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The Other Side of Everything

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Written on December 6, 2005, and categorized as Secret and Invisible, Work.
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santa drunkMy favourite story of childhood enterprise was told to me by a man I have had the pleasure of working with recently. He gave me the reason why he had been expelled from a well-known British public (=private) school.

“I was fifteen. I’d call a cab from school which would take me the couple of miles into town, to Victoria Wine. The cabbie would go in and buy me a few bottles and take me back to school. Then I’d decant them and water the booze down and sell it to the other boys. When the headmaster expelled me he made a point of saying that my behaviour was disgraceful not only for the flagrant disregard for the rules, but also that I was exploiting my colleagues…”

I laughed heartily at this and advised him to put it on his curriculum vitae.

Anybody that has managed to make a career out of being creative – parcticularly writing – is supposed to have had a range of jobs staggering in its variety. As art’s muses pay no heed to impoverishment, the creative path has inevitable twists and turns which demand sacrifice at the altar of reality. We all have to do something to make a living while the world discovers our genius, right? I went to see Factotum – a man who preforms many jobs (sic) at the weekend, an excellent film (note to self: I really must start reviewing these things) based on the stories of Charles Bukowski. What really stuck in my mind, apart from the drunkenness and the sex and the Norwegian cinematographic take on America, was the part where Chinaski the impoverished writer (Charlie’s alter-ego) talks about his writing. Whenever he doubted himself, he would read another writer, which would confirm to him that his only real contest was with himself.

Watching the fictitious Chinaski walk out on job after job reminded me of the times when I was doing jobs with no creative aspect to them whatsoever, and how unbearable was that period. My not-too-long list of shit-proving-my-committment-to-my-art-jobs includes: working in a burger bar in Oxford Street in London’s West End in August – I could never get the combined smell of burnt meat, tobacco and sugar out of my nose, nails and hair… but I saved up to go to Greece, affording my first (£300!) aeroplane flight; working in a Kiddicraft factory making plastic toys – this was levened by the proximity of several friends – we used to weld plastic limbs to torsos together in unlikely, possibly lethal combinations for our amusement, slipping them into the ‘quality controlled’ piles of boxes destined for Early Learning Centres; painting and decorating (not too bad); plumbing (average); busking (variable); and working at the Tate Gallery, London.

This last shit job was actually OK, but it was still shit. The grandeur of the institution hid much pettiness, back-stabbing and gossip, to which I made certain I added prior to leaving, by parting with my long-term girlfriend and getting it together with someone I was selling tickets alongside. It was good in that it started at 10am, had regular long-ish tea breaks, and staff bohemianism was tolerated so long as the posters were rolled neatly and the punters were adequately serviced and charmed.

Still it drove me mad to sit in the same place hour after hour, whatever the the reading it afforded, and the wages were poor. Staff would become listless, bored and randy. I once discussed masturbation with three female colleagues, who all frankly admitted that it was an option which at least staved off terminal mental stupor. I would thereafter inspect their delicate complexions more closely for post-orgasm capilliary swelling after their return from ‘toilet breaks’.

I will never win the competition for the worst shit job, because I always (like Chinaski/Bukowski) ran out of patience before it killed me. Even at the glorious part-time job at the Tate Culture Factory – which though I malign it, served me well for four years during the period after college when I was getting my music career together – I walked out on, one hot afternoon, when I was smitten with an awful crush on a crazy art girl and in a sexual/romantic fever which would not be denied.

Possibly the worst shit job I ever had was working at Texas Homecare shifting large plastic bags of peat – Gro-Bags – in the yard, in the rain, one freezing April. As often as I loaded the cold, wet, filthy, slippery bags onto the trolley and wheeled them into the store, they would sell out, so as a newbie I was on this job all day, every day. The back-breakingly heavy bags would often split, creating rivers of slimy mud down the aisles, which of course I had to clear up. If I stopped to clean, the bags would sell out and customers and staff would gang up on me in groups demanding to know how long before more bags. I have never been more exhausted in my entire life. Crawling home soaked through, I ate my food with a desperation born of utter nutritional depletion, and promptly fell asleep in my disgusting, steaming clothes, only to dream about shifting trolley-loads of wet Gro-Bags.

After (and during) the Tate, I worked for various Market Research companies, on the telephone. This was incredibly boring but it had benefits. One was that you did not need to be seen by your interviewee, so you could look terrible and still perform your job. It used to attract out of work actors, and transexuals saving up for the next stage, whom we would politely address as ‘Sarah’ in the tea room, but who in their cubicles referred to themselves as ‘Simon’ in their undisguisable deep, manly voices.

The frustration got to me, though, even in this easy shit job, hours of repetition, suffering casual rudeness from punters and managers, constantly being reminded that you are at the very bottom of the pile. One afternoon I had a minor argument with my girlfriend who was also working there. She was bored and negative and giving me one of several hard times, and so I petulantly smashed the two cups I held in my hands together, watching the shiny pottery shards enter my skin and produce steady streams of blood. This convenient if stupidly risky ‘accident’ got us both out of there, I mused later, as I sat in casualty, red bandages around my hands, waiting to be cleaned up. At least I wasn’t still on the phones being told to fuck off by some snotty arsehole with time to be abusive.

I’m not defending this craziness, I’m just recalling how demented dead-end shit jobs have caused me to feel in the past.

Though I am aware that long years of hard work have steadily transformed my lifestyle for the better, I still consider myself just barely above the bottom level of society. Enough money to buy a curry? I am rich. No red bills for a few months? A golden era. I still identify with the billions of labourers, cleaners, technicians, drivers, food, retail, industrial and factory workers who will never have the opportunities that I have enjoyed, nor ever get an opportunity to stop working for the man and start working for themselves.

Thanks very much to Indigobusiness for the Santa picture.

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This thing has 2 Comments

  1. Miss Wired
    Posted 7 December, 2005 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Interesting story. I had a boss who was a doctor in the UK. He kept failing the AU exams and so couldn’t work here. He’d abuse the staff and say, “Oh that’s right! I’ve employed disabled people!”

    He also built the computer system and programmed the software, but no-one would dare report bugs in the system, instead relying on pen and paper to record patient appointments that the system wouldn’t accept.

    When I left, I walked up to him and said, “I’ve got good news…” and he responded with, “You’re pregnant!!”.

    Backward asshole. I said I was leaving for a better job.

    They called a week after I left to see if I was available to “fill in”. I politely refused.

  2. I.:.S.:.
    Posted 8 December, 2005 at 3:30 am | Permalink

    yeah i always said that “a market researcher who runs out of numbers to call is like a camp guard who runs out of corpses to check for gold teeth”.

    indigobusiness is endlessly prolific, he designed my new glow-in-the-dark green realgem logo too.

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