Thursday, February 8, 2018

2. Fooj’s Second Job

At 35 years of age, old for a professional hockey player yet young for almost anything else, except, perhaps, nature interpreter, William Kendall was a nature interpreter.  He lived in small but clean apartment in East Vancouver, British Columbia.  He was unmarried and had no children, which, apparently, were shortcomings, at least in the opinions of many who were not hesitant to share them.  Now and then his spouseless, childless status was remarked upon by those who knew him fairly well.  He didn’t understand their need to point out the obvious.  Did they remind short people they were short, fat people they were fat, bald people they were bald? Of course not.  Mirrors did that, so the flaw had to be spoken, to remind him.  Other times his familial status was mentioned by people who scarcely knew him, which also annoyed him. “You have no kids yet…?” Voices and faces on radio and television, completely oblivious to his existence, also seemed programmed to remind him of the apparent emptiness or lack of completion of his humanhood, which almost inevitably occurred whenever the topic of interest in any way related to families and their issues.  He would change the channel or turn the device off, maybe mentally heave it off the balcony.

Sometimes there was no external prodding.  Out of the blue, all by himself, he would think about his unattached existence and what he should have wrapped himself in by now.  There was no escaping this lapse.  At 35 he should be a married father and not being one, had failed.  He had come up short and had no clue how to remedy his shortcomings.  He would try to soothe himself with vague reassurances, or were they amorphous hopes: something, someone, would come along eventually, somehow.  Or maybe the power would go out and everything would be moot. He would hope for that too.

He wasn’t completely unaccomplished.  Before the age of 30 he had obtained a PhD in zoology from the University of Toronto, studying the breeding dynamics of terrestrial salamanders in eastern North American.  He had followed that up with a postdoctoral fellowship at the National Museum of Natural History, the flagship museum of the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington DC.  Looking back, he believed that it was in Washington where he was suddenly thrown off track.  He could identify the exact millisecond when it happened.

He believed that had things not gone wrong back then, a scant three years ago, he easily could have been at least an assistant professor by now.  He might even have been on the verge of obtaining tenure.  But these things did not happen, nor did anything close.  He had been shown the door, and three years later inhabited an unplanned reality, a world of the small but clean apartment, of crummy, part-time employment.  What had been meant to be a distinguished career was replaced by a series of dignity-bruising jobs.  The reachable goals of a decade earlier were rapidly receding in life’s rearview mirror.  No, wrong, he was the one in the mirror, standing beside the road, clutching a sheaf of useless papers, getting smaller and smaller. Life turned a corner and he was gone.

Returning to Canada, he had carried on, doing his best to cobble a living that made at least partial use of his education.  He lucked into teaching a series of sessional courses at the University of British Columbia.  One of his graduate student friends from the University of Toronto, also without an academic placement, had at least obtained an administrative position at UBC.  He did his best to have William awarded one or two courses per term.  Three months each, several hundred hours work—lecturing, lab instruction, marking—paid eight thousand dollars.  It worked out to almost minimum wage and provided zero job security.

William started a business as an environmental consultant and wildlife biologist. Through the university he made a contact in the Ministry of the Environment named Marilyn Woo, who offered him small biological surveys of wilderness fringes at the outskirts of the growing cities of the Lower Mainland.   He was to look for and report on the presence of endangered species, a nominal prerequisite prior to a permit being issued to okay the plowing under of the fringes in preparation for the construction of big box malls or subdivisions.  He liked the field work, but between transportation and equipment costs never made a cent.  He lost money doing this work.  Being outside, in contact with the natural world, using his hands as well as his brain, kept him sane though.  It propped his spirit.

His third job, a Hail Mary, was a retreat to his past.  He became a Park Interpreter, a naturalist—a nature interpreter—for the Greater Vancouver Regional District.  It was seasonal employment, from March to October, and involved the creation and presentation of natural history programs to residents of the Greater Vancouver Region, preschoolers to seniors, in any of the 22 regional parks. He had learned of this opportunity from a posting on an undergraduate notice board at UBC.

He had been hired by the Head Park Interpreter, whose name was Tom Carlisle. He sailed through the interview until the not unexpected question, “You have a PhD. Don’t you think you’re a little overqualified for this position?  Most interpreters are undergraduate students.”

He must have wilted visibly.  Tom Carlisle smiled at him. “We could use someone with a little more experience I suppose.  You could help with training the newbies.”

He thought he lost the job though, when he admitted to not being able to drive.

“Really?” said Tom.  “Is there some medical reason you can’t drive?  I couldn’t discriminate against you for that.  That would be illegal.”

He told Tom about the lightning strike and the resulting injury.

“You’ve been struck by lightning?”

“Twice, actually,” William said, “but the first one didn’t do any damage. It was more of a surface phenomenon.”

The second lightning strike had penetrated his cranium and left William with chronic double vision and poor depth perception.  The part of his brain that pieced together the slightly different images from left and right eyes had been fried to a crisp in a fraction of a second.  Afterward William could not drive or play tennis proficiently.  He didn’t care about tennis, but not driving excluded him from a lot of things.  He was philosophical about it.  Most people struck as he had been would have been dead before they hit the ground. He was one of the lucky ones.

Tom sat back and smiled at him.  “Twice-struck? What’s that about?”

“I think it’s about being in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said William.  “I hoped that by moving out here to the coast it wouldn’t happen again. Lightning is more a feature of eastern weather patterns.”

Tom smiled again. “Maybe it’s not the weather.”

William didn’t know how to respond to that.  Tom Carlisle was slightly odd.  He seemed a nice person though.  If only he would hire him. 

He did.  He said, “We can probably work around the driving.  You can do programs in the parks close to transit, or I can pair you with other interpreters for the farther parks.  Most programs require at least two. You have the knowledge base, and weird as it seems these days, we are supposed to be hiring males.”

“Why?” William asked.

“To balance out the male-female pay ratio, is my guess,” Tom said. “We need more low-paid males.  You can work with Fooj.”

“Fooj?”

“Did you see that handsome young Asian man who walked out of this room just before you came in?”

William had.  The handsome young Asian man had smiled at him and said hello.  He had been extremely handsome, startling even.  “That was Fooj?”

“That was Fooj.  Interested?”

Despite the push for males, apart from William and Fooj all the interpreters hired that year were young women.  There were always more female applicants for reasons that were layered and complicated.  Working with children, which was most of the work, wasn’t manly. Interpreters were auxiliary union members who paid hefty dues but received no protection or guarantee of hours.  There were no extended medical or dental benefits and the salary was below that paid to workers who mowed grass.  For whatever cultural, financial or other reasons, few men gave such an arrangement a second look. They would rather mow grass.

Fooj’s real name was Martin Fujiwara.  Before becoming an interpreter his summer employment had been as a tree planter.  He was feeling worn down by that exhausting, far-flung work and wanted to try something new, but still something to do with the environment. He had a bachelor’s degree in environmental science, which is what had led him to underemployment as a tree planter.

William and Fooj lived a single Skytrain stop apart, and because, as Tom had mentioned, most programs required more than one interpreter, William was given enough work to survive.  He paid Fooj for his share of the gas and vehicle upkeep and off they would go, scrunched into Fooj’s vintage Ford Pinto with racing flames painted on its blue hull — but emanating from the back instead of washing over the hood — and bunt their way through traffic from one park to another to present programs to one group or another.  Sometimes they would go to two, even three parks, each in a different city, in a single day.  Fooj got them where they needed to go, and William told Fooj more than what he needed to know.  William had a gift of knowing almost everything about everything alive, or so Fooj and the others came to believe.   Any tree, animal, bug, scum growing on the surface of a puddle in warm weather — William could tell you what it was, its common and Latin names, its life history, and whether or not it was native to southern British Columbia.  William was an encyclopedia of biological trivia, which was of little use in most fields but slightly helpful in nature interpretation.

It turned out that in addition to being the first male interpreters hired in a while, William and Fooj would also be the last. The year after they started, hiring responsibility was taken away from Tom Carlisle by a person named Ed Daddle, himself a recent hire as Assistant Area Manager, whatever that was. Ed wasted no time establishing himself as a meddling micro-manager, intent on making himself as unpopular as possible as quickly as possible. 

Ed Daddle didn’t care about gender-related pay scale ratios.  He had his own criteria for who was and wasn’t worth hiring when it came to the interpretive staff.  The fact that the great majority of applicants were young women was not a problem at all.  It was a boon to Ed, who, like William, was 35, unmarried and childless.  Unlike William, he was aggressively on the hunt for a woman, perhaps for marriage, certainly for sex.  Previously, all interpreters had been assigned office space in the tired old Burnaby Lake Nature House at the far end of the park.  William, Fooj, and two other long-time interpreters remained stationed there, but Ed decided that from now on, all newly hired interpreters should be assigned workspace in the park’s Central Office, where all administrative staff, including Ed, were situated.  He arranged to have the mostly-empty multi-purpose room directly across the hall from his office converted into interpreters’ office space. This in place, he would decide which young women would be seated at the desks in that room. His door would always be open. It would maximize his chances.

Over the next two years Ed hired a succession of attractive young women, all seemingly exactly the same height, 5-ft-3. A few were competent naturalists, but because of laws of probability, not many.  Most quit after a single season, some sooner, tired of unwanted and improper attention from across the hall. It was easier to quit a low-paying, part-time job than deal with the hassle of filing a complaint with a disinterested union.

William was quick to sense that Ed Daddle disliked him.  Ed was snide and dismissive in their brief interactions, as if speaking civilly to a person much further down the pay scale was difficult or ridiculous.  At some point Ed discovered that William had a PhD and from then on took perverse delight in reminding him that most people didn’t spend all those years in college and end up leading nature walks for children.  

William asked Tom Carlisle why Ed was unpleasant to him.

“Because he’s an unpleasant person,” said Tom.  “It’s nothing personal. He’s rude to everyone he believes he outranks, and sucks up to everyone he believes outranks him.”

“He’s not rude to the female interpreters,” William said.

“No, he isn’t. To them he’s worse.”

“Is he rude to you?”

“What do you think?”

“How did he get hired here?”

“Seconded,” said Tom. “No one wants him. They’d rather promote him and make him go away than keep him around.  He’s going to obnoxious his way to the top of the corporate ladder.  We just have to tolerate him until its some other department’s turn.”

“He can’t be fired?”

“You know the line about nuclear war and cockroaches?”

At the start of his third year as an interpreter, William feared what little job security he had was about to dissipate. He would likely be laid off, because of Fooj’s new second job.  Like William, all interpreters had at least one other job, usually something mind-numbing in a service industry or retail. Fooj the former tree-planter had also been Fooj the part-time house painter, which since becoming an interpreter had been his second job.  He painted all winter long and was able to dove-tail that work with interpretation during summer months.  His world, and William’s, would change when a much more lucrative opportunity appeared.

In what was likely a first among Park Interpreters, Fooj signed on with a modeling agency, and became a fashion model.  Miraculously, or incredibly, he very quickly became a favourite of that industry, specifically the subset of it dealing with outdoors wear.  His first shoots were for the catalogues of outdoorsy, sportswear companies.  Those companies had suddenly realized that a not insignificant percentage of North Americans interested in exploring the great outdoors—who also possessed the means to purchased high-end outdoor gear—were not Caucasian.  Word went out, and modeling agencies actively sought young, attractive non-whites. Fooj was a plum waiting to be picked.

Some of his assignments were local, but with increasing frequency he was flown to the east coast to look rugged and handsome among the rocks and trees over there.  He would pose in parkas, goose-down vests, rain-gear, or sometimes with kayaks or tents, either solo, or with other almost-as-attractive outdoorsy-looking people.  The difference between Fooj and the others was that Fooj really was an outdoorsman.  His agent had discovered him the previous October, on a canoeing program at Widgeon Slough Park Reserve. William bore uncomfortable witness.  

Widgeon Slough Park Reserve was a former country estate northeast of Vancouver, a beautiful acreage surrounded by mountain peaks, where old wooden buildings and other abandoned structures were in the process of disintegrating into the wet greenness of the coastal temperate rainforest. The wide and slow Pitt River flowed past as it prepared to join the mighty Fraser. William and Fooj had many times presented canoeing programs at Widgeon Slough, a sheltered, weedy side channel of the river.  It was not a place one would expect to encounter an aggressive modeling agent. 

She was a tall woman with arched eyebrows and more makeup than was needed for an afternoon of paddling through a marsh.  After the program finished, and as other participants were happily climbing into their vehicles, she practically crawled on her hands and knees through gravel to get Fooj to accept her business card.  She first tried being coy and flirtatious, which didn’t work on Fooj, and then acted like a border collie trying to force that one free-thinking sheep into a pen, which also didn’t work.               

William had noticed she had some serious kind of Fooj-hots right from the start, and watched askance as he was sorting through life jackets, trying to find a small one with a large opening for a slightly-built boy with an oversized head.  The modeling agent briefly turned her attention away from Fooj and leaned into William’s ear.  She gushed, “What’s the name of your (gorgeous) partner?” This, as Fooj walked sideways with a canoe across his thighs onto the rickety dock in a way that made his arms and chest seem larger.

William, talking to her hair as her gaze followed Fooj walking back to get another canoe: “Martin, but he goes by ‘Fooj’.”

Her, giggling: “Fooj? (What a beautiful, God-like name!) What, is that short for something?”

William: “Fujiwara.  His name is Martin Fujiwara.”

Her, agape, as Fooj gracefully helped a teenaged girl into the canoe, holding her hand until she was settled: “What is he, a Japanese? (*They* don’t make them *that* fabulous, do they?)”

William: “His grand-parents were.  He’s from Abbotsford.”

Her: “He knows a lot about canoeing.  (Imagine, a *canoeing* God!)”

William: “Yes.” 

She wasn’t the only one smitten.  The teenager was agog too.  William supposed that so were several others.  Fooj didn’t notice, or pretended not to.  He had learned to do this.  William had learned to pretend not to notice too.  Fooj was by then a dear friend, seven years his junior, in some ways a younger brother, but William had long ago become tired of being the older, plainer side-kick.   He understood that it wasn’t Fooj’s fault.  He was, William believed, the best-looking person he had ever known or ever would know.  Fooj was an Asian matinee idol, but better looking.  William doubted anyone could create an idealized man, Asian or otherwise, that would not pale in comparison.  When Fooj walked into a school, or store, or mall, or down a street, every head turned—female, male, young, old, sexual orientation notwithstanding. He was almost hilariously handsome.  He was also tall for a genetic Japanese, a shade under six feet.  He spoke with a measured calm in a strong tenor voice, and had an easy, perfect smile.  He had never had a cavity.  One could get lost watching the movements of the muscles in his forearm as he scratched his head through his perfect hair. 

In a GVRD Parks uniform William was sometimes mistaken for a security guard or a bus driver.  Wearing the same uniform, Fooj was sometimes mistaken for a police officer or a ship’s captain.       

Fooj finally accepted the agent’s card after the program, during which six canoes had paddled north up the slough to sluggish Widgeon Creek, and then back down through the marsh.  The agent, whose name was Charmaine, had been in the bow of William’s boat.  Fooj, with the teenager, was taking the lead.  William was the sweep, but Charmaine’s frantic paddling made it difficult to remain behind the others, who were mostly novice canoeists and prone to becoming mired in wild rice and smartweed.   

Everyone else had packed up and driven off.  William was tying the last canoe to the trailer, watching, slightly amused at first, but ultimately becoming annoyed.  He wanted to go home. “Fooj, take her stupid card!” he finally yelled.  “You can throw it out the window on the way back.”   But would Fooj throw things out windows?  Would Fooj ever conceive of littering?  Of course, no.   Did Fooj need money?  Of course, yes.  He was an interpreter.

If Fooj, his driver, was to be frequently away on photoshoots, how could William keep working? It had been too good to last, even if it hadn’t been very good.  Nothing William did in this province was working out.   Still, he would rather wither and die here than return to the place he was born.

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