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Prison vs Dungeon

August 11, 2010

For one of my temporary employment-agency gigs doing telephone surveys, I worked in a dungeon.

Yes, a dungeon.

A basement warren with ceilings not more than six feet high, one low-slung fluorescent light in each room. Walls inexplicably painted black and silver. Waiting-room chairs, a few inches apart.

Narrow, home-made cubicles were cobbled together with pressboard, staples and duct tape. Electrical wiring secured with kitchen twist-ties and yet more duct tape zigzagged the cinderblock walls and looped around bare pipes. One washroom for a dozen workers, permitted to use it only during the regimented 15-minute breaks.

Nowhere to eat. No marked exits. No ventilation.

The 10 or 12 of us who toiled in this bleak dungeon from 9 to 5 for a few weeks were regularly harassed and sworn at for any perceived “unprofessionalism” or minor error by the big, strange woman who owned the place, or her creepy little Francophone husband.

It was half Addam’s Family, half Count of Monte Cristo, but with nary a hero in sight. Just plenty of 70s computers and big giant phones that looked like they were scrounged from the curb or at yard sales.

My fellow temp trolls and I were earning minimum wage (As Chris Rock notes, that means if they could pay you less, they would) to gather telephone interviews with businesses, government offices and corporations. We had to ask silly questions about whether they preferred union or non-union workers for various electrical jobs.

In just another layer of irony, this project was done on behalf of a union, whose benefit-laden members would have been legally obliged to report this workplace for the dozens of safety violations in plain sight.

Through the dusty murk of this windowless, cheerless dungeon, a thought occurred to me, which I furtively shared with my desk-mates. We’d be better off in prison.

Together we whispered examples of how my observation was true. I had to pee real bad, it was between breaks, and the path to the washroom was blocked by the owner’s underling and two of her dogs that roamed about more freely than any of the staff. To take my mind off things, I drew up an illustrated list on a scrap of paper:

Prison vs. Dungeon.

Wage Slaves

Now, the list grew really fast, and we each added to the sketches of prison/dungeon life. Between calls, of course. I was so caught up in an illustration of our spacious prison cell that I was caught off guard when the auto-dialler was answered by a woman’s voice saying: “Grand Valley Centre for Women.”

Stunned silence from me. I wondered for a moment whether I had snapped under the dungeon-duress. Did she just say: Grand Valley Centre for Women? I glanced at the number the system had dialled. Kitchener. An old stomping ground. Home of Canada’s newest prison for women.

“Uh… ” I started, hysteria gaining fast to overtake stunned confusion. “Is this… is this a… is this a PRISON?” Each temp trolls’ attention was instantly on me, the way gazelle take heed when one in their herd stumbles. Step away. Someone’s goin’ down.

“Yes, the Grand Valley Prison for Women.”

Holy crap! I was talking to a bona fide prison, from an ersatz dungeon.

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