“It builds character.”
These words of encouragement, long-favoured by well-intentioned relatives and friends, cycled endlessly in my mind as I sat behind my faux-wood desk in my soon-to-be-former cubicle on the west side of the fourteenth floor of Gulf Canada Square in suddenly not-so-opportunity-filled Calgary. I was numb.
A few minutes prior, my phone had inevitably rung inviting me to take my dead man’s walk to the conference room where my soon-to-be-former boss uncomfortably informed me I was no longer employed. Supposedly a kinder way to fire people, this homage to capital punishment was the brilliant idea of the new management team.
Two months before this, literally days before Christmas as if mocking the stereotype, I survived a similar staff reduction as two hundred of my co-workers were sent reeling into the holidays with severance packages and all the office supplies they could fit into a moving box.
Eight months before that I’d been newly recruited by Gulf Canada Resources, moved to Calgary all expenses paid, bought a house by maxing out my pre-approved mortgage and borrowing every penny in my modest RRSP, and began what would be a long, rewarding career with a founding corporation of the Alberta oil patch.
Now, ten months later, I was unemployed, minimally experienced, and massively indebted. I was about to build a skyscraper’s worth of character.
Boom-bust cycles in Alberta’s energy industry are legendary. This was just another of countless before and countless to come. Getting laid off, though traumatic, is a badge of honour in Calgary. Everyone has their story. Still, until it happens to you directly, you really don’t quite understand the emotions that those lucrative severance packages come wrapped in.
And these weren’t even my first experiences with layoffs. Four years earlier still, I was a wide-eyed co-op student whose only impression of the oil patch came from television commercials for Dallas. Then four classmates and I secured eight month work terms at Gulf and all that changed. Teetering towards bankruptcy, the banks brought in an authentic J.R. Ewing to save their floundering investment. True to form, he immediately fired half the staff. He did, however, promise to honour our co-op contracts thereby anointing the five of us as the only employees guaranteed to retain jobs. Now that’s an initiation to the oil industry.
Having twice witnessed such carnage, I was finally enduring my first stint as victim. Two weeks shy of twenty-nine, odds were pretty high it would not be my last. But worry could wait. Right now, as I finished packing up the few trinkets with which I’d decorated my cubicle, I knew more pressing chores lay immediately ahead. Find a new job? Sure. Get roommates to help pay the mortgage? Yes. But first it was time to test the threshold of alcohol poisoning, another time-honoured ritual in the patch.
With all victims notified, much of the staff bolted for the nearest bar to get disgustingly drunk in one final hurrah for laid-off friends and to release their own stress. The still employed picked up the tab while the unemployed picked themselves off the floor many times before the day ended. Drowning sorrows also builds character.
It’s impressive how adrenaline mixed with fear can exponentially heighten alcohol tolerance. Or perhaps I simply didn’t care how hungover I would be the next morning, having no job to wake for. Regardless, I ingested more alcohol that afternoon than I ever had previously or have since. It became one of those perfectly memorable days in which you forget everything. It was also a much needed stay from the mourning sure to come when the reality of losing my job finally registered. And if I’d known all that awaited me, I’d have stayed at that bar drinking draught beer by the pint and colourful liquors by the shot building character in foggy bliss.
My former employer was not wholly void of compassion. They provided each dismissed employee with a severance package according to tenure and stature. Minimum was three months salary which, for a novice of ten months like me, was a lucrative reward for having my life shattered. In addition, to help facilitate our finding new careers, the company gave us each access to the services of an employment agency where we were assigned a counsellor to help us transition back into the workforce.
This was helpful to older employees who had not canvassed for work since the first Trudeau endeared himself to Albertans. Their job hunting skills were understandably rusty. Furthermore, they were potentially more emotionally shocked having families to support, so the counselling was valuable. For someone like me, a recent university graduate and mere months removed from finding the job I’d just lost, I assumed my skills remained fresh. Still, I figured a little advice and support couldn’t hurt, so I signed up as well. Besides, it gave me a place to go.
My first order of business was a resume critique from my assigned career consultant. Let’s call him Fred. Fred was a friendly fellow in his mid-fifties with a kindly, father-figure demeanor just this side of creepy. He had many years of experience in this field which, I suppose, was meant to give me added confidence in what he was about to share. But having just lost my job after less than a year, hearing “I’ve had this job a long time” wasn’t terribly endearing.
Fred also showed little interest in actually critiquing my resume, preferring to initiate a detailed re-evaluation of my career. Again, that’s probably a good thing for someone who’d just been canned after fifteen years in the same cubicle, but I’d done exactly this only ten months previously when I’d left my environmental hydrogeologist job in Saskatoon for this oil exploration geologist job in Calgary. I’d gone from saving the planet to razing it; hard to get a more detailed re-evaluation than that.
“The way I see it, you’re young, you’re bright, you’re good-looking, you’re interesting,” Fred paused before continuing with this bombshell. “Have you ever thought of being a Chippendales dancer?”
I was relatively fit but even a cursory glance at my spindly arms with all the muscle definition of an Ikea table quickly negates any pretense of me being a suitable male stripper. I was sure Fred was joking and so my first instinct was to laugh. That urge quickly dissipated when I noticed the frightening look of sincerity plastered across Fred’s face.
“Ha! Oh. OH! God, no! I’m too lazy to work out enough to get that kind of physique”, I said, pausing briefly before adding, “Besides, I get extremely nervous just talking to strangers, especially women, let alone dangling my equally anxious manhood in front of them.”
It remains unclear which part of my brain decided to engage in conversation about my nervousness around women with a man who’d just suggested I become a stripper. I suspect the part in charge of character building. Thankfully my allotted time ended, enabling escape without further discomfort. Not so thankfully, I was scheduled to return the next day for more “resume help”. In light of what had just transpired, the fact I was getting a massage immediately prior to our next appointment suddenly felt ominous.
I arrived, fresh and relaxed. Okay, that’s not true. It was my first ever massage and “deep tissue massage” isn’t anywhere as enjoyable as it sounds. I also wished I was anywhere but Fred’s office. It turns out, for good reason.
“What did you do today, Jamie?” he asked in his unnervingly innocent manner.
“I went for a massage,” I replied, immediately regretting the opening I’d provided Fred. He didn’t disappoint.
“Why did you go to a massage? Won’t your girlfriend do that for you? Did you have a male or female masseuse?”
Fred’s bizarre questions came so rapidly I was unable to respond with anymore more than awkward chuckles and a flush of red to my face. I managed to reveal that my masseuse was female, as if gender made Fred’s inevitable follow-up question any less dreadful.
“Were you worried about getting aroused?” asked Fred.
Once again my character building brain stepped up with affirmation when any sane brain would have known to shut up. “Pickles grass egg sky,” would have been more effective in avoiding what Fred said next.
“Life is pretty unfair about that. Men show their excitement so much more visually than women do. It’s too bad there is such discomfort about that because I think a hard-on is a great feeling.”
That was the last time I ever saw Fred. I suppose this experience did build my character. I learned to trust my ability to create a quality resume, confirmed soon after when I landed a fantastic new job. Still, I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the character building those prognosticators had in mind and I sure as hell hope it wasn’t what my former employer had in mind either.
I still haven’t attempted becoming a Chippendales dancer.
This was my submission for the CBC Creative Non-Fiction Contest in 2016. I didn’t win. I wasn’t short-listed. I wasn’t long-listed. I was nothing. Humour was not in fashion this year.