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Jobs #2: The Waterbed Factory

I completed my university studies in 1983 with a Fine Art degree. I knew going in this wasn’t going to help me find my way financially but I didn’t care about that. I had a chance to study with painters I admired and focus on painting and that seemed a lot more important than training for a job.

All I wanted to do at the time was make paintings, really. I’d let the future take care of itself. Meanwhile, it was time to get out of my parents’ house and find some independence and I needed a job. My parents were supportive of my art habit but at the same time they didn’t want their kid to be in financial straights all the time. We were living in the suburbs, in Etobicoke, and while I loved my parents – they were awesome, really – I wanted to get out of that environment in the worst way and I could taste the city.

Some artists – well, many of the artists I knew – took advantage of Canada Council and Ontario Arts Council programs and chased grants, but I never did that. I figured at best a grant was a stop-gap measure to get through a project or a few months without having to work, but in the end it came down to having to get a job. Besides, I liked the idea of being independent, not needing government hand-outs to make artwork. As well, my experience in the working world also fed my painter’s imagination in some way or another.

That said, I had a really hard time finding a job. My art degree qualified me for pretty much nothing. Potential employers told me they figured I’d leave as soon as I had a little money in my pocket. I was over-qualified or under-qualified and many employers simply couldn’t cope with someone who gave a damn about making paintings. In fact, through an adulthood in the working world, supporting my compulsion to paint, I only worked with a handful of people who cared about art at all. Most never looked at art, professed to not understand it, or thought artists were charlatans.  Over the years I made far and away more paintings than I could find homes for, and it was expensive to store them. At one point perhaps a dozen years ago, we purged our storage and destroyed a lot of paintings. I mentioned this one day to a colleague at work and she became quite upset with me, as if I had some kind of responsibility to tow this ballast around with me for life. I asked her the conversation-ending question – when had she last bought a work of art by a living Canadian artist. Um, well, you know….. Still, you shouldn’t destroy your work. That’s just wrong.

After a frustrating time trying to find any kind of job at all, I finally found one working in a waterbed factory. We didn’t make the actual beds you fill up with water. We made the frames and and combination book-case headboards. There was a chain of waterbed places which carried our stuff and advertised heavily next to the stereo ads in the Sun, and they sold a lot of these ugly-assed bookcase headboards before the waterbed market ran its course.

My job was break-out cutting. I operated a beast called a chop-saw. Each day I would be given a cutting list and I’d take a forklift out to the yard and bring in a lift of 3rd grade Ponderosa Pine from Mount St. Helens and from Susanville California. This was very knotty pine, and some of the knots would pop out leaving gaping holes in the wood. I had to cut around the worst of the boards to extract the list from the lift of lumber.

Each 16 foot lift of lumber had 2 or 3 metal bands strapping the load together. It was then wrapped with a kind of fibre-laced plastic material. Much of the time you couldn’t see the strapping for the wrap, but I never gave that a second thought. Every lift was strapped and wrapped. It turned out this was not true. One day I took the fork out and targeted my lift, the third up in a stack of 3. As usual, I raised the forks just a bit, elevating the lift, then angled the forks back before backing out and lowering the lift. This time there was no strapping securing the load and the top half of the lift of lumber came crashing down toward me.

I was on a heavy-duty forklift with good strong roll bars and the planks smashed against the roll bars with vengeance. I was perfectly safe inches below, but when many hundreds of pounds of wood comes crashing toward your head, you think you’re done. The planks fell on either side of me and I sat there shaking like a leaf in the forklift seat.

There were all kinds of injuries at this place. One guy nailed two fingers together with a pneumatic nail gun. With the same tool, another guy shattered his knee-cap. The worst was the fellow who ground his fingers off to the knuckle using a dado set-up on the table saw. There was no union, no health and safety committee, no nothing. The stoners who worked the spray-booth lacquered all day with no masks on. Between the lacquer and the weed they smoked at lunch, I’m sure those characters murdered a lot of brain cells.

Then there was Hank. At least I’m going to call him Hank.  Hank looked like maybe in better days he was a biker. He was tall and lanky and hard and grizzled and he had LOVE/HATE tattoos on his knuckles like Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter and the kind of sideburns known as mutton chops. Hank was an alcoholic at least, and maybe he had more demons as well. I know he would have to have a few beers before work to steady his hands. At lunch, some of the guys went out to a local strip bar (I never once went along – the idea of drinking then operating machinery scared me silly). They liked to take Hank with them and see how many beers he could down during lunch break.

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One day Hank disappeared and stayed disappeared until just before I left the job.  He showed up one morning looking weak and tired and sick and horrible and he asked for his job back. He was not rehired. Stories floated around. In one of them, Hank got home from work and his girlfriend, not impressed with Hank’s womanizing, was waiting for him with a cast iron frying pan, which she used to pummel Hank until he wound up hospitalized. I have no idea if the story was true, but no doubt he had stories which would curl your toes.

The chop saw scared me at first. It had a pedal, and when that was depressed, the heavy guard above slammed down and the blade came up from below, cutting a pine 2 X 10 like it was butter. After a while I became comfortable with it, perhaps a bit too comfortable. One day I stopped and looked at how close I kept my hand to the blade to pull away offcuts. Too close, I realized, and backed right off.

When you work with Ponderosa Pine, you get slivers, lots of them. I learned the best thing to do was dig them out right way because the longer you waited, the more painful it was going to be. I kept a couple big safety pins on my apron, which I used to pull out pine slivers, several each day. I wouldn’t wear gloves working the chop saw. I was scared some bit of loose material would get caught up in the guard or the blade and pull my hand in. Slivers seemed the safer way to go.

After my shift, I’d head home stinking of Ponderosa Pine. I could shower 4 times and still smell like a pine tree. I kept at this job for over a year, until something better came along. In the meantime, I found a painting studio in an old storefront, a place I could live and work. Toward the end, I hated Ponderosa Pine, and waterbeds too. I was painting though, and living on my own, and getting by.

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