Wages yuks up the Armstrong work years.
Many years ago, I experienced a brief walk on the wild side by playing a willing Tonto to John Armstrong's street-smart Lone Ranger. In those margarita-fuelled days of our youth, Armstrong was best known as Buck Cherry–the creative glue that held local punk-rock legends the Modernettes together. I remember throwing up a lot and laughing even more. Armstrong was always savagely funny when it came to telling stories about the dead-end jobs he endured between gigs. His mind-numbing résumé included everything from stirring boiling roofing tar to cutting the heads off live chickens. Much to my shame, I found the shabby calamities of his patched-together working life nothing short of hilarious.
Fans of Armstrong's first memoir of his life in punk rock (2001's Guilty of Everything) will be happy to know that a second volume has just been released. Wages (New Star Books, $21) focuses on the author's relentless quest to earn enough money to pay for beer and guitar strings. Armstrong describes the journey as "a bizarre patchwork into the deeper pits of professional hell".
Over a cup of coffee he explains, "I wanted to follow the example of writers I admire, like Henry Miller and E.B. White. They wrote about themselves in an attempt to understand life." He laughs. "I was aiming for something like James Thurber with Tourette's syndrome."
With Armstrong's first job at age 13, Wages starts off like The Wonder Years as told to Charles Bukowski. When he was growing up in South Surrey, his parents got him his first job to teach him the value of a dollar. "I shovelled shit in a huge barn filled with caged rabbits," he recalls. It turned out to be a kind of bunny gulag. Working in the stifling heat for what amounted to chump change, he would often turn up rabbit carcasses on his shovel. "I learned that, unlike most animals, rabbits like to shit while they're eating," he recalls. "But mostly what I learned is that the value of a dollar is sweet fuck-all."
It's the theme that drives much of the book's deliciously dark humour. Subsequent jobs–from cataloguing porn movies in a warehouse to janitorial work in a movie theatre that he calls "a flophouse with a big screen and jujubes"–were all disasters. But it was the job cutting the heads off chickens that gave him nightmares. "These dismembered chicken heads would stare back at me whenever I closed my eyes," he recalls.
When asked if there was ever a job he enjoyed, Armstrong admits that he loved being a caddie at his neighbourhood golf course. "I was 16 and too stupid to realize that my working life had peaked," he recalls. "All we did was sit under the trees smoking dope and drinking beer."
He confesses that his most disappointing job was his 15-year gig writing for the Vancouver Sun. (The last third of the book is a thinly disguised account of his time there.) Fortunately, Armstrong has a way of finding humour in the most unhappy circumstances. Even when it comes to beheading chickens. "Can you imagine what Take Your Daughter to Work Day would be like?" He laughs again. "'Now honey, remember Daddy works on a kind of farm.'"