A call for empathy for our city's workers.
Three years ago I was taking the Blue Line bus after a night of revelry. I put my bike on the front of the bus, then entered with my friends. Ten minutes later, I had to get off the bus as the revelry was beginning to segue into its natural partner: needing to vomit immediately. My friends, because they are good friends, followed me off the bus and started consoling me as the bus took off and the night’s festivities began their liquid exit from my belly onto the back of a Toronto Sun newspaper box. After I rose and wiped my face, I looked at my two wonderful friends and dribbled out of my disgusting mouth, “Did any of you grab my bike off the bus before it took off?”
They looked at each other with an ‘Oh shit’ expression on their faces.
“It’s OK,” I sputtered. “It’s fine. I don’t even need it. Biking is stupid anyways; plus, I deserve it; plus, it’s dangerous; and who even likes bikes? I’m more of a unicycle man.” (The night is pretty fuzzy; that’s probably paraphrasing.)
Thankfully, one of my friends was not as easily defeated as I. We hopped onto the next bus and she told the driver about what had happened. Calmly, the man radioed the bus up ahead, which pulled over until we caught up and were able to grab my bike and switch buses. It was one of the nicest things anyone has never done for drunk me (albeit, certainly not for everyone else on either bus). I would not have blamed either driver if they had just told us off, because anyone who has been on the Blue Line bus knows driving that thing must feel like driving the riverboat in Apocalypse Now, but with more vomit.
I think about this story a lot. Toronto is not a city with a lot of compassion for the worker. Oh, we may vote NDP and worry over income inequality while we drink our craft beers, but when it comes down to supporting our fellow workers we are nowhere to be found. We are much more likely to attack them. I don’t know if it’s the result of an economy that has been squeezing and degrading most for the past 25 years leaving bitterness and resentment, or if it’s some weird Protestant work-ethic leftover, but Torontonians (like Canadians in general) love to shit on other workers. Especially if you are in a unionized force, people will have no problem describing you as lazy, bad at your job, and, of course, that you either deserve the hate or shouldn’t be making that much money.
TTC workers take a huge part of this resentment. Torontonians complaining about the TTC is maybe my least favourite part of this city. Every day on the internet there are people complaining about the service in the transit system, that a driver was rude or a booth collector didn’t know the answer to a question. This despite the fact that Ontarians react to new taxes, which would improve the TTC, as though they’d have to be paid with the blood of a family member. Furthermore, as evidenced above, my experience with TTC operators as usually been pleasant, if not great. Sometimes they have been rude, but I usually pay it no mind because it’s probably the worse dealing with tens of thousands of commuters every day. Plus, my self-esteem doesn’t usually rely on my interactions with public transportation operators.
The same callousness came to the fore during a recent protest by cab drivers against Uber at city hall. Cabbies were trying to bring attention to what they think is Uber’s unfair advantage in not needing to be licensed by the city, resulting in their own declining incomes. The protest was met with disdain instead of sympathy. People took it as an opportunity to unload their grievances about every horrible experience with a cab driver that they’d had, citing these grievances as proof that now cab drivers were getting “what they deserved.”
It’s this language of retribution that troubles me. The same thing sprouted up when former mayor Rob Ford was privatizing garbage collection. While it was occurring, there was strong undercurrent in the press and the populace that garbage collectors were getting what they deserved for their 2009 strike. Because obsolescence is apparently the fair return for engaging in a legal action to protect your wages and pensions.
That is, I think, the ethics of our economy now. It’s no longer about solidarity—if it ever was—but instead a grimy morality play. We see each other only through lenses of envy and competition.
This is not to say that there aren’t horrible employees in the TTC, that Uber isn’t the future, or that some city employees aren’t absurdly lax on the job. I just mean to question the bloodlust, the hatred that we unleash on people doing their jobs. I grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, a Northern Ontario town whose economy is based on the bankruptcy cycles of a steel mill. Growing up there I learned the tragedy of unemployment firsthand. It’s devastating for people, one of the worst things that can happen to you, and we should not be wishing it upon people without at first asking ourselves a very important question:
What are you like at your job?
It’s a fair question. It is what keeps me from harshly judging people, from servers to construction workers. I’ve been rude to people at work, I’ve been late, I’ve been stoned, and I’ve lost count of the times where I was so hungover that I laid on the floor of the bathroom of work for half an hour clutching a majestic toilet. I guess what I’m saying is I am not a great employee. But who is? Jobs can suck, and they’re the worst part of the day for a lot of people. Who and where are these people who are always operating optimally at work?
This is a humble proposal to remember that under the grizzled facade of every TTC employee there is a human being with a family and, possibly, dashed dreams. This empathy will only get more important if we continue the path we are on into a digital service economy that attempts to cater to our every whim while reducing obstacles and interactions with people to a bare minimum. Human beings are never going to perfect at their jobs; we are going to have good days and bad days. We should have patience and appreciate this because it will make all of our bad days at work easier, and because the alternative is an economy without people at all.
But hey, maybe that’s what we want. If there are no jobs with people in them there will certainly be fewer rude bus drivers.