I trudged down Commercial at 5:00 AM sharp, my boots still soaked from the day before. Any later and it is unlikely that I would get work. I crossed Broadway and headed west until I came to the Labour Ready outlet. Here I joined the already thick crowd of day labourers seated at the plastic tables, waiting for the man behind the counter to call their name. I signed in, got my free cup of coffee, and hurried up to wait.
The wait wasn’t long today. He began calling up workers in groups of three, explaining where they had to go, loaning bus fare and selling gear (taken off your pay at the end of the day), and then calling up the next group. “Leon, Dennis, and Christie,” he called. “You need to go to the Arbutus Country Club to help put up the tennis bubble,” he told us. “Who needs bus fare?” he asked. “I have a van,” answered Leon in a thick Eastern European accent. For getting a ride with Leon our pay would be docked five dollars and this money would be tacked onto Leon’s cheque.
Leon’s van was also, apparently his home. Not camperized, just a Ford Econoline with a dirty mattress and piles of clothes filling the back. This is where I found a seat, as I chivalrously offered Christine the passenger seat. Christine was an anomaly as few women participated in Labour Ready’s scheme. Wiry with a pock-marked face, Christine had the look of a drug user sinking fast, but so did a majority of Labour Ready employees, so really the only thing that made her different was her gender.
By the time we got to the Arbutus Club the sun was shining. I knew it was going to be a hot day thanks to Global News: Leon had rigged an old TV into his dashboard that was powered by his car battery, so we caught the news as we drove from one city into another. We parked a couple of blocks back and walked to the gates. From about a block away I could see at least twenty of my colleagues milling about on the road. Dirty jeans and dirty t-shirts, steel-toed boots with the leather decaying around the steel and the smell of hand-rolled tobacco. There was a green port-a-pottie about ten feet east of the gates.
Just before 9:00 our bosses arrived, dressed in new 501’s and crisp Carhartt work shirts, they came out from behind the gates of the Arbutus Club. “Anyone here ever put up a tennis bubble?” one of them asked. A couple of hands were raised. “Well for those of you who haven’t the most important part is to work together. It isn’t that hard if your team is pulling in the right direction, but you get people pulling every which way, you’re just making more work for yourself,” he warned. “I’m Jim and this is Corey. If you need to use the washroom you’ll have to come out here and use this port-a-potty. They are also going to order us pizza for lunch. Any questions?” he asked. “Good. Half of you follow him and the other half follow me,” he ordered and our day began.
Pulling large vinyl coated fabric sheets a few feet at a time. Trying to get the edges to the perimeter of the tennis court so you can place them under a gutter and then put a 2X4 on top. That was the essence of the job. Not much to it if you worked together, like the boss said.
About two hours into it Christine had some sort of meltdown. “What the fuck!” I heard her yell from the other side of the tennis court. I looked up and saw that movement on the tarp her group was pulling had stalled. She was no longer holding on but was backing away swinging at another guy who was facing her. “This is fucking ridiculous!” she yelled. Corey and Jim both appeared by her side and casually walked her off the court. We could see them talking to her just outside the gates. You could see her motion at them, I think I saw Corey reach into his pocket and hand her some money, and then I saw her head east. Genius. She was gong to get paid for four hours ($32.00 minus $5.00 for the ride) plus she got to keep whatever Corey gave her to leave.
When lunchtime came around we were corralled outside the gates. “Follow us guys,” Corey said and we did. Out to boulevard where a number of Pizza Hut pizzas awaited us. Was it charity? Did the Arbutus Club pay for this carb feast in order to make sure we were outside of the gates if we weren’t working? “Help yourself guys. Well go back to work in about half an hour,” Jim said.
I saw Leon walking in the direction of his van so I ran and caught up to him. “Hey man I left my lunch in your van,” I said. “Yes, let’s go,” he said. We walked in silence. When we got to his van I asked him why he didn’t stay and eat pizza with the rest of the crew: “They can all go to hell. They can keep their foods, I will eat my own food,” he said as he placed the keys in the ignition. He fired up his television and we watched the Global BC Noon News Hour in silence. After a few minutes of silence I asked him where he was from. “I was born in Bosnia, but I escaped in 1994,” he answered. “What I have learned is that dreaming of the future offers no nourishment. I have been hiding for many years, always thinking somehow tomorrow would be better than today, but this is not the case for people like us,” he said. “All we have is today, everyday,” he continued. “If a life of drudgery in day labour is all I have to look forward to what is the point of living,” I thought. “This man escaped a war zone and is alive, but what did he lose. Perhaps he has lost his family, killed by the enemy. He may be a refugee with PTSD. I don’t know. He lives in a van and performs day labour. In all honesty he is doing better than most of us who live in dank basement suites in East Vancouver, struggling to pay the meager rent to live in a room not much larger than Leon’s van. But what if Leon was Corey of Jim? What if he could use the washroom behind the gates? Would he feel different? Yes, he would. He said that the future offers nothing for people like us. For people not like us, then, the future can offer nourishment.”
By the time the international news was on it was time to go. “I’m going in their washroom at the end of the day,” Leon said as we were approaching their gates. “Me too,” I replied without hesitation.
By the end of the day the heavy tarp had rubbed all of our hands raw, you couldn’t wear gloves while pulling that thing or your hands would slip off. The bubble was inflated by 3:00; Vancouver’s crem dela crem had a place to play tennis during the rainy season. Some of us were a little disappointed that we finished up before 5:00 as this meant that we wouldn’t be getting the full eight hour pay we all so dearly needed.
“Listen, great job today. We finished early but if you make two lines Jim and I will sign your timecards saying you worked until 4:00,” Cory offered. These two had thought of everything.
I lined up behind Leon, got my timecard signed and followed him. Instead of turning south for the gate he did just as said he would do and headed north for the Club. I followed him, he must have told others that of his plan for I wasn’t the only one following. As we approached the doors there were at least ten of us. There was no resistance to our entrance. Some still smoking hand rolled cigarettes as we approached the doors.
In we went, Leon leading the way. Straight-ahead, down some stairs, and to the right; Leon knew the way. The excitement was palpable. We came through the doors like a hurricane. The club members quickly fled. The five stalls were soon in use. A couple of us went right to the sinks and began washing our hands. Someone overturned the garbage can.
The festivities only lasted a few minutes. The members had class. They smiled at us as we were leaving. That courtesy made me almost ashamed of my behavior. Who was I to try and use their washroom? Hadn’t they provided us with a port-a-pottie? I felt the same way a man likely feels leaving a massage parlor: hoping no one recognizes you on the way out.