At the age of 16 I got my first real job. I became a part-time mail handler at the Post Office Department, which in 1969 was not yet called Canada Post. I worked at Terminal A, a huge place attached to Union Station in downtown Toronto. My shift was 5 to 10 p.m., five days a week. My schooling suffered, but I’d lost interest in high school anyway. My mother agreed I’d might as well pick up some job skills so as not to end up as a hobo. I’d mowed lawns for the neighbours and clerked in a Mac’s Milk store, but this was the big time. A union job. Two dollars and five cents an hour.
Low-seniority mail handlers were sent nightly to various areas in Terminal A on an as-needed basis. But every night we started our shift down in Third Class Primary Sort, the Circs Room. In the Circs Room bags of circulars, magazines and junk mail were dumped out onto a huge table, around which we stood and sorted.
The idea was to shuffle the circs into trays two feet long, with all the addresses right side up and facing in the same direction. When your tray was full you put it into an eight-foot long plywood cart known as a coffin. You then took an empty tray and went back to the big table. When the coffin was full one of us took it upstairs. That man (and we were all men; there were no women handlers) was usually able to duck out for a quick smoke on the way back down to Circs.
There was no urgency in the handling of third class mail. My impression was that no one, not handlers, clerks nor supervisors really cared whether the stuff was actually delivered or not. Some nights there were half a dozen handlers working in Circs, other times there were thirty or more of us. Handlers, singly or in small groups, came and went all evening as directed by supervisors from various areas in the huge building that was Terminal A. We were the Post Office Department’s reserve army of labour.
If you were lucky you were pulled away to spend a few hours working upstairs in First Class, or maybe even Air Mail. Otherwise you stayed in Circs, filling up your tray, chatting about school, girls, horse-racing, whatever. Anything to pass the time.
One night my friend Garth left the Circs Room for good and was assigned to work in the Bag Room on the second floor. In Bags a conveyor belt dumped out empty mail bags from all over Terminal A. These were inspected, sorted and stacked by Garth and his two colleagues onto large four-wheeled vehicles know as wagons. Full wagons were hauled away by a tractor, hitched together in a train.
Bags was much better work than Circs, mainly because there was a beginning and an end to the process. Circs was an awful assembly line that just rolled endlessly; a place where time seemed to stand still. In Bags Garth’s group started their shift with five empty wagons and a pile of unsorted canvass, and finished up at 10 p.m. with five neat loads of bags, ready to go back into the system. Garth was free and doing interesting, meaningful work; I was still stuck in Circs. I was disconsolate.
A few weeks later my turn came and I was assigned to Air Mail, the top of the heap for a mail handler. The only rung above Air Mail was the closed door mystery of Registered Mail. Registered was the Area 51 of Terminal A. We knew that handlers worked in there but we never saw them. Cash and negotiable instruments were sent by registered mail, so security was tight. Maybe they all carried guns in there, who knows? No one I spoke to had ever been inside Registered.
Air Mail was a good gig. Two handlers worked with five clerks to place pre-sorted bundles of mail into bright blue mail bags destined for specific airports. There was a strict timeline, so we all worked together to be done by 10 p.m. The clerks stood around coffins full of air mail in the centre of a circle of racked lightweight bags. They threw the mail at the blue bags like basketball players. The two handlers, Rick and I, picked up the odd missed throw but there were few of those. The clerks were good. When a bag was full we removed it from the rack and towed it over to a scale where a clerk weighed it and filled out a card on a length of twine. The handler was then entrusted the job of wrapping the twine around the neck of the bag, slipping a lead seal onto the two loose ends, and crushing the lead tight with a special tool.
In Air Mail I absorbed my first real work lessons. I learned about the comforts of work comradeship, about the satisfaction of seeing a job through from beginning to end, about teamwork and joint endeavour. The evenings flew by.
The experience was only to last about three months, however. In the summer of 1970 Garth and I quit the post office to go out to California and bum around for a while. Garth eventually went on to a very successful career in commercial real estate.