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My first Christmas in Toronto

Intro text:

My family – comprising my wife Mahrukh and my son Che and I – came to Toronto in July 2008.

After the usual formalities were completed – opening a bank account, applying for the SIN card and the PR card, getting a cell phone – we started looking for employment.

By September 2008, with my son already in school, and all our finances nearly dried up, we were in a desperate situation. Reluctantly, I got a licence to be a security guard and started working with Paragon Security at a condominium on Heath Street.

Text for the piece:

A. Night shift

I started working the night shifts. My shift would begin at 11:00 PM and get over at 7:00 AM. On weekends, I worked for 12 hours – from 11:00 PM to 11:00 AM. I worked 40 hours in a week and had Mondays off.

The toughest part of night shifts was to stay awake. I couldn’t really manage that ever. On a few occasions, I was caught napping.

My duties included opening the door to the condominium for visitors (which were very few during the night shift), and for pet owners who took their pets out for a walk.

Yes, a dog owner would take his dog (a tiny Chihuahua-type dog) for a long walk at 1:30 AM and return around 3:00 AM, regardless the weather. Both the owner and the dog became dear friends. Another dog owner – of a mighty Alsatian – would punctually take the dog for a walk at 5:30 AM every morning.

The newspaper vendors came in at different times – The National Post came at 2:30 AM, Globe & Mail at 4:30 AM and Toronto Star at 6:00 AM. On rare occasions, a homeowner would walk in drunk, or a pizza delivery guy would come in after midnight.

Mostly, those who came late drove and the security guard had to do nothing but watch on the closed circuit television as they drove down into the garage.

B. Books

I had to go on patrolling once in three hours, and patrolling the entire premises took nearly 30 minutes. With nothing much to do, I began to read books from the library and during the two months that I worked on the night shift at the condominium, I completed Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, Speed Vogel & Joseph Heller’s No Laughing Matter, re-read EL Doctorow's Ragtime.

C. Emergency

On two occasions during the night shift, I had to call 911 for a medical emergency. The first was when an 80-year-old woman had fallen on her kitchen floor and a neighbour had called seeking help. We were trained that in such accidents we had to call 911. The paramedics arrived in 5 minutes and took her to the hospital.

The second instance was when a 65-year old man suffering from Alzheimer’s had forgotten his house and was whimpering next to the elevator. I got him to the lounge and made some tea for him. I called 911 and till the police arrived, I sat chatting with him about the Toronto of the 1950s, which he remembered vividly but had no idea who he was or where he had come from.

The police asked him his father’s name, which he remembered, and found his last name. His wife was both annoyed and relieved when he returned.

D. Move to evening shift

It was perhaps because of the relative ease with which I interacted with the people that I was transferred to the evening shift – from 3:00 PM to 11:00 PM.

This is when I made new friends, learned the soft skills that are so essential in Canada – like understanding that the only answer to the question “How’re you?” is “Good, and you?”

Or making small conversation about the weather. During this shift, the security guard duty became less important than the concierge duty. I was now helping homeowners with their grocery bags, helping them start the treadmill, assist them with the storage, give information to realtors and agents and assist them with open houses, start the electric barbeque, even chat with senior women who came down to the lounge just to be away from the lonely confines of their home.

Inevitably, the conversation would veer towards books and authors. One of the dog owners Earl Crangle, a sprightly accountant, was the first to start talking to me about books.
His wife Susan Crangle, a communications professional, gave me books to read – Mistry’s Family Matters. I discussed the Indian authors I had read and found a receptive audience.

Judy Newman, who works with the provincial government, would drop off the New York Times on the weekends. Carole Freedman, a professional photographer, who spent hours in the ravines, gave me a photograph of a yellow-beaked bird and when she learnt that I had got admission to Sheridan College, gave me a printer.

I was overwhelmed. “I won’t ever be able to repay all of you,” I told her.

She gave me a simple solution. “When you are able to, help those who are in need as generously.”

E. Christmas

It was mid-December by now. I had refused a tip the first time a homeowner offered it to me because I had helped her with her luggage. The superintendent on duty informed my supervisor and both advised me in all sincerity that I should not refuse the tips and gifts because other guards would find it hard to accept it.

By now, most homeowners knew me by name; they would make it a point to stand at the desk and talk to me for a while on their way out. Even car owners would come down for a chat. Around December, many homeowners celebrated the Jewish festival Hanukkah.

A young man, an amateur photographer, had heard that I was here with my family. He gave me a giant box of popcorn for my son. It lasted him for a week. Then, as Christmas neared, the small envelopes began. A greeting card and an envelope stashed with money – nothing less than $20.

Many gave chocolates, others gave wine. Nancy Wigdor, a librarian who worked in Mississauga, bought a new TV, and gave me her used one with a DVD player. On Christmas, Judit Stuijfzand, an air hostess with Air Canada came down with her mother to the concierge desk and fed me sumptuous roast chicken and a glass of red wine.

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.

I have retained all the greeting cards I got from them. I’ll keep them forever.

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