Enzo’s sweeper route is the Old City of Halifax, meaning the peninsula. From the second Sunday in April to the second Friday in November, his nights will trace the same small map. We meet at a deserted Tim Horton’s on Robie and Young at 11:30pm, the start of his shift, one Tuesday in late May. The city is wildly abloom. Enzo is over six feet tall, burly, impassive, a man like a tree. He has a greying horseshoe mustache, the kind bikers and Hulk Hogan wear. The whites of his eyes are tinged pink behind silver-rimmed glasses and he’s dressed in a thick hoodie, reflective vest, safety boots and navy cargo pants. He gives me a comprehensive, technical tour of his sweeper truck and then we go clean some streets together.

Late model street sweeping trucks cost $248,000 each and the City owns eight of them. The machines are repair nightmares, full of wearing parts, hydraulic parts, and as such they are tended to by a fleet of municipal mechanics who work 4:00pm to 2:00am five days a week. If your street is dirty when it’s supposed to be clean, a breakage is the probable cause. It is painfully clear from talking to Enzo and later, his supervisor, Peter, that the department is besieged each week not only by small mechanical failures but also constant complaints from us, the citizenry. People phone in, non-stop it would seem, to decry municipal street sweeping service operations. We complain that our own street has not been cleaned at all or not cleaned properly; that cars have not been ticketed when they were supposed to be ticketed or ticketed erroneously; that the sweepers are too loud and wake up those who most require quiet rest: seniors, young children, babies, their exhausted new parents; that the truck’s lights are too bright; that the trucks stink intolerably of diesel. On and on and on. The complaints pile up weekly, much in the manner of curbside dirt.

Each sweeper truck is equipped with a sophisticated GPS tracking device so the drivers are able to prove at least some of these grievances wrong with hard data.

But Enzo just wishes more people knew more about street sweeping. He wishes they could understand the many mechanical issues the crews face, about seasonal variation in the work (trucks fill up much faster in fall, for instance, when leaves are down and it takes Enzo longer to complete his routes then because the trucks can only hold 8.5 cubic feet of dirt and silt and trash before he has to go dump it down the former Africville Road in the North End at a landfill occupying one of the most pacific views in Halifax). He wishes that sharing such information would mean fewer attacks on his job performance.  

Despite the bitter complaints and frequent breakdowns, Enzo has been performing his job for twenty years. Working for the City for thirty, in total. He graduated with a Commerce degree back when that actually meant something and he’s slightly ashamed of not having pursued a job in his field of study (economics). He's a private person and he doesn't like talking about himself, especially not his unused education. Near the end of my visit, he'll share that his supervisor asked all the operators to let me ridealong and no one wanted to. Enzo was pretty much voluntold. “I said no, and they ignored me,” he reports with a small smile. 

Street sweeping is a decent job, from several angles. It’s a City job. Secure. There will always be streets and they will always get dirty. The pay is $22 an hour for permanent. And though they make good money, they don’t take home good money, as they like to say. The deductions are hefty, especially for pensions.  

On the other hand, this is a terrible job. Repetitive and unfulfilling. You don’t develop new skills. You don’t grow as a person. You are doing a job that society underappreciates and would prefer to see fully automated. Compared to a giant Roomba, the humans performing street sweeping are inefficient and expensive.

Enzo says he simply fell into working for the City as a young guy and stuck with it. Above all, he is practical and unemotional about his three decades of service.

“I ended up staying here,” he says plainly. “And I’ll be 53 this year, I’m eligible to retire. But I’m not sure I will.” His tone matches the uncertainty of his words.

Many of the streets on Enzo’s Tuesday night route are ticketed, which means it’s urgent to complete those streets first, hopefully without breakdowns or unforeseen delays.

“It’s really important to get through those routes or people will be infuriated,” he notes, and falls silent to concentrate on operating the sweeper, inching along loudly and brightly at 15km/hr, studying his work in the deluxe double mirrors mounted on either side of the truck. Inside the cab there are dual steering wheels and dual brakes, enabling the drivers to switch over from left to right side drive to clean things like medians. The sweeper leaves a four foot wide symmetrical wet streak in its wake.

Enzo maneuvers around numerous illegally parked vehicles each night. Street sweepers don't ticket, that's Parking Enforcement's job and the two departments have no interaction. Enzo is able to report parked cars if they cause issues (like, say, if they are on fire) but generally they don't cause issues beyond being in the way.

How do you cope with -  “The monotony?” Enzo finishes my question.

The City has arranged my ridealong with the understanding that I am a curious, empathetic independent journalist, all of which is patently true. But it’s not the entire truth. I am also highly selfishly interested in issues of work monotony, and withholding this feels essential for the most obvious of reasons: an awfully large proportion of work involves the worker maintaining the pretense that it is not as dull as it actually feels. At the very least, the worker must convey that the dullness is manageable.

The department is so eager to shed light on street sweeping operations that they never request to see my credentials. Wherever this writing ends up, in whatever form, it will please them for you (someone; anyone) to learn that a small crew of honest, hardworking men (incidentally they are all men) are committed to ridding your street of potentially hazardous obstructions while you dream various gauzy scenarios in your warm bed. 

“It’s a job,” Enzo says, lightly. “It’s no different than a dentist working in someone’s mouth. Pretty much everyone, if you look at their job, it’s in some way mundane.”

Of course this is unassailably accurate. All jobs have elements of pure and utter boredom. But how much is tolerable? I have wanted to have this so much, the license to ask someone at the highest boredom threshold: how much boredom should a job bring?

Inside the truck, however, this line of questioning is being gently sucked away by the hum and the slowness.  It’s strangely relaxing in here, I say, stifling a long yawn. Do you find meditative?   

“Meditative,” he repeats, giving me the side eye, “No. Usually I have the radio on.” And I notice that the radio is indeed illuminated and set to Q104 but turned all the way down.

What about working nights? How awful is it?

Enzo says he doesn’t have any trouble sleeping during the day. He’s tired when he comes home.

“It has its benefits,” he says of the night shift. “I have an elderly parent, so it helps with taking her to doctor's appointments and stuff.”

What do you think about, I prod, all night, out here, doing this? I find myself wanting him to say he thinks about quitting. That he imagines in elaborate detail a totally new or at least moderately different life. He says the opposite. He says he barely has time to think.

“The night flies by. It’s almost like a race to get it all done. You go to and from the dump site, you have to go get water, you wash the screens out, you meet the guys for break time, you go do the same thing again and then it’s time to go home.”

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen? I ask, changing tactics. Enzo pauses for a long moment then tells me how one night he was chased down by former city councilor Dawn Sloane with a cleaning directive he politely refused.

“Like in her nightie?” I say, incredulous, picturing fluffy heeled slippers, a diaphanous chiffon robe billowing behind her, the cinematic orange glow of incandescent streetlight on her strained face.

“I wouldn’t say nightie,” Enzo replies, before jamming the sweeper into Stop Mode and jumping down out of the truck with surprising grace given his size to move a garbage can lid off the street and onto the sidewalk, a motion he’ll repeat many times in the course of a night. 

In winter Enzo drives a snow plow. He likes alternating between both. He doesn’t mind anything, except being questioned by randos and being accused of not sweeping streets. He does his job. He’s been doing his job for thirty years.

Enzo drops me off at my building and I say hey, that wasn’t so bad, was it? He almost smiles and shakes his head. He waits until I am safely inside before sweeping away.

*

In 1930, the influential British economist John Maynard Keynes wrote what is now an over-quoted and yet reliably heart-sickening essay titled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren” wherein he looks ahead one hundred years to imagine how technology will liberate humans from the drudgery of work. He predicted a society with increased leisure time, allowing people to be more fully human.

“We have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy,” Keynes declared, adding that  “…avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable.”

Keynes thought the concept of working and saving was a bourgeois neurosis and he believed that by now, close to now, we would have come up with some other way of structuring our lives. 

But we haven’t. He was wrong; horribly so.

There has been no work revolution. The most progress we’ve made in recent years is the option to perform work at home in pyjama pants.

Working from home reminds me of house arrest: it may be more comfortable but it’s still confinement. Your freedom is still severely restricted. Being in your home or in a Second Cup, tethered to the phone and/or computer is not freedom, and to mistake it as such perhaps proves how far we really are from restructuring our lives to make room for the kind of leisure pursuits which enrich us personally and move society forward as a whole. 


The Street Sweeper

"'Uncertainty is better,' wrote Chekhov. 'At least then there's hope.'"

The Wrong Way to Save Your Life by Megan Stielstra



"'It's not over. You'll see. Winter comes, you get sentimental...A few words are all you need to start again. Who will pull the other one in after a period of silence, who will draw the other one out. Who cracks first and begs for attention, who shows the greater disregard for their sanity. You have that to look forward to.'"

Who is Rich? by Matthew Klam

"I discovered one should not gaze too long at faces unless one is prepared to fall in love again...Faces have a near-unwatchable intimacy, particularly in a world in which everything perishes in the end."

Birds Art Life by Kyo Maclear


"Love is what happens between people living their lives together, becoming close through contact and actual partnership, and it's what survives through difficulties and imperfections. An idealized, imagined, faraway person in your heart -- that's not love. That's a daydream."

The Chairs Are Where The People Go by Misha Glouberman with Sheila Heti


5 ONCE THERE WAS LIGHT
 Once, in my early thirties, I saw that I was a speck of light in the great river of light that undulates through time. I was floating with the whole human family. We were all colors—those who are living now, those who have died, those who are not yet born. For a few moments I floated, completely calm, and I no longer hated having to exist.

Having It Out with Melancholy by Jane Kenyon


"To all the young mothers who carry the weight of twenty-dollar strollers aboard the bus to their next wish...I see you."

Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez


For $295 plus a pay-from-the-heart donation, you can buy yourself three days, two nights and utter mental clarity at the Ecology Retreat Centre overlooking the Hockley Valley, part of the Niagara Escarpment Biosphere Reserve. From Toronto, the drive north takes about an hour and several jaw-dropping Hindu temples along the Gore Road seem like obvious signposts to a journey inwards.

The centre’s Clear Mind, Pure Heart retreat is run by a man named Russell Scott, a self-proclaimed “non-dogmatic spiritual teacher.” With his reserved demeanor, white beard, and uniform of flannel shirts and belted khakis, he exudes a gentle Canadian grandpa vibe. Russell had a run-in with a cult in his youth, which left him at first disheartened and then resolute: he has studiously refined his own brand of independent inquiry for people he calls spiritual seekers and mystical misfits. Russell’s school of meditation politely avoids any talk of deities or chakras and instead leans hard on basic technique: secular mantras (such as, “I am calm”), deep sound (like gongs) and deep silence (…). For many of the twenty or so stressed urban professionals in attendance, this tool-based approach appealed on both a practical and cultural level. 

At the 6:00 p.m. welcome talk one Friday night before a long weekend, Russell explained that the point of meditation was not, contrary to popular perception, straining to achieve a thought-free state variously referred to as nirvana or bliss. The point of meditation was just to sit quietly, which has its own neurological and physiological benefits, with no expectations or goals. The point of meditation is just acceptance. And part of the work of acceptance is that some sits will be better than others. Our egos will want to chase the deep profound sits, he said, but of course not all sits are like that. This is it: just keep coming back to the simple act of sitting quietly and breathing deeply, even if all you do sometimes is run through your grocery list in your mind. It’s not about nirvana, whatever that is! 

So that’s it? a brusque Russian woman asked. Just sit?

What we are hoping for, he replied softly, is that with a regular practice of sitting still and being quiet, we can eventually learn to accept life as it is and through this surrender, if we’re lucky, we can find a manageable kind of peace, a type of inner sovereignty.

Having never heard the term “inner sovereignty” before, I had a total coup de foudre. My skepticism left the building. I was suddenly, wholeheartedly on board. With gentle grandpa at the helm, inner sovereignty seemed attainable, or at least more so than it ever had in my past attempts at cultivating a meditation practice.

We’ll start with breath exercises, Russell said, since most modern humans spend the day breathing shallowly. Control over our breath is fascinating in and of itself: it’s one of few bodily processes both automatic and self-regulated. And it’s exciting, because once you become more mindful of your breath, you naturally become more aware of your thoughts – how ephemeral they are. How your thoughts are not reality. They are merely thoughts. 

Breath is like a metaphor for life, he said. Things come, things go. We sat breathing deeply for many minutes until he called us back, and then we went to unpack. Most of us were in bed by 9:30 p.m. It was so quiet out there in the valley, I had trouble falling asleep.

We spent a good portion of the three days in silence, except for Q&A sessions, partnered communication exercises (which Russell called “dyads”), and some meals. Guided meditation and quiet contemplation were also interspersed with walks, hatha yoga classes, free time and journalling, which was my favourite, of course. I journalled the heck out of journal time. However, I was writing these notes and not reflecting on my life, which was probably wrong. I need to reflect more on that. 

The Ecology Retreat Centre comprises a sleeping lodge, a dining hall and a large meeting space, all of which are simple, clean and quintessentially Canadian in aesthetic. A 13-ring labyrinth for walking meditation, a small swimming pool and several densely forested hiking trails make up the grounds. A rushing stream cuts through the property, and during one meditation session when Russell opened the windows of the meeting hall, I noticed I could “drop down” more easily with the help of sound. In pure silence, I had a harder time tuning out the aching of my lower back, the Russian lady’s throat clearing, the slight shifting of others around me, the muffled gurgling of my stomach.   

When speaking was permitted at meals, we all quietly raved about the incredible vegetarian food that came out of the kitchen: shepherd’s pie made with sweet potato, tomato basil soup, dairy-free pancakes, strawberry shortcake – even the egg salad sandwiches tasted gourmet. Was it our relaxed minds and bodies that made everything more delicious than normal? Maybe, but we lavished the cook with praise all the same.

On our last journalling session on the last night, Russell told us to write down what we were ready to let go of in our lives, what we were holding onto that we didn’t want to hold onto anymore. We obediently did. Now, he said, tear out that page and put it in your pocket. Then he directed us to follow him out of the meeting hall into the forest, walking meditatively (i.e., in slow motion) and silently in the dark. About six minutes into the walk, we reached a towering, smoky bonfire that had been lit for us. We murmured in happy surprise and formed a ring around it, lost in staring, as homo sapiens have for millennia, at its elemental beauty. Russell explained we would now come forward, one by one, and read what we were ready to let go of, and then throw our papers into the fire. We would be free.

My heart began to pound. I am never ready for public declarations of my emotional life, not even to a small group of sympathetic fellow retreatants. Rarely in private, even just to myself. A few more minutes of beautiful fire staring passed in silence. The Russian lady cleared her throat. Someone bravely stepped forward and went first, and once the telling started, it quickly grew in intensity ­– people became more emotional and the energy changed from mellow to rock concert-y. I did not want to cry and struggled not to, until the effort against crying was harder to bear than the simple embarrassment of crying. I tried not to look around at people’s faces too much, but I think everyone was crying by that point. Also, the wind kept blowing the smoke in our eyes, it could have also been that.

Things people declared they were ready to let go of: crippling remorse about how their marriage ended, anger over a recent career setback, the general feeling that they were not good enough, despair about multiple business failures, anxiety about having cashed out of Toronto’s hot housing market too soon, guilt about possibly causing their daughter’s mental health issues, debilitating sorrow over a loved one’s passing, resentfulness about a physical illness that had cost them so much in so many ways, phobias from a childhood trauma, self-disgust about a cheating romantic partner they kept going back to, an inexplicable numbness that made them immune the joy of living.

What was mine? I can’t repeat it; anyway, I’m not even supposed to be telling you this much, it was sacred, which Russell reminded us many times in a warning tone that made me uneasy at the time and makes me tense as I write this now.

But watching each paper, each wound, each source of self-torture burn up so quickly, the paper almost instantly red-orange and gone, was so satisfying I would have paid $295 just for the letting go fire ceremony. We were in bed by 9:45 p.m. and once again I tossed and turned until it was light enough to just get up again and go shower in the tiny stalls in the communal bathroom.

Perhaps meditation is not about bliss, but it was truly blissful to be there, not trying to find it.
 

Clear Mind, Pure Heart in Orangeville

"If you're asleep...and someone close by utters your name, you might wake up...the brain, while reduced in awareness, is monitoring and making decisions about the contents of speech in your vicinity."

Into the Gray Zone by Adrian Owen




"What does it say about our culture that the desire for weight loss is considered a default feature of womanhood?"

Hunger by Roxane Gay