Warehouse

01Apr10

Originally published in the Globe and Mail, 1999.

The spring that I graduated from university I was handed a diploma, crossed the stage and stood there, stunned.  I’d been working toward that day for so long without really thinking beyond it that its arrival felt like the air after a precipice.  A heartbeat later I’m standing in a warehouse.  It’s a new job and every inch of the place seems to scream out to me that I don’t belong.  On my first day, Tony is showing me around, patiently explaining the routines.  Each man puts on a snowsuit and cap, boots and gloves before launching out on a small, motorized truck.  You take a list with you on each trip and sail the aisles of a cold warehouse, collecting a dozen cases of frozen orange juice here, frozen pies there.  Finally you deposit the load, destined for a grocery store somewhere, and start out on another trip.  Sounds simple, but I felt ridiculous, wearing a snowsuit and trying to get the scooter-thing out of the tight parking spot, banging back and forth between another scooter and a pillar.  I pictured myself knocking the pillar over and bringing down a part of the ceiling, stressed and sweated it out as Tony waited patiently.

Over the next few months I complain to my friends constantly about how sophisticated little me doesn’t fit in at the warehouse.  Much like residence in my first year of school – or anytime when you get a lot of men together – some guys are easygoing and comfortable while the ones with something to prove swagger around.  I’m not only new, I’m part-time, another strike against me.  In the staff room a full-timer walks slowly towards me, making eye contact and nodding “no.”  I’m baffled until he tells me I’m in the seat he always gets.  Oh.  They talk sports and I don’t speak the language, so I just throw in a few basic statements when I can.  On the job, Tony tells me “the way you stacked those boxes is what the fuck.”  As two men pass each other on scooters, they exchange “Fuck you” with “No, fuck you.”  I don’t smoke, but bring cigarettes to offer one to Tony.  “Cigarettes are a way to bond” my girlfriend tells me.

At a meeting with one of the “suits” the men are accused of purposely slowing down as a way to register dissatisfaction and they explode into anger and swearing.  It seems to me that the accusation isn’t justified.  Or at least, it isn’t a good idea to throw this at the men when it can’t be proven.  At the coffee truck the man gives me the change saying, “thanks, brother” and I wonder if he does it purposely – it seems a little forced.  Try as I might I can’t get myself to call anyone “buddy.”  One of the truck drivers tells me I’m supposed to get in the cab of his truck so that he can show me “where the stores are.”  When I refuse he keeps slapping me with loud verbal requests, finally setting a date when I’m supposed to meet him.  A few days after I don’t show up he’s coming after me in the warehouse saying “Hey buddy!  You stood me up, man!”  A supervisor laughs and tells me that he “gets some of the guys running the other way” though I’m not sure what this means, exactly.  At the end of one day I get a lift with another part-timer.  He walks all around his car to check it, and then talks about it the whole ride home.  Telling a few of the guys in the locker room about what I took in school, one of them says he’s going back to school.  “Oh yeah?” I ask, “What are you going to take?”  He answers, “I’m going to take the inter-course” and there is much laughter and pounding of lockers.

This is a place where the homophobia is out of control.  There is not one woman in the place, and you can’t bend over to pick something up without somebody saying “You know what he wants!”  I suppose a real man picks something up using a piece of gum on a string.  An older guy named Stan joins me where I sit alone on a bench outside and asks me how I’m doing.  Stan tells me that he’s worked seven years at the warehouse, only enough to have a little of the all-important seniority.  He asks me about my interests, what I took in school, assuming I should want to move on and go somewhere else.  He tells me he wouldn’t have spoken that way to the suit if he weren’t part of the union.  It’s one of the few conversations I’ve had with someone but minutes later someone declares “Stan’s after one of the young guys!”  One of my gay friends narrows her eyes and says, “Oooh, it’s good you’re reminding me there are places like this.”

On the TV in the staff room a woman grabs a man’s ear and leads him away.  “I’d slap any woman that tried to treat me like that!” someone says.  When I tell a few of the guys I can’t join them for a staff baseball game (played at 8 am after working the all-night shift), making up the excuse that my girlfriend needs my help, they respond “Don’t let the woman rule you, man, don’t let the woman rule you.”

I talk about quitting, and friends are supportive but my Mom tells me it’s “time to grow up” and face reality.  She feels I should work there for the whole summer and then go to college next year.  It’s nice that I graduated university (with a degree as vague as English literature, and that’s part of my whole problem), but now I need a skill.  After not enjoying the academic world but pushing through, I’m upset that my Mom doesn’t understand my desire to find someplace to fit in, someplace I want to be.  As far as I’m concerned I went to school for those years so that I could at least come close to doing something that I want, and I deserve a break from school.  Finally, the job has paid well enough that all my debts are gone and I’m in my supervisor’s office making up the excuse that I find the workload to be a physical strain.  Eventually he slowly comments “Maybe you’d… be happier somewhere else.”  Amen, brother.  He almost seems a little sad.  More than once that summer I’d overhear my Mom on the phone, feeling the need to justify to someone that I’d quit my job – he paid off all his debts, he hasn’t had a vacation in a while.  In the locker room at the end of my last day I’m talking to one of the men who has heard I’ve quit and he asks “So, this job not good enough for you?”  I consider, and then say, “No, actually it’s the other way around.”

It was meant to be diplomatic, but it wasn’t a complete untruth.  Although impatient to get to what I believed I deserved after finishing school, I discovered a respect for the job and some of these men.  They take care of work nobody else takes care of, but someone needs to do it, and they get very little recognition or respect for it.  I don’t believe they deserve less respect because anybody with motor functions can do it.  If nobody was willing to sweep the streets and they became unbearable, it isn’t as though all the lawyers would jump to take care of it.  It reminds me of the “I could have done that,” response to a piece of art produced in a relatively straightforward fashion.  The best response I’ve ever been able to come up with was “Maybe you could have, but you didn’t.”  And while I charged through the experience without pausing to consider, the reality was that I’d already started the rest of my life.  Mark Twain said, “I’ve never let school interfere with my education.”  After school, the rest of anybody’s life involves dropping into one new environment after another, negotiating your way around, finding those people you’re comfortable with, and investing your time and energy in the people and projects you believe in.  In retrospect, the shock of such a different environment was a valuable new experience – a good way to wake up.

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