“You really despise working here, don’t you?”
I’m on the four to eleven and Marcus hits me with this barely an hour into the shift. He’s working the cash next to me and it’s not frantic busy and he just shoots this out. I like Marcus but more importantly he seems to like me. I’m old enough to be his father and I’m here doing this job same as him. I can’t believe he said this. Of course he nailed it. And I’m kind of embarrassed if it’s been this obvious but I don’t think it has, not really. Marcus is an intelligent, perceptive young man. He has the further virtue of being unpolluted by higher education, if it’s still called that. He graduated from John Oliver high school and has been working since then, most of the time at two jobs. He’s been here five years. He got hired just before the economy tanked and places like this were advertising in the window for staff. Really, he knows nothing about me but he considers me “hip”—the word he used. That could be because I have a passing familiarity with rap and hip-hop music, which he likes. On another occasion he observed to another employee in my presence, “Steve’s a gentleman.” He has also acknowledged that, in spite of my advanced years, I’m a hard worker, “unlike some other people around here.”
“Well, yeah, but I need the money. Got bills to pay.” Is my response on the cash. The dreary truth. So I’ve been working in this place, part-time, for two years now. Tonight is my 300th shift, which sounds like an incredibly huge number. Three hundred times I’ve come in here. It’s a shocking number. Am I stupid? I remember being a customer here. I never dreamed I’d work here. It’s been hard mentally. It was humiliating for me to come here to work. That’s right. Some people messed me up at my previous employ and I decided my only option was to leave. It seemed to be an integrity issue at bottom. Today I wouldn’t cross the street for integrity. Can’t afford it. Maybe I would.
So I hack it here, or try to. I’ve never experienced episodes of such black depression since I’ve been doing this. Sob story-wise, it’s brilliant. That there’s lots of pain to go around doesn’t matter. Working here is stressful. I’m on call. It’s not often that I know ahead of time what days I’ll be working. This is stressful. My blood pressure rises in the morning and afternoon when I might get a call. I just never know if it’s coming or not and I don’t like that. It’s unsatisfactory. My brain reels but it changes nothing. I haven’t come across anything else that might be more respectable. These are not frothy, buoyant times for white guys with grey hair but this job certainly lines up with my working class roots. Do people still have those kind of roots? I’m the old dockworker who should have retired years ago except for gambling debts and other bad decisions, the grey-head labourer working a crap job for peanuts because I’m stupid? Of course.
Everybody’s stupid here. You have to be. It’s a stupid job. I didn’t say it, Antonio did one night when we rode public transit out of here together at the end of a late shift. He’s been working for this outfit a long time. Dealing with the public all the time is stupid, but that’s the job.
Employer-employee relations are in the stone age here. I thought it was bad at my previous employ but there are some truly Neanderthal attitudes here. I nearly laughed out loud the first time I heard someone in the staff lunch room bitch about management. It was like theatre. It was like being back in my old employ, listening to someone bitching about management. It’s universal. It’s the long slog until out of this stupid place for good. Very familiar.
Recently, if we’re both working the late shift and I’ve got the car, I’ve been giving a ride home to another fairly recent hire who happens to live near me. I should complain. I’m a some time writer who spent twenty years in books but this guy has a masters degree in forestry and can’t find a job. We are the intellectual brain-trust of the store. My friend, from what I’ve seen, seems to handle his affliction better than I know I handle mine. He’s always cheerful. It could be he’s a better actor than me. I thought I was putting up a pretty good front until Marcus blew that up.
I don’t know how long I’ll stick it here. I’ve found it interesting that in spite of the dreariness a sense of solidarity and camaraderie has developed with my work-mates. Why not? You’re still working with people. I left an intolerable situation in a place I’d worked a long time and here I am in a new situation working with an entirely different group of people and, for better or worse, I’m now a member of this group. Sort of a member. It’s about getting on with the job. You can’t be miserable all the time. You can try, but cheerfulness keeps breaking out. Maybe that’s not quite the right word.
They call me Steve, Steve-O, Steven, Stevie-boy, Steverino. I’m a familiar face now, someone who comes in, gets on with it, and leaves. Just like everyone else.
Later that night it’s Marcus and me in the staff lunchroom, nobody else in there at the moment. He asks me if I smoke pot. “I’ve done everything but heroin,” I say. But then he’s naming off some drugs I haven’t tried and, well, no actually, I haven’t done oxycontin or ecstasy. “I’m a retired druggie, but in my prime, yeah, I tried everything, or just about everything.”
“You’ve smoked crack”? Marcus asks.
“I have,” I say. “I wouldn’t do it now though. It’s hard on the body. I’m old.”
For a minute Marcus gets talking about himself. He’s just turned twenty-five. “I’m not really happy with how my life is going,” he says. “I think I could be doing much more than this and I feel like I’m kind of wasting time. I don’t know what to do but I feel I have to do something.”
“Believe me, it’s not that unusual a feeling. It’s more common than you might think. I’ve felt like that for years.”
It’s about ten o’clock. One hour to closing. It’s not busy. I’m standing at till 8 and look down the row of points-of-sale and see what looks like Jaccard at till 1. He sees me. I can tell that he isn’t quite sure it’s me, just as I’m not absolutely sure it’s him, but pretty sure. I deal with a sale and there Jaccard is beside me. He’s come down the store to say hi. He’s curious to know what I’m doing here. He has a puzzled look on his face and is slightly shocked, I can tell, to see me.
“You had enough of UBC, the bookstore?” he says. Bascially J. is my mechanic, or the son of my garage guy, who has now taken over the family business. And we used to go to the same gym. I give him the drop-kicked by trolls line. It’s getting old, but he hasn’t heard it before. I feel that twinge, that unpleasant surge I get when someone comes in that I know, and who knows me. Tonight it’s Jaccard. Haven’t seen him in here before.
“That’s the two biggest threats at UBC,” I’m telling him. “Boredom’s number one, and the second is trolls. I was looking for work for two years. Finally I had to take this. I’m here part-time.” I’m explaining my presence and I’m thinking, wow, I’ve known Jaccard slightly now for probably in excess of fifteen years, although not quite twenty. Varsity Motors.
“Hope you get back on your feet soon,” he says, leaving out the south door with his lady companion.
It’s not true, of course. That never happened to me. I was not drop-kicked by trolls. It’s not even funny anymore and some troll, no doubt, might find it offensive. I haven’t cared. It’s just a provocative thing to say, and people aren’t sure they’re hearing you right so you usually have to say it again. Then they smile or laugh maybe because they don’t know what else to do. Happy 300th, Stevie-boy.