Work to Do

I am in my second year of retirement and have lately been looking back over my 40 years of work with a curious eye. Library positions made up almost the entirety of my working life, although I did try my hand at some other jobs before settling into my career as a teacher/librarian. I got my first job at age 16 in the office of my Uncle Bob. Bob Meiklejohn was not my uncle by blood, but rather was a good friend of my grandmother and mother, and had therefore been given the honorific of “uncle”. 

Uncle Bob was an interior designer, and his firm, Robert Meiklejohn Design Associates, occupied a detached brick house on Lowther Avenue in Toronto’s Annex district. The Annex is an affluent neighbourhood close to the downtown campus of the University of Toronto, and features large, beautifully maintained Victorian homes. Uncle Bob’s company was well known and respected, and counted Cara Gift Shops, various upscale Four Seasons hotels like The Inn on the Park, and stores such as Harry Rosen, Tip Top Tailors, Fairweather, and Big Steel amongst its clients. This was a thriving and lucrative enterprise.

During work days Uncle Bob’s employees occupied the entirety of the house. The basement housed the two women who made decisions regarding colour schemes, accessories, and works of art. The first floor housed the front office, Uncle Bob’s office, and the lunch room, the second contained the draughtsmen, and the third floor was used for storage. I was hired for the summer to give additional help where needed, like filing and running errands. I must admit to occasionally spending some time hiding in the break room when there was nothing for me to do, but I was usually occupied.

Most of my time was spent in the front office with the two secretaries, Elizabeth and Jenny. Elizabeth was very prim and proper – her jewelry and shoes scrupulously matched her outfits, and her hair was always just so. Her desk was neurotically tidy, and she worked punctually from 9 to 5 every weekday. She mostly went about her work silently, and altogether seemed like a lady who knew her place. Uncle Bob was in charge, and she never spoke ill of him or joked behind his back. 

Jenny, on the other hand, was a real live wire. She was easily as competent as Elizabeth, but she was much more informal and had an excellent sense of humour. Jenny spoke with a thick Scottish brogue, and delighted in making fun of my uncle, who was, as it turned out, prone to rather dramatic mood swings. One morning he came storming into the office, clearly angry and upset about something. Jenny offered him his coffee, as was the routine, and he impatiently grabbed the cup from her hand, spilling much of its contents onto the floor. He briefly looked down at the mess he’d just made, then turned on his heel and stormed into his office, slamming the door behind him. Elizabeth immediately scurried into the kitchen to get a cloth, but Jenny turned to me and said, “Did you know Morris the Cat died last night? Yeah, he’s clearly very broken up about it.” We laughed at the absurdity of the thought while Elizabeth meekly wiped up the mess.

The office manager was a man named Gordon. Gordon spoke with the accent typical of rural Ontario – very flat and unaffected. He only deviated from this speech pattern on two words, something and nothing. For some reason, Gordon pronounced these as “summink” and “nuffink” respectively. It was as though he had a little Cockney in him which only surfaced with these two particular words. This was so noteworthy and out of keeping with the rest of his syntax that I remember it to this day. 

The second floor of the house held Gordon’s office along with a large communal space where the draughtsmen worked. Whenever Uncle Bob came up with new designs, these three men were tasked with drawing them by hand into workable blueprints. The youngest of these was a breathtakingly handsome man named Richard on whom I had a killer crush. I don’t remember exactly what he looked like, but he was in a class with Jon Hamm – perfect features, hair and body, and a thrillingly deep voice. One time Richard asked me to move his car for him, and as it was only about the third time he’d ever spoken directly to me, I immediately acquiesced. When I gave him back his keys afterwards he said, “You didn’t have to do that, you know. Next time I asked you to do something that’s not in your job description, just tell me to fuck off.” As if! I thought I had hidden my infatuation pretty well, but at the end of the summer one of the senior draughtsmen gave me a drawing he had done of Richard as a keepsake. Clearly I was not as good at hiding my feelings as I thought.

About once every two weeks Uncle Bob would send me to his apartment to help his wife, my Aunt Phyllis. Their apartment was located in a rich part of town, and was beautifully decorated (no surprise there). Aunt Phyllis was a therapist with a thriving practice. She specialized in family conflicts and had written a few books on the subject as well. I think she was well respected in her field, and I know she was one of the smartest women I have ever met, at least most of the time. For some reason she turned into a saccharine pile of babbling goo whenever her cat came in the room – it was puzzling and somewhat disconcerting just how fawning she became. My mum told me Aunt Phyllis had very much wanted to have children but had been unable to do so. I guess the cat was her baby substitute.

Aunt Phyllis had contracted polio as a child and needed Canadian crutches to get around. She couldn’t drive a regular car, and thus Uncle Bob had one retrofitted with hand controls so she could get around. One time when I was at their place Aunt Phyllis asked me to accompany her to the grocery store. We went down to the underground parking lot together and she led me to an absolutely beautiful chocolate brown Jaguar sedan. It had plush leather seats and when the engine was engaged, it purred like its namesake. Aunt Phyllis explained how the hand operated accelerator and breaks worked, and off we went. She was an impatient driver and often swerved around slower cars, but I felt completely safe. The car was so perfectly engineered and luxurious that these short trips to and from the grocery store remain amongst the best driving experiences I have ever had. 

I turned 18 two months after graduating from high school, and immediately got a job so I could save up and move out the following year. My brother had just given up his position as a clerk at a downtown store called India Food House, and the owners readily hired me to take his place. The store was run by two brothers, Hareesh and Nareesh Damar. Hareesh was the older brother and was very sociable. He manned the front of the store and, fancying himself a ladies man, shamelessly chatted up all of the female clientele. He was an excellent salesman and very outgoing, but I don’t think he was the Don Juan he thought he was. Nareesh, on the other hand, was very quiet, studious, and sober. He kept the books and managed inventory while his older brother provided the friendly and inviting face of the partnership.

I worked out front with Hareesh, so when I was hired he trained me to operate the cash register and taught me about the merchandise. I had a lot to learn since I hadn’t grown up eating Indian food. I had some preexisting knowledge of the most well known elements of Indian cuisine such as samosas and curry, but had never even heard of naan, poppadoms, or turmeric. There was a large open cooler in the shop which contained various tropical fruits and exotic chilis. I was intrigued by a small green chili which had a hand drawn skull and crossbones above it. Hareesh told me the sign was to warn people that it was extremely hot, although he immediately added that Canadians were notorious wimps when it came to spicy food and that he didn’t find it to be very hot at all. I asked if he thought I could handle it and he assured me that I could, so I picked one up and took a small bite. My mouth immediately exploded with pain, my eyes and nose began to water, and I found it hard to breathe. Hareesh collapsed in loud peels of laughter at my distress, and his brother emerged from the back office to see what was so funny. After a quick exchange in Hindi, Nareesh grabbed a bottle of milk from the fridge and had me drink some. The cool liquid immediately began to quench the inferno in my mouth, and slowly my breath and heartbeat returned to normal. I was rightly wary of Hareesh after that stunt.

The job at the store was okay, but I really wanted to work in theatre. I had loved my experience with the drama club in high school, and my older sister Susan adored working as a professional stage manager. Eventually I landed a job as administrator for a small touring children’s theatre troupe called Inner Stage. Elizabeth Szathmary was the founder and artistic director of the company. She lived on the second floor of a large industrial building and the space encompassed not only her living quarters, but also the company’s office and rehearsal studio. Elizabeth was born and raised in New York City, and her father, Irving, wrote the opening theme of Get Smart, one of my favourite shows as a child.

Elizabeth was extremely creative and talented but she had no head for business whatsoever. That was where I came in. I booked the tours, managed the finances, and completed various government grant applications. Looking back I’m amazed she gave a 19 year old so much responsibility, but I was quite good at the job so I guess her faith in me was well founded. I was working at this job when the movie Fame hit the theatres. Elizabeth had gone to the school featured in the film and was excited to take me to see it when it opened in Toronto. There is a scene in the movie wherein Irene Cara’s character goes to a photo shoot thinking she is simply going to get an 8×10 headshot for her resume. The photographer pressures her into lowering her shirt, and the character cries as she reluctantly gives in to his wheedling. I noticed Elizabeth was silently sobbing as the scene progressed, and when I asked her what was wrong, she said that the exact same thing had happened to her. Some men are such sleaze balls.

I enjoyed my time at Inner Stage, but really wanted to get into a theatre with an established performance space. My chance came when Toronto Workshop Productions, better know as TWP, advertised for an administrative assistant. TWP was a stalwart of the Toronto theatre scene, and had been founded in 1959 by its artistic director George Luscombe. Luscombe was a caricature of a domineering director, with crazy grey hair, flyaway eyebrows, and a booming voice. He was known for creating politically charged theatre with minimal props and set pieces. 

I worked in the front office assisting the PR director as well as the general manager, Jack Marigold. Jack was a real character as well, with his flaming homosexuality acting as a counter-balance to George’s strident masculinity. Jack had the most outrageous combover I’d ever seen, spanning his entire pate from just above one ear to the other. The whole precarious mass was held in place by copious amounts of hairspray and sat like a warped cotton candy shelf atop his head. One day there was a ferocious windstorm, and when Jack came into the office the combed over portion of his hair had been blown to the side so that his head now resembled a can with the lid hanging open. Clearly Jack had no idea what had happened, because he breezed in as usual and immediately got to work. None of us had the heart to tell him how ridiculous he looked, even though it was difficult not to laugh, or at least to stare, at his hanging hairdo. We all just continued as if everything were normal, proving that theatre office workers possess performative abilities on par with theatre actors. Jack used the washroom at some point during the morning and re-entered the office with his combover firmly back in place. He never mentioned what had happened, and neither did we.

Toronto hosted an international theatre festival while I was working at TWP, and George’s production of Ten Lost Years was included in the lineup. The theatre itself would also play host to various companies from all over the world. My friend Vera and I volunteered to stuff envelopes for the event in exchange for free tickets to three performances of our choosing. We saw a strange performance art piece by an experimental group from Sweden, a very good magic show by a British sleight-of-hand artist, and my personal favourite, a rousing show staged by a flamenco troupe from Spain. Mum and Nana came to that performance as well because they both loved flamenco, and who can blame them – male flamenco dancers are unbelievably sexy.

I worked in the TWP office for several months, and although I liked it well enough, my deep desire was to be a part of the production team. Theatre administration is integral to a thriving company, but it felt peripheral to me. The magical part of theatre happens in and around the stage, and that was where I wanted to be. I finally asked the production manager if there was any way I could make a move onto the crew, and he said that while there were no positions currently open, he would keep me in mind. 

It was just then that my eldest brother’s girlfriend told me that the Toronto Public Library was hiring. The pay was much better than what I was making, the hours were regular, and benefits were included. I was struggling to pay my bills on the paltry salary I was making at TWP, and now that I knew there would be no production jobs for the foreseeable future, I decided to work at the library. I figured I could always go back to the theatre if a suitable position came up, but I ended up liking library work so much that I never looked back. I had embarked on this path only for the sake of expedience, but it quickly revealing itself to be the one I should have been walking all along. It’s wonderful when life works out like that.

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