Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Boom, Bust and Deco: a proposal

Pitch notes for a feature-in-progress; warehouse not exactly as pictured

In spring of 2008, with oil prices passing $120/bbl on their way to a summer peak of nearly $150, an already booming Calgary was ramping up into a frenzy. Double-digit population growth fired a housing shortage, driving real-estate to crazy heights. The picturesque foothills setting of Southern Alberta's cowboy-culture mythology were being blanketed as far as the eye could see with hillside favelas of cloned Dream Homes. Money was everywhere, so much that properly disposing of it became a civic and social preoccupation.

At this time, I took a part-time job hauling for a high-end furniture and interior-design company, and I saw the peak of the boom from the inside of Calgary's wealthiest living rooms, family rooms, bedrooms, dining rooms, media rooms and the warehouses and showrooms that kept those rooms supplied with solid mahogany.

Not even nine months later, with oil at $40 and dropping, I'm seeing the bust from the same vantage -- a warehouse gone from being understaffed because nobody could be found to work to being understaffed because the company wasn't getting enough orders to pay anybody, in seamless overnight transmission. I want to share some of these sights...

  • The day in early summer 2008, when we filled a 5-ton truck to its physical capacity and took it 150km up the highway to Sylvan Lake. Our cargo was patio-furniture cushions. Not the furniture itself; just the cushions -- $40,000 worth of cushions for the three wraparound balconies of somebody's "lake cabin". (Last month, we made a similar trip in the same truck; our cargo was a single ottoman, the day's only delivery.)
  • Delivering a media console (two tall cabinets, a base and a bridge surrounding a mahogany panel for the giant-screen plasma) to a clearly abusive creep who frightens his wife and her little Yorkie dog out of the room with a raised fist. He insists on drilling a hole for the cables, even though there's a pre-cut cable passthrough; he takes a never-used drill and bit set out of its packaging to do this. On his front porch is a fankly pornographic concrete fountain, a pubescent nymph drinking from a leaf, eyes closed in ecstasy head tilted back to recieve the flow; the nymph is the spitting image of the blonde daughters whose photos line the mantel.
  • Delivery of a full living-room suite (~$20,000) to a household where it was received by a brittle, preoccupied housewife; delivering another living-room suite to the same household four months later, recieved this time by a younger, prettier perkier woman (no ring).
  • Swapping out old Ikea furniture for solid-mahogany pieces, in a little girl's bedroom with one wall covered in equestrian "Participant" ribbons.
  • Delivering a rather costly rug and a dining-room table to a semidetached townhouse filled with made-in-China "African" and "Tribal" art. The rug was too big, completely covering every square inch of the very expensive terracotta tile in the dining room, from the granite-topped island to the patio doors. Centred on the rug, the table was four feet off-centre from the chandelier. Before we'd left the "designer" (salesgirl) had convinced the lady of the house that the solution was not to exchange for a properly sized rug ("It really celebrates your new carpet!") but to get a renovation contractor in to move and rewire the light fixture. "Hubby won't like that," the lady laughed; everyone present knew Hubby's likes or dislikes didn't factor in.
  • I've got a million stories like this... and it's almost all over. I've been called in to work a total of two shifts in the last four weeks; the middle-high-end retail market catering to Calgary's semi-rich has nearly evaporated. Morale is the shits; gossip, backbiting, grousing and the discussion of new scams are the order of the day. Swearing and profanity of all kinds, always at shockingly high levels, has been spiking in inverse with oil prices.
  • At the peak of the boom, the company relocates to a warehouse twice the size, with offices for the business and accounting staff, which warehouse sits mostly empty as orders have dried up. Every $10 drop in the price of oil has translated almost exactly into the layoff of one employee; eight "designers" were let go last month, and the warehouse manager (the owner's son; it's a family business) is doing all the order picking and unpacking himself.
  • And I watched the condominuim developer next door go bankrupt, its entire fleet of brand-new F-250 trucks clogging the parking lot until the lease company came and drove them away. The unfinished holes in the ground abandoned by this company and others dot Calgary like cankers. A reposessed-vehicle reseller nearby had to expand its lot to make room for all the new stock they're taking in.


  • My boss, "Miles", a retired farmer (and championn bullshitter) with a daughter graduating from the London School of Economics; constantly conscious of class and the dollar value of things. When a lady, after we'd wrestled an oversized sectional into her basement, offered us twenty bucks ("Wouldn't you like some extra cash?") to haul her old sofa out, Miles refused: "If I wanted some extra cash, I'd sell some of my land." The "look on her face" spent a week at the top of the warehouse anecdote charts.
  • Our in-house furniture refinishing specialist, a wiry little gnome of an Ulster Scot with arms and neck (and probably the rest of his body) covered in Unionist paramilitary tattoos; he hates bullshit, stupidity and Catholics in no particular order.
  • The warehouse guy, generally acknowledged by all to be a "nice guy" but preternaturally slow and lazy. He is retained and tolerated despite this, until oil dropped below $60 and he was canned for text-messaging while driving the forklift.
  • The owner (a Cuban-smoking late-middle-aged exemplar of the Calgary Business Man, complete with vanity plate VROOOM on his Corvette convertible) and his sons, who each run a department of the operation: the "design" group chief, a useless twit with a soul patch who consciously tries to "read gay" (he isn't) because he thinks it helps sales; the sales-centre majordomo who'd probaly slip into a coma if he cared any less. The eldest son, the warehouse manager, I've already mentioned: he's desperately trying to hold it together (he's got kids). He saw the writing on the wall when the slide began last August and started commuting on a Vespa to save gas money; given the savage nature of driving in Calgary, warehouse speculation at the time was that he was passively suicidal.

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