Out of work, broke and seven thousand miles from home

I opened my eyes and could see snow heaped up on the front lawn. Ice sparkled on the window as a wintery sun tried to drag the temperature above freezing. My clothes lay scattered across the floor in perfect chaos. I had a blinding hangover. I stretched out in the bed and turned away from the window, to find myself looking into the eyes of a dog. The dog blinked back at me and we looked at each other for a while, you know, the way you do. I then propped myself up on the pillows, lit-up a cigarette and tried to figure things out.

Outside the icy window lay the city of Calgary, in western Canada, where I’d been living and working for the last 3 months. It was January 1988 and I was 23 years old. I started to remember the night before, which caused my headache to worsen. I let out a loud groan. The sound disturbed the dog, a large beast with shaggy, brownish hair, and it climbed unsteadily out of the bed, making me wonder if it had been drinking as well. The dog cocked its leg in the corner of the room and gazed at me mournfully. I’d been too drunk the night before to name the dog; now it was christened with a four letter word. Oblivious to the verbal abuse, my canine friend limped around the basement apartment, causing havoc. Then it had a long drink from the toilet bowl, ate part of the bath sponge and hobbled back into the bedroom. I tried to get out of bed, but my hangover would have none of it; so I laid down again and let out another loud groan. The dog jumped up and sat on my chest, it’s foul breath keeping me conscious as it licked my face. Oh well, at least someone liked me.

They have these jolly things called chinooks in western Canada. These are layers of warm air that come in from the Pacific during the winter months and dramatically raise the temperature of the frozen interior. A chinook had arrived in Calgary that morning. The previous morning had been more normal, as far as the weather went, with the thermometer at 40 degrees below freezing. The really cold temperatures usually occurred just before dawn, which was when I’d finish my night shift and stand on the corner of 8th Street waiting for a bus to take me home. I had arrived in Calgary without any arctic clothing, so to avoid frostbite I used to wear many layers of clothes and at times resembled the Michelin Man.

On that previous morning I waddled home from my night shift and I’d been asleep for barely two hours when the phone rang.
“Rob?” It was Barbara, one of the secretaries at the computer company where I worked.
“Ughh… huh?”
She recognised my English grunts.
“Can you come into the office around lunchtime, George wants to see you.”
George was in his grey-haired fifties, a manager at the computer company and he was also my boss. Three hours later I was sitting in his office fighting a losing battle to stay awake. George, too, was fighting a battle, for he was a roaring alcoholic. Some mornings his hands would be shaking so badly that he could barely hold a cup of coffee. George always had a cup of coffee in his hand, which he enlivened with shots from a bottle of whisky that was hidden in his desk. Some days George’s brain was so befuddled that he could barely string a sentence together, let alone manage an office. Without doubt he would have been fired, were it not for the fact that his brother was one of the company big shots.

Despite the booze, George was a genuinely nice guy. We chatted for a while: the weather, the workload in the computer room, the latest ice hockey results; then, almost apologetically, George told me that I no longer had a job. I’d been hired, and now I was being fired. The job in question was with a company in the downtown area (I believe they are still in business, so I shall instead call them ‘Tech Services’). Calgary is a modern city, with lots of glass and steel towers. Many of them are occupied by oil and gas companies, who explore and exploit the huge reserves in the north of the province of Alberta. Calgary is a sort of Canadian Dallas. You can smell the $$$ in the air.

Tech Services were located on the eighth floor of a glass and steel tower. The computer room operated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. My official job title was ‘Plotter Operator’. The plotter in question was a machine that printed out huge maps of oil and gas fields. It achieved this with an array of ink pens fixed to a moving head. It was a tricky machine to operate. The ink pens often became clogged-up. The paper often crinkled and ripped. The plotting information was held on huge reels of magnetic tape, that you had to load into the machine. This was before the widespread use of personal computers and the internet, and it was all very antiquated by today’s standards.

The other part of a Plotter Operator’s job was to take client calls from all over the world. They’d request data to be sent down the phone line, a bit like a fax machine. The client would give you a reference number for one of the big reels of magnetic tape. You’d then go to the library, find the reel and load it into a mainframe computer. After pressing the necessary buttons the data would go down the line to Bahrain or Hong Kong or wherever.

During my first month with Tech Services I was on day and evening shifts. Then they put me almost permanently on the graveyard shift, 11pm to 7am. There were usually two or three of us on this shift, all young fellars. Sometimes it would be quiet and we’d spend the night playing cards. Other times we would be rushed off our feet. We always drank beer on the graveyard shift, and on occasion quite a lot of beer. Due to fumbling hands those big reels would often lay a stream of magnetic tape across the computer room floor.

But there was a slowdown in the energy industry. Our workload in the computer room had been lessening since before Christmas. You now found yourself alone on the graveyard shift, and I’d gone from working five nights a week to four, and then to only two nights. I attempted to find other work. Thing is, I was working illegally in Canada. I didn’t have a work permit, and it’s very difficult to find employment in Canada without one. The government are very strict on it and impose huge fines on companys that are caught employing illegals. I got the job at Tech Services by using a phoney Social Insurance number. Employers are supposed to check that your number is genuine before giving you a job (and if it wasn’t genuine they had to report you to the authorities). George, being drunk most of the time, hadn’t got round to checking my number. Now it was irrelevent. George had given me the boot in the depths of a Canadian winter, and to make matters worse I only had one hundred bucks left in the bank.

For many weeks I’d been living on a tight budget in an attempt to eke out my ever dwindlng salary. I cut down drastically on the booze, smoked roll-up cigarettes and my diet consisted almost entirely of minced meat, which was dirt cheap in Canada at that time (I never did discover exactly what kind of meat it was). Just one dollar bought you a big slab of it, enough for two substantial meals. I would have minced meat for breakfast and dinner, and I would take minced meat sandwiches into work. Occasionally, for a special treat, I would eat-out at the medical centre in downtown Calgary. There was a canteen there where you could get a fry-up for only two bucks. The food was reasonable and they gave you plenty of it. The only downside was that the centre specialised in dermatology, and you could find yourself sharing a table with someone who was scratching their face.

Yup, poverty had been my companion for quite a while and as I left my workplace for the last time, and walked out into the snow on 7th Avenue, I knew we were going to get better acquainted. My next port of call on that freezing January afternoon was at my bank. Canadian banks are not very friendly places; in fact, they treat their customers like an inconvenience that has to be barely tolerated. Walking into a Canadian bank was a bit like walking into an old-fashioned VD clinic, as the staff treated you to a mixture of contempt and moral superiority. They were always right and you were always wrong, and they never bothered to disguise their scorn for you. If you like watching arguments, go into a Canadian bank.

“Why are you withdrawing this money?”
“I need it to buy some stuff this afternoon.”
“What stuff?”
“Just some stuff.”
“Look, I think you’d better tell me what stuff.”
“Hey, it’s my bloody money, isn’t it!”
“You only have one hundred dollars in your account.”
“Tell me about it…”
“So don’t you think you should tell me why you are withdrawing half of it?”

And so it went on. Finally, after further explanations, and after carefully filling in the necessary form, they kindly allowed me to withdraw some of my money.

My bank was on 5th Avenue and I had one more appointment that afternoon, also on 5th Avenue and six blocks further east, where the Canadian Immigration Department was housed in a large, modern building that swallowed-up the best part of half a block. Its fortress-like architecture seemed designed to be as intimidating as possible. It looked like Orwell’s Ministry of Love. Taking a deep breath I walked through its frightening portal, wandering if I’d ever come out again.

Waiting rooms in social security buildings, courts and immigration departments are rather depressing places, and this one was no exception. It was a large room with a very high ceiling and no windows. There were eight rows of uncomfortable wooden benches that faced a long counter. On the other side of the counter were the immigration officers, smug with the fact that they were Canadian citizens and had gainful employment. In contrast the benches were filled mostly with sad stories from the third world. I spent 30 minutes sitting with them before being called to the counter. A huge, grinning portrait of Queen Elizabeth II looked down on the scene.

“Are you working in Canada, Mr Godfrey?” I was fixed with one of those stares that secret policemen in eastern Europe used to give you.

The question was fired at me almost before I’d sat down at the counter. I suppose the thinking was that they’d catch you unawares and you’d answer in the affirmative, or give something away. They’d have to be cleverer than that. I gave the immigration officer a pleasant smile and a load of lies.

My reason for going to the Immigration Department that afternoon was to get my visa extended. At the time Canada was having a big clampdown on illegal immigrants. When I arrived in the country the previous October, from London Heathrow airport, I’d been given the third degree by the immigration people at Toronto Pearson airport. They did eventually give me a three month tourist visa. This was now due to expire in a week’s time.

“How are you supporting yourself during your stay in Canada, Mr Godfrey?” I was given another one of those stares. In return I told the immigration officer a story, that, while interesting, was most definitely a work of fiction. After I’d finished speaking he looked at me blankly for a while and tapped his pencil against the counter. Of course, they knew I was working illegally; dressed as I was, a haunted look on my face, I was no tourist on a carefree holiday. Thing is, they couldn’t prove it, despite their best efforts.

Every so often the immigration people would phone my apartment to ask how I was doing. I’ve no idea how at that time they got my telephone number, or indeed how they knew where I was living (about once a week a police car would cruise down 27th Avenue and linger outside my apartment), but I thought it was nice of them to take an interest in my welfare. They were checking to see if I was in during the day, and not out working. I invariably was in my apartment, sleeping after my night shift. The ironic thing about my interview at the Immigration Department was that just two hours previously I’d been fired from my job at the computer company. You won’t, though, get any commiserations from immigration officers about that sort of thing.

“Have you been working in Canada, Mr Godfrey?” He’d ask me lots of questions and every so often he’d throw this one in, as if to catch me out or break me down. After twenty minutes of mind games the immigration officer finally agreed to extend my tourist visa by six months. It cost me fifty bucks for the privilege and not a small amount of sweat. “You will tell us if you take work in Canada, won’t you Mr Godfrey,” were his farewell words. I grinned back at Queen Elizabeth II as I left the room.

You may well ask, since I’d just been made unemployed, and was to all intents and purposes broke, why I went to all that trouble and expense to get my visa extended? Thing was, I intended to stay in Canada for a while longer, and amongst other things I needed to keep a bank account open. Canadian banks are almost an extension of the government and they won’t turn a blind eye to anything dodgy, like, say, their Swiss counterparts do. When I first opened the account my passport and visa were photocopied for the bank’s records. If I had continued to make transactions after the visa had expired the bank would have informed the authorities. Canadian banks, don’t you just love ‘em.

As I walked away from the Ministry of Love dusk was falling and so was the temperature. It felt like it was around 20 below. I took off one of my thick gloves and put my hand into a warm pocket. I had about twenty five bucks, so, deciding that the day couldn’t possibly throw anything else at me, I decided to get drunk. I was out of work, broke and seven thousand miles from home. What would you have done?

I made may way through the snow along 5th Avenue and then up Centre Street, where I bumped into Jimmy the Indian outside the Penguin Pub. Jimmy the Indian was in fact a small, ginger-haired Scotsman who originally hailed from Glasgow. He’d acquired his nickname because he used to hang around in Calgary bars that were mostly frequented by the native Indians. These bars were usually pretty rowdy, and were best avoided. The Indians had mega problems with alcohol. Entire families, including the children, would be drunks and many of them died early deaths. You would often see them staggering around the downtown area, and hardly a week went by without at least one indian being run-over by a tram car. A lot of them distilled their own moonshine and outside the downtown area you’d find illegal drinking dens. I got back from work one morning to discover an indian crashed-out on my front lawn. I went over to see if he was ok. His eyes sprang open but he wouldn’t answer any of my questions. I left him to it and went into my apartment. It was 35 below outside, so it seemed prudent to call the cops or an ambulence. However, I looked out my window and the Indian had gone, no doubt to warm-up with yet another glass of moonshine.

The Indians were a dying race, and they knew it. Their heritage and way of life had all but been eradicated by whitey, who arrived on the continent uninvited not that many hundreds of years previously. This caused a sort of spiritual dissolution: they just gave up; and it wasn’t only alcohol, the Indians also had major problems with drugs.

Jimmy the Indian did not have the bison, the eagle or the wide open spaces in his soul, yet he could get as drunk as any indian. He swayed gently as we stood on the sidewalk and talked. Jimmy tried to drag me into the Penguin Pub, primarily to buy him a beer, as he was broke. I managed to disentangle myself and continued walking up Centre Street against a biting wind that caused flurries of snow to whip up from the ground. I was heading for a restaurant called the Blue Parrot which had a small bar. The Blue Parrot was on 7th Avenue yet was sufficiently tucked away to keep it a peaceful oasis in the busy downtown area. It was now only four weeks until the opening ceremony of the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics and the population of the city seemed to have doubled overnight.

The bar in the Blue Parrot was at the back of the restaurant. There were only ever two bar stools, and there wasn’t much standing room. Six people would be a crowd; eight people would be a crush; that’s how intimate it was. The drinkers would linger long after the restaurant closed, and very often more people would drift in for a late drink, in which case the crowd spilled over on to the now empty dining tables. It was not unusual to still be in that bar when the sun came up. On this particular night I staggered out of the Blue Parrot at around 2am. I’d missed the last bus home and didn’t have enough money for a taxi. It was a half hour walk to my apartment on 27th Avenue. Now totally oblivious to the fierce cold, I set out through the snow.

During the extreme winter weather, Calgary was always very quiet in the early hours of the morning. All I could hear was the crunch of my boots as I climbed the steep hill that forms part of 14th Street. I had just reached the top of the hill and was only four blocks from my apartment when I heard noises. Two guys came out of the shadows onto the sidewalk. The city was a very safe place, even at that time of night, yet I braced myself, preparing to be mugged.
“Hey man, can you help us?” They seemed as drunk as me.
“Sure guys,” I said, with a beer induced love of humanity.
At that point I noticed that one of them was carrying a large, hairy object in his arms.
“It’s been knocked down by a car. We don’t know what to do with it. It’ll die in this cold!” The guy swayed rather alarmingly, but the dog didn’t seem to mind and looked at me mournfully. It was a large mongrel, although I thought I could detect a distinct trace of Airedale in there somewhere. It looked at me again with those eyes and I could not say no.
“Thanks man. It’s not badly hurt, it just has a limp. You’ll take it to a veterinary surgeon?”
“No problem.” I replied. The two guys were far drunker than me, and I figured that the dog had a better chance of survival in my hands.

They handed the dog over and patted me on the back. Then the two of them staggered away through the snow. As silence enveloped me once more, I suddenly realised that it was very late and I was very tired and I’d had a very stressful day, and now I’d been given charge of an injured animal. I placed the hairy mutt on the ground to see just how injured it was. It limped around in circles before coming back and licking my face. The vets could wait until morning.

Gathering the dog up in my arms, and trying not to break my neck on the icy sidewalks, I walked the last four blocks home. The chilled air froze the mucus in my nose. All was silent as the city slept. A shooting star sped across the clear, cold sky… and tomorrow was another day.

From When I Went Out One Summer’s Morn, Rob Godfrey’s memoir of 20 years of travels, available as both an ebook and a paperback from Amazon or Smashwordsnote: Smashwords offers a wide range of ebook formats, including Kindle and PDF.

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