& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, February 04, 2018

A decade in Toronto - 4

Time to shave off the beard

In our second month in Canada, we moved to a new home. However, Mahrukh and I were still unemployed. Our neighbourhood family friends helpfully guided us in our efforts to settle in Toronto and get jobs.

We’d go walk down south on Keele Street to an internet cafĂ© called unimaginatively Keele Computers to surf the internet, check emails and apply for jobs. We also went to the Lawrence Mall at the Career Foundation, a provincial employment and settlement centre, to meet employment counsellors and to look for jobs. By now, we were looking for any kind of work. We also enrolled in an employment readiness program at Costi. Again, Mahrukh’s amiable personality helped her make friends.

In August, I went to meet an employment counsellor at Access Employment in Mississauga. Mary Rose De Luca, the counsellor, turned out to be a young Filipino-Canadian who looked at my resume and the commented that I should consider shaving off my beard. “It (the beard) makes you look older than your age, and you’ll have a better chance getting a job without a beard," she said.

By now, I was desperate. The funds that we got from India were quickly depleting. The cost of living in the developed world was steep, steeper than what we thought it’d be, and what had seemed like a small fortune in India that we got with us to Canada was nearly over. 

Incidentally, I’ve often wondered about immigrant success stories where a newcomer lands in this land of opportunities with next to nothing in his (always a ‘his’, seldom a ‘her’) pocket, and then makes millions in next to no time. We came with what I thought was a fairly respectable sum of money by Canadian standards, and we had reached rock bottom in two months.

Before arriving here, I’d made a pledge that I’d always maintain reserve funds to buy our air tickets back home for the first three years, just in case we’d have to leave in a hurry. And by August-end, we’d reached that level.

I took Mary Rose De Luca’s advice seriously and one evening in August 2008, I shaved off my beard. I continued to keep the moustache for a couple of weeks but subsequently shaved that off, too.

With or without a beard, employment continued to be elusive. I continued to meet Canadians of Indian origin who’d been here longer and were established in their professions. Two of them have become lifelong friends – Gavin Barrett and Sunil Rao. Sunil invited me to write for the newspaper he edited – South Asian Focus and published my news report on car insurance in GTA. Sunil also got me on South Asian Focus television. This was an extremely morale-boosting experience.

Michelle Mendonca, a newcomer we got to know when we were attending a settlement workshop in Bombay, introduced me to Gavin. I’ll remain forever thankful to her for that introduction. Gavin is an archetypal good guy. He helps everyone and makes strangers his friends. There aren’t too many like him in our world. If there were, our world would be a better place.

He introduced me to his friends in advertising and marketing (Ramesh Nilakantan, Ishan Ghosh, Albert Yue and others), and told me about the Indo-Canada Chamber of Commerce (ICCC), a local bilateral trade promotion organisation that was looking for an Executive Director.  I immediately applied for the job. Gavin also introduced me to Nick Noorani, the publisher of Canadian Immigrant magazine (I’ll write about Nick in the next post).

Meeting Gavin was serendipitous. We share many interests such as our love for our hometown Bombay, and our love for literature. Gavin is a fine, sensitive poet and a decade later, we came together to launch a reading series that he’s transformed into a vibrant platform for creative folks to come together and share their creative expressions. Read a previous post about Gavin here: When Gavin met John

However, by September 2008, after we had celebrated Che's first birthday in Canada, and he'd started his middle school, I had no option but to look for a survival job and I examined the two easily available options – telemarketing or security guard. I preferred the latter because I couldn’t imagine myself trying to talk to strangers on the phone and sell them stuff.

I enrolled in a security training institute – Iron Horse Security – and got myself a provincial licence to work as a security guard. The agency also found me a job at Paragon Security, where I was put through a two-day training session again and then I was appointed as a security officer at Village Terraces, a condo on 260 Heath Street West, near St. Clair West subway station.

This was a life-changing experience. I began working in September 2008 and continued until April 2009. In that span of seven months, I discovered Canada. As a middle-aged person, I was put on the night shift, which began at 11:00 pm and ended at 7:00 am. Shawn Foote, a much-younger man, was my supervisor, and Thomas Menyoli, a newcomer from Cameroon, was my other colleague. Shawn did the morning shift. Thomas the second shift, and I was assigned the night shift.

My duties were simple. I had to sit at a concierge desk at the main entrance of the condo and greet residents and visitors coming to the building. Every hour, I was expected to step outside and walk around the condo, every three hours or thereabouts, I was to walk all the eleven floors. 

Early morning at around 3:30 am, the newspaper distributors came in to deliver the newspapers. The superintendent, Franka, a warm-hearted but tough woman, drove up at 5:00 am and Shawn reached the condo about 15 minutes before his shift began to relieve me.

The only difficult part of the night shift was the keeping awake part. I think one of the biggest paradoxes of life in one’s middle ages is that when you want to sleep, you can’t, and when you want to stay awake, you can’t. It’s difficult to stay awake between 3:00 am and 6:00 am.

However, in about two weeks, Shawn changed my shift to the evening one. I began at 3:00 pm and got off at 11:00 pm. He told me that he found me better at interacting with the residents and that those skills could be better utilized during the evening hours, which is busy. He also got my pay hiked to $12 an hour (from minimum wage).

Many homeowners and residents of the condo became my friends. Many would stop by on their way home, or on their way out to walk their dogs and chat with me. Many shared their hobbies, some gave lend me books and magazines, and nearly all of them treated me with the kind of respect that one has for a member of one’s family. All of them perhaps knew that I was doing this job because I had nothing else in hand.

The condo had a library that stacked with books. This library introduced me to Canadian authors. I’d heard (like every book lover in the world) and read some of the big names such as Margaret Atwood,  Alice Munro, MG Vassanji, Rohinton Mistry, Michael Ondaatje, but this library introduced me to such exquisite writers as Isabel Huggan. The condo also had a gym in the basement an outdoor swimming pool. It also had an electric barbeque which the security guard was to switch on and off. 

It was while I was on duty at the condo that a resident – Rita (I forget her last name), who taught at Ryerson – came down one evening and told me to accompany her outside. As we stepped out of the building, I saw everything swathed in white.  She wanted me to experience my first snow in Canada. It was a mesmerising experience. We stood quietly for some time and then walked back hurriedly because it was cold.

I’ve written and spoken about my experience at the condo on different occasions. Here’s a link to a piece that I did for the Diaspora Dialogues (I’ll write about DD, a little later): My first Christmas in Toronto.

This is how I concluded the piece (which was originally published in the Canadian Immigrant magazine; I’ll write about CI a little later):

Within three months of working as a security guard, my home had furniture I hadn’t paid for and a TV set. I had learnt soft skills that I wouldn’t have learnt even if I had paid a handsome fee. But more than all this, I had a large and caring family of over a hundred residents.

They didn’t know each other, but they all knew me, and they all cared for my wellbeing. Six months ago, when we had landed in Toronto, we didn’t know anyone. Now, I had a family.

The first year is the most difficult one for a newcomer in Canada. Thanks to all the generous and large-hearted people at 260 Heath Street W. Toronto, my family managed to survive the first year in style.

Howard Karel, Myrna Freedman, David and Jane Raymont – all residents of the condo have continued to exchange emails occasionally even though I’ve ceased to be a security guard at the condo. In 2016, when my debut novel was published, I gave my first public reading at the condo, which the Toronto Star covered and published on the day the novel was launched. Read about it here:  An immigrant security guard's triumphant homecoming


Thank you: Antanas Sileika, Yudhvir Jaidwal, Katherine Govier, Neena Gupta, Imtiaz Seyid, Aditya Jha

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