Right before I head to my second year of schooling, where I will finally learn all about single phase AC (Alternating Current) electricity (because in your first year you only touch on DC, Direct Current), I am stuck on a substation site as an electrical apprentice and first aid attendant with one other worker, Tim my foreman. He thinks I am useless, feels entitled to let me know, and then hardly says anything else to me.
I am uncertain as to how to approach commonality with Tim.
Many days he instructs me to go organize the parts trailer for the rest of the day. I have already completed this task many times over and translate it to mean I should go look busy. I’d look at my watch, and the day would be only half over. I am paid by the hour, so I silently go do as I’m told, and quickly catch on that there is nothing to do for now, but he needs me there as first aid, so I am stuck there wasting time trying so very hard to look busy. I often have to remind myself that every hour counts towards completing my apprenticeship, so maybe its good fortune to not be sent home when work is slow, even though I would much rather the latter.
Our task on this site is to change out old oil filled circuit breakers for sf6 gas filled breakers. First, we spend a few days getting the hydro company to give our breaker a power outage, then we completely disconnect it from the grid by removing the strand buss, and loosening all required bolts, and emptying the oil. The next step is the arrival of a suitably sized crane truck, whom picks the old breaker up, and then puts it on the deck of a flatbed truck, to be driven away. We then have some down time while a civil crew shows up to change the existing cement breaker pad, also known as a footing, as well as the footings for all the steel pillars. The footings will hold buss, insulators, bushings, capacitors, control boxes, current transformers or voltage transformers in the air, and must be of the engineered sizes and strengths required for the new breakers and pillars to be installed.
The civil crews also dig us trenches if we require them, for the new cables we will be pulling for the new system. We just lay the new cable right on the ground a metre deep, cover them with sand, then a piece of wood with some caution tape layered atop. This is to protect them from the next time someone digs a hole there, and also to warn whoever is digging the hole that they are digging where there are live cables and to be careful.
Soon the new breakers, control boxes, and all the bells and whistles are installed with another crane. We megger the cables to ensure they are not damaged. This involved sending a current through the cable and testing the cables resistance. The higher the resistance reading, the less likely the cables insulation is damaged.
We then pull the cables into the box and wire the boxes as they are shown in the wiring diagrams. The breakers are filled with gas, tested and commissioned by the manufacturer. This is the whole process. Then we are done. This ends up taking a few months to do, as we have 3 breakers total to replace.
When we have the busy days of removing the breaker, and landing the new breaker, we crew up. 2-4 more workers show up on site to help out. Most of the time it is just me and Tim. And as time goes on, we start to really have a hard time tolerating each other.
‘You should’ve seen the chink driving in front of me today.’ Tim says to another worker that is joining us during a busy time. ‘What an idiot! Going so slow. So I rode his ass, then cut him off hahhaha!”
The other worker Bill, laughs along with him. I dont. What an asshole I think. I try to ignore this type of conversation and stare at the newspaper I brought to work.
Bill then asks, ‘Didnt you have an asian guy here before? What happened to that guy?’ He is refering to Rufus, the Philipino guy who was on site with me for a while in the beginning.
‘Oh I had him removed from site. I said he was an unsafe worker.’
I am shocked and disgusted when I hear this. I am also afraid. Afraid for my job. I shoot Tim a dirty look. But say nothing. There was nothing unsafe about Rufus’s work habits, but I hope he is on a socially safer site elsewhere.
I am ashamed to say nothing, but I am afraid for my job. Also, what really can I say that will shut him down? He is the top dog around here, and I feel completely disempowered. I shut my mouth, put my head down and keep working. I know the job will end soon.
Then there are the days when its just us, and I bound into the trailer first thing in the morning, in a good mood chippering ‘Good morning Tim!’ I try to start each day anew, giving him the benefit of the doubt that he is not out to make me miserable.
Everyday he responds with a grunt. If he responds at all. I often try to engage him in conversation, but unless it’s work related, he shuts me out.
One day he is running power to a new trailer, and so I am asking him to explain to me the process, instead of just making me watch him work in silence.
He has a sheathed cable, designed for outdoor use, pulled from a transformer on site going into a freestanding outdoor circuit breaker panel. The cable is a main feed into this panel, probably around 1/0 AWG in size, and there are 4 cabled and a bare ground. the cables are red, blue, black, and white in color.
He is trying to explain to me that this is going to be a single phase panel, and that he is just using what he had available on site, a cable meant for 3 phase. One of the cables, the blue one is not tied in on the other end, and so in the panel the red and black are the hots and the white is the neutral. I remember vaguely touching on this in school but it’s not very fresh, nor do I fully grasp the concept.
He goes on to explain that as long as the loads are balanced there should be no voltage on the neutral wire. He demonstrates this by reading with a meter, setting it to volts, putting one lead to the black bare tip and the other lead to the neutral grounded cable, and the meter reads 120 V. Then from red cable to white neutral grounded conductor, also 120 V. now from the white to the ground, 0 V. He proves it’s safe to touch by touching it. I think he is being an unnecessary risk taker in doing that last part, consider patronizing him as an unsafe worker, threatening to have him removed from site, but instead I say nothing. I predict this joke would not go over well.
‘What if it became ungrounded, this white?’ I ask him.
‘Then I would get a shock, probably of 240 Volts too’ he scoffs, as if this is the stupidest question in the world. He grows tired of me and tell me to leave him now. He gives me a 1/2 inch dull drill bit and instructs me to drill through an inch of steal. He tells me I have the rest of the day to finish. This is before someone else teaches me the art of using small drill bits at first, then slowly larger and larger bits. Also a more powerful drill helps, as well as a sharp drill bit, and some cutting oil. I feel the fool plugging away hopefully at this hole. I can do nothing but look on the positive side of his ignorance. I am still being paid by the hour, so as long as I can avoid him, I will feel good about being here. And each hour gets me closer to being a journeyman electrician, so I put my head down and work away each day tirelessly.
When he was installing the temporary power was probably the only moment he took the time to explain anything to me.
Mostly, he would ignore or patronize me, and encourage others who came on the site to do the same. There would be work days where a group of my coworkers would be talking, so I would go up to join them to see what they were talking about, and they would all immediately stop talking. Then walk away. Leaving me by myself standing there. Or I would try to join the conversations about what we had done on the weekend, only to be told I was weird, or even worse, to have complete silence after everything I would try to add. I soon gave up trying to add anything to the conversations at all. This was easy when it was just me and Tim, I would ignore him back and we would be peaceful in silence. But when we crewed up, it became evident Tim really had a dislike for me. Guys that had treated me as decent and fare on other sites, would come on this site and suddenly would take Tim’s lead and loose all respect for me. Being a new apprentice, I really had not many sites to compare it to, and also felt I still needed their guidance, so I silently settled into my new role, as confusing as it was. I started to listen to exclusively loud angry punk music, and found a new love for old songs. I grew a deeper understanding as to why they were angrily yelling the lyrics instead of melodiously chirping. I was angry, and needed a creative outlet. Singing along to Margaret Thrasher in the morning drive became my new morning ritual. ‘You cant win You can’t win, this time I’m not letting you win…’ It was a small charge, but I’m certain it got me through the day.
By near the end of the job, after a few months of working with this guy, I find my confidence is so low I realize I can no longer swallow it anymore.
‘I’m tired of this shit and I just cant take it anymore…’ Sing/yells Burning Kitchen from my car stereo.
I call up the union hall.
‘Oh, hi,um ‘ I stutter into the receiver of my cell phone, while sitting in my car during lunch hour, which I started to do just to get away from that horrible scene.
‘Yes, so I am just calling to um ask, um, what am I allowed to say to my boss exactly. Without risking getting fired or kicked out of the union…’
‘Whats going on there?!’ The voice at the union hall barks back. He encourages me to tell him what I would like to say to my foreman.
‘Well, it’s just that, sometimes these guys say some pretty offensive stuff, and I just keep my head down and work. But it’s really eating away at me….’ He finally gets it outta me the way they’ve been treating me. What he said about Rufus. I feel horrible. I am now crying for the first time over this, sitting in my car. I realize, I am being bullied.
I tell him I feel like leaving. I keep sleeping in and am having a hard time getting out of bed to come here in the morning, and the only reason I have stayed so far is because I love this job, and look forward to coming here everyday, until I get here, and then the work atmosphere kicks in.
I normally feel as though I can stand up for myself, and am able to joke my way out of situations like this.
But I felt so disempowered at this point, I had nothing left. I realized, there was nothing I could say to this guy to make him be a better person. I had thought, for some reason, that the union hall would have some sagely advice, that I could tell this foreman guy what I really thought and they would back me up no matter what. Or here’s what I could say but here’s what I could not.
‘Should I come down there right now and give those guys a talking to?!’ He angrily barks.
‘Um, no I don’t think that will help’ I laugh. I laugh at the very idea. How pathetic I would feel then.
‘Lets get you out of there, do you want to leave right now, or do you want to work out the day?’
I tell him the job is almost done. One more week. I tell him I refuse to let him win and would like to finish the job. He tells me thats alright, and to let him know if anything changes. He hangs up.
Later that day suddenly my phone is ringing. The union had called the company, and the company wants to know why I did not contact them with my discrepancy. ‘He is a bigot’ I say. ‘ I didn’t know there was anyone to call. After this job is over I will never work with him again. I also would never like to work on a substation again after this.’ I tell the company. This is the same thing I told the union rep.
That seems to be enough for the company too.
I am better than that, and have endured worse, I think. If he’s trying to break me he’ll have to work harder than he has been. This is the pep talk I give myself to get myself out of bed in the morning.
The job ends, and I take two weeks off work, to recover. There’s some slow time in the substation world anyways, and they don’t need my first aid ticket anywhere, so I ask for the time off. I decide to drive from Vancouver to Montreal, stopping along the way to visit friends and family. This is a very quick journey and a very long drive, but it’s a great escape.
When I go back to work they have me on another substation. Just working this time. It’s different, and I feel shy to the fact I know they’ve been talking. They stick me under the thumb of one of the more sensitive journeyman, and he is gentle and kind to me. I learn to drive the genie lift, bend flat buss, drill through steel faster, install strand buss. But I still vow I will never return to substations after school’s done. I feel scarred.
On this site they are baiting me. Up goes all the naked lady pictures, to welcome me to site. The foreman there is printing them right off if work printer, and pasting them up on the walls himself.
‘Hey, nice pictures Ed. Mind if I bring some in too?’ I innocently ask.
The whole time these guys have known me I’ve dated women, so they’re understanding of my sexuality is that I am gay. I rarely find anyone interested in getting to know me actually, so I never challenge this assumption.
I am not surprised when Ed responds: ‘Oh yah for sure!’ He seems excited. He thinks I will bring in some naked chick posters too.
But the next day, I have printed off a picture of a chubby naked guy wrapped around in a snake, and some construction doods standing around almost naked and posing, showing off all their muscles. I put them up. The crew reaction is one of mixed humour, shock and disgust.
‘Those have to go above your area’ one of the guys states. I put one on the door everyone walks through.
‘Is it making u feel insecure? Knowing these guys have hot naked bods, that are prettier to look at than yours?’ I tease.
This is fun for me. I feel clever. And feel able to joke around again, as though we are all on even footing.
Until a few days later Tim’s on our site.
Everytime he enters the room or work area I am in, I clam up, and can no longer work. He disgusts me I realize. But I am still afraid of him.
After a day or two of this, the forman Ed pulls me into his office.
‘OK so whats going on between you two? You and Tim there? somethings up, I can see it.’
‘Oh yeah?’ I worriedly respond.
‘Something happened on that last job, tell me what’s going on now.’
‘…..I just can’t work with that guy I stammer. He’s a bigot. He’s mean.’ Suddenly I have nothing more to say. But the way he’s looking at me is encouraging me to continue. All I can think of is lyrics from the RVIVR song I listened to on the way to work that morning.
‘He’s old enough to know the difference, between being real and being mean’ I state. The end. I feel confident in concluding our meeting this way.
‘Okay fair enough’.
And that was that. He finished off the day, gets sent to another site, and I have never seen him since.