New Star Blogs

Filthier lucre: Wages ebook includes new bonus chapter

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NSB Wages coverTo sus­tain his twin pas­sions of beer and punk rock, John Arm­strong (a.k.a. Buck Cher­ry of the Mod­er­nettes) has worked some tru­ly crap­py jobs, includ­ing bun­ny-shit shov­eller, poul­try decap­i­ta­tor, and “Picayune-Stan­dard” reporter. He wrote all about them in Wages (2007), his sec­ond mem­oir (after 2001’s Guilty of Every­thing), which the Geor­gia Straight called “noth­ing short of hilar­i­ous.” Here’s Tom Hawthorn on Wages (in a quick appraisal he tried to sneak past us by post­ing to Ama­zon last year): “You will not find a fun­nier, more insight­ful book about where you end up when you want to avoid wear­ing a tie from 9-to-5. His chap­ter about work­ing as a reporter at the Van­cou­ver Sun is wor­thy of Eve­lyn Waugh.

In just 2.5 months Wages will be nine years old, so to cel­e­brate we’ve released it as an ebook and includ­ed a BRAND NEW BONUS CHAPTER that we’d like to say was excised from the orig­i­nal on the advice of our legal team, but was real­ly just an inex­plic­a­ble over­sight. It’s a typ­i­cal­ly Arm­stron­gian (i.e., dark­ly hilar­i­ous) account of work­ing at what our lawyers insist he call “Ready Home & Gar­den.” You can read it in the Kobo or Kin­dle ver­sions, or just keep scrolling:

From the 2016 ebook ver­sion of Wages, by John Arm­strong:

Ready Home & Gar­den took their employ­ee selec­tion seri­ous­ly. The screen­ing process was inten­sive and con­duct­ed with an air of grav­i­ty some­where between a Secret Ser­vice back­ground check, the Nurem­berg Tri­als and the Col­lege of Car­di­nals select­ing a Pope. The posi­tions avail­able were part-time, min­i­mum wage. When some­one in the front office called to tell me I’d been “select­ed to apply” — my resume and cov­er let­ter appar­ent­ly shin­ing through the moun­tain of appli­ca­tions like a dia­mond in a dung-heap — I want­ed to look out my back door and see if the store had sent up a cloud of smoke from the roof of the build­ing to announce the good news, maybe from a Stur-Dee bar­be­cue (rotis­serie unit not includ­ed, assem­bly required.) This was only the begin­ning of the Ready gaunt­let.

We’ll be in con­tact to sched­ule your ini­tial inter­view,” the voice on the phone said.

How many are there,” I asked.

As many as nec­es­sary,” he said. I was to stay ready for the call, which actu­al­ly came about an hour lat­er and instruct­ed me to present myself at 3 the fol­low­ing after­noon.

Ready Home & Gar­den was an enor­mous yel­low and blue con­crete build­ing on the sub­ur­ban out­skirts of town, on the way to the free­way and neigh­boured by rent-to-own fur­ni­ture stores and giant bulk-buy super­mar­kets where the employ­ees wore roller-skates to get around the miles of aisles and you could buy gro­ceries, clothes, big screen TVs, lawn fur­ni­ture, and may­on­naise by the 45-gal­lon drum. They also offered bank­ing and no doubt would arrange financ­ing on a truck to car­ry all this crap home. The hous­es in the area were uni­form two-storey homes built in the ‘60s and ‘70s, with fake brick on the front of the ground floor and water-stained stuc­co on the sec­ond, slid­ing glass doors open­ing onto tiny bal­conies with white alu­mini­um rail­ings. These doors were nev­er opened and the patios nev­er used for any­thing but stor­age for bro­ken bicy­cles, dying pot­ted plants and rust­ed hibachis. Drapes were sen­si­bly kept closed to hide this crap from the res­i­dents, blue light from the TV puls­ing through the fab­ric, and even if it were hauled away to the land­fill in a fit of enthu­si­asm what would there be to see with the cur­tains open and the glass cleaned? Trucks and cars rum­bling and fart­ing past bot­tle-refund depots, video stores, fail­ing fast-food burg­er joints, the Adam and Eve Mas­sage par­lour, the ele­vat­ed rail sta­tion and a wealth of cut-rate Asian beau­ty par­lours with names like New Supe­ri­or Beau­ty and Excel­lent Fash­ion. If you lived here you’d be home now, and you could go straight to the bath­room and open a vein.

The inter­view at Ready was a gang affair, thir­ty or so of us on plas­tic chairs in a meet­ing room on the sec­ond floor, Wel­come to Ready! indoc­tri­na­tion kits and pens piled on the fold­ing tables in front of us. There was a TV and VCR on a rolling cart beside the chalk­board. I looked around as if it were home­room on the first day of school. I was clear­ly in the spe­cial class.

While there was a sense of hearty con­grat­u­la­tions on our being cho­sen from the herd it was also clear from the ori­en­ta­tion that Ready had the same opin­ion; we were all sub-nor­mals and func­tion­al retards — why else would we be here? The man in the Ready smock at the front of the room intro­duced him­self as Del. He had a name­plate that said so and this was our first les­son: any­thing obvi­ous could not be stat­ed too often.

The sec­ond was — There Are Many Rules. Any cus­tomer with­in ten feet must be greet­ed with a smile, eye con­tact and “How can I help you?” We were for­bid­den to say “May I help you?” and some fool raised his hand to ask why.

Nev­er ask a ques­tion the cus­tomer can say No to,” Del said, as if he were tak­ing a razor blade away from an infant. He told us to pick up the largest pam­phlet in our stack and read along. It was not very inter­est­ing but it was very long, and Del read slow­ly. It start­ed some­where in the 1800s when a group of hard­ware mer­chants began order­ing their sup­plies togeth­er in order to get big­ger dis­counts and crept like a glac­i­er towards the present day and the gold­en now. There were no ques­tions. If some­one had asked one the oth­ers would have beat­en him to death.

Then we watched videos on safe­ty. They were very impor­tant, Del told us. Noth­ing was more impor­tant than employ­ee safe­ty. We had thir­ty min­utes of how to use a retractable util­i­ty blade, and anoth­er thir­ty on how to lift heavy objects. Through­out them both poor employ­ees suf­fered hor­ri­bly, and we knew they would at first sight. They looked like they’d been bussed in from an insti­tu­tion far out in the coun­try.

I won­dered about the actors cho­sen for these parts. It must have been depress­ing to be told you had the job.

The employ­ee cut­ting box­es open while telling his col­league about last night’s hock­ey game sev­ered all the fin­gers on his left hand. Anoth­er cut towards him­self and drove the blade deep into his thigh. Anoth­er reached for his can of soda and stuck his hand in the band-saw. Some­one else was watch­ing a pret­ty girl and went under a fork­lift full of lum­ber. Over the screams and weep­ing a seri­ous voice told us what they had Done Wrong. Every­one in the audi­ence nod­ded thought­ful­ly and tried not to laugh. The films were all made in Que­bec, where the com­pa­ny was head­quar­tered, and the Eng­lish was not so good.

Phillipe, he is not watch­ing. And so — now he must pay. The pipe-cut­ter, she is not a toy.”

We were giv­en a pam­phlet to sign which stat­ed that we had read the con­tents, seen the films and under­stood that if we crip­pled our­selves on the job it was prob­a­bly our own fault. Every­one signed theirs and passed it for­ward.

The rest of the mate­r­i­al was ours to keep for fur­ther study and Del ran through the dress code — no shirts with­out col­lars, no jeans with holes — and con­grat­u­lat­ed us on join­ing the Ready Team. Every­thing there was couched in the same lan­guage — the depart­ment heads were Team Lead­ers and we were all Team Mem­bers. I’d been there three hours and was already look­ing to be trad­ed.

The oth­er new-hires man­aged to look a lit­tle more thrilled by the prospect of an excit­ing career at Canada’s fastest grow­ing ren­o­va­tion cen­tre. The com­pa­ny had sprung for cof­fee and donuts and Del set­tled him­self on the edge of a table to answer ques­tions infor­mal­ly. He was a man in his ear­ly 60s, with a sil­ver crew-cut, no ass at all and a per­fect­ly spher­i­cal bel­ly that made him seem to have been assem­bled with­out the direc­tions. He wore the enor­mous glass­es old­er men favour and they made him look like a Keane paint­ing hid­ing behind an aquar­i­um.

I drank my cof­fee, wrapped a donut up and left while Del was pros­e­lytis­ing for the company’s social club. For a five dol­lar deduc­tion from your cheque the com­pa­ny organ­ised nights out and every­one was appar­ent­ly gid­dy about the upcom­ing Bowl­ing Night. It sound­ed appalling; one of the strangest ideas in life is that the minute you hire on some­place sud­den­ly every­one there is your new best friend, as if you’d won them all in some insane social lot­tery. To my mind all we shared was a com­mon mis­for­tune, a fail­ure to find any­thing bet­ter. The com­pa­ny was pro­mot­ing the idea that we had joined a fam­i­ly. For most of us, one was as much as we could stand. To my mind it was more like land­ing in jail for an inde­ter­mi­nate sen­tence; there might be friend­ships it would be wise to cul­ti­vate but for the most part it would be smart to keep your head down and just do your time.

In my inter­view the human resources peo­ple asked me what depart­ments I would be com­fort­able in and I told them I knew a lit­tle about basic car­pen­try, fram­ing and such, that I’d done con­sid­er­able dry­wall work and knew my way around a brush and roller. What I knew the most about was gar­den­ing.

How much do you know about elec­tri­cal or plumb­ing,” the lady asked. She leaned for­ward. She was very inter­est­ed.

Just enough to stay clear of it,” I said. “I can put in a ceil­ing fan or replace a wall recep­ta­cle but any real wiring I get some­body who knows what they’re doing. If I knew less about plumb­ing I wouldn’t be able to flush the toi­let.”

She made notes in her book and that was that. A few days after the indoc­tri­na­tion ses­sion I got a call from Del to report for my first train­ing shift, 5 to 9 p.m. clos­ing, in the plumb­ing depart­ment.

I told Del I didn’t know any­thing about plumb­ing except that it was dif­fi­cult and expen­sive and I wouldn’t be much help to a cus­tomer unless I hand­ed him the Yel­low Pages.

Don’t wor­ry, you’ll learn. We have train­ing tapes for each depart­ment and there’s always some­one you can ask. We like every­one to be able to work any­where in the store. Just come to the HR office. See you tonight and remem­ber to wear your steel-toes. If you don’t have them on we have to send you home.”

Del gave me a large white but­ton with I’m Train­ing! print­ed on it, told me to tuck my work-shirt in and led me down to the plumb­ing depart­ment.

Andrew’s on tonight so just go every­where he goes, watch what he does and don’t be afraid to ask ques­tions,” he said. Andrew, accord­ing to Del, was the boy-genius of the plumb­ing depart­ment. I was going to learn at the feet of the mas­ter.

Andrew, this is John,” Del said as he pre­sent­ed me. Del said hel­lo and shook my hand. He was 17, with curly blonde hair under a Ready H&G ball-cap, a slight lisp and a rea­son­able amount of acne. He was the act­ing Team Leader — Phyang, the depart­ment head, was out on sick leave after ignor­ing stom­ach pains until his appen­dix rup­tured. Then he’d been aller­gic to one of the drugs he’d been giv­en and went into a coma. He was due back any day, and by all accounts couldn’t bear to be away from the place, which is how he’d let his appen­dix explode in the first place. Andrew was clear­ly in awe of the man. I thought they were both dan­ger­ous­ly stu­pid.

At five that night I was stand­ing in an aisle full of brass and cop­per fit­tings and a thou­sand box­es full of slight­ly dif­fer­ing plas­tic con­nec­tors in abun­dant and vary­ing sizes and colours. The aisles were bor­dered by met­al shelv­ing 20-some feet high, crammed with toi­let basins and tanks, water heaters, pre­fab show­er kits, acrylic bath­tubs, bath­room and kitchen taps, sinks and alu­mini­um duct­ing. Unless they want­ed me to paint this stuff or plant it, I sus­pect­ed we were all fucked.

Most of the employ­ees made min­i­mum wage, $8.25 at the time. Because of my expe­ri­ence — a qual­i­fi­ca­tion which sur­prised the hell out of me — I’d been start­ed at $10. Team Lead­ers made maybe $12 plus some mid­dling med­ical and den­tal ben­e­fits. They cer­tain­ly got a week or so of paid sick days and the thought of com­ing to work in agony when you could have just seen a doc­tor was luna­cy. On the bat­tle­field a wound­ed sol­dier who crawls across the line of fire to save his bud­dy is a hero, ded­i­cat­ed, loy­al, coura­geous. A man who hauls him­self to work with a swollen, poi­soned stom­ach is an idiot. I’m sure the com­pa­ny sent him a card and flow­ers. I sort of looked for­ward to meet­ing Phyang, if he lived.

Andrew and I were the only ones on in the sec­tion, which meant he was alone for all the good I could do him. I could help him wres­tle a water tank down, if it were on a shelf we could reach; I wasn’t allowed on the “pick­er” until I had train­ing. I could bare­ly answer the phone — if the con­ver­sa­tion went beyond “Are you still open?” I was baf­fled. As Andrew raced by me fol­lowed by a gang of cus­tomers shout­ing for his atten­tion he yelled “Six to trans­fer!” at me but when I tried to send someone’s call to Lum­ber or Home Decor noth­ing hap­pened. Pan­icked, I said “Trans­fer­ring you now” and hung up. No-one ever did teach me the phone sys­tem and after ask­ing for a few weeks I gave up and stuck with what I knew, con­sign­ing caller after caller to obliv­ion with a cheer­ful “Thank you for call­ing Ready” as I killed the con­nec­tion. I’m sure many of them phoned back to com­plain but who­ev­er got those calls was almost cer­tain­ly either the wrong per­son, didn’t know who the right per­son would be or couldn’t work the phones either. Or else they were up to their necks in their own chaos and just try­ing to sur­vive to the end of their shift and flee.

The place was in a per­ma­nent state of chaos and man­ic activ­i­ty. This could be cred­it­ed to a cou­ple of things. First, almost no-one worked full-time, most of us get­ting around 15 to 20 hours a week, usu­al­ly spread out over three or four short shifts, some­times five, which was a pain in the ass for some­one who had to take an hour-long bus-ride to get there. They spent almost as much time trav­el­ling as they did work­ing and five dol­lars in fare was a good bite out of the $25 or $30 they made that day, before deduc­tions. It was good for the store, keep­ing the num­ber of employ­ees eli­gi­ble for ben­e­fits to min­i­mum, but it did noth­ing for any kind of loy­al­ty, bar head-cas­es like Phyang, and it also meant that the major­i­ty of us employ­ees were short-timers and left as soon as they could get more hours some­where else. This con­tributed to a cer­tain lais­sez-faire among most of us.

Who was hir­ing and where else you had applied was the most fre­quent top­ic at the smok­ing area, a cin­derblock cave at the far end of the gar­den cen­tre. In the close to six months I was there I nev­er met any­one with any plans to work hard and move up in the com­pa­ny. The oth­er peren­ni­al ques­tion was why the peo­ple who did the sched­ul­ing couldn’t just take two peo­ple who where work­ing twen­ty hours that week and give them two eight-hour shifts and a half-day each instead of the strange, unfath­omable patch­work the sched­ule was. Mon­day 7 to 10 a.m., Tues­day 4 to 8 p.m., Wednes­day noon to 3 p.m., Thurs­day off, Fri­day and Sat­ur­day 7 to 10 p.m and Sun­day 8 to 11 a.m. Less than twen­ty hours all told but out of sev­en days you had to be there six of them for some peri­od, and like as not you’d be work­ing Mon­day and Tues­day again. Because of the way the law read as long as you had a day off some­where in there you could legal­ly work days with­out end with­out ever real­ly mak­ing any mon­ey but with no real spare time to look for some­thing bet­ter.

To make it more excit­ing the sched­ule changed con­stant­ly and on your day off you could usu­al­ly expect a call from a furi­ous man­ag­er ask­ing why you weren’t there. No-one ever told the work­ers affect­ed by sched­ule changes that any had been made — it was our respon­si­bil­i­ty to check the sched­ule our­selves. But no mat­ter how dili­gent you were you were still des­tined to fuck up: if you left at 4 p.m. on Tues­day after­noon look­ing for­ward to Wednes­day off you were still bound to get an angry call ear­ly the next morn­ing because some­one had pen­cilled you in the pre­vi­ous evening for some unknow­able rea­son. And even if you had become so deeply para­noid and anx­ious that you went back at clos­ing time just to dou­ble check it wouldn’t help: the mas­ter sched­ule was post­ed out­side the lunch­room but depart­ments had their own sched­ule book at the ser­vice counter of their sec­tion. Changes could be made to either, or both — the only thing that could be known with cer­tain­ty was that they would not have any rela­tion to each oth­er. I made the mis­take of ask­ing Del why there were so many peo­ple autho­rised to change the sched­ule and why there seemed to be no method of trac­ing back who had made changes and why. I got a look of dis­be­lief that changed to anger and sus­pi­cion. What was I think­ing? It was none of my busi­ness, no more than if I’d looked up from my bale of cot­ton and asked Mas­sa if he’d thought any about crop rota­tion.

Hier ist kein warum” –– ”Here there is no ‘why’.”

Del him­self lived in fear — they had him for pen­nies on the dol­lar because he was close to retire­ment and who else would hire him, no mat­ter his cre­den­tials and expe­ri­ence? If we were con­stant­ly shat upon from a great height, so was he and the last thing he want­ed to hear were ques­tions of this sort from some­one in the boil­er room. Nor is it any sur­prise that he wield­ed the scant pow­er he did have over a rel­a­tive few like a Mon­gol chief­tain.

As much as most of the staff were plot­ting their escape, they could real­ly only leave on their own terms if they had some­where else to go. With the pit­tance they made at Ready they were already only a half-step from liv­ing on the street and being fired would guar­an­tee it. Even if they found anoth­er job with­in a week the loss of $150 would be mor­tal. You had to work your last shift for Ready, take off your smock and piss in the lunch­room sink on your way out then report to your new job the next morn­ing or the whole thing came down around your ears.

No, what­ev­er idio­cy we were sub­ject to the way to play it was with a nod and a ready smile, then dig your tun­nel twice as hard when no-one was look­ing.

In terms of learn­ing any­thing about plumb­ing my train­ing shifts were a waste of time, but I learned a lot about how the store worked. Employ­ees on the floor were kept to a skele­ton crew at all times, except for the week­end high-vol­ume hours when they were sim­ply raised to what would be about the right lev­el for a slow week­day. Ear­ly in the week it was stan­dard prac­tice to have one per­son on in each depart­ment. In floor­ing, elec­tri­cal, lum­ber or plumb­ing, that meant one help­ful sales­per­son for six or sev­en aisles and despite Del’s promise that I would sim­ply shad­ow an employ­ee who knew what they were doing for at least three shifts, I was on my own almost from the first. Andrew was so besieged he had no time to show me any­thing on that first day, except where the broom was kept.

A cus­tomer wants a par­tic­u­lar toi­let but in a dif­fer­ent shade? Well, we all want things, don’t we?

If I knew how to search the com­put­er inven­to­ry maybe I could have found it, although when I did even­tu­al­ly puz­zle the thing out I found that it was almost always wrong. That didn’t stop us from using it, though.

Yeah, we’ve got that show­er head at [loca­tion of anoth­er store miles away],” I said, and sent them off. It was no use call­ing the store to make sure the item real­ly exist­ed — like us they were too swamped to answer the phone and the call would just be rout­ed back to Cus­tomer Ser­vice, where some­one would check the same com­put­er inven­to­ry. It didn’t mat­ter. So long as we got the cus­tomer out of the place we were mak­ing progress, or at least hold­ing off the final sur­ren­der.

It was bat­tle, out­right war, the cus­tomers were the ene­my and we were hope­less­ly out­num­bered.

It was busi­ness as usu­al to be sur­round­ed by half a dozen or more clam­our­ing, angry cus­tomers chat­ter­ing, screech­ing, howl­ing in as many lan­guages. Babel reigned in the aisles — Man­darin, Can­tonese, Japan­ese, Tagolog, Kore­an, Viet­namese, Ital­ian, Hin­di, Far­si, pid­gin Eng­lish — it was enough to stop you in your tracks if a cus­tomer said some­thing you could under­stand, even if they were only curs­ing you.

For the most part in my depart­ment you stood there while some­one bran­dished a cracked, shit-smeared fit­ting or length of pipe and gib­bered at you in a urgent and dement­ed singsong, obvi­ous­ly in pan­ic and no won­der. Burst plumb­ing will excite a man, but the more fran­tic they got the less chance I would ever under­stand what it was they need­ed — a clamp, PVC cement, a back­wa­ter valve? What they need­ed was a plumber but they’d been fool enough to swal­low the slo­gan in the Ready adver­tis­ing (“You Can Do It — We’ll Show You How”) although how in the name of Christ the Car­pen­ter they under­stood it I can’t tell you.

But there they were, believ­ing I had the answer. I felt like a bogus psy­chic — if I would just lay my hands on their sep­tic tank the riv­er of turds would cease flow­ing down the hall­way. Had they even shut the water off or were their pos­ses­sions float­ing out onto the front lawn and down the street? Who knew, and after a while who cared. I became desen­si­tised to their suf­fer­ing, immune to tears.

I hand­ed them all a plunger and moved on. I couldn’t care less. Where are your gods now, I want­ed to scream.

The truth of it was, and despite all the crap we were fed about com­mit­ment to cus­tomer ser­vice and the posters in the lunch­room that instruct­ed us to make eye con­tact, and smile and greet every cus­tomer with­in ten feet of us, Ready was real­ly a self-serve busi­ness. We were shills, only there in our blue vests — “You Can Do It — Ask Me How!” sten­cilled across the back — to make it look like we were some­thing else. The com­pa­ny had fig­ured out the cus­tomers would even­tu­al­ly find what they need­ed (or some­thing like it) on their own if they were ignored long enough.

If they could by some mir­a­cle actu­al­ly get one of us to wait on them they weren’t much fur­ther ahead. I used to laugh out loud when some­one would approach me and ask, “Are you a plumber?”

Plumbers make $60 an hour or more. Why would I be stand­ing here in this clown out­fit, in this sea of mad­ness, if I were a real plumber?

It was sad enough to break your heart if you thought about it. You had to become like a carny or a con man and tell your­self that the suck­ers deserved what they got, that they were only play­ing their part in God’s Great Plan. He loved marks so much he made them by the mil­lions.

The only dif­fer­ence was that we were fleec­ing them for some­one else and only the change that rolled off the table and into the saw­dust was ours to keep. We were suck­ers, too, but that didn’t mean we had any sym­pa­thy for our broth­ers. We couldn’t afford it.

Buy Wages in print or for Kobo or Kin­dle.