Queen Street Parkade, Toronto, 2012, by Fabrice Strippoli
Sheila Gilhooly poses as a male labourer and finds her new identity all too convincing at the welfare office. From Mistaken Identity, published in 2012 and available at Smashwords.com.
When I first moved to Toronto from Ottawa, the job I had lined up fell through. I had a place to crash, but no job, no cash. I had heard about these work-today-get-paid-today jobbers who picked up crews of male labourers for a variety of physical work around the city. They had certain corners and alleys where they were known to do pick-ups. They required very little ID and they paid up at the end of the day. I had heard that one of their mustering points was behind Honest Ed’s, near where I lived.
It took me three days to get up the nerve to get in the line, sign on the clipboard and get into the back of a pick-up truck with two benches down the side and five pretty down-and-out-looking guys already seated. I was nervous, sure they would “catch me” as a woman, wondering without much of a clue what guys would talk about. But I needn’t have worried as they said not a word to me—or to each other.
We drove way into the outer suburbs of Toronto to where they were clearing an old trash landfill. Old electronics, beds and their mattresses, a million old paint cans, tons and tons of slowly disintegrating drywall, all made for a hazy stench which caught in the throat and stung the eyes.
We were sent by grunts and motions in two’s or threes to where we would put the crap into the dumpster bin parked by the pile. As the pile got cleared, the forklift moved the bin on to its next pile, with us in its wake. If the bin was getting full we were expected to jump in the poison and tamp it down.
By mid-day the problem of how to pee was starting to be a concern. There was a port-a-potty but it was way down where the trucks were parked. Besides, nobody used them and I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. Besides no privacy, there was very little cover, except for the piles and the dumpsters and people milling all over them.
Suddenly I was saved. There was the loud sound of a car horn honking wildly. All the guys stopped immediately and bolted towards the sound. It was the canteen on wheels, friend of all construction sites, and I had my choice of secluded spots. I scored an afternoon pee break when the boss sent me on an errand over to a real building with a real toilet, only a fifteen-minute walk.
I figured the second day would be easier. I knew the ropes, knew when the canteen would come. I had held my end up, but followed the pace of the group, and nobody had spoken to me except in grunts about the work.
But the second day wasn’t easier. The guys were different, more hard and mean than the down-and-out types from the day before. They swore and grumbled at each other nastily and I felt their curiosity about me grow as the day wore on. We were at an even more secluded site and the stuff was wetter and ickier, so they gave us rubber gloves. I was not the only one using them but it started this whole razz about whether I was too sissy to get my hands dirty. I was no longer afraid of being caught as a woman, but was now pretty sure I would be beaten for being a fag and then I would be discovered as a woman. I volunteered for a pile off to the side that needed only one person and kept to myself till the day ended and I got my reward of being paid.
On my way home on the subway I resolved that I had to find a real job. At the same time I was using my teeth to open a wrapper and my front tooth broke.
I was freaked and I looked like hell. I needed assistance. I phoned the welfare office and, though it took a half day to connect with “information,” a woman was actually helpful and told me that in the case of need or emergency like my tooth, and being new in town, I was eligible for a one-time assistance of $200 which I wouldn’t have to repay if I didn’t apply for welfare (the real welfare) for at least six months. I just needed to go to my nearest welfare office and explain my situation. Bring some identification.
So I dressed nice and polite and went to the welfare office. There was one woman who seemed to be running the desk and a bunch of people ahead of me. Finally it was my turn. I smiled, cleared my throat, and began to explain my situation.
“You can’t be here,” she announced.
“But…” I protested.
“You are single,” she said.
“Yes,” I agreed.
“You need to go to the welfare office shelter on Jarvis Street for single men.”
“But I’m not a man,” I said, presenting my driver’s license.
She looked at it and said, “Where did you get this from? It’s illegal to use somebody else’s identification, even if they let you. Who did you steal this ID from?” she suddenly barks at me, doing good cop/bad cop and completely freaking me out, but still I tried to argue with her, to explain, to make her help me.
I missed her special signal but all at once I was being pressed on either side by the two burly security guards posted at the door. They came up behind me with their billy clubs drawn.
The lady behind the counter told me I had to leave now and not make any more trouble, or they—she gestured to the burly ones—would have to detain me. If I really wanted help I should go where they could help me, with the other single men.