To 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.