By Abe Margel
It was the kind of hot and humid day in June that made Toronto feel like Miami. On the scorching sidewalk women in summer dresses and men in uncomfortable suits shuffled through a pair of wide wooden doors leading into the convocation hall. Inside the air-conditioned building a happy crowd was assembling. Gayle, along with hundreds of others, was about to receive that sacred piece of parchment, a Bachelor of Arts degree.
She and her mother were optimistic that this B.A. would allow Gayle to find a well paying and respectable job; to step out of the young woman’s working class situation into a comfortable existence. There would be no more scrimping and saving, no more calling on payday loan swindlers.
There was even the hope, spoken only in passing and reluctantly between the two women, of Gayle meeting a decent guy, from a decent family, with a decent career. Although coming close, it was something she had not managed to achieve at university.
Before the actual ritual began young men and women marched into the auditorium wearing their caps and gowns. The room was impressive, overbearing. Art deco chandeliers, refugees from some long forgotten renovation, hung from the ceiling. Oak paneling lined the massive curved walls.
The large hall was filled to capacity. Students occupied the first five dozen rows and their families the rest.
The band played the theme from The Great Escape. A couple of other marching tunes followed. Finally everyone stood up as the orchestra played “O Canada”.
A short introductory speech by a female politician was followed by two honorary degree presentations. One recipient was a bald billionaire who had donated money for a new science building and the other a young woman. The latter was a reporter who had a habit of running around war zones and surviving. Petite with long blond hair and wearing a chic green dress, she gave a fiery speech. She demanded a fair deal for all of humanity, challenging the graduates to put their lives on the line and become social justice warriors.
Two more speakers followed.
The room was heating up. Young men and women, increasingly uncomfortable, were impatient for their turn to walk on the stage and have that important piece of paper handed to them.
“When will they stop talking?” whispered Gayle to the woman sitting next to her.
The only reply she got was a shrug of the shoulders and a snort.
Gayle turned her head to look behind her. She spotted her mother and uncle and shyly waved to them. Tall, thin, with a pretty oval face, the young woman of twenty-two smiled to herself. She was amazed she had survived and made it to this triumphal point.
Sitting in the balcony Carol, Gayle’s mother, allowed herself to tear up. It was her right as a parent. Under the dim light she removed a tissue from her purse and dried her eyes. Next to her was her brother, Bill.
“I didn’t expect there to be so many graduates. All those kids will be looking for jobs at the same time,” said Carol in an anxious undertone to her brother.
Gayle too was taken aback by the vast number of fellow students all graduating at the same time. It made her realize the scale of competition she would be facing going forward. They can’t all be heading for cheerful futures, all be moving into good jobs and happy marriages. What’s next for them and what’s next for me? She quickly and firmly pushed these worries aside. If others can make it, so can I.
Finally it was the turn of the Humanities graduates. The students in Gayle’s row stood up and made their way to the stage, she heard her name called, shook hands with the president and dean, was handed her parchment and guided back to her seat.
The ceremony over, outside the auditorium Carol and Bill found a beaming Gayle. Bill hung back as mother and daughter embraced.
“Oh, I’m so glad you made it, Uncle Bill,” said Gayle as she gave him a hug. He handed her the bouquet of flowers he had bought earlier that morning on Temperance Street.
“Great job!” he said. “Now stand next to your mother and I’ll take a picture.” Bill pulled out his cell phone from his suit pocket. “Smile!”
“Now just of you.” He undid his tie so he could breath, bent his knees and pressed the button on his phone. Bill took several photos of Gayle holding her degree and flowers.
Gayle’s father was nowhere to be seen. Most of her life he had ignored the fact he had a daughter. He and Carol had been married less than a year when he took off for Fort McMurray where he found work driving heavy equipment in the oil industry. The divorce came through on Gayle’s fifth birthday.
Following the graduation ceremony daughter, mother and uncle went for lunch together on Bloor Street at an Italian restaurant; its walls were decorated with paintings of the Forum, the Coliseum and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. When they finished their tiramisu Bill pulled out his credit card and paid.
“Thanks, Uncle Bill. You’re the best.”
“No Gayle, you’re the best.”
She was the first person in the family to go to university and graduate. Gayle’s mother started to do a degree in geography but after her husband headed west she moved into her parents’ furnished basement and looked for work; there was a child to support and bills to pay.
The first job Carol found after dropping out of university was janitorial. She walked around a mall pushing a cart, removing garbage from steel bins, sweeping the floor, hoping no one would recognize her, wishing she were dead. She soon left that position for an afternoon shift at a warehouse.
When Gayle turned ten Carol began taking night courses at her old high school. A year later she found work as a clerk in an insurance brokers’ office. This to her was a big step up; a five-day-a-week, eight-hour-a-day job where no one knew her or pried into her private life. Over the years she took more evening courses, learned how to manage the various computer programs in the office and kept her head down. There were a couple of promotions and more money but no major achievements. Still, it was a steady job that kept her out of poverty.
When Gayle turned twelve she and her mother left the furnished basement and moved into a second floor apartment in Scarborough. The lawns in the area were mostly unadorned, lacking flower beds or even trees. Their triplex stood around the corner from a strip mall consisting of a supermarket, pet food store, dentist’s office, dollar store and dry cleaners. Now ten years later Carol and her daughter still lived there.
Uncle Bill climbed into his rusting Subaru and headed home to Bowmanville, first dropping the two women off at their apartment on McCowan Road in Scarborough.
Carol walked up the tread-worn stairs to their apartment as Gayle, carrying the flowers and her degree, followed.
The new graduate placed the bouquet in a glass vase, put the kettle on and the two women sat down for tea and cake. The apartment was filled with the heady fragrance that drifted from the blooms. As mother and daughter chatted they took turns passing the degree between them, admiring the colourful red seal.
“It looks pretty nice,” said Gayle. “I’m going to photo copy it and take it with when I go for my next job interview.”
“That’s a good idea. Your resume’s great. With all the part-time work you’ve done at Starbucks you’ve got a good track record.”
“I’ve had those two interviews already and there’s that other one next week.”
“No, I’ll be okay. I’ll put on something different this time. I have that skirt and blouse I showed you, the things I wore at Easter. You know, conservative but not drab. They should be fine.”
The following Tuesday Gayle headed for an office building downtown. The tower on Edward Street was new, a box of concrete, glass and steel. She stepped out of the elevator on the twenty-second floor. She was early so she went to the washroom. Then in the hallway, her hands trembling, she checked her cell for emails. Nothing. The stream of texts and emails that used to arrive on her phone had slowed to a trickle. Her fellow graduates were drifting apart, going their own ways and away from her.
The interview on Edward Street went well but so had the others and she still had no job. More interviews followed but no one was interested in hiring her. Summer slipped into fall and winter was approaching. Mother and daughter stopped talking about what a glorious future awaited the new graduate.
The phone call was a pleasant surprise. “Come in Monday morning at nine and I’ll show you around, introduce you to people and have someone explain your duties.”
“Oh, thank you. Yes, I’ll be there. Thanks again.” It was not a job she wanted but what could Gayle do? She had been out of school now for five months and this was the best she could get. It would mean giving up her part-time work at the coffee shop or at least reducing her hours. Well, so be it. The few friends she still kept in touch with were working or traveling or starting graduate school. She had to do something.
“No honey,” said Carol. “Don’t take it. You didn’t go to school to end up doing this.”
“It’s only temporary, mom. I’ll find something better eventually.” But would she? Gayle was bitter. She felt betrayed. All that work, so many sacrifices, not just on her part but also her mother’s. The degree in French had gotten her nothing she wanted or hoped for.
Early Monday morning, having carefully applied her makeup, Gayle made her way to the bus stop. It was cold and drizzling. The overcrowded bus crawled into Kennedy Station. Through some miracle she found a seat on the subway. Three stops later and the train was packed to bursting.
“Over here. This is where you hang your coat. You can put your purse in this. It locks. Here’s the key.” The middle-aged woman was kind. She reminded Gayle of her mother though they did not resemble one another.
As Gayle put the headset on and adjusted the swivel chair in front of the computer screen the middle-aged woman leaned over to her. “Listen dear, you’ll get the hang of it soon enough. You’ll get used to it.” The woman gave her a big smile. “It pays the bills and when all is said and done it’s a good job.”
Gayle read over the script she was to recite then dialed the first phone number.
“Hello, Mr. Jones? Hi, I’m calling from Gallery Carpet Cleaners with a special offer.”
A lone tear rolled down her face.