Negotiations underway for food workers’ union

Union lobbies for collective agreements with U of T to strengthen workers’ benefits

Negotiations are underway to reach a collective food service agreement between U of T St. George, UTSC, and York University on the one hand and UNITE HERE Local 75, the union that represents foor service workers across the city, on the other.

Although the universities are at different phases in their dealings with the union, UNITE HERE Local 75 is revising workers’ rights across the board to include better wages and improved benefits. Union workers are also in talks with food service providers Aramark and Compass in an effort to reach further agreements.

The Scarborough campus is currently engaged in deliberations with UNITE HERE and Aramark. Talks have been in progress for over a year and have since enlisted the aid of a Ministry of Labour conciliator to mediate the discussions.

U of T St. George and York University have also requested to rework collective agreements with corporations Aramark and Compass and are expected to begin negotiations within the next few weeks.

Amarjeet Kaur Chhabra of UNITE HERE Local 75 says that based on the union’s record with hotels and other food service industries, an agreement with the universities is achievable.

“We are hopeful that we can arrive at new collective agreements that strengthen campus food service jobs as good jobs with decent wages and benefits,” said Chhabra in an email to The Varsity.

“We are at different stages in the bargaining process at the campuses, and it is our intention to bargain in good faith with the objective of achieving an agreement that works for everyone,” said Nicole Kennedy, Aramark’s communications director.

The current issue up for discussion between the parties is that of workers’ benefits. “We are fighting to improve these jobs so that they are jobs that can allow the workers to live with dignity,” said Chhabra.

The increase in the benefits to be achieved from these negotiations could have great impact on the lives of service workers. Since most of these jobs pay close to minimum wage, every gain is significant.

Food workers have long played an essential role on U of T campuses and “are very proud of their work serving the university community and fulfilling a mission within the broader community,” continued Chhabra.

Furthermore, some critics suggest that the universities’ students can play an integral role in lobbying for the rights of food service workers. Sabina Freiman wrote in an article for the January 19 issue of The Strand that “the issue of fair working conditions spreads beyond the workers and should raise awareness to the injustices that happen on our campus.”

Compass Group Canada, and their division of Chartwells, which provides the food services to St. Michael’s College of U of T, commented, “We respect the right of our associates to be represented by a union and look forward to commencing the bargaining process.” They declined further discussion regarding their camp’s perspective on the process of the negotiations.

Negotiations have been progressing between Aramark, Compass, and the Union for most of this past year and are expected to be resolved through Ministry of Labour arbitration.

Behind the scenes: meet Minora Coutinho

We sit down with a UC cafeteria staff member

Behind the scenes: meet Minora Coutinho


It takes a lot of effort  to keep a campus as big as U of T running smoothly. Behind the scenes, staff members work hard every day to provide essential services to students and faculty.

Meet Minora Coutinho, a member of the University College cafeteria staff. She works Tuesday to Saturday at the Morrison Hall cafeteria to keep UC students well-fed to tackle their long school days.

Cafeteria work is far from easy, but Coutinho’s cheerful disposition is contagious. She makes sure to greet her job and everyone she meets with a big smile.

Seven years ago, an internet job search led her to her current position. In her native India, she specialized in wedding cake design, giving her great preparation for the culinary job.

Most of the time, Coutinho works at the cafeteria’s hot table. On Saturdays, she assists the chef with food preparation.

A dedicated Catholic and philanthropist, Coutinho is active in her church where she volunteers her wedding cake design skills and provides communion to senior citizens in their homes on Sundays.

Before coming to Canada, she was a volunteer in Bombay, India. She worked with Mother Theresa to provide poverty relief services, an experience she says affected her very deeply.

“Mother Theresa was such a powerful, amazing person,” she says. “When she gave me her blessing it was a very special moment for me.”

She also met Pope John Paul II when he travelled to India in 1985. Her meetings with both figures convinced her of the need to continue their philanthropic work.

“I would like to continue to do volunteer work in India,” she says. “My heart goes out to all of the poor children there, I want to do something.”

Despite the demands of her job, Coutinho enjoys interacting with students on a daily basis.

“I love working with the students,” she says. “They are always smiling and are so nice. I love talking with them and seeing them everyday.”

Coutinho has formed meaningful relationships with UC students over the years. Many bring her cards and presents during the holidays, and some even return for visits after graduation.

“Just today, a student came back from out of town to visit and surprised me with a hug. It is always so nice when students remember us after they’ve graduated,” she says.

When she isn’t working hard in UC, Coutinho, a single mother, devotes her time to her daughter, 16, son, 15, and her 85-year-old mother.

Like most full-time cafeteria employees, she goes on vacation for three months each summer. Coutinho prefers to spend her downtime camping and at the cottage with her loved ones.

Life in Canada has not been easy, Coutinho admits. However, she works hard every day to help her kids through school.

“Canada is not home, and I have gone through a lot of hardships here,” she said. “But I always make sure I am wearing a smile!”

As much as she enjoys her work and values her relationships with UC students, she doesn’t plan on remaining in Canada forever. Ultimately, her true calling is community service.

“Right now, I just work and live for my kids. When they can stand on their own feet, I will go back to India,” says Coutinho, talking about future plans. “I just want to go and continue Mother Theresa’s work there.”

Professors gradually embrace social media

Experiments with Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr well-received by students

Professors gradually embrace social media

A whole new facet of learning is being introduced to postsecondary classrooms.

Most professors have strayed from using chalk and blackboard for some time, in exchange for projectors to display lecture slides, or even clips from YouTube. But now, in an effort to encourage deeper involvement and learning for students, many professors have begun to integrate new media into their lectures.

In many classes, students can now watch lectures online and participate in class discussions on Facebook, Twitter, or even microblogging site Tumblr. They can retrieve course material and supplementary readings without having to enter the classroom.

“The web option is really inventing the future,” says Brian Sutherland, a professor at UTM and educational technology administrator for UTSC. “What’s exciting is we can’t know what the benefit is, since it hasn’t really been tried before.”

You could say the classes are in beta testing.

By embracing social media that students have traditionally used as a distraction from tedious lectures, professors have discovered a new and successful way of extending learning outside of class hours.

“I do use Twitter quite a lot to circulate research ideas and communicate with students,” Sutherland says. “Social media is a really powerful communications phenomenon that can’t be ignored. These tools have the potential to amplify any message to the entire world if it resonates with people.”

Professors can also send students updates on class cancellations, projects, guest lecturers and learning opportunities like live-chatting with an author in another country.

American literature professor Ira Wells runs a Tumblr for his ENG365 Contemporary American Fiction course.

Wells posts ideas and thoughts about lectures, projects, and a music list that he feels complements the readings. He recently hosted a live-chat with Danielle Dutton, whose novel, Sprawl, is on the class syllabus.

“I would never have found the money to fly her to Toronto and facilitate a conversation, so the live-blogging experience turned out to be ideal,” Wells says. “Every student in the class could interact with the author in real time. It was a unique experience.”

Although the use of Tumblr is a bit atypical, many professors will now post lecture slides or audio recordings of their classes, as well as readings and assignments online.

Kiera Tremblay, who endures a two-hour commute to UTSC, is appreciative of the option for online coursework.

“It helps save me time and money, and it gives everyone a chance to stay up-to-date on everything the class is doing and any changes to the course or assignments,” she says. “This leaves nothing to chance in case you miss a class one day and miss an important announcement.”

Sutherland suggests that having coursework online causes students to spend more time with the material, which in turn helps students improve in class.

“Lecture recordings allow students to review the academic narrative multiple times, pause, repeat, reflect and take time to really think and synthesize their experiences — what educators call the ‘deep learning,’” he says.

However, not all professors are as willing to embrace media integration into classrooms.

“I had a professor for three of my classes who hated using projectors and lecture slides,” says U of T student Gillian Worton-Scott. “A lot was missed because he moved quickly from topic to topic, and they were difficult concepts to grasp.”

Other professors prohibit the use of laptops in their lectures or won’t use Blackboard.

Ignoring the integration of new media, however, might mean missing out on huge potential for heightened learning, Wells says.

“It just makes sense to extend our classroom conversations into other corners of our lives. Thinking doesn’t stop when the bell rings.”

War Child surveys humanitarianism

Speakers call for greater transparency, innovation

War Child surveys humanitarianism

Last Thursday, War Child hosted a sold-out event entitled “The Future of Aid: Our Shared Responsibility” with students, community members, and faculty packing Isabel Bader theatre.

Co-hosted by the Canadian Council of International Cooperation (CIC), the event profiled leading humanitarians.

“In the most basic sense, aid is only one thing: hope. Through collective action we can begin to mould prosperity from the ashes,” said Dr. Samantha Nutt, founder and executive director of War Child and the author of Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aids in her opening address. She also emphasized the continued importance of aid, calling out political and corporate interests that threaten local communities.

“Aid is not about the rich giving charity to the poor. It is about building relationships with communities so that they can help themselves and become autonomous in the future,” stated Biju Rao, lead economist in the development research group of the World Bank.

The speakers stressed that aid should be an internal income at the local level to generate local capacity. Rao was also critical of conventional aid organizations that apply the same model of humanitarianism across all poverty-stricken countries.

Sylvester Bagulo Bayowo, a senior Ghanaian government official, added that countries have their own aspirations and that aid should build on existing institutions.

“Imagine some foreign power came to Toronto and told everyone what to do and how to spend their money. I’m sure citizens would not be enthusiastic to conform, so why apply this model to third-world countries?” questioned Bayowo.

Panelists also argued for increased public consultation and greater transparency. The consensus was that organizations should also focus on better informing Canadians about where and how their money is being used. Nutt also added that there is an overall lack of public interest in foreign affairs.

Rao argued that small organizations are more flexible and can afford to be experimental. These kinds of groups are freer to innovate, and when they succeed, larger organizations should follow their lead and apply their ideas on a larger scale.

At the end of the panel discussion, the experts turned their attention to the audience, speaking about how individual students can contribute to humanitarian work.

“You don’t necessarily have to be an aid worker. There are many other small-scale ways to get involved. You can make demonstrations in your local neighbourhoods, publish newspaper articles, or make petitions,” said Sasha Lezhnev, policy consultant at Enough and executive director of the Grassroots Reconciliation Group.

Nutt also added that students don’t need to get on a plane and pay for an expensive trip to get involved. She stressed working with local humanitarian groups as a fundamental step in becoming an activist.

Where do you call home?

Student living isn’t exactly easy. Whether you’re living with the fam, in res, or renting off campus, no place is perfect. Here are some of the stories (horror or otherwise) from the student housing front. They aren’t always pretty.

Where do you call home?

In first year, I convinced my parents to help put me up in residence at New College. Calling what I experienced total freedom would be incorrect. I made compromises with my roommate and adhered (mostly) to college rules, but those were marginal concessions. At first, living in res was a real pleasure.

But as time went on, I discovered that the students I lived with were a tad studious for my taste and were largely serial introverts. It wasn’t the social environment I’d been pining for in the months leading up to September. Sure, I didn’t have to answer to my parents, but the arrangement wasn’t perfect.

Over the course of my university years, I’ve pretty much seen it all. From frats to shared flats to moving back in with the fam, I’ve had my share of university living arrangements and each one has its ups and downs. Many students won’t have a choice at all, either with parents too far from campus or with the only affordable option being to stay with the ‘rents. So, where do you live?


Having moved to Toronto from Windsor, fourth-year sexual diversity studies student Natasha Novac discovered student co-ops early on as a cheap and gratifying living option. Natasha lived in co-ops for her first three years as a student and considers herself an advocate of the co-op system… with a few reservations.

“One of the reasons why I loved and lived in co-op for so long was because the rent was reasonable, generally under $600 for a prime location downtown in chic, well-maintained houses,” says Natasha.

What initially struck me was that these guys were providing beer — this was a big deal.

“For students and housing newbies, co-op does a lot of legwork for you: it buys groceries, provides basics like toilet paper and laundry detergent, and has a wonderfully talented and devoted maintenance staff — those dudes can fix anything, seriously.”

The co-op system depends heavily on shared responsibility, through housemates divvying up errands such as cleaning and buying groceries. But while the co-op approach may seem ideal, it’s not without its flaws.

“Sometimes people move in who can’t or don’t want to build community, and the whole co-op system falters when some people refuse to pull their weight,” says Natasha. She now rents in the private market but continues her involvement with Campus Co-op as a director for the organization.

Going Greek

Early on in my university career, I was exposed to the Greek system. I received frequent invites early in my first year to a fraternity that I would soon join. What initially struck me was that these guys were providing beer — and with alcohol being the valuable commodity it is to young university students, this was a big deal.

I spent some time witnessing what life was like in that place. The house had huge parties, regular video gaming sessions, and a strangely appealing aura of unapologetic testosterone. So I moved in. Parental support persisted.

As it turned out, the spot wasn’t quite the student dwelling utopia that I’d dreamt of. The frat house was run with some of the responsibility-sharing tenets of the co-op system, but the standard as to what constituted an acceptable mess was low.

Even so, I probably could have lived with the constant stench of beer in the air and the unrelenting kitchen chaos. It was the lifestyle that grew old, along with a realization that the institution was severely lacking in inclusivity.

Shared rental

After the frat house, my next undertaking was a rental in the private market. I moved into a house near Harbord and Bathurst with two close friends, along with three strangers. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t receiving financial support for rent since working in a computer store allowed me to sustain myself for a time.

At the beginning, it was wonderful. A shared enthusiasm for electronic music, film, and photography allowed our collective creative calling to flow through the walls. We’d have guests come in the evenings and stay all night listening to music with no complaints from any of us. A few times, we even stayed out all night and watched the sunrise from our roof.

But a rising sun wasn’t the only thing over the horizon. So was a gradual accumulation of stress that was about to make life very difficult. When a flatmate didn’t pay the gas bill we lost our hot water. Personal conflicts arose. The computer store that I was so dependent on went out of business, and while looking for formal employment, I had to manage ongoing costs with a combination of odd jobs and credit card cash advances. After walking away from a less-than-ideal living environment, with a less-than-ideal level of debt, I felt I had no other choice, so I moved back with my parents.

Back home

My return home wasn’t much fun at first. The parental grief seemed endless. When I wasn’t hearing about some housekeeping obligation that I’d failed to fulfill, I was being lectured on the dangers of smoking. When I’d come home late or play music too loudly at the wrong time of day, soon I’d be having a conversation with an exhausted and grouchy parent who was “already having a tough time falling asleep.”

Professor Roderic Beaujot at the University of Western Ontario has observed the phenomenon of young adults waiting longer to stake their own space away from their parents — a direct result of steep rents in even the most affordable accomodations.

“Economic forces especially play a role to keep young adults at home,” says Beaujot.

“The interest of young people today is to maximize their credentials with all the firepower that’s possible before leaving.”

In his paper, “Delayed Life Transitions,” Beaujot examines the changing landscape of parent-child relationships with respect to living arrangements. Citing Canadian census statistics, he notes that 27.5 per cent of Canadians aged 20–29 lived with their parents in 1981, a level which increased to 41 per cent in 2001. Beaujot claims that this trend is connected to greater economic exchanges from parents to their children (rather than from society to the children), but he also acknowledges a cultural shift.

“It’s now more acceptable for young adults to live at home; there’s a lessening cultural gap between parents and their children. A greater comfort with parents allowing their children to be intimate with partners at home is also more common,” explains Beaujot.

Social media is offering families new ways of staying in touch with their kids when they move out; some of us know this truth too well. On the other hand, second-year U of T computer science student Steve Tsourounis found that tweeting with his mom while living on campus allowed them to connect.

“After moving downtown, I feel like me and my mom got a lot closer because we would call each other more. She ended up getting Twitter, so she would know everything that was happening in my life,” he explained.

After spending his first year in residence at St. Michael’s College, Steve moved back with his parents in Vaughan. He notes how his social life has deflated since last year.

“Living downtown, I had a pretty active social life and was going out a lot. Now that I’m home, it’s only once every few weeks that I go out,” says Steve. But he’s not living a socially desolate existence by any means.

“Most of my friends that I grew up with live in Vaughan, so it’s not really a problem in that sense.”

Of course, social interaction isn’t limited to making it out to huge clubs, band showcases, or pub crawls. Egin Kongoli, a third year poltical science student, spent his second year of school living with his parents in North York. He found the experience was sometimes lacking in those smaller, subtler interactions.

The house had huge parties, regular video gaming sessions, and a strangely appealing aura of unapologetic testosterone. So I moved in. Parental support persisted.

“My social life didn’t suffer in the ‘partying’ sense. Being an only child and [being] so far from any friends, I will say that I definitely did get lonely. It’s the small social stuff you start to miss out on, like just watching some TV or hanging out — doing nothing.”

With the help of hospitable friends, Egin was able to mitigate some of those feelings by crashing downtown often.

“It was nice to couch surf with friends, because I got a bit of that experience there; waking up and waiting for someone else in the house to wake and hang out with.”

For his third year, Egin returned to residence at Victoria College.


As for my own return home, eventually, many of the initial problems started to get resolved. As it happened, I did quit smoking. My hours of operation slowly started shifting towards something more agreeable to my parents’ (and to that of society, I’ll add). We even teamed up to renovate our house’s third floor. Socially, living with my parents has become a pleasure, with us co-ordinating social events to mix the young with the slightly less young.

The shift in parental relations came not from some grand catalyst, but rather a gradual process of communicating to the end of developing mutual respect for each other as adults. And of course, things aren’t perfect; learning how to coexist with my parents is a continuous exercise.

More of us are staying with our parents for longer periods of time. The ways that we communicate and relate with our families are changing. But there are timeless aspects of the university student’s living experience. There will be those with couches to offer and those to fill the couches. There will be some who live in res, and some who live with their parents. There will be — oh, excuse me, I have to push off; I think I hear my mother calling me for dinner.

Colson Whitehead’s monsters — Zone One (Interview)

He found his latest novel in his nightmares; in the zombie apocalypse, the terror and beauty of the everyday

Colson Whitehead’s monsters — Zone One (Interview)

It was the stereotype of fast-talking, fast-walking, eagerly lacerating New York distilled into a potent half mile. You do not belong. You will be devoured by this monster.


Happy hour was impenetrable, as bedraggled drones convened on stools and soft, low-slung couches, whipping out the measuring tape to see who had the biggest complaint and trying to forget that the minute you bury the miserable day it rises from its coffin the next morning, this monster.


Now Mark Spitz understood plainly what they had meant by “What kind of person would bring a child into this world” …


The answer was, “Only a monster would bring a child into this world.”


He’d always seen himself in …  the tentacled things that were, beneath their mottled, puckered membranes, more human than the murderous villagers who hunted them for their difference.

The townspeople, of course, were the real monsters.


We never see other people anyways, only the monsters we make of them. To Mark Spitz, the dead were his neighbors, the people he saw every day, as he might on a subway.


(fiction, unless otherwise noted)

The Intuitionist (1999)
John Henry Days (2001)
The Colossus of New York (non-fiction, 2003)
Apex Hides the Hurt (2006)
Sag Harbor (2009)
Zone One (2011)


Midway through Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, Mark Spitz (not his real name) is sweeping an office building with the other members of his unit, hunting the walking, plague-ridden dead. As he goes through the motions of clean-up — shooting “skels,” ID’ing, bagging, and leaving them in the street for the incinerator crews to pick up — his mind wanders, and he considers how his dreams have changed since “Last Night,” the eve when the pandemic at the heart of this literary horror reached its tipping point.

Much of Zone One is told this way, through flashbacks over the course of one disastrous weekend as the three-person Omega Unit (Mark Spitz, Gary, and Kaitlyn) travels through the “Zone” of the title: Manhattan south of Canal Street, an area that the provisional government in Buffalo has identified as the first to be reclaimed from the plague.

No longer does Mark Spitz have nightmares about missing exams, or forgetting on the taxi seat the materials for that big presentation. Instead he dreams about the everyday, the former normal:

His dreams unfurled in the theater of the mundane. There was no pulse-quickening escalation of events, no stakes to mention. He took the train to work. He waited for his pepperoni slice’s extraction from the pizza joint’s hectic oven. He jawed with his girlfriend. And all the supporting characters were dead. The dead said, “Let’s stay in and get a movie,” “You want fries with that?,” “Do you know what time it is?,” while flies skittered on their faces searching for a soft flap to bury eggs in, shreds of human meat wedged in their front teeth like fabled spinach, and their arms terminated at the elbow to showcase a white peach of bone fringed with dangling muscle and dripping tendons. He said, “Sure, let’s stay in and snuggle, it’s been a long day,” “I’ll take the side salad instead, thank you,” “It’s ten of five. Gets dark early this time of year.”

As the author explains in the interview below, his latest work was inspired by a particular dream that contained a similar mix of the mundane and the horrific. His unconscious made the connection: After the zombie apocalypse, the living dead stay on like unwelcome houseguests. (Whitehead admits he was in a bad mood at the time of the dream.) The novel would be about those that survived and how they would try to put the world back together again, if they could.

The challenge of reconstruction is more than the monumental task of disinfecting the zone. Build a wall, block the subways, strafe the avenues, bring in civilians to clean out the rest. Still there is the balancing act each survivor plays in the mind: remember too little from the former time and you will be overwhelmed by the futility of carrying on in this wasteland; remember too much and you are captured in the detritus of what you know is a lost world.

The latter danger is personified in the curious phenomenon of the “straggler.” This is the one percent of skels that does not behave like the other walking dead: Instead of going after the living’s entrails, these infected will travel to some place that had special meaning to the person that once was, or so the theory goes. What the place means to the straggler is not clear to the living. (Having reached its destination, the straggler remains immobile and mute.) Mark Spitz has a theory:

Maybe it wasn’t what had happened in a specific place — favorite room or stretch of beach or green and weedy pasture — but the association permanently fixed to that place. That’s where I decided to ask her to marry me, in this elevator, and now I exist in that moment of possibility again. … Relieved of care and worry, the stragglers lived eternally and undying in their personal heavens. Where the goblin world and its assaults were banished and there was nothing but possibility.

The living, too, can fall under the spell of their former lives. “The survivors are also tied to their past and try to bring who they were, what they were into this new ruined world,” Whitehead said at an International Festival of Authors event in October. “The stragglers are just ghosts who do it more literally, becoming human monuments to what they used to be. So there are different levels of being trapped by the dead world.”

The survivors are fascinated by the stragglers. It’s easy to see why. The stragglers are somewhere between the human and the zombie (as in Whitehead’s master text, George Romero’s Living Dead films, the word “zombie” is rarely used in Zone One, though it is often used to describe the novel). Because they remain incommunicative, the stragglers remain enigmatic, but more than that, each of the survivors is, to some degree, a straggler to his or her own past.

“My idea of the world in Zone One is that it’s pretty much exactly the same as it is today, except 95 percent of the population is dead, and people are bummed out,” Whitehead says. “So Gary is very much like Gary was before the disaster. Kaitlyn is very much still the grade-grubbing student council member. What makes them tragic or sad in my mind is that they haven’t changed, and that they’re stuck trying to bring their past selves or past lives into this new place where it can’t exist. So they’re as tied to the past as the stragglers, who are more obviously emotionally tethered to who they used to be. But the survivors are in the same boat.”

Mark Spitz carefully polices his mind, lest he think the “forbidden thought,” of suicide, or engage in the equally verboten “pheenie” mentality (“pheenie” from “phoenix,” the mythical bird reborn from its own ashes). The pheenies are kind of like the yuppies of the apocalypse. Unwarranted hope, Mark Spitz is convinced, will lead only to despair.

Both ways of thinking are forbidden by a stricture that is Mark Spitz’s own, no one else’s. Following these self-imposed rules has been key to his survival, but if they have helped him make it this far, they are also a mark of his trauma. Mark Spitz cannot bring himself to ID the skels he has cleanly immobilized. He cannot withstand the associations called forth by the flavoured gums and the just-in-case tampons to be found in purses, “The fossil evidence that there had once been other types of people besides survivors.” That task is left to the other members of his team. Yet despite his worries of sinking into personal history, the majority of the novel ruminates on exactly that.

One of his memories from the settlements where he lived before volunteering for the zone is of coming across a comm operator trying to help a teenage soldier suffering from PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Stress Disorder, common among those who have made it to relative safety).

“What happened,” Mark Spitz asked, “he get bit?”


“No, it’s his past,” he heard the comm operator say. The recruit moaned some more.


“His past?”


“His P-A-S-D, man, his P-A-S-D. Give me a hand.”

The world of Zone One is similar to ours — it is made from ours. Much of our current existence may have crumbled (and where are the writers? They are pouring kerosene on the dead bodies, “pitching in for a change”), but there are still buzzwords; there is still bureaucracy; the reconstruction has its sponsors and its theme song. The body bags are cheaply made and fall apart in your hands.

Human beings’ blood may turn, but Zone One suggests that people don’t change all that much. Mark Spitz tells us about our world by what he misses of it, often in streams of run-in lists. Each image brings forth further associations. At one point he misses the whole gamut of women he will never get to sleep with. His mind conjures them in their infinite variety: the beauty mark on the ass and the stubbled armpits; those of old money and the fiscally paranoid; some “carried slim vocabularies” while others “stooped to conquer in the wordsmith board games he never got the hang of.”

To imagine these characteristics in their particularity is to suggest that they are built from memory. We may not share in these recollections, but as we imagine with him the women in their detail we understand the resonance of the partner who will take no prisoners on the Scrabble board.

“He missed the dead he’d never lose himself in, be surprised by, disappointed in,” Whitehead writes. Zone One is about what we value in being human. When 95 percent of the population is dead, what Mark Spitz misses is the range of human interaction, the variety of human life, and the complexity of motives. “He missed shame and guilt and a time when something higher than dumb instinct directed his actions.”

It is a novel replete with monsters: the skels, but also normal people, New York City, and the day itself is described as a zombie. Just as the stragglers are some mix of the two, in retrospect Mark Spitz sees both the living and the dead containing something of the other:

It happened every so often that he recognized something in these monsters, they looked like someone he had known or loved. Eighth-grade lab partner or lanky cashier at the mini-mart, college girlfriend spring semester junior year. Uncle. He lost time as his brain buzzed on itself. He had learned to get on with the business at hand, but on occasion Mark Spitz fixed on eyes or a mouth that belonged to someone lost, actively seeking concordance.


It was the business of the plague to reveal our family members, friends, and neighbors as the creatures they had always been. … The plague touched them all, blood contact or no. The secret murderers, dormant rapists, and latent fascists were now free to express their ruthless natures.

When Mark Spitz wakes from his dreams, the ones where the dead want to cuddle or take your order or stop you on the sidewalk to ask the time, he finds he cannot call these nightmares. “The new vintage of dreamscape left him feeling curiously indifferent.” The plague reveals what his friends and loved ones always were: someone in whom he thought he recognized something shared; someone who was also capable of horrible things.

Mark Spitz remains ambivalent on where he fits into all of this, at least until the novel’s final scene. “He recalled a theory of dreams from the old days that declared them wish-fulfillment, and another declaring that you are every person in your dreams, and each theory seemed equally plausible and moot and in the end he didn’t spend too much time analyzing. He was a busy man these days.” These are his thoughts on the Saturday morning. He still has the whole weekend to go.

Colson Whitehead spoke to The Varsity in October.


“What are you watching?” the girlfriends asked as they padded in bearing boutique seltzer and chips, and he’d say “The buildings,” feeling weird about the pull the skyline had on him. He was a mote cycling in the wheels of a giant clock. Millions of people tended to this magnificent contraption, they lived and sweated and toiled in it, serving the mechanism of metropolis and making it bigger, better, story by glorious story and idea by unlikely idea. How small he was, tumbling between the teeth. But the girlfriends were talking about the monster movies on TV.

Zone One

You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now. … Maybe we become New Yorkers the day we realize that New York will go on without us.

The Colossus of New York


When did you first get the idea for this book? Sag Harbor was your last novel, which came out in 2009, but I found that this book, in a strange way, was maybe more connected to The Colossus of New York.


Certainly, yeah.


Did this idea come from before Sag Harbor? Or has it really just come about in the past two years?


There’s a few different answers to that question. Yes. Some of the ideas and sentiments about the city that are expressed in Colossus appear here filtered through the consciousness of Mark Spitz. So this is my first novel about New York, and my first attempt to have characters in the city who conceive of the city in the same way that the narrator of Colossus does. So this is my first New York novel. That’s straightforward.

Zombies? Eight years ago I thought I might do a non-fiction piece on what zombies mean to me. I never did that.

And then in terms of this actual novel, it came to me on the July 4 weekend of 2009. I’d always had zombie anxiety dreams ever since I saw Dawn of the Dead when I was in junior high. So for the past 30 years, when I’m stressed, I don’t have dreams where I’m late for an exam, I have dreams where I’m being chased by the living dead.

I had a dream that I wanted to go into my living room, but I was wondering if they — whoever “they” were — had cleared out the zombies yet. I woke up, and I was like, yeah, that seems like a good question.


So you’re actually being chased. It’s not like the strange dreams that Mark has, where he’s just going about day-to-day existence and he’s surrounded by the living dead.


No, they’re like movie scenarios, like I’m trying to find the army settlement, a band of survivors. I’m alone, either way. So it’s not weird for me to have a zombie dream.

So I had one on July 4. I was having houseguests in Long Island. I woke up and I heard them talking and laughing and making breakfast, and I was just like, “Can you guys leave?” I was in a bad mood. I didn’t say that, but that’s what I wanted to say! [laughs] So I just stayed in bed and hid, fell back to sleep. I had a dream that I was in New York, and I wanted to go into my living room, but I was wondering if they — whoever “they” were — had cleared out the zombies yet.

So then I woke up, and I was like, yeah, that seems like a good question: When the apocalypse is over, who’s going to clean up? The plague-stricken wretches hang around like houseguests. How to get rid of them?


Over the past two years there’s been almost a zombie renaissance, like there’s a lot of zombie stuff going on in various media. Somebody might think, “Oh, are you just tapping into that?” But a book takes a long time to write.


Yeah, I mean, obviously the book is out of sync. I’m not sure where the zombie trend is in Canada versus the States. When I saw the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was a big bestseller, I assumed [laughs], I assumed that was going to be the crest of the wave, because it couldn’t get more zombie than something like that. So I was operating on the assumption that when the book was finally done, people would be over zombies. And then the question is, like, do I care? No. You know, if you do a good job, people will read it. I wrote about elevator inspectors [The Intuitionist]; obviously, people are completely indifferent to elevator inspectors. Does that mean I’m not going to write the book? No, that was the thing I had to write then.

My conception of what makes a zombie horrible and terrifying is realizing the truth of the world, which you’ve always suspected.

My weird, neurotic fixation with that George Romero–type zombie has been going on for a long time. I felt that it was the right project, and trends come, trends go: I’d like the book to be read 10 years from now. I assume that the trend will be over.


One word that stood out to me that you use in a couple different ways in the book is the word “monster.” Obviously, the dead are described as monsters, but you also include a couple references to cinematic tropes from monster movies — wherein, for example, the villagers are shown to be monsters inside — and you describe Chinatown as being a monster; New York City, in its heyday, is monster-like. What does this word mean within the context of the book?


People ask me “Why are zombies big? Why are people scared of zombies?” I can’t really speak to what other people think of them. My conception of what makes a zombie horrible and terrifying is realizing the truth of the world, which you’ve always suspected, which is that your family, your friends, your principal, your boss can suddenly be revealed for the monster that they’ve always been. In your paranoid misanthropic worst, you’d imagine this about people — people you love, people you know, your neighbours. For me the zombie terror is that the world is turned on its side, and that’s the new reality. So whether it’s your city, it’s your spouse, the idea that the everyday can suddenly become horrible, lethal, out to get you, is what animates the zombie story for me.


I believe the novel is set sometime in the near future. Is that right?


That’s my idea. There aren’t too many indications of that, but that was my idea in my head while I was writing it.


You do get to somewhat create this world. Because of the zombie apocalypse, it is somewhat different from our own. Did you have to do any research?


No. I mean, in terms of the genre, it comes from my love for horror movies and post-apocalyptic science fiction movies. I watch Dawn of the Dead twice a year. I didn’t increase or decrease my frequency of watching that movie.

My idea of the world in Zone One is that it’s pretty much exactly the same as it is today, except 95 percent of the population is dead, and people are bummed out. So Gary is very much like Gary was before the disaster. Kaitlyn is very much still the grade-grubbing student council member. What makes them tragic or sad in my mind is that they haven’t changed, and that they’re stuck trying to bring their past selves or past lives into this new place where it can’t exist. So they’re as tied to the past as the stragglers, who are more obviously emotionally tethered to who they used to be. But the survivors are in the same boat.


It’s a book that’s largely told in flashbacks. It occurs over three days, although it jumps back and forth between those three days and Mark’s memories of the time before. How did the writing go about? Are you someone who will write just a mass of text and then weed it, edit it into its structure, or did you have a structure planned out in terms of how you were going to organize the book?


I’m a big outliner, so I know the beginning and the end before I start writing. That day I had the dream, I came up with the final scene, so I was writing towards that the whole time. I wrote it in a linear fashion, from the beginning towards the end, so that I didn’t move things around particularly. I write, revise, write, revise. If I write five pages, the next day I might revise page two and three. If I add three more pages, I might revise pages five and seven. So I’m always going forward and backward, forward and backward. For me the hard part of writing a book is the first third or the first 100 pages when you’re trying to figure out what the narrator sounds like. Are the sentences long here? What kind of humour, jokes are going to be in it? What kind of adjectives does he/she use? Once you have that, and your voice stabilizes, you know what the book sounds like, obviously you have to go back and change everything that’s gone before. So I’m always revising as I move forward.


On the subject of your protagonist, Mark Spitz: all the survivors in this world have this trauma that they’ve been through, and they have this new acronym for it, of PASD (post-apocalypse stress disorder). We see Mark go through a certain amount of self-policing in terms of how he deals with that.


Sure, yeah.


He has what he refers to as the “forbidden thought” that he doesn’t allow himself to think, or doesn’t want to think. What is the forbidden thought for Mark, and what are the consequences of him thinking it?


It’s giving in. In the first scene it’s suicide by skel, but it’s some way of doing yourself in and giving up on moving into the new world. Offing yourself. I call him a mediocre man. It seemed that, in my idea of the apocalypse, if you’re actually high-functioning and understood the magnitude of what had happened to the world, you’d just jump off a building and kill yourself. That seemed [laughs], that seemed like a very rational thing to do.

What makes them tragic or sad in my mind is that they haven’t changed, and that they’re stuck trying to bring their past selves or past lives into this new place where it can’t exist.

If you’re a C or a D or an F personality, you’d be wiped out pretty quickly, because you can’t adapt and you’re stupid, frankly. I think the mediocre will survive. They’ve always muddled through — why not muddle through the end of the world? So Mark Spitz is adapted to the new conditions on the ground, but there is that — taking the easy way out — that I think everyone wrestles with in the book.


You mentioned that he is a mediocre man. I think the word that you often use is that he is “unexceptional.” To me, reading the descriptions of Mark, it seems that being the Unexceptional Man is different from being the Everyman in that I imagine Everyman as being somewhat heroic, whereas Mark is Unexceptional Man. I would think he would be more the character of a noir.

Mark Spitz’s high school had abolished the yearbook practice of nominating students the Most Likely to Do This or That, in the spirit of universal self-esteem following a host of acrimonious parent-teacher summits, but his most appropriate designation would have been Most Likely Not to Be Named the Most Likely Anything, and this was not a category.

Is there no room for heroes in this post-apocalypse?


Are there any heroes in the book? I’m trying to think.


I don’t know that there are.



I guess that’s more about me that I didn’t even realize that. That’s interesting. Yeah, you know, he’s just a survivor trying to make it to the next settlement, make it through the day without getting killed. Heroic characters? I mean, I guess the army’s come in and swept out — but you never really see them. They do rescue Mark Spitz from the farm. They’re not quite heroic, nor can I think of any heroic characters in the book! [laughs] So [laughs] I guess there’s no room for heroes in my idea of the apocalypse.


We’ll call that a commentary on the apocalypse and not a commentary on you.


Yes. They’re survivors, not necessarily heroes.


I found that there were several points that made mention of cinema, even cinematic moments within the book. In the very beginning there’s that scene where young Mark is looking out the window of his uncle’s apartment and there’s the monster movies playing in the background. The novelist Paul Murray has said that cinema is the dominant storytelling medium of our time. Do you agree with that?


[shakes head]




No. Dominant in terms of number of eyeballs? The highest level of artistry?


I think his comment was that as a novelist he sometimes struggles to remember that he is writing a novel and not a prose film.


Right. I mean, I don’t think of it that way. I think that my exposure to the apocalypse came from film and not a lot of sci-fi novels. So whether I’m embracing or deconstructing some of the tropes of horror or post-apocalyptic films, it’s the film that is the origin of the critique or the commentary. I’ve always been a very visual writer. Is that because I grew up on TV and the VCR? I have no idea. My descriptions are usually very visual. That’s not exclusive to Zone One.

For me, the big tragedies — a terrorist attack, a tsunami — and the personal ones are of the same piece. If people can identify with a certain amount of Mark Spitz’s travails, it’s because they can superimpose their own trauma onto him.


Your novels frequently feature African-American characters and discussions of race. I noticed in this book, at least I think no mention is made of Mark’s race or what Mark looks like.

[Interviewer’s correction: There is at least one reference, on page 231, when Mark Spitz explains to Gary how he got his nickname:]

He told him about the wreckers, the Northeast Corridor, and the jokes when they got back to Fort Golden Gate from the viaduct. He’d laughed along with everyone else, but later he had to look up Mark Spitz, in a surreptitious mission for an old paper encyclopedia. … His nicknamesake had been an Olympic swimmer in the previous century, a real thoroughbred who’d held the world record for the most gold medals in one game: freestyle, butterfly. …


Mark Spitz explained the reference of his sobriquet to Gary, adding, “Plus the black-people-can’t-swim thing.”


“They can’t? You can’t?”


“I can. A lot of us can. Could. It’s a stereotype.”


“I hadn’t heard that. But you have to learn how to swim sometime.”


“I tread water perfectly.”

Was that deliberate?


Yeah. I mean, in some of my books race and ideas about race are a big part of the narrative; sometimes they’re not. Colossus is just about the city; it’s not about the Black city, it’s about the city. Sag Harbor, while having a 95 percent African-American cast, isn’t to me that much about race; it’s just about being a teenager and tapping into universal longings and themes of disquiet and universal ideas of invention, identity-making. In here, it didn’t have a place in my idea of the apocalypse. It seemed like if you’re in the basement of a pizza parlour and there’s 10 thousand living dead above, whether the person you’re trapped with is Black, a woman, Canadian, has a very funny southern accent, is not really what you’re concentrating on. You’re concentrating on is “How are we going to get out of here?”


There are two events that I was wondering if they had any influence on the writing of this book, and those are the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the global economic collapse, the recession, and its effect on America. I ask about September 11 because the 10-year anniversary just happened, and when the Twin Towers fell, a common response was “There ever be another disaster movie set in New York”; the recession because it is a recent crisis that has happened within the time span of you writing the novel, and I think it has affected America in a very specific way. Are you conscious of those two events having infiltrated the writing of the book, or no?


For me, the book is about a survivor trying to adapt to the new world. There’s a before and an after, and his world has been changed, damaged. He’s traumatized, and he’s trying to find that new self that can adapt to this new world. My idea of how to survive trauma comes from 9/11 partially; it comes from people I know dying. For me, the big tragedies — a terrorist attack, a tsunami — and the personal ones that no one knows about, the ones that you carry around, are of the same piece. There are communal and private disasters, and if people can identify with a certain amount of Mark Spitz’s travails, it’s because they can superimpose their own trauma onto him.

[In the novel] In downtown New York there’s ash of human remains flying through the sky, so that [9/11] is part of it, but — and this will lead to the second part of your question — I grew up in a ’70s and ’80s New York that was totally run-down and messed up, dirty, a lot of abandoned lots, a hard place to live. So that’s part of my original idea of the city, and I walk around with that, even when I’m walking past luxury buildings and the cleaned up Manhattan of mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg. So I understand that whatever the consequences of this recent downturn, whatever form they take in the city, that’s part of the life of a city: you have booms and you have busts. Right now the city is not carrying the physical scars of a serious downturn. Will that be true a year from now or two years from now? I think if there was any kind of economic downturn I was thinking of, it was the one in the ’70s, because we can return to that state at any time. The boom years always end. It’s just part of the life of a city to expand and contract over the decades.

Food trucks descend on St. George campus

Willcocks Street was transformed last Thursday afternoon into a food truck alley as Food Truck Eats: The U of T Edition served delicious food to hordes of hungry students.

The first-time event was organized by UeaT representatives Sarah Kahn and Suresh Doss, whose social media campaign via Twitter and Facebook brought over 1,000 foodies out to sample the treats.

“It is nice to see the city, and especially the younger generation, embracing street food culture in Toronto,” said food blogger Joel Salish on the Toronto Food Truck website.

Despite the great turnout, some attendees were disappointed since popular trucks like Cupcake Diner sold out minutes after they opened.


On your marks. Get set. Strip.

On January 26, University College students literally gave the shirts off their backs while participating in the first annual UC Undie Run Challenge. Students raced around campus in their underwear, through public buildings and city streets. All donated clothing went to Youthlink City Drop In Centre. Madison Kurchik, who organized the event as part of the UC Lit Social Commission, hopes to get U of T certified as an official Undie Run school, in the hopes that this would connect us to campuses all across North America in the fight against poverty.