Trying This About a Small Town
I couldn't help it, I wrote about working
There’s no real song as the focus to this week’s newsletter, and apologies I’m a day later than normal. Truth be told, I struggled with how to write this one, and I’m never going to be comfortable with where it ended, but I also felt compelled to do it. There’s no single song but this is about music, and current goins-on. When I wrote a lot of this, I was watching this youtube video of Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy on repeat so maybe listen to it while you read, I promise you won’t regret it.
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I keep trying to write this week's newsletter, and I keep finding myself writing long missives stemming from my irritation at the ongoing conversation about the ginger beard guy living off grid on a pig farm, like the Prarie Home Companion variant of Bon Iver. Lots of wide-swath take downs of country music, to which I would also argue that this guy isn’t really country per se, he’s blues folk with a light dusting of country seasoning, and he also isn’t real. None of this is real, and the conversation about the working class is making me feel a lot of complicated feelings, a bouquet of frustration and exhaustion and surprisingly, I’m finding myself ashamed.
I used to repair automatic doors, although that was not my official training. My trade is being a glazier. I went to trade school for four years and became a journeyman, a very gendered term I cannot escape and when you google “journeywoman” it talks about women who travel and if that isn’t a whole other thing I don’t know what is. A glazier works with glass. I did it, my father does too, and his father was a glazier as well, after the war and until he died. There are very few third generation glaziers in this life because who could possibly see back through two generations of people with bad backs, alcoholism and a lot of scars to explain and say “this is what I want for my own life”. I got into it because I didn’t know who I was or what I wanted well enough to say otherwise, and I needed to work.
I have worked since I was 13 years old, and although Mcdonalds turned me away, the grocery store opened their arms and handed me a smock and a box cutter and said welcome aboard all too eagerly. I have been part of the workforce ever since that fateful day in 1995.
I wanted to be a writer when I was young but I didn’t know I was allowed to be because I was a bad student, and while I excelled in English and Creative Writing classes I failed most others and I didn’t graduate from high school the first time I took a run at it. There weren’t a lot of guidance counselors at the time who would take me aside and give careful guidance or offer the idea that failing high school wouldn’t condemn me to the worst fate in this life. When I was in high school they told us to prepare for college, so we could study and work more and prepare for a good life and if we didn’t we would fail and if we failed we were bad and if we were bad we worked with our hands in some way and then I went home to eat dinner with my dad who worked with his hands too.
I had undiagnosed anxiety and depression and ADHD and bad eyesight and I was trans but we didn’t say trans in the 90s a lot, I was just different in my head and the best way to quell the weirdness in my head was to drink and do drugs and be bad and so I fell into working with my hands because I was seen as otherwise a failure.
I was bad at that too, at first, but I worked very hard and became okay at it, and then I became good at it even. I moved on from glass and installed aluminum storefronts and doorways and learned how locks and hardware worked. I taught myself the inner workings of automatic doors, small electronics and grease covered motors and eventually in my late 20s I started my own contracting company to install and repair automatic doors and other doors and hardware. I was the only one in my small town who could reliably do this work for a long time.
I installed and fixed and maintained every door in every grocery store in Whitehorse, the small town in the lower middle of the Yukon I grew up in. I received urgent calls for help when I was out for dinner, out for a run, out of town and/or blackout drunk crying alone in my bathroom. I grew up in a small town, and was raised on job sites as an adult.
Late afternoon in the spring time in a year I don’t remember the number of, just after school was out but before work was finished for government employees with a good union, I was repairing the doors exiting the building at the Independent Grocer store in Whitehorse. It’s not actually Independent, it's just a clever branding thing by the one corporation that owns every grocery store in Canada. People feel comforted by words that used to mean something, like independent or dial-up.
I was standing on a ladder with a motor in my hand, balancing the weight of a door with my right leg and maneuvering the motor free from its housing with my hands and holding everything just right, just so, in order to fix what had failed inside this tired old machine. People walked by and said hello or more often than that nothing at all until a woman and her child walked by. Children are endless wells of fascination and especially when you have a bag of tools, a ladder and a lot of what you hope is dirt on you.
The child said to their mother
“what’s [gender redacted] doing?”
And she, within earshot of me, announces “[gender redacted] is doing what happens if you don’t graduate.”
And what maybe hurts most of all is how close she was to the truth, in a manner of speaking. I had graduated, only kind of. I’m a high school graduate in the same way Dr Pepper is a doctor.
I was working installing a series of new doors in a housing complex some months later. I was laying out the blueprints I had hand drawn, scribbles of the floor plans and layouts. I was measuring carefully and checking where the ground was level or too soft and what walls had rotted away and all the while a curious man stood and stared at me from the sidewalk with a cigarette that never seemed to die carefully nestled in his fingers and for a long time he said nothing at all.
I wrote numbers down and checked everything again and drew plans and sketched things out and he watched me with his cigarette turning to ash and said nothing.
I told him I was just planning for now, that I was laying everything out and figuring out what will work and it was going to be a lot more than I realize but that’s okay. Isn’t that just life sometimes, you know? I was making small talk out of a molehill only a little due to abject terror.
The cigarette died in his hand and he sparked another, took a drag of his little pyre wedged between his fingers and laughed to his own impending clever nature,
“Well, and I know what you didn’t do”
and I waited, as I knew what was coming now and he said again to me
“You didn’t study hard enough in school.” and then he walked away.
And again it hurts that he’s not terribly off-base but approaching it from the wrong angle. I worked hard in school, it’s only that I stopped caring, and I was inside my head a lot and I was sad and a little fucked up and no one really looked out for that kind of thing when I was in school and if they had tried I would have pushed them away anyhow because I was a little self destructive and I hadn’t earned the right to be someone like a writer or a high school graduate.
It was right for me to learn how to work with my hands, to learn how to fix things and how to be patient and careful and I learned how to talk to people and how to move and carry myself. I learned how to code switch into extreme masculinity around construction people, how to be softer around customers. I worked on high rises and underground and in all kinds of weather. And I had to fight for a long time for anyone to think of me as anything but a person who worked with their hands and was often covered in dirt and blood. Except for construction people, they always thought I was good and competent but a lot of them laughed and called me a fag sometimes because I was a bit emotional and I liked to dress nice when I wasn’t at work.
Working in trades was a world a lot of people will never know. I worked in the oil sands of Alberta and in a glass shop in Edmonton where the first day the shop's lead salesman asked if I was “one of those” kind of guys because I had showered before work. One of those-kind-of-guys had just worked there, a gay man that no one would work with because they were worried he would try and have sex with them and they made it sound at first like they had killed him and then like he just got up and disappeared one day for reasons no one but me understood.
There’s a lot of fear in a lot of these rooms, rooms that smell like old plywood and pretty okay coffee and an unwavering commitment to alcoholism and cigarettes.
I also worked with a shop steward who never liked to work in the field and was careful and gentle with me, showed me every trick he knew about working with glass and metal and when he showed me how to do something, parted with his knowledge, he would ask me a simple question
“Do you know why I do it like this?”
When I said no, which was often, he explained the mechanics and reasons behind it. He had a laugh that was soft but loud as the heavens and was obsessed with the Syd Barrett era of Pink Floyd. I still think about him too, for fonder reasons than I think about a lot of other people.
I worked with workers curious about poetry and the great American novel even though we’re Canadian and spent a 12 hour shift playfully arguing about the merits of the British invasion on American pop music. I’ve seen people come and go in construction circles who were all so easily written off by judgmental passersby and onlookers who remain the smartest people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. I have also known some of the worst people you could ever imagine.
I think about all this as the circle of discourse envelops and eats conversations around what you should or shouldn’t try in a small town, or the latest in an obviously trumped up version of the ideal working man who as flat and bland as unseasoned rice cakes sing gutless missives about the beleaguered people of the world hampered by a conspiracy of generic elites. And within this, I watch people talk endlessly about the idea of the working man, the sanctity of the working class, and the point of the issue and I wonder if anyone knows who the working class really is anymore, sometimes I wonder if I do.
I think about the woman who said I wasn’t the poster child for high school graduation, which was true enough but said with malice. She drove away in a Subaru Outback with a COEXIST sticker on the bumper and a slogan for voting Liberal. The man with a cigarette was a local businessman who touted his inclusivity when he would come and drown the hours from a stool at the bar where I occasionally worked as a bartender and was kind of a shitty tipper.
People are losing themselves in the endless circle of quote-tweets or X’s or whatever-the-fuck, debating with people who don’t really care at all about the working man anyway and it is always the same names thrown into the wind. Springsteens and Guthries swirling about each other like plastic bags in an updraft. It is a conversation about the different kinds of white guy who write a saleable idea of the working class that exists in dreams of America and parts of Europe and by default Canada as the kid sister of both of these places. Working class people as working in mines or factories, with classic cars and loves that sometimes don’t have names, small dusty towns and highways leading in and out.
People love the idea of the working man because it’s someone they can use in a conversation but never have to speak to or become. A cudgel and a claim and it is never a real person, because that person can’t be named. Working class people conjured from nothing by flat remarks. It’s a branding that draws feelings of comfort, an idea that used to mean something.
There was the discourse and buzz words bandied about in regards to Scowl being featured on a Taco Bell-branded video – a move that will bring them some money for sure and also new ears – that warranted vocalist Kat Moss making one of those instagram statements that people make when internet folk won’t just let a foolish topic die. A band I didn’t know terribly well but I understand from reading and listening that they worked hard, came up in a scene, and said an easy yes to Taco Bell asking if they would like to make money for the work that they do.
I was once one of three models for a local advertising campaign warning of the dangers of too much sodium. I posed with a quizzical look in my eyes staring into a thought bubble that said “with that much salt i could de-ice my driveway” and then they were turned into posters for the aisle of every grocery store in town, and also a six foot tall version that was in the front entry of two of them. I was the model in the doorway and also the only person in town who could service all the automatic doors and I would be there at all hours on a ladder with a door in my hands next to a photo of me modeling and sodium scolding and everyone kind of knew my face, even if they didn’t know my name.
I got in at least three fights about the ad campaign I was in, including one father who stalked me throughout the store only to find me in aisle 11 and yelled about how he’s sick of seeing my fucking face when he’s just trying to find some goddamn bagels. He did not think it was cute when I told him they’re in the bakery section, but it's on the other side of the store.
I was sick of my fucking face too, but for very different reasons. I took the job because I wanted to make money doing something, anything at all, different from my normal means where I felt less than a lot of people. I made…not a lot of money, but I got a lot of really good exposure. Sometimes exposure is being yelled at in the grocery aisle by someone who thinks he knows you, and knows he doesn’t like who he thinks you are.
I guess I’m ashamed because I left all of this, I left the job I worked for a long time and the small town I lived in behind and I feel like I lied to a lot of people and cheated myself and now I’m a charlatan playing writer that doesn’t deserve it. I didn’t even finish high school properly. I’m trying to regain what pride I can muster about where I’m from, the work that I did and all the parts of me that were built. And all the while I guess I feel like the idea of a person, and I realize I’m getting defensive and annoyed when people talking about the working man and class politics and I feel of two worlds, simultaneously covered in dirt scrawling numbers on a hand-drawn floor plan and on the sidewalk with a snide glance and a dying cigarette passing judgment and I wonder how to gather both of those parts of myself into one person.
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