of jobs out there. Apparently…

It was bottom of the barrel kind of work. Wearing dust masks and suits, we tore up asbestos tile in the confined upstairs offices of an old supermarket. Hot, carcinogenic, backbreaking work, all the while being micro managed on how to use a crowbar and broom. By days end, I had been awake for 12 hours and made a cheque for $70, which we speed home to cash so the others could afford a few beers, macaroni cheese and some “bologna” if they had any left over.

The next day I arrived to the same cluster of men and played my part in the routine as though it were a habit after only a single day. I exchanged silent nods with the few I recognized from the day before, but many of the faces were fresh in the sense that they were different. They were still cast in the same unkempt, slack shouldered mould of those whom they had replaced.

By 8am a majority of those who hadn’t been called up had filtered out, going out for a smoke and not coming back, glad that they had the excuse that they tried to find work. For the rest of the day noone could say they hadn't tried and it would be the world that was amiss. A few, maybe half a dozen of the 30+ who had fronted by 6.30 had got work on top of those that had jobs carrying over from the day before. I sat next to a guy in perhaps his mid thirty’s who after an hour and a half was a member of the remaining few determinedly waiting for the scrap of a job to present itself.

Mike broke the ice, asking how long I had been coming in. I said it was my second day, but that others had said how few people were getting called up. He recounted that he had used Labour Unlimited in the past between summer guiding jobs and had been able to come in at 8am and still get work. He liked the concept because he could party or decide he just didn’t want to work one day and had no one to answer to.

Within a few tentative, early morning questions I was then learning about how Mike now had problems with his legs, which meant he wasn’t able to guide. His doctor didn’t have a diagnosis or remedy for his ailment. He went on to describe how last November he had wanted to get in touch with his father—who I inferred he didn’t share a good relationship—in order to ask whether there was any family history that might shed light on his condition. He had a contact address from a few years ago, but wasn’t sure if his father still lived there. Absent-mindedly he googled his father’s name. Top of the search query was his father’s obituary from the week prior.

Here I was sitting in a room with a tribe of men with little or no job prospects, unsure where their next meal might come from and hearing first hand what I haven’t yet come across in fiction. This experience had been a rollercoaster from when I first started making inquiries to find work. I had swung from being positive and upbeat to feeling demoralized at not being able to find any kind of work, to open minded about my current approach and the people and characters that I might encounter. But now it just felt a little forlorn. What really draped that mantle on the situation was that Mike felt no over bearing regret or remorse. He felt enough to still be considered a sensitive human being, but so little that it seemed he had become resigned to the rough hand the world had dealt him. He didn’t expect anything more. His legs were giving out, taking away the vocation that while it was far from lucrative, he had at least enjoyed and his father whom he had met only a handful of times had passed away the week before he had tried to contact him.

What does this human experience say about the “Global Financial Downturn? Very little. People across the board have been affected- taken pay cuts, sold the holiday house, been laid off and forced to work jobs that clash with how they identify themselves. Many have fallen from grace from office managers to office cleaners, grad students to welfare slaves. But those on the bottom wrung of the ladder just might get pushed off all together.