May 15, 2012 § Leave a comment
Whenever I eat Subway (I go through stages of addiction followed by stages of wondering why I am eating space food when I am going home to defrost the freezer in Randwick) I think of that awful job that I tried to do for 4 months or so, before I had any experience of the sheer amount of bullshit that gives any organisation of humans – big or small – a misguided sense of cohesion. I took the job to support myself while I was studying the first time, when I was 18. Since it required cleaning tables it seemed almost like “waitressing”, which (I knew) was what Hollywood stars once did between auditions as well as practically everyone in Paris, and was thus a glamorous step up from from my checkout work, which seemed parochial and open to a certain degree of ridicule. The franchise was a new venture for inexperienced partners and a few members of their families; I remember being yelled at by all of them separately for using too much lettuce. They took advantage of new “traineeship” arrangements set up by the government, where in exchange for filling out a couple of shitty workbooks the young employee receives a certificate saying that they are prepared to do practically anything for ten dollars an hour, at a moment’s notice. I remember liking the idea of the certificate. A certificate, my parents solemnly impressed upon me year after year, was a good thing to have, and would be a sign that I successfully embodied all of the attributes that they had almost frantically instilled: arriving on time, following instructions, being humble and grateful for work, sticking at things one doesn’t particularly enjoy, being respectful to the boss.
I started on three shifts a week. The food arrived from America in identical cartons and looked like plastic likenesses from a game about food. I remember unpackaging it and casually noticing that most of the meat products had curious properties, like bouncing, snapping or crumbling. Within a few weeks I had developed weeping blisters up my arms from some product we were using. I would burst the blisters and rub them with cream, but they persisted in forcing me into a stomach-turning trope about lepers. Though the real issue – and the one which ended up messing with my life – was the floor. Because of the management reluctance to pay overtime, part of the procedure was to clean the majority of the outer premises an hour or so before the store closed, and then spend 40 minutes packing up the food, doing the dishes, cleaning the kitchen and getting things ready for the morning. I can’t remember if I was particularly good or bad at physical labour back then: I doubt I was brilliant, since until I moved out of home and spent a long period of time relaxing in my own environment, I was extremely under-confident with my hands, almost to the point of having a tremor. However cleaning the store before closing time was obscenely idiotic by any standard at all. The lack of economy made me boil: if no customers came late, we would be fine. But if they did, they would walk across my clean floor, sit at my clean tables, put rubbish in my clean bin, use my clean drink machine, and I would have to start all over again. Part of me felt that there was something wrong with this at the time, but if I was being asked to do it by a couple of blokes who had taken redundancy packages, bought a franchise, and had never cleaned a house in their lives well, it couldn’t possibly be wrong.
It was, of course, wrong. And I quite often finished late. This, plus the rash, plus the bowel condition I was suffering from because of stress, led to me not making it through the probation period. I will never, as long as I live, forget having to come home and confront the source of my bowel condition, explaining to them that I had been let go for incompetence. The kingdom roared. I always had been, and always would be, completely useless. There was an audible sense of relief from the kingdom at being so resoundingly confirmed by an outside party. This was why – stated the kingdom – it was absurd for me to be at that university. Triumph slickened the walls.
As I take in the contours of my fossilised recording of this event, I note that it was delivered from the horizontal throne, with the television flickering in the background. Cleaning was the defining mark of my sex. I was a failed human.
This happening and the aftermath sank into my musculature and danced alongside my tremor. It would jump out from behind shelves, or into my rear view mirror, at the tiniest hint of a mistake. Dropping my purse on the floor could make a tear creep from my eye. I was, six months later, chosen from a large selection of state candidates for a rewarding job with training and international opportunities and I turned it down, since the whole incident of my inevitable hopelessness was strung about me like old carcasses. I re-enrolled at uni, where at least I had Michel Foucault. Marx seemed to see something in me that was charming, but which I had to admit simply wasn’t there. Foucault understood that I was useless, comfortable, narcissistic and righteous; all I needed was some terminology.
A few years later I ran into one of the other girls who worked at the Subway when I was there. She greeted me warmly, which surprised me, since I was under the impression that I lost my job because being new, I was the easiest person to blame for all of their mistakes, which was fine in a certain view of the world I suppose but probably didn’t suggest the exchange of Christmas cards. My status as the first and ultimate loser in the game of survival seemed to awaken in her instant rapport. “What about that terrible job?!” It seemed like she had been bottling it up. “The only way we managed to do it was by lying on the timesheet about what time we finished. We would always shave off an hour or so. Probably wasn’t the right thing to do but I really needed that job.”
So the pauper was banished over honesty. And afterwards the pauper needed a fresh start. The pauper walked into a bar in a strange town and asked for a job. And the pauper came home every night and decided who she was going to be. And the sickness and the tremor went away.