After two failed newspaper jobs in a year, I was ready to walk into the first art shop with a Help Wanted sign. Instead, I got a temp job at a nondescript Mississauga warehouse packing labels in boxes, working next to a gremlin-sized Freddy Krueger.
For a man who in public must have spectators in shock and awe, Freddy seemed both the friendliest and most xenophobic person at the plant.
"Y'all got a lot of Pakis near you?" he asked on my first afternoon, "cuz we're just about full of 'em in Brampton."
Standing at the other end of the warehouse overseeing the production of labels that Freddy and I would later box were half a dozen recent immigrants and second-generation Canadians, all of whom shared one attribute: not being white.
Canadians like to boast about being the most multicultural country in the world. However, at this label-making plant, the colour barrier - a door dividing the white salespeople and office workers from the ethnic labourers - was seldom breached. The closest the two worlds came to colliding was during a 10th anniversary party for the company president.
After a long-winded and completely uninspiring speech, the prez thanked all the employees for bringing the company into a golden era. I recognized him from my first day on duty, when he walked into the lunchroom and began bitching loudly to one of the salespeople. Twenty minutes into his party I excused myself for a nicotine dessert.
Afterwards, I found the rest of the humpbacks huddled by the large bay doors while the front office continued eating their cake. The consensus was that they'd rather get back to work than overhear any more tidbits of cottage life or European vacations. Somehow, the windfall from these prosperous times had yet to trickle through the door separating the front office from the warehouse.
Despite the drudgery, overwhelming heat and constant rattle of label-making machines, I enjoyed the camaraderie of warehouse work.
Office politics don't exist in an environment where people are biding their time like prisoners in a work camp.
On my fourth day, after watching the foreman berate, badger and beguile a Sri Lankan press operator, I realized my sentence there would be a short one.
The foreman spent an entire afternoon taunting the employee to leave if he didn't like his job, and later rubbing it in that he had no choice but to stay and accept the harassment. The Sri Lankan was guilty of monopolizing the phone on break and occasionally straying from his machine, but the never-ending tongue-lashing he received did seem a tad too passionate.
Counting the cardboard cuts along my forearms, I nonchalantly tossed a box back in the direction of the storage bin. A large and largely useless fan caught the box in its draft as it sailed out of my hand, carrying it next to where the foreman stood hovering over the Sri Lankan. Although he had his back to me, the foreman quickly pivoted, picked up the box and rushed over to my station.
"Did you throw this box at me?" he demanded. "No," I replied trying to conceal a smirk. He gave me a look that said, "I've got my eye on you, temp boy," before returning to his verbal attack on the Sri Lankan.
The next day I called in sick - sick of sticking labels in a box, sick of a world that sticks labels on everyone, labels that aren't always easy to peel off at the end of the workday.