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.

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