By Greg Clark, February 18, 1933
“I,” said Jim Frise, “am a Technocrat.”
“A who?” said I.
“From now on,” pursued Jimmie, “I am a Technocrat. After the Presbyterians went Union, I was a continuing Methodist. But now I am a Technocrat.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well,” said Jim, “a Technocrat is one who does not believe in efficiency. A Technocrat says, Aw, what’s the use of trying to be efficient! Let the machines do it!”
“Hear, hear,” I applauded.
“The trouble with the world to-day,” said Jim, rather grandly, “is that they have let a few efficiency tyrants in manufacturing and finance set a pace that the rest of us can’t follow. A man with a new idea in business is just as dangerous as a man with a bigger and better battle-axe used to be in the olden days.”
“Surely,” said I.
“Because, mind you,” went on Jim, “it isn’t the nature of man to be efficient. Biologically, he is just an easy-going man, lazy, wasteful, happy-go-lucky. And you might just as well try to grow wings on him as to make him efficient, the way the poor old world was trying to do the last thirty years. That’s the cause of things to-day. Not the war, not capitalism. Just the Pollyanna notion, on the part of few smart fellows that all of us could be stepped up to their speed.”
“Still,” said I, “the world is a much more efficient and comfortable place to-day than it was even thirty years ago.”
“Is that so?” scoffed Jimmie. “What would you say was the most efficient thing around us at the moment?”
“The water works system,” said I. “You turn a tap and water comes. Pure, safe, lovely water.”
Jim sat lost in thought. A smile played around his mouth. He slapped his leg.
“We could do it!” he cried.
“No, we couldn’t!” I retorted anxiously. “What?”
“It would be great test of efficiency,” said Jim. “It would show up the whole farce. It would make a laughing stock of everybody. We’ll show them how efficient they are!”
“Easy, now,” said I. “The last time the police said they wouldn’t stand any more of our nonsense.”
“Listen,” said Jim. “We will dress up in overalls. We will get a pick and shovel each. I know a fellow in the contracting business and I can borrow everything from him. We will get a couple of those red wooden barricades they use to protect workmen on the street.”
“Wait a minute,” I begged.
“Then we will go downtown, early in the morning, set up our barricades right on a busy street, and start to tear up the pavement.”
“Damage to public property,” I denounced it.
Showing Up Modern Efficiency
“There we’ll be,” said Jim, “a couple of efficiency experts, slowly and solemnly picking away, while traffic is held up and has to go around us, and everybody stopping to watch us, and cops coming along and standing looking at us, and then, after we’ve got a nice hole in the ground, we will pack up our tools and our barricades and walk oft and leave it!
“We wouldn’t dare,” said I.
“What a joke on modern efficiency!” cried Jim. “I’ve wanted to do that trick for years. Every time I see a gang of men working on the street, I wonder if it isn’t somebody who has thought of the joke ahead of me. Let’s do it.”
“I’m no good at hard manual labor,” I protested. “I get all trembly. My heart isn’t very good.”
“Hard labor!” snorted Jim. “Do you think we are going to work hard? No, sir, we’ll just stand inside our barriers and tap away and dig a nice little hole. Part of the joke will be that we will be true to nature and just barely work at all!”
“There isn’t a story in it,” said I.
“I’ll make the arrangements,” said Jim.
And he did. A couple of nights later, I was in Jim’s back yard where he had three red barriers two picks, two shovels and a crow bar stacked in a heap, and he presented me with a pair of well-worn overalls.
“Early in the morning, about six-thirty,” said Jim, “I’ll pick you up. Wear old boots and a sweater and these overalls. We can get set up downtown before the city wakes.”
“Oh, Jimmie,” I quavered.
But before dawn, on a cold and wintry morning, Jim honked before my house, and I, in an ill-fitting suit of overalls under my overcoat, sneaked out of the house and joined him. It is needless and unwise to say exactly where we set down our barricades and picks and shovels a little before 7 a.m., but you might have seen us, as you went about your affairs. Perhaps we caused you to halt your car in the nine o’clock traffic as you came to our barriers and had to go around us, toiling there. Maybe you were one of the hundreds who stopped and stood looking at us, with that far away, unseeing expression that you all use when you pause to watch men wielding tools.
Anyway, sharp at 8 a.m., just like regular, efficient toilers, Jim and I walked out of a lane on to an awakening city street, spit on our hands, tipped our old fishing caps back on our heads and started to work inside the barriers. I would like the authorities to know that I hit the pavement very lightly and tenderly. I admit that anything I did to damage public property was done with only half a will.
Jim took his pick and shovel and with small chops, outlined a hole in the frosty asphalt about two feet wide and six feet long. And then, with me holding the short crow bar, he pounded and swung, and presently we began peeling off the asphalt and revealing the concrete beneath.
“Put Some Beef Into It”
Traffic was swelling. More street cars dinged at us. More motor cars slowed up and halted and went around us. Scores of men and boys stopped and stood looking with vacant intensity at our rhythmic motions. A cop went strolling by and give us a fatherly glare.
Nine o’clock came with its dense traffic and its noise and booming, downtown bells, kind of ecstasy of the business day.
And, while my shoulders already ached, and Jimmie toiled easily and picturesquely, along came a big man in a derby hat, walked boldly inside our barriers, and tipping his hat back, which is the sure sign of worker with tools, he said:
“Good morning boys!”
“Good morning,” said we, pausing in our work.
“Sorry I wasn’t here earlier,” said the big man. “But I was held up at the time office. The superintendent wanted to see me.”
“Who are you?” asked Jimmie.
“I’m your boss,” said the big man. “My name is Hogan.”
And then we noticed that he had a very strange, wild expression in his eyes and that he had bare fists, each of which weighed about eight pounds.
“Er-uh!” said Jimmie, although I expected better of him.
“Get on with it,” said Mr. Hogan.
And such was the tone of his voice that we instantly got on with it, Jim with the pick and me with the shovel. Mr. Hogan stood back, leaning on the barriers, and watching traffic with a casual air, while I worked up close to Jimmie.
“What the heck?” I whispered to him.
“I guess,” said Jim in a low voice, “he is a works department boss. He’ll be going on to see some other job in a minute, and then we’ll scram. This is bad.”
“Efficiency,” I murmured, between grunts.
So we shoveled and picked, and the hole got about eight and a half inches deep into the flinty concrete, while Mr. Hogan stood back, observing us and smoking his pipe.
“Step into it,” said Mr. Hogan. “You’re slow, boys.”
So we stepped into it, hoping that by a demonstration of great efficiency we would inspire faith in Mr. Hogan and he would leave us to go and look at less trustworthy workmen.
My neck, shoulders, back and legs all ached. Jim had perspiration pouring off him. Somehow, as I looked at him, I thought of him being a Technocrat and I wanted to laugh. But out of the corner of my eye, I could feel Mr. Hogan watching us intently.
“What’s the matter with you birds?” asked Mr. Hogan. “Put some beef into it. How long do you think it’s going to take us to get down ten feet?”
Jim paused to spit on his hands, and resting his pick on his lap, he said, “What kind of job is this, Mr. Hogan? Are we going down to the water mains or the sewers or the gas pipes?”
“Shut your face,” said Mr. Hogan.
He took his hands out of his pockets and glared at us.
“I’ll Dust the Road With You”
So, though it was nearly nine-thirty, and we had already done twice as much work as we had intended to, we bowed to the job and tried to think of some excuse for escaping. I had just invented the idea that I would be suddenly stricken ill, and I would tell Mr. Hogan that I had not had many jobs lately and hadn’t been eating regularly and had suddenly taken a faint spell, when Mr. Hogan stepped forward and thrust me aside.
“Listen,” he said fiercely, “if you two birds can’t get this job done any quicker, I’m going to dust the road with you.”
He unbuttoned his coat.
“If you don’t like the way I work, I’ll quit,” I said, boldly.
“You quit to-night, not on the job,” retorted Mr. Hogan, giving me a shove.
“I feel sick,” I said.
“You’ll feel sicker,” shouted Mr. Hogan, and as a crowd was collecting, and Jim kept nudging me with his elbow, I grabbed my shovel and dug harder than ever. The hole was now ten inches deep. I caught Jim’s eye and gave him a look. Technocrat! Efficiency!
Ten o’clock boomed out on Big Ben. My whole body ached. My feet, my finger tips and forehead were swollen with blood.
“Get me out of this,” I rasped at Jim.
“Noon, gasped Jim back at me.
And then a large motor car scraped and squealed to stop beside us and out jumped a chauffeur, a man in uniform, two young men in sporty tweeds and a pretty girl.
“Father!” screamed the girl.
I whirled around and Mr. Hogan was trying to escape out of the barriers, but the chauffeur and the young men in tweeds headed him off and grabbed him by the arms. Mr. Hogan fought desperately, but when the pretty girl got around to him, he suddenly wilted and started to cry.
“Daddy,” cried the girl, “be good boy, now, and get in the car!”
“Jim,” I snarled in the excitement, “let’s beat it now!”
“Wait a minute,” said Jim, standing fast. “We’ll fill up this hole.”
“Let’s scram,” I begged.
“I’ve been doing some thinking while I was chopping there,” said Jim. “Hold a minute.”
Mr. Hogan was led around to the car by rough but loving hands, and bundled in. Then one of the young men turned back to Jim and me and held out a five-dollar bill.
“Sorry, boys,” he said, “but did he bother you much?”
“No, no,” we cried.
“You see,” explained the young man, “when father was young, he used to be a gang boss on this kind of work, and now and again, ever since the depression, he has bad spells, and he goes around and takes charge of all kinds of jobs.”
He thrust the five-dollar bill into my hand, got into the car and vanished.
“Jim,” I said, “let’s get out of here the we can.”
Jim Sees a Great Light
Jim was hastily shoveling sand and broken concrete back into the hole.
“Help me fill this in,” said Jim.
When we had it nice and full, too full, in fact, Jim started to remove the barriers.
“Take hold there, help me carry these into the lane. And we put the trestles where we could get them later with the car.
“Grab your tools,” said Jim. And we hoisted our picks and shovels and departed smartly for the parking lot where Jim’s car was left.
“Well,” said I, adjusting my pain-racked body on the soft cushions of the car, “some joke on efficiency!”
“I saw the light,” said Jim. “Just about a half hour after Mr. Hogan arrived, I saw a great light!”
“I saw some stars swimming before me,” I admitted. “But that was from bending. I haven’t bent for years.”
“A little hard work,” said Jim, “and you forget all your grouches. After half an hour, I couldn’t even remember what efficiency was. After an hour of it, I couldn’t recollect what a Technocrat was. An hour and quarter, and I was a continuing Methodist again. The secret of happiness,” said Jim, stepping on the starter, “is hard work. It even takes away your sense of humor. I don’t see anything funny in digging a hole in the street any more!”
“Technocracy says machines will relieve mankind of toil and give them leisure,” said I.
“Leisure to stand around and belly-ache,” said Jim. “I’m going to suggest to the city that they throw out all those automatic machines for digging up pavements.”
“They save money,” said I, shifting the position of my aching limbs.
“Save money,” said Jim, “that has to be paid out in relief.”
“Anyway,” said I, with anguish reaching into my overalls pocket, and pulling forth the five-dollar bill, “I make money out of your jokes on efficiency.”
“You make it!”
“He gave it to me. Good wages. Five bucks for two and a half hours’ work.”
“I split that,” said Jim, starting to drive out of the parking lot.
“No, the nearer the ground you are, the more efficient you are at reaching five-dollar bills,” I said. “You got the fun out of this adventure. I get the cash.”
But as he ran out of gas on the Lake Shore Road on the way home, a trick Jimmie has, I bought him gas with his half of the five.
He had to walk back the half mile to the nearest gas station and carry it, though, which goes to show that brains and personality have something to do with life besides efficiency.
Editor’s Notes: When Jim said that the Presbyterians went Union, he was referring to the creation of the United Church of Canada in 1925.
The Efficiency movement was very popular in early 20th century business and industry. It was discredited during the Great Depression (when this was written), as a way to hire less workers, at a time jobs were needed. The Technocracy movement was briefly popular during this time, which advocated replacing politicians and businesspeople with scientists and engineers who had the technical expertise to manage the economy.
When Greg mentions “Big Ben”, he is referring to the clock tower on the Toronto City Hall of the time.