For those who whistle while they work

Gerry Phelan
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I watched her more than I should have. I could not get over the fact that this woman, on her feet in almost unbearable heat, was humming away to some country song, and working her elbows to scrub those restaurant tables like there was no tomorrow.

And she was smiling.

You run into these people every now and then. You know the ones I’m talking about, the employees who seem so incredibly happy at their jobs, tasks that many of us would consider mundane, but those that have to be done nonetheless; thankless labour, I call it.

The people who scrub toilets for a living, for example. I doubt many of us would proudly proclaim to our neighbours that our son has decided he wants to be a toilet cleaner when he grows up.

Yet someone has to do the job. We are all quick to complain when the washrooms are not up to snuff, when they are clogged or filthy, when there is no tissue or towel.

They don’t get spotless by magic, and given the pig-like attitudes of some who use them, keeping them even generally clean is no easy feat.

What about the grocery store clerk who, hour after hour, day after day, has to keep smiling as we moan about how much things have gone up, that the specials were out of stock, that the service is too slow, that the counter is a little dirty?

I’ve always admired taxi drivers. No matter the weather, if they want to make a buck they have to be on the streets. There’s nothing unusual about a 12-hour day in that business, and the cabbies are supposed to be the ambassadors of our province, grinning and polite no matter who is razzing them from the backseat.

Their next fare is like a box of chocolates; drunks and the obnoxious, or seniors and kids headed to school. Good tippers, lousy tippers, no tippers.

I’ve joked with my dental hygienist about her job. What would make someone want to clean someone else’s teeth? Still, she smiles through it all, singing along with the radio while her patient cringes at every move and asks incessantly, “Are you finished yet?”

Too many people count themselves as slaves of the workplace. They punch the clock and do what is expected of them, but they will tell you, “it’s just a job,” and the unhappiness often translates into more sick time and low morale. Sometimes such conditions are caused by inept supervisors and managers. I have known some.

A wise man once reminded me that we spend most of our waking hours at our jobs; if most of that is unpleasant, so too are our lives. Life is too short to be miserable.

So here we are on what the broadcasters will tell us over and over again is the last long holiday weekend of the summer, and few of us will ask why the holiday? How many of us will stop and ponder what this Labour Day is all about?

Like so many of our other statutory holidays, the day itself has almost become meaningless. Take a poll about Victoria Day, heck, even Remembrance Day; some people can’t even spell it, let alone tell you the significance of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

But today, as some of us begin the long weekend, let’s take a moment to celebrate workers and their families. Salute the labour movement, and all, including the managers and politicians who helped achieve the successes we take for granted today. Even the paid holiday itself is something to be thankful for.

And let us also try in some little way to acknowledge those who will still be toiling over tables, caring for the sick and rushing to save lives in police cars, ambulances and fire trucks on Labour Day.

Someone still has to make the doughnuts, fix the downed wires and, yes, write for this newspaper.

It is your day. It is our day. Happy Labour Day.


Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former broadcaster. He can be reached at

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