To my dear blogging friends: Summertime activities prevent me from writing comments on your posts. I promise to return to your stories and photos in September. Happy blogging till then!
“Welcome to the Calgary slave market!”
Learning the Difference between Up and Down
Leaving the office building, I noticed a commotion at the street corner to the left. Someone near me shouted, “Quick! They are hiring over there.”
I ran as fast as I could to see what was going on. Half a dozen men were standing on the back of a half-ton truck, which was parked at a slant with two wheels on the sidewalk. The brawny looking men apparently were the lucky ones, who had been hired. A short man with the looks of an aggressive army sergeant was carefully examining those left standing on the sidewalk as to their suitability for hard labor. His keen eyes immediately spotted me and noticed that I looked healthy, well fed, and physically fit for the kind of work he had in mind. He merely pointed to the six men on the truck and said, “Up you go!”
In utter surprise by this speedy hiring process all I could do was stammer questions in my peculiar Oxford English mixed in with a strong German accent, “What kind of work is it? What is the pay? Aren’t there papers to be signed?”
Instead of answering my questions he barked, “Do you want a job or not?”
When I climbed onto the truck, he only answered my last question in a vague sort of way, “We will do the paper work later.”
When the man, who turned out to be my future boss, had collected altogether eight strong men, he critically looked them over once more weeding them out in his mind and fired half of them before they even had done any work. I was not among those who had to jump off the truck.
“Welcome to the Calgary slave market!” whispered a husky young fellow with a heavy foreign accent into my ear. I had just become a laborer in the work crew of Milne Construction Limited.
Barely thirty minutes later we arrived at the construction site, where an upscale apartment building was to be encased by a wall of bricks instead of the usual wood panel sidings. Mr. Milne assigned me to the foreman for placement at the site. He was from Yugoslavia, as were most of the steady laborers, who spoke only a few words of English, and therefore, as far as I could see, had been enslaved to provide cheap labor within the narrow confines of a construction company. Two masons were already clamoring for bricks and mortar. It did not take very long to recognize that this was not merely an introduction to my work routine, after which I could go home to have lunch, put some work clothes on and report for work in the afternoon. No, I was expected to start my job immediately and provide mortar and bricks to the impatient looking masons. Apparently my predecessor had been fired or did not show up for work this morning. After I had with the help of a pulley hoisted up a pail of mortar, I picked up the first two bricks with my bare hands and laid them on the heavy board, on which the masons were standing. In no time at all I had figured out the rhythm of providing a pail of mortar followed by twenty or thirty bricks in thirty-minute intervals. By the time lunchtime came around, I was very hungry and thirsty. One mason with a heart seeing that I had nothing to eat threw me a bologna sandwich over to the pile of lumber where I was sitting. I wolfed it down with plenty of water from the tap. He also talked to me in detail of what my job was all about. This was not a union outfit. If I didn’t like it, the only way for me to file a complaint was to quit. Also this was the beginning of a new building project. So at first, work would be relatively easy. But he warned me that once the wall would grow higher, the masons would continue building it at the same pace. That meant only one thing, with all my climbing up the scaffold I would still have to provide the same number of bricks within the same time frame. Mr. Milne came by to tell me that I was hired at $1.80 an hour and could keep it for as long as the masons weren’t complaining about me. That was indeed good news. For the next day I decided to buy some durable work pants and a pair of leather gloves to prevent my hands from bleeding.
A few days later my mason friend entrusted me with the preparation of the mortar. That gave me a little break, because during that time another laborer had to move the bricks to the ever increasing new heights on the scaffolding. I also received my first lesson on the proper use of language on a Canadian construction site. My school English, especially when presented with a strong German accent, would just not do around here. My friend almost had a laughing fit, when he heard me ask, “Sir, shall I fetch a bucket of water and shed it on the mixture to soften the mortar?”
Good-naturedly he replied but with the intent of teaching me a valuable lesson. “Peter, you don’t talk like that. Your Yugoslav coworkers will not understand a single word you saying in your stilted Shakespearian language. This is how you should put it, ‘Hey you! Should I get a pail of water, pour it over this f…g mix, and stir till it turns into that soft sh*t the masons like to work with?’ I got the drift. This was the real world with hardworking people with both feet on the ground without that highfaluting talk raining down from academic ivory towers.
Another time, when the midday heat was almost unbearable, I was dragging two heavy boards up the rickety scaffolding frame. I was standing on the third tier taking a short break to catch my breath. Standing near the new stone wall with its heat radiating back, I was about to lift the boards one level higher into the steel frame above my head, when the boss looked up and to his dismay saw me what he thought to be loafing on the job. Pointing to the load I was carrying, he hollered, “Up!”
Noticing my hesitation to respond to his simple command, he shouted all the louder, “Up!”
What he did not realize at that very moment was that I was engulfed in a state of total confusion. ‘Ab’ means ‘down’ in German. I was thinking, ‘Even if the order makes absolutely no sense at all, I must obey. After all he is the boss. He must have his reasons’. By now the boss was seething with anger about the delay and he screamed at the top of his voice one more time, “Up!”
What happened next, he had not expected at all. “There,’ I cried and let the boards drop to the ground. It turned out that Mr. Milne in spite of his stern, autocratic style also had a sense of humor. He laughed and laughed, as he walked away from the scene of my embarrassment, ordering a little more kindly, “Of course, Peter, it goes without saying, you still have to deliver these boards all the way UP there”, pointing to the masonry people on the fourth level.