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Squeeze Box Man Commentary (part 4)

THE BOTTLE & CAN

Is the idea that two talented musicians would find themselves working an industrial job to make ends meet far-fetched? I don’t think so. In fact, it may have been just that situation that sparked the stories in the first place.

After I finished my Fine Arts degree, I needed work to support my art habit, and got a job doing break-out cutting at a factory making inexpensive pine frames and bookcase headboards for waterbeds. Back then people were buying a lot of waterbeds. I had a really difficult time finding a job. I was upfront with people about starting a career as a painter, which didn’t do much for my prospects. I applied for some jobs that interested me, but as one employer put it, “I’m sure you would do a good job, but your first priority is painting and you will leave as soon as you’re able. I need someone who will stick around for at least a few years.” It got to a point where I needed any kind of job, but for labour jobs employers told me I was over-qualified.

The waterbed factory was, among other things, a safety nightmare. Some ugly injuries occurred while I was there. One guy sawed off some fingers with dado blades on a table saw. Another put a 2 inch nail into his kneecap with a pneumatic nail gun. The guys who worked the spray booth did so without wearing a mask. The best thing I can say about it is that it was a job and I needed work.

Then I landed a gig as a part time postal clerk for Canada Post. This was perfect. At that time it was possible to live on the cheap in Toronto. I rented a storefront on Ossington Ave which had a painting studio in front, then a modest living space, and further back a kitchen I shared with another artist who had the studio in back. We had a bathroom and shower in the basement. We never paid more than $550/month for that place, split two ways. The job was steady and pretty easy. There was plenty of vacation and a very generous sick leave program. For me it was an ideal situation. Still, I considered it a temporary gig. Who could have predicted I would stick around for 30 years in all kinds of different jobs? Not me. I experienced plant life from both a worker and management perspective including some labour disputes along the way.

When I wrote about Lazy’s adventures at the Bottle & Can, I was thinking about my own adventures at Canada Post, and elements of my adventures crept into the stories for sure. For instance, when I was a postal clerk, there really was a supervisor who took attendance with a clipboard every day, a man who was remarkably poor at interacting with people in the workplace, and it is possible that maybe stealing his clipboard was a thing. Maybe.

I remember two things about getting hired on. The first was they required me to come in for something they called a dexterity test. They put me and other candidates in front of a one-hand keyboard, flashed postal codes at us, and the test was to type in all the postal codes accurately within the time limit. I didn’t think I had any better than average dexterity and I was nervous about the test. We were only allowed a couple errors so I worked really slowly and double checked my accuracy. Then I started to panic because I thought I was taking too much time and wouldn’t finish. Finally, I got through the test. I thought everyone else would have been finished way before me, but no, everyone was still working. Panic came again as I was convinced I had done something terribly wrong and blown the mission. I had worked so slowly, how could I be finished before others? Yet, it turned out I used only about half the time and made no errors. Go figure.

The other thing I remember was having to pledge allegiance to the Queen. Although we retain the Queen as a figurehead in our government structure I felt no relationship to the monarchy at all and found it ridiculous I was required to make this pledge. I did it though because I wanted the job. I just didn’t mean it.

In my time at Canada Post I met quite a number of really talented people, who, like me, needed a gig to support whatever else they wanted to do with their lives. This included quite a few excellent musicians, writers, artists, and even one of the strongest chess players in the country. Fortunately, it seemed there was plenty of room for misfits like us.

I think it was 1986 or 87 when I experienced my first strike. I was a postal clerk at the letter plant just east of Downtown at the time. I thought I had the perfect job. I was happy with the pay – I was making ends meet working part time! Working conditions were far better than the job I had at the waterbed factory. I had no complaints, but it wasn’t about me. There was little doubt in my mind many of the things which made the job ideal were achieved through the collective bargaining process. I understood full well where the Union was coming from. I felt though, I was just passing through and simply wanted to put in my time and take home my pay.

The last thing I wanted to do was walk a picket line. I went down the first evening and the whole scene was getting ugly. There were people I knew who were normally pretty laid back, who were worked up and in some cases liquored up. There were police there with horses and there was some pushing and shoving going on. I didn’t want to push or shove or confront anyone and wanted no part of the whole scene. Fortunately the strike was settled after a week.

By the time another strike occurred, I was working as a supervisor. The housing situation had changed and I needed to work full time to make ends meet, and the repetition of coding or sorting all day became unbearable to me over time. I was punching in postal codes on a machine known as a Group Desk Suite or GDS at the time. I could do this accurately up to speed and still hold a conversation with the person beside me. She told me she was going to apply to be a supervisor and she talked me into applying too. I did, and it turned out I got the gig and she didn’t.

This second strike, in 1991, was all around craziness. The company decided they were going to move the mail and the Union decided they were going to stop the mail. There were helicopters and bikers involved. I’d get phone calls in the dead of night. “This is the deployment centre. Be at Buttonville airport at 5:00 AM. Take a Metro cab.” One morning I found myself in a corn field somewhere near Markham. 6:00 AM and half a dozen vans drove up driven by honest to God bikers. A couple of them parked and sparked up a joint while we all waited for the helicopter full of mail to show up.

Later that day they flew me and some others down to the Island airport where we unloaded more helicopters and loaded up 5-ton trucks. I was dog-tired by the end of the day. The guy running the show told us they were going to fly us back up to Buttonville and from there we could take a cab home. At the time, I was living just a few blocks from the Island airport. I said no thanks I’ll just take the ferry and walk home. Well, they wouldn’t allow me to do that because of picketing activity but I dug my heals in and said there was no way I was going all the way back to Buttonville when I lived up the street. They had a confab, then came back to me and said, OK we have a solution. A speed boat, one of those cigarette boats came roaring up to the docks.

“Get in – this guy will take you to the foot of Bay Street and you can take a cab home from there”. The boat was driven by a guy who introduced himself to me as the local president of an organization of motorcycle enthusiasts. He reached into a cooler and pulled out two cold brews, handing me one and opening the other for himself. I barely had time to finish my beer when we arrived at the foot of Bay Street. There was no dock there, but a ladder instead I had to climb to get to terra firma. I took a cab home.

The Bottle & Can was as perfect for Lazy Allen as Canada Post was for me back in the day. I think of his time there as his Limbo, that period between when his first life as a musician fell apart and his second life as a musician began.

Lazy is the narrator for Squeeze Box Man and his narration takes 3 streams. He tells stories about his work life at the Bottle & Can. He tells stories to his NPK bandmates of the old days when he led Lazy & the Rockets and he tells the story of the rise and fall of the New Polka Kings. These stories are mixed up together, and for the reader provide the bigger picture of Lazy’s life.

*****

If you’re interested in copies of any or all of the issues of Squeeze Box Man, email me. Cost is $12 + $3 shipping to anywhere for any individual issues. Payment within Canada is by e-transfer. For customers outside Canada, payment is by Paypal.

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