THE LAST FEMINIST

August 19, 2009

What do you remember most?
Walking down Georgia.
Not betrayal, not defeat;
walking down Georgia.

What do you miss the most?
Walking down Georgia.
The days before
the ruling class could arrange
for us to see our liberation disappear
with the sisters rushing off
to join the middle class.
Walking down Georgia.

What do you hope for?
Not the goddesses they invented
to preach poverty to the poor,
wealth to the rich.
Walking down Georgia.

What do you fear the most?
Poverty and violence
and no more
walking down Georgia.

What did you think you were doing
walking down Georgia?
We were walking
for abortion;
for the right to control our own bodies.
For equal pay –
we thought women’s work should be paid
the same as men’s work.
For paid work –
we thought if a person did a job,
they should be paid for it.
For the right to organize
into groups of our own choice.
For the right to negotiate
about our own working conditions.
For day care
and all the raggle-taggle of children’s rights.
(Children’s rights are not important –
they’re only a women’s issue.)
Against sexism and racism and exploitation;
against poverty and violence and oppression.
For the right to jobs and promotion and pay
and to love whom we choose
and to live and laugh and raise children.
For safe houses and safe jobs
and streets where you don’t die.
Hey, we dreamed of safe houses
and safe jobs and safe streets,
walking down Georgia.
(Dreams drown in blood.)

What do you dream about now?
Women and children
in our hundreds
in our thousands
walking down Georgia;
chanting and singing down Georgia;
yelling on Georgia;
carrying babies and balloons
and banners,
walking down Georgia.

April, 1990

Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit http://helenpotrebenko.icopyright.com

LITERARY CRITIC

June 1, 2009

(First printed in Walking Slow, Lazara Press, 1985 and translated into Dutch for Ik Heb Tien Benen, 1990)

I can’t stand books about people who don’t pay rent –
you know what I mean?
Those books where people just carry on
and never once do they pay on a mortgage or pay rent –
you know what I mean?
Then there’s the books where people don’t eat.
Movies, too.
They have this earnest or dramatic of some such
conversation over dinner which furthers the plot line
but they don’t eat.
You know what I mean?
How about books where people travel
and we’re not told how they carry their luggage?
I hate them.
I can’t follow the story
because I’m too busy trying to find out:
did they have one suitcase only?
If so, how could they pack everything in one suitcase?
If they have two or three suitcases,
how did they carry them?
Did they get a porter?
If so, how much did they pay him
and in what kind of currency?
You know what I mean?
But the worst are the books where people don’t pay rent.
You know what I mean. 

December, 1984

Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit http://helenpotrebenko.icopyright.com

MODERN OFFICE

June 1, 2009

(First printed in Riding Home, Talon Books, 1995)

You know, I’d rather see the sunshine;
I would rather hear the rain.
What right have I to imagine
there are seasons there outside?
There are no seasons, only fiscal years;
there is no sun although spring is here.
There are no dreams, only doubts and fears,
and the phone that buzzes all day.
Just the phone that buzzes all day, all day,
just the lights that shine bright and hot all day,
and the lovers who came and went away,
and the phone that buzzes all day, all day,
yes, the phone that buzzes all day.

You know, I’d rather see the sunshine;
I would rather hear the rain.

There are no days and there are no nights;
just the airless rooms and the blinding lights
and the phone that buzzes all day, all day,
and the friends who died or moved away
and the high demands for the meager pay
and the phone that buzzes all day, all day.
The desks are crowded into airless rooms;
the windows are sealed and tinted in gloom.
There is no sun and there is no rain
just fear of unemployment, poverty and pain,
and the phone that buzzes and buzzes all day,
yes, the phone that buzzes all day.

There are a lot of different dungeons;
there are many kinds of pain.

April, 1992

Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit http://helenpotrebenko.icopyright.com

More Daydreams Are Better Than Nightmares

May 31, 2009

(First printed in Walking Slow, Lazara Press, 1985)

Once in a while I check with my publisher
to find out if I’m rich and famous yet.
I figure the publisher would know before I would
but he’s rather absent-minded
and might forget to mention it to me
so once in a while I phone
and he always says he doesn’t know anything abut it
and I’ll hear before he does
which is probably true
but it might happen during a mail strike
or I might have been on holiday
or otherwise unavailable
so it’s best to check.

I have this rich and famous daydream
where I’ve already been rich and famous for quite a while
but I just keep on as normal
as if it was no big deal.
Then one day my boss
whichever one he should happen to be at the time,
asks me to do something real stupid
or dictates a real stupid letter
or something like that.
All bosses do that
and most often one just types the stupid letter
or makes the stupid phone call
or phones the stupid restaurant
for his stupid reservation
or something like that.
But this day I tell him
I don’t feel like doing anything stupid today
and he should type his own letter
or make his own phone call
or whatever stupid thing it is he asked me to do.
So he goes purple and starts yelling
and I’m really upset –
I mean, everyone gets upset when their boss
turns purple and starts yelling.
But then I remember!
Wait a minute! I say,
I don’t have to take this shit any more;
I’m rich and famous now.

So then I cover up the typewriter
and put away the carbon paper
and close the credenza where all the paper is
and put all the pens and pencils in the cup
which is used for that purpose
and I put away the whiteout and the blueout
and I cover the dictating machine
and I put away the stapler and the staple remover
and I put away my notebook and the telephone message pad
and I take off the wall my sign that says
“I type like I live – fast with a lot of mistakes”
and I take my comb and headache pills out of the desk
and put them in an envelope along with the
aforementioned sign.
Then I make a luncheon date for the following week
with the woman I work with.
They’re pretty uptight about me deserting them
to an angry boss
but they agree to lunch anyway
because really, they’re pleased to know someone
rich and famous.

Then I go outside and get on the Hastings Express
and ask for a transfer
and probably I get to sit down all the way to the Loop
because it isn’t the rush hour yet.

July, 1981

Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit http://helenpotrebenko.icopyright.com

FASHION KILLS

May 30, 2009

(First printed in Walking Slow, Lazara Press, 1985)

Macho is in, for men.
Anorexia is in, for women.
Flatter your friends –
tell them they look anorexic
or consumptive.
Ask them if they have cancer.
Admire them for appearing near dead. 

In North America now
we don’t think much of
tall children
or short adults
but who we really hate
are people we call fat.
There are all kinds of people.
We come in many heights, weights and body builds.
You would think we would be happy
about the variations
each of which come with one set of benefits or another.
You would think, for example,
that the kind of metabolism
which allows some to gain weight
while eating little
would be cause for rejoicing.
You would think this minority
blessed with efficient metabolism,
would be a model for the rest of us.
But no, we worship gluttony.
We are to praise those who eat more
and gain less.
They are the models
while the others are
ridiculed,
reviled,
starved,
drugged,
hounded into early death, if possible.
(They can’t prove heavier people die young
so it becomes a threat –
they will die young – or else.)

When my mother was a girl
during the wars and famines in Belorussia,
the model of feminine pulchritude
was fat.
To get a husband, young women
padded themselves with pillows.
Men were crazy for fat bellies and big behinds. 

In other eras, the ruling class was fat
so big was the ideal.
Now they are thin.
The ruling class eats lean meat
and salad.
On this kind of food,
phenomenally expensive,
they pig out and stay thin
in a form of conspicuous consumption.
The poor eat bread and macaroni.
The most life-sustaining foods
also naturally make people gain weight.

Centuries pass,
times change.
Women’s bodies are supposed to alter
with the whims of rulers.
Tie up feet,
cinch waists,
bloat breasts,
botox face,
paint face,
girdle body,
go half-naked and cold,
make holes in ears,
noses, or wherever they say,
for fun.
Their fun.

But there are always bad women.
We will walk down the street
unafraid.
We will have friends.
We will be choosy.
We persist in eating,
living, loving, laughing.
We make trouble,
we make demands.
We are so bad.
We are glad we’re bad.
We will sometimes even do things
for fun.
Our fun.

February, 1985

 

Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit http://helenpotrebenko.icopyright.com

CENSORSHIP

May 28, 2009

(First printed in Riding Home, Talon Books, 1995)

Sex and violence cannot be censored;
this would be an infringement
of human rights,
free speech,
the rights of writers,
and the right to information.
Only women’s issues are to be censored.
Books completely concerned
with, for example, day care,
do not get published.
They are not of literary merit,
or universal concern.

Universal concerns are:
a man catching a fish,
rape, torture, war
and other forms of barbarism.
Universal concerns do not include
any rights of children,
living with spousal violence,
or poverty.

Poverty finds it’s way
into literature
only to illustrate some other point
like, maybe, man’s inhumanity,
the black inner depths of every man’s soul,
the nature of god
or some such matter of concern
to those who don’t have to live in poverty.

Literary middlemen find
native issues
are really much prettier
when defined and described
by non-natives.

Worker’s rights are not of interest
to publishers and academics
so the question of censoring literature
completely concerned with union organizing
does not arise.

We, the censored,
are allowed voice
only to defend the oppressors.
We, the censored, cannot speak
against pornography.
Pornography is defended
by drunks and literary men,
and young women die
so that rich men can be free.

We, the censored,
are allowed to speak
in defence of the right of a rich Englishman
to write garbled books,
but we do not speak of the censorship
of half the population of Iran.

Half the population of Iran
cannot speak in public
or publish books
or even appear on the streets
looking like people.
Women made slaves
is not censorship;
it is merely a peculiar culture. 
We, the censored,
cannot speak out for the women of Iran.
We do not know the details
of their slavery
because that information
is censored.

Freedom of speech is claimed
as a basic right of free men
even when they use this freedom
to silence their slaves. 

Every ruling class practices censorship;
their lackeys defend this
by calling it freedom of speech
and surely everyone knows it’s a joke
to talk about freedom of the press
when a few rich men own the media.
In the name of freedom of speech,
the hate-mongers own the streets
and we, the censored, are not even free
to tell them to shut up.

 

Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit http://helenpotrebenko.icopyright.com

THE FIFTH BUNDLE

May 27, 2009

(First printed in A Flight of Average Persons, New Star, 1979 and reprinted in Yarmarok, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, 1987)

I’d like to tell you a story I know that no one wants to hear.  I have told enough such stories to disgusted and bored audiences to know that nobody is interested in hearing them.  There are millions of such stories, of which I know only a few hundred, and of which I wish to tell you one right now.

The story concerns an old man who was born in Polish-occupied western Ukraine and suffered the oppression of serfdom under Polish lords.  While Ukrainian peasants rebelled against serfdom every generation, they were never successful.  So like a lot of other people, this man left the country between the wars and came to live in Canada.  As he was a communist, he rejoiced when he heard the news that his homeland was freed from Polish imperialism and was to be converted to socialist prosperity and made into a classless society.

Like a great many old men, this one wished to visit his homeland once before he died.  So he went back, all these decades of socialism later, still remembering as old men often do, every detail of life as a youth under the Polish oppressors.

Many old men and some old women are now going back for such visits.  The women talk about it a little when they come back, but only because it doesn’t matter very much what women say.  Very few women were communists anyway, politics being men’s work.

The men do not talk because if they did, they would be shamed before their peers.  If you are an old communist, it is better that you should die than that you should slander the Soviet Union.  I am not going to explain that because I can’t.  It is simply a fact.  So they all go and they come back with colour slides of approved showplaces, and pictures of the relatives dressed in their Sunday best, and pictures of the monuments to the heroes who died defending the great fatherland during the great fatherland war and they repeat the official statistics.  If you get them drunk and insist they tell you the truth, some will cry, others will whine about customs officials, but no one will slander the Soviet Union.  They’ll tell you where they went and what the food on the plane was like and what museums they went to and insist that you look at those pictures of the relatives in their Sunday best and they will quote official statistics at you.

If someone has a relative who is a worker or a bureaucrat, no matter how minor, then they can tell a little about how they live really, without slandering the Soviet Union.  But forty-two percent of the population is still engaged in agriculture, and almost all the immigrants from western Ukraine to Canada were peasants and it follows therefore, that their relatives still in western Ukraine are peasants rather than workers or bureaucrats.  So there are only two choices: they either keep quiet about how those relatives live or they slander the Soviet Union.  Most people choose to keep quiet.

The old man, whose name was, I think, Petro (although it may have been Ivan), understood the rules followed so carefully by thousands of others.  He went to the Soviet Union to visit but when he came back, he transgressed and asked a question.  He was not very descriptive and he certainly did not intend to be malicious.  He was, quite simply, in a state of shock and needed help in understanding.

The question he asked concerned haying.  Haying is itself a fairly simple matter but the social situation under which it is done is very often not.  In order to understand the old man’s babbling, it is necessary to understand a little about collective farms.

How it works is, to use milk as an example, none of the milk produced on the collective farm is available to the peasants.  I don’t know where it goes.  “Out there,” they tell me, pointing up or around.  “They” drink the collective farm milk.  It is all collected in proper containers, properly sterilized, properly pasteurized and it is all a miracle of technology, they tell me.  But the peasants don’t get any.  “Those in higher classes,” they will finally say, “pahnni”.  But they hasten to explain that there are, of course, no classes in the Soviet Union.

In spite of this lack of classes, if the milkmaid who milks the collective farm cows wants some milk, she must own her own cow kept in her own private plot, beside her own private house.  As the collective farm belongs to the people, you would think she could help herself to some milk while milking.  If, however, she gets caught, she would go to jail for stealing.

In addition to all the above, it should be noted that the cow has a quota for the butterfat she must produce.  There isn’t much you can do to a cow who doesn’t produce the required amount of butterfat one day – due perhaps to some minor illness, poor quality grass, or maybe even the weather.  It is unlikely the cow even knows she has a quota.  The person who gets the blame if the cow does not produce the requisite amount of butterfat is the milkmaid.  So as well as guards for making sure the collective farm workers don’t eat what they produce, there is an inspector who takes a sample with a syringe out of the milkmaid’s paid and tests it for butterfat quantity.  If the butterfat content is too low the milkmaid gets criticized, loses any bonus or award she might otherwise have earned, and ultimately, if the cow doesn’t shape up, gets transferred to a worse job.  (I asked if the inspector was one of the “they” who actually got to drink some of the milk but did not receive a satisfactory answer.)

That is why the milkmaid must own her own cow.  If you have a cow, you must also feed her.  As no one owns any land apart from their garden plot, the only place to get hay is from the collective farm.  In order to get hay for her/his cow the peasant contracts out a piece of land with hay on it from the collective farm.  The peasant then cuts all the hay on this piece of land and for every four bundles she/he turns in to the collective farm, she/he gets to keep one for her cow.  That is, every fifth bundle is theirs.

So the old man, Petro (or Ivan or Stepan), went back to visit his homeland after all the years of socialism.  The trouble with him was that although he was a communist, he was also a peasant and understood nothing of Leninist dogma and had no opinion at all on Marxism and the National Question.  He saw that under Polish oppression he had worked for the landowners for every third bundle whereas now people were working for every fifth bundle.  He was aware there were now schools for the children and there was some medical care, for which people ought to have been grateful.  I’m sure he had the tonnage of steel production explained to him, and that he saw at least some of the monuments to the great fatherland war but he either didn’t remember or didn’t care about that.  He saw and remembered that peasants worked for every fifth bundle.

So he came home, a bewildered old man, and he made the rounds of all his old friends and asked each one of them how it came to be that under Polish serfdom, peasants had worked for the landowner for every third bundle and now they only got every fifth bundle.  He made no mention of the militarism, the fact that you have to speak Russian to get a job in a Ukrainian city, the position of women, the absence of consumer goods, or any other stuff that constitutes slandering the Soviet Union.  Nor was he critical, vindictive or malicious in his questioning.  He was simply confused.  At first he visited people at their homes but as he was always unwelcome, he hung around East Hastings looking for people he knew.  He went from person to person, seizing them by the lapels to prevent escape, and said that peasants now got only every fifth bundle whereas he had worked for the Polish lords for every third bundle.  How am I to understand this? he asked over and over again.  Please, can you explain it to me?

People brushed him off as one would an old man.  When he nevertheless persisted in his questioning, they began avoiding him and if he caught them anyway, people told him they were tired of his nattering about the fifth bundle and couldn’t he leave them alone.

The old man died; whether his death was at all connected with his failure to understand is unlikely.  All old men must die some time and most of them die confused.

All the old communists came to his funeral, for one must do one’s ritual duty in death as well as in life.  It is unclear whether they came to mourn or simply to see if he really had ceased slandering the Soviet Union.  In any case they were relieved to find that while they walked within touching distance of the old man in the open coffin, not once did they hear him make any mention of the fifth bundle.

That’s the end of the story.  The reason no one wants to hear such stories is that they are interpreted as slandering the Soviet Union.  For those who are against such activities, any notion of imperfection in the USSR is sin.  For the others, slander is insufficient unless it includes mass starvation and lice.  But I swear that my intention at this time is not to slander the Soviet Union.  My intention, while slanderous, has quite a different target.

October, 1977

 

Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit http://helenpotrebenko.icopyright.com

SUMMER OF THE LAYOFFS

May 17, 2009

(First printed in Riding Home, Talon Books,1995)

Supervisor – any person given small power
Andrea – 20’s, Canadian
Evelyn – around 30, Canadian
Frouida – 40’s, from Uganda
Annette – 40’s, from Fiji
Gudrun – 30’s, from Hong Kong
Alice – 20’s, Canadian
and 19 others of varying ages and colours.
One man in a suit and about three men in coveralls.

Time: 1982

Scene: Office with 25 typewriters lined up – 2 rows of 10 down, the middle at an angle and 3 on each side, one of which is larger and separated by a screen. There is a low screen between the two rows of ten desks.

desks1 

Andrea and Evelyn walk to opposite front edges of the stage.

Andrea: That summer of the layoffs, I was trying to organize us into a union…

Evelyn: And I was chasing men…

Andrea: Without much success…

Evelyn: Without much success, until….

Andrea: We work, that’s what we do; We dream, that’s what we do. In good times, we dream of better jobs, more pay, a nice boyfriend. In bad times, of any job, even this one.

Evelyn: Some of us just want the nice boyfriend.

A large clock shows 8:45. Women are drifting in, some chattering together, some coming in singly. They put their purses and other bags in their desk drawers, talking while doing so, and then gather at the three desks at the top end. They are saying things like:

…family dinner…
Bobby had a sore throat…
…got all my baking done…
…sewing a new outfit for my niece…

Andrea and Evelyn walk over and join the group. Andrea hands out union leaflets but no one reads them. They drift around talking and put the leaflets in purses, drawers or pockets. Andrea starts talking to Evelyn. Soon the background voices diminish as Evelyn and Andrea’s conversation attracts their interest.

Andrea: Well, I thought about putting an ad in the paper, but have you seen the ads lately. Ugh!

Evelyn: Dolly is bugging me to go to an agency. They’re supposed to match you with one guy a week. Dolly just wants to do it to get lots of dates. You know how she is…

Frouida: Why don’t you just go to those singles places?

Andrea and Evelyn laugh.

Frouida: Aren’t there those nightclub kind of places and pubs and that sort of thing? Sometimes when we go with my husband, there seems to be a lot of men by themselves.

Andrea and Evelyn laugh again.

Andrea: Have you ever met any of them?

Evelyn: First of all, they’re married. You can’t tell the married ones from the single ones. And they’re after one thing. Right now. Before they even tell you their name, or instead of telling you their name….

Andrea: I always ask them for their phone number when they ask for mine. They get really upset.

Annette: (shocked) Whatever would you do that for?

Andrea: That way you get some clue if they’re married, if they won’t give you their home phone number. Although one did and I called and a woman answered the call and says I’ll give my husband the message.

Evelyn: They talk about chains and things. They say they’re not ready for commitment. They’re just ready for one thing.

Andrea: And if you ask them who do they think they are anyway, they start calling you names. Or they cry. Or they cry and call you names. Have you ever met one who didn’t cry, Evelyn?

Evelyn: Then there’s AIDS. There’s still herpes. They’re all drunk.

Andrea: So what? So are you.

Evelyn: Shut up! Witch!

Frouida: I thought AIDS was only for those men, you know…

Evelyn: I don’t know, they say not. They used to say that if you slept with a person you slept with everybody he slept with in the last year. Now they’re saying five years. I heard seven years the other day.

Frouida: (patting Evelyn comfortingly) Well, it’s not something to worry about.

Evelyn: All very well for you to talk! You’re not on the front lines!

Andrea: Speaking of front lines, we should join the union before…

Annette: It’s already too late. I heard it’s starting this morning.

The clock shows 8:59. The women all sit at their desks and turn on their typewriters. Each typewriter has a pile of forms sitting beside it all lined up exactly and all exactly the same height. Each of the typists puts a form in her typewriter and exactly at 9:00, they all start typing.

The supervisor comes in, goes to her desk and surveys the room from there. The typists are all typing away, heads down, backs straight. Supervisor walks up to five women one after the other, leans over and says something quietly to them. Each stops typing, and stands up, and then they all follow the supervisor out. The remaining typists do not look up or pause in their typing.

The supervisor comes back and takes the piles that were beside the typewriters of the five women who have left and distributes them among the remaining typists.

Some men in coveralls come in and dismantle five of the desks and carry them out. The typing does not pause.

II

8:45. There are now only 20 desks and the right hand partition has been moved to make a smaller space.

desks2

Frouida walks to the centre of the stage.

Frouida: And so it began, the summer of the layoffs.
Each of us hoped we wouldn’t be next.
Even when my best friend was laid off,
all I thought is I hope I won’t be next.
The trouble is, the piles of forms
block the view. And even dreams
shrink to fit onto preprinted forms.
I dream that my crippled child will walk;
I dream my other child will excel
in school or in sports.
I dream my husband will make a lot of money.
And all the time, I type the forms
and think that with no job security,
the dreams are faded and dirty
like a form with too many corrections,
and you have to tear it up,
enter the number in the book
and start again clean,
if you can.

The women come in as before, talking to each other, but they are not animated now, they move slower, and, of course, there are fewer of them. Frouida joins them.
She cried and cried….

Alice has a new job already….

…..severance pay, unemployment insurance….

Gudrun wishes she had left earlier….

Andrea and Evelyn stroll in, looking happy and relaxed in contrast to the tension and depression of the others.

Annette: All very well for them – no family to support.

Frouida: But they’re trying…they’re trying.

Everybody laughs.

Frouida: You found the one yet?

Andrea says no but Evelyn looks smug.

Evelyn: (to Andrea) Don’t tell them.

Andrea: Oh no! I wouldn’t dream of telling! After all, it’s disgusting to have gone to a dating agency. It indicates a certain level of desperation you’re never supposed to admit. I know! Tell them you met him while he was dead drunk on the pub floor. That’s respectable. (Turns to the other women) So there’s this guy, dead drunk on the barroom floor, Evelyn picks him up, hoses him down, drives him home and now she has a date for every night this week.

Frouida: What’s he like? Is he nice?

Evelyn: As nice as any drunk on the pub floor can be. Laughs) Actually, he’s very nice.

Frouida: Not married.

Evelyn: Well, he is actually. His wife doesn’t live with him though. She was really the drunk, not him.

Andrea: He left her because she was a drunk?

Evelyn: No, actually, she left him. She ran away with the next door neighbour, I gather he was a drunk too.

Frouida: Any children?

Evelyn: No, not John. The next door neighbour had children though.

Andrea: I hate to interrupt this romance here, but we should talk about layoffs and union.

She hands everyone a leaflet. The women take them but don’t read them, just stand around awkwardly holding the leaflets. The supervisor comes in, there is an immediate silence and the leaflets disappear into handbags or under piles of paper. They sit at their desks and promptly at 9:00 a.m., the typewriters all start up.

A man in a suit comes in and calls away seven of the women. The typewriters falter now and then as the remaining ones watch the typewriters being moved out and the desks dismantled. The supervisor patrols the aisles. Whenever someone turns their head to watch the desks being moved, the supervisor walks over and raps her fingers on that typist’s desk. Every minute or so she shouts: GIRLS! TALKING!

III

8:45. Partition has been moved to shrink the typing space some more. There are only 13 desks left now.

13desks

Annette goes to the front of the stage.

Annette: I would have liked to join them,
young, white and energetic,
talking union, talking men.
But each day starts too early
and ends too late.
My only goal is to stay awake.
So that’s all I do all day,
think about raising children
on a typist’s pay
and concentrate
on not falling asleep.

The women come in studying leaflets. Sighs and paper rustling.

…we should have done it earlier…
…other departments won’t join though….
…too scared…..

Andrea: We could still join. There are still thirteen of us left.

Annette: By tomorrow there won’t be.

Frouida: Union means strike.

Andrea: Strike is better than layoff. Strike means a job, more money, more job security.

Frouida: Union means strike.

Andrea: There were no strikes in Uganda, were there? No strikes, no hospitals, poor roads, no schools…and everything that goes with no union and no strike. No old age pension, not even a telephone system. That’s what goes with no strike.

Annette: Gudrun got another job. If we join, we’ll never get another job.

Andrea: Susan and Eileen and Sarah haven’t got another job yet.

Annette: They get unemployment insurance.

Andrea: How long will that last?

Frouida: Union means strike.

Andrea throws up her hands in rage and stamps her feet.

Evelyn comes in, looking so smug they all have to smile.

Annette: What love does for you!

Frouida: Getting married yet?

Evelyn just smiles smugly and puts down her purse on her desk.

Annette: Is your mother pleased?

Evelyn suddenly loses her smugness and collapses into a chair.

Evelyn: She hates me. She hates John’s mother.

Andrea: Does John mind?

Evelyn: Oh, she loves John. None of it is John’s fault. It’s me who’s going out with a married man. She goes on and on.

Andrea: Why does she hate John’s mother?

Evelyn: John’s mother lives in John’s house. Or maybe John lives in her house. Or maybe they share it. I don’t know. John’s mother has two dogs and a boyfriend named Tiger.

Frouida: She’s not married?

Evelyn: No, and in fact she’s trying to get rid of Tiger. But she can’t because she co-signed a loan for him. So it must be her house, I just realized, otherwise, how could she co-sign a loan? So if she throws Tiger out and he doesn’t pay the loan, she’s out about $15,000.

Annette: This Tiger sounds delightful.

Evelyn: So she has to buy him food and clothing and liquor – and how that man puts away liquor! – just to safeguard her investment.

Frouida: Hm. $15,000 to throw him out. How much to keep him?

Evelyn: She’d lose the house, you see. I know she doesn’t have that kind of money.

Andrea: What about John?

They look at the clock and sit down at their desks and start typing. After a while, a man in a suit comes in and calls seven of them away again. The remaining ones keep typing. Men come in and start dismantling and rearranging desks.

IV

8:45. The desks have been rearranged to fit the smaller space. There are only six desks left now. The other side of the partition is being used for storage and is full of boxes.

desks4

Andrea walks to the front of the stage.

Andrea: And I saw that the job was over
and I thought maybe
the next one would be better,
if there was a next one at all.
And I thought of all the years
and all the jobs
and of the years and jobs
yet to come.
If we don’t make a stand,
they will all slip away like this.
We will always be going away like this,
one by one,
with only tears
to light the way.

The women walk in silently and silently deposit purses and coats as appropriate. Evelyn comes in. They all turn to look at her hopefully but she is just as depressed as they are.

Evelyn: He’s gone quiet. He watches and waits.

No one says anything. They stare at the floor or out the window.

Evelyn: He’ll find something wrong with me, won’t he? He’s sure to find something. He’ll say it’s this or that, won’t he? I’ll believe him, won’t I? There’s always something.

Annette: Are you being nice to him?

Evelyn: Does it matter what I do? He’ll find something, won’t he?

Evelyn sits down and stares at her typewriter. Looks around, seems confused that there are so few desks.

Evelyn: Where did everybody go?

Andrea: We’ve got to plan our lives. Are we just going to let it happen? Are we going to drift along, let our jobs disappear and not lift one little finger?

Frouida: Union means strike.

Andrea: Non-union means layoff.

Evelyn: John says they lay off at union places too.

Andrea: There it’s an orderly layoff with orderly recall.

Evelyn: That would be nice. To know… (She trails off and stares into space.)

Andrea: Why won’t you consider it then?

Annette: You have to sign up everyone, not just the typists.

Andrea: (grimly) I’m working on it.

Annette: You can’t do it though.

Andrea: I could if you helped.

Evelyn: You don’t understand. I don’t give a shit about this job. This one or any other one. They’re all the same. Those people who got laid off get a rest, while we get more and more work piled on us. No more coffee breaks now. Now the supervisor says we can’t leave at 5 if there’s still some typing left.

Andrea: Those issues can be covered in a union contract.

Evelyn: I don’t care about this job!

Andrea: (stung) What about of those of us who do care? And what about John? I suppose you don’t care about him either.

Evelyn: Don’t be a creep!

Nine o’clock and they all start typing.

V

Another 8:45 but the office is still empty. The six typists come in about 8:56. They exchange brief good mornings but do not talk, going straight to their typewriters and to work.

Evelyn comes in last, defeated and depressed, goes to her typewriter.

Andrea: Gone, eh?

Evelyn nods, chokes. Andrea reaches to pat Evelyn but just then the supervisor strides in and seeing Andrea reaching towards Evelyn, veers to stride menacingly towards them. Andrea’s hand drops from patting Evelyn, back to her typewriter. Evelyn has apparently not even noticed Andrea’s small attempt at a comforting gesture.
Evelyn: So it was gone,
my time for summer dreams.
I hadn’t been laid off then yet.
Hundreds, no, more likely thousands by then
but not yet me.
I was special.
Aren’t we all special?
I fell in love.
Don’t we all fall in love?

At 9:05 a man in a suit comes in and Andrea is called out. The others don’t even look up. Other men come in and remove Andrea’s desk. The others keep typing without a pause.

Evelyn turns towards the front of the stage and walks forward.

What I wanted was so ordinary.
How did ordinary desire for love and home
become an impossible dream
that summer of the layoffs?

Eventually, of course,
they came for my desk, too.
I guess I’ll be reading the papers now –
want ads, the ones for jobs,
the ones for men,
the ones for cheap rooms.

I guess I’ll get by somehow.
Don’t we all get by somehow?
Dreaming of the past and future,
never of the present.

Never once did we,
do we,
look at each other,
talk about important things,
that summer of the layoffs.

 

 

Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit http://helenpotrebenko.icopyright.com

GREEN

May 15, 2009

(First printed in Riding Home, Talon Books, 1995)

We have walked through a green golden forest
seeking edible mushrooms in autumn,
chipping rock from the sides of green mountains,
picking berries on green summer days.

Once, camping at Casper Creek, we woke up to find
the truck surrounded by a minor lake –
drove to higher ground and in the morning looked down
at the green water churning at green banks.

Once, walking down a sun-striped, green-shaded trail,
swatting flies, listening to a busy little creek
somewhere far below, we saw a deer bounding
on rubber legs into the green bush.

The rain forest is a wall of lush green
with people-made paths peering out from between trees
and campsites tenuously crouched
at the edge of the solid green bush.

In the clearings, many-hued grasses flourish
and green-based wild flowers rampantly clash
colours with the surrounding trees –
waving stems of colour in the cool green breeze.

There are too many shades of green to be one colour;
there are ten greens in one leaf of skunk cabbage.
How many greens are in a cedar branch?
Many greens make a rain forest grow.

We have walked through the cool green forests
and slept under skies filled with stars;
we have walked on the sides of green mountains;
dipped our pails in the cool green streams.

August, 1988

Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit http://helenpotrebenko.icopyright.com

LAYOFFS

May 15, 2009

(First printed in Riding Home, Talon Books, 1985)

When layoffs are a rumour
half the people are terrified
they’ll lose their job;
the other half are terrified
they won’t.

They all go in the end:
the ones eager to go,
the back stabbers,
the good workers and the bad workers,
all poisoned by living with fear.

Even when you’re laid off together
you leave one by one
to whatever individual fate you can seek and find
out there.

Everyone feels they have failed;
feels they could have controlled their destiny;
feels the fate beyond their reach
could have been grasped
if they tried hard enough.

The days of hope and terror now ended
in a flood of tears,
some go berserk; some go catatonic,
living with the screaming fear of no pay cheque.
For the survivors,
there’s a certain breadth of vision:
horizons beckon through the mist
of tears.

October, 1987

Copyright 2009, Helen Potrebenko. For permissions please visit http://helenpotrebenko.icopyright.com