||Being A Wage Slave
by Al Purdy
I had suddenly realized that my writings were...
certainly not immortal literature ... I thought I should be capable of doing better
WHAT HAPPENS in your brain when the personality changes? What causes the change to happen? Can you pinpoint the moment in time when all this took place? I mean go back in time and examine yourself in the mirror-memory? -- the time and place and you, all swaying like seaweed in dim green underwater light...
Of course I`m talking about myself, but some changes take place in all of us. However, they are far more ghostly in humans than invisible growth rings at the hearts of trees, or the sockeye salmon turning crimson on returning to its birthday waters. One says, how, why, when, where? But I`ll never find out for sure, since no god will tell me, and my own investigatory apparatus is like a compass full of iron filings: I can`t look at myself from outside, observe a duplicate self with clear eye and neutral judgement.
I have a basic assumption that I must make before going farther: that my writings changed and became more complicated. I hesitate to say "better:` but I must say it. And my motives for conducting this self-examination are all purely selfish. Most of us are more interested in ourselves and our own thought processes than in any other person, with the possible exception of times when we are besotted with love. And besides, I believe I "think" more efficiently when I`m writing on paper than when I`m talking (say), musing pretentiously on the awesome shores of eternity.
The time machine trundles back to 1953. Place, Vancouver. I am working at a mattress factory on Clarke Drive in that city, machine operator for the rolledge and tufting machines at Vancouver Bedding. My hourly stipend is $1.65 an hour, which is probably very nearly the top wage rate, except for the extremely skilled tape-edge operators. (These machine-names mean little, unless you have to learn how to run them yourself, and break your fingers in the process.)
I am a rather loud-voiced employee of this factory (it seems to me now that I wasn`t too bright, either); discontented with my lot and little in life; I write doggerel poems, which understandably have small attention paid to them in literary outlets of the day.
My WIFE, EURITHE, our small son, Jimmy, and I had arrived in Vancouver in early fall of 1950, the time natives remember as the year of the Big Freeze. Reasons for coming were several, one being that life in Belleville and Trenton, Ontario, seemed a financial and psychic dead end at that time. Another, we were both nostalgic and homesick for the West, having spent three years there during my wartime RCAF service.
City at the continent`s edge where everyone was born three hours Younger than the grey east and sometimes light is so luminescent the air glows glows internally and nobody breathes for a moment
The first things that happened to us on our return to Vancouver were enough to remove all sentimentality from my character. We had little money, and so rented a cheap, unfurnished apartment on 2nd Avenue near Cambie Street. I bought a standard-sized secondhand bed at a store on Granville Street. The store owner assured us faithfully that he would refund the purchase price if we went broke. That possibility was not unthinkable. We`d been living on potatoes, blackberries that grew around False Creek, and crabapples from a vacant lot across the road.
A week after the bed purchase we still had no jobs and no money. I had to return the bed from whence it came: lugging the wretched thing on my back -- from close to Cambie Street for what must have been at least a dozen city blocks to Granville. What`s the biblical tag line -- "Take up thy bed and walk"?
Anyway, the used furniture guy would refund only half the original purchase money after I lugged it back to his establishment. Five measly bucks. And my pitiful tale of being broke and hungry failed to move him at all. I took the five bucks. We bought some groceries, but I wrote no poems. It was a bad time. I feel a bit savage just thinking about it now. I`d rather remember the friends I made during that mattress -factory period.
One of them was an ex-merchant seaman named Doug Kaye who came to work at Vancouver Bedding a few months after me. Doug was an expert tape-machine operator, commanding top wages. He had an odd voice, like water over gravel at varying speeds, not easy to understand above the clatter of machines. His personality stood out above the others; he was afflicted always with a monumental discontent with his condition in life. This also extended to his temperament, sometimes moody and introspective. Doug was a small man, and I sometimes got the impression that he was a miniature volcano awaiting the right time to blow its top. Always, he smouldered a little.
To which friendship add Curt Lang, a precocious teenager I had met at a science-fiction fan-club gathering. Curt was one of those preternaturally brilliant youngsters who antagonize their elders by being too obviously intelligent. Or maybe he just talked too much. Curt admired my rather puerile poetry, which really doesn`t speak well for that aforementioned intelligence.
I suppose the three of us were a bit enthralled with each other, there being some novelty perhaps in an ex-seaman with musical ambitions (Doug took violin lessons), a preembryo writer, and a hedonist youngster of 15 -- finding each other available and interested. We met once a week, generally at Doug`s place, wives also in attendance. (Of course, Curt hadn`t achieved one of those as yet.) Doug played operatic records and German lieder; we drank beer and talked a great deal.
Up to that time my own literary gods had been Bliss Carman, G. K. Chesterton, W. J. Turner, et cetera. These were not exactly household names even at that time. But suddenly I found myself reading T. S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, W. B. Yeats, Ezra Pound, and others. And I had suddenly realized that my writings were, if not precisely mediocre, certainly not immortal literature either. I thought I should be capable of doing better.
And I met Steve McIntyre, a Davie Street bookseller who loved good literature and was addicted to sex. He must have lived with a score or so women -- not all at once -- over the years I knew him. He seemed to have read and have an opinion about every book I`d ever heard of-, if he hadn`t read it, he was about to. Steve talked in a jerky and halting manner, with pauses not where you`d place commas in writing, but right in the middle of a subordinate clause, leaving you looking at him expectantly and feeling foolish. His voice was a husky cigarette burr, like someone scraping a chair over a wooden floor.
All of Steve McIntyre`s friends regarded him as a combination of Socrates and Plato, a very wise man. Among these friends was Wayne Thompson, a champion beer-drinker who somehow managed to procure a pair of Egyptian mummies from Woodwards Department Store, then tried to raffle them off at 25 cents a ticket. And Alec LaFortune, who had hitchhiked west from Toronto, had an abiding grudge against the police, and who wrote poetry. And Raymond Hull, an ex- Englishman with literary ambitions, who later collaborated with a University of British Columbia professor to write The Peter Principle. And to this menagerie could be added Curt Lang and myself.
I spent many afternoons then and later, listening reverently while Steve McIntyre expounded on literature, his own opinions, other people`s opinions, providing all his friends with the final word of philosophy and truth. At one point he informed me that my knowledge of great books was almost nil. And he meant "great" in the early-20th-century classical sense. Proust, Dostoyevsky, Woolf, and the like. I have no doubt at all that he was right about me. But most of those unread writers would never use one word if 10 would suffice. Proust, for instance, filled several pages to describe a man waking up in the morning. And one of the sentences in Swann`s Way is at least a page long.
The McIntyre effect was to send me to the Vancouver library and to bookstores, grimly determined to discover what I was missing. I choked on Mann`s The Magic Mountain, loved Woolf`s Jacob`s Room, and nearly died of old age reading Proust`s Remembrance of Things Past. And those, along with quite a few others, were it. Finis, the end. I never went back to them; and I`ve forgotten nearly all of them. I started to read only contemporary stuff instead, feeling like a traitor to Steve McIntyre. Nevertheless, I think he would have loved Garcia Marquez`s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
I have a mental picture of myself at that time, riding the interurban from our small house on Vanness Avenue near Burnaby to the mattress factory on Clarke Drive. I am a gangly 30- to 35- year-old, hair receding at the temples. I am reading the Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas, a mixture of interest and puzzlement flitting across my face. I glance around self-consciously at other early morning travellers to see if anyone has noticed these intellectual proclivities, and again to see if there are any goodlooking girls on the interurban. A poetry-writing factory worker with pretensions to culture.
My first job at Vancouver Bedding had been menial, as a wrapper of mattresses and box- springs, very low paying. Therefore I studied the machines during lunch hour, asked questions of their operators, even tried to run them myself for a few
minutes when the foreman wasn`t watching. And I shouldn`t have been surprised when the machine operators thought I was trying to steal their jobs: they wouldn`t supply any helpful household hints to their machines. But I was surprised! And perhaps in a sense I was trying to steal their jobs. Only Doug Kaye helped me at all. Doug had confidence in himself, and couldn`t conceive of anyone trying to steal his job.
They were metal puzzles, those machines. The roll-edge consisted of a wooden table on which you placed the mattress. Also, a grey-painted hunchback machine of ominous aspect, which ran around the table`s edge on rails. It had steel jaws that opened and closed in two-inch bites, and stitched a sausage-shaped roll-edge onto the helpless mattress. The machine operator lifted the mattress edge into those jaws with a sharpened ice pick, racketing steel almost catching your soft fingers as you walked backward all day long, in a kind of monotonous trance. The process was rather like feeding a hungry Bengal tiger several thousand meals a day, snatching your fingers back from the meat every time. And yet I sometimes fell asleep walking backwards like a zombie, then yipe-yiped as steel nipped my fingers.
The tufting machine wasn`t nearly so dangerous, despite a similar monotony. A giant needle affixed metal buttons above and below the mattress in a predetermined pattern. You moved a sliding table to the left and then to the right, shoving the mattress to a spot where you wanted to place the button. The wooden table made a noise like "oompah" every time you moved it and the needle plunged down, and you moved it continually. The noise imitated an iambic or trochaic metrical foot, like in a line of poetry; a stressed syllable, then a non-stressed one, spoken under my breath.
Therefore, when the giant needle tufted a mattress, I kept time with a poem I had memorized:
Do not go gentle into that good night
(or reversing the metre and distorting it:
"oompah -- oompah -- oompah")
Old age should rave and bum at close of day -
(Dylan Thomas could never have anticipated this use of his poem, keeping a factory worker more or less sane.) Sometimes I would even verbalize a poem aloud ("From the hag and hungry goblin that into rags would rend ye/And the spirit that stands by the naked man in the book of moons defend ye"), and fellow workers would look at me with a peculiar expression. Thus every mattress I tufted became one very long line of blank verse when I wasn`t thinking of a specific poem. But the machine`s "oompah" sound could not furnish end rhymes. Therefore, I would stamp my foot on the wooden floor when a rhyme seemed called for. All I lacked was applause at the end of a mattress-poem.
The filling machine was much simpler, and used for cheaper varieties of mattresses. On a few occasions I helped run a mattress through the filler, sewed its end on the tape-edge, roll-edged it, and finally tufted it. There was some satisfaction in that, like following a plant from seed to flower to mature fruit. An incongruous comparison, since machine operators were nothing like gardeners.
I became fairly expert at running these machines, but never learned to do anything more than simple repairs. And that caused problems. When machines broke down, the factory manager, Arthur Watt, became a repairman. He didn`t like the job and blamed the machine operators -- me in most cases -- for causing a breakdown. He`d work at the roll-edge and tufting machines, probing their innards, his face growing red with anger at the clumsy workman and imperfect machine.
Arthur Watt had married into the Hammond family who operated Hammond Furniture Company, and for which Vancouver Bedding was a minor subsidiary occupying a small part of the same building. Of course the extent of his financial interest in the mattress company was forever beyond the knowledge of a humble employee like myself. But it must have been considerable, for Watt often worked on the machines or wrapping table, or with the shipper when things became hectic.
He was a tall man, about six feet two, age around 40, and worked always in grey pants and white shirt. His manner was completely detached with employees, his reddish-coloured face remote and slightly austere. But when customers or personal friends visited the factory, Watt unbent and became obviously charming. My own relations with him were always formally correct, neither of us betraying any personal feelings toward the other -- except when my machine broke down. Then he boiled inside, a pressure-cooker under imperfect control.
During that period in my life, the time of sumptuous youth, I was physically ebullient, as if there was no limit to my energies. At the same time, I never learned how to use those energies most efficiently. I expended too much of myself on even the simplest job, and threw all my strength into difficult things. I was enthralled by work, and yet I hated it.
When Arthur Watt and I worked together, sliding mattresses and box springs down a second- floor chute to the shipper below, I worked my hardest to show him up. Which no doubt at all was exactly what he wanted. One tipped a mattress onto its edge, then gave it a little practised flip toward one`s body, shifted hands to its central point, and lifted it at arm`s length over the head in order to "take up thy bed and walk." Sometimes we worked in tandem, then raced together on tiptoe to the chute, like ballet dancers or moving parts in our own bodily machines.
Only once was there ever a situation in which I could cause Arthur Watt any personal discomfiture. As has been obvious, my own feelings about him were ambivalent: I both admired and detested the man. On this one occasion, I found myself with another worker facing Watt and two more from opposite sides of a table. The exact logistics of this situation are now vague to me, but each little group was pulling against the other, hauling on ropes in order that a very tight mattress cover would slide around a spring that was much too large for it. The delightful part of this tableau for me was that I faced directly opposite to Arthur Watt, and what pulling power I had would affect my boss directly.
By an act of will, I changed myself into a steam locomotive. Not a diesel: I have no use for these fancy engines that break down in moments of stress. For one instant the engine of me became a steel thunderbolt. I yanked so hard that Arthur Watt`s chin forcibly contacted the table between us. No blood, of course. Then I psychically withdrew from the situation, apparently unaware of anything out of the ordinary. And changed back to the holder of time card 168.
It was a moment of ineffable and unrepeatable sweetness. I felt Arthur Watt`s eyes brush against me with just a hint of speculation. And lowered my own gaze from innate shyness. Work continued.
The carapace of indifference and defeatism, fitting into a predesigned slot and accepting whatever that implied, reacting instead of initiating during the long vegetable lifetime: I was damn well mutating out of that -- not into a butterfly but as myself And it was such fun to feel it happening; it was a joke at your own expense that you could charge to the past; it made being alive so marvelous and gave You Such inner toughness; it made everything right. Of course that was wrong. It didn`t. You were still fallible and human and sometimes despisable to yourself. But even that mattered little: the light years flashed by and you were changing. And where would it all end?
One ending was five years later, in 1955. Doug Kaye talked me into being his front man when we introduced a union into Vancouver Bedding that year. He didn`t have the seniority to do it alone, without being fired, so I was the patsy, the guy who harangued other workers into joining the union. This was during Doug`s socialist period (later he became a confirmed rightwinger), and that unstoppable hoarse voice droned in my ear every lunch hour; then my own version of Doug",, union politics was regurgitated into the ears of potential union members.
Everyone signed up eventually, and, despite my objections, I was made shop steward, the recipient of everyone`s complaints. I didn`t like the job, since I`d never before taken a leading role in anything except my birth. When I was ushered into the boss`s office along with the union rep, Percy Lawson, I felt like a bridegroom gone suddenly impotent.
But Lawson, a short, fat, bald man with assured and unshakable calm, took over completely. I said scarcely anything, intimidated by Arthur Watt`s cold blue eyes. Of course there`s a certain slick protocol to such discussions, expected cliches and phony politeness. The union rep was expert at this sort of thing. I admired him (and much later wrote a poem about him). Anyway, we settled for a small raise, and I scuttled thankfully out of the boss`s office.
Then I was artfully manoeuvred by Lawson (and I suspect Doug) into taking the job of recording secretary for the big union, which pleased my sense of self-importance. And found myself sitting in the union hall with other officials on a raised stage, in front of a noisy audience of workers, uneasily taking down minutes and motions and stuff like that. And thought: what the hell am I doing here, sticking my neck out like this? Besides that, it`s work! Not that I have anything against union officials, except that I`m not one. I resigned, both jobs, shop steward and recording secretary. The latter after just two meet. ings. And Doug -- I`m sure he was laughing all the time at what he`d gotten me into.
Then everything seemed to happen at once. I became an important actor in a stage version of Mr. Roberts, starring Bruno Gerussi and Hollywood`s Craig Stevens. (I was one of the drunks hoisted back aboard ship after shore leave on the islands of Ennui and Tedium.) And I quit my job after five years, aware that I was increasingly unpopular because of my union activities.
The CBC accepted a verse play of mine, called A Gathering of Days. And Lorne Pierce at Ryerson Press in Toronto was publishing a small chapbook of my poems, Pressed on Sand. It was like -- things seemed to speed up, my surroundings blurred. I was being bombarded from all sides by new things; the changes internally seemed to me overwhelming. I mean -- you have to be aware that things go on both inside and outside yourself.
A decision had been made a few months previously, I intended to go to Europe. Eurithe and I sat up all night on the eve of my departure, working on the CBC play: she typing and I scribbling madly in a high fever of hurry. Next day I caught a Greyhound bus heading east.
I was a quitter it seemed. I had quit everything: job, marriage (temporarily), and there I was, perched on the awesome shores of eternity. Snickering a little. But also scared as hell, since that crummy job had anchored me to a kind of reality; and the planet I was standing on no longer felt entirely stationary. I didn`t admit it then, not exactly: but yeah, I was scared.
And woke to find myself sleeping on Irving Layton`s studio couch in Cote St. Luc, Montreal. Irving`s kids, Max and Naomi, kept waking me up to beg for nickels, then decided I was a soft touch and went for quarters. When a ship named the Ascania moved slowly eastward down the St. Lawrence, I watched the Quebec shoreline despairingly: I was homesick before I ever left home. And almost a stranger to myself
This is an excerpt from Al Purdy`s memoirs, as yet untitled.