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I remember vividly how I had only one thing on my mind when I graduated from my first engineering degree: Escape. I was a girl obsessed. I ruthlessly let go of a perfectly good boyfriend who wanted to marry me, I cut off from my friends, I said goodbye to everyone before I even had a job in hand. My father tried to guilt trip me into staying,
"We have sacrificed so much for you." he pleaded.
I answered him dramatically, "Those who are grateful end up slaves. I choose resentment and I will escape."
I took the very first job I could find, I purchased my parent's old car and drove off full of naive expectations in my head. And I think you can guess how that turned out.
I spent my teenage and college years in Toronto Canada, a fairly big and cosmopolitan city by all standards. I didn't think there was much to love with Toronto. There is nothing to be ashamed of either of course, it is a perfectly functional city: decent employment rates, excellent restaurants, sane politics, good roads...etc. But I was hoping for some place remarkable, like New York, or Moscow, or Nairobi. In truth Toronto was not really the problem, it was my life there and the burdens come with. I feared if I weren't steadfast in leaving, I wouldn't stand a chance but to go down a very narrow path, slowly and painfully.
My first job was located in a small town named Arnprior about 50 km west of Ottawa, home to about 7000 people. It is one of the capital city's satellite communities, except Arnprior was a particularly insular place, I was warned that people there are of a different breed. No matter. I was there for a brilliant career, I cared not for the distractions of my surroundings.
Now imagine a delicate and tall Chinese girl, dressed in a flattering business casual ensemble with open toe flats, she walks confidently into a manufacturing plant and straight to the President's office. She shakes hands with her new boss, the President himself, and was immediately directed to her station ready to assume the role of engineer of a 80-workers strong medical device company. Technically, that was what happened.
"You is the new engineer?" Some guy name Frank shouted at me through the deafening noise of the machines. He was covered in soots, lubricants and whatever else.
"Yes I am, very nice to meet you." I replied.
"You is what they come up with huh. Certainly different." He indiscreetly eyed me from top to bottom, then he added, "The last guy was here for only two months."
"What happened to him?" I asked,
"Oh eh, he eh, he misses his home. He is from a small town out in New Foundland ya know, those types are f*@!in' idiots. He was crying like a pussy, bangin' on his desk (my desk) sayin' he wants home and mommy for days."
"Huh." I didn't think there was a town smaller than Arnprior but I held my tongue.
When I arrived at my desk it was completely covered in dirt and junk. Lorie from shipping snuck up behind me.
"You are a pretty little thing." She said, I was in fact a head taller than her, I was much thinner though.
"Thank you." I replied.
"How old are you?" She asked,
"How many kids do you have?" No one had asked me that before...ever...up to that point.
"Well, if you stay here you soon will." She said, I glared at her. "The men here, they have their ways...." She explained.
I thought the wisest thing to do in response was to clear my so called desk. I searched high and low for cleaning materials, and came back with some bottles of unidentified chemicals. They worked, at least I could see that the desk was made of good solid wood.
Two days later they found a dead woman in front of the company grounds just off of the main road. Everyone was talking about it when I got to work.
"She died in her PJs." Lorie came to tell me.
"Did you know her?" I asked.
"No." She said, "This kind of thing isn't abnormal you know, especially in the winter. This highway is called the killer stretch. They'd find dead bodies every so often, sometimes they are left there for weeks."
"The drivers just leave them there?" I asked, trying to conceal my amazement.
"Oh yeah. They are just drunks." She said.
"You mean the dead?"
"Well yes, people got drunk and they walk out of their house in the cold and die. Sometimes they get hit by a car. But then come to think of it, the drivers are often drunk too." Lorie was right. That was exactly what happened to the woman, she was a drunk who walked out into the road late one night and died due to some complication from her alcoholism.
It was a terribly rough first week. I thought my life would finally begin in this new place, but instead all my hopes were destroyed pretty much in those first few days, and very soon I was again on escape mode.
Since I was new to the professional world, naturally, I tend overreact to the smallest upset. But this was made infinitely worse by the fact that I came to the most ridiculous workplace in the western world. From the outside looking in, my job wasn't so bad. I interacted with FDA and surgeons to design and produce orthopedic implants and instruments. I attended surgeries, I used state of the art software, and compared to all other employees there, I was a highly paid individual.
The President started his business when he got a contract from the Johnson and Johnson Company, the behemoth cash cow south of the border, and he built his plant from that initial capital. The problem is, he never grew out of his entrepreneur phase into a real businessman. His operation was a complete disaster, we were scrapping upwards of 95% of the product line because they were not meeting spec. In my naivety, I wanted to improve the efficiency and quality of our processes, that was the job of an engineer after all. But the President had other ideas.
One day, he threw a bowie knife onto my desk.
"I want you to design something like this." He told me.
"This is a knife." I said, utterly confused.
"Yeah, I talked to my butcher and he told me how much he paid for his knifes. I could make a fortune with all that scrap metal." Rumor has it, he kept the defect metal implants in his barn shed. I heard there was a mountain of it. So I spent the day on my CAD program designing a knife. Why not? Except he forgot it the very next day and came back with another bonehead idea.
However, that was nothing compared to the safety violations of this place, I was working in mild fear for my life everyday. The President is by far the most frugal man I know, he would do bloody anything to save a buck.
"There is no fire alarm in this place." I said in one managers meeting.
The President eyed me darkly. The production managers, shipping staff and the engineers were all housed in a large room above the plant with only one small staircase in and out. The staircase was above a compressor.
I boldly added some safety items in our meeting agenda, exercising my engineer authority. "We need a fire escape and a fire alarm."
"Now, that is not being flexible. There is an announcement system." The President replied.
"Yes, but no one can hear it, the machines here are really loud. Besides, the system is locked inside your office, no one can get to it. Everyone upstairs will surely die if there is a fire." Someone else said.
"No no, there is no need. Everything is good and proper here." The President soon changed the subject.
But I suppose he feared what I may do, report him to the authorities perhaps. The next morning when I came to my desk, Chuck the maintenance guy was doing something next to it.
"What are you doing?" I asked.
"Oh, I am making you a fire escape." Chuck said. He was in fact making a rope ladder.
"Is this a joke?" I asked.
"Well, if there is a fire, you can use this to jump out of the window." Chuck answered, apparently he thought it was a clever idea.
"The windows do not open, and they are less than a feet wide." I pointed at the windows.
"I suppose you are right. I wonder why the boss asked me to do this. This makes no sense at all." Chuck said, genuinely confused. He then abandoned the ladder and went away.
After a while, I was accustomed to the absurdity and took things in stride, to a point. I barely reacted when Pete, the production manager, yelled out the loudest F word I have ever heard because his computer crashed once too many times (The President refused to buy him a new computer though the old one crashes every half an hour). Pete came to work the next day insanely drunk after five years of sobriety. The President came up the stairs, dragged Pete by the collar into the front yard and hosed him down with water. The rest of us barely turned around to look, events like that were normal.
Crazy as it may seem looking back, going home to Toronto was not an option for me, I never even thought about it. I cried all the time of course, at nights when I couldn't sleep, or when I drove on thick sheet of black ice in the winter through the killer stretch. I got into inconsolable self pitying moods where I was sure that my life was forever doomed because I couldn't find another job. Still, going home was out of the question.
The most brilliant incident though happened near the end of my employment there. The President was always looking for government saving opportunities for small businesses and he found the perfect one. At that time, the Canadian government was offering cheap environmental greening services for manufacturing operations and I suspect there were some taxation benefits along with it. He was ecstatic.
The government sent a consultant to the plant and they rerouted all the water and coolant drainage systems in the building. It was a good thing. The point was to improve sustainability and to preserve clean water. However, the President saw this as an opportunity to further cut cost, he had the genius idea of hooking up the toilet water along with the waste water treatment lines. Why not? It was only toilet water. There were only two toilets, one for men, the other for women.
The toilet water overnight turned into black puddles of acids, antifreeze, slimes, engine oils, bacterial cultures and foulness I don't want to know about. The stench was unbelievable. The guys could at least pee standing, the women had to risk splashing from this awful stew. The President told me this was an excellent thing the next day because the women would no longer be able to take long bathroom breaks, he went as far as bragging about it in the company website in the President's address.
I was in heaven when I finally left that job. As fate would have it, I was awarded a small career miracle. My next job was to be in the most venerable research facility in the world, something to this day I have no idea how it came to be. More importantly, I was to meet my ex-fiance, but that's a story for another day.