Right on developmental schedule (I’ve gone and turned 40) I’m compelled to start writing memoir. It’s like studying Kabbalah – the rabbis won’t let you do it until your 40th birthday because only then, they say, do you have the depth and maturity to even make the attempt.
I will, however, resist the urge to take up acoustic guitar.
All Appears Normal
The second I got legal permission to work in Canada, I quit my under-the-table nanny gig and applied for a job as a night security guard. I wanted to work 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., to live my days backwards, to slip in and out of work in the dark and eat spaghetti for dinner at sunrise.
A broken heart is worse in the light. A broken heart mocks you in the light. A broken heart in the broad, clear light of day is like looking at your own impetigo without a bandage. I didn’t want to be wakeful in busy daytime Toronto; didn’t want to watch couples living the happy lives they planned for – the bungalow houses and Bugaboo strollers – and then, somehow! pulled off. I needed to be up all night, wearing a sexless khaki uniform and keeping things secure that wouldn’t be secure if I (a person who was afraid of everything from garden slugs to deportation) wasn’t there. I needed, as the sun came up, to be as exhausted as I was alone.
I needed an epidural for my heart: You’re still dilated and racked with pain; you just don’t care. “Pathetic,” when numbed out a bit, can dig around in the dress-ups box, find a swoopy cape and a helmet, and disguise itself as “tough.”
The security company gave me a giant flashlight and a radio, but made me buy my own needle-proof gloves and boots.
“In case you step on a needle,” said the man who hired me. “No worries, eh!”
Within a month, I’d stepped around needles in a variety of locations – mostly the alleyways, parking garages and foyers in and around high-rise poverty pockets in the Jane and Finch neighborhood of Toronto. The “good” residents were recent legal immigrants from Africa and South America, but they were nestled among a large assortment of gang-affiliated criminals and garden-variety creeps representing the dregs of a hundred nations. They all loved to chew khat, a psychoactive leaf from southern Arabia that acts like amphetamine and worsens symptoms of mental illness in people who are already batshit crazy. When they ran out of khat, a needle would do.
It was odd: I was 34, and since middle school I’ve had recurring nightmares about getting stuck with an HIV-infected syringe. The dreams ware always vivid and literal: OK, rinse the puncture with bleach water for three minutes while squeezing the tip of my finger; get to the Emergency Department and request post-exposure prophylaxis.
I blame Ronald Reagan for every one of these dreams, stemming as they do from several years of borderline-hysterical AIDS education in the late 1980s. It’s one of my two recurring dreams – in the other, I try over and over to dial the number of someone I desperately need to talk to – or just need – but my fingers are clumsy and slip, or something is wrong with my eyes and I can’t see the numbers. In this dream, I misdial over and over again, crying with frustration and fear, hearing nothing but a dead line or a dial tone.
“Stay away from the windows,” said the girl who trained me at the site. She was a delicate blonde who’d dyed her hair jet-black and arranged it carefully into pinking-shear spikes. “People throw things. One guard almost died last year. Boom box.”
The buildings themselves were crumbling Soviet-style honeycombs with slanting hallways and horror-flick stairwells (another great place to find a needle). Part of my job was to sweep through the building every hour, then write, “All appears normal” in the security ledger. I faked a squared-off, blocky penmanship to feel tougher; less like a pathetic wuss who cried alone in bed every night and averted my eyes every time the subway train approached my ex-girlfriend’s stop (Here’s where we always used to buy hot pretzels at the kiosk!)
I was FINE. I was NOT UPSET. How could a person wearing needle-proof, steel-toed boots be upset?
In the parking garages, my heart pounded like a druggy rave bass line. Were the stompy sounds of my boots giving me away? Could the rapist/murderer crouched behind the row of decrepit cars tell exactly where I was by my sound; by my light? Underground, my radio lost reception and died. It was row after row of yellow and white lines; oil stains; unidentified susurrating sounds. A person – say, a dangerous, violent person with nowhere else to go – could live unnoticed in a large Toronto parking garage for quite a long time, only surfacing at night to go through the trash or eviscerate a security guard with a homemade shank.
No one would know where I was if I needed help. They’d just find me in the morning, stuffed behind a Dumpster or splayed out in plain sight. I would be even more of a cautionary tale for women everywhere, uniformed or not.
“This is real fear,” I’d say out loud, forcing myself to stay in the parking garage as long as possible with my flashlight off. And it was. Fear for my actual life, as opposed to fears on a more luxurious level of Maslow’s hierarchy; ambiguous or fixable fears such as “not being loved enough for who I really am” or “never making more than $10 an hour.” Blind in that dirty, cemented dark, a useless radio hanging from my pocket, was the only time my terror of what my life had become quieted a bit. Because I was still alive right now. And now. And this minute, now.
Back in the high-rise, as I swaggered past each thin, chipped door – some with sad, persistent decorations for the fall and winter holidays – I’d bump into odors solid as furniture. That’s how I learned what crack cocaine smells like – a toxic, plastic, somehow threatening smell. Get a hint of it in your nostrils and you start worrying about brain damage; liver cancer; secondhand psychosis.
“Wait ‘til you smell crack mixed with buttsex!” my spiky colleague said cheerfully. “They start smoking up; they can go all night. Sometimes we have to knock on the door, tell ‘em to keep it down.”
My shifts in the gay neighborhood at Church and Wellesley streets were more fun. There may have been buttsex, but the apartment lobbies were always tasteful, or at least kitchy in a good-humored way. I’d watch the men enter and leave in different combinations, their pretty heads popping out of winter scarves like hothouse flowers.
Occasionally, my uniform and I would be invited to a dyke party, which is how I got my next gig as a weekend bouncer at a dyke club. What people don’t know about bouncers is this: Bouncers do NOT enjoy getting on anyone’s case. Mostly you just stand there with your Bouncer Face, bored yet alert, and pray that no one fights, cries, or gets so drunk that the bar is liable for any nightmare scenarios that might ensue. Also, you listen to dance hits from the 90’s. If you woke me up out of a dead sleep and asked me to recite the lyrics to “I See You Baby” by Groove Armada featuring Gram’ma Funk, I’d sit bolt upright in bed and shout, “THIS IS THE HOUSE THAT FUNK BUILT.”
One weekend in February, my assignment was the 10,000-square-foot soap factory warehouse by the river. The Famous Soap Company had recently hired dozens of new immigrants (thereby giving them a well-deserved respite from Jane and Finch). The new workers’ rock-bottom wages effectively busted a union of men who had worked at the warehouse for thirty years or more, and they were angry. Angry enough to set up camp outside the warehouse gates and picket there all night, drinking and grumbling.
I loved the picketers’ resolve; their unwillingness to take shit from anybody. Were they hiding their faces in mute hurt and impotent rage, sobbing, Why can’t the Famous Soap Company just love me again? No. No, they were not. They set up camp by the screaming snowy mouth of the river and said, Oh, you want us gone? Come here and get rid of us, then, motherfuckers. We dare you.
My job: Park the security car just inside the warehouse gates, keep an eye on the picketers and don’t fall asleep. The hardest part was not falling asleep. I was used to my vampire schedule, but sitting in a car alone for 12 hours? A person wanes. I had a short list of activities to help keep me alert:
- Turning the heat on and off. Unfortunately, “heat on” also meant “engine on,” which caused me to worry even more about brain damage,
- Playing dance music and doing rave lights on the car’s ceiling with my flashlight,
- Taking off my polyester uniform slacks and masturbating, and
- Calling my stoner friend, Jason, and emotionally manipulating him into bringing me snacks from the convenience store.
“Oh, heeyyyyyy,” Jason would breathe into the phone. “Are you still, like, out by the lake, defending the Famous Soap factory from all enemies foreign and domestic?”
“I need dark chocolate Kit-Kats,” I’d tell him, in the same tone of voice one would use to say, “I need my electric wheelchair,” or “I need you to love me.”
While Jason was on his way, I’d do my “sweep” of the warehouse itself. I could smell the inside of the building from the parking lot, because it was full – from floor to ceiling – with pallets of soap, shampoo, dish and laundry detergent. It was the cleanest smell I’ve ever smelled, before or since.
The warehouse was a vacuum of sound – the kind of quiet that lets you hear the rush of blood in your ears. Once inside, my job was to stalk the corridors between the pallets and make sure no one had sneaked in. I didn’t really know what I WAS supposed to do, exactly, if someone popped out from between moisturizing bars and powder flakes, so I just got into it and pretended to be a stealth op. I ducked behind forklifts and practiced my night vision; I climbed up and across shelves like a ninja. I practiced my singing. If you’ve never sung “Ave Maria” at three o’clock in the morning in a 10,000 square warehouse on a winter’s night – well, take the opportunity if it ever arises.
Outside, it was cold enough to need a balaclava – or, as I called it before I knew what it was, a “face hat.” It made me look like a tiny murderer. I slipped it on over my eyes, nose, and chin, then walked out designs in the hip-high snow. I’d make a heart and then stomp the shit out of it (cathartic!); write my name with flourishes (this fucking snow is mine!) or lie down and make an angel (now my butt is frozen!)
One night, I peeked around the wall to check on the picketers. They were throwing wood onto their campfire, some of which had paint on it (more brain damage) and whooping it up over cans of Molson.
“Hi,” I said. I was so lonely.
They were friendly, especially one grey-bearded sixty-something who seemed to be the leader: “You poor kid, sitting out there in the car all by yourself! Come sit by the fire! We just put more wood!”
I sat down, as upwind as I could get, and the picketers and I shot the shit. Where was everybody from? How did we get into manufacturing and security? Who was married? Who had children? Who wanted another beer? EVERYBODY!
“Do any of you guys know old labor songs?” I asked, stomping my ice-block feet and remembering an album Ani DiFranco recorded with Utah Phillips. “Does anyone know ‘Bread and Roses?’”
They didn’t. “I’ll sing it for you,” I offered. Possibly the burning paint fumes were kicking in.
“RALPH! ANDY! SHUT THE HELL UP AND LET THE LADY SING!” said my grey-bearded champion.
“OK, I said. “Ready?”
As we go 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
Our lives shall not be sweetened
From birth until life closes
Hearts starve as well as bodies
Give us bread but give us roses
Thunderous applause, and then they wanted to learn it. Years later, after I became a teacher, I would remember their pure and furious commitment to learn this song (whether due to drunkenness or a passion for the labor movement) and the ferocity with which they coached each other (“Mill lofts, dumbass! MILL LOFTS!”) They had never sung in a chorus before, but by God, that wasn’t going to stop them.
“Pretend the sound is coming from a hole in the top of your head,” I coached like Mrs. Dorsey used to when I was a soprano in the Tucson Girls’ Chorus a lifetime before. I took them through the scales – octave up; octave down; major; minor; arpeggio. What they lacked in talent they made up for in beery panache.
As the first threads of light came up over the horizon, we sang “Solidarity Forever,” which I’d memorized during my History of Justice class as a high school sophomore in order to protest tunefully while my father made me pull weeds in the backyard. We sang, and we smelled like paint and smoke and soap. We sang, and the wind stabbed us from the river. We sang, and without our brain and muscle not a single wheel could turn.
The sun pushed up hard from the horizon. All appears normal, I wrote in the security ledger before I went home for my spaghetti breakfast. In my own, my real, handwriting.