This is a story about race, class, and poverty, from a friend who writes a blog anonymously as Invisible Man.
“You have a line on some work?”
“What kind of work?”
“Cash. EI doesn’t give me enough. I need something they won’t take away from me.”
“I give you a number. Maybe he won’t hire you now, but you keep calling, you will get something.”
I was sitting on the steps of the trade school with a friend from the machining program. Li was in his late 60’s. He was part of a large group of Chinese engineers who had immigrated and joined the program together. I’d never asked for a favour until now.
Yup, $2400 in maxed-out credit cards, and the collectors had dared to address me by my first name. They woke me up on a Saturday morning, to which I responded with choice words that ensured my case would receive no leniency.
“What you used to do before?” he asked.
“I made suits,” I responded. “You?”
“Meat packing. I cut pig’s ribs with a big scissors. Makes your hands hurt.”
“Yeah. There’s nothing easy in this life.”
“That’s right. In China we work hard but no good the pay. Everything we make goes to make someone rich.”
“Same thing here.”
“Yes, but there if you are part of the government you are like a king. Even the children of government officials think they are great people. If you don’t respect them, you go to jail.”
“I heard they are cracking down on corruption. Even a governor of a province was executed.”
“That is only when one part of the government fights the other part. If you work, no difference for you. Not what Mao used to talk about. He was for the working people.”
It was not the time to split ideological hairs.
The Chinese guys were getting tired of being condescended to and harassed by the teachers because of their English skills. Canadian bureaucracy having denied them the possibility of work in their field, immigrant and Canadian-born instructors were now interrupting and slowing their efforts to change careers. The Chinese crew started to get vocal about it and were receiving disciplinary measures as a result. I asked them if they wanted to start a student union at the trade school. “No,” they replied, “by the time a union gets built, we’ll be finished the programme. We get our respect by staying strong.”
I got along really well with the Chinese crew. I was one of the few who took the time to explain English grammar to them and help them understand the textbooks. It didn’t go unnoticed; and within a few weeks I had the interview at an injection moulding factory after school.
The employer was a loud Italian. I went through the usual interview process of explaining my Italian name and its geographical roots with relation to my skin colour, and was hired on the spot. They made rubber soles for shoes and boots.
I showed up every evening after school and worked pretty well. The boss was rarely there at that time of day; the mechanic (the only Quebecois in the place) supervised a crew of Haitians, one Moroccan, one Italian, a Chinese mechanics student from my trade school, and me. Cameras mounted behind every work station ensured that we stayed until the end of the shift. That didn’t stop us from taking extended “bathroom breaks.” You needed those to stay alert on five sixteen-hour days in a row.
On one occasion, I was visibly exhausted, and a little high from breathing the plastic fumes. My hands did the work automatically while my mind was on my girlfriend in the hospital. The Moroccan came over with a bottle of juice in his hands: “Drink this, my brother, you’re scaring me.” That was no idle commentary. The Chinese guy broke his hand a few weeks later, when he failed to pull one hand out of the machine while he started it with the other.
There was the usual workplace drama. The Italian liked me when he found out I was Italian. He was excited, actually. “I knew you were Italian. I just didn’t realize because of your beard!” He lent me one of his tools, which a Haitian worker from the night shift promptly stole. I was no rat, but stealing is stealing. The next day the Italian guy came over and wordlessly grabbed it out of his hands. “Told you they steal,” the mechanic commented to me. The petty skirmishes: they added up to such a lot of distance.
Within a few weeks, I’d shown enough initiative that the mechanic asked me if I wanted to be his helper. The mechanics here were in charge when the boss was away. They were also Whites. No one else wanted the job. I said, “Of course!”
It was actually pretty great. There were no wage privileges for being a “helper,” but it was a great way to relieve the boredom: I learned the mechanical, hydraulic, and pneumatic systems, lifted heavy moulds, screwed them into the machines, and learned the computer controls for plastic temperature and ejection pressure. When I wasn’t doing that, I relieved the workers who went on rotating break and kept up the duties of an operator, loading the machines with plastic pellets, running the machines, and following written orders to specification. I built some serious muscles doing all this, and that made me happy too.
My girlfriend got out of the hospital, and that made things a lot easier.
The night shift was a strange crew, as they usually are in workplaces where the three shifts are not rotated. They had a law all to themselves. The Russian mechanic came in to relieve the Quebecois, riding his bike because he didn’t make enough to afford a car. He still made more than we machine operators did.
One of the night crew was a shuffling White man named Gregoire, who had a large belly and a tattoo of four connected squares on his right bicep. Clearly, it had once been a swastika.
Gregoire was very friendly. Too friendly… He’d make a point of talking to me before he started every shift; and like most of the night shift he showed up an hour early. That made for some interesting times. Eventually he told me that he spent the afternoon at the pub ‘n’ grub in the industrial park and that I should come out there for a beer on my lunch break.
Well, I had enough confidence in my muscular ability by that point that I figured I could take someone if I needed to. So I showed up for lunch on Friday. Gregoire’s two buddies were at the table with him. He introduced me as a student machinist and fellow co-worker. The buddies stared at me. Hard.
I stared back. I nodded to each of them without blinking, then started on my meal. No words from then on.
The waitress came out and started sweeping the patio. The three of them were transfixed by the small amounts of cleavage and leg that her efforts forced her to reveal. Their eyes followed her every move. I ate casually and gave her a glance from time to time, but it took a quite lot of effort to stay as focused on her as these three were. Not that I hadn’t done the same to girls my own age from time to time.
“Show’s over, boys!” She straightened up, dumped the cigarette butts into the garbage, and went back to work behind the bar.
I went back to work across the street.
“So you hung out with Gregoire?” asked the mechanic.
“Yeah, was that ever something!”
“He stared at the waitress the whole time, didn’t he? Him and his two buddies?”
“That’s what you do when you can’t get it up. Gregoire has no life and no woman will have him, so he wakes up, goes to the bar and looks down her dress for five hours while he drinks, then comes to work.”
And a little later… “Yeah, the boss is worse. His wife doesn’t want to give him any anymore, so he sleeps with a girl that works on the day shift. His wife just found out, so stay out of his way for a while.”
Good to know.
I got tired of the 18-hour days, eventually, and quit work abruptly after three months. I’d gotten out of debt and had a tidy sum in the bank for the first time in years. The boss stayed true to his commitment and gave me my last envelope of cash. It was probably the best job of my life.
The government caught me a year later when they investigated the shoe factory, and I had to pay it all back.
Lesson learned. I should have been grateful and content to live on $700 a month in government handouts, and allowed the bill collectors to take all my stuff and sell it.
“We work hard, but no good the pay. Everything we make goes to make someone rich.”
Originally posted: November 7, 2011 at Recomposition