Surviving Capitalism

Thinking about work for the dole recently presented me with an epiphany: that it’s the most actually socially and personally beneficial work I’ve ever done – besides perhaps helping my parents out with their businesses.  So I might as well start there, and end presently.  At about 13 I started working in a kitchenware store the olds owned for a few years.  One of the most entertaining stories I can recall from the experience involves a bitter little old woman who came in to complain about one of those silverware drainers that hook onto larger dish drainers.  It looked and functioned a bit like a stainless steel basket – with lots of little gaps for the knives and forks to escape through, if they weren’t placed in the strainer properly.  This was her complaint: that the silverware would slip through said gaps.  My father at the time was suffering bad knee pain due to an old football injury, prior to getting a double knee-replacement; so he lacked the patience to explain to her in polite terms that she was mentally deficient and if she placed her cutlery in the strainer the right way they would not slip out.  He ended up getting angry at her, while she returned the sentiment, and stormed out the back of the shop.  I was a somewhat surly, self-absorbed teenager so I too lacked the empathy to explain to her the excruciatingly simple error of her ways.  So we lost that customer.  Other than that it was a predictably banal existence which gained me more knowledge of pots and pans that I’d ever need, and, from memory, about $5 per hour in wages.  With a raise of a dollar for each birthday which occurred during our possession of the store.

Straight after high school graduation a new best mate I’d recently acquired and bonded with through surfing and drinking and I signed up to join the heady, fast-paced and dog-eat-dog world of supermarket retail.  Specifically: Coles Supermarkets.  The first stage of the gruelling application process involved an aptitude test involving such questions as: if someone buys something costing $3.70, and gives you a $5 note, how much change are they given?  And a short interview during which I had to pretend to have a passion for retail.  After I was called up and congratulated on my stellar aptitude test result, and feigning being on the receiving end of flattery, I was granted a second more intensive interview.  Can’t really remember it, but my mate who was also lucky enough to have a basic grasp of addition and subtraction also gained this second grilling.  When asked why he did not wish to work at a particular store, he responded, simply: “Kids.”  Which has provided us with an occasional laugh ever since.  Then there was the final interview with the store manager and hopeful successor of the particular Coles we both ended up working at – him for a few months; me for about six years, casually/part time.  His exciting retail career unfortunately ended when he stopped turning up to our first mind-numbingly menial task: casual night shelf filling, while we were both eking our way through business degrees.  I, for one, loved it.  The grocery manager was a greasy sleaze ball horribly afflicted by short man syndrome; the night fill boss was a fascist, middle-aged bogan woman; my male colleagues were largely silent, skinny men working extra jobs to feed their ugly wives and 10 children; and my female colleagues were hypocritical old boilers and young women not suited for face-to-face sales interaction who’d talk almost constantly but snitch on my mate and I if we so much as uttered a few syllables to each other.

So my mate threw the match over his shoulder onto the petroleum-soaked bridge on departure, leaving me inert on the other side.  Over the next few years while finishing university I worked for Coles as a trolley boy, in the delicatessen, on checkouts, more night fill here and there and in fresh produce.  It was a Goddamn miracle I never damaged a car while pushing sometimes 20 or more trolleys (we were only supposed to push 10, maximum), mostly without a guide rope.  Most of the other trolley boys, in the days prior to that industry being dominated almost exclusively by poorly-paid Indian migrants and students, were hopeless, good for nothing stoners, so it didn’t matter how lazy or irresponsibly hard-working I was.  The deli was frustrating because it was a common placement for attractive young women, one of whom I jumped briefly into bed with – which lost me a good mate, who was apparently interested in her and had even told me so previously (I was oblivious until he angrily pointed it out to me, post sexual indiscretion, but then again he said a lot of things not all of which I would zone in to listen to).  Checkouts were similar in that regard, except I was always safely sequestered in my own area for the duration of my shift.  Fresh produce was pretty great, by Coles standards, as it involved very little human interaction other than to give people fruit and vegetable-related advice and direction, and stifle laughter when people asked me where my “nuts” were.  After graduation I was unmotivated to become a human resources professional, as was my most likely progression post-achieving a Bachelor of Business Administration majoring in HR.  So I accepted a full-time second-in-charge of the fresh produce department position at Coles Surfers Paradise.  It was comedy.  It was pleasure.  And it was about 10 months of pure hell.  Firstly, the fresh produce department budget couldn’t support me working in it for a full 38 hours per week, so I’d spend the first three hours of my noon to 9pm Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday shifts working on checkouts.  Which placed me under control of one of the most heinous bitches (sorry, I don’t like using the B word unless it’s absolutely apt, which in this context it absolutely is) I’ve ever met: the second in charge of that department.  I’d occasionally be late because of horrendous roadwork along Bermuda Street which would sometimes take my normally 45 minute journey to more like and hour and a half.  She’d give me passive aggressive shit about that, and whatever else she could.

If only you weren't so damn necessary

If only you weren’t so damn necessary

Then there was my first fresh produce manager, who was an overachiever by retail standards and could be a bit of a dick, but was otherwise an alright guy.  And my second manager.  Well.  This was a guy who told me when his tax return accountant asked him what he spent his money on, he replied: “Knives.”  He had a knife collection.  One day after I’d finished my three hours’ torture on checkouts, I discovered the fruit and veg department was a bomb site, and couldn’t help wondering why.  Turns out my manager had spent most of those three hours not just helping out the dairy manager – who had reportedly never seen anything like it in her 20 years with the company – but going around giving out to customers and colleagues roses which had gone out of date.  (Yes flowers had a use-by date which upon being reached legally prohibited their sale.)  He was a madman.  So as I mentioned my hours were noon to 9pm, Tuesday through Thursday.  On Friday I’d work 7am to 3pm.  Then every, single, nightmarish Saturday I would begin work at one in the morning.  That’s 1am.  In order to single-handedly receive two or three or four pallets of fruit and veg, organise them into the fridge and set up the shop floor for busy weekend trading.  Luckily I was in a long-term relationship, so the cruel and I still suspect illegal shift didn’t cramp my style too much.  (Though I’d rather forget the amount of times I’d barely keep my eyes open during the drive home after finishing at 10.30am.)  Surprisingly, only on one occasion did this shift cause me any trouble, other than the times – which was most of the time – in which I wouldn’t sleep after finishing work at 3pm the previous day.  One Friday was the night of my sister’s 30th – on a boat cruising the Brisbane River.  Two weeks in advance, I told my store manager about the event, and that I would need someone else to do the shift, on account of my plan to be rotten drunk somewhere in the City or Valley during its normal duration.  As was typical of the fat fag (I’m not being homophobic; he was actually gay, not that there’s anything wrong with that), he ignored my request for empathetic management, so after many beers my parents dropped me at work, I got changed and must have hit the night fill manager full in the face with alcohol fumes when he opened the dock door for me.  I’ve been hungover at work before, as I’m sure you might have been.  But, have you ever become hungover while at work, after not having slept in almost 24 hours? It was Goddamn torture.  And a month or two later I resigned at about the same time my relationship of almost two years ended.  I’ve rarely felt happier since than at that moment.

I crawled back to the Coles store the whole screwed up saga had begun at, and worked at a couple of others while completing my second, journalism, degree.  I’ll only share one story from that time, at Labrador Coles.  I’d started work at 5am on a Saturday with a simple-minded woman who’d never worked in fresh produce before.  I gave her the easier job of combing the shop floor for produce which had gone bad and needed to be thrown out, while I started organising the pallets of stock into the fridge and preparing trolleys full of stock to be put on display.  I discovered she’d done a sub-par job of it after she’d left at 8am, and the boss stormed into the prep room at 9am to rip me a new arsehole on account of all the rotting stock on display.  Normally, I would have calmly thrown her under the bus for her poor effort (I would have happily taken the blame, if it had in fact been my fault), but I was tired and a little depressed so I got angry back at the store manager and said something about wanting to kill myself.  Rather than show concern, he cut all my fresh produce hours and spent the next few days going around the store bitching about me.  Luckily I still had shifts in the deli.  And that’s all I can stomach of Coles.  I all but simply stopped turning up to my Coles shifts after I gained a dream job at a regional newspaper, while I had still technically not finished my degree’s final semester.  Did a butt load of work experience for that job.  The first was the best, with the World Transplant Games.  A total understatement to say that writing stories about and taking photos of high-achieving organ transplant recipient athletes was inspiring. Then I did an Australian University Games, an Asia-Pacific education forum hosted by Griffith Uni and attended by the likes of Bob Hawke, a week at the Bulletin and a couple of other little things such as 10,000 words with lots of freedom on backpacker related stuff for a new magazine – for which I was paid $100 (at the time, it might as well have been $1000).  I did a week and a couple of days at the newspaper I ended up working for, and a few weekends at another paper owned by the same company.  When the editor of the first paper called me to all but give me the job, I was actually about to start a Saturday shift at the second one.  I couldn’t have planned it better, and it all really came down to energy – which abruptly ran out after being steadily drained, some 18 months later.  I still plan on blogging specifically and lengthily (but hopefully not defamatorily) about working at a newspaper, so stay tuned.  My biggest general beef with working in the mainstream media is that the truth is definitely, but not always warped by a reliance on corporate and political advertising.

Since then I worked for about six months at a business magazine, and did some online copywriting for a tertiary education institution – both of which I’ve dealt with satisfactorily, at least for now, in  Which finally brings me to my reasoning behind seeing work for the dole (which I also touched on in the link above) as the most socially and personally (albeit not personally financially) beneficial work I’ve ever done.  But I’ll get the negatives out of the way, first.  The gig is run by a Christian group.  And I’m firmly agnostic.  Not a practising agnostic, as in I kind of believe in a few different religions.  More like I don’t really believe in the spiritual element of any of them, but enjoy learning about them.  (I’ve read a book on Buddhism, the entire Koran and got about 100 pages into the Bible before giving up, maybe not for good.)  I even mentioned to my supervisor that I’d read the Koran, after he enquired as to my religious beliefs.  Which might have been a faux pas.  Fortunately, they haven’t tried to indoctrinate me or invite me to a service, and the only awkward moments have come from their saying grace the couple of times we’ve had a group lunch, one of their number regularly thanking God for things and the Christian-themed operatic music the same person has put on a couple of times.  (Diverse groups of people should really keep music to themselves, unless they’re happy to take turns, as they’re unlikely to ever agree on a genre.)  The biggest problem I’ve detected in a couple of them is the higher expectations, that I’ve observed in other Christians over the years, than that which a reality minus an interventionist creator could possibly provide.  Ironically though, such people always find solace from their disappointment in prayer.  Other than that I can’t help but feeling at least a little that it sucks to be working for, based on my dole payments, about $16 per hour.  When I have two bachelor degrees.  But hey, as I explain to people, I quit my professional job when I didn’t 100 per cent have to.  So I’m lying in the bed I made.  But it’s not all bad because, as I mentioned in the previous post, I’m helping prepare crisis meals for disadvantaged people and improving and maintaining the grounds of a property operated by a Christian not-for-profit group.  Instead of making one person or a bunch of investors, who already have money, more money.  If I felt any shame in collecting the dole, which I don’t, working for it under such circumstances would balance that out.  I can’t be sure what the future holds for me, employment-wise, but one thing’s for sure: even if I eventually write a book or books, I’ll never feel the particular sense of satisfaction that comes from my current, humble occupation.


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