I have a job at a giftshop on the waterfront in my hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia. You don't really understand your home until you've sold plastic junk at a 400% markup to the tourists that visit it. You learn everything about your city that you didn't need to know, didn't want to know. Parts of your city become something else to you. Something less. For me, the Halifax harbour was always the edge of the city. Being at the harbourfront ferry terminal at two in the morning after a show by some punk rock band I'd only heard about a week earlier, I felt like I was on the lip of the world. I felt like nothing could be more real and ecstatic. I'd never been so far downtown so late at night, and no seedy, damp place could ever be closer to me. This place was mine. I was free.
Since then, the waterfront has become another chunk of the city that I'm bored of. Another chunk of the city where, every day, I dread hearing the same street performer playing the same rendition of "Farewell to Nova Scotia" as the day before. I know it's the only thing I'll remember about this place in a few years. My associations of late night fight rumours and climbing on hotel rooftops are replaced with memories of greasy food and throat infections, wasted days and people I'll never know but always hate.
Today is going to be boring. I have no illusions about this. I got this job because I desperately needed money. I paid last month's rent on my credit card. I've eaten nothing but grilled cheese sandwiches and instant noodles for the last two weeks.
When I was hired I had low expectations. I wanted nothing more than a job that didn't suck too much. This is all you can hope for in minimum wage: to not absolutely hate your job. In this respect I got pretty lucky. My job involves sitting around by myself, reading books and watching American tourists carry lap dogs and eat expensive ice cream. Doing this for 9 or 10 hours straight is better than doing some sort of labour for a company that I don't care about. But it's also deeply unfulfilling. I can't help but feel that I'm wasting my summer, moment by moment, when I could be swimming or exploring or actually having a good time instead.
I'm working in a little booth about 10 minutes down the boardwalk from the main gift shop. I'm pretty sure this booth is just a piece of an old trailer home. They chopped off one end and somehow it became a "gift kiosk." From outside it looks like one of the company's tour boats; a big green amphibious thing that drives around through the city and into the harbour. It's about the size of a closet, so it looks like a tiny cartoon parody of the real thing. On the inside it has linoleum flooring, faux-wood panel walls and a screen door attached to what looks like an outhouse's door frame. There's about enough room inside for me and my backpack, not quite enough room for me to fall over if I get heat stroke. The radio is playing songs that are on the Muchmusic top 30 countdown, which I haven't watched in two years. If one more ignorant prick says, "Hey, let's push that thing in the harbour!" I might be forced to not laugh this time.
Usually the tourists only go as far as making terrible jokes. But every once in a while someone like this middle aged, balding guy with a moustache comes along. He walks towards me slowly. He's squinting and wearing bright sandal things that are supposed to help with posture or some crap. He smiles like he's got something clever to say. I get ready to not laugh.
"Nice little place ya' got here!" he says.
"Yeah, thanks. I saved up."
"Ha, yeah I hear ya kid. I hear ya."
We both pause.
"Oh, good book, I read that in the Navy," he says.
"Yeah," I say. I don't have anything to say to him. I'm reading. Can't he see that? Then I notice the tourist's dog. It's wheezing like it's dying of bronchitis.
"Is there something wrong with your dog?" I ask.
It pulls on the leash with all of the little energy it still has. It's scrambling and tripping and wheezing and pulling, half trying to run and half falling over. The only thing holding it up is its leash. I'm not sure whether to be impressed by its determination or saddened by the fact that it's definitely going to die in the next few hours. It's scrambling to make an escape right now, so it can die where there's less tourist scum and polluted harbour water.
"Naw, he's fine kid," the guy says.
"It doesn't look fine. It looks like it should be dead already."
"What did you say, kid?" he asks.
"Why is it pulling on the leash so hard?" I ask. "I always thought animals just laid down when they were going to die."
"Ok, that's out of line." the tourist says. "You don't talk about someone's dog like that. You can't just say that! What if it could understand you? Huh?
I don't say anything because I don't know how to respond to what this guy just asked me. "What if it could understand you?" Yeah, what if it could take itself for walks through horrible tourist holes and buy itself its own shitty ice cream? That would be exciting. And it would make about as much sense as what tourist guy just said, too.
I must be smiling a bit or something. The tourist is getting angrier. But the thought of a dog wasting its money on ice cream is pretty funny. Funnier than working here. The tourist stops breathing and glares, like he's about to yell at me. It's the same look my boss gets a lot. I didn't mean to do whatever I did that made him angry. I think.
"Well I understand you, and I'm not gonna let you go and say things about my dog like that," he says. "I wanna speak with your manager. Where's your manager? You kids shouldn't be allowed to say stuff like that."
"I don't have a manager. I'm out here by myself," I tell him.
"Listen kid, everyone's got a manager," he says. "Let me talk to your manager!"
Everyone's got a manager. That's depressing.
"Look sir, there's nobody else in here," I say. "There's maybe five feet of space in here. My manager isn't that small."
I could easily call my manager on the crappy cell phone they gave me, but I don't want to. There's no point. Also, I want to see this guy turn red. I'm not a shit-disturber or anything, but there's nothing to do out here. Seeing this tourist's day ruined will be entertaining. Also, it fucking infuriates me that he keeps calling me 'kid.'
Besides, this guy will scream at me for ten minutes straight whether I do anything or not. He's got no one else to take out his frustration on. He's got a stale marriage and uninspiring job eating away at him. I can't blame him.
"I know you have a manager, kid," he explains. "I shouldn't have to deal with this! Customers shouldn't have to take this... this... shouldn't have to take this stuff from you people!"
He's not a customer. And I'm pretty sure I almost got him to say 'shit.'
"Well, I'm sorry sir. I didn't mean to say that your dog was dying. I'd never say anything like that. I just thought it was weird that it looks like your dog is dying."
He pauses again. Come on, say it.
"What's your name?" he asks. "I'm gonna take down your name and I'm going to file a complaint with your manager."
File a complaint. Like we have some sort of complaint filing system, with a complaint filing department, dedicated to complaint filing the stupid problems that ridiculous tourists have with us.
"My name is Jim," I say.
I lie to him, even though I know he won't actually complain to anyone. He never bought anything, and the managers couldn't care less about people who don't buy anything. Besides, he doesn't even know where my manager is. He probably doesn't think of that. A couple minutes after he walks away he'll be annoyed with himself for not asking me. He'll drop the whole thing because it's not worth coming back to find out. Hell, even if he did know where my manager was he would give up on the way to the giftshop. He's on vacation and shouldn't have to deal with stupid kids like me right now. That's why he's on vacation in the first place. Still, I lie to him. I like lying to people I don't know.
"Write that down," he says. "I want you to give that to me in writing. I'm going to file this."
"Yes sir," I say. "I'll file that up for you right away, sir. You also get a free book of complimentary coupons, good for fifty dollars of discounts, with every complaint filed. Would you like some coupons, sir?"
He squints at me. I think he's confused. 'This kid just insulted me,' he's thinking. 'But fifty dollars is a lot of savings.'
"Don't patronize me you little shit," he says.
I write down my fake name. He takes it and walks away. I'm sure he has a caustic glare to show me just how angry he is about this awful treatment, and how, in his day, it was all about respect. I don't look. I go back to reading about how Odysseus is stranded on an island taking shit from a bunch of gods.
"Come on man, drink some more!" she says. "I wanna see you get drunk!"
That's all she ever talks about. Drinking and getting drunk. Going out and drinking. Getting drunk and going out.
"I'm drinking as much as I can, Kary." I say. "I can't drink as hard as you. I pretty much get drunk off one beer. I'd be puking all over the place right now. Just like, blah."
I make a motion with both my hands, like stuff is flying out of my mouth. I think it's pretty funny. No one else notices. She keeps talking about drinking.
"Whatever man, just get druuunk!" she says. "Get into it man!"
This is pretty much the same thing she said to me yesterday, when she invited me to this party.
"You off now?"
"Yup, totally done."
"So, what is uuup?"
She likes to draw out words with the letter 'u' in them.
"Nothin, just walking."
"Haha, wicked. There's this party tonight at Janice's place, you should definitely come. Everyone from work is gonna be there. Gonna get druuunk!"
"Cool. Sounds cool."
"Yeah man! It's gonna be awesome! I wanna see you wasted!"
I change the subject.
"So how do you like workin' at the giftshop?" I ask.
"It's good. Everyone is really chill at that place," she says.
"Yeah, I know what you mean. What's your favourite place to work?"
I ask questions so that people will talk. That way I don't have to talk too much. A teacher whose name I can't remember once said, "You do some work now so you don't have to do any work later."
"Probably the back cash," she says. "You get to hang out and talk with everyone there. Mike is totally cool! Have you talked to him? He's just always chill, man. And he's totally a sweetheart. But I'm gonna start working on the boats soon. It's gonna be wicked!"
"Oh yeah?" I say. "I don't think I could handle working on the boats."
"How come?" she asks.
"I can't handle people. There's no way I could talk to tourists all day long."
Being on the boats means you have to constantly engage the passengers. Sometimes you have to provide the narration for the tour. Sometimes you just need to chat them up so they won't complain. If you're good enough you might even be able to get a tip. This is way easier on the boats that provide alcohol, for two reasons: 1) The obvious reason, that drunk people tip better. And 2) all the drinks are priced so that you only get a few quarters back in change. Everyone who buys a drink is basically obliged to leave the quarters behind, or risk looking like a cheap-ass who wants to collect change instead of giving it to the poor bartenders. It's the perfect number. It's the most you can reasonably charge for a drink, but it's low enough that the bartenders will always get a tip. Fascinating. But basically working on the boats means being nice to asshole tourists all the time.
"That's too bad," she says. "I'm gonna love being on the cruises!"
"I don't know how you can do it," I say. "Don't the tourists get on your nerves sometimes?"
"Not really," she says. "They seem to like me."
"Yeah, I can see that. But I mean, they gotta piss you off sometimes?"
"Well, there was this one time," she explains. "I was working cash, and this guy comes in and asks for change for a five. I told him we couldn't do change, cause that's what they told us to say. Then he gets all pissed off! He starts swearing and asking me where the sign is that says we don't do change. Like there needs to be a sign for every rule or something! He was like 'What the fuck, how am I supposed to pay for parking if I can't get any fucking change?!' I should have told him that we don't own the parking lot, but I was scared-"
A group of people at the other end of the apartment start cheering about something. One of the girls that I don't know is shotgunning a beer. I don't know her because she works on one of the tour boats and I work at the giftshop. Birds of a feather, or whatever.
"... so he just kept demanding that I give him change because there was no sign," Kary says. "I wanted to tell him that the rule was real, but I was afraid it would make him angrier. Finally Janice told him that there was a change machine over in the ferry terminal, a few seconds away. He got super pissed and stomped away mumbling to himself. He didn't even go in the right direction! He was just looking for a reason to yell at a minimum wage kid who couldn't fight back. He probably didn't even care about the change."
Shawn gets in to our conversation. He's been listening. He's stoned.
"Holy shit, I never heard about that before!" he says. "I mean, what the fuck? Shit like that's god damn bullshit. People like that just fuckin' infuriate me, you know? Like, what the fuck, who the fuck do you think you are, swearing at people when you don't even have the slightest clue about what the fuck you're talking about? Idiots like that should be fucking castrated for the good of the race. Fucking inbreds. People like that I just wanna-"
Shawn is angry. Nice guy, but he's angry. He's a veteran of the giftshop. He's worked there for three years. He's polite to customers, and they love him. But as soon as none of them are around he is a seething bowl of hatred.
"Man, fuck that shit!" Shawn says. "One of these days I'm just gonna go off on one of those fuckin' tourists man. Just fucking-"
The beer shotgunning girl I don't know starts making an announcement.
"All right everybody!" she says. "We're goin' downtown. Finish your beers! Come on, move! Let's go! We're gonna party it up at The Anvil!"
Kary is excited.
"Come on man. Let's go party!" she says, and grabs my hand.
It's late. About four or six shots after the party. And a bunch of cigarettes. Probably three or four in the morning. Kary and I are walking home.
"So'd you have a good time tonight dude?" she asks. "We got druunk!"
"Yeah, I had a pretty good time actually," I say. "I hate that bar though. It's all just bad music and trashy gross people grinding on each other. And it's too smoky in there."
"Whatever man," she says. "You're smoking right now."
"But nobody there was smoking my type."
We walk for a bit and cross the street. It's barren and quiet. This time of night feels like the end of the world.
"So here's a story for you, Kary," I say. "I'm pretty fucking tired of tourists. I can't stand them anymore. It's weird cause I usually don't hate people. I don't love everyone, but I don't hate people like this."
"Oh yeah?" she says. She's not being dismissive. She's listening. We're drunk, but she's listening.
"I seriously don't think I can handle it anymore," I explain. "I just want to scream every time some..." I pause to think of the right words. "Self-entitled, self-obsessed fucker comes along and thinks he can be a dick to me cause he's on goddamned vacation in 'That Fishing Place in Canada.'"
"I know what you mean, dude," she says. She stumbles and grabs my shoulder to keep from falling over. "They act like assholes because they can. You just have to put up with it and get paid."
"Fuck. Whatever," I say. "You don't even mind the tourists that much."
"Yeah, sure!" she says. "I'm insulted! Insulted! I hate those pricks just as much as you do."
"Okay, sorry," I say. My foot gets caught in a crack on the sidewalk. Kary still has her hand on my shoulder. She keeps me from falling over. "But, I'm not gonna put up with their shit just so I can get paid the same amount as some burger flipper. It's bull. We're getting the shit end of this. I fucking hate it."
"Alright dude," she says. "What're you gonna do about it then?"
"I'm gonna quit." I don't hesitate to say it. The answer comes straight out of me. I hadn't even thought about it before. "I'm gonna quit."
"What, that's it?" she asks. "You're just gonna quit? You need to put in two weeks."
"No, I'm going to quit tomorrow," I say. "I'm going to quit. Done. Quit."
"Alright." She pauses. We keep walking. We each have an arm holding up the other. I think about my new idea. Quit! I'm surprised I didn't think of it earlier. The sidewalks shine in the dark.
"Ok, so this is my place," she says.
"Alright," I say.
She must live in a basement apartment. Her door is down a few steps from the sidewalk.
"How am I going to get home without you to keep me from falling over all the time?" I ask.
She laughs and kisses me on the cheek.
"I'll see you tomorrow," she says. "Unless you quit!"
She laughs again. I laugh too.
I take the long way home. It's an accident, but I don't mind. The old, tall south-end trees drip. They make the only noise in the city this time of night. In a moment of clarity I realize that, tomorrow, I will lose all the drunken ambition I have tonight. I will drop my plan to quit.
I arrive at work in the afternoon. It's too early. The giftshop is packed with tourists. They're mulling over souvenirs, pawing at them and inspecting them. They're looking for prices, wondering whether their niece or daughter or uncle would like that ceramic lobster that says "Claws you are so great!" Everyone is from the cruise ship that docked today. I know because they're all genuinely intrigued by the junk they're looking at.
A family of fat ones block my way to the counter. They glare when I say 'excuse me.' Their glares explain that a peon like me has no right trying to get somewheres when their asses are in the way.
These are the worst tourists. These are the worst people. They are the angry families with a sense of entitlement. They have disdain for anyone who might be serving them. Apparently, people with enough money to pay for a cruise ship are wealthy enough to know that you should never treat someone who works at a minimum wage job like a human being. Angry Shawn calls them FOBs. They're "Fresh Off the Boat."
Kary is at the back counter.
"Hey man!" she says. She smiles. "You have a good time last night?"
I can't remember. Did I have a good time last night?
"Yeah," I say.
"Awesome buddy!" she says "It was pretty wicked!"
I watch her for a moment. She's cheerily organizing tour tickets.
"You look chipper," I say. "Didn't you start at nine this morning?"
"Oh yeah, totally." she says. "I don't know man, I just had such a great time last night I guess I'm in an awesome mood today!"
"Alright, I'll be right back," I say.
I go to sign in. This place has an incredibly elaborate system for tracking employees' hours. Definitely the most complex I've seen working a job like this. You have to put your fingertip onto a biometric scanning thing that recognizes your fingerprint and logs how long you've been at work. It must have cost a lot of money. I mean, it scans your fingerprint to something like 90% accuracy. That's CSI shit right there. Yet the owners are too cheap to pay for lights in the staff bathroom. It smells like stale piss because the guys keep missing the toilet. There's a flashlight that we're supposed to use. Maybe I'm supposed to lay it on the floor facing towards the ceiling. Or I'm supposed to hold it in my mouth while I piss. I don't know.
I walk through the kitchen to get to the office. For some reason the only way to get to the office is through the kitchen. I say hello to the kitchen staff. One of them gives me an elaborate handshake. I don't know how to do it. My hand probably smells funny now, because the kitchen guys work with fish all day.
In the office I check the daily notes and ask for the key to the till. They don't give each employee their own till, even though they said they were going to months ago. For now they just have one, and everyone uses it. The last person out at the end of the day is the one who counts it and signs off on it. If it's totally screwed up because fourteen different people have had their hands in it, it's the last person's fault. I go to the water cooler. I'm thirsty. Also, I want to stall because there's an enormous lineup out in the shop.
Suddenly I hear yelling. I step into the store to see what's going on.
"I demand it," a guy with a gut yells. "This is ridiculous! I paid all that money for nothing? Ridiculous!"
The guy with the gut is yelling at Kary. His hands are pressed against the edge of the counter. He's leaning as close to Kary as he can. His face is bright red and sweaty.
"I'm sorry sir," Kary says. She's flustered. "There's just no guarantee that you'll see any whales."
"That's bull," the guy says. "Listen girl, there should be a guarantee. I demand my money back. I demand it. What kind of customer service is this? Who do you think you are?"
"There's just no guarantee!" Kary says again. "I'm really sorry sir, I don't make up the rules!"
The man is furious. He closes his eyes and turns his head to the side."How can these locals be so fucking stupid?" he's thinking to himself. Kary isn't making things any better.
"Hi there sir," I say to the guy with the gut. "Would you like to talk to one of our managers? They may be able to help you."
"No." he says emphatically. "No I would not like to talk to one of your managers. They're just going to give me the same shit that you've been giving me. I want my money back, and I want it now."
He's fuming, but his voice is low. He's holding back from screaming. It's what people do when they want you to know they're really angry, but they're holding it back because they're very reasonable.
"I'm sorry sir," I say. "I don't have the authority to give you a refund, but I can get a manager if-"
"No," he says again. The managers wouldn't come out here anyways. They don't want to be held responsible for anything that goes bad. That's our job.
"Listen buddy," he says. "I spent a lot of money to take my family whale watching, and we didn't see any whales. Now my kids are complaining, and I wasted three hours of my vacation. I don't want see your manager, and I don't want to go on another tour. I just want all my money back, now, and if I-"
He moves closer to me. Kary is behind the counter, but I'm not. He points at my face. He pushes his finger at me every time he says something. Apparently that gives what he says emphasis. He's inches from me, spitting out complaints.
"I'm not standing for this!" he yells. "I want my money back! You wasted my time!" I am the focus of his anger. He is a laser, and he's pointed straight at me now. Before, only the people in the lineup were watching, but now everyone in the store has come over to see what's going on. Kary is holding her hand over her mouth. She's about to cry.
"They said you people were nice out here," he says. "And now I've got to deal with this garb-"
"They're fucking whales, sir," I say.
"What?" he asks. He's confused and angry that I interrupted his tirade.
"They're whales you asshole." I say. He's right in front of me, his finger still pointing. "We can't control them. They're animals. You paid for a boat ride but you didn't see any whales, because they're fucking whales and they live in an ocean that covers most of the fucking planet."
I'm going to pay for this. But at least he shut up for a second.
"If you think you're so important that whales will take time out of their day to put on a show for you because you gave a tour company some money, you're an idiot. It's not our fault there's no whales out there today. We just work here. We don't care about you, and neither do the whales."
The man pauses. He stares at me. He's furious. He is a bottle of nitroglycerin, and I am shaking him.
"What the fuck did you say?" he asks. It must be a rhetorical question. I don't have an answer. All I can do is stand in front of him now. I've set him off.
"I know how these places work," he says, and pokes me in the chest. My back is against the wall. He's seems like an expert at this. He's had practice being an asshole. "You can't talk to me like that," he says. "Give me my money back now, or I'll sue this place for all it's worth."
With every word, he pushes his finger against my chest.
"I ought to report you for this shit," he says. "I've had to put up with your garbage for fifteen fucking minutes now! This is fucking theft and I've got nothing but flack from you!"
There's nowheres for me to go. I'm trapped beneath a wall of angry tourist.
"I don't need to hear about managers,"
He is inches from my face. His veins are bulging.
"I don't need your bullshit,"
He probably has blood pressure issues. I wince. There's not much else I can do.
"I don't need this waste of time,"
Calling him an idiot was fun, but this isn't. I feel helpless and weak.
"And," he says, pointing at Kary. "I definitely don't need this bitch telling me about fucking guarantees anymore-"
There is a crack. Everyone hears it. Everything stops. It's like someone took a photograph. An instant of silence and stillness. His head is turned far to the side. His mouth is hanging open. Everyone is staring. My knuckles sting and my wrist hurts.
He's a big guy, and can take a punch. The last thing I remember are his fat angry hands on my throat.
There wasn't much I could do. He had a gut, but he was strong. He was probably in the military or something. Eventually Shawn and some of the customers in the store broke us apart. I woke up just as the police arrived.
We left through the back door. It led us onto the docks, overlooking the harbour. It was the edge of the city. It was real and ecstatic. The handcuffs were tight, but I felt free. This place was mine.