The Waiting Room

In Criticism, Financial on February 13, 2010 at 3:11 PM
Every couple of years, I pay a visit to one of the shittiest places in Toronto: Rexdale. In the mid-1980s, my family was poor and the five of us lived snugly in a two bedroom apartment there.

I was too small to understand, but my father was in a deep hurry to move out of that area. Rexdale was (and still is) a hotbed for poor immigrant families just starting out. Success meant you could graduate to some place like Mississauga, much safer and quieter in comparison. My father’s career had a habit of failing immediately after succeeding, and housing five people in a two bedroom cement block was how you got your bearings during the lows.

When we finally moved, we were proud to leave everything behind. So what draws us back to Rexdale every so often? We come back to get our eyes checked.

Now, I’m sure everyone thinks their optometrist is the best, but Dr. Snow is seriously the best. He caught a hole in my retina a few years back when there was no reason to be looking. He could have prescribed me glasses when I was a kid but didn’t because I was a borderline case (this is honourable because he makes money from selling glasses). My sisters praise him too.

But he’s not friendly or hospitable in anyway. To be honest, I still get nervous when he asks me questions, because he has absolutely no patience for vague answers. For example, here is something that happened in my last visit:

Snow: Does anyone in your family have Diabetes?
Umar: Well…um…do you mean my immediate family?
Snow: Okay, let me repeat. Does anyone in your family have Diabetes?
Umar: Yes. But nobody in my immediate family.
Snow: It would help if you told me who it was.
Umar: Right…um…
Snow: For example, it is your father’s mother?
Umar: Yes, actually my father’s mother had diabetes.
Snow: Thank you. Who else?
Umar: Uh…also my mother’s brother.
Snow: You mean your uncle.
Umar: Yes, my uncle. Sorry.

I know by now not to mess with him when he’s flipping lenses in order to determine my exact prescription. You only say that lens 1 is better than 2 when it’s clearly better. Otherwise, just say that it’s the same. It’s okay if he’s mildly annoyed that you can’t spot the difference between the two lenses. He will just sigh deeply, and continue to repeat the same sequences over and over. What you want to avoid is saying something like, “um….I think the first one is better.” He totally loses it if you say you “think” something. You need to assert yourself. Man, I love that guy.

But this isn’t about Dr. Snow. It’s actually about the hour I spent in the waiting room. I listened to two men who spoke to each other with excitement in an otherwise quiet room. They had been re-united. They had worked for the same company a while back, and had lost touch since that company folded.

As they ran through the missing details in each others’ lives, I couldn’t help but notice that it was the same story repeating itself: company failure. As it turned out, both of them had worked for several different Ontario manufacturing companies in the area since the 1970s. One was an engineer and the other was in sales.

Personally, I’ve only worked in the service sector and from what I’ve seen people have a tendency to skip from job to job. Not only is there no desire to stay at a company for a long time, but there are rarely consequences to flipping jobs every few years.

These men didn’t do this by choice. They had to leave because their companies kept dying. They talked about it with such nonchalance; reciting the names of fallen companies as if they were reminiscing over their favourite films.

I managed to enter the dialogue by sneaking in a question about manufacturing and its future in Ontario. Everyone in the waiting room got involved at this point. Below are some snippets of what was said, which I found to be both frank and enlightening:

“What was it Lee Iacocca used to say? It’s all a big circle, you see? If you don’t have the people making the cars, you won’t have the people buying the cars.”

“The worst mistake management made was to open their books and show the unions the money. They never had control after that.”

“Free Trade messed everything up for us. We couldn’t compete after free trade.”

“The thing is none of these companies lasted long enough for me to get a proper pension. But I’ll be okay. I work every other week designing basketball courts for schools in Ontario. But believe me, son, it’s not like in the commercials. Freedom at 65 was it?

“Actually, It’s 65 now. They used to say 55!”

We all laughed at this, but when I turned my head Dr. Snow was waiting for me with his arms folded.

  1. What a great blog post, Umar. Your tales of Dr. Snow and Freedom 55 (bringing back memories now!) have brightened up my dreary morning!

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