by Ben Kritikos
Like so many in this “age of austerity”, I’m unemployed.
Occasionally, telling people this fact sometimes elicits a strange response: “Lucky you.” Lucky? Are you kidding? The strings on my guitar are green; playing it feels like gently massaging rusty razor blades. And I won’t even go into the cheese-on-toast belly I’ve developed. Don’t get me wrong, I love cheese on toast; but eating it as a meal three times a week is nobody’s idea of a balanced diet.
So why would anyone count me lucky to be unemployed? You’ll have to remind me — it’s been a while.
Could it be because daytime television is so good? I somehow doubt it. Could it be a deep-seated resentment at missing Radio 4′s Woman’s Hour? Much as I enjoy Woman’s Hour, also highly unlikely. Maybe it’s because — work sucks.
Not all work sucks, though … surely not. Maybe just all work available in a recession. I’m sure once the banks start lending again and housing prices are sufficiently high to not even bother considering buying one at any time in the future until we’ve all won the lottery, dream jobs will abound. I’m sure once Everything Is Back To Normal we can all count on good times ahead, where jobs like Official Ketchup Taster exist, the tea breaks are many and lengthy, and the retirement age is 34.
Those are the reasons to keep struggling, my friends. Some day, we’ll all live in the cushy luxury those pesky benefit-seekers are purportedly enjoying.
In the meantime, however, we’ll be saving pennies, using plastic bags from Sainsbury’s for the bin, making pots of tea with one teabag, skipping breakfast, selling our second homes in the south of France, and remembering fondly those days when employment was plentiful and fulfilling, like a good wank.
These are the top five shittest jobs I’ve ever had. I like to think about them when I’m eating ramen noodles for the seventh time in a week, to remind me of what I’m missing.
TexMex Restaurant in very-far-South West London
At the tender age of 19, I moved from the bosom of my family home to the crushing monotony of Greater London. My father set me up with a room in a flat for £35 a week (this was in 1999, mind you). I had to find a job.
Somehow, my father knew some one who knew some one who managed a TexMex restaurant in what I could only call the fucking boondocks. I don’t even remember the name of the village, but it was 45 minutes further away from central London than where I lived, which was 45 minutes away from central London.
Strings were pulled and a job as Kitchen Porter fell unceremoniously into my lap. The chef issued me with filthy black and white checkered trousers about ten sizes too big, with no belt hoops — and a matching hat, shaped somewhat like an upside-down dog bowl.
My first day — rather, my first night — began with the psychotic chef who never spoke but screamed barraging me for being American. It didn’t take long to see I was the only native English speaker in the filthy, sweltering kitchen. Though the dining area presented customers with a placid, low-lit, faux-Mexican ambience, the kitchen sat like a tumour at the back of the building.
Ten of us crammed into a small room the size of a home kitchen, where instead of industrial rubber floor mats to keep the workers from slipping and sliding, they threw down flattened cardboard boxes. In a matter of minutes, the cardboard transformed into a filthy brown paste, the visual equivalent of baby shit, which we all scurried and glided on in a frantic balance somewhere between falling and sliding.
At the back of this intensely hot bubble of sludge and cooking food sat the bins. To reach them one had to pass across an inch-deep puddle of dense black grease: remnants of the deep frier. The bins themselves stank to high hell.
My job consisted of peeling prawns, mixing salads, chopping herbs and vegetables, mopping the brown slushy floor (making it temporarily even more slippery) and replenishing the cardboard, which provided about five minutes of relief from the slipping and sliding. I also took out the rubbish, washed the pots and pans when the influx of used crockery inevitably overwhelmed the dishwasher, and scrubbed the whole kitchen at the end of the night.
All this would have been bearable had it not been for The Joke. I’d been there a week. The night’s end drew nearer, and we’d stopped serving: clean-up time. The chef pulled me aside and showed me his stove, black as the Pope’s heart, charred metal covered in a thick layer of burnt industrial cooking matter. “See that,” he gestured with a filthy rag. “That’s supposed to be silver. You’ll go nowhere until it is.” He stuffed a scouring pad in my hand, and pointed to a small plastic tub of hot soapy water, walking away with a guffaw.
I scrubbed and scrubbed, to no avail. To reach the back of the stove meant leaning over it, and I repeatedly burned myself at the midriff because the stove remained scorching hot from hours of constant use. After 45 minutes of background snickering, a co-worker with a glass eye approached me and said, “You don’t have to clean the stove; they’re only joking to see if you’d actually try.”
When I left the restaurant it was after one in the morning. I’d missed the last bus. The walk would take me about two hours. I began down the road; no footpath, no street lamps. Every time a car approached, clocking around 50 mph, I prayed it wouldn’t hit me. Never much of a believer in Divine Providence, I threw myself sideways into the ditch at the side of the road.
Sticking out my thumb, eventually a pair of hippies on their way to buy grass picked me up and drove me the whole way home. Next morning, I rang the restaurant and told them to go fuck themselves.
Roof-scraping in Surrey
Luckily, my flatmate (a man who somehow escaped from between the covers of an Irvine Welsh novel) had a friend who had a landscaping business. This friend of Bigby took me on as a helper despite my lack of experience. My first day, it was just the two of us.
He picked me up at 7am and we drove to Epsom or Esher or one of those places in Surrey beginning with E where the houses are detached, prefaced with long driveways and lush gardens, and the air is cold and clean. The January sky loomed heavy and lazy in that way it does before snow, as though it’s eaten too much.
We climbed a ladder onto the steep angled roof of moss-covered brick tiles. My boss fixed two ladders from the peak of the roof down the slope of the red bricks, and we lay on the steps of the ladder. He had a scraping knife and I had a firm, thick-bristled broom. I forcefully brushed off as much moss as I could with the broom while my boss scraped the rest off with his scraping knife. The work required lots of physical effort; the broom became heavier, holding it at a 90 degree angle from myself for several hours.
After lunch, the cold air felt tight like a knot. As we scraped and scraped, swept and swept, snow began to fall. The snow quickly melted on my jeans, and after an hour I was wet from the waist down. Then the wet froze. My jeans became stiff on my legs; when I bent my legs, the frozen jeans made crunching sounds.
Periodically we got down and cleared up the moss we scraped, bundling it into big black sacks. When the moss became more scarce, the scraping took on a more reddish colour; brick-dust floated into the freezing air, mingling with the snow. Towards the end of the day, I began rubbing my right eye. It swelled and stung. I felt as though there was something stuck in my eye and I couldn’t get it out.
Back home, exhausted and my arms aching, my aggravated eye worsened. There was grit on the surface, and though I couldn’t see it or feel it with my fingers, it felt like a boulder under my eyelid, which was swelling visibly.
Flatmate Bigby brought me to the nearest hospital. The lady at the counter took my details and asked me to sit down. After a short wait, a doctor brought me into his office and sat me down. He used a swab to remove the gritty piece of brick-dust, and sent me on my way.
On my way out, I kept asking nervously how much I had to pay. Being an American, I didn’t understand the whole NHS concept.
Preferring to keep my eyes intact, I decided it was time to find an office job. My father bought me a cheap brown gabardine suit, and off I went to an employment agency. After one very fruitless mass interview in a huge office broken up into cubicles (like mini-purgatories for individual little yoghurt pots), I was taken on by a company who cleaned carpets. They gave themselves a fancy-sounding name (including the utilitarian, makey-uppey word “fabricare”), with offices just a ten minute walk from my flat.
The manager came off as likeable enough through his armour of fake tan and the managerial language of positive reinforcement; he was Australian. The company employed a friendly office manager who had a pasty, nervous look and bad teeth; a dozen telesales “representatives” who all seemed about as interested in and committed to carpet cleaning as myself; and a moody London-born Malawian man who wore designer suits, had a pencil-thin moustache, and drove the company BMW. His name was Z. and he drove to the homes of people we successfully snagged with a “free consultation”.
The job mostly consisted of drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and ringing Old Age Pensioners on the phone, handing them a line about being in their area and offering free consultations. Most of the sweet, elderly ladies I spoke to feebly explained that they weren’t sure what I was talking about but could I please not ring them in future because, after all, they were Old Age Pensioners and couldn’t afford That Sort Of Thing, thank you, goodbye.
Lots of people flared up in outrage, demanding to know where we found their phone numbers. They spluttered about taking their names off the list. Truth told, the manager gave us a handful of post codes and had us scour the telephone directory. We took tea breaks every hour to stave off the dispiriting monotony of being harangued for cold calling people, offering free consultations for a carpet cleaning service. The reality was so grim, so boring, so mind-numbingly bland, the very thought of explaining to some one what I did for a living made my face twitch and my nose bleed.
Hour upon hour we sat at the phones, reading a pre-written pitch, trying desperately to ignore the radio. What is it about pop radio playing the same 20 pop songs from between 1970 and 1998 in various order, week in, week out, that makes working life seem terrifyingly like Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence? On the bright side, it was the highest paying job I’ve ever had. The wage itself was ample, and we received commissions from all the sales we initiated. With real hard graft, I could’ve passed infinity numbering among the Middling Sort.
But money can’t buy everything. Sanity, for example. Telesales work is a paradox: it is intrusively bland, offensively dull; an agonising numbness. I’d come home every evening feeling like my brain contained nothing but mushed up banana. I spent my surplus wages on booze (which, in the US, I wasn’t old enough to drink); I figured a battle with alcoholism would prove diversionary.
It wasn’t the job so much as the obliviating drinking in order to make the job bearable that did me in. After two months, I handed in my notice. My Australian boss muttered about what a shame it was to lose me; his superbly white teeth sparkled; I felt nauseous from the previous month’s whiskey binge.
Busking in Ann Arbor, Michigan
Don’t ask me how, but I didn’t have socks.
I managed to travel from New York City to Butte, Montana on a Greyhound Bus (it took three days, if you’re interested) without socks. The trip home proved tricky; I hitched a ride on a school bus full of hippies all the way to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where they all came from. Once there, I found myself pretty much stuck. My possessions numbered thus: one pocket knife, one sachet of cheap rolling tobacco and rolling paper, one harmonica with mostly-functioning reeds, two t-shirts, underwear, corduroy trousers, and blue hi-top Converse sneakers. But no socks.
This being the summer after the winter in which I tried to live in England, not having socks wasn’t a huge hindrance to my everyday existence. I knew I’d get back to New York somehow, even if it was 1,500 miles away and I had no money. I had a harmonica, after all, and Ann Arbor was the home of the University of Michigan. Students like music. I could play the harmonica and make money. Sure thing.
I found the campus, and a seating area where students soaked up the sunshine, reading books and chatting. It felt like the right place to play some harmonica (I could navigate my way round the blues with passable, if not masterful, competence). The problem facing me was a bit more subtle: what to collect the money in?
Normally when I played music on the street for money, I’d have a guitar — and, thus, a guitar case to serve as a money receptacle. I used the only receptacle in my possession: my shoe. Pulling the laces as loose as they’d go, with the tongue stretched forward, I stood behind my open sneaker, all battered and stretched open like a mouth being sick, blowing into a partially broken harmonica.
I’ve played music on the streets of many cities, but I’ve never felt so comprehensively humiliated as I did in Ann Arbour. Never did I expect people to be rewarding my limited harmonica skills with crisp green notes; but far from throwing me change, most people looked at me with a mix of distant wonder and acute horror. As I tapped the spit out of my battered mouth harp, one foot bare and one in a tattered blue Chuck Taylor, hundreds of fresh-faced students gawked at me shamelessly.
Like at a massive pile of shit in a baby carriage waving a Nazi flag.
Like at a man impaled on a giant sausage.
Like they just walked in on their parents engaged in anal sex.
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t make much money. It took me about four hours to earn six dollars and some chump change. Not enough to take a bus back to New York; but enough to ring a friend on the phone and ask him to wire me some money.
Canvassing (ie fundraising) for an activist group in Connecticut
A few years and many pairs of socks later, I found myself in Danbury, Connecticut, seated in a semi-circle with a dozen (seemingly less bemused) others, a page-long Rap in our hands, staring at a white marker board with the letters K I S S written on them. A tall, permanently grinning young man with vacant eyes explained to us the “K I S S” principle: Keep It Short and Simple.
He also explained the value of becoming Unflappable. He made us understand that when knocking on people’s doors, asking them to give you money for a socially just cause, Unflappability was essential. While you delivered your Rap people would often Interrupt or attempt to put a Toe Up Your Ass (these last facts I gleaned from experience, and not from the man with the white marker board).
After what felt like an eternity being primed for KISSing and Unflappability, we memorised the Rap with interminable rehearsals and play acting. The time had come for the permanently grinning young man with vacant eyes to set us upon the rich and unsuspecting denizens of wealthy suburban Connecticut like a team of fund-hungry leftywolves.
What a fucking stupid idea.
I must have walked up 20 quarter-of-a-mile-long driveways, narrowly escaped the jaws of a dolores* of dogs, just to have brief words with the most hostile strangers I’ve ever encountered. Standing at the threshold of a McMansion before the quizzical, suspicious gaze of a middle-aged person looking at what they could only imagine was a raving communist child pornographer, the Rap began.
“Hello, my name is Ben, and I’m from the So-and-So group. We’re canvassing for campaign finance reform to get Big Money out of the political process — “
“I am Big Money.” With that, they’d slam the door summarily in my face.
Some people shook their fists at me through the windows. Some threatened to call the police. Some did call the police. Luckily, the police received advance notice that we’d be canvassing the area. That didn’t stop them from swooping down upon one of my co-workers who committed the heinous offence of Being Black In A White Neighbourhood. Our manager rescued him from the probing clutches of three cop cars.
To top off this joyful experience, we returned to Vacant Eyes HQ only to have our KISSing and Unflappability reviewed. If we didn’t meet the quota, we were gently encouraged by the ever-grinning young man with the vacant eyes. Those who consistently failed to meet the quota were KISSed goodbye and allowed to Flap away.
Do you know what I did in the end? I moved to a country where I hardly knew anybody, had no money, no job prospects, and no prospects of KISSing, Flapping, Unflapping, cooking, sliding, losing socks or getting brick-dust in my eye ever again.
*collective noun of my own invention