We all have to do something that we'd much rather not do in the name of work, whether it's dealing with a client who is notorious for their powerful body odor or with a boss who consistently treats their people like Tennessee slaves. There have been a number of cases where I had to do various menial tasks at companies here in Japan because I was the new guy, but all these things pale in comparison to something I was required to do almost a dozen years ago. In the summer of 2000, I paid a visit to the Hamilton-Wentworth Detention Center to fix their huge clothes dryer. To this day, it was the most uncomfortable moment I've experienced while on-the-job.
Unlike the medium-security prisons that we see in the movies, this particular place has been kept in pretty good shape. Despite its age, it's still modern and not at all an eyesore like some of the other buildings in Hamilton1. That said, this is not a place anyone would want to call home.
Before going to the penitentiary I was given a quick rundown on what to expect, which boiled down to:
- you cannot return to the truck to get parts, so bring everything you might need
- you can only bring what you can physically carry in your arms
- nothing gets left behind
- no cell phones or pagers
- a guard will be with you at all times to ensure you leave nothing behind
- you will be asked if you know anybody currently incarcerated at the detention center2
As a young, naive guy who just recently turned 20, this was something I was not quite mentally prepared for. Sure, the odds of something happening to me while in the building were slim and none, but years of violent movies and an over-active imagination meant that visions of being stabbed with a crude instrument made from re-assembled plastic tableware would play endlessly in my mind. This was only exacerbated by the fact that I had spent thousands of hours playing games like Wolfenstein and Doom II where you are essentially running through an enclosed space with potential threats lurking around every corner.
Alas, work is work. Nobody else could do it at the time, and I was the assistant store manager. That meant that the responsibility fell to me.
Another rule that had to be followed involved timing. I had to call 15 minutes before arriving to ensure the area was cleared out, and the visit could only be done between the hours set by the guards working there. Having never spoken to people who work in a prison, I was ill-prepared for the short, bark-like orders that came when I reached the person in charge of maintenance.
"Hello. I'm Jason from Company Name. I will be arriving in 15 minutes."
"I'm sorry. I was asked to come between 10 and 12 o'clock. I thought you would like to have your dryer fixed as soon as possible."
"I'll meet you at the front door. Remember to bring what you need."
"Yes, sir. Of course."
The call was made at 9:50 am and, being the anal retentive time-cop I am, I arrived at the front door at precisely 10:05. Tool case in hand, with four possible parts that would resolve the problem based on the complaint. The fix wouldn't be terribly difficult, as it was something I had seen a hundred times. It was simply a matter of getting access to the machine.
The receiving area of the detention center was quite clean and modern. Office staff could be seen working behind glass so thick it could withstand a direct shelling, and the person in charge of maintenance carried an air of authority like you would expect from a military training officer. He was thin, clearly muscular, and kept his hair so short you could set your watch by it. He saw me lumber into the front with the heavy tool case and parts, then asked me to open them up for examination.
"Are all of these yours?"
"Yes, sir. They are."
"Why do you need so many tools? This is a Maytag commercial washer. You should know exactly which tools you need for the repair."
"The dryer was manufactured in the mid-1980s, when Maytag was transitioning from the imperial to metric system for their Canadian dryers, sir. I do not want to waste your time by returning to my truck, so brought them all."
"You're honest. I like that. Leave nothing behind."
We walked through the security checkpoints, and I was given a very light patting for weapons. My cell phone and Palm handheld had been left behind in the truck, so nothing was kept by the staff. The elevator required a key, and we made our way down to the basement where all of the laundry equipment was kept. My heart was pounding, and I was clearly nervous. Visions of Doom II played in my head, with the doors opening to reveal a type of chaos reserved only for the deepest bowels of Hell ...
But nothing of the sort happened. We reached the destination and I was escorted to the dryer. There were no more than five inmates along the way, all of them assigned to cleaning duty and paying attention to their tasks. Each one looked at me, but none seemed to care. If anything, they seemed mildly happy that somebody had come to fix the broken appliance.
Twenty minutes later the dryer was working again without any trouble. I reassembled the unit, did the requisite dust and lint check, then reported the findings to the maintenance sergeant.
"Excellent. Do you have all of your things?"
"Then let's go. It's too damned hot down here."
We made our way back to the reception area where he signed my paperwork, gave me a curt nod, and made sure I left through the front doors before disappearing.
It's not often I remember this short event from the past but, when I do, it's usually because I'm dealing with people I'd much rather avoid at work. We're occasionally told "It could be worse" by friends and co-workers during these difficult times and, when I think back to this day, I can certainly agree. Fixing the dryer at the prison wasn't the item I wished to avoid, it was my preconceived notion of what might happen after leaving the free outdoors for an ultra-claustrophobic environment. Regardless of what we actually need to do at work, nothing is quite so bad as what our imagination can make them out to be.