My Worst Job, or, Grace in Big Things

I meant to mention yesterday that I will not be posting a daily list of grace in small things here, at this weblog. Occasionally I might cross-post but if you want to know what little things I am grateful for on a given day over the next year, follow the link on the badge on the left sidebar and presto! you will know.

The year 1996 was no picnic. I kicked it off by breaking off my fledgling relationship with Saint Aardvark, claiming the usual “not you, me,” the day before the last day of 1995 so we ended up together but apart at the same New Year’s party. Ouchy. Don’t worry, it all turned out all right in the end.

Our landlord raised our rent so Sarah and I had to move to a basement suite with two windows, one purple bathroom and a lot of mushrooms. The fungal kind, not the magic kind.

Sarah and I each lost our jobs.

UBC told me I couldn’t graduate after all because I needed one more course. Even though they had already put my graduation photo up on the wall of the Political Science hallway under the Class of ’96 banner. Random trivia if I am ever famous: I am actually part of the class of ’97.

I got a job making falafel sandwiches at a deli in the basement of the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre, working for a pervert named Mo and his best buddy, also named Mo. Though I got free coffee and all the falafel I could eat, I also got free ass pats, lewd conversation and a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach each time I watched Mo hire on the spot another girl who looked like she was 15 minutes from an overdose in an alley only to spend all day propositioning her while she tried to keep the grease from the deep fryer out of her hair. So I quit, even though I had no money at all and neither did Sarah.

Then the guy I was Not Formally Dating went away for the summer and decided to Not Formally Date someone else all summer long. He didn’t tell me about it until September when he came back with her and announced her as his girlfriend. This was Not Formally Cheating but it still felt sort of like a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

In September, I was out job-hunting and saw a sign in the window of a store called U-San Gifts near the corner of Broadway and Granville. It was one of those stores where you can’t walk for shelves full of incense, potpourri, angel figurines, place mats, candles and mugs that say things like “I’m not over the hill; I’m buried under it!” Big, cheap rugs everywhere. Bamboo blinds. Music boxes (one of which, I soon learned, played Stairway to Heaven) and dolphins. Lots of dolphins. I walked in and handed the woman behind the desk my resume. I thought, hey, pop music is playing on the radio, how bad could it be. She asked if I could start the next day. I said a silent fucking A and went home to share my good news with Sarah and our cats, Stella and Frank. Or, if you prefer, Frank and Stella.

(Oh and then later that fall, our cat Stella got out one of the windows, got pregnant [Frank moved out because he wasn’t the father] and suddenly we had 6 kittens in our basement apartment)

(but they all found homes.)

(and they were really cute.)

Unfortunately, what I had thought was the radio had been a CD. A Celine Dion’s Greatest Hits CD. The other CD that the owners of U-San Gifts played every day was Whitney Houston’s Greatest Hits. That was it, just the two. Except at Christmas, when they switched to The Smurfs Christmas Album and the Nana Mouskouri Christmas Album.

That job was the single most horrendous thing that has ever happened to me, including the time I sliced part of my finger off at my old deli job.

The owners of U-San Gifts were from Burma. They hated white people. They hated me. They were pretty clear about this. I was to: organize their stock room, polish their shelves full of knick knacks (take knick knacks from shelves. place on floor. clean shelf. put knick knacks back EXACTLY WHERE THEY WERE) and look after their two small children, aged 5 and 2, who lived behind the counter in a playpen except when they were allowed to wander freely through the store scaring the customers. Oh and I wasn’t to talk to the customers. Certainly not allowed to take their money at the counter. Obviously I could not be trusted with a cash register.

I had to do their window displays too, but they had to be exactly the way they wanted. Mostly this involved spending half a day in the stock room choking on dust looking for a specific “50% OFF TODAY ONLY!” sign and then spending the other half in the front window, in full view of all the people waiting for the bus, hanging 8×10 Persian rug knock-offs using fishing wire while the children frolicked at my feet wrecking everything I put in place.

The children were obsessed with Sailor Moon. They named me Sailor Pluto. I just remembered that.

The money I earned did not adequately cover my expenses and so I ate a lot of rice, with tabasco for flavour. I walked to work (about 45 minutes each way) to save bus fare. I spent the day humping boxes of stock, sweating in the front window underneath $14.99 throws with suns and moons on them, chasing the younger of the two children to stop her from destroying precious china dolphins and listening to “I’m Every Woman” and the love theme from “Titanic.” 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for some months.

I take back what I said about the owners. They didn’t hate white people; they distrusted white people. They knew for a fact that everyone who was not from their part of the world was going to steal, cheat and lie. They criticized everything I did, they peered around corners while I worked, hoping, it seemed, to catch me in the act of something. They called on me to follow around the store people they suspected of shoplifting. One time I saw a guy steal something and I didn’t say anything. I guess I proved them right.

Day in, day out, being treated like dirt, having the worst believed about you, it breaks you down. I think I only worked there 7 or 8 months but I was so depressed I often cried my entire walk home. It wasn’t that I was doing grunt work – I had done that before – but that I was being treated like less than human.

(And yes, it did occur to me that many people of colour live with some degree of this degradation from the moment they are born until they die, every day, in every area of their lives. They don’t get to just walk out the door and go out on the town and drink it all away. It’s at the bar too, for them. It’s on the bus, at the bank, at the grocery store, for them.)

In the spring, Sarah’s boyfriend Crazy Dave told me about his best friend whose friend was married to a guy who owned a small business. That guy gave me a job in his shop downtown. My world began the climb to luck and love and general good humour again the day in June, I think it was, that I first walked in to that shop and started sorting the mail.

The other day I was thinking about my life. I’m pinched, licked, bitten, screamed at, kept from sleeping, often kept from eating, lately forced to “show my work” after I have been to the toilet (oh the joy of potty training) and frequently refused free time or regular breaks. At best, my days are balanced between my needs and those of my young charges. At worst, I am on my feet for 12 hours and the children time their sleep so that I am not free of both of them until their father gets home. But even on my worst day parenting, I have never felt as degraded, as worthless, as down-and-out LOW as I did at U-San Gifts. This job is harder, yes, it taxes me from my head to my toes, yes, but it is far, far from the worst job I have ever had.

For that, I am truly grateful.

This entry was posted in and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to My Worst Job, or, Grace in Big Things