Steel-toed soul

Nothing makes me feel more macho than hurling bulky boxes

Rating: NNNNN

I am all sweat and dust, sore from my shoulders down to my steel-toed boots. I lean again on the lift-truck and squint toward the warehouse dock: another heavy load for me to move.

At moments like this it’s tempting to believe I’m being punished for my sins. Thank god I’m not religious. I’m only paying for my contrariness, my eccentricity and the creative ambitions of my younger days.

Here I stand, sentenced to hard labour, to temporary employment by an agency that specializes in such torments and supplies anonymous working stiffs to industry in order to fill assignments that last hours or months. The pay is low, but quick when you need it — same week or even same day.

Casual labour

It looks as though a bunch of us need it. In this particular place, a west-end food distributor, my fellow stiffs include a dozen men and a few stocky women. We’re here for the bullwork: shipping, receiving, packing, assembling, moving, moving, moving….

It was inevitable that I’d end up a labourer. I don’t care much for the office environment, and it doesn’t care for me. Never shall I envy those corporate toadies in their sterile towers, no matter how high their incomes. Business is only business. There is no soul in it, and little integrity.

A cargo needs loading, I load it an order needs packing, I pack it a speck of dust needs inhaling, I inhale it. Nothing makes me feel more macho than tossing a bulky carton at a cretinous co-worker. Catch it or die, ya wimp. I’d drop it on his feet, but he’s wearing steel-toed boots. Everyone is wearing the damned things — aside from a pulse, it’s the only condition of our employment. The feet must be protected at all times. Apparently, everything north of the ankles can go to hell.

In any event, we are rarely trusted with complex machinery. It is no insult — we don’t trust us either.

One of the good things about labouring is that you don’t exactly need a wardrobe. You don’t even have to shave — though, come to think of it, it’s slobs like us who’ve brought upon the agency the vile sobriquet “rent-a-rubby.”

One day, we rearrange an executive office. A half-dozen of us stiffs find ourselves in a bank tower. Bulls in the corporate china shop, we hear a precious secretary gasp into her phone, “The agency guys are here, and they’re animals.” We smile in satisfaction.

All of which brings me to the single most glorious advantage of temporary labouring: there is no pressure. The bosses have nothing on you. If they give you a hard time, you walk. Sometimes a foolish boss will think he’s got you. He says or implies that if you work your ass off for him he might hire you away from your agency. You’re supposed to be flattered. Experienced temps know better. It’s inevitable that a good worker will be offered a permanent job. It’s not benevolence, just business.

Generally, I respond like this: “Are you nuts?! This crummy job? I’ve got a life to live.”

It’s a kind of independence. You come and you go. I’ll be going soon. I won’t be fooling this body of mine for much longer. For now, I’ll stack the boxes on a skid, try moving it down the aisle without crushing anybody… and I’ll fondly remember that moment, years ago, when a sweaty, brooding young agency labourer lamented, without a trace of irony, “I shouldn’t be working here — I’m an artist!”

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