Sometimes I wallow in bad memories in order to stoke the gratitudinal fires. Sadistic, but effective. When I feel anxious about teaching, I remember the worst job I ever had: Being a security guard in Toronto.
Toronto gets ugly fast. One minute you’re enjoying the downtown core’s hipster delights — Korean barbeque! hot yoga! sex in a Smart Car! — the next you’re stepping over a syringe in the hallway of a gang-infested high rise. The assorted criminal element created a bleak public housing zeitgeist that terrified new immigrants. They’d just left someplace warm; someplace relatively relaxed like Ghana or Mozambique, only to run headlong into an icy urban dystopia where everyone spoke with a repetitive verbal tic, eh?
Have you ever known a security guard? They’re generally young men who want to be police officers but never will because their personality disorders stand out in sharp relief on psychological tests. A preoccupation with power, say. Anger at minorities and women who “steal” spots on the force. Impulse control problems. Remember, this is the employment pool that brought us Andrew Uridales, who used his uniform to convince women to trust him.** He raped and murdered eight of them that we know of. Felons can and do get security guard jobs, because companies don’t sweat background checks.
Anyway. During a time of desperation — i.e., I couldn’t nanny for overprivileged children and their smug parents another minute –I applied at Sketchy Security and got a $10-an-hour* job on the spot. They sent me to Jane and Finch, epicenter of the worst public housing complexes in North Toronto. I worked the 6.a.m. to 6 p.m. shift, walking up and down reeking hallways and parking garage dungeons with nothing but a radio and a notepad on which I took copious notes in the company’s style of inappropriate quotation marks and weird third-person narrative: 0200 hours: This writer checked lobby of building lobby. All as expected, however, a “pop can” was wedged underneath the northwest-facing sliding door. This writer removed the “pop can.” Door closed properly.
I stepped onto a barrier-less rooftop roof one night and thought, I could just step right off the side. Ninety-five stories to the pavement. Toronto would just…absorb me.
I walked those halls again and again, trying to figure out how the hell my life had become an experiment in terror. I had wanted to prove I could be OK in Toronto — even dumped and broke — but I suspected that the light leaving from OK would not reach me for another several million years.
My one distraction: the odors. I could almost see cartoon stink lines wafting out underneath each door. Sometimes it was cooking; sometimes marijuana; occasionally perfume. But one night, there was a NEW smell. It was at once chemical and organic, and something in my primitive lizard brain told me to RUN AWAY.
“What is that smell?” I gasped to my partner as we put on our needleproof gloves.
“That,” he replied, “is ass and crack cocaine. These guys love to stay up all night, getting high and having buttsex.”
I thanked God that Lucy Maud Montgomery was dead and would never know about this.
I also spent a week at a fairly nice, predominantly gay building right at Church and Wellesley, asking gay partiers to turn the house music down. Women would ask me to stay and PARTY! but I’d hitch up my polyester pants, straighten my clip-on tie, and tell them that duty called. In midwinter, I watched over a picket line outside the old Dove factory by the lake. Dove had fired all the old employees — blue-collar guys who’d been there 25 or 30 years — and replaced them with new immigrants. The old guard kept a round-the-clock vigil outside the gates, and my job was to stay in the Sketchy Security car and make sure no one destroyed the property. I spent my time turning the heat on as I got cold and off as I got hot. I read radical feminist manifestos. I played club music, pretended I was on E, and used my flashlight as a crazyass strobe on the roof of the car. Then I just gave in and masturbated.
There must have been three feet of snow. The picketers fought the cold by making trash can fires — burning lots of toxic, brain-damaging painted wood in the process — and drinking as much alcohol as they could. To distract them from yelling racial slurs, I taught them old labor songs like “Bread and Roses”:
- As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
- A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
- Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
- For the people hear us singing: “Bread and roses! Bread and roses!”
- As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
- For they are women’s children, and we mother them again.
- Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
- Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!
- As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
- Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
- Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
- Yes, it is bread we fight for — but we fight for roses, too!
- As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
- The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
- No more the drudge and idler — ten that toil where one reposes,
- But a sharing of life’s glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!
Eventually, I’d get tired and call my friend Jay, Toronto’s leading pothead:
Me: “Dude, are you awake?”
Jay (cheerfully): “I’m always awake. ”
Me: “Are you high?”
Jay: (more cheerfully still) “I’m always high. I just went to the convenience store. I have this…amazing…bag of M&Ms.”
Me: “Dude, I’m so tired, and I’m not allowed to fall asleep. Here’s what I need. Listen. Are you listening?
Me: “OK! Good! I need you to come down here to the docks and keep me company. BRING THE M&Ms. OK? Are you coming?”
A half-hour later he’d show up and ask why I wasn’t wearing any pants.
“That is not important right now,” I’d say with affronted dignity. “Did you bring the peanut kind?”
As Jay loped off into the icy darkness, I got out of the car and waded through the snow to check the inside of the factory. It was vast and empty of sound except for the stomp of my heavy-booted ghost feet. Pallets of laundry detergent and soap arched hundreds of feet into the air like cleanliness made architecture; their forms a reminder of the churches I saw in Europe when my life was still going according to plan.
As the watery sun rose, I slogged my way to the streetcar to the subway to the bus, knowing there was no such thing as safe; not really. And I thought, Someday, all this will be a long time ago.
*Remember, this is Toronto, home of skyrocketing rents and irresistible artisanal melons.
**Security guard uniforms should NOT look so much like legitimate police uniforms. They should be hot pink instead.