Getting a working man’s PhD

Those are the sounds that greet me at 10:59 p.m. as the buzzer sounds and I step out onto the floor of a car parts factory in Barrie, Ont.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Enhhhhhh.

 

Those are the sounds that greet me at 10:59 p.m. as the buzzer sounds and I step out onto the floor of a car parts factory in Barrie, Ont. The time is early 2012. I’m all ready to start the night shift, with ear plugs, a pair of gloves and work boots. There are two 15-minute breaks and a half hour “lunch” break between me and 7 a.m.

My bachelor’s degree didn’t get me far, so I’d obtained a college diploma in television news and used it to score a couple unpaid internships in Washington, D.C. There I bumped into characters like Herman Cain, Zbigniew Brzezinski and the former prime minister of New Zealand. However my journalistic escapades hadn’t translated into related work back in Canada, and eating was still something I was quite fond of, so there I was, ready to do what I was told and watch the minimum wage cheques roll in.

I’d done physical work at a number of jobs in the past and now I was back “working on a working man’s PhD,” to quote the best country song of the 1990s (maybe ever?).

(If you want a cram course in reality/ You get yourself a working man’s PhD)

Boom. Boom. Boom. Vrroom. Beeeep.

The pulse is like a heavy beat coming from a nightclub, except in this nightclub you press buttons on massive hydraulic press machines the size of small houses and wheel away bins full of parts and steel scrap.

My first night I press buttons on a machine that takes steel pucks and notches them into a clutch component. The press comes down and hits the puck with enormous force when you press the button, but although it feels like you’re playing the claw candy grabber vending machine game, unlike the game it never misses, imprinting perfect, triangular teeth. And you don’t get to just leave when you get tired of pressing the two buttons after an hour.

A buzzer sounds and workers, many of them temp workers hired via staffing agencies like me, crowd into the lunch room joking and talking. Did you notice —- isn’t back? The place is mainly run on temps who can be let go with a brief phone call the night before, as staffing needs fluctuate.

Boom. Boom. Boom. Clanggg. Beep.

Because you’d better believe the presses keep rolling, manned and womaned by people who take offset breaks.

Several months later I was laid off and then rehired to work in quality control, checking the rectitude of parts that had been red-flagged as having potential issues. It was a bit quieter and slower-paced, being in another area of the factory with less presses. I met a friend who shared my interest in talking about things like reincarnation and free will versus predestination.

Despite the low paycheques factory work is oddly reassuring with a set purpose and strict timelines, a helluva workout. Some joking and conversation in between stacking crates of freshly-minted clutch pieces, ABS brake cups or boxes of Honda Civic interior roof racks. The best thing about the work, though, is the people.

In the two departments I worked in I had great bosses who were encouraging and upbeat. At Christmas our boss gave us all Christmas cards.

Then there was Tony, originally from Newfoundland, if memory serves. In a more senior supervisory position Tony’d often be on a forklift negotiating 20-tonne rolls of steel onto the press loader.

“Move! Out of the way!” Beep beep. “Thank you!” he shouts from under a bristle baton moustache. Another time he warns me of the immense danger of not being conscious around the rolls of steel or trying to manually push the steel sheet when it isn’t loading quite right.

“I’ve seen a guy have his arm cut off who did that!” he warned me. I could almost see the blood spurting.

Weeks later while putting on his workboots in the locker room, my quality control friend engaged Tony in conversation and the topic of the difficulty of making a living came up. My friend said he agreed it was hard but he was hoping for the best and trying to stay optimistic.

“Good f—ing luck with that!” Tony said, closing up his locker and heading out onto the floor.

We laughed about it quite a bit, but now that I think of it Tony might have a point.

Boom.

One night I was using a hard metal rake to settle a pile of scrap in a metal bin. A 30-something chap walked up. He always ran a machine of some kind off in the corner, wore a golfing cap and made wry comments about life and relationships on smoke breaks. He stopped briefly beside the churning press I was working next to and winked.

“I bet you never thought you’d be raking scrap metal into a bin at 3 a.m. in the morning, did you?” he said. I couldn’t help but agree.

Two months later I’d be writing words on a blackboard in a small village in the Republic of Georgia, after signing up for a volunteer opportunity to teach English.

To explore the Hallmark card side of it, I guess that’s the thing I “learned” from working in a car parts factory and the people I met: You just never know where life will take you.

On that note I’m moving on from my temporary position here at the Citizen as Lexi Bainas takes back over as arts and entertainment reporter. Welcome back, Lexi and all the best to my Citizen colleagues! Adios amigos.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Dr. Bernhardt’s freshly planted strawberries. (Mary Lowther photo)
Mary Lowther column: Hoping for a bumper crop of strawberries

Because our new plot gets a lot of sun, maybe strawberries won’t become consumed by wood bugs

Sarah Simpson
Sarah Simpson Column: Newton’s first law of motion

I could have sworn I told them to help each other get unbuckled and to come inside.

Commercial property owners in Duncan will have an opportunity to beef up their security in 2021 with matching grants from the municipality. (File photo)
City of Duncan to help commercial properties increase security

Municipality to set up matching grant opportunities

John and Jeri Wyatt hope the upcoming North Cowichan public hearing will move things along toward exclusion of the Chemainus River Campground from the Agricultural Land Reserve. (Photo by Don Bodger)
Input sought on Chemainus campground ALR exclusion at public hearing

Matter back on the agenda after a late reprieve in 2019 for Chemainus River Campground owners

Paper Excellence took over Catalyst Paper operations in B.C. in 2018. (Paper Excellence photo)
(Screen grab/Beryl Pye)
VIDEO: Dance party erupts at Vancouver’s Kitsilano Beach to the dismay of onlookers

‘It was a complete disregard for what the COVID-19 public health orders are,’ says Vancouver resident Beryl Pye

Russ Ball (left) and some of the team show off the specimen after they were able to remove it Friday. Photo supplied
Courtenay fossil hunter finds ancient turtle on local river

The specimen will now make its home at the Royal BC Museum

Pall Bearers carrying the coffin of the Duke of Edinburgh, followed by the Prince of Wales, left and Princess Anne, right, into St George’s Chapel for his funeral, at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, Saturday April 17, 2021. (Danny Lawson/Pool via AP)
Trudeau announces $200K donation to Duke of Edinburgh award as Prince Philip laid to rest

A tribute to the late prince’s ‘remarkable life and his selfless service,’ the Prime Minister said Saturday

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

B.C. homeowners are being urged to take steps to prepare for the possibility of a flood by moving equipment and other assets to higher ground. (J.R. Rardon)
‘Entire province faces risk’: B.C. citizens urged to prepare for above-average spring flooding

Larger-than-normal melting snowpack poses a threat to the province as warmer weather touches down

Vancouver-based Doubleview Gold Corp. is developing claims in an area north of Telegraph Creek that occupies an important place in Tahltan oral histories, said Chad Norman Day, president of the Tahltan Central Government. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO)
B.C. Indigenous nation opposes mineral exploration in culturally sensitive area

There’s “no way” the Tahltan would ever support a mine there, says Chad Norman Day, president of its central government

Stz’uminus Elder George Harris, Ladysmith Mayor Aaron Stone, and Stz’uminus Chief Roxanne Harris opened the ceremony. (Cole Schisler photo)
Symbolic red dresses rehung along B.C. highway after vandals tore them down

Leaders from Stz’uminus First Nation and the Town of Ladysmith hung new dresses on Sat. April 17

A Western toadlet crosses the centre line of Elk View Road in Chilliwack on Aug. 26, 2010. A tunnel underneath the road has since been installed to help them migrate cross the road. Saturday, April 24 is Save the Frogs Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Progress File)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of April 18 to 24

Save the Frogs Day, Love Your Thighs Day and Scream Day are all coming up this week

Local carpenter Tyler Bohn embarked on a quest to create the East Sooke Treehouse, after seeing people build similar structures on a Discovery Channel show. (East Sooke Treehouse Facebook photo)
PHOTOS: B.C. carpenter builds fort inspired by TV’s ‘Treehouse Masters’

The whimsical structure features a wooden walking path, a loft, kitchen – and is now listed on Airbnb

Most Read