Snow Job
[ Issue 48 ]

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Bikwil salutes Snow Job

Snow Job

Robert Tuohey here gives us the story of a newly unemployed young man who wanted work, and who found it in an unexpected place.

The old man’s paternal granddad had opened that shop in 1935, with a loan from FDR. Two and a half generations had been proud to produce fine tools and make a decent living by it. Sure, there had been some tough times too, but quality, hard work, and guts had always won out.

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Snow Job — Robert Tuohey


A man needs to work. And this is not just a matter of survival. It’s through this work that a man knows, or at least feels, that he’s going somewhere. Now, when he arrives at that place – there is no “finally” – he may pause and take a breath or two — but then he just pushes on.

This, and maybe nothing more, is what it means to be a man.

Which brings us to Jim Hardson, who, like any man, just wanted to work. The problem, however, was simple: there was no work to be had.

Jim had, since graduating high school, worked in a small machine shop. But Mitchell’s Tools, along with a lot of other small businesses, had been slowly squeezed out, or, better put, choked to death, by the big corporations that had moved in. The pattern was always pretty much the same: first, new orders slowed, then fell off sharply. In this lean period, an unused warehouse might be closed, or an extra truck sold off. But it wouldn’t be enough, and so the lay-offs would start.

These lay-offs would be thought of as temporary. In a few months, when things picked up again, everybody would be hired back. So you tried to stretch a dollar, and took whatever happened to come along. Even a couple of part-times, whatever.

But things didn’t pick up, and small businesses went from the red into closure. And local people’s lives went from bad to worse.

Old man Mitchell said he felt like a bum when he closed the place. He’d never been so ashamed in all his life as having to put 24 people out of work. And in winter, too. His own son, with two kids of his own, had been shop manager. Now, like the rest, out of a job.

The old man’s paternal granddad had opened that shop in 1935, with a loan from FDR. Two and a half generations had been proud to produce fine tools and make a decent living by it. Sure, there had been some tough times too, but quality, hard work, and guts had always won out.

But now? Well, people and quality were out, and machines and mediocrity were in.

He held out as long as he could. Maybe even longer. At last, there was nothing left to do but cut everybody a month’s severance, type up letters of recommendation, and file for Chapter 11.

Jim and a few of the other fellows had tried at some of the new factories. Each time, however, they got the same song: 1) you were over-paid at you last job, 2) you’re over-skilled for this work, and 3) we don’t need any additional workers at this time, anyway. You might try in a couple of months, for the cleaning crew.

At 21, Jim already knew that life was mostly hard knocks. But at that age, your strength, and inexperience, provide optimism. Old man Mitchell, however, who could see more than he wanted to say, had told everybody, “Apply for unemployment right away. ‘Cuz ya never know, an’ things don’t look so good.”

The darkly ironic aspect of what is commonly known as the unemployment office having the nerve to publicly term itself the “Employment Office” is generally lost on people who have hungry children or are about to be evicted, or both. Again, too, the stultifying quiet of the place is something only unconsciously perceived.

You seem to hold your breath as you wait, listening. Listening to the static buzz of the lights, to the scrap of the shoes against the floor as the endless lines shuffle forward, to murmured half-heard conversations, beside you or far-off behind blurred glass partitions, to the intermittent ring of telephones . . .

There is, however, the occasional outburst to perk things up. It will be noted (everything is noted) that the outraged individual creating this ruckus, this momentary blip on the screen of bureaucratic bliss, this gratuitous disturbance of the carefully contrived funeral-pallor atmosphere, invariably fulfils two conditions. First, this person will be unaware of the surreal reality governing the Employment Office (i.e., it is his or her first time out of work). Second, “dependents”, as children are termed, will be waiting at home.

The authorities have studied these cases (everything is studied), and have found that, invariably, one of three conclusions will ensue. Most likely, the angered person will rapidly quiet down, settling into a kind of numbed stupor, staring dumbly at a “benefit” check that amounts not to one third of a normal week’s pay (and that limited to X weeks). Second, a moderate number will be so incensed as to storm out of unemployment, yelling to all within earshot, that the mayor or their brother-in-law who works on the local newspaper will hear about this. Finally, a rather small, but growing, number will actually have the police called on them. These insistently naďve individuals are then charged with breach of peace, disorderly conduct, and so on, and then efficiently hauled off to the local jail (under current social conditions, standing up for one’s rights is no longer permitted in the “Land of the Free”, as many have noted).

Jim, however, had no illusions. Although vaguely entertaining the notion that the government did do something for people, in his own experience he’d never known them to do anything but collect taxes, hand out speeding tickets, and occasionally pave the roads.

Well, all this being the case (and in government offices, everything is a “case”), Jim could only laugh when the sour-faced fellow behind the desk informed him, after three hours filled with as many multi-page forms, that his benefit would amount to a grand total of 42 dollars per week, for 15 weeks. Starting in two weeks. Minus tax.

As he walked out of unemployment, printed copy of “leads” in his shirt pocket (a list of three companies he knew damn well not to be hiring, but was obliged nonetheless to apply to in order to “qualify” for his benefit), Jim once again sized up his situation.

First was the rent and the car payment: his savings could handle those for a couple of months. But then he’d be flat broke. Next, 42 bucks wouldn’t go very far in terms of a week’s food and gas, but he figured he’d just have to skip a few meals and charge the fuel. About the electric and the phone . . . Well, Jim always kind of wondered how long you could go before Ma and Con cut you off.

The wind snapped at Jim’s face as he unlocked the car. For the first time, he found himself considering the term “repossession”. Though only two o’clock, the sky was dark, and the temperature dropping. Pulling the leads from his pocket, he frowned at the memory of the pencil-necked geek who’d pushed them across the desk at him.

Number one was Devon Corporation: “World famous manufacturer of fine paper products . . .” Jim snorted in derision, the cold air pluming white. Devon, everybody and their dog knew, churned out cheap toilet paper, and the only thing they were famous for was treating their employees like crap.

Jim sighed at even the thought of working for Devil Corp. (as it was locally known). The rows and rows nondescript concrete buildings; the huge, circular water-treatment plants that stunk to high heaven and deep hell; and every fool in the joint droned-out in blue work clothes, heart covered by the devil’s name and number.

A hard, cold wind rattled the tops of the bare trees, and Jim glanced up through the windshield at the cloudy sky. Yeah, it looked like it would get worse before better. Well, at least one problem was nailed down: a month back Jim had put on the snow-tires and even tossed a sturdy shovel into the truck for good measure. No, he wouldn’t get stuck.

“Ok!” he said aloud, with resolution, as he shifted the car into gear, “time to pay the devil a visit.”

Eyes on the road, Jim pulled out of unemployment.


The personnel section of Devil Corp. was not busy; in fact, it contained but a single woman, blue-clad and neatly barricaded behind a solidly stacked desk. As Jim entered the silent, air-tight enclosure, the mechanized door spring hissing after him, the woman did not look up, but merely continued on assiduously filling-in whatever it what was she was filling-in.

“Excuse me,” Jim said to the tight bronze bun bowed to the numbered boxes. The woman, expressionless, condescended to direct her eyes upward.

“I wonder if you have any openings – ” he began, but before he could say anymore the woman was already shaking her manikin-like head.

It was quite obvious from her expression – she had no openings. Quite untouchable. Impregnable, one might say.

“I’m sorry, we’re not hiring now,” came the bland phrase. “You might try again in a couple of months.” She returned her attention to the empty boxes.

For a second, Jim considered asking for an application, if for the sole and sorry reason of “proof of appearance”. He then rejected the idea: unemployment wasn’t horseshoes and they weren’t giving away a damn thing.

The cool nip had turned to a cold bite, and snow, in a steady drift, had begun to fall. Jim looked up through the white swirl, then down to the hard, black of the parking lot. The ground was just as cold; it was already sticking, beginning to pile up. How long would it last?

The sudden fall threw the town’s traffic into a minor tangle. The thin-frame econo-models, as well as the all-engine sports jobs, spun and whirred. A few, in their hot impatience to get wherever they were getting to, managed to slide themselves off the road completely. Jim, however, simply kept his eyes wide open, a firm grip on the wheel, and let the tires do their work. Getting home was slow work, but he got there.

The snow continued the rest of the day, and all through the night. When Jim tried to open his front door the next morning he found a foot of snow blocking it. Down the street, in fact as far as he could see, the thick, white cover lay unbroken, its frozen top glistening in the cold morning sun. Even the plough-trucks had yet to venture out. It seemed everyone was waiting for someone else. Well, at least it had stopped.

Jim didn’t even bother to close the half-open door, but merely turned and threw on his overcoat, boots, and hat.

“Lord helps those . . .” he said as he forced the door fully open. Knee-deep, he crunched and high-stepped his way to his buried car. The trunk was unlocked and the shovel retrieved.

Within minutes, a nice clear path was cut from car to door. Jim stood for a moment on his cleaned doorstep, looking away down the street at the gentle, rolling whiteness.

A window banged open. Next door, on the second floor, old man Gaston stuck his thin, bald head out into the chill winter morning, looking about in disbelief. Gaping (dentures not in), he stared slack-jawed at the whiteness that spread out before him.

Despite appearances, the furnace was on (as evidenced by the absence of snow on the roof). The old man called out to Jim.

“Hey, young man!”

Jim raised a gloved hand in greeting. “‘Mornin’, Mr. G!”

“Use that shovel to get to my door,” Gaston yelled back, his breath puffs of white, “An’ you’ll find ten bucks waitin’ for ya!”

“I’m on my way!” Jim called back, laughing.

Within minutes, a pair of crispy Lincolns were slid into Jim’s pocket.

He stood for a moment, leaning on his shovel, taking a breath in the icy air.

Then, as there was an awful lot of snow in front of an awful lot of houses, he put the shovel over his shoulder, and moved on down the line.

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