Tuesday, June 29, 2010



The summer I turned 17 I scored a job that required my father’s steel-toed boots. How I coveted their worn, greasy look. His boots said, “These feet belong to a man of muscle and know-how, a man who likely owns a drill press”. I wanted those feet.

But his boots didn’t fit me. They were painfully small. Too bad. I wore them anyway.

Sunrise, my first day on the job, I stood in the middle of a concrete yard with my new boss. A dump truck backed towards us. The specifics of my duties weren’t clear yet. We repaired the chains that hold log booms together in the water. That’s all I knew.

The dump truck tipped its load. Thousands of chains heaped themselves in front of us. Imagine a knotted lump of steel wool the size of a boxcar. Each chain weighed about a hundred pounds. The links were as thick as my arm. The hooks on either end were the size of my hands.

“Sort these,” my boss said. “They’re either good, bad or so-so condition.”

I stared at the pile, hoping it would go away.

“Uh, sort like how?” I said.

He tossed a few chains as if he was throwing spaghetti. A new pile began behind us.

“Good and good and good, see? Get it? It ain’t hard.”

My look seemed to say something different.

“What are you waiting for?” he said. “You want an invitation in the mail?”

I pulled at my first chain. It was like trying to pry a brick from a wall. My boss watched me as if studying an alien. I must have tried a dozen or two before I finally found a chain that had some give. To unhook and lift it took all my strength. Then I slowly humped it over to the good pile and dropped it on my feet when my arms gave out. There would be no tossing today.

“Lucky I’ve got these boots,” I said.

“What’re you doing? That chain’s no good. Move it for chrissake.”

I got it halfway to a new spot before I needed a break.

“And after this what do I do?” I panted.

”What do you mean? This is what you do. Lunch is at noon.”

He wandered back inside the warehouse, shaking his head.

I could barely hold my steering wheel when I drove home that afternoon. What strength I had left I devoted to composing arguments. I needed one that would convince my parents that I should, for some greater purpose or ethical reasoning, quit this job. “My arms are sore” didn’t have that edge.

Fortunately my boss phoned that night and fired me. After one day, no less. I was so happy. I thanked him profusely. Sweet relief. I couldn’t wait to tell my parents. I’d just swap “fired” for “laid off”. Presto, instant absolution.

Only later would it occur to me what this really meant. I’d been hired to make three piles. I’d been fired for an inability to make three piles. Or…nope, that was it. My future didn’t look good.

Long story short, this was the summer job that taught me how to read Charles Dickens.

Pip, the hero of Dickens’ Great Expectations, was proud of his boots. They were practical for the kind of work he did with his beloved Uncle Joe at the forge. Then, one day, a young woman commented to Pip about how rough his boots looked. She mocked them. Pip grew self-conscious, even embarrassed by them. He’d never considered what boots “meant” before. That’s when they ceased to be boots. They just became code.

For my money, this is what Great Expectations is about. A lifetime of ambition and scheming, of desire and failure, when Pip really just wanted his boots back.

Think I know what he means.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Commute


The summer I turned 15 my best friend and I landed a weekend gig cleaning a planing mill under the knight Street Bridge, on the north bank of the Fraser river. That’s about a 45 minute drive from Langley, BC, where I grew up.

Only problem was that my best friend and I were too young to drive to work. Not to worry. We could car pool with three other guys, our new boss said. They were a bit older, they lived near us, and they also had weekend duties around the mill.

We were to meet these guys at the 7-11 store parking lot at 5:30 on Saturday morning. Be prompt, our boss warned. My best friend’s mom drove us there and we waited until nearly 6:30. Just as we were about to give up, a wheezing white van sped into the empty stall beside our car and rolled down its driver’s window.

“You the new grunts?” a young man in his 20’s grunted.

We climbed out of my friend’s mom’s car and into the van with our new co-workers. I was the only one with a lunch box. I quickly tucked it behind my legs, stashing it under the van’s bench seat. Heavy metal guitar screamed from the dashboard speakers.

I slid the van’s door shut as my friend’s mom waved goodbye to us through the window of her car.

“That your mom?” our driver grunted at my friend.

“Uh huh.”

Our driver rolled his window down again and motioned for my friend’s mom to do the same. She did.

“Hey, like, bye mom!” he shouted, punched the van into gear, and stomped the gas pedal to the floor.

The van launched forward out of its parking stall, ground over a car stop, humped over the sidewalk and peeled diagonally across the intersection through a red light.

We looked back through the window. My friend’s mom’s car didn’t move. It shrank awfully fast.

We zigzagged down the street, and sometimes down the sidewalk, putting all lanes to good use. ,

The driver looked back at my friend again. “hey,” he said into the mirror, “how come you didn’t say bye to your mom,”

Neither my friend nor I said anything. We just knew it was going to be a long day. A long summer. Or a very short one. Or a short life.

“Fresh meat!” the guy in the passenger seat cheered. “We got some fresh meat!”

Monday, June 14, 2010

Dressing Up

If you missed my rash of recent scribblings, over the next few days I’ll post various pieces that ran online elsewhere. I think of this as bringing them home.

First, the National Post kindly invited me to blog for them last week, which explains my own blog’s silent indifference to its readers. Sorry about that. Nothing personal.

The Post editors let me pen a handful of pieces about summer jobs I’ve had. True tales. Below is the first of five to come in a series. You might want to cue up Eddie Cochrane’s “Summertime Blues” for accompanyment.


Here at the university where I teach, the cycle of student fashion is about to finish. Initially students show up for classes spiffy and hopeful in their best new duds. Then by mid term everybody just wanders around in their depression uniforms. You know, those alternating yoga and sweat pant combos. Hair scrunchies bloom.

But finally we are at year’s end, when many students are gearing up to swap their studies for summer employment. And how do they dress for the occasion? Many resurrect those fave first-week -of-classes getups. Guess who has a job interview today? I call it “the exit look”.

My first summer job was stuffing flyers into the local newspaper two nights a week from midnight until eight in the morning. I think I made $3.65 an hour. I was 14. Truth be told, I probably would have worked for any wage just this side of spare change. Yes, the job sucked – open a newspaper to the middle, put in the flyer, repeat tens of thousands of times - but I was on the graveyard shift. Not one of my peers could claim the same. And let me tell you, to be 14 and to leave a party at midnight telling anybody who’ll listen that you’re late for work, well, you can’t buy that kind of cool.

Not unless you’ve got $3.65 an hour and a monotonous task that needs doing.

Like my students, I put a lot of thought into what I should wear. My father had steel-toed boots. Should I borrow them? Was my Skinny Puppy concert t-shirt a smidge too arty? I wanted to strike the right balance of “I’m on my way to greater things” and “Please don’t fire me”. A subtle first impression.

An outfit was elected. I also decided that I would sport my contact lenses. Most important of all, though, I would take my coffee black if they offered some. I’d never tried coffee before. I couldn’t wait to show them what I was all about.

Yes, well.

Minutes into my first night, my carefully chosen white shirt and faded jeans were pocked with fingerprints. My hands had morphed into ink pads. I also discovered that the newspaper fibres that choke the air can make a fella quite itchy. Itchy enough that, two hours into my first shift, I couldn’t rub my eyes hard or fast enough.

And so I spent the rest of the night looking like an inky raccoon. Worse, I’d rubbed my right contact lens somewhere behind my eyeball.

“Knighton, you okay?” my boss said, thumping several hundred newspapers down on my bench.

“Fine,” I said, yarding at my black eyelid and cornea.

I dug after it for the next hour. Didn’t matter. My contact lens remained stuck way back there, pressed against my brain, until I got home the next morning. My father had to tweeze it out.

The next night I arrived a different young man. Tempered. Resigned. I wore something ugly and dark from the bottom of my dresser drawer. My boss didn’t notice the defeat of my fashion sense, nor my extinguished love for the graveyard shift. She just said, “Hey, I didn’t know you wear glasses.”

With veteran grace I opened THE first of several thousand newspapers that night. What’s to tell? I did my job. It’s not a fashion show, you know.

And this time I was careful, at least for a few hours, not to lick my fingers before flipping the pages.