I am not a troublemaker.
I am not a leader.
But I did have a cough.
And I am definitely a complainer.
It wasn’t just pampered sissies like myself. My redundant longshoremen co-workers were coughing their guts up. A raspy “sandpaper” cough, that said,
“Our lungs are not happy.”
You could see it in the air. The room was filled flying flecks of cello-tape, accumulated dust, latent pockets of mold, going,
“Let’s join the cello-tape and dust!”
Whatever it was, it made us all really sick.
Breathing it in all day while wrapping toys for exalted Blue Bloods and “Mucky-mucks”? This was proverbial “Dickens Country.” Charlie D. could have popularized our plight.
The Old Toy-Wrapping Shoppe.
Serialized for the multitudes, chronicling our unnoticed demise.
“Open a window” you say?
There was no window.
No air ducts to carry the hovering detritus away.
Not even a floor fan, blowing the stuff out of our eyes, and, more importantly, away from going up our noses. Or, for mouth breathers, into our mouths.
Our entire workplace was a cubicular “Asthma with walls.”
Something needed to be done. Everybody was sick, and we were coughing on the presents. Somebody had to speak up.
And somehow, I do not know how, that protesting “firebrand” turned out to be me.
And one other guy. Though it sounds better if it’s just me.
I quickly organized the men – I like the way that sounds. Emboldened by the innate justness of our cause, we proceeded en masse to our Glaswegian overseer, demanding that our collective grievances be heard. “Mr. I-Never-Understood-A-Word-He-Was-Saying”, grumbled “Ech-mech-g’hewww”, which, it turned out, was his version of “Okay.”
The man knew we meant business. If we didn’t get heard,
The Harrods “Elves” were going on strike!
Shortly thereafter, my fellow “labor rep” and I were headed down the hall towards the “Personnel Director’s” office for our face-to-face meeting with “Management.” We were like inmates, fighting the warden for “more time in the yard.” That was exactly how I felt. Wondering if my attacking “The System” would earn me a perilous “night in the box.”
As I walked down the hall, I thought of the “pro-labor” camp songs we’d been taught, decrying the gaping disparity between “The Company” and “The Workers.”
“I see the weary miner
Brushing coal dust from his back
And I hear the children crying
Ain’t got no coal to heat the shack.”
“The banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the miners sweated for.”
That song had become a practical reality.
I was now “The weary miner.”
And I was scared.
There were no songs about what they did to the weary miners if they complained. I am pretty sure it wasn’t good.
Like all traumatic experiences, the actual meeting with Harrods’ “Personnel Director” is a tape, thoroughly erased from my memory. I am sure my voice quavered nervously as I explained how everyone in the toy-wrapping room was sick and we needed their immediate help, getting rid of the nonsense in the air, so we could breathe. I knew they could not build us a window. But at least give us a fan.
Though the “particulars” are gone, I recall the ultimate outcome of that encounter.
We were fired.
Which was shocking, but not serious. Our historic encounter took place on December the 23rd. And, the Christmas “Holiday Rush” being completed, we’d have been let go the following day.
Meaning, in reality, we were sacked one day before were out.
How would that look on my “Permanent Record”?
“I have an unblemished work record.”
“That’s not what thissays.”
After our premature dismissal, it took two weeks, baking my chest in Torremolinos in Southern Spain to recover my original breathing capacities. Though to this day, I retain a residual “tickle.”
Postscript: Years later, visiting London, I made a pilgrimage to Harrods, heading upstairs to the “Toy Departure”, where I inquired where the toy-wrapping room was.
Pointed the way, I walked over, quietly cracking open the door.
It looked the same.
Except for one thing.
They had a window.
Adding a verse to the old song:
“I see the weary wrapper
Who no longer has to choke
And I hear them calling to me
‘You are one rebellious bloke.’”