Wednesday, November 14, 2007

I've done a wide variety of things for money, but the shittiest and most life-changing job I've had was probably being a cleaner at the Downtown Food Court in Auckland, New Zealand. It was at a food court right on the ports where American sailors used to come off their ships and into our food hall to have lunch at McDonald's. I was seventeen, and although it wasn't my first job I found it pretty eye-opening. I was introduced to the somewhat brutal realities of life in the workplace for the less fortunate among us.

The work itself was exhausting and dull, and just went on like that for days and days. We didn't have much time to talk to eachother amid all the clearing and mopping so we were mostly alone with our own thoughts during the race to clear tables and mop floors.

When I first started the job I'd arranged to meet up with a friend from university after work. It was not a particularly close friend, but someone older who I looked up to a lot (when I was seventeen I fostered a great many illusions and looked up to just about any adult who seemed worldly and took an interest in me.)

I waited for an hour, but they didn't turn up. I went home. I thought they'd call me to explain or apologise, but they didn't. It seems very silly now, but in my seventeen year old mind I was convinced that they must have lost my phone number somehow, and that they'd come to the Downtown Food Court the next day to see me and explain why they didn't show up for our appointment.

So the next day I kept looking around the food hall, searching through the faces for my friend. They didn't come, of course. The next day still nothing, and the next after that was the same. But even as time went by, I still expected them to come. So I kept an eye out, every day, week after week for my friend to come and see me. The more I waited, the more angry I became with my friend, and the bigger the apology I prepared myself to expect.

Then after a while I was taken off my usual position on the floor in order to fill in for someone who worked the industrial dishwashers out the back. I was resistant to doing this, because what if my friend came to find me in my usual spot on the floor and I wasn't there? This disturbed me for a while, but then I thought no, they'll surely ask one of the girls in uniform where I am and she'll show my friend out to the back to find me.

As you can see, the likelihood of my friend ever ending up finding me and apologising was evolving from the improbable to the ridiculous, but for some reason my faith was unshakable. I just assumed that they would naturally *want* to find me.

Meanwhile, during the weeks and months during which I waited earnestly and futilely for this miracle that was never going to happen, life at the Downtown Food Court moved along in its dull way, punctuated by occasional events.

My supervisor (who was only 29 and but had spent the last 14 years working in the food court as a cleaner) had a nervous breakdown and started weeping all day during work... weeping and wiping tables, then going out the back and being comforted by some of the older girls. I overheard her complaining to them about how her life felt pointless and they tried to reassure her, saying of course it's not pointless, of course it isn't. She finally had to go on extended leave.

After I'd been there a while the older girls eventually accepted me as one of them, and stopped giving me the shitty tasks to do. They even started letting me take shortcuts with the work the same way they did.

My gentle and kind Fijian workmate Lissi invited me to her home - a pathetic little garage in someone's back garden - and showed me the baby clothes she had sown. She was pregnant with her first child and she and her husband were so very happy about it.

A girl in the curry shop got boiling oil spilt on her and had to go to hospital.

A new guy started working doing the heavy lifting - he was in a band called Jungle Fungus and all the girls developed a crush on him.

Vanessa - a girl who reminded me of the kids I used to go to school with before I was accepted into a posh school on the other side of town - spent a day at work running to the toilets to throw up because she'd had to take the morning after pill.

A guy started working with me on the dishwashers and picked on me in a rather cruel way, making my life a misery for a short time and the other girls decided that he was mean and felt sorry for me.

The company announced it would no longer be paying penalty rates for overtime, and cut our wages.

My birthday came in January, and my friend (who most likely had no idea when my birthday was anyway) made no appearance and I was extra sad that day.

My Fijian workmate Lissi had a miscarriage while working the dishwashers one day. When she came back to work she was no longer gentle; she'd become withdrawn and angry and kept complaining to people secretly about how the Downtown Food Court had killed her baby.

And throughout this period of months, I clung stubbornly to my great hope - the hope and expectation that my friend would come walking down the food hall and through the kitchen door to face me and apologise. When that happened the sun would shine again, and the world would feel alright again.

And naturally, they never came. When university started again I went up to them and said quietly,
"Last October I waited for you at the time and placed we'd agreed, but you never showed up."

"Oh that? Yeah, sorry about that. I forgot about it, I guess."

I felt completely stunned - dislocated from reality. At that moment I realised that this friend was never ever going to say what I felt they needed to say to make things in my world right again.

I was angry with my friend and was quite cold to them for a while, but I also started to realise that this issue wasn't really about me and a friend who had wronged me - it was about me and the world. Life itself had wronged me - it had wronged us all, and we were all mopping and sweeping away at the Downtown Food Court still waiting for our apologies that would never come.

Chamber music rehearsals, lunchtime recitals and energetic discussions about the latest work by Alfred Schnittke with people like my friend during the intervals at university "New Music" concerts - that wasn't really the world. The real world was this other world, where Fijian women had miscarriages in front of industrial dishwashers and women cried into their cleaning sponges and didn't know why. It was a world that sucked. And that's when I - who had never failed at anything, ever - began to fail at things. Very, very spectacularly.



At 1:36 am, Blogger The Rantolotl said...

Dammit. You've just made writing my short story assignment a whole lot more difficult.

Nice un-nice story.

PS - you're not a failure, nor are you a spectacular failure.

At 1:33 pm, Blogger Andrew Doull said...

Damn. That brought back memories... never worked there, but hung out there plenty.


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