Part One: Sheila
“I just don’t get it.”
I remember thinking those very words, hours, maybe minutes, maybe even seconds after I first met her. I was engaged at the time and comfortably secure in the direction my world was heading. But, unbeknown to me, I was about to learn an important life lesson.
This story begins two years before I met her because, as it turned out, I had to meet someone else first.
After I graduated from high school I had no idea what I wanted to do. My dad had died two years earlier after a lengthy illness and, quite honestly, there wasn’t a lot of money. My mom worked for Murray Printing and I worked part-time packing groceries for customers at Loblaw’s.
By the end of that first summer after graduating from high school, I had managed to land a full-time job working for Canadian Kodak. How that came about surprises me to this day because the Company was known to rarely hire outside the family members of their employees. During my first year there, I was trained on five different jobs. The one job I enjoyed most was working in the Film Processing Department in the testing lab alongside an ex-vet, Gord Kee, who trained me. Fondly, I can still smell his steaks cooking on the hot-plate every Friday evening during cleanup.
I had better not digress too much here except to say that Gord was an endearing individual whose wife worked on the same floor as us except in Film Finishing. I mention this in passing because the person I was to eventually meet also worked there during the summer while a student. Her father, I learned later, was the superintendent of Film Emulsion located in a different building.
One day, I met a student who was on his work term from the University of Waterloo. His program rotated through four months of study and four months of job experience until graduation, roughly five years. During our conversations, I learned that University of Waterloo was the pioneer for this Co-Op program in Ontario. Based on his description, I liked ‘the sound’ of the University. So that got me thinking. Until then I had only considered University of Toronto. Since I had had extensive training at Kodak I thought I would have a secure money source between the end of one school year and the beginning of the next. And, if I majored in chemistry, all indicators pointed to Kodak hiring me full-time after graduation. I thought my future was securely fixed. So, I applied to their Science Program and forewent the Co-Op program.
Life doesn’t always work out the way you planned. Helen Keller had it right when she said: “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature…Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.”
My choice, and circumstances outside my control, sent me along a different path.
During my first year at the University of Waterloo, and I must admit largely due to my instructor, Peter Brillinger, I discovered that I preferred to study mathematics. To all you ‘ughers’ reading this, mathematics is quite a creative field. Really! Anyway, what can I say? I’m a nerd and damn proud of it. The other drawing card for my decision was the newly constructed Faculty of Mathematics, fondly known as the Fortress or The Stanton Building (after one of its founders). It was the very first in Canada. Graduates would receive the unique degree of Bachelor of Mathematics. That uniqueness clinched my decision to transfer from the Faculty of Science to Mathematics.
My choice was not well received in the Testing Department at Kodak. Also, unexpectedly, Union negotiations with Kodak changed everything for students. How you may ask? It meant that all students would not be considered for employment until sometime in July (much too late for students like me) and there would be a dearth of overtime. Needless-to-say with that new information I had to change gears quickly.
I don’t remember how it all came about but I landed a position working for Loblaw’s between school terms at their egg packing warehouse at the bottom of Bathurst Street, near the waterfront. Part of my job was to ensure there were no broken eggs in the carton before packing them; if the egg carton had been compromised I removed it and placed the unbroken eggs into a new carton. Egg cartons which passed inspection were then packed in a box ready for shipping. In a nutshell (or should I say, “an egg shell?”) the job was super boring. I was the only guy, youngster, and a pampered one at that, on the line. To break the tedium, I would from time to time let the cartons jam on the conveyor belt so that I could dive in for the rescue. Most times my ‘egg carton rescues’ were successful. But when they weren’t…well…to everyone’s chagrin, the machine had to be stopped to clean up the mess.
The Floor Manager, Bob, was a tall, lean, discerning Eastern European. His eyes had a tendency to send well-deserved butterflies into a frantic frenzy in my tummy. Though I could not have used the descriptive then I would describe his eyes now as ‘Putin eyes.’ There was no hiding anything from him. He knew exactly what I had been up to. Unobtrusively, he pulled me aside to have a chat. I neither remember him ever raising his voice in anger nor mincing his words. Stern, his message was clear and succinct. Though the women on the line reminded more of my mother, he always referred to them as ‘his girls.’
“The girls’ livelihood depends on that line running,” I remember him saying. “Most are the only breadwinners for their family. There’s a quota set every day that must be met. Too many missed quotas mean someone on the line loses their job.”
His pinching words had severely bruised my conscience. Simply put, I felt terrible. And, he knew it.
Shortly after cleaning up the mess which I created, the egg department closed for an hour’s lunch.
Guilt ridden, I felt a great need for privacy to wallow in my embarrassment. But, here is where logic somehow got misplaced. I trudged off, lunch bag in hand, to the least likely place to get it, the lunchroom four floors above my work area.
I must add that before the summer was finished Bob and I often played chess during lunchtime breaks. During those special moments, he chatted about his homeland, Poland, and his studies to become a medical doctor. When he immigrated to Canada his medical degree was not recognized; with no money and a family to support, his life took him to this place. What amazed me was he held no discernible bitterness. His focus was on his son and daughter and helping them to achieve goals that he was prevented from reaching.
Why I decided to go the lunchroom on that day of all days, I did not have a clue. Perhaps I thought I could hide in one of its dark corner pockets that did not exist. Whatever the reason, it all came down to feeling sorry for myself.
Behind the lunch counter was a very attractive young girl taking orders. I had never seen her before. She had full lips and, according to regulation, her auburn hair was contained in a netted hat. As I remember it, her welcoming demeanor and smile added sunshine to the day.
My decision to dissolve into a corner quickly dissipated. I glanced around for the nearest receptacle and, finding one, I surreptitiously dropped my lunch bag into it before joining the line to place my order.
Mired in what felt like thick molasses, me, time, and the others trudged forward. Friendly chatter made it bearable. Most of it, though, was directed at her. “How are you doin’, Sheila?” “Hey, Sheila, have you heard this joke?” And on it would go. At least now I knew her name.
When I arrived to place my order, I was speechless. Words on a dove, so to speak, that had flown the coop. I’m sure I must have had that ‘deer in the headlights’ look.
I glanced quickly at the menu on the wall behind her and ordered a lettuce-cheese-tomato sandwich, exactly what I had just thrown out.
By the time she had made my sandwich and I had paid her, I had learned through my awkward attempt at casual conversation that she was a student at the University of Toronto, studying History.
Unfortunately, time does fly and this was no exception. My hour had come and gone. After a quick goodbye and glancing back to ensure she didn’t see me, the sandwich she had made joined my lunch bag as I rushed pass the receptacle.
Breathless, I arrived at my position on the assembly line before the bell rang to herald start-up in the Egg Department.
Careful not to become overly consumed with my thoughts, I schemed how I was going to meet Sheila again.