Normal History Vol. 51: The Art Of David Lester

LesterNormalHistoryVol51Every Saturday, we’ll be posting a new illustration by David Lester. The Mecca Normal guitarist is visually documenting people, places and events from his band’s 26-year run, with text by vocalist Jean Smith.

In discussing the Bugs Bunny song with Brian, we learned what each of us thought the lyrics were. Instead of “overture, curtains, lights,” he thought it was “oh march on, calmful lights.” Since childhood, I’ve thought it was “oui monsieur and candlelight.” This discussion took place in email, yesterday, Day One of not having to go to that place—as Brian calls it. FabLand. I quit by fax. Sort of like death-by-chocolate or suicide-by-cop. Quit-by-fax.

I may write about it—FabLand. Ideally, I would have been writing about it here, while I was there, but I didn’t have time. New job, new romance, not enough time for my creative projects—it has been an out-of-whack three-month block of time that could have ended by getting the grant that I applied for back in October. But it didn’t. Monday the letter came. I had a feeling it would be in my mailbox. Brian picked me up after work and we stopped by a “Mexican” restaurant on the Drive for chips and guacamole. ($7 for what a real Mexican place would just give you.) They were playing the Beatles—one song after another. I don’t really like the Beatles. The place was full of bored-looking young people. There was nothing Mexican about the restaurant. Our waitress was a skinny blonde with an English accent who couldn’t wait to say “no worries” after I’d said we only wanted chips and guac. I’m sure she would have soon said “awesome” if I’d allowed our interaction to continue.

I had my work shoes in my packsack. I think I brought them home one other time. That is to say, I didn’t have anything at FabLand. Nothing I’d need to return for.

Brian had driven me to work that morning; we stopped at the Mayflower for breakfast—this is the first place we’ve gone together that neither of us has been to before. I wanted to ask Brain something. We were alone, sitting across from each other in a red-vinyl booth, waiting for our eggs, toast, potatoes. “Misty” was playing on the radio—slightly off-station—and I took Brian’s hand and started to recall that awful movie Play Misty For Me about a woman stalker. I asked Brian if we could both change our Facebook status from “single” to “in a relationship.” He liked this idea, and it was fun to ask and hear his response. Ah yes, we have an excellent romance-in-progress.

The manager of FabLand seemed to be out of her office more than usual that day. Monday. Scowling, lumbering around making shitty comments to the staff. Typically, she stays in her office and eats McDonald’s, 17-percent saturated fat donuts, microwave popcorn. She’s working a-350-pounds-and-proud-of-it attitude.

I was up a three-step ladder working with Alice, a very nice Chinese woman. We were doing inventory; she had a clipboard and I called out the name of the fucking fabric and code number. I had to wrench the bolts forward off their metal feet to pull back the cloth at the top to see the info stamped on the cardboard end. Extremely awkward and I did feel my shoulder sort of rip as I was wrestling with a bolt of organza above my head, twisting on the ladder to yank the thing around so I could read the fucking info: Rhapsody Couture Organza. Better me do the calling out and Alice do the writing down. Me trying to understand Alice’s idea of what Rhapsody Couture Organza sounds like is another story. Like the day before when we spent several hours together in a broom closet counting curtain rods and she was saying AT48693—or whatever—and I thought she was saying 84blahblahblah and I was flipping through the pages of the inventory sheets without my reading glasses in the dimly lit closet looking for a code that started with 84. (The pages having been faxed and photocopied so many times that vertical lines run through the numbers, obliterating them, reducing the entire enterprise to guess work.)

Monday was the day that while I was sweeping the store, I heard the manager call out. “Jean!! For some reason, people feel the need to close the door to receiving.” This was delivered in her usual I-have-no-idea-how to-speak-to-anyone-in-a-civil-tone-nor-am-I-capable-of-saying-anything-without-sounding-like-a-total-bitch voice.

I yelled back, “I closed the door because there is a sign on it that says ‘Keep Door Closed.'”


Early in the day, after the door-closing incident, she called me over to tell me she had an interesting job for me. “Oh ya?” I said, without trying to hide my irritation. She explained that she wanted all the tall boxes of curtain rods to be set up in a display case. This required removing all the short curtain rods that were stuffed in the case—basically switch this stuff around. The motion required pulling the eight-foot-tall packages straight up out the display boxes—which is no big deal, but my arms hurt. Forearms, mostly. And my hands. Not stiffness, but pain—maybe like tendonitis. Or some sort of “itis.”

I switched some of the boxes, but most of the boxes she wanted in the display case were too big to fit into the holes. There was a trolley of stock sitting there, which looked like it was supposed to be unloaded, but I’ve been fooled before and gone ahead doing what looks obvious and been wrong.

The day The Big Boss was supposed to come from Toronto to visit our store (one of 155 in his FabLand empire) and the manager was out of her office, in the store working, all day. Ah ha. This means she isn’t supposed to be sitting in her office with the door closed eating and colouring.

I stopped doing the “interesting” job of trying to shove tall boxes into holes too small and went on to do other stuff. “Jean!! Why didn’t you do what I told you to do?”

On one of my first days at FabLand, one of my co-workers asked me, “How long have you been in Canada?”

“I was born here,” I said, continuing to shove drapery rolls into the shelving unit.

“Then why are you working at FabricLand?”

Costina was hired the same day I was. She told me about her job back in Romania—some sort of admin position—and her husband was a policeman. On Monday, when Costina was doing her bossing-me-around-thing-because-she-can’t-help-it, I told her she should apply for the ass. manager position. She said she’s going to take a course to become an apartment-building manager. Last week I found out that, back in Romania, she was a lawyer. I couldn’t believe it. Fuck. And here in Canada, she’s scurrying around under-the-thumb of a woman who spells “safety” three different ways on one sign: safty, safety and saftey.

I told the manager that the boxes didn’t fit in the holes. She is the sort of person who, when being informed that she was wrong about something, lashes out.

“Get those boxes off that trolley. They cannot just sit there like that.”

Taking the boxes off the trolley was not part of her instructions in the very interesting job, but I wasn’t surprised to hear her bark out her dissatisfaction with my performance. This is FabLand—I’m always doing something “wrong.” I said nothing.

Later in the day, I was helping a woman and her daughter match fabric for six bridesmaids’ dresses—a sale worth giving some extra attention to, not like the usual one metre of flannelette for a receiving blanket. (What the fuck is that?) I was walking along, the customers a few paces behind me, looking at fabric, trying to find a burgundy satin. The manager lumbers past and says, “Help this customer.” I look up and see another woman standing at the cutting table. The manager walks right by the customer, off to look out the front window. God, she thinks I’m just walking around doing nothing, ignoring customers. Great.

Actually, there was a morning when I had been working on various projects in the store, and the manager came out of the office and told an ass. manager to give me something to do because I was “wandering around doing nothing.” I almost quit that day. That ass. manager quit by the end of that week for a similar comment directed at him; she told a customer that he “didn’t know anything”.

The manager doesn’t usually deal usually with customers or do the cash register or lift anything; she just doesn’t do much work. Staff have anonymously reported to the regional boss that she sits in her office snacking and making hundreds of signs for the lunchroom. While we eat lunch, we are supposed to be reading the signs: various concerns about the store, where we are in our sales goals, etc. A feast of misspelled words and conceptual problems: “Do not talk to suspected shoplifters” and then, on the same sign, “Say hello to suspected shoplifters and ask them if they need a basket.”

Alice is 60. She’s been at FabLand five years and doesn’t plan on leaving. I asked if her body ached, and she said yes. I said, “But you never show any pain or irritation.” Alice is single and takes care of her very old mother. She can only leave the mother for four hours at a time. She must keep working at FabLand. She will stay until she can retire. Giovanna’s husband has medical issues, and the FabLand health benefits cover his drugs. Giovanna stays on so that her husband can get the drugs he needs.

The letter from the Canada Council—telling me my application had not been successful—was, at first, very bad news. Brian was here when I opened the letter. I’d hit play on my answering machine, ripped open the envelope while standing at my desk, listening to Big Brothers’ automated message telling me that they’d be in my neighbourhood soon and they were looking for household appliances; would I be able to donate household appliances? I let the message play and felt very unhappy about not getting the money, not being awarded the time to write. Brian was very nice; he said that he knows I’m a good writer. This jarred me into a different awareness. That wasn’t what I was upset about. I’m not insecure about my writing. I want the money so that I can have time. I’m not looking for the Canada Council’s approval.

I was immediately in problem-solving-mode. Brian was holding me, hugging me, and I was looking out at the city lights over his left shoulder, thinking about how to proceed. I felt like I was doomed, destined to work in shitty jobs until I retire. Retirement—that’s a laugh. A whole other area of low potential to survive. Then I started to realize that knowing the results of my application was starting to feel good. Just to know after all the waiting. Plus, it doesn’t solve anything in-the-bigger-picture. It’s just a pile o’money that will run out. I don’t really want to be one of these people who has a string of grants on their resume instead of actual successes—opportunities we create-out-of-nothing.

Dave and I, as our way of being, have, over the years, maintained that we will do things regardless, in spite of and sometimes because, of a lack of funds, support, encouragement. We do things because we want to, because we believe they are important or valuable—to us or to some bigger-idea-picture we have about society, art and the act of defying obstacles and taking risks, knowing for absolute sure that the risks we take may leave us in worse positions financially and emotionally. We do stuff because that’s what we do. Stuff. Do.

Tuesday morning, I faxed in my resignation and went to have a nap from which I frequently flickered back to the surface thinking, “My arms hurt, my hands hurt, my legs hurt, my neck hurts, my back hurts. I-need-to-rest.”