Monday, May 05, 2008

Joyless Jobs

Growing up, if we ever dared tell Mum that we were 'bored', she'd send us out to the shed to grab an ice-cream cartons' worth of almonds and be forced to crack them all into an old Nescafe jar.

Not only was it even more boring that whatever the hell it was we'd been complaining about originally, but my fingers normally got hit by the hammer a few times and my skin would be bleeding from scrabbling at the hard, splintery shells before long.

However, such jobs were few and far between in my pretty idyllic childhood. In my later teenage years, however, my folks were trying to generate some more income to pay for three kids about to start uni and live out of home. And thus started the first of a rather long line of Joyless Jobs on my CV, the first being: Cucumber Polishing.

Dad and my brothers picked the cucumbers and Mum and I stood in the packing shed, sorting them by size, cleaning the dirt off them and packing them into boxes destined for the Adelaide produce market. Mum had a few old teatowels to help us do the job, but the actual, er, 'polishing' was incredibly suggestive, nonetheless.

Now you need to put this scenario into context. I was a shy sixteen year old, still yet to enjoy any horizontal happenings and my mother was (and still is) a very elegant and proper lady. Pleasuring a truckload of phallic salad veges with my parent doing the same alongside me was more embarassing than watching a torrid sex scene or tampon commercial with my grandparents.

I didn't know whether to laugh out loud and incur Mum's disapproval or to silently blush and hope that none of my friends popped in to visit. Surprisingly, it was Mum who started sniggering. This then set me off and we laughed until our stomachs hurt, tears streaming down our faces. Not a word was said, but it was the ideal way to recognise the obscenity in our actions.

Years later, after graduating from uni with a BA in Major English Texts and Roman Art and Archaeology, the ANZ Bank decided that I'd make an ideal graduate trainee for the world of finance. Soon ensconced in the position of Assistant Bank Manager, I was utterly miserable. Charging customers LAFs (loan approval fees) for literally doing nothing, trying to be interested in accounting procedures and being a lunch time teller wasn't my idea of what paid work should be.

We did have some good times, however. The photo here shows how carefully we looked after Elton John's glasses collection when they were being displayed at OPSMs around the country. As soon as the doors were shut, we'd crack open a few beers, wear a selection of his shades and try and add up the cash. Seeing Mark do some expert hand-stands in the strong room was always a highlight, as was his evening banter with Jasper:

Mark - Hey Jasper, I can't believe you've still got your tie on
Jasper - Hey Kath, I can't believe you've still got your skirt on.

Despite the positives, after two years I'd had enough, convinced that mortgage lending wasn't my destined career path. I did a nanny course and went to London. The nannying job lasted three weeks before I left in disillusionment and disgust. Having to wash - and iron - three kids' bed sheets every single day was humiliating, as was being told that my clothes could not be washed with theirs and I had to use a cheaper brand of powder. Starting at 6:30am and finishing at 8:30pm was not fun, especially when the mother - an unemployed 'interior decorator' was out shopping or waiting for her daily in-home masseuse to arrive.

Perhaps living in a home as a housekeeper to adults would be better. And it was, for the most part, except for Monday mornings. Mrs D suffered from Multiple Schlerosis, and was at the stage where she had a nurse come over twice daily to change her dressings. She ate like a bird because she was no longer able to walk or use her arms too much, but every week, on the dot, she needed to make sure that her struggling body could produce a poo.

Yes, as she told me, "It's more embarrassing for me than it is for you," but it didn't make Mondays any easier. She would forgo her usual decaff for a triple strength Nescafe, ask me to lift her onto the loo and leave her for a while. No matter how prepared I thought I was, whenever I heard the 'Errrp!' of the buzzer it still made me jump.

I'd go back into the bathroom, lift her gently up and back onto the pad-lined wheelchair and have a look down.
"Is it enough, Kath?"

Invariably, my answer, swallowing a sigh, was, "No, Mrs D. It isn't. I'll have to put you back on to see if any more will emerge."

After six months of housekeeping in Finchley, a 'Banqueting Traineeship' opened up at the Savoy Hotel. A friend from home recommended I apply, reasoning that they were looking for hard-working staff who could present themselves well, learn quickly and use their brains. Oh and you could eat and drink there for free.

The first three months saw me serving champagne and cocktails to the rich and famous, which was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. Unofficially, we bar staff had umlimited access to whatever alcohol we were serving at the time, so a helluva lot of Bolly was sucked down, as was a lot of smoked salmon and stilton filched from the hors'doeuvre platters on the way back to the kitchen.

One evening I was looking for my boss, Ed, and couldn't find him anywhere. "He's under there," gestured Nick, towards the trestle table. And so he was, in a coffin pose, dead to the world, lying on top of four crates of tonic water. For that to have been comfortable he must have certainly drunk more than his fair share of freebies. Not only that, but a thin layer of linen was all that was shielding him from a ballroom of patrons including Fergie, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Liza Minnelli, Nick Faldo and Michael Aspel.

However, like all Joyless Jobs, there always comes the time to leave. And that time, for me, was after eight weeks in the kitchens. It was a sunless hell of 16 hour days, burned fingers, being sworn at by world-famous chefs who clearly enjoyed bullying unknown galley slaves and dodging the groping hands of sly waiters in the service lift. The closing soundtrack to the Benny Hill show springs to mind when I think of that time but preferably with some grungy guitar solos to indicate that I wasn't enjoying any of it.

I left the Savoy feeling physically exhausted, suffering from a never-ending flu, and desperately needing funds to not only pay the rent on my dog box but also my frightening credit card bill. For the next three months, I worked as a kitchen-hand in a Mental Hospital, and learned a lot more than how pleasant it feels to hoick your trousers up under your armpits.

The remaining year or so of my time in London was spent in a serious Debt Collection department of a major bank, being the last person on the phone to a borrower before the bailiffs came to repossess their home. Making these phone calls were about as cheerful as a dead kitten under the kids' Christmas tree and I needed a good ten minutes respite between each call to psych myself up for the next deluge. Deluge of lies, insults, fury, sneers, threats, tears, sad stories and - worst of all - numb surrender. People sometimes posted in their keys, writing 'Here, take the house', and yet the cruelty of lending too much to people a couple of years earlier who now earned too little for a home worth much less meant that I'd still have to chase them and say, "Thanks for your keys, but you still owe us another fifty thousand pounds."

Upon returning to South Australia, I applied for the Graduate Diploma of Education at Adelaide Uni, figuring that it would give me a year on Austudy and time to think about what I really wanted to be when I grew up. Teaching high school kids English, Social Studies and History sure as hell wasn't it. Thirteen year old Darrel, in a year nine English class straight after lunch, let out a loud and odorific fart. He was happily basking in the laughter and admiration of his peers and clearly enjoying not having to open up his graffitied copy of 'The Crucible' for a while yet.

I did the only thing I knew how to do - opened my big mouth.
"Good on you Darrel, you've now released a few more valuable braincells that you honestly can't afford to lose."

The class laughed - at him now, instead of with him - he blushed, put his head into his book and we resumed the lesson. The head master was strolling past the classroom at the time, and wanted a word with me after school. "You can't put down the students like that," he explained, "It hurts their self esteem and sets a bad example of how to treat others." Fair enough, but when a fart eats into learning time, what other tools did I have? None, other than to look for a new job at the end of the year.

Which I did, after finding myself engaged to Love Chunks and following him back to Melbourne. WormWorld Security saw that I'd done some soul-sucking debt collection in London and appointed me. As the only non-smoking, non-pokie-playing, non-Victorian in the all-female team, I was the rank outsider who was left answering everybody's phone whilst they grumbled about this new-fangled rule about not being allowed to stay inside and smoke at their desks. It was a short walk home to Flemington, it paid for petrol in the 1973 Volvo and allowed me to sit Australian Public Service Graduate Selection Tests.

Think nearly fifteen years in various Government agencies, departments and units. Graduate Trainee, Ministerial Liaison Officer, Speech Writer, Program Director, Team Leader, Directorate Manager, Medical Manager, Research Administrator. All were very stressful and each role, public service program and budget planner had about as much spare cash to throw around as a Big Issue vendor - not one workplace offered free tea and coffee, let alone a cup, teaspoon or milk!

It was time to downshift. Just do a bit of admin and contribute to a department or university with subject matter and goals that genuinely interested me and allowed me to leave for home, unencumbered with laptop or files, at 5pm. As so it came to be. All was good and well for about a year, but then my boss, Bulldog decided that whilst it was fine to enjoy the services I provided above and beyond the level of my paid role, it was not fine to let me have any support or credit for those services.
On slightly less emotional and angry reflection (and several months later), I can see that she was all ego, hyperbole and no longer had any new academic or real world ideas to offer anyone. She was merely a legend in her own lunchtime, and someone bent on ensuring that any real opportunities available to her staff would instead be snorted up by herself. Karma will come, Bulldog, even if I won't be in your employ to see it.

And finally, I have arrived at the Self Employment stage of my working life. All the tracksuit pants, uggs/crocs, singing out loud opportunities, talking to the dog and availability for school pick-ups and coordinated playdates I can poke a stick at. Time to read, research, write and just fling myself into things I have a real passion for. Time for being a better mother, partner and friend. Time for helping out others at school and in the community and even do a bit more work around the house. Time to work out, run, walk and take a few photos. Time to laugh and realise that it's not a luxury but a necessity.

You know what? Folding clean washing doesn't seem so bad when I've spent the most part of the day happily tapping at the computer, hearing my dog softly snoring in her beanbag at my feet.


River said...

Welcome to the best job of your life. Enjoy.

Kath Lockett said...

Thanks River. Now I've just got to make it pay...

Steph said...

That's the hard part. I'm just barely breaking even as a freelance writer. Still, it beats the hell out of 80 hour work weeks.

audrey said...

God, freelancing is one of the most difficult things in the world. The only benefit I can see is that if you pay super into your own account, the Government will match it.

The worst moment on a job I ever had was when Patronising Shaun told me if I studied proper dairy care really hard (I was making gelati) I might one day be able to take those skills and work in a dairy factory.

Brian said...

Thanks for stopping by my site. I hope to do the freelance thing at some point, but have to do silly things like keep a roof over our head and feed the wife and child for now. ;)

TOM said...

Folding laundry has to be better than polishing cucumbers!!

Oh and you have been declared the Weekly Winner..hope you can stop by and see how you have been showered with praise!!

Baino said...

Haha . .fantastic post Kath. I've done everything from getting fired for eating too many strawberries that were destined for the markets to copywriting for a big multi- national. I had a short stint in Government too which I actually enjoyed until Amanda Vanstone wound up the unit and moved it to Canberra. Still the redundancy paid for a great holiday in Europe. Now I'm yet to make the shift to self employed. I tried freelance copywriting but couldn't make it pay and am now stuck in a loveless administrative job. No joy folding King Gee's in my house I'm afraid! I seem to spend all Saturday washing! And today I learned something . . I had no idea that cucumbers were 'polished' I'll treat them with a little more respect!

Ken Albin said...

Wow, you have had a lot of interesting experiences! They may have been strange and difficult but they helped to mold the person you are today. (at least that's what I keep telling myself!)

Before teaching I was a psychiatric technician at a mental hospital and an assistant on a welding machine at a company that made cranes. After those jobs teaching suddenly didn't seem all that bad though some days I feel I might wind up in the same mental hospital I worked at! Congrats for finding something you want to do in life. It is a rare accomplishment and should be treasured. By the way, I would have responded to the farting kid the same way you did.

LJP said...

When you are feeling happy, you know you are on the right track. :-)

Remind me not to serve cucumbers on Mother's day!

myninjacockle said...

Bugger me.

Is that Jeff C. wearing the tie in the bank photo?

Kath Lockett said...

Hey Myninjacockle - yeah, his name was Jeff, but I forget his surname. He was the branch accountant, and this photo was taken waaaay back in 1990.

I left for nannying in the UK in January 1991 and the bank got held up a week later. It's now closed and was where the Henry Bucks on cnr Nth Tce and Gawler Place now is.

myninjacockle said...

I started working for Westpac at Reynella in 1991, then transferred back to the NT in 1993 - five years later I was very ready to head to the UK also.

I never got held up, but I did have the bone pointed at me in Nhulunbuy.

I worked with Jeff at UnitingCare, he resigned a few years ago after the constant haranguing(?)he received from the upper management there. poor bastard. he was a nice guy.

Ariel said...

Yeah, it's a great gig, isn't it? I couldn't go back to office jobs now, I think.

I love your teaching anecdote. Give me a break ... self-esteem!?!? Sounds like it probably taught the kid a good lesson.