I was a lowly clerk in the organization, a large Property Management company and my task to was make a manual count of our employees every month by tabulating who was Taken on Strength – hired – or Struck of Strength – or fired. I managed every personnel document that showed whether a person was on permanent staff, term or casual and showed the length of term, if the appointment was of the latter two kinds. The task was picky, and detailed to the quarter of the month.
This report was sent monthly to headquarters for them to roll up into a national count of those TOS and SOS .
It was a bean counter’s world serving an ivory tower.
Obviously that didn’t occupy all my time, though the majority of it. In between times, I typed for various managers and, after a promotion, I edited the typing products of the typing pool. I had risen rather quickly in my responsibilities but not in my pay. The stenos were resentful, feeling that they deserved the position on a basis of seniority.
One of our managers, Frank – a mining developer by hobby, had the most beautiful scripted handwriting and a fine command of the English language. Donna, a rather blunt witted steno with a major ego and a Grade Ten finesse of the same language felt obliged to correct his “errors”. Nine times out of ten, I was required to settle bristling indignation on his part and aggressive defensiveness on hers.
The trouble was, she would take it upon herself to correct him. The first time I typed something for him, I didn’t understand the spelling of the word “materiel” and quite politely approached him to check if this was what he wanted.
“Oh, Thank God!” he exclaimed. “You had the intelligence to ask.” and he went on to complain about his stenographic nemesis and then to patiently explain to me the difference in meaning of “material” and “materiel”, the latter referring to the equipment and supplies of a military or governmental organization.
Into this emotionally seething unit of typing and tabulation came a young manager from national headquarters. Much later, I discovered he was four years younger than I which made him about thirty two, then. He was an administrative wunderkind who had rapidly succeeded in being promoted to upper management. He had a prodigious memory and was a whiz with numbers. He knew the organization inside out but as any new interloper to the hallowed ranks of Management, he had to prove himself to earn his acceptance therein.
He held occasional staff meetings to keep us all informed of whatever we were allowed to know. At one of these, he announced that had bought the first personal computer for general use for our section. We had been asked to get to know this curious machine that was reputed to do everything but the family dishes. It was reputed to take all the problems out of typing and composing and would simplify our calculations for monthly reporting.
On the day it arrived, our young manager showed us how the computer operated, how it turned on and off; how, with a program, one could type, reposition the text for a pleasing page presentation and correct any errors before printing the page.
Carol, our best typist, an English comedian and theatrical star by avocation, was terrified of the instrument. We had to wheedle and beg to get her to try it out. With exaggerated horror, she would exclaim that this idiot of a machine would never overtake her abilities to type a spreadsheet without fault. Spreadsheets were the cornerstone of her happy career. She could be inordinately proud that all the section’s spreadsheets were given to her to type. I couldn’t think of anything more boring. It was bad enough that I had to proof read them. But she was right, she never made a mistake either in her numbers nor in her alignment of the forms upon the page.
My immediate supervisor, the Manager of Program Planning and Control, dreamed of becoming a certified bookkeeper and later, perhaps even an accountancy designation. She loved the work because it was one of those jobs in which one could achieve perfection. Numbers did not lie.
My immediate supervisor set out a schedule when each of us was to learn to use the single computer that had been assigned to our section. It really was a marvel.
In order to get my term job as receptionist, I had to type twenty three minutes a minute. My inexperience with typing had been a drawback; but now with this new tool, I felt liberated. As receptionist, I had sat at the phone desk typing. Unlike Carol, I made plenty of errors. I wasted more paper and more carbon because I mistyped a word and had to start again, or got the whole thing finished perfectly only to find that the text was not centered on the page. I would just have to start again.
Carole was assigned an electronic typewriter. These too were expected to assist us in our written missives. After all, computers were so expensive, we couldn’t expect everyone to have one. The electronic type writers were more economical than computers and as the old ones wore down, we were expected to learn these new machines that had many new advantages to help a hapless typist.
Carole, however, was terrified of it and as Head of the typing pool it was my responsibility to ensure she learned it. We sat hours, side by side, and she couldn’t get it. She pined for her Selectric. She knew it intimately. When the lesson time ended, she gratefully returned to her instrument at the receptionist desk. She was more often ill and didn’t come to work. When she did, she spent inordinate amounts of time away from her desk, walking behind a manager and mimicking his gait and mannerisms. When everyone began to chortle at her mimicry and the manager had turned to see what had happened, with impeccable timing, she was apparently going about her own tasks, innocently unaware, along with the manager, why anyone would be snickering.
Carole retired and my perfect-numbers manager was happy to be able to replace her with someone more in tune with the times. Jobs were juggled. We lost the receptionist position and the typing pool when we all got our own computers. We were expected to do our own correspondence on the computer. There was no need, now, for a typist.
However, a problem arose. No one had sufficient experience with the binary beast and no one was capable of properly extracting the reports that we needed from it. We were assigned a computer tech.
We had all been given computer training of the most simplistic sort but it was insufficient. In one of our staff meetings, our manager announced that Dan would be coming to join our group. He would assist us with our computer problems and he would now extract all the reports. My job had changed. I was to take the spreadsheets that he provided, review them for changes and duplications. I would input the information and then he would do his magic.
When Carole left, her position and duties were considered inessential. We no longer would need a receptionist. Everyone would have his or her own telephone voice mail box and when visitors came, the employee could come to the front door and escort them wherever they were meeting.
For the occasional general inquiry, the phone would be forwarded to my number. I was not the receptionist, but I was once again answering the phone.
I think we were all a bit surprised. Our unit was composed uniquely of women. The supervisor and the two heads of section were all very girly kind of women – the kind that have conversations about getting their hair done and their manicures; of babies and growing children; of bargain hunting and shoe shopping. A major event of many a return from lunch was parading purchases that had been bought on the half hour break.
Into this covey of women rolled Dan. Yes, rolled.
Dan was a paraplegic. He had the use of his shoulders and so could rotate them sufficiently to lift his arms. With a special leather glove on either hand, strapped on by Velcro, Dan could lift pencils, the rubber tip downwards, to tap on the keys in a hunt and peck fashion, to manipulate the computer.
Somehow, the other women seemed to disappear together on lunch hour, leaving fifteen minutes in advance and returning each separately, as if they had no idea where the others had been.
Just as she left, my supervisor would glide by me in a sultry sweeping step with a simpering grimace and say,”You can go at twelve thirty. You’ll watch the phones while everyone is away for lunch, won’t you?” She was my boss. I answered, “Yes”.
So it was that I got to know Dan.
Dan was a gruff sort. No fool, he knew what was going on. Both of us were limited in resources. We both brought our lunches and ate our lunch fare together. His was thinner than was mine, which he blamed on his need to keep trim.
“Sitting in a chair all day long doesn’t help you keep in shape,” he said, referring to himself. “If I can’t exercise like I used to, I have to watch my diet.”
With the girly girls gone, we talked about all sorts of things. It wasn’t long until I had discovered how he had become paraplegic. A very sporty, dare-devil youth, Dan had been hang gliding when the apparatus had broken, mid flight, and he had come tumbling to the ground. When I thought about it, it was a wonder that he had survived at all. He had loved all sports. He had been a fisherman – surely an occupation that had demanded full use of one’s physical capabilities.
After he had recovered sufficiently in the hospital, he had been sent to GF Strong, a rehabilitation facility. Everyone there had extreme injury and a long program for recovery. Dan, of course, could no longer do those things to which he had aspired. The physically active jobs that he had done were not possible. If he were going to be productive, he would have to learn how to work a computer.
His job with us was the first that he had on leaving GF Strong. It was term – that is, he was on probation so he worked hard to prove his worth. With the unthinking cruelty of our organization’s hiring practices, his terms were extended three months by three months. Each time, management was unable to tell him that he had been extended even until the day that he was supposed to otherwise go.
“Just come in on Monday,” was my supervisor’s advice to him. “We’ll get it sorted out.” I had been through the same mill with my own appointments so I knew how unnerving it was; but I felt that it was even more cruel for Dan who would not easily find another appointment.
Dan never lost hope; and he kept on being renewed until, under company policy, five years later they took him on permanently, full time. Against all odds, he was able to be independent. He would allow no one to pity him. If every he missed a day, he made it up. He would allow no one the chance to say that he did not do his work or that he was absent too often to be able to do his job. While everyone else seemed to take time off for medical appointments with in office hours, Dan never would unless there was no other option. And if he did, he came to work at an ungodly early morning hour to make up his time.
I admired his spirit so much. He was an inspiration to me, that despite crippling adversity, he could be independent and honourable to the greatest degree.
Some in our section, though, were not so happy with his coming. The women were edgy about having a man work in their midst. It had been a very feminine enclave. Besides, Dan was rough. He spoke gruffly and abruptly. He spoke his mind without dancing around a difficulty. If you didn’t like it, too bad. To my mind, it was refreshing.
All through his recovery period, Dan had found some way to keep his little house in Deep Cove. When he became permanent staff, he started to look for a new house with everything on one level that he could adapt to his needs.
He found just the haven he wanted near Edgemont Village. It had a large back yard with several ancient cedars in it. He bought the house and had it refitted for his needs. The bathroom was refitted to allow him to shower without help. The lamps had large rings on them so that he could hook his thumb and pull the switch and the drapes were similarly rigged.
When I went for dinner, he did the cooking, having mastered a food processor for cutting vegetables and crushing garlic. He could wheel underneath the kitchen sink and rinse his vegetables and such; similarly, he could reach and make the stove top function. The dishwasher looked after the clean-up.
Every year, he held a potluck Summer Solstice party in his back yard. He had so many friends who helped with preparations that he hardly had to do anything but provide the place. So many colleagues at work, like me, had become enamoured of this rough diamond that the place was packed on the Solstice night.
He worked for us for about fifteen years. In that time, I moved forward. I moved to different sections. Dan stayed in the same place and the others went, some through retirement, others through promotion, and the replacements came and went too.
It was Dan whom I called, all through my career, to help me with computer glitches, or for a hasty lesson. He taught me how to set up my computer at home. He helped me purchase what I needed; and later, did the same for my sister on strength of the fact that she was my sister. He was generous with his time and so patient with us computer nilches.
More than a colleague, Dan had become a close friend. When day seemed insurmountable, he would come and talk to me and we would worry out the knots of his troubles. He did the same for me. When I divorced, he listened to my complaints. When I had to sell my car, he offered to sell it for me.
“You don’t want people coming to your house when you are all alone,” he said, “and besides you won’t be able to tell them about the workings of the car.” So I very thankfully let him cope with the task of selling it. It wasn’t as if I would get much for it. It had been a lemon the whole time I had it, but it was good for parts.
One day shortly after this, he came to me in my office – I had graduated to an office with a door on it which was saying quite something in this organization that insisted on an open office, exchangeable desk plan system.
“Can I come in?” he asked. And then,”Can I close the door?” And he did.
With his dysfunctional hands and great difficulty, he fumbled with his pants pocket and said nothing. He would not allow you to help him with anything, so I knew well enough to just wait patiently. He extracted his wallet and fumbled even more. Without a word all this time, Lord knows how, he managed to extract a wad of hundred dollar bills and throw them in the air. They flutter down like brown leaves across the desk and onto the floor.
I looked at him askance for a few seconds then burst out in laughter. He had sold the car! His face lit up with a radiant smile. He didn’t want my thanks and was thrilled with his little joke. He had been happy to help me. Happy to be useful. Happy to be my friend.
But Dan did not get promoted. His formation had been through GF Strong. He didn’t have a degree. The young people coming up through the colleges had certificates more potent than his. He was bypassed though he could do the work. He was shifted out of the Program Planning and Control Section to the new IT, Information Technology Section where he was appreciated by those who worked with him, but not by his Manager. His frustration grew and his spirit struggled.
In the last few working years, his body began to fail him. He was too often in the hospital for stretches of time that were not compatible with keeping up his work – and he hated the hospital with its lukewarm food and sterile atmosphere.
He went on disability and then was confined to home.
I regret to say that I then saw very little of him. I had my own problems. I had taken on the responsibility for two teenagers. I was looking after my aging and dependent mother.
I had been promoted to a job that was high pressured and required a lot of traveling. I was simply exhausted and I didn’t see Dan.
I’ve been retired for two years now. I phoned a few times, but our schedules weren’t compatible and I think he had too much difficulty in holding the phone, so Dan and I corresponded by e-mail. He could no longer get out by himself. I wrote to him and told him of my doings.
When I moved, I lived far enough away that it was inconvenient to go so far to see him. He sent me inspirational presentations with beautiful pictures. At that point, I think he was barely capable of the computer manipulations to do it, and yet he sent out messages of humour, hope, beauty and good spirit.
Despite the best of nursing care at home, he was no longer able to live independently. November was the last e-mail I recieved which I think he must have sent just before he was taken to the hospital
“Please don’t give up on me,” it said.
Christmas was a busy time. It mid January when I realized that I hadn’t heard from him for some time. Just about the same time that a mutual friend sent me a letter in reply to a Christmas greeting. Our good friend has gone.
Dan died on January 9th in the hospital