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The Science of Sameness

The conversation to accompany the rich Italian food was proper chirpy, boasting of the good things in life, and while we gulped at a Chianti that worked (sometimes they don't), a sentence started by one was finished by another without feeling like interruption. It was the sort of occasion often punctuated with darted comments like "isn't life great?" which was strange, for we had just returned from a tour of cemeteries, and had been met at each solemn grave by dreary rain.
Flowers were planted, and small pines (oh, how you have grown since we saw you last) resisted trimming, but the hedge clippers were mainly to blame for they were blunt and lazy. We tousled the pines instead to shake them to attention and, all the while, gardening, we sheltered beneath large bright golfing umbrellas.
Content with our lot for this brief period --who would blame us for wallowing in the moment-- we sat around the table in the noisy Italian restaurant, with an open kitchen like a stage, and reminded ourselves of the worst jobs we ever had. I found it hard at first to retrieve that recollection, so caught up I was in the positive mood, but something L said found the memory:
~
I was young, and having just been released from my blessed captivity of life before twenty-one, I headed for London and to my friend. Desperately in need of money, I was told when I got there to sign up at a Temp Agency, which was one of the first things seen by arrivers at Ealing Broadway. It reminded me more of a Travel Agency than a place to find work, with its large shop front windows covered in handwritten cards that requested things like "Drivers Wanted" in a manner very similar to proclamations of "Ibiza from £60."
I spoke at first to a large girl, with bright red lipstick and dressed all in black. She sat behind an office desk and as I sat in front of her, it was obvious she had one of those effervescent personalities. Her face was beautiful and her demeanor prettier. Another friend from Ireland who was with me, looking for work also, was to leave the agency that day with a date to meet her the following Saturday for drinks at the North Star. He did not go, and stood her up, which hurt me then, and hurts me still, and extinguished the roaring fire of optimism she had. She became colder, rightly cynical, but I still got my temporary work whenever I asked.
But on that first day, she told me that I was getting a week-long stint at somewhere or other. All I heard was the word 'week', and I thought about the money. She told me to show up at the entrance to the train station the next day and I would be picked up by a work bus.
Eager as you are on your first day, I was there slightly early, and circled at a distance sizing up the others already in line before I joined them. I met a guy from Liverpool. Instantly talkative like my preconception of all Scousers, I liked him immediately. Not only did he wear his heart on his sleeve, he served it with condiments, and like a butler, pulled up an imaginary chair and offered a seat, so I could be more comfortable as I helped myself to his heart.
I do not remember the journey to the workplace or the orientation when we got there -it couldn't have been much. We stood on a factory floor in front of a large metal machine, like an old-fashioned oven, and dark green, it was as tall as we were. Just above waist height, it had an opening, fat and boxy; the bottom of this opening was shiny silver like a fancy serving tray. To the left were five large pallets of books; each pallet had a different type of book, some thick, some thin. They were instruction manuals for Epson printers (It did not occur to me then that a printer could be so complicated; later in life, I was to yell at them).
We had to pick one book from each pile to form a package of manuals, place the package on the silver tray, and press a foot pedal at the skirt tail of the green machine. Ga-clunk: Mechanical arms, green too, flailed inside the machine's bowels, and if we were careful, they bound only the books and not our arms with that plastic, slightly corrugated tape that is so hard to remove and the bother to new printer owners.
The two of us, Scouser still talking, quickly formed a rhythm, and alternated back and forth from machine to pallets. While he formed a package, I ga-clunked another. Evidence of our appetite for breaking the monotony of this trial can be found in my recollection of the Southern Asian guy - my only other real memory of the job.
Thin as wheat spaghetti he was, and he wore a white shirt too big for him unbuttoned at the collar, with a black tie shaken loose about two inches. He always arrived at the same time, his disproportionally big black hair finely coiffured, and we always stopped our rhythmical chore as he casually crossed by us on the bare warehouse floor. His right hand was always buried deep in the pocket of black trousers which, although drainpipe-style, refused to cling to toothpick legs.
We guessed he worked in the offices upstairs, had money, or more than we had at least, and although it was probably the same unwashed shirt and tie each day (we didn't think about that), we were suitably impressed by his vague officiousness. He broke his gait across the factory floor only to skip on to a large platform, a scale used to weigh many pallets, and as he stood there, a model paused at the end of the catwalk before returning, he gazed at the alarm clock red numbers declaring his weight.
At that moment, each day, the Scouser would say,
"Does he look any heavier to you?"
And we would go back to our ga-clunking, back to our eternity of repetition, and the spaghetti man would make his way back upstairs, probably happier or sadder with the result, and you would not be far from the truth if you are thinking right now that the small weigh-break was not a break at all, but part of our Sysiphusian routine.
~
After the tales at the Italian restaurant, and double espressos to try to level our emotions, we arrived back home from a day that had differed from our normal days. As I stepped into the house, I remembered another job I did as a youngster that would probably top as the worst job in the world, worse than the ga-clunking. I reminded myself to tell my friends about it, and I will tell you too, one day. Our visit to the cemeteries had somehow encouraged us, subliminally perhaps, to think bright things and of the good in life, and the visit to the Italian restaurant was something we had not done before as a group. There is safety in sameness, but change is good.

Comments

lryicsgrl said…
I love this.....
" Not only did he wear his heart on his sleeve, he served it with condiments, and like a butler, pulled up an imaginary chair and offered a seat, so I could be more comfortable as I helped myself to his heart."

The blog allows us to be more open.....so, Bon Apetite, my friend...

We are blessed when we have even one moment, such as the one you had at that Italian restaurant!

xo
ginab said…
A stellar post this one, Paul. Moving as it offers me and certainly everyone who reads memories of bygone sameness in work. I've had a few terrible jobs, as in likewise, and your detail of the temp agency simply brings it all back. I did have the sour honor of temping in an office, a PR firm, with Dickens' great great gandaughter. She seem fortunate and entirely opposite to me, like a creamy bar of soap but more safe than slippery. I doubt she remembers me.

-ginab
VallyP said…
As always Paul I marvel at your gorgeous quirky images. I can see the ga clunking, be there with you and feel the monotony. I can also see the 'thin as wheat spaghetti' Asian as he breaks his normal pace and skips to the wieghing machine.This is truly lovely.

As for the job of the day - gardening in graveyards - in a strange way I can imagine that to be rather a soothing pastime, despite the rain (why does it always seem to rain in graveyards?). The camraderie of the work and the meal afterwards makes it sound a positively desirable job to do ;-)

My worst job ever? Also in a factory, making reproduction antique furniture. I was disillusioned by the fake, phoney materials, bored by the monotony of ga clunking machines that did everything I'd learnt to do by hand, and somehow humiliated by having to clock in and out every morning!
Anne-Marie said…
Hi Paul,
what beautiful turn of phrases you have here to evoke images of your past. I too, ga-clunked in factories as a young adult, putting myself through university. The chocolate factory forever made me stay off commercial candy bars and edged me towards quality darks, and the long summers at the glass factory, packing and inspecting bottles simultaneously made me four-eyed and Popeye-armed. It also made me stay in school and swear not be trapped there.

xx
AM

P.S. Now I've got Billy Joel's "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant" playing on the radio station in my head!
Bout ya.
It's got fierce hot over here this past 2 days and the mandels are back out. This time last year I was preparing for my trip to Bastin.

Madine's here, for fear.

S
E.L. Wisty said…
A brilliant piece this, Paul. You have a talent of bringing the memories and the people alive with your words. And the perfect ending:

There is safety in sameness, but change is good.
ing said…
Wow, this is really nice, lively writing! I love how you move so smoothly from the scene at the restaurant to the memory and back. Good writin'!

My worst job may have been washing sheets and cleaning rooms at a B&B. I had to get there at 5 in the morning, and more often than not I'd stayed up all night, as my shift was Sunday morning. One morning my mother paid me a surprise visit. Ack!
Suesjoy said…
Beautiful, just absolutely gorgeous read Paul!
Thank you - that really made my day.

I will be curious if, next time you hear the name, "Charlie," you think of lil' ol' me and my blog!

Isn't that the sickest thing you've ever seen though?

xxx
Suesjoy said…
worst job...
McDonald's!!
I have one memory...forever ingrained in the crevices of my brain.
I was put on "fry detail" and just kept making fries...the sweat and grease dripping from my face (not into the fries though...or...er..who knows!)... i filled that holding vat to the brim...then my manager screamed at me:
"WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING MAKING ALL THOSE FRIES!! LOOK TO SEE HOW MANY CUSTOMERS YOU HAVE!!"
So, I turned my gaze to the front counter and beyond for one sec...to see 2 people in the "restautant" (if you can call it that!).

the fries have a "holding time" of about 10 minutes I think!
oh the waste...
atomicelroy said…
La Dolce Vita!
I worked the same machine in the bindery of a large printing factory that printed Law citations the same summer of Watergate.
Ahvarahn said…
Thanks all for looking in. Help yourself to anything here, Sue, and Bon Appetite too; I'm blessed that you visit. Happy to see tales of other worst jobs and similarities; we read to know we are not alone. I can understand your eagerness on the job, Suesjoy, toiling dedication and somehow missing the point. I still have moments like that. And I know a Charlie, and I think of your blog every time now. I will send him the link. And what irony, AE07! My mam never visited me on jobs, thankfully, *Ing; I can only imagine why she was there - perhaps to make sure you were eating properly or to bring you a flash of hot tea. If it was my mam, especially on a Sunday, it would be inevitably to ask if I had got Mass and communion. Oh Val, what a job, to be cheated (because of small pay no doubt) and feel like a cheat (seeing all the phony stuff). A bit like any business really, all the same; I am not made of the right stuff for any of that profit and loss stuff. At first I thought it a horror, Anne-Marie, to have been shocked off chocolate, but finding quality darks makes up for it. She seems like she liked those credentials Gina, or that is what I am guessing, but I am not one who believes much of that 'apples don't fall far from the tree'. And thanks Steaf, thanks Maria! ♧
Tommy D_____ said…
Hi Paul, you tell a nice story, nice insofar as I can relate to it wholeheartedly and nice for those that have not shared your experience for now they have an insider’s view expressing the daily life of the hum-drum factory worker. I’ve been there and your portrayal is accurate. It conjures up a time and place for me.

I spent five years doing numerous factory jobs and one of them was operating a big clunky press. I dreaded every minute of it. But the most dreadful job was dragging red-hot steel bars from a fierce oven and running like a monkey with them. The objective was to drop them into a vat of oil where a conveyor belt would pick them up and move them to the next operation. I wore a big asbestos mitt and handled the hot steel with a pair of heavy prongs. It wasn’t quite hell, but there was a strong resemblance, so I think it’s fair to say it was hellish.

Luckily for me I got laid-off from that a job, and got a new job working for a large international corporation, as a clerk, in the autumn of 1970, September 12 to be exact. Those were the days when companies actually had a job title that included the word “clerk!” Those days are gone – today, nobody wants to be a fucking clerk, so they give clerks a fancy title, and the clerks are happy to do their clerk jobs. I think they replaced the word “clerk” with “analyst” or “controller” and now the clerks are happy with their new titles. So I was an Inventory Control Clerk for a while and then within a few years of hard work and total dedication I was promoted to management.

My responsibilities grew and grew until I had a number of analysts (read clerks) and controllers (also clerks) reporting to me as well as a slew of factory workers – material handlers they were called. The job I had, and I think you can relate to this, did not allow me to actually touch any of the products that we handled, that job was relegated to the factory workers under my supervision, but at the end of the day there were numerous times when I felt like I had worked with a pick and shovel. I was totally exhausted from the mental stress. However, after running like a monkey with red-hot steel in a previous life, I always considered myself very lucky to have the job that I had, and I always treated the people that reported to me with total respect. I think it’s good experience to come-up through the ranks. I think you appreciate other people’s efforts (and their plight) a little more. I know I did.

Tommy D____
ginab said…
You went the Salon route. I am jealous proud. Thank you for thinking of me.

I do love the Irish, by the way. Not fond of a certain newlywed, and then he's lived in a cell, you know, and I don't mean a microcosim. I can't spell.

I'm so happy about the Salon. wow. I'm this/close to begging Emerson College to hire me to, I dunno, do something/anything I could crack. Kalamazoo is the pants.

ha-ha

-ginab
Ahvarahn said…
I am very happy you dropped by, Tommy D____, and I half expected that you might be able to relate to this in ways you have mentioned. My prediction was not supposed to be a slight in any way about you; on the contrary. Your last couple of lines here are spot on the mark. I appreciate much now for exactly the same reason. I can think of the toughest jobs I have done but there is always some fondness, perhaps for the understanding that came with it. And that mental stress is often worse than physical stress. Not much the deep heat balm can do for mental pressures. I had never thought of the clerk/analyst synonym but you are right. Another one they have is Business Development Directory or a BDD to give the acronym. That is what they call a salesman/saleswoman these days.

Take care Tommy.

Gina, I do know you love the Irish and I know there is a fair few rouge Irish around too, and it looks there might be a reject close to you who has found his pot to piss in. I know a fair few too whom you would find genuine and kind. Unfortunately, people do not come with labels that indicate your size. I have met my own share that either drowned me, or came apart at the seems. Thanks for the wishes.

Be well and be lucky,
Paul.

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