"The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-estrangement. But the former class feels at ease and strengthened in this self-estrangement, it recognizes estrangement as its own power, and has in it the semblance of a human existence. The class of the proletariat feels annihilated, this means that they cease to exist in estrangement; it sees in it its own powerlessness and in the reality of an inhuman existence." - Karl Marx
"Thanks for the bagel," said Richard as he wolfed it down. "I owe you loads of stuff once I get my next paycheque."
"No biggie. If I got money I can buy," Marty Goldman replied, gazing at the morning glory climbing vines on the walls as they made their way through the back alley. Many of the flowers were withering, the first sign Marty had noticed of the impending cold season. "This winter is supposed to be really cold."
"Part of living in Canada," noted Richard, now licking the cream cheese from the wrap paper. "That's what my wife told me the first winter off the foggy island."
"When I was a kid I loved it. Whenever we saw the first snowfall of the season, usually in November, we would love it. It meant making snowmen and snow-forts and snowball fights. Now it means freezing on your way to work, getting wet feet and slipping and breaking your head on the sidewalk."
Richard laughed as they arrived at Keele Street and turned north. Richard's work shift started in half an hour. Marty had one more day off, this day, before evening shifts started. He had seven days ahead of him, two of them twelve hour work shifts. He wasn't looking forward to it but he tried to think of the money he would have, even if he felt it wasn't enough considering the amount of hours working. His pay wasn't much better than minimum wage.
"Do you think you get paid enough?" he asked the older man as they passed under the railway bridge.
Richard shook his head and spoke, though Marty couldn't hear him over the passing traffic and train roaring by overhead. He knew what he was saying anyway. His job was minimum wage.
"I hear they aren't great employers!" Marty shouted.
Richard shook his head again, raising his voice back. "Not at all, but whatever; a job is just a job! I can't expect much from someplace called Deal-Mart. No one's going to bloody stand up for me so I only got myself."
They cleared the bridge, now walking uphill on the sidewalk, the smell of a nearby bread bakery filling the air, causing Marty's stomach to groan. He could get a bite to eat at one of the nearby food joints. He wished he could afford to eat healthier, but saving money was priority for now.
Richard went on. "No one stands up for workers anymore. You're just a cog in the system, a money making machine for someone else's profits. We don't share in the spoils of work anymore."
"That's what made me join the NDP back in my college days," said Marty, thinking back to the first time he saw Jack Layton speak on television. He had felt then that Layton was the only person speaking for the common people, those that worked the nine to five jobs and were feeling the squeeze of low wages and high hours.
"Yeah, same for me joining Labour before the Tony Blair era. I guess I felt that to make a change it was worthwhile becoming a party member. I spent so many years there, so much of time spent for that party, so much free labour going door to door and dropping off flyers."
"Yep, same," Marty said, thinking back to the elections, some general, some local by-elections (elections called in a single riding when a member of Parliament stepped down). Some the NDP won, but not most. Seats in Toronto usually stayed Liberal back then. It was frustrating, always an upward struggle, especially in the suburbs where political apathy reigned. The few people who were engaged in the democratic process seemed to only care about property rights, not community or creating more societal equality.
Marty started thinking back to his time at the New Democratic Party convention where he and a friend travelled all the way out to Halifax to attend. Jack Layton was there, noticeable by his unmistakable white moustache and warm smile. He and Marty shared a beer briefly before Jack went on and hobnobbed with other people gathered at the pub patio. During the day he had met with many other politicians and delegates at the convention centre in downtown Halifax. Outside of the actual convention halls was a space where a number of different sub-groups within the party were tabling. There was a marijuana legalization group (one that Marty gave thumbs up to as he passed), a few union tables, and one with a large red banner that said: NDP Revolutionary Caucus. Marty stopped in front of it and started chatting to the lone man behind it. He was a middle-aged bearded, balding man who introduced himself as Gary Bernstein. He was a socialist and a Marxist, not a social democrat like most of the NDP. He asked Marty if he would be interested in joining the NDP Revolutionary Caucus and turning the party more leftward. Marty, feeling that the party was drifting toward the political right and losing it's labour roots, immediately accepted.
Marty shook his head as he and Richard passed by a large concrete catwalk raised by rectangular columns beyond the sidewalk at Keele Street, thinking back to the days when he would meet Gary Bernstein and a few others downtown at the OISE building near St. George subway station.
"You ever been involved in any socialist groups, like within the Labour Party?" he asked Richard.
"Aye, back in the seventies, there were all kinds of Trotskyist groups, both within the Labour Party trying to steer the party back leftward, as well as outside of it. I got involved with a bunch of them, usually spending a few months in one before realizing that they were nothing but sectarian partisans, fighting one another more than they were the actual capitalists."
Marty laughed. "Yeah, that's exactly it! I was part of one, I guess it was Trotskyist. It was called the NDP Revolutionary Caucus and it's goal was to turn the NDP into "a fighting party" in the words of it's leader Gary Bernstein, who pretty much was a dictator when it came down to it."
"Ah yes, the vanguardists. Those guys are the ones who pretty much think that they alone, and not the working class themselves, can create the revolution."
"Sounds kind of patronizing to me," said Marty, thinking back to the time when he realized that Gary was not worth associating with politically or socially. He had brought Marty to his home for a meeting. Only a few people, mostly older men, showed up. Beforehand Gary had shown Marty his study room and stated "This is the nucleus of the revolution." That comment alone made Marty rethink spending his time and energy in this group. The idea that the revolution comes from within a room where one man types away at his computer, rather than coming from the people in the streets, just didn't seem right. What a waste."
As he loaded his cart with the store's products he was thinking back to the days back home when he started to become a socialist. It was not long after he had come home from the Falkland Islands. The whole experience made him want to go to university, to get involved in union strikes and other forms of activism. The conservative backlash of the nineteen-eighties and the Thatcher-Reagan duo, he knew, threatened to undo everything that the generation before him fought for. Richard had joined the Labour Party and met Laura not too long after.
Bringing his loaded cart out of the Deal-Mart warehouse and into the air-conditioned store floor, he shook his head as he remembered what it felt like to give up on all of that. All he thought of now was surviving. Surviving, and getting the hell out of Ivan's house. Those were his only goals now, the only things he forced himself up in the morning for.
The job was stressful, physically demanding and annoying, especially when customers continually interrupted his progress of stocking things with questions of where to find things. This happened constantly, making it hard for him to get all his items for the day stocked by closing time. Colin had criticized him for this the other day. At times Colin would tell him to be more helpful to customers, take them right to where they wanted to get. "If I wanted to babysit I would've become a nanny," he thought.
By lunchtime Richard was less than halfway done his day's load. He had been interrupted constantly, even more than usual. He knew if he complained that Colin would recommend he work through lunch, so he kept his mouth shut. As he entered the lunch-room he sighed, slumping down on an empty chair. There were two large tables in the room, both only had about half the seats full. The lunch-times of the staff were rotated depending on the shifts. Richard, feeling an irritating ache in both his arms, stood up to fetch his lunch from the staff refrigerator, which was packed with brown paper bags and white plastic bags. It was nice to open a fridge and not see dead cockroaches.
His lunch was in a Deal-Mart bag. He grabbed it and brought it back to his seat. Across from him was a familiar face, a man maybe a few years younger than him that he talked to sometimes at lunch.
"How's it going, Richard?" he asked with the usual shiny smile.
"It's going, Sean," he replied to the pale, dark-haired man, letting only a slight smile in return. "I'm tired as hell."
"Oh yeah, same here," said Sean, taking a sip of no-name brand cola he had gotten from the vending machine nearby. "And the day is only half way through. Crazy eh? Working here for minimum wage."
Richard shrugged. "I guess so. I got bills to pay, so what you going to do, aye?"
"Yeah, that's true, got to pay those bills," said Sean, grinning. "But still, it's nuts here. You got so much work to do, then people are constantly interrupting you for help, and by the end of the day you don't got your job done, but what do you expect? You can't get it done in these conditions. At least, if they paid us more it would be worth it."
Richard nodded, looking around him at the other employees in the lunchroom. They were all in their cliques, some in pairs, others in threes or fours. No one was paying any attention to them. He looked forward, thinking maybe Sean was of a similar persuasion. "You are reading my mind," he said, then looked around once more. "What we need is a union."
He sat at the table, listening as another train went by. A breeze of cold air streamed in through the open window, it's screen half-ripped with a spider web growing between it and the metal window-frame.
"Spidey won't last long there for much longer," said Marty to the empty kitchen. He took a swig of the ice coffee carton he had just bought at the grocery store. In his mind he was going over his finances; he had a phone bill to pay (one hundred), upcoming rent (five bills), food for a week (fifty-ish if he watched for deals), new clothes (one hundred).
"Nah, I don't need new clothes," he figured. "I got enough to get by, not like I wear much other than my security uniform or my lounging clothes. I got enough okay stuff to wear if I go out, which will be once every two weeks if I'm smart with my money."
Aside from occasionally going out for a drink with Richard or Jimmy there was not too much party life left in him. He partied rarely in university, much more before in high school. For the most part he hardly ever went to a club or anything. It never really interested him much anyway. He found the whole scene superficial and adolescent, remembering one time he went to a King Street club and watched some idiot drunk guys get into a fist fight, getting themselves promptly ejected from the premises.
He shook his head. "No social life," he said to himself, picking up his cellphone to go through the contacts. Sometimes this cheered him up, knowing he could call on lots of people. Most of the names, he realized, were the names of people he had not seen in a while. Most were students he met at university, some in class, others in activist organizations. He still talked to a few, mostly online, but not often. He "liked" their postings sometimes and vice versa. He sent one or two of them messages every now and then, but rarely got any responses.
"Who do I really chill with here?" he asked, passing by Jimmy's info. "Well, there's one."
The phone buzzed in his hands, Marty at first assuming it was Jimmy who was texting since he was used to coincidences. It turned out to be a text message just sent from his dad.
"Hey Marty," he read it aloud. "Andrea and I have some big news for you, but I want to tell you in person. Do you want to come up some day soon and we can talk? We'll make some nice dinner."
His stomach rumbled. He looked at the fridge, starting to feel apprehensive for his apples and carrots in there, even if they were sealed within a plastic container. Just the other night he saw another roach in the vegetable crisper. He was glad his dad was helpful to him. Despite everything Dr. Goldman was a kind of lifeline for him. In case things really got bad financially for Marty, he knew his dad could at least loan him some money for a bit while he pulled himself back together. He texted back that he would give a call next week sometime. There was a big block of workdays coming up. There would be a big financial flow coming in not too long a time. No matter how tired and sick of the job Marty got, the thought of the money always kept him going. He needed it, needed to just keep working and working, just to save and save. Someday he would have enough to leave the house.
The door to outside opened up and Marty heard the footsteps coming up the small stairs. He figured it was Richard. "Don't expect too much," Richard said in his mind. Marty was finally contemplating leaving Ivan's house. The door to the kitchen opened up and the Englishman poked in his bald head, a look of utter fatigue on his face, worse than usual.
"Fucking snakes is what's up!"
Richard sidestepped into the room, slamming the door behind him. "I'm fired!" he shouted, raising both arms.
"Ah shit! You serious? What happened?"
Richard grabbed the chair across from Marty and tore it out from underneath the table. "I don't even fucking know!" he spat, then sat. "Damn, yes, I know. They wouldn't tell me what I did, but I figured it out on the way back here. This piece of shit named Sean, some guy I just met, and like an idiot started telling him what I was thinking, telling him that we ought to form a union. I'm an idiot!"
"You said that? Who is Sean, a boss?"
"No, he's a worker, or so he pretends to be! Bastard! I bet he's a plant; there to listen to the worker's grumble and find out who won't take shit from the bosses!"
Marty shrugged. "I don't know. A year ago I would think you're paranoid, but after what I've seen, the kind of talkers I seen at work, I wouldn't doubt it, especially at a place like Deal-Mart."
Richard pounded the table with a fist. A train engine muted the sound just in time.
"Shit man, that really sucks."
Richard sighed, slumping his upper half over the table, looking sideways at his bedroom door, the top of his head in front of Marty, who in turn sighed back and reached a hand to his own head, his hair feeling thinner than usual lately. In about a decade he knew he could be as bald as Richard.
"I thought I finally had it," Richard muttered, bringing his head back up, placing his gaze down at the face of the table. "I thought I finally had a way out of here."
"You can get another job," said Marty, not knowing the best way to cheer him up.
He shrugged in response. "I guess, another shitty job. This time I won't even pretend I have rights."
"We do what we got to do," replied Marty, feeling terrible for his friend. He would be clueless as to what to do if he lost his job. Sure, he could probably get another security job, but it would be hard to be hired in-house like he was by the place on Bay Street. Most security jobs went straight through companies and the training, often unpaid, sometimes lasted weeks. These were weeks Marty didn't have to be not making money.
"Those people are pieces of shit," said Richard, shaking his head, his voice shivering a bit. "I can't believe how badly they treated us. I hope that place falls to pieces and every one of those petty fucks get turned out onto the street!"
Marty stood up. "Yep, same here," he said, trying his best to be reassuring. It was his last night before another block of work. He figured it was time to be generous. "Drinks are on me tonight."
It didn't take much convincing. There are times when someone in a bad place isn't in the mood to drink, but this was not one of those times. Richard Brewer wanted to drink. They got up, put on their coats and headed to the nearest bar. Each round he used more curse words, using British slang that Marty had never heard before, learning new terms to use that few would understand in Canada.
Marty was calculating each drink at first, subtracting money when the round came, and then adding his next paycheque on top of it, making sure it was affordable. By the third round he didn't care. Richard started telling their waitress about his ordeal. She agreed with him eagerly, then he asked if they were hiring anybody. He told her he could wash dishes and mop and sweep quickly. She told him that they were fully staffed already. If Marty hadn't pulled his friend up to go he would have asked for her number instead.
"I like her, Marty—I really do!" he bellowed loudly as Marty placed a friendly and steadying arm on his shoulder. They drunk skipped down the back streets behind Dundas West.
"Ah yeah," said Marty, too busy on the task of getting his friend, and himself, home.
"Too bad no one wants an old shit like me, eh?"
"Eh? You sounding Canadian."
Richard laughed heartily. "You're funny. Even Deal-Mart doesn't want me, but fuck them, eh? Fuck them! I don't need their shit! Fuck them all!"
"Yeah man, fuck them!" Marty agreed, feeling relieved once he sighted the old synagogue up ahead. They were almost home. He turned to his drunker companion. "Hey, Richard man, I like chilling with you too. Hey man, we should get an apartment, eh? Once you get a new job and once I've saved up a bit more, we'll both move out."
Richard smiled. "Ah yeah!" he shouted excitedly. "You are ready to move out?"
Marty nodded, looking up at the house down the street. "Yeah, but I guess we still got a few months left. We should move out by the new year, really start a new life, not this crap."
They made their way to the side of the house, Richard nearly collapsing on the door to the kitchen once they were inside. Marty gently pulled him up the steps, guiding him to his door.
"Goodnight buddy," said Richard as he slid into his room.
"Goodnight Richard," replied Marty. "Count the days. We'll be out of here soon." He breathed in deep as he made his way over to his own bedroom, feeling the room start to spin as yet another train trudged on by the open window. "We'll be...we'll be out of here soon."