Saturday, January 08, 2005

One of the worst jobs I've ever had

The worst job I ever had from my novel "The Devil Wouldn't Kill a Bad Thing":

We arrived in Fort Lauderdale around three in the afternoon, and checked into the Polynesian Hotel. After tossing our bags in the room, we headed for the beach. The main strip, out front of the hotel, was busier than I would have guessed for early May. But when the weather was better than anything this side of Christ’s kingdom, I supposed that people flocked to it no matter what the season.

We found a spot on the beach, and spread out our towels. After lathering on sunscreen, Briana lay back and closed her eyes. I looked around, watching people playing volleyball, others throwing a Frisbee, rollerbladers gliding along a paved path. The surf was strewn with swimmers.

I looked at Briana. Leaned over and kissed her knee. She smiled, and stroked my arm.

I cast my gaze toward the horizon, and saw merchant ships out amid the white caps. And wondered how horrible it would be working on a freighter off the gorgeous coast, in weather that spoke only of leisure and fun.

Memory grabbed hold of me, and I was transported to the previous year, when Briana and I first took our apartment. Having spent weeks submitting resumes to every ad agency, publishing company, and public relations firm between Windsor and Ottawa, I received no replies. With rent to pay and groceries to buy, Briana took a job at a clothing store downtown, and I applied to work as a security guard. I knew the pay would be lousy, and the hours would be worse, but I figured the graveyard shifts would afford me time to write. My interview at the security company consisted of filling out an application, and having my background checked through the provincial police. When it came back clear, I was fitted for a uniform.

“There’s something about a man in uniform,” Briana said, as I affixed my clip-on tie the evening of my first shift.

“Yeah, Gomer Pyle reporting for active duty,” I said.

My supervisor, Dominic, drove me out to my post the first night: the Windsor Grain Terminal, off Highway 18. My window was rolled down as we drove along the gravel lane to the site’s main gate. The first thing I noticed was an overpowering stench—like Cheerio’s and puke.

“What’s that?” I said, as the afternoon guard opened the gate.

“Rotting grain stuck to the sides of the silos.”

The guardhouse sat at the far end of the parking lot, near the gate. It was an aluminium-sided box the size of the kitchen in my apartment. There was a table inside, a phone, and papers strewn everywhere. When the afternoon guard left, Dominic took me through my duties, showing me the Detex clock, which looked like a stopwatch the size of a tea saucer.

“There’re six keys located around the site,” he said. “You stick a key in the bottom of the Detex clock, turn it, and the time is logged—so the company knows you’re doing your rounds.”

We crossed the parking lot, headed to the main building—the grain silos loomed above us like medieval lookout towers. A freighter sat at the dock fifty yards away. There was a word stamped across its side. It wasn’t written in English.

“Where’s the freighter from?” I said.


Beyond the freighter was the dark body of the Detroit River. Across the river was a Detroit industrial site, which looked like an alien installation. One structure was dotted with emerald-coloured lights that were almost pretty. A row of red lights flashed atop another building. Between the two stood a tower that spewed a massive ragged flame.

“There’re fans in the silos,” Dominic said. “Sometimes they jam-up with grain dust. When that happens, a siren goes off. When that happens, you gotta climb up to that catwalk,” he pointed at the silos; I couldn’t see what he was referring to, “and try getting them going by hand.”

I laughed. I was used to “new guy” jokes from previous jobs. Dominic looked at me. He wasn’t joking.

“You gotta be careful. A guard fell into a silo a few months ago, and we had to call in a special rescue team. He broke an arm, and nearly suffocated. The rescue costs a fortune, and really pissed off head office.”

The first Detex key was in the main building, in a room with large screens along the front wall, filled with colour-coded lines and squares and rectangles; a row of ancient computer consoles faced them—right out of a science fiction movie.

As I slotted the key into the Detex clock, I said, “What if I run into an intruder?”

“You won’t.”

I laughed. “No, seriously. They’ve got guards out here for a reason. What if I run into somebody who shouldn’t be here?”

“You won’t.”

The closest thing to a weapon I had was the set of site keys. I hadn’t even been issued a flashlight, much less a revolver or nightstick. Beyond that, I was to call head office each hour to check in.

“Pretty useless if you asked me,” Dominic said. “Somebody will come out if you’ve missed three or four calls, but by then anything could’ve happened.”
As we walked out of the main building, headed for a tool shed by the dock, I decided that if I ran into an intruder, I would throw the keys at him, and run like hell.

Dominic left around one in the morning, saying he would be back around seven to drive me home.

“The day guy said the sailors from the ship went to a strip bar,” he said, walking to his car. “So, they’ll probably be drunk and wound-up when they get back.”


“If you’re in here when they get back, lock the door, and keep the phone handy. Doesn’t happen often, but sometimes sailors give guards a hard time.”

Looking out the guardhouse window, at the industrial site across the river, hearing an alarm roar at the Windsor Salt Mine next door—and the skunks and raccoons looting the toppled garbage can beside the guardhouse—I felt an old shaky fear worm through me. Like when I was a kid, and got lost in a department store. Unadorned fright, anxiety, foreboding.

I called Briana around two o’clock, waking her. Although she had to work the next morning, she talked to me until I was ready to hang up. Hearing her voice only increased my lonely isolation. I hardly had the voice to say goodbye.

Each time I made my rounds, wandering through the stench-filled shadows, I thought, This is only a job. I go home in a few hours. I’ll get another job soon. This isn’t forever.

The balcony heckler countered with: You’re gonna die out here. The Polish sailors are gonna get you.

Back in the guardhouse, I couldn’t write a word; couldn’t eat the sandwich Briana sent with me. The Polish sailors came back around three-thirty. Sweating, shaking, I locked the guardhouse door, and sat on the floor so they wouldn’t see me in the window. I listened to the approach of their drunken laughter, and my heart nearly exploded when they pummelled the side of the guardhouse as they went by.
When I saw the first strands of dawn, hours later, it was a victory. I had lasted the night, made all my rounds. When Dominic arrived around six-thirty there were no incidents to report.

“That’s how we like it,” he said, and drove me home.

In the time it took to go from the sidewalk to our apartment unit, I almost came apart. My hands trembled as I opened the apartment door. I walked into the bedroom, where Briana slept, and took off my clothes. By the time I lay down next to her, I was crying—quiet, little-kid-crying into the palms of my hands; throat ready to burst, tears scalding my cheeks. Briana rolled over and touched my shoulder. “How’d it go,” she yawned.

I clutched my pillow, swallowed hard. “Okay.”

When she heard the tears in my voice, and came full awake. “What happened?”

“I can’t go back,” I said, and braced myself for more questions. There were none.

“If it’s got you this upset, call your boss and quit,” she said. And I did. Weeks later, I was hired at the sports store in the mall.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Did the same gig there around 1990-91. Can't say I remember ever having any trouble from the sailors. I enjoyed the solitude and read a lot, or practiced my guitar, talking with another guard on the C.B. radio who worked in Ecorse somewhere. When Burns took over from Hargrave I opted to take a transfer.