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John Armstrong, Working Stiff

His hilarious memoir of horrible jobs starts today in The Tyee.

David Beers 21 Aug

David Beers is founding editor of The Tyee.

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Armstrong: Jobbed out.

A friend phoned and said, "Let me read you something." Before he was 10 sentences in, he had to stop because he was laughing so hard, and so was I. That's how long it took us to decide to share with Tyee readers John Armstrong's new memoir of the working life, Wages. The first excerpt runs today, with 13 more to follow every Tuesday and Thursday.

Armstrong's resume includes paperboy, caddy, Bible camp counsellor; janitor at the Regal Theatre, a shipper of video porn, punk rock star. Didn't particularly like any of it, he readily admits in an interview. Hated most of it, frankly -- until he discovered his true calling, which we'll get to in a minute.

But guess which job drove him craziest? A longish stint as daily reporter for a Vancouver newspaper he prefers to call the Picayune–Standard. Good pay, benefits, brushes with Hollywood glamour writing features, and, starting when he was 30, just several decades to go till retirement. "When I finally landed the good job it was really fuckin' unbearable," he says.

Armstrong kept suffering a classic white-collar anxiety: guessing whether the boss had it in for him or not. He did his best to gauge their expressions, "trying to figure out what the look meant. Eventually I adopted a policy of believing the opposite of what I was told. It proved right as much as any other method." Corporate intrigue pretty well drove him nuts, says Armstrong, who writes with scathing hilarity about wearing the news industry's golden handcuffs.

By contrast, manual labour could look damn good. "The nice thing about those kinds of jobs, you can say fuck it, and you don't feel anything walking away. There's another one available all the time."


Armstrong's most famous stint was as Buck Cherry, member of the famed Vancouver-based punk band The Modernettes. and he covered that territory in a previous memoir, 2001's Guilty of Everything. "Half the time I didn't enjoy that either," Armstrong says. "Like a lot of musicians, I said, 'If I could make minimum wage doing this, I would be happy.' But of course it never comes through. So a lot wasn't enjoyable. The constant grinding poverty. Owning just one sock, and I'm in my late 20s. I started asking, What the fuck am I doing?"

Armstrong asks himself that a lot throughout Wages. There is something unnerving, he tells me, about wandering through the cafés of Vancouver on a weekday afternoon, seeing so many people pleasantly tapping away at expensive laptops, apparently making an effortless living away from the watchful eye of the slave driver.

"The coffee shop class. I figure these people are all consultants, but I can't figure out who they are consulting for. Each other, maybe. It's one great big Ponzi scheme. Maybe they're all code monkeys putting together spam mailers, I don't know." But he can't stop thinking about it. "It just seems to me, there somewhere is a con, a gambit, a ploy to not do real work. I never found it. The book, I guess, is my story of my failure to figure it out."

Armstrong's second-to-last job was stocking shelves for a big hardware store chain. What really ate at him was the attitude of management: "If you are so hard up you will work for us, we have absolutely no respect for you." There had to be something better.

Nice work

Armstrong took a look at his life and decided he might be particularly well qualified to work with people struggling with alcohol and drug addictions. A bit of hands-on experience there, he allows. Plus he lives in the Downtown Eastside, and he saw plenty of need every day. But he lacked fancy credentials. Then a musician buddy suggested a slightly different kind of gig, one that would allow him to work for the government yet largely be his own boss, and help a few young souls in the bargain. Today he runs a staffed group home for youth in Burnaby. "One of the kids is autistic and the other has had an impressive inability to stay out of jail," Armstrong says.

Suddenly Armstrong knew what he'd been preparing for all his life. "There's pretty much no bullshit that I haven't run myself. So when a kid tries to run something on me, it's like, 'Yeah, right. You've brought a knife to the gunfight.'" And if knocking around for so long has worn Armstrong a bit at the edges, well, he says, "The kids take me a little more seriously than someone in a sweater and khaki."

Now, strangely, he finds himself asked by young people for advice on how to get ahead in the workaday world. He hears himself telling the opposite of what he grew up hearing, which was: "'Get a college education, you don't want to be a plumber like your uncle Max.' Well, fuckin' right you do. Plumbers make 80 bucks an hour!"

Armstrong is not the sort to get sappy, but he admits there is great reward in helping a few teens who, as he puts it, "are kind of screwed."

"Everyone I've met in this work, while at the mercy of huge bureaucracy, is doing it because they care. I haven't met anyone who isn't caring."

Meanwhile, Armstrong has reincarnated The Modernettes, fresh off a smash tour in Japan. ("Like being the Beatles for a week.") And he's finishing off three more books. He seems, oddly... happy. But don't let that discourage you. Read Wages, and laugh like hell.  [Tyee]

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