There’s something about manual labor that is very satisfying – it happens inside a ‘zone’ that is almost exclusively manly. After all that is the way that most of us men folk lived for hundreds of thousands of years.
When I first came to Canada I worked at a car wash – the ones they call “Lave auto à la main” – where the cars are washed, soaped, rinsed, wiped and then polished by hand, instead of those joints where you simply sit inside your car and allow an automated system to take over.
My parents back home would have been scandalized if they had known how I was earning a living. My dad would simply have shut down his ears, not wanting to know of it. But there I was – washing, spraying, soaping, polishing – my coveralls and boots soaked right through, the skin around my fingers and toes permanently creased from continued contact with water.
But I had no choice. Actually I did – if we wanted to downsize and move into one of those roach-infested hovels in La Salle or Saint Michel, boroughs of Montreal that are inhabited by street gang members. So instead, I went to work. I did six months in that carwash and a year night shift in a downtown all-night cafe, before I finally got a break that had something ever so faintly to do with my university degree – certifying aircraft engines.
Both, the carwash as well as the cafe were back breaking. But during that period I felt a certain brotherhood, a kinship that I hadn’t ever felt before. There was something ‘tribal’ about manual labor. It was a sort of macho brotherhood of men who were constantly laughing and joking about sex, swapping raunchy cellphone photos, boasting about ‘conquests’ and gyming (going first to the gym after work).
At the carwash, the owner/foreman was a grim swarthy Albanian guy in his late thirties named Agon who laughed only when you told him a dirty joke. Agon had flown the devastated Vlora with his mother in 1997 at the height of the Albanian Civil War, when members of the SHIK (Albanian Security Service) had broken into his home and taken his dad away, never to be seen or heard from again. At the carwash, Agon would hiss under his breath when a comely young lady drove in, “Anyone who doesn’t leave that broad’s car to me, I break his legs.” But for all his bluster, Agon never played foul or short changed us our pay.
At the cafe, the owner, Ben, was cursing us out all the time. Why the fuck haven’t you cut the tomatoes yet. Who the fuck is going to clean out the toilets. What the fuck are you staring at me for, go mop the fucking floor, its dirty. Butt out the fucking cigarette and get back to work. You take fucking ages with your toilet break. Did you wash your fucking hands? I don’t want you kneading the fucking dough with fucking poop on your hands.
But when my wife and baby boy came in one day to see me for something, it was not the same Ben who went out to greet them. By the time they had sat down, he had laid out a banquet for them on the house with his own hands.
Hard labor was good for a simple, inquisitive and overactive mind like mine. It was a relief from stress. It temporarily shut down the constant movie running inside my head that looped round and round endlessly, it’s main theme – other’s expectations, obligations, guilt, anger, rebellion and the fear of failure.
The days were long : 10-12 hour shifts, peopled with almost 100% immigrant labor, most of whom were well educated even before they had arrived in Canada and almost all of them refugees waiting to be accepted and working for cash to supplement the welfare dole they received. The cafe had quite a few Masters of Science and Arts and I met even one PhD in the carwash – an Iranian earth scientist who specialized in petroleum geology.
There was also a meritocracy I noted, in manual work that I did. When you are doing hard labor, the reason why you get paid is a simple one – you are either capable of the job or you are not capable of it. If you are not, there is no way you are going to get hired. Who you are, where you come from, what language you speak or what the color your skin is – they don’t matter. All that matters is how thinly you can slice the onions or the tomatoes and how many potatoes you can peel in a minute or how fast you can unload those heavy crates of cabbages from the delivery truck that is blocking half the sidewalk. Or how quickly you can finish wiping down a car that has just been rinsed.
Even now, I still feel a kinship with folks who work with their hands linger within me. When I am at a Tim Hortons, I tip the girl at the counter generously. At work, when I pass by a member of the janitorial contractor who is replenishing the toilet paper at the men’s washroom, I never fail to say “thank you for keeping this place so tidy”. If at a restaurant, a waiter comes forward to clean up a ketchup spill I created, I stoop to help with a “I am so sorry I had to make you do this”.
Even now, I remember Ben’s words when I first came to work for him….. “You need to leave that university degree of yours outside the door when you come to work. In here, we are all equal….”