7 January 2010

A day in the life

Haven't blogged for a while, and I had the idea that on Monday I would live blog from work. That plan didn't work out, but I came home with about half a page of notes, which I then converted into this. So, without further ado, I present you with Monday, January 4th.

Oh, and Happy New Year.

Warning: Not everybody shares my sense of humour. In fact, most people don't.

Lastly, all this occurred at a university bookstore.

10:00. It’s Monday, January 4th. I am back at work after the Holidays. Due to the oddities of my schedule, everyone else in my department is in an hour ahead of me. The first thing I hear is Pothead cursing. “Frack!” he’s shouting. (I’ve adopted Battlestar Galactica speak for this piece) “I don’t frackin’ believe how much frackin’ stuff has come in already! I’ve never frackin’ seen anything like this!” I nod, in case he is looking at me, but inwardly I am saying It is like this every time we come back from the holidays. As he is shouting at no one in particular, the buzzer goes again. Another truck is upstairs, waiting for him to go up and unload. He starts shouting some more. “Frack!”

10:02. There is already a lot of work here. The area is clogged with skids and boxes, and it is tough to get to my desk. From what I see, nothing has been done since I came in on Tuesday between the holidays to clean up here in preparation for the rush. However, Pothead’s profane assertions aside, this is standard for the first day back. All the shipments that couldn’t be delivered when we were closed are coming in today, just like every other time we shut down for Christmas.

10:05. By now everyone has asked me how my holiday was, and I have asked them. We all seemed to enjoy ourselves. “At least I wasn’t here,” is what everyone had to say in one form or another. Just about everyone hates this place. Pothead’s radio is blaring out the hits of the sixties and seventies. The holidays are truly over.

I hear Pothead coming down in the freight elevator. That was fast.

10:06. “I don’t frackin’ believe it!” Pothead shouted when he got down.

I have no idea what he doesn’t believe, beyond that he doesn’t believe work is coming in.

10:08 I suppose I should explain Pothead, except there’s nothing to explain. He’s been stoned since he was sixteen, and now he’s fifty two, which is a fancy way of saying he’s a sixteen year old thirty six times over. He has a lousy temper and is constantly hitting people up for money so he can buy pot, smokes, booze, other stuff. From all the junk he’s shoved down his mouth he has no taste buds left, and consequently he puts a lot of salt on everything he eats, including- and I am not making this up- his bacon.

10:10. Here’s a true story about Pothead: He’s always borrowing money off people. Then, once a month when we get paid, he pays everyone back, and almost immediately runs out of money and starts borrowing money again. He’s asked me for money just five days after payday. Incidentally, he always calls in sick the two days after payday. As soon as he has some cash in his fist he immediately goes on a bender and is hung over for the next few days. Always on the lookout for new money, he discovered one of those payroll loan companies a few years back. He acted as though he had been handed the keys to the vault, and he started going over there for cash. The idea that he would have to pay them back does not seem to have occurred to him. That idea did not occur to him when American express offered him a card some time ago, until he tried to pay for drinks in a strip club, and they cut the card up in front of him, and garnished his wages. He blamed the company. “It’s their frackin’ fault,” he explained. “If they’re stupid enough to give me money, they got no one to blame but themselves.” So, at any rate, he takes payroll advances and does not pay them back. Then one payday he goes to the bank to pull out some money and discovers the payroll loan company garnished his wages before he even saw them. He had just five hundred dollars to last the month.

I can hear him swearing again. What is it this time?

10:13 He’s yelling at the Pharaoh. No matter.

10:15 Where was I? Oh yeah, pothead. So he has five hundred for food, rent, everything, for the month. So what does the boy genius do? Does he scramble what ever resources he has to try and make it through the month? Does he try and cover his other debts, including the ten bucks he owes me? Does he do anything remotely responsible? Heck no. He takes the five hundred and goes on what I can only refer to as an emergency bender. Right in the middle of his bender he was caught by a cop smoking pot, and was arrested and fined. He blamed the cop. “I wasn’t botherin’ no one!” he said to everyone within earshot when he got back. “What did he go pickin’ on me for?”

That’s what he said. What I heard was: “I’m so stupid I took what little money I had, blew it on some pot and smoked it in front of a narc.”

10:20 One more fun fact: Pothead is not the only pothead we got down here. There’s another, Pothead Parte D’uh. He handles the receiving of our general merchandise. Or he would, if ever actually did anything. But he doesn’t, although he thinks he does. You see, the general merchandise would be a lot of work, and he treats that potential work as though it were actual work. He has a lot of work to do and therefore he should be very busy, and since he is very busy, he deserves a break, and he spends the day surfing the web and checking his e-mail, and accusing everyone else of doing nothing but surfing the web and checking their e-mail. Every now and then he does something, and then goes back to the web. If any boss comes back to ask him to do anything he waves around at the piles of work surrounding him and says “Can’t you see how much stuff I have to do?” He sincerely believes he is the hardest worker back here, and therefore he deserves to do nothing but surf the web all day long.

Pothead logic never ceases to amaze.

10:21: Here’s a true story about Pothead Parte D’uh: He downloaded and saved so many videos, photos and songs onto his computer at work that he filled the memory space and crashed his computer. As a result of this, he was actually given a new, faster, more efficient computer with far greater memory than anyone else’s back here. He now has the tools to do less work than ever before.

10:37 Pharaoh is going around giving everyone orders, again. He does this all the time, until someone shuts him down and reminds him he has no authority to tell anyone to do anything. (Actually, he does outrank me, but no one has ever informed him of that, and I have no intention of ever letting that little tidbit out.)

10:38 In many ways, the Pharaoh is a stand up guy. He brought his family over from Egypt some years ago, where he used to be a veterinarian. His wife was a doctor. They are Coptic Christians, and found life over there getting a little too dangerous for their liking. Over here their qualifications did not count for much of anything, and they took whatever jobs they could find. Pharaoh put his kids through school and paid for his wife to get her qualifications, all the while working down here in the basement. His kids graduated at the top of their classes and are now very successful. His wife is now a doctor, he is a high ranking elder in his church. They are a successful immigration story, and in many ways our country could do with more people like them.

This is the story of a dedicated, honourable man. I should like the Pharaoh, I should be proud and honoured if I could call him my friend. Intellectually I like him, or perhaps I should say I think I like him, or I think I should like him, but I spend five minutes with the guy and I just want to strangle him. He never does his job because he is always having ideas about how everyone else should do their job, and is constantly telling us how to do our work faster and better. Meanwhile, his work lies undone. It is no secret that he thinks he should be in charge down here because he believes he is the most educated of the lot of us. (He isn’t, but that’s another story.) In short, he thinks he should be in charge of shipping and receiving of the bookstore because he used to euthenize camels.

11:02. The Big Boss just came back here. He only shows up back here about four times a year, and I guess he wanted to make his unpleasant presence felt early this year. Or perhaps he is here to boost our morale in a difficult, crush period.

11:03 Yeah, right. “This place is disgusting,” he said. “You guys are slobs.”

11:04. Perhaps I should explain a little about us being a bunch of slobs. By rules and regulations we are not allowed to clean up our place. That is the job of the janitors and custodians, and we can get in trouble if try to do their job. So, it is their job to clean the place up, so why aren’t they doing it?

Here’s why, and this is a true story: Some time ago the grounds staff and cleaning crews took part in a study where they quantified the time in work hours and the costs involved in maintaining varying levels of cleanliness throughout the university. They then presented their levels to the administration and asked them what level of cleanliness they wanted: Pristine, very clean, clean, and so on down the line. The administration said that the top levels of cleanliness were too expensive, and went straight down the line until they opted for a level of cleanliness which is officially known as- and I am not making this up- “moderately dingy”. So, if the place is supposed to be only moderately dingy, why are we disgusting?

Because moderately dingy is an average over the whole store. The managers, including the one who accuses us of being slobs, have understandably opted to have the cleaning crew concentrate on keeping the sales floor clean. Whatever time they have left over is to be spent keeping the managers’ offices clean. Our place is way down the list. The garbage cans are only emptied every third day. One the first day they are full. On the second day they are overflowing. On the third day we are throwing our garbage, which is mainly packing paper and bubble wrap from the boxes, in the general direction of the mounds that have formed around the garbage cans. Our floor is swept less than once a week. So yeah, we’re slobs.

11:10 A young woman just came back here, She must be a new hire, as I have never seen her before. I would have remembered this girl, because she is gorgeous. Were I so inclined, I would say she could inspire what the Catechism refers to as a “near occasion for sin.” The university calls it “a near occasion to get fired.” Must keep my eyes down and remember the rules.

11:15. I helped her, and she is now gone. I mentioned the rules, so I should explain what I meant by that. And this is a true story.

The rules are set down regarding sexual harassment, which is a potential firing offence, and for the moment I am specifically referring to the part which outlines a woman’s right not to be made uncomfortable by having men stare or ogle at her. Fine enough, but what is the difference between a glance and a stare, and at what point does the attention become unwanted attention?

The university decided that the difference could be found in time, and that unwanted attention occurs or may be considered to have occurred when a man takes a sustained look at a woman for longer than three seconds. So if a good-looking woman catches a man’s eye, the man has three seconds to say “Holy Cow!” or any other thought before he must look away. And no, I am not making that up.

My meeting with the young woman went like this: Her: “Can you help me? I need to find a book that came in today for a customer.”

Me: One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, Three... “Sure. What book?”

11:20 I feel compelled to re-iterate that I work at a university, and these rules and regulations are made by smart people.

11:21. So-called.

11:30 Time for my morning break. I take it at my station instead of in the lunchroom to avoid the stench. I flip through the paper looking for the crossword. I pass by various articles about the beginning of the year, the start of a new decade, predictions and a bunch of blah blah blah. In the middle of the entertainment section is an article about upcoming television shows and series. I don’t get a chance to watch television, so I have a look at what I will be missing.

11:35. HBO has a series coming out called Spartacus. It will be a re imaging of the slave rebellion. The show promises to be bloody (no kidding) and also to have, and I quote: “Some of the most graphic sex scenes ever shown on television.” Oh joy.

11:36. I find I miss the old days of trench coats and brown paper bags. There was a time when porn had a stigma attached. Now it’s a sales point.

11:45. Back to work. There goes the buzzer again. Wait for it…Wait for it… “Frack! I don’t believe it! I have never seen it this bad!” Yes, Pothead, you have.

11:51. Let us take this opportunity to pause for a moment and ponder the word “Frack”. As it is currently used it is a noun, a verb, an adjective, an adverb, a gerund, a proposition more. It is an exclamation, a declaration, a statement, an interjection and a question. It is all this, and far, far more. It’s offensiveness aside, it is obviously one of the most useful words in the English language. In fact, I put it to you, gentle reader, that should noted linguists like Pothead continue on the current trajectory, one day in the not so distant future it will be the only word in the English language. Conversations will begin to sound like the aliens from Mars Attacks. Imagine going to the store:

Customer: Frack! Frack frack, frack frack frack frack frack. Frack frack frack? (Hi there! I have come to buy some milk. Where is it?)

Clerk: Frack frack frack frack frack frack frack. (In the dairy case in the back.)

Customer: Frack! (Thank you so very, very much, kind sir. Your manners are impeccable and I shall patronize your wonderful establishment often in the future, and tell all my friends about it as well!)

And to think, we get to watch the change take place in front of our own two eyes.

Back to work.

12:07 Sometimes I find books with unintentionally amusing titles. Like this one: Marxism for Dummies. The jokes almost write themselves.

!2:14 I am not the only one who breaks back here away from the lunchroom. The Teutonic Plague also eats at his station and uses his computer to surf the web when on break. At least I no longer notice the smell of his lunch. He eats some variety of very sour kraut.

12:16: But there are those who still do notice the smell. Some of the guys from the sales floor have just closed the door that divides receiving from their area. They say the stuff stinks and they hate it. There was talk about putting restrictions on the kinds of food people can bring to work. Now there’s a fight I’d love to see. If they try and go after the Plague over there for his food, they’d have to do something about the people in the lunchroom and theirs, and they are all members of visible minorities who wouldn’t hesitate to charge the university with racism. That would be fun.

12:17 I wonder for whom I would pull? On the one hand, it amuses me to see the university discomfited, but on the other hand, the smell of some of their lunches is incredible. It is enough to make a dung beetle puke.

12:20 I’ve been trying to think of some story to say about the Teutonic Plague, but nothing comes to mind. He’s an interesting fellow, in a way. He is intelligent, he used to be a teacher, apparently, back in Germany. Like the Pharaoh he never had his qualifications upgraded when he came here. He spends his free time surfing the net for whatever topic is of interest to him for the day. He trusts the information he finds on the internet, and after reading an article on Wikipedia feels himself sufficiently informed to speak authoritatively on the subject.

He is interested in many hobbies, but actually pursues none of them apart from downloading some information about them from the web. He doesn’t have the time to be a woodworker, he says, though he finds information about it everywhere. He even debates with me some of the better methods of woodworking, although I’ve been doing it as a hobbyist for years, and he has never sharpened a chisel. His favourite leisure time activity at home is playing video games. An odd choice for a man in his fifties, but there you are. Personally, I much prefer my own hobby. At the end of the day, I have something solid I can look upon, and say to others: I made that. At the end of the day all he has to show for his efforts are sore thumbs. Video games are a way to kill time for those who believe their time is better off dead.

He is a former Catholic, now atheist, a firm believer in Malthus who is yet still here. He has changed his opinion on many topics based on a single sentence found on the internet, and the moment he changes his mind he cannot believe that anyone would still believe what he believed not five minutes ago, and dismisses them as idiots. He is moody, with moods ranging from surly, to downright angry, to enraged, and on occasion he is almost- but never quite- friendly. In short, sour kraut is the perfect food for him. A little too perfect, actually. Watching him eat can be rather uncomfortable, and not merely because of the smell. One sometimes feels one is witnessing cannibalism.

12:50. Apparently there’s another faint smell back here, but I never notice it anymore, but sometimes the new guys complain a bit about it. It comes from the elevator shaft. Here’s how it got there, and this is a true story:

A few years back, there was a series of problems in the back here. The basin at the bottom of the freight elevator shaft was suddenly holding a fair amount of water, which it should not have been. What was worse, the water had an unpleasant odour to it. The maintenance staff was summoned, and they diagnosed the problem as being a leak coming down through the roof. They fiddled with the roof and left. The basin continued to fill, and the smell intensified. Another round of maintenance staff was summoned, and this time they said the problem was with a water pump. An electrician said he could not fix it, as this was a plumbing problem, and a plumber said he could not fix it, as the pump was electrical and we therefore needed the electrician to fix it. For those of you unfamiliar with union speak, I’ll translate the pair of them for you: “It’s Thursday, tomorrow is Friday, and I don’t want to start anything major this close to the weekend.” One more thing: While the plumber and the electrician were in disagreement about whose job it was to fix our problem, they were in total agreement that another problem we were having- the toilets in the nearby bathrooms were backing up- was completely unrelated and the fact that the two problems happened at almost exactly the same time was a mere coincidence.

On Friday we came in, and nearly threw up. The stench was now incredible, and the basin, which is about the size of an above ground swimming pool, was now three to four feet deep in sewage. The toilet problem was not a coincidence. The faulty pump had left the waste nowhere to go but here. At our behest the health and safety nazis were summoned, and I prepared to leave work early. Obviously working less than ten feet from an open-air sewer was a health hazard, right?

Wrong. They told us it was not a hazard as such, and the smell, while offensive, presented no real danger. “Besides,” one actually told me. “The smell isn’t that bad.”

Maintenance workers were summoned. A plumber in hip waders waded into the basin, took a deep breath through his nose and said: “I live for this!” He turned to us and asked: “You know what that smell is?”

“A whole lot of crap mixed with urine?” I answered, suppressing my gag reflex.

“No,” he answered. “It’s money.”

A week later the cleanup was nearly finished as they power washed the basin. A lingering odor, a faint stain in the air, persisted for days after that. Some say it lingers still.

1:30 It is actually no surprise there would be problems with the freight elevator. There have been many problems with the elevator. It begins like this, and this is a true story:

The receiving area is in the basement of our store. Originally there were no plans for a basement because there were no plans for a receiving area at all. Shortly after construction on the building began, someone pointed out that a large university bookstore needs a place to process the arrival of all its books and merchandise, so a basement was hastily added. Some other genius working for the university later pointed out that there needed to be a way to move the goods from the loading dock down to the basement, so a freight elevator was hastily added to the hastily added plans for the basement.

Now, a freight elevator has a very specific set of requirements in its construction code. Most importantly, the shaft is to be made out of reinforced poured concrete. Our shaft was originally made out of hollow stacked cinder blocks- not ever remotely up to code. After some of the blocks began to crumble and fall out of the wall, maintenance responded by trying to pour concrete into the hollows of the cinder blocks. Still not up to code.

I can hear Pothead shouting again.

1:31. Incidentally, the shaft isn’t the only thing down here not up to code. One of the more noticeable elements is the lack of a drain in the basement floor. By code all basements in Toronto must have a floor drain, but here there is none. We have had several floods down here, and the water had nowhere to go whatsoever.

We in the back sometimes play a game: we call it “Name That Bribe”. The object of the game is to speculate what the building inspector was paid off to pass this place. I don’t know how much for sure, but I imagine he and his family had a very nice vacation.

Pothead’s shouting is getting closer.

1:32 The loading dock ramp just broke. Fantastic.

Did I say ‘vacation’? I meant ‘around the world cruise’.

2:03 Pharaoh just came over to me and asked me if I could handle a large skid of stuff that just came in and is a rush job.. I pointed out that I am working on two larger skids of books that are also a rush job, and I will likely be doing so for some time. He, on the other hand, has done nothing but try and get other people to do his job all day long. He starts going on about how this is a really important rush job. Everything is a really important rush job this time of year, I say to myself. “We need to make some space around here. It really needs to be done,” he says to me.
“Then you had better get to work on it,” I reply.

2:05. He has a point. This place is absolutely full and there’s no space. I’ll go talk to the text people to see if we can get some help.

2:10 Just had to speak with the guys over in the text division. Conversation dealt with two things. First, we discussed the health of one of the better workers for text. Apparently he is doing well. He is off because he had a benign tumour removed from the area near his rectum. Apparently the tumour was believed to be about four pounds in size. We teased him about his problem, dubbing him ‘the Tumorous B.I.G.’, but we all wished him well. Before we took time off for the surgery I shook his hand and said to him sincerely “I hope everything comes out all right in the end.” In retrospect, I should have chosen some other cliché.

Second, The receiving area is swamped with received merchandise with more stuff coming in, and we are out of room. I asked if we could move some skids onto the sales floor, or at least get some of their shelvers working to move some of the stuff out of our area and onto the shelves.

Nothing doing on both counts. The Big Boss, the one who thinks the receivers are a bunch of slobs, has 1. declared the sales floor is too crowded with customers for people to be shelving right now, plus all available text staff are to be helping customers, not shelving books anyway, and 2.cancelled the night crew for this week so we can’t shelve the stuff that came in during the day at night when the store is empty either. In the mean time, he has been yelling at the text staff because the books that have been received are stuck in the back and not on the shelves. And no, I am not making this up either.

2:30. Lunch. I go out for some peace.

3:30 I call the guy who works beside me “The Forty Two Year Old Virgin.” I used to call him the Forty One Year Old Virgin, but he had a birthday. They say that, generally speaking, a man doesn’t decide to be a virgin, women make that decision for him. In Virgin’s case, I’d say they show good judgement. I get along well with the guy, but there’s some darn thing about him, and I imagine the women can sense it, too, something that just isn’t right. I can never put my finger on it, but there it is. If we ever had a contest, I’d vote for him to be named “Guy most likely to be seen on the news.” And not for a good reason, either.

3:34 I wonder what it is. He looks like the most normal guy in the world. Average height, decent build. Nothing unusual about his hair. His clothing comes off the rack, any rack. His face is neither handsome nor ugly, just average. A witness would be hard pressed to remember any features that would distinguish him in a line up. Watches the same television as everyone else. No unusual hobbies or interests. He is noticeable neither for his vices nor his virtues. Absolutely nothing to mark him our as anything other than a normal guy. If ordinary can be taken to an extreme, this man has done it. Perhaps I should rename him “The Most Ordinary Man in the World.” And yet there always remains this something, this slight sense of unease when he is around, like the air is a degree colder, like someone is watching you, as though his undifference constitutes some strange, unknowable difference in itself.

3:50 I need to find one of the sub managers to sign some paperwork of mine. The one for whom I am looking is made of better stuff than the Big Boss, but is hamstrung by his foolish directives. I haven’t seen her yet today, though I’ve been around the store a few times seeking her out.

She is fairly hard to miss. For the most part she is on the short, rather pudgy side, but she is always impeccably and stylishly dressed. She works to play up her two most noticeable features: her breasts and her hair. She emphasizes the first by almost always dressing to show off the acre or two of cleavage she possesses, in a stylish way. She emphasizes the second by the effort she puts into putting her brilliant red hair into a perfect coif. Her usual style has her hair meticulously architectured into a copper ziggurat. I wonder how longs she spends getting ready for the day.

3:57 Finally met her in her office, behind her desk. Her two good feature )or should I say three, are out for maximuim attention today. I fixed my eyes on her hair. The job security is better up there. I handed her the paper I needed her to sign. She signed it and asked me how my vacation had been. I told her it was fine and asked her how hers had been. “It was probably my best Christmas ever,” she replied, positively glowing.

“Really?” I asked. “You spent it with your new boyfriend?” Personally, I find something odd in referring to a forty plus year old man as a ‘boyfriend’, but that’s modern life for you.

“Oh yes,” she said very brightly. “It was wonderful.”

Uh-huh, I think. “How did you get along with his son?” I ask out loud.

“He wasn’t there,” she said. “He was with his mother for Christmas, and we just had a great time to ourselves.” She let out a small, very uncharacteristic giggle, and stretched rather languidly.

Uh-huh, I think again.

“It was better that way,” she added. “Just the two of us to ourselves. He even said so.”

Would you listen to yourself? Your 'boyfriend’ doesn’t miss his own son on Christmas Day. Outwardly, I nod. There really isn’t anything else I can say. My own kids drive me nuts, make no mistake, but I miss them when they are not around. If I were to be separated from them, I would never feel quite whole. I've never met her 'boyfriend', but already he seems less of a man to me.

4:04 Odd, isn’t it, what divorce has done to our culture? Some people claim that divorce allows one to seek one’s own happiness, to remove oneself from misfires and to seek one’s true soulmate.

Perhaps. But these days, as often as not, and perhaps even more often, one woman’s soulmate is another woman’s castoff.

Kind of puts it in a different perspective, doesn’t it?

4:37. The radio keeps blaring out an ad for a show on the history channel this week, which combines Nostradamus with Mayan prophecies about the coming of the end of the world. I have but one tiny question: Nostradamus aside, why would anyone pay any attention to the celestial calculations of a people who thought the sun would only rise if they appeased it with enough human hearts and a couple of virgins to boot?

4:38. Truth be told, I wouldn’t mind if the world ended in 2012. It would save me the trouble of planning for retirement. What am I talking about? Death is my retirement plan.

Some people are terrified of death. I don’t make an issue of it. Death is only an issue for people who aren’t already in hell.

4:45. Pothead has swore his last for the day. “I’ve done enough for one frackin’ day,” he said. “I’m out of here.”

4:46 Pothead leaving early is not unusual for him. He does in on heavy days. But what about slow days, you ask? I can answer that, and this is a true story. On slow days Pothead will announce around 4:45 that there is nothing going on, and therefore he will leave early.

The logic is beautiful, isn’t it? On slow days there is nothing to do and therefore he leaves early, and on busy days when there is something to do he has already done enough and therefore he leaves early.

Pothead logic never ceases to amaze.

4:59: Come to think of it, looking back on the logic for so many of the decisions down here, I wonder how many potheads we got down here?

5:00. The others in receiving have left, and I have the space to myself for an hour. I put on some of my own music for the background while I work. This is my favourite part of the workday.

5:59. Shutting down for the day. We did a lot of work, still have a lot to do for tomorrow. By tomorrow the break will be nothing but a distant memory, as vague as though it never happened. That's just the way it is.

Most of the people down here don’t hesitate to say how much they hate this place. I don’t hate this place, exactly. It allows me to fulfill my role as a father, and keep a roof over my family’s head, clothes on their backs and food in their bellies. They don’t have everything they want, mind you, but they do have what they need, and for that I am grateful for this job.

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