Montreal doesn’t have a Subway. Montreal has a Metro.
I’ll be the first to admit that pulling in minimum wage to hand out event promotional flyers at Metro station ‘Parc’ wasn’t the type of career I had in mind. I entered the station and decided that the enclave at the top of the bank of escalators was the spot to maximize on passer-by. The jealous glare from the ‘Watchtower’ pusher who arrived moments after me confirmed my suspicions. This was the spot. When you enter university you don’t visualize yourself upon graduation frequenting public transit facilities in order to compete with middle-aged Jehovah’s Witnesses for the best place to distribute promotional literature. If only they could see me now, the dozens of people who’d had the nerve to question: “So what do you plan to do with a Bachelor‘s Degree in Geography?” I realized my obvious skills for sensing a good location were being unceremoniously wasted and made a mental note to find a better form of employment. Correction, I made a mental note to find any other form of employment. While debating whether a hot dog or ice cream vendor was a more profitable venture, a curious man with an East-Indian accent approached and motioned to my stack of flyers.
“Are you having a job?”
“Are you working?”
“Uh, I’m working right now if that’s what you’re asking…”
“I see, you are already having a job. I am looking for somebody who needs a job.”
“Well I kinda have this flyer thing going on right now. It’s only a short contract though, and today is my last day.”
“Can you fold things?”
“Yeah, sure. Why?”
“I have a job for somebody who can do folding.”
“I’ll be done with this at ten o’clock”
“Here is my phone number. Be calling me back at ten o’clock. I am Sasha. You will work for me. You will do folding.”
When you’re standing at a metro station pondering employment improvement and a sketchy guy offers you a job, you’re either going to land a good job or a good story. Today was going to be a sure-fire winner. By five after ten I found myself in the passenger seat of a 1991 Dodge Caravan equipped with shiny running boards and dark tinted windows. “This is good van. Dodge. I am selling it. You might want this van. Two-thousand and five-hundred. Good price my friend.” We commenced making the rounds of Sasha’s ‘hood’ by searching for the elusive store-owner-lady who hadn’t paid him for her last order of t-shirts: “She’s not selling my shirts again. She is a bad lady. She doesn’t be selling anything for me.” Then we knocked on the door of an obviously closed and deserted restaurant, apparently owned by his brother, where supposedly there was, “A job in this restaurant for you if you be wanting it.”
By this point I’d taken a liking to Sasha. His unorthodox entrepreneurial style was inspirational to say the least and I was curious to learn more about the promised ‘folding’ activity. It took Sasha exactly ten minutes to get from the metro station to another continent altogether. It may have been the basement of a modest house in the North-end of Montreal, but from my knowledge of international workplace safety standards cultivated from a lifetime of reading National Geographic magazine articles, I was in India. The basement was a scene of disarray rivalled only by a Calcuttan garment factory. Boxes were piled to the top of the seven-foot ceilings and at every step was either a spliced electrical cord or a ramshackle sewing machine. The house may have been deserted, but I imagined how a handful of workers could turn the basement into a sweatshop at the drop of a hat. Still unsure of the legitimacy of the business, I searched but could not find the two elements that could prove this was a true illegal basement sweatshop: labour exploitation and smouldering fire hazards.
“I have plastic for you to fold.’’ said Sasha. Now I, like every other kid in my grade 8 science class who owned a ‘BIC’ pen the first day our science teacher let us use the Bunsen burners, knew how to fold plastic. The premise is simple: Heat the plastic until it’s soft, then bend it. Scoffing in the face of existing safe heat-producing devices, Sasha had invented his own electric ‘folding` machine. A car-battery charger was plugged into the wall socket and its live leads were placed on a nearby table. Instead of attaching the live leads to a dead car battery, as is the usual style, Sasha ingeniously attached them to a pair of nails connected by a thin piece of wire. As the current began to flow, the wire quickly became red hot. To add danger to beauty, the entire heat-producing assembly was mounted to a piece of wood, which began to smoulder. “Why buy a safe product when the firefighters have nothing planned for the day?” I reasoned. After showing me his invention, Sasha looked at me with a dead-serious look on his face: “Do not tell ANYBODY that you are working for me. OK, we are be starting now.”
As promised, my job description was simple. Folding. Sasha instructed me to fold 4-inch square pieces of paper-thin transparent plastic into a sort of a name-badge holder. By placing the small pieces of plastic over the radiant wire, they became linearly malleable. Two quick folds and they could hold paper nameplates. After 45 seconds of training, Sasha felt I was capable to work alone.
“If you are leaving, turn electricity off. We don’t want be wasting money on electricity.”
“Or give the firefighters something to do”, I thought.
Feeling productive, I started to work pretty hard and was well on my way to becoming the best-illegal-basement-plastic-badge-bender in the East, of Canada. After an hour, I stood proudly over 200 completed pieces.. Sasha strolled downstairs with a coffee in hand, sized-up my output, and put me in my place.
“You are too slow. My child is faster than you. He is seven. Maybe one day you will be good.” He said, grabbing a piece of plastic and showing me his expert technique. “Do like this: softly. Yes, this is better. For each bundle of 100 pieces I will be giving you one dollar.”
Still shocked by the myriad of workplace safety, tax and labour laws being broken, the economic reality of Sasha`s statement meant nothing to me. Clearly the melting plastic and the smouldering wood had placed me in an inebriated state. Slowly crunching the numbers through a fog of plastic smoke and basement dust, I calculated that being paid one dollar for each 100 pieces was going to net me two dollars per hour at my current rate. Being currently jobless and with nothing else better to do, or more accurately, nothing else worse to do, I decided to continue. The only thought that entered my plastic-fume riddled brain was: “Well, I’ll just keep at this until I get a free lunch then, won’t I?” After another hour of contained amazement, I had a pile of 400 name plate holders. Good enough to buy my freedom with a $4 lunch.
Being a good businessman, Sasha sensed my onset of lunchtime hunger and began promoting his post-lunch work opportunities. “Sorry. I have many jobs for you. Painting is one of these jobs. Twenty dollars each room. I also have many things for sale to my friends. Would you be needing couch, bed, television, microwave?” Now a microwave was something I could use. I’d been putting off a microwave purchase until the right deal came along. Clearly, this was the deal I’d been waiting for.
“How much you want for the microwave?”
“Ten bucks eh?” I said, weighing the options. It was a pretty low price, all things considered, but I only had $4 worth of work under my belt. I was out of cash so unless Sasha accepted Visa, I’d either have to work another three hours at my current pace to earn enough for the microwave. I hadn’t remembered seeing an “Accepted here: VISA” sticker on the front window of the house so I scratched my head and contemplated another three hours of plastic fumes. Sasha saw the look of concern on my face and realized he’d lose all chance of me ever returning to his ‘factory’ again if he didn’t act quick to sweeten the deal just a little.
“Okay, ten dollars for normally, but for you my friend: no price. Free.”
OK. Time out: Imagine it’s the mid 1940s and we’re inside the laboratory of the scientist who is designing the world’s very first microwave. Imagine the following is his prediction for the ‘space-age’ technology:
“Microwave technology will be expensive at first. The Microwave oven will change the way housewives cook their meals. Never more will she face the rigor of slaving over a hot stove all day. Being a revolutionary food-warming technology, it will primarily be an appliance for the rich, but over time, the cost of a microwave oven will drop steadily. By the start of the 21st century, microwave ovens will be the preferred currency for sweatshop proprietors employing illegal-labourers in basement fire-traps.”
Minutes later I found myself walking down the street waving goodbye to Sasha with $4 in one hand and a microwave in the other. My lunch? — Two microwaveable frozen burritos.
And that’s how you get $4 and a microwave in Montreal.
Since it wasn’t hot enough outside that day and because the plastic bender did not produce adequate BTUs for me to break a sweat, I have yet been able to proclaim that I’ve worked in a bona-fide sweatshop.
All a university grad can do is dream.
copyright © 2004 by Kyle MacDonald
**I Love Alberta Beef recently won the Grand Prize in a Story Contest organized by Matt Jackson of Summit Studios. It will be part of a forthcoming compilation of Travelers Tales. Please see Summit’s website for more info:http://mattjackson.ca/
Alberta. 2003. It was the summer of two competing phenomena: the mad cow crisis and the bumper sticker. Americans may have stopped Canadian Beef from flowing over the border but Albertans fought back with the “I Love Alberta Beef” bumper sticker. It seemed as though every driver in the province had slapped a bumper sticker to the tail end of their Chevy, Ford or Dodge. Their message was simple: Eat more beef. And Love it.
I arrived in the festive mountain town of Banff with two friends, Rob and Fiddy. Bumper sticker mania was at its pinnacle. Our initial stroll through town landed us at the “Official Alberta Beef” information booth. A jovial stereotypically-attired rancher handed us each a healthy stack of “I Love Alberta Beef” bumper stickers with one condition:
“Do you boys promise me that you will spread the good word?”
I shook his hand and looked him straight in the eye and replied, “Yes Sir. Yes we will.”
I was a roughneck, Rob and Fiddy were treeplanters. The transient nature of our employment made this the single weekend of the summer that we crossed paths. Being Canada Day, we decided that we would let our hair down even further than we normally would. We decided this weekend was going to be the weekend of the year. After all, it was Canada Day, anything less would be unpatriotic.
A copious amount of beer, we decided, was the best way to accomplish this task. A ten minute drive to the liquor store was all that stood between us and a weekend for the ages. But not today. The normally calm and traffic-free streets of Banff were engulfed in a traffic snarl that would strike fear into even the hardest New York cab driver. The Canada Day parade was about to start. Banff Ave was shut down from end to end, thus rendering the entire street system of town utterly useless to vehicle traffic. Half an hour wasted looking for even the most “ticket likely” parking spot later, we conceded defeat and returned to our starting point.
Rob said it best, “You know what? I’m choked. We got beat by a parade. If there was a fire and they had to shut the streets down? Maybe. A hostage situation? Better. But a parade? It’s such a lousy reason for not being able to buy beer.”
Fiddy added, “I know, but I’m not walking all the way across town and back just to buy a case of beer. Not in this heat. Remember what that girl said yesterday Rob? The temperature today is supposed to get up to thirty above.”
“Right. Canada Day. Thirty above. Why did she bother adding she was from Saskatoon?”
I couldn’t stand it anymore. This was supposed to be the weekend of the year. The last thing that was going to stop us from cutting-loose, Canada Day style, was a parade. Let alone a parade that we weren’t involved with. Then it hit me: The parade! I looked up at the two dejected souls and asked: “You guys still have your “I love Alberta Beef” bumper stickers?”
“Yeah, why?” they said in unison.
“Go get all of them.”
My plan solved every problem we faced. We could get beer, avoid walking, settle the score with the parade and most importantly, fulfill our promise to the rancher.
“What are we doing at the start of the parade route with all these stickers?” Rob said.
“Watch this.” I replied, extending my arm and raising my thumb in a classic hitchhiker’s pose.
He smiled at me and said, “Yes Sir. Yes we will.”
A line of classic cars started the parade. The driver of the first car raised his eyebrows high to say there was no possible way we would ever set foot in his vehicle, period. The second driver somehow managed to raise his eyebrows even higher. Was my plan doomed to fail? What we saw next made our mouths drop. Rolling towards us was a “J.F.K.-assassination” style convertible. If there was the perfect car for this moment in time, this was it. A driver decades-younger than the “eyebrow-raisers” asked the obvious, “You guys need a ride?”
“Yes Sir. Yes we do.”
We sat in the back of the convertible rolling down Banff Ave. We were in the Parade. In shock from our sudden good fortunes, we played it cool for the first few minutes and got to know our driver and his two female companions. It turned out they worked for the same landscaping company. I looked glanced at the fingernails of the girl beside me. Dirty. They were telling the truth. I asked her, “So if you three work as landscapers, do you cut grass?”
“Do you cut that grassy knoll over there?” I said, pointing to our left.
She pointed her dirty fingernail and said, “That knoll? Sure, I cut it yesterday.”
“Hey, Fiddy! Isn’t that your grassy knoll?” Rob chimed in.
“Yup. That’s the one.”
“Your grassy knoll?” she asked, shooting a confused look at Fiddy.
Fiddy filled her in: “Last night I was walking back from the bar and I decided that your grassy knoll over there was the perfect place to spend the night. So I slept there, face down, and this morning an old guy in a Buick pulled up beside me and honked his horn. Repeatedly. I guess he was offended to see me passed out on his neighbour’s lawn. Two facts for you: One: Alarm clocks? Over-rated. Two: Most comfortable grassy knoll I’ve ever slept on.”
She blushed and shot a look even more confused than the last at Fiddy and responded in the only way possible, “Thank you.”
If only they fell in love at first “knoll.” They would share a lifetime of blowing people’s minds when they found themselves at cocktail parties being asked: “Well, Nick and I met at work. Where did you two meet?
If I had the nerve to hitchhike in a parade, in the back of a “J.F.K-assassination” style convertible, with a guy who had a personal grassy knoll groomer, also present, I needed to take things to the next level.
“Snipers! Quick! Front corners! Haven’t you seen the movie ‘In the Line of Fire? You guys need to protect me and Jackie O!” I shouted, butchering real history and film history in one fell swoop. But what did I care? I was in a parade. With stickers. With Jackie O. Fiddy and Rob jumped from the slowly moving vehicle and ran to the headlights. They placed one hand on the car and the other on their ‘earpiece’, checking for intelligence reports of gunmen. From my gunfire-enticing perch in the car, I cheerily handed out bumper stickers to everyone who approached our heavily-guarded ‘float’.
We saw the hat first, then the eyes. There was no mistaking who it was. On top of the grassy knoll was the man we knew would arrive. He emerged from the shadows and raised an object to his shoulder. His fist. Another object raised to his other shoulder. His other fist. He coolly watched us distribute hundreds of innocent bumper stickers to hundreds of innocent people then suddenly thrust both fists into the air and shouted: “Go get ‘em boys!”
It was the rancher.
We rounded the corner onto the home stretch. Spectators piled high along Banff Ave. The sides of the street were packed ten-deep and people on the tops of buildings shouted with delight. It felt like a ticker tape victory parade. A sudden onslaught of out-thrust hands dwindled our sticker supply down to the very last sticker. Fiddy was on his feet both literally and figuratively. He ran to the centre of the street and hatched a plan on the spot that would decide the lucky recipient of our final sticker. He shouted clearly, hushing the crowd: “Ladies and Gentleman, in my hands I have the final “I Love Alberta Beef” bumper sticker that we will hand out today. I will give this sticker to the first person to come out here and show me a “beef” dance.” With gusto, a middle-aged mom burst from the crowd and landed in the middle of the street. She nailed a perfect rendition of that Russian dance where you cross your arms and kick out your feet. If there was ever the perfect “beef” dance, this was it.
Stickerless but still in the spotlight, I stood up on the back seat and addressed the captivated crowd on the left side of the street. I shouted out what any sensible person would do in my situation: “Give me a “B”! Give me an “E”! Give me an “E”! Give me an “F”! What’s that spell?”, cupping my ear to the crowd.
“BEEF!” The crowd answered back. I turned to the other side of the street:
“C’mon right side of the street, you can do better than them! Give me a…!”
What followed was the first time in the history of the world, ever, that two sides of a parade route tried their best to out ‘beef’ chant each other. The crowd had beef fever. We were spreading the disease.
Up to this point, we had made it past the grassy knoll unscathed, handed out each and every last bumper sticker, and even incited a round of competitive ‘beef’ chanting. The crowd was in the palm of our hand. Rob somehow got his hands on a corrugated plastic sign with the word ‘Monday’ printed on one side, ‘Tuesday’ on the other. Seizing the opportunity, he held it over his head and shouted to the left bank of spectators: ”Who likes Mondays?”
“Mondays!”- the left bank shouted back. He turned to the right side, asking loudly: “Who likes Tuesdays?”
“Tuesdays!” replied the right bank.
What followed was the first time in the history of the world, ever, that two sides of a parade route tried their damndest to out ‘Monday’/’Tuesday’ chant each other.
For the record, Tuesdays won. They always do.
With the important matter of Monday vs. Tuesday settled, we bowed to the crowd and exited stage right. We were at the end of the parade. Our classic car-owning landscaper-cum-chauffer pulled up to the liquor store and thanked us for an unforgettable parade experience. We thanked him for an unforgettable parade experience. We bought our beer then walked back outside. Blocking out the sun was the unmistakable figure of the rancher. His weathered face broke into a wide smile as he offered us his meaty right paw. We shook firmly while he looked us square in the eyes and said:
“Yes boys. Yes you did.”
copyright © 2005 by Kyle MacDonald