JAIMIE VERNON – YOU CAN NEVER GO BACK
My son’s been kicking back and chilling this summer having finished Grade 12. He didn’t want to start a post-secondary education until he could get his bearings, find a job, make some money and attack it without being tens of thousands of dollars in debt at the starting line. Currently, he’s enjoying hanging out with his friends before everyone scatters to the four winds in September. They decided this week to play paintball. The best facility in Toronto is Sgt. Splatter’s near Dufferin & Eglinton.
With the TTC bus and subway cluster-fuck in full effect and Taste of The Danforth Festival as another minefield for those trying to get in or out of Toronto by transit, I offered to drive him to the paintball place. I had an ulterior motive for doing this and that’s because Sgt. Splatter is directly across the street from the place where I worked my second, ever, full-time job. But I have to explain the first job so you’ll have context.
In 1983/1984 I was working for Seiko Time Canada the wrist watch company. I worked the order desk for jewelry stores who needed replacement parts for their own watchmakers to effect repairs. It’s a lost art today, it was a booming business back then. The company was in the middle of a market upheaval as discount watches and offshore bootleg copies of our product were kicking the crap out of the free market. Why spend $14,000 on a ruby encrusted Cartier when there were knock-offs available at the flea markets for $125?
The watch making industry was fighting back. Seiko was the first to move into digital and LCD technology [Seiko invented the quartz crystal in 1969 and ushered in the digital age]. I got to use the first ever wrist TV.
It was Dick Tracy-esque and still far more utilitarian than the Apple Watch is now; and their state of the art 5″ LCD desk top TVs were exactly the size of today’s iPhone and came with a stand so you could prop it up on your desk and watch The Blue Jays play an afternoon ballgame while you ate lunch. The best was Seiko 2000 wrist computer that allowed you to hook up your watch to a large keypad and type data into your watch for future use (telephone numbers, addresses, shopping lists)
We moved our offices from Yorkland Boulevard at Sheppard and Victoria Park to a warehouse space three times as large on Victoria Park just south of Steeles. It now had a second floor for administration and space for the regular visits from officers coming in from the Japan head office. The front offices on the first floor were for our parts department, the 20 watchmakers (who did the more difficult repair jobs beyond the scope of many jewelry stores) and the steno pool. This was an enclave of typists whose sole job it was to crank out the hundreds of repair requisitions that would be attached to the watchmaker repair packages. My mother and my aunt were the two top typists. It’s how I got the job following my own summer of reflection after completing that anachronistic Grade 13 scholarly pursuit in 1982 and dicking about as a janitor part time in a hockey arena.
Then my aunt became ill. We didn’t know it at the time, but she was suffering from early symptoms of breast cancer. She went on long-term disability. The workload for my Mom doubled. And the harassment began.
My mother could type faster than the machines she was on. She broke two Selectric’s and a third electronic typewriter. Management thought she was doing it on purpose. She demonstrated that she could type over 120 words a minute. The machines were set for 90-100. They’d jam. They’d grind to a halt. They’d catch fire.
She offered to slow her speed down if they pawned some of the work off on the other members of the typing pool. Otherwise, she still had a quota everyday and, well, their shit machines were slowing her down. Things escalated. As my aunt got sicker, my Mom was less mentally present and not quite as effective in putting 110% into the job every day. It brought her typing speed down below 120 wps but still faster than anyone else in the building. She was cited for sloppy work. This went on for months. She began suffering massive stress headaches. She decided to quit.
Alas, I was now the new target. They didn’t like my mother and suspected, rightly so, that I would give them trouble in the future as well. My boss hovered over me 5 or 6 hours a day. Standing behind me pretending to look for some watch spring or an alligator wristband or some such thing. He spent every day waiting for me to fuck up. “Don’t you have a job to do?” I’d ask him as he pretended to not know what I was talking about. He’d catch me looking at him and run back to his office, slamming the door. He was a spineless chicken shit being pushed around by power hungry asshats in the management office.
When the real managers from the Japanese head office showed up they decided to leave one guy behind to watch our operation for 6 months. I befriended him immediately. His English was marginal, but he worked with me on improving my work area and in turn I tried to explain to him how the power imbalance had turned into a greedy power struggle of office politics. He was distraught. This is not how his people wanted the company to be run. I became the stool pigeon. I ratted out the bullshit harassment and interference being perpetrated by each of the division managers not just against me but all the staff there. It was not unusual to have one of the typists run off crying into the bathroom once a day. Especially those who made the mistake of letting them know they were pregnant. They might as well have painted targets on their backs. “What use are you to us if you’re emotionally unfit?” And so it went.
They’d figured out my game plan with Hiro From Japan and their harassment of me intensified until one day I got tired of it, typed up my resignation and dropped it on the desk of my supervisor, my manager and the president of Seiko Time Canada. The total elapsed time between the delivery of the letters and my hasty escorting from the building was 43 minutes. I was now unemployed. Through a newspaper ad I submitted a resume to a small electrical company called Electro-Rubber in Toronto’s west end looking for an office admin assistant to help with a factory crew of 120 women. I was intrigued. I nailed the interview and the job was mine within 11 days of leaving Seiko.
I worked for a rather straight up and brusque American who looked like that secret agent on the TV show “Heroes” – all brush cut hair, horn rimmed glasses and tweed suits. He was a throwback to the 1950s. He did business that way and the office furniture matched. It was like ‘Mad Men’ set in a factory. I was in charge of parts inventory (not unlike my Seiko gig) and was responsible for hounding the suppliers on a daily basis so that the women on the assembly line weren’t sitting idle.
We made wiring harnesses for big industry. Our three biggest clients were IBM, AMC Motors and Xerox. We built the wiring systems that went into their various devices. It was early days for IBM desktop computers and it was the sunset years for the flagging AMC motors so the business itself was precarious. But I loved it there. In 1985 I married my first wife and we rented an apartment three blocks from the office. She worked downtown and she was walking distance from the subway. It was a win/win. Alas, the business took a downturn at the end of 1986 as IBM pulled up stakes and moved their PC manufacturing division to Scotland (!!!).
AMC went bankrupt which left Xerox as our last major client standing. Then their union went on strike. I was sent in, alone, with a briefcase full of wiring harnesses to install them on the last 19 machines that were required to be completed so we could get paid. The picket line was fierce. I was escorted in by police through a service door at their Mississauga plant. Someone saw me. The place nearly rioted. They made me leave. I returned the next day accompanied by security, Xerox management, and two reps from the union to show that I wasn’t a scab. I was there to modify the machines so the harnesses could be installed properly. I wasn’t after anyone’s job. Crisis averted.
The Xerox contract would dry up too. Our factory was shut down and many of the assembly line senior staff was absorbed into the company’s second factory at Davenport & Dupont in Toronto under a new corporate name Electro Canada. But because I had no seniority, I was laid off. My boss knew this in advance and instead of letting me rot for two weeks waiting for the ax to fall he let me go early so I could get a head start looking for a new job – and I got paid anyway. It was a super decent thing for him to do.
However, due to a clerical error they discovered a few weeks later that I wasn’t the last person hired – and had seniority over a woman in their second factory. They phoned and asked me if I wanted her job. Fuck. I would have to boot someone else out of their job to keep mine. It was one of the worst ethical decisions I’d ever make. We couldn’t afford for me to be unemployed. We were newly married and had an airtight lease to pay on our apartment. I had to take the gig. The only upside was that a young summer student named Yurko Mychaluk was interning and was interested in learning to play music. I sold him an old guitar I had and taught him a few songs on it. He’d grow up to be Nelly Furtado’s guitarist.
The downtown gig didn’t last long as the company was still in financial trouble. They never found lucrative replacement contracts as big as IBM, AMC and Xerox. The writing was on the wall. Fortunately, I was able to find another job before a second layoff came to pass. I got hired by the City of Scarborough where I stayed for the next 12 years.
This entire memory came screaming back to me this week after dropping my kid off at the paintball facility. I decided to wander over to the old factory on Wingold Ave. and see who was occupying it now. Maybe I could chat with someone to see if they had any memory of my old work environment.
The building was intact. The front doors were as they were before, but when I stepped through the entrance I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. The building had been miraculously transformed. Literally. What was once a wide open factory floor with wiring machines and tables for the labourers to sit at was now Victorian dressed hallways with chandeliers, cheap flea market knick knacks and paintings and window after window of small artisan offices filled with fashion designers. Hundreds of them. I wandered the halls straight out to the rear exit and back again. I took a side hall and it led to the building next door…and that led to the building next to it…and so on. My old facility was the last building in a massive complex of old factories that had been retrofit and connected together. It’s possible there were three or four hundred showrooms in the place. It had been renamed The Fashion Mall.
I stopped someone coming out of one office and asked him how long he’d been there. “16 years in October.” I told him about the old Electro Rubber office. “Come here, check this out”. He took me down one of the myriad of hallways to a side entrance. It was our old loading dock. Intact. It was the only thing left from what I could remember of the building except the polished concrete floors themselves which hinted at machinery from days gone by. Something aside from my memories had survived. But as we all know, it’s just not the same. The second factory in Toronto was torn down years ago, but at least a piece of my misspent work life remains on Wingold.
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Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com http://gwntertainment.wix.com/jaimievernon