Mitchell Toews, 6/19/2017

Current Occupation: writer
Former Occupation: marketing
Contact Information: Mitchell Toews lives and writes at a lakeside cottage in Manitoba. When an insufficient number of, "We are pleased to inform you…" emails are on hand, he finds alternative joy in the windy intermingling between the top of the water and the bottom of the sky or skates on the ice until he can no longer see the cabin.

#

Fairchild, McGowan and the Detective

 

THE BOSSES I HAD IN MY LIFE and the boss I became are closely related. I learned from all of them. Some taught me how to act, others taught me what not to do. Coming from a small town where so many people were my relatives or – at the least – a member of the Mennonite community, it was my good fortune to become educated in the work world by some outsiders; “Englanders” as we called them secretly. They were Englanders because of the language they spoke, not necessarily because of their country of origin or citizenry.

As a young teen in Hartplatz, I was fortunate enough to have an after-school job in the Loeb Lumberyard Sash & Door shop.

It used to be that window sash was built and installed onsite with pre-cut parts. A skilled carpenter could produce and putty-glaze four windows or more in a day. In the Sixties, companies began prefabricating the entire sash package – building ready-to-install windows for the openings. Now any carpenter could glaze a whole house in a day or two.

Loeb was deeply invested in this new fenestration enterprise and I had a job chopping sash components on the mitre box saw. We had a power saw, but it broke down so often that many days I was required to cut the pieces by hand, from 4:15 to 5:45, Mon-Weds-Fri.

With the day shift gone at 4:00, it was a pleasant job, working in the quiet workshop that was scented with the fragrance of sawn cedar and fir. The sawdust from these resinous species would be settling as I arrived, my work area neatly swept and tools put away by the departing worker, “Mexikaunsche Froese”. His real name was John Froese, but there were so many John Froeses around that his “eatjenome” (nickname) was “Mexican Froese”, owing to his family being the only local Froese family to have returned from Mexico, where many had gone in a sub-migration several years earlier.

My rolling cart of sticks was at the ready. Pieces were gathered and bundled like bunches of celery, tied with twine. My job was to process the pieces, cutting them to length at 90 or 45 degrees, according to the form attached to each job. After they were cut, I would inspect them for flaws, clean up the ends with sandpaper and put a check mark on the work order.

It was boring, steady work, requiring just enough attention allocation to prevent finger amputation but still allow for mental meanderings to other, more interesting mental vistas. My job provided comic book money and created in me an abiding desire for a future career that required, and gave, a little more.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, my boss, John Fairchild, would be there. He would stop in on me a couple of times per evening – making sure everything was OK and checking on my production, so he could plan for the morning.

Mr Fairchild was, as it turned out, my best boss ever, even though I did not know that then. I worked at the sash & door shop for four years, eventually growing to know many of the regular tasks and being able to safely run most of the equipment; even knowing the foibles and idiosyncrasies of the older belt-drive turning machines. Like the hockey player who wins a Stanley Cup in his first year, I did not yet have a full appreciation of what I had in Mr Fairchild.

He had been recruited from Winnipeg and came originally from distant St. John where he had run a sash & door business for the Irvine family. His Maritime accent stood out in stark contrast to the flat, nasal Mennonite twang common to the sash shop.

Fairchild was quiet, calm and observant. He had the habit of suddenly being there, whenever needed. Like the Ghost of Sash Production Present, he would appear just as the saw was going wrong or to help decipher a messy work order.

He told stories about sailing in New Brunswick and had a technical degree from Ryerson, a school in Toronto.

Fairchild was short and lean and his work clothes – though dusty – were neatly pressed and clean, save for the inevitable stains: glue, paint and cutting oil from the sharpening shop. His eyes were pale blue and he always had a red Loeb carpenter pencil behind his ear. Like a lot of Englanders, he used the Canadian “eh” in abundance. I never saw him lose his temper or shout.

Once, during one of my rare day-shifts, an older co-worker, a man with a family of seven, Nathan Wall, had a melt-down. His car had broken down that morning and he was in a generally foul mood. Nathan had a temper and when frustrations piled up, he often burst. He was a craftsman and overall a fine person, except for the occasional incendiary outburst.

That morning, after his drill jammed for the third time, Nathan threw a hammer the length of the shop in frustration. Mr Fairchild saw it from his shop desk across the room. Carrying a folding measure and flipping it open and shut casually, Fairchild took his time wandering over to where the hammer had landed. He then picked it up and ambled back. Fairchild stopped at the bench next to Nathan's and engaged Frank Dueck in a lengthy conversation about Saturday night's hockey game.

Nathan stood helplessly – without his hammer he could not continue. He fidgeted as the manager chatted with Frank. Then Fairchild patted Frank on the shoulder and placed the hammer on Nathan's bench. He motioned for Nathan to follow him back to his office. As we watched, Fairchild conducted a painfully slow progression, stopping at each station while hot-headed Nathan followed behind him, feeling our gazes.

Nathan went home to “cool off.” At lunch, Fairchild, knowing my affinity for comic books, asked if I felt safer now, seeing as, “we apparently have Thor working in our shop, eh?”

#

On Fridays, one of the other managers, Bob McGowan, was in charge. McGowan was also an import – having come from a large millwork in Chicago. He was both a part-time production manager and also led the sales team. The sales team – such as it was – consisted of McGowan and Walter “Eadshock” Wohlgemuth. (“E-yid-shucka”; literally dirt apple – translated to “potato.”)

As a production manager, McGowan made a fairly good salesman. Fairchild, I sensed, took a dim view of McGowan but tolerated him, despite their differences. Fairchild treated McGowan with respect and the proper deference, as a fellow manager. The fact that they were both non-Mennonites also served to align them and for McGowan in particular, it formed a feeling of “us and them.”

I believed that Fairchild felt a kinship to all those who did their job properly. He did not care who you were or where you were from so long as you worked hard and treated others with respect. McGowan did not share this inclusive viewpoint.

Fortunately, the two bosses did not work together often.

McGowan, despite his roguish tendencies and sometimes-unhidden disdain for the Mennonites who provided his income, was not without some charm. He was humorous and energetic. Tall and fit, he too wore neat shop clothes, often opting for a tie — tucked into his shirt-front buttons for safety. He had white teeth and his neatly cropped hair was salt-and-pepper grey. He tended to look at you directly and without blinking during a conversation.

I noticed something strange about McGowan one day. I watched him as he went from workbench to workbench, checking on production totals. At each station, as he made his tally, he stood in exactly the same pose as the other man. When he spoke to Klippenstein, he stood leaning back, his weight on his heels – just as Klippenstein did. For Nathan, McGowan mimicked the smaller man’s peculiar crouched posture. With me, he stood as I did – hands on hips – until I changed my pose to fold my arms across my chest. He did the same, his clipboard dangling.

At quitting time, I walked by his office where he sat with his feet up and a Sportsman cigarette smoking in a large glass ashtray on his paper-covered desk. I stuck my head in to say, “G' night, sir!”

“Yea, yea kid, goodnight, goodnight,” he shouted back. I paused, and then leaned into the doorway, “Say, may I ask you something?”

“Sure thing. What is it, Matt?” He sat forward in his chair and tapped the ash off his cigarette.

“Well, it's no big deal,” I said, “but I have noticed that when you talk to someone… ” I started.

“Yes?” he said, leaning forward a bit more, making me feel tense about quizzing him.

I plunged ahead.  “I’ve noticed that you always copy the person you are talking to. The way they are standing, I mean.”

I started as he jumped up, both hands slapping the desktop and his chair rocking back violently.

“Ha, kid,” he laughed, his eyes bright. “Ya caught me!”

I looked at him questioningly.

“It's a salesman trick, see? What you do is take on the same posture as the other guy. It kind of flusters him and puts you in the power position. Understand?” He stopped and reached over to tap a book on the credenza. “Power Poses” was written on the thin spine.

He continued, “It's like animals. When a deer and a cougar meet in the forest, you can imagine the difference in their postures. The cougar would be aggressive – the deer scared and ready to run.”

“OK,” I said, still a bit iffy.

“So, you don't want to take on the ‘cougar pose’ right away or it puts the other person on the defensive and they run. And you can't sell ‘em if they run, right?”

“Right.”

“So, you copy them a few times. This puts them off-balance, but not scared. You, on the other hand, are in control.” He stood, his cigarette dangling from his lips, the white smoke curling up towards the yellowed ceiling tiles. “Then, when you want to get them to agree to something, you switch to a 'power position' and they instinctively agree.”

“Wow!” I said. “Does it work?”

“Yeah, I think so. I practice all the time when I talk to you guys in the shop.”

“Well, I kinda think it works with us just because you're the boss.”

“Yeah, maybe,” he said, butting out his cigarette and regarding me with some late-arriving pique. “I also have some power tactics in here. See how my chair is higher than the others and how you look UP at me? And see how I have pictures of my family and awards and shit on display?” he pointed to the wall behind him. “That is like baring my FANGS!” he concluded, flashing his white teeth for emphasis.

“Does it work on Mr Fairchild?” I asked, crossing my arms and leaning forward, tall on the balls of my feet.

He leaned his hands on the desktop and tapped his shoe on the tile floor a few times, then sat down and said, “Nice try, kiddo. See yer tomorrow, ya rascal!” busying himself with a sheaf of printed pages.

#

A favourite McGowan misadventure concerned hapless Eadshock Wohlgemuth. “Ead” for short, was a well-meaning, earnest but somewhat lacklustre sales professional. Ead’s father was a wealthy potato farmer and his many sheds, garages, barns and houses made the Wohlgemuths powerful Loeb Lumber customers.

Bob McGowan was the chief salesman and Ead did the travelling to Winnipeg and Kenora and beyond, selling lumberyards pre-fabricated sash and doors. Ead knew his father's influence was partly why he had this plum job. He also knew he was not particularly well-suited to it and he often ran scared, believing his days in sash sales might be numbered. Ead feared McGowan like a Robin fears a cat.

Ead had a small office in the lumberyard. It had a window facing into the retail tool and hardware portion of the store and his name and title were painted on the glass. One day, I happened to be in the store talking to Don Hoeppner, the store manager. Ead walked up to us fresh from a trip to Gimli. We greeted him, but he was distracted, staring in astonishment at his office where Nathan was busy scraping the lettering off of the glass with a razor.

“Don, Matt, what, am I . . .” Ead stuttered, his posture slumped in defeat and his arms hanging slackly at his sides in a most prey-like pose. He clearly believed he had been fired and had not yet been told.

Just then, Bob McGowan came striding up the stairs – two-at-a-time — from the basement, a box of sash locks under his arm. “Oh! Wohlgemuth!” he called out, pointing a long arm at him and snapping his fingers loudly.

“I meant to tell you,” he shouted.

Ead sucked in his breath, and looked quickly at Don and I, his florid face pale.

“I've changed your title and I'm getting you some business cards. YOU are our new Sash & Door SALES ASSOCIATE!” he said, skidding to a halt in front of Ead like a thirsty cowboy galloping up to a saloon. He pushed the carton of sash locks at him. “Here, drop these at Beaver Lumber in Ste. Remaude.”

“McGowan OVER and OUT! “ he said, wheeling on his heel and marching off rapidly, oblivious to Eadshock's elevated heart rate and welling eyes.

#

McGowan carried on for several years and then suddenly one day he was gone. When he did not come to work for a few days, I asked Mr Fairchild about it. Fairchild nodded and said simply that a mutual decision had been reached and that Mr McGowan had moved on to another job in Winnipeg.

McGowan, over and out, I thought.

#

Years later, I began working full-time – as my dad said, “for real” – in a large Grambles Department Store in Winnipeg. Here I often recalled and employed the things I learned from Fairchild and McGowan. In addition, I met a third Englander who taught me about the rough world I was part of.

My job was in the Hardware Department and that suited me fine. I felt at home with the pieces and parts, tools, cans of paint and other lumberyard merchandise. I was part of a regular coffee break group that included the store’s assistant manager, Ted Olynyk, and Art Ross, who was the shipper/receiver. We often sat at a table beside Miss Sharon Stewart, who was a pert, 5'2” Scot, as tough as pig iron and our fearless Store Detective. Miss Stewart would sit alone at her table, looking straight ahead, sipping her tea and following along with our conversation. She took pains not to reveal her cover as a shopper. Her lips barely moving, she would often brief us about those she was surveilling.

The most exciting days occurred when a “crew” was in the store. These were professional teams of shoplifters who hit the store with a practiced routine of distraction, deception and theft. They stole big-ticket items and were hard to catch. Miss Stewart felt that if we at least made it difficult for these “nickers”, as she described them, it might be enough to take our store out of their regular rotation. Hers was a patient, bend-don't-break strategy.

On days when the game was afoot, Sharon would sneak over to one of the store telephones and after activating the public address option, announce, “Hardware personnel to Aisle 10 please; Hardware – Aisle 10.” There was no Aisle 10 in our store. It was code for me to go to the front of the store and be ready for action. Art and Teddy would go outside for a smoke, chatting casually just outside the entrance. I was the “rover” inside the store, ready to chase the shoplifters in case they sensed the trap and bolted for one of the emergency exits or tried to get out through the Auto Centre.

By law, Sharon could detain them only after they were outside of the building. She would indicate with her eyes and some surreptitious pointing, which person was holding the stolen goods. Sharon would also let us know who the accomplices were. At her signal, we would converge on the culprits just as she addressed them; the moment they exited.  “Excuse me, may I see your receipt please?” she would demand, brandishing her Store Detective badge.

We loved these situations because they took us far outside of the normal, boring routine of the department store. Art “Lady Byng” Ross was a big burly fellow, and he was imposing despite his gentle name. Teddy was a former street fighter and his smaller size was deceptive – he had the demeanour of a honey badger once things got rough. I was young, foolish and relentless – often chasing flushed crooks through backyards and across school playgrounds in the surrounding residential neighbourhood. It truly was a game to me.

When one particularly hardened crew arrived at our store, Sharon was steely-eyed and determined to catch as many as she could and try to get the ringleader. They had hit us hard in the past and as she said in her pleasing brogue, “Is this personal? Oh, you bet it is. They goan tah be liftit for their crime!”

As Detective Stewart drew the net taut that day, one of the thieves broke for the Auto Centre. I followed, vaulting a shopping cart and tackling the shoplifter in the middle of the Grambles Coffee Cafe. I arm-locked the skinny kid and waited for Sharon. Outside, Teddy and Art had a grip on a tough looking bearded man. Seeing me, Sharon left them and hurried to where I knelt on top of the teenage accomplice. She leaned over and whispered, “Let him go!” urgently, but very quietly, into my ear. I made a face at her – I had worked hard to snag him and my knees and elbows were hurting as a result. She hissed, “NOW!” and I jumped up. He scrambled for the door and took off, dodging traffic on Regent Avenue.

She grinned at me, “Bonnie open field tackle, lad. But, he was still in the store!” she admonished, her R's rolling like kegs of single-malt on the distillery floor as we rejoined Art and Ted with their captive.

“Now help take this gentleman,” she paused to shine a gold-capped, toothy grin at the suspect, “up to the interrogation room and wait for the police. You stay with him there so Art and Teddy can get back t'work.”

By law, only the police could search the shoplifter for stolen goods. To prevent the suspect from discarding any stolen goods on their person, we would lock them up in a small room together with a store employee until the cops arrived. It had to be a person of the same gender as the suspect. The interrogation room was secretly connected to an adjacent room with a small one-way mirror. It was also wired for sound. Sharon would wait in the adjoining room watching and taping any conversation for possible evidence. Grambles was waging war on shoplifting.

While I waited with the bearded thief, he began whispering to me. “Look, buddy, I know I shouldn't have done this, and the thing is, it's my third offence this year. I'll go to Stony for sure.” Stony Mountain Penitentiary was the Province's most severe lock-up. “Please, kid; I'll give you the three watches I got. They're worth a hunnert, easy.” I stared straight ahead – I didn't want a trip to Stony either.

After a minute or so, the guy bent forward, his face in his hands, and he began to cry. He broke down, saying, “My son, my damn son . . . stupid, stupid!” I sat in the tiny room, listening to the thief tell me his woes, shaking my head slowly at Sharon through the two-way glass.

Later, after the police had searched and interrogated him and he was led out of the store, Sharon and a tall constable motioned me over. “So that guy was pretty upset about his situation, eh?” the big cop said.

“Yeah, he said he has a little kid and the guy figured gettin' caught meant going to Stony and not seeing his kid grow up.” I replied. I could not help feeling a little sad about it myself.

“He will go to Stony, that’s sure,” said Sharon, grinning sheepishly as the cop held up a Ziploc bag with two large hunting knives in it. The bag was marked EVIDENCE.  “He’ll be in prison for a while, since he was carryin' these twin beauties – one in each boot.”

 

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One comment on “Mitchell Toews, 6/19/2017
  1. Jan Priddy says:

    Thank you for honoring work.

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