Part-time lover

Last updated 00:00 01/01/2009

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Part-time jobs suck. No one talks to you. No one bothers to learn your name. They save up all the worst chores for you. They can barely suppress a smile when they explain what you have to do. It’s terrifically boring. A monkey could do it. You sweat and you ache. Your feet are wrecked. The customers abuse you. The manager is an idiot. His underling is a creep who’s constantly looking over your shoulder like you’re some kind of moron, and spazzing out about the dumbest little things. Your uniform makes you look like a jackass. You miss out on all the fun your friends are having. All for $9 an hour.

What choice do you have? Part time jobs are a wretched fact of life.

Yet how much better they seem, how much more momentous and influential, when recollected from a distance! From the armchair, through a haze of pipe smoke, our part-time jobs become good, useful, lovable things. For all their hassle and muck, they marked something important in our nascent working lives.

Certainly, part-timers learn things. How to fold a napkin around the neck of a wine bottle. How to have sex in service lifts. How to operate antediluvian computer systems and minefield-like tills. How not to treat wait staff. They might not be useful things, but they must add up to something.

In exchange for all their vigorous suffering, part-timers get a pass key into the moving centre of things. They get dominion over the storage cupboards, the break room, the spot out back. They meet new kinds of people, hold new responsibilities and see all kinds of otherwise hidden processes. They might come out the other side a somewhat more enlightened person.

I’m not saying part-time jobs are a great, spangled Narnia where fauns and princesses frolic, but part-time jobs can bring a new dimension into your life. Even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time.

After high school, Helene Ravlich, now a publicist and writer, worked for $7.25 an hour at Auckland Central Library, from 1990 to 1996. The way she tells it, libraries are turbulent, parlous places, more like Tijuana than one might imagine.

Its regular patrons were the homeless, the addicted, the authentically weird and people whose hatred of the council was such that they would get aerated over a $1.20 fine. “You’d get people standing there for 45 minutes hassling you,” says Ravlich. “I was in court once because a guy tried to attack me over the desk.

“Every day, at some point, you’d get harassed by a freak or something really awful or weird would happen. Every day. You were always on edge.

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“We had a man we nicknamed Mr Poo. We put a trespass order on him. He hangs out up at TVNZ now. He used to poo in jars or McDonald’s cups and leave it behind books so someone would pull a book out and it would fall out. He was terrible. He’d poo all through the disabled toilets and he’d hide in the miniature Maori pa in the children’s department and run out and throw up on people – that was his thing.

“Another man, Mr Tran (I think he was Vietnamese), changed his name to Mr Lotus Body and then to Mr Killing Fields. I had to keep giving him new library cards. He used to wear full army fatigues.

“He was fascinated by the photocopier. He’d bring in twigs and arrange them in the photocopier and take copies of them. But then he started bringing in dead birds and squishing them down really hard in the photocopier. We had to get rid of him because he caused so much damage to the photocopier. A year later I read in the paper he’d been arrested in K Rd for barbequing a cat in the Jewish cemetery.
“There were people like that – to us, they were harmless but they were quite disruptive.”

The disabled toilet was the library’s trouble hotspot. “You never went in there. I felt really bad when disabled people would ask where the toilet was.”

Ravlich worked her way up to the Literature, Arts & Music desk. It was calmer up there, with a different clientele. “The freaks didn’t go up there. They stayed in Commerce, Science & Technology or Social Sciences.”

Ravlich stuck it out at the library for six years. Extra shifts were readily available and, if you worked a Sunday or a public holiday, you’d get time and a half. While a part-time librarian, she took two degrees from the University of Auckland and graduated without a student loan.

In the end, it was RSI from opening CD cases on the cushy Literature, Arts & Music desk that did her in, not the rest of it. Despite “disruptive” behaviours, it was cosy.

“There are people who, 13 or 14 years later, are still there,” she says, not entirely approvingly. “They will never leave. It’s easy: everybody knows who you are, you turn up to work, you put your things in the locker, you come and sit on the desk, you deal with the same freaks all the time, and the same regulars.

“It was a haven for odd bodies on both sides of the counter. You could be odd, you could be very shy, and no one questioned it. No one ever said, ‘You’ve got to be more outgoing so you can go and do a presentation.’

“It didn’t matter if you were shy and introverted and smelt a little bit. It was a great equaliser, working in the library. As long as you knew your stuff, it didn’t matter what kind of person you were.”
Such a dystopian utopia! You might be spewed on or assaulted, but at least you’re treated as an equal.

When he was 15, “Leon”, now a grown-up newspaper columnist, had a three-week stint fitting out coffins at a West Auckland undertaker’s – screwing in the faux-metal handles, installing waterproof lining to stop fluids leaking, stapling in the satin lining (which is stuffed with shredded newspaper) and affixing the nameplate to the casket’s lid. His father, a minister, had obtained the work for him, and he was paid $10 per casket.

“The gruesome aspect of the job was that the mortuary was adjoining and the spring was broken on the door, so it would just fly open at all sorts of odd times. You’d try not to look up because one of the funeral directors would be embalming, but of course you couldn’t really help yourself.

“You’d see these people on slabs. One in particular was a woman in her early 40s who’d died of cancer and I just remember her body was covered in these big black tumours. I did have a few bad dreams of what I’d seen. This old Maori guy had died, aged 79. He’d seemed quite fit but obviously had just had a heart attack and so he had to have a post mortem. I remember looking up and the flap of his… it was all peeled back and you could see the brain.

“It had come to the embalmer from the coroner’s like that. He was scalped and it was an appalling sight.

“There were some very sad aspects to the job. I did a couple of little children’s coffins and that’s pretty sad. Of course, they’re much easier to get down off the shelves.

“They weren’t corner-cutters – they were really respectful of bodies – but one day there was an influx of bodies [in body bags] and we had to put two where the coffins would go ordinarily, and another body bag on a trolley beside me and an embalmed person in an open coffin beside me as well. And this is in a really cramped space: the floor area, not including the coffin shelves, would have been no more than 3m by 3m.”

Tucked into the very place where unpleasant reminders of death are hidden, Leon was surrounded by all the stimuli he needed to reflect seriously and profoundly – on the futility of vanity, on the pitilessness of time and on the fact that it is only in death that we are individuated from the crowd and impelled to discern our freest and most authentic means of being in the world.

Except when you’re 15, that’s not really where your priorities lie.

“You still just live like a teenager. I didn’t say, ‘Gosh I must make the most of every last moment.’
“It was the best paid job I’ve had, probably to this day. I would have done about 60 coffins a week. That would have taken me about 20 to 25 hours. Up until that time, I’d done a paper run for the Western Leader for two years, $4.06 a week. To this day, I don’t know if I average $25 an hour.”

If you’re a 15-year-old boy and you suddenly find yourself with nearly $2000, what do you blow it on? Cartons of smokes for the whole form? A sweet ride? A Gibson Flying V? Some sort of Risky Business-inspired cartel of prostitutes? Leon laughs uncomfortably. We have a conversation about not using his real name.

“I’m ashamed to say this, but most of it went on 200 Anzon Investments shares.” This, from someone whose political leanings are…well, let’s just call him a “friend of Chris Trotter’s”.

“I sort of am a socialist,” he explains, “but this was coming up to 1987 – everyone was caught up in this nonsense! They were a good little saver in those days. I bought them at $3.30, they went up to $3.95 in a great hurry and, not really understanding anything about shares, I thought, ‘I’ll sell them when they go over $4.’ They might have gone to $3.97 and then they collapsed.”

If you’re lucky, your first part-time job will grant you a first, delectable taste of financial independence.
My grandfather still tells the story, tinged with grim pride, of the part-time job he had in form two. He worked to make the bus fare from Temuka to Timaru, so he could attend Timaru Boys High.

“I wanted to get away from the district high school curriculum which was focused on dairy science and ploughing and all that sort of stuff. I wanted to do history and geography and French.

“I was a butcher’s boy on a Saturday morning. I worked from eight o’clock until about 1pm. I cycled all round the district getting orders and delivering them and when I’d finished that I had the job of cleaning the sausage machine and doing anything nasty around the place. For that, I got five shillings.

“I’ve never forgotten it. It was a supreme gesture of my wanting to go to Timaru. It was helpful to me. My further life was predicated on what I learnt at high school, and what I did.”

I can imagine him cycling around Temuka, a basket of splendid meat packs tethered to the handlebars of his bike, his little calves pumping with righteous indignation and resentment towards his tightwad father. His income was a means of revolt against uninspiring circumstances. And, in the school holidays, a source of chocolate and movie tickets.

But of course, part-timers don’t always get to be the defiant hero of their story arc. While at university, a guy we’ll call Jason wore a sandwich board advertising the services of Dr Shoe on Queen St for an hour every weekday for six months. For three months, he also wore a board spruiking for the Auckland Star.
Jason was paid $10 an hour, before and after tax, a sum he considers fair. It wasn’t as easy as it looks.
“You had to concentrate. Queen St is quite busy so you had to make sure you didn’t hit people. I had to do the Auckland Star sandwich board when all the schoolgirls from Epsom Girls Grammar were leaving (I guess they figured that’s when marketability was).

“There’s me walking around in this bizarre raincoat (because it always did seem to rain) and they’d walk by and giggle.”

Did Jason’s friends visit him at work? Did they perhaps fetch him a reviving sandwich or a hot drink?
“No. They’d come down and say, ‘What an asshole.’ You can’t run when you’re wearing a sandwich board. You couldn’t really chase them.”

After a biographer recorded that the writer and cartoonist James Thurber had borne “drudgery on several newspapers”, Thurber wrote an essay that put the claim into some perspective.

“There is, of course, a certain amount of drudgery in newspaper work,” he observed, “just as there is in teaching classes, tunnelling into a bank, or being president of the United States. I suppose that even the most pleasurable of imaginable occupations, that of batting baseballs through the windows of the RCA Building, would pall a little as the days ran on.”

Perhaps this is why a colleague likes to dream about part-timing in a garden centre. A friend always imagined herself working behind the stocking counter at Rendells. Another friend used to talk about us moving to Hawaii to work at Gap, where we would wear headset microphones and fold sweaters. (Her idea not mine.)

I can’t walk past a Help Wanted sign without considering applying. A part-time job would free up the time and headspace for my musical comedy ideas to develop. I might be given the keys to a roof terrace where I could sunbathe after hours. I could get on with knocking off À la Recherche du Temps Perdu under the counter. I don’t try to pretend, any more, that the job would be enriching or inspiring.
I had three part-time jobs while at university; one of them tutoring high school kids who were doing inadequately at their fancy streamed schools. I taught French, Latin and English and then, presumably after a bit of feedback had come in, just English.

My students were all boys. They passionately hated studying English. It was too wishy-washy. The rules were unfair. Their teachers had told them that there was no such thing as a wrong answer in English class – you just had to say how a book made you feel – but when they got their assignments back, they’d been failed. What kind of a lousy trick was that?

One kid, a Korean Holden Caulfield, was studying The Catcher in the Rye and thought it was completely phoney. He’d thumb through the pages and make chopping gestures at the text, moaning, “How can this be a classic?”

At this point, I should probably say how, in the process of tutoring, I learnt so much myself and all that kind of crap, but if you want to know the truth, I don’t remember that happening. The work was repetitive and, even when the kids acted like I’d imparted something inspirational or useful, I was primarily conscious of how many more hours I had to do before I could go home.
I don’t expect my dream part-time job to nourish that part of the working soul that needs sustenance. I know what it is like to drive past your old workplace and say abstractedly, “I used to work there,” and no one cares, but you watch closely as you pass by, remembering all the hours you put in there, realising that you’ve got precisely nothing to show for it, other than fragments of an obsolete institutional memory.

But something must remain. 

The backroom club
A visit from that author with the slightly droopy eyes was just one of the highlights of Rachael King’s part-time job

I like to think it was destiny that brought me to Picador, my UK publisher. In 1996 I was in London doing yet another OE. I had been there four years earlier, and landed a part-time job at the Pan Bookshop through a family friend, the marketing director of Pan MacMillan, Picador’s mother company. Its offices were above the shop.

When I turned up again in ’96, broke and bedraggled, the manager, June, an eccentric woman with a hockey-captain voice, who often came back from lunch with a red nose and a penchant for hugging customers, took pity on me and gave me a job again.

That was the summer I started writing seriously. I was commuting an hour and a half to work and had very little money, so I spent a lot of time on trains, reading, or going for long walks through Richmond Park, which eventually became a setting in The Sound of Butterflies.

To further inspire me, authors came into the shop all the time to sign books, although they were never “signings” – writers tended to sit in the back office with June, perhaps having a glass of wine and signing a few books that would later be displayed in the shop. But that was how I got to meet Michael Ondaatje (he asked me if there were any posters left for Gabriel García Márquez’s latest book, Of Love and Other Demons; I said there weren’t, but I lied – there was one and I wanted it for myself); Russell Hoban (he came in to buy a Mrs Pepperpot book and I pounced on him to sign a copy of The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz, then one of my favourite books); Peter Ackroyd (his biography of William Blake had just come out and he looked a bit disappointed when I told him I was a huge fan of Blake’s; I think I should have said of Peter Ackroyd’s); William Boyd (he had a bet with June that she couldn’t sell a case of his latest book – she did and he had to come to the shop after hours with a case of bubbly and drink it with us); and, most memorably, Salman Rushdie.

It was a wet Wednesday morning. The Moor’s Last Sigh had just come out and whether the fatwa had been lifted or he just decided he’d had enough of hiding, I’m not sure. But two detectives came to scope out the store, and then there was the man himself, all smiles, with those slightly droopy eyes (I know, they’ve since been fixed, but they always reminded me of half-closed walnut shells).
“It’s fine,” said June, rubbing her hands, “we just get authors to sit in the back to sign books, nobody will know you’re here.”

But Mister Rushdie had a point to make. He was not in hiding any more and he would like to sign the books on the shop floor, thank you very much. So a table was found for him, and we piled up the stock artfully around him. He sat at the top of some steps by the new paperback fiction table. Due to the time of day and the weather, only one customer came into the shop when Salman Rushdie had his first book signing since the fatwa. I watched her. She was at the other end of the shop. I saw her look up. She stared. She narrowed her eyes. Then she gave a small shake of her head, almost a shiver, a look of it can’t be. She finished her browsing and left.

Still, the staff, including me, happily lined up to get personalised copies. I couldn’t think of anything to say to him. Months later, on a promotional trip to New Zealand, my father was rounded up as a local author and taken to lunch with him. Rushdie said, when asked, that he remembered me because of my accent. I think I blushed.

Of course, when I got home to New Zealand to tell my friends of my literary exploits, it wasn’t the authors that dazzled them – it was Hugh Grant, who lived locally (still does, probably) and had come in mere days after the Divine Brown scandal hit, a cap pulled low over his eyes. He couldn’t hide, though, not with that irrepressible politeness, when he asked me if I would mind awfully gift-wrapping his book on Degas. After I had flapped around on the floor with book and paper (the counter was full of books) and handed it back to him, he told me I was very kind, and left.

I remember I had the most powerful desire to one day return to the Pan Bookshop and see a book I had written sitting on the hardback table. Why yes, I would say, I’ll sign some copies for you, of course. For old times’ sake. And it seemed fitting that Picador would be the publisher; after all its offices were only just upstairs, and Peter Straus, Picador’s commissioning editor, came into the shop all the time.
He’d remember me when the time came.

Now the offices are somewhere else entirely and Peter Straus is no longer the commissioning editor at Picador. But still my novel found its way there. And I haven’t been back to the Pan Bookshop in a long time (the last time, they said to me: “Did you ever write that book you were always saying you were going to?” And I had to mumble some excuse – truth was I hadn’t even started it).

But I like to think it has been sitting there on the table and that, when someone has bought it, they’ve said, “Oh Rachael King. She used to work here part-time, you know.

- Sunday Star Times

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