Life Lesson 4: A Poisonous Work Environment

My fourth job paid ten dollars an hour and I thought I’d hit the jackpot. Tired of watching me being exploited for a pittance, my aunt stepped in with a healthy dose of nepotism and landed me a three-month summer job at the same company she worked for. This arrangement, she assured me, would be perfect because she could pick me up on her way to the office and we could drive to work together. The fact that I would be working for a company that was listed as one of the top environmental polluters in Canada held no ethical quandary for me. I mean, come on, it was ten dollars an hour.

On one of our first commutes, my aunt asked me what I wanted to do for a living. Maybe she was wondering if I was interested in a permanent position at the company once I was out of school.

I said I wanted to be a writer.

“When do you get to retire doing that?” she wanted to know.

“Hopefully never,” is what I told her.

My aunt had a first-floor office at the front of the building where she was in sales. I, however, was tucked away in a room upstairs with five other employees who worked as a team to keep the paperwork moving. I was answerable to all of them, and was assigned the little irritating jobs they didn’t want to do themselves. As such, I was required to fill in reports and make calculations. About what, I had absolutely no idea, but my figures seemed to be correct and none of them ever came back to me, so I assumed I was doing a good job.

There were no windows in the office, just fluorescent tubes and a skylight at the very top of a funnel. You had to stand directly under the funnel and look up, way up, to catch a glimpse of the sky. But since this was right in the middle of the room, well away from everyone’s work station, there was never any reasonable excuse to do this.

Everything in the room was grey. The walls, the furniture, the people. If something that wasn’t grey was brought into the room, the lighting would suck the colour out of it. When it left again, it left grey.

All day, every day, the radio in the office was tuned to the local EZ-listening station. All day, every day, I’d wait for them to play one of the two songs in their schedule I could stomach. One was Enya, another was Sinead O’Conner. And when they were on, for two minutes at a time, I could be in that room and not want to tear my eyes out and jam meat skewers through my eardrums.

There was also a door in the office. It was at the back of the room, thick, heavy and very very grey. At random intervals during the day, I would be handed a single piece of paper and told to go through that door.

Behind the door was the factory floor. Iron stairs ran down into its black heart. There was a railing to hold onto, but you couldn’t touch it because it was coated in oily soot. Everything that wasn’t constantly on the move in there was coated in this soot that was sticky in a way unlike any other sticky thing I’d ever touched in my life.

Because I was required to step inside the factory ever so briefly from time to time, I was issued a pair of safety shoes with steel toes that would assure, no matter how badly I was maimed by the heavy machinery, my toes at least would be safe and secure.

There were robots in the factory — automated platforms with roller surfaces that transported stacks of product up and down the line so different procedures could done to them, often involving chemical sprays. These robots all had signs on them warning, “Danger, may move at any time.” To get to the command centre to deliver my piece of paper, I would have to climb over the robots as they went about their duties. Sometimes they would move while I was on them, sometimes they wouldn’t. Each time I ran this gauntlet, there was a calculated risk that something would move at exactly the wrong moment and take my entire foot off at the ankle.

I counted the days like an inmate counts a prison sentence. To pass the time, I drew an elaborate schedule that broke my three months of employment down to hundreds of fifteen-minute intervals. As each of these intervals passed, I would colour them in with a pencil, looking forward to the day when the entire schedule would be filled. Often I would spend an entire fifteen-minute interval doing nothing but waiting to black it out.

We all had our own ways of getting through the day, I suppose. One of the women in the office, for example, got by on the delusion that she was an object of desire. She looked like an aging barroom skank who went and got a real job the day she realized she was now too old and ugly to get free drinks and quick cash for bathroom blowjobs.

“I know you guys all fantasize about me,” she let slip one day, offering me an unexpected and unwanted glimpse of her psyche. The saddest part of her declaration was that she was probably right when it came to the other two guys we worked with.

Weekends flew by like they were nothing. I’d blink and miss them. On my downtime, I wanted to do nothing but sleep or watch television. Creatively, I dried up.

Eventually, I penciled out nearly all of my schedule. For the first time ever, I looked forward to work. My final week was approaching and I anticipated blotting out the last handful of fifteen minute blocks like a kid anticipates Christmas. I simply couldn’t wait.

That weekend I fell ill. Terribly, weirdly ill. I wasn’t coughing or sneezing, I wasn’t sore or vomiting. But all at once, every last ounce of energy I had left me. I could barely make the trip from the couch to the bed, and the concept of food was alien to me. Even if I could muster the strength to chew, there was no appeal in swallowing.

At work on Monday, my aunt went upstairs to my office, collected my things, and told everyone I would not be returning.

They ran the usual bunch of tests at the hospital and came up empty. The doctors resorted to that great cover-your-ass fallback diagnosis and told me I probably had a viral infection. Go home, they said, get plenty of rest and fluids.

I spent the next three weeks on a couch staring at game shows and soap operas. I didn’t move, I didn’t eat, and my weight plummeted. I figured I might die, but I was so exhausted I didn’t much care. Obviously I wasn’t cut out for a nine-to-five life. Three months of it had nearly killed me. But was it the hours or where I spent them?

You might wonder what this factory could have been making that was so singularly toxic that it poisoned the world and destroyed the health of those who worked there. Anthrax, perhaps? Agent Orange? Thermonuclear weapons? No.

They made cardboard boxes.

I recovered in time for the start of the school year. Periodically, I’d hear news about my former co-workers from my aunt. Things like who’d had a miscarriage this time, or who was the latest to develop a malignant tumor. The updates stopped when my aunt retired. She left the job with a tumor of her own. After surgery and chemo, the cancer went into remission for ten years. Then it came back and ate her body in ways so horrific, even someone with my sense of humour can’t make light of it. I remember my mother coming home after seeing what parts of her body the doctors had cut away.

“I didn’t know you could do that to a person,” she said. And she was very pale when she said it.

That was the last of three summer jobs I took to put myself through university. Once I earned my degree, I had to make a choice about how I was going to make a living now. I weighed my past experiences and considered my options. In the end, there was really no choice at all.

I never worked another day in my life. I became a writer instead.

And I learned my final lesson. All jobs suck. Don’t have one.

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