There is someone in our neighbourhood who I see almost every day while out on his routine rounds. He is a rather strange looking individual a la Duck Dynasty who wears a hunting cap, sports a long beard, and whose chosen mode of transportation is a bicycle. He fascinates me because I suspect he ‘camps’ year round under the bridge not far from where I live. Over time I have seen he has a daily routine, that almost coincides with my own. When I am backing out in the morning, chances are he will be riding by on his bicycle. If I am inattentive, he will rap on my car, or throw out some salty words. He is not apologetic. He has his place in the world and he knows it. I am not sure exactly what he does to bring bread to mouth, except that it is a problem he has apparently solved. I suspect he collects beer cans and other such things he can cash in for enough to feed himself. Whatever his situation, he seems to be comfortable in his own skin to the point of beligerance. Don’t get in his way when he is doing his thing. He is not looking for pity, he is looking for pop cans. I think at some point in his life he assessed his own resources and needs and decided as many people do, to “work for himself”.
That might be the consequence of what happens when you have worked for someone else and got the short end of the stick. You see the way that human relations can get skewed in favour of the golden rule - he who has the gold makes the rules. You can understand this in full if you have ever done grunt jobs, even more if you have ever had to do a grunt job just to pay your rent or bring food to mouth.
I am well versed in this world since the age of eighteen and have worked all manner of jobs, all honest labour, but some I would not look back on fondly. This is the realm of “day labour”, you know when you go down to that place where they hand out day work and it is usually cash. Alcoholics like those kind of arrangements a lot because they are mutable to your own schedule. The worst job I have ever had, was to dig a two-foot-deep trench through a packed parking lot with a pickaxe on a 90° day for minimum wage. Apparently I was cheaper than hiring a back hoe. I still recall trying to finish off around six PM and the one who was paying the bills saying impatiently “Hurry up, this is costing me money”. Living through things like that makes me understand the impulses that drive the man-under-the-bridge situation. People are prone to leverage the avails of capitalism, to their worst.
I had one gig as a stripper. Ran out of money, school year was ended, rent needed to be paid. I answered a job board and got on a bus headed for Thornhill. Up there was a furniture refinishing establishment whose name I will not mention. Their schtick was to get “estate” furniture, the overblown furniture of the last century that was usually big, heavy, impractical and layered with rich burled walnut or other such rare and exotic wood veneers. What came in the door, was usually covered with a predictable number of paint layers like ka ka green, tints of yellow in the fifties, all built up into one big layer. The job description was “vat boy”. You were the point person who received the unstripped piece of furniture and dumped it into the big vat. The vat was filled with a witches brew of caustic chemicals which must have included acetone, various acids et cetera, where efficacy was the driving virtue. Once the furniture was immersed, you were to scrub off years of wear, with a wire brush, scrubbing in all the cracks and crevices. Once the worst layers of paint were dissolved, the piece would be taken out and dried, old joints fixed and reglued, and the entire thing sanded by hand. There was a lot of grunt work involved. What happened next was a bit of magic. The furniture piece was spray finished with lacquer, and the original richness of the wood came to life. Old was new again, and what was a piece of junk now commanded a good price on the antique circuits which thrive on such estate furniture.
I remember feeling a little bit apprehensive arriving on the job with a big pile in the “in” box. The guys in the factory looked at me and laughed. “Another vat boy” they said. “The last one lasted three months before he went gooney”. They were referring to the third world kind of conditions that were part and parcel of the labour. Although the chemicals were caustic to the skin and no doubt dangerous to the lungs and brain, there was no protection. No ventilation, not even a window. The smell was heady and overpowering. The muck of dissolved finish would coat your arms up to the elbows. I asked the supervisor for gloves. He laughed and brought me some dish-washing gloves, which promptly dissolved in the mix in about three minutes.
I didn’t last long. I happened on a friend of mine who said “did you ever consider working as a musician? I know a gig you could get”. And so I bailed on my life as a stripper and traded it up for something else.
We are in the world of the “gig” economy as the saying goes. There are short term gigs which solely exist to milk the kind of labour I was doing as “vat boy”. The world of capitalism thrives on such give and take, although in my experience it has been largely been “take”. Those who are on the take, do so because they can leverage desperation, and are in a position of power enough to do so consistently.
Capitalism is a great thing at times, mostly when you are working for yourself. Such passes through my mind when I strip a piece of furniture in the yard. I think about all those people in the factory who could not find something better to do, to put bread to mouth. Many could not speak English. They were there just sanding their fingers raw, getting the least possible pay, for the worst possible work. That is how life arranges it when it is up to human beings. It would be enough to make Jesus blush from shame looking down at the world and what it has become.
There are those who find ways to entertain themselves and make do in such arrangements. I am thinking of the Jamaican guy in the factory who somehow survived the day by making the rounds with the Sunshine girl and polling each and every worker, “What you think mon, you poooosh her, or what?”.
We all make do as we can. We find a way to add value to our labour so as not to be taken advantage of if we can avoid it. It is a hammer and tong world I am afraid, and it makes me in some ways look forward to the next, when the lion will lie down with the lamb, swords will be beaten into ploughshares, and a little child shall lead.
We do what we have to meanwhile to put bread to mouth. Welcome to the “gig” economy otherwise known as the world we live in. Wave to that bottle collector on a bike when you see him, he is finding a way to make it work as an entrepreneur working for himself. It might be the most merciful world he can find out there.