Register Tuesday | December 18 | 2018

An Airside Gambol

Portrait of the artist as an off-ramp attendant

I came to baggage handling by default. With a year-old child to support, and my wife and I trying to set aside money for a house, I needed to find something with a steady paycheque. For most of a decade I had drifted from one job to the next with ski instruction as the only constant. To my ex-wife’s credit then, in the fall of 1977, I found myself lining up with a dozen other ramp initiates for a training course at Mirabel airport.

I say to her credit, because though I backslid my way into unionized, long-term, blue-collar employment, and though the dread of being stuck there danced at the periphery of my thoughts in those years, something else was happening: the work steadied me. It was physical labour, conducted outdoors and accompanied by a salary that acknowledged the responsibility of working with heavy machinery for part of each week. I could now pay my bills and my best energy was available to me in the morning hours before I went on shift.

Of course, it is hard to say whether 25 years of off-loading aircraft in all kinds of weather has made me approach the other occupation in my life differently from someone who has taught a college English class for that long. How does a pedagogue’s approach to literature—and, more pointedly, writing—differ from my dilettante’s relationship to them? Do I gain an advantage by coming at verse from the sidelines?

Auden would probably say that Dame Language doesn’t give a damn for credentials or for how a writer gets from the tarmac or the palace of learning to the occasional epiphany at the writing table. Whether you are a teacher or an airport stevedore vacuuming rows 10 to 25 on a midnight cabin-cleaning detail, you are professing to know something that can’t be gleaned from match-cover correspondence courses from Famous Writers’ School.

The initial thing to know about ramp work is that it is a tradeless trade. Being a station attendant may require towing aircraft in a snowstorm, or crossing seat belts on a walk-through cabin groom of a Toronto-Montreal flight. The first responsibility requires vigilance and spatial judgement, the second could be done by a high school theatre usher. It is work that is physical but that you can’t depend on to keep you in shape. It includes sunrises, sunsets, double rainbows and advancing weather patterns you aren’t likely to see on the street, but they come perfumed with propwash and accompanied by decibel levels that will remove the upper limits of your hearing if that isn’t already genetically in the cards for you by age 50. It consists of de-icing, towing, loading and unloading aircraft, and formerly consisted also of cabin grooming and meal catering. If you happen to be over 5 foot 6 and not graced with a bull-like physique, you can count on a creaky lower back or a sprung knee by the end of your tenure.

These small nuisance factors aside, there is considerable downtime. You are well paid (though the future of good pay for toting baggage and cargo looks seriously compromised, if not yet a fairy tale impossibility). Provided you work safely and show up for flights, no one gets on your case. What could be simpler? What could encourage a profitably woolgathering state of mind better than working around airplanes? Fire ranger in the Cascade mountains? I wonder. Kerouac got pretty tired up in his shack at the end of his summer forestry stint in the Pacific Northwest, but he channelled those experiences into what strikes me as his most readable novel: The Dharma Bums.

There are fine stretches of being a ramp attendant—usually coinciding with summer—where you get the impression you are part of an aeronautical work camp for happy eccentrics gathered in off the street for a second chance at gainful employment. “Standing by” becomes your working motto. You eat, read, pace around in a world that requires you to navigate between neutral and first gear. Not surprisingly, great attention is paid to punctuality and on-time performance. But initiative is best left in the parking lot. Why? Initiative can get you into trouble. You learn that thinking more than one step ahead can be hazardous. There are too many big pieces of equipment moving around an airplane for fancy footwork. And anyway, you are not paid to think two steps ahead. Hence, a dumbing down will occur if you have no outside interests—outside being another atypical word to be bandying about in reference to a host of other professions unless you are looking for work with Correctional Services of Canada.

A parallel exists here, if only as regards the carrying of a security pass when going from the passenger side of Domestic Arrivals (where long-awaited reunions are taking place) to your airside work area. You do this by presenting a magnetized ID to a computerized wall sensor and—since September 11—punching in your four digit security code. A glass door slides open and you stroll past the uniformed security guard then through another two sets of doors into what is colloquially known as the Zone Area.

How lucky, then, if you carry an interest with you that improves your demeanour as you stride past that row of collapsed office chairs where men in Jackie Gleason bus drivers’ jackets, reflective piping on their sleeves, sip vending machine coffee and wait for their Airbus off-loads to come in. You are one of them. You will be working a half-dozen flights in dicey weather, but you also happen to be turning over a possible title for a poem or building the porch of a fishing camp in your mind.

As for the folks who sit in those collapsed office chairs, they come from as many different walks of life, familial backgrounds and casts of character as you are likely to encounter in a city council chamber. They range from broad-minded, generous-hearted, extraordinarily well-informed men and women to walking incarnations of Flem Snopes. And without taking anything away from the high end of ramp citizenry, it is often the low-end, Ritalin-requiring, inner-monologue-become-external types who offer themselves to inspirational moments of eavesdropping. Plopped on a sofa between flights, you find you don’t need to see another David Mamet play.

Here, in front of the coffee machine at Zone 1, is a beefy 50-year-old with perfectly coiffed, dyed brown hair. His voice and delivery make me think I am watching Al Pacino at a teaching workshop. The man in question is addressing a much younger ramp worker, about the former’s recent checkup:

AL PACINO
You know what it means when a doctor tells you you’ve got a 48 pulse? When a doctor tells you you’ve got a 48 pulse, it’s like being told by God you’re gonna live forever. Welcome to the Century Club. When he said: “Mr. Etchevery, you are a medical specimen. I have never seen anybody your age, sir, with as slow a heart beat,” I just about fell off the table. I knew I was in good shape ( . . . he taps himself hard on the chest) but I’m sitting in that clinic worried about chest pains—he tells me I got an Olympic heart? You know what that means? I’m gonna see my grandkids go gray.

A SECOND VOICE
Hey, Etch—is that Grecian Formula you use or Loving Care?

A THIRD VOICE
Hey, and Etch, can you tell us how that shoving match went the other day with the security guard at Domestic Arrivals? Did your pulse get over 48?

AL “ETCH” PACINO
OK, smartasses. Fuck you. I clocked myself on a bike on my way in here, and my heart was like you wish yours was in your sleep. (He glares at the wall-mounted TV at the other end of the break room.) What’s that you’re watching anyway—WWF again? Figures.

Not that I would want to work regularly with some of the Dorval ramp’s more colourful monologue artists. A six-month loading schedule with a guy who keeps bragging about how he won the Electrolux door-to-door sales trophy for southern Quebec in 1971 can put a crimp on the smooth passage of time. And even the inspired motormouths who convince you they could have a lounge act at Caesars Palace if only the right agent would back them are best eavesdropped on from a distance. One of the Deans of the Dorval baggage room—a man with a dead-fish-eye look, a gravelly voice and an innate sense of timing—convinced me early on that all he needed was a little stage direction, a brief period of rehearsal and he could take his street-smart, Richard-the-Third sense of angry entitlement to all the fringe festivals across Canada.

Brilliant mileage has been made of closed, blue-collar working milieus, however, and the example that comes repeatedly to my mind is Philip Levine. His dozen best poems, culled from a few short years as a line worker in the automotive industry in Detroit, exactly capture the environment I have known for the last 25 years. Al Purdy also deserves mention for “Piling Blood.” Unfortunately, Mr. Purdy gets posthumous bad press; I suspect because he pushed the aw-shucks-folks-I’m-not-really-a-sophisticated-guy-just-a-down-home-fella thing a little too often in too many poems. But on the occasions when he sidestepped that (“Arctic Rhododendrons” and “The Country North Of Belleville”) he made me see that excellent work could come from non-academic quarters.

In my own mind, I keep returning to the dichotomy I feel between the person working airside and the person who writes and publishes. It is easy to feel that nurturing any intellectual aspirations while carrying a baby stroller up to the door of an aircraft is imposter’s hubris. I was once asked by a line pilot, while riding up a chairlift at Mont-Sainte-Anne at an airline ski meet, if I intended to do something worthwhile with my life besides loading baggage. I had nothing to say to him, since what I considered important in the long term almost certainly wouldn’t have struck him as a career goal. An ironic postscript to that moment on the chairlift is that I have often been asked by the simply curious whether I am a pilot. Dental hygienists, bank tellers, car rental people—they all apparently think the same thing: “This guy must be at home around airspeed indicators and vertical stabilizers.” I never skip a beat in saying: “No, I unload airplanes.” Over the years, I have come to see that my case is not that unusual. There are plenty of station attendants being mistaken for pilots.

Time has done something to diminish that two-selved feeling, though I doubt anything short of retirement will eradicate it. Retirement may make no difference either. It may be part of any writer’s necessary distancing apparatus to feel they have been parachuted in from somewhere else and are fending as best they can in the real world. Back in the eighties, I used to pretend I was working on homework for a night school course at McGill, which was half-true. I was using a certificate program in French-English translation to push my own writing forward while acquiring a marketable skill. When someone would find me poring over journal entries at work, I would shrug and say it was a translation. Then about eight years ago, I dropped the subterfuge.

In the long run you have to ask yourself whether, as a writer, 25 or 30 years of performing a series of rote physical tasks to pay the rent and groceries is counterbalanced by your not having to bring the unpleasant aspects of that job home. Are you any freer to pursue an emerging vocation? Perhaps it is more accurate to say you are equally free with a different set of constraints, chief among them being the numbing factor of repetitive work.

It is also worth mentioning that a lot can go wrong in a short time, and while it is spectacular to see a taxiing jumbo jet do an inadvertent 360˚ on an icy apronway as I once did from a warm-up hut at Mirabel, there are more ominous things that can occur at close quarters around all big jets: pushback tractors can jackknife into airplanes on a slippery tarmac, baggage containers can mysteriously slide off dollies and roll into engine cowlings, motorized loaders can puncture fuselages while their operators are trying to manoeuver in close enough during a snowstorm to off-load baggage and cargo.

In retrospect though, I feel fortunate. A generation of us ground workers who were not mechanics or avionic engineers have made a decent living around airplanes. Our job conditions have been superior in almost every respect to what our predecessors experienced 50 years ago. However, I am referring to a small interregnum period. What was gained through union-company bargaining sessions during decades of unprecedented affluence is shrinking. A window of middle class comfort is being shut. Privatization and shareholder accountability will almost certainly turn airport stevedoring into a catch-as-catch-can, part-time existence. Still, for the wistful present, and with an understanding of what I could be doing on the outside with my current skills and level of education, I’ll keep strolling past the doors at Domestic Arrivals.