Tales from the Vault : Formative work experiences and sticking your neck out

As you approach, pass, and then immediately try to forget being a certain age, you begin to reflect on the life and work experiences that have made you who you are. In the life learning or personal sphere this contemplation is often classified as something negative called a “mid life crisis” where you will suddenly find yourself driving sports cars, dating men or women (or both) half your age, quitting your job to set up a doomed start up, running marathons, or even writing a blog that no one reads. This is clearly too thorny a topic to tackle objectively so instead I will focus on those early formative work experiences that perhaps taught me a few early lessons about life as well, but in a less potentially explosive way.

First up the trolley boy. My first proper job. Two nights a week plus extra hours in school holidays. And not just any trolley boy. Oh no. I was in charge of collecting trolleys from all corners of the vast underground car park. First in the region, possibly the country, for that particular supermarket chain. That responsibility also meant I had my very own set of keys, commanding the control panel of the hereto revolutionary moving walkway, that seamlessly glided shopper and trolley, together in unison, from said car park to store and then back again. The keys of course were only to be used in emergencies. Although after approximately 2 shifts it became very clear to me that “emergency” was a loose term, and tended to include when the local tearaways (and there were lots of them) strayed onto the walkway, and like a moth to a flame, banged the STOP button, leaving those very same graceful shopper and trolley combos stranded on my (no longer) moving walkway. Usually about 6 times per shift, and more if I showed any reaction. Which I did. Lesson learnt? Stay calm, always take things in your stride and remember that responsibility always comes with a catch.

A couple of other formative jobs worthy of reflection were my relatively brief spells working in an abattoir followed by working in the brick works. Whilst neither were working as an emergency worker or a bomb defusal expert, neither were a cake walk either. Whilst at the abattoir obviously I didn’t walk straight into the role of putting the bolt through the cows head – I was days further down the packing line where any resemblance to a cow had long gone – it was still a memorable experience and for two main reasons. Firstly was the canteen experience. An interesting place. Whilst there was certainly nothing wrong with the food, it was the only place where us lowly temp packers did mingle with the rest of the happy tribe. Including the small team that did actually put the bolt through the cows heads – sat together tightly in one particular corner, wearing their special red overalls (saves on laundry presumably), not speaking. All to a man (and they were all men) transfixed darkly by the constant dull thud that I imagine hid behind their deep set vacant eyes. Truly disturbing. The experience was also memorable for the day one “tour” that was offered, in a rather too sprightly and enthusiastic manner in my view, around the “full” facility. I took up the option based on the twin beliefs of “if I eat it I should see how it gets there” together with “how bad can it be”. It was bad. The animals know what’s coming and the process is pretty horrific. Good life lessons though – namely face your fears and don’t be a hypocrite.

Toughest role would have to be at the Brick works. Making bricks. Or more to the point sweeping out the kilns with a brush just after the bricks had been baked. And of course getting the extra wage associated with the “not able to sue” clause that was an optional extra to the contract. Hard hot work at the crack of dawn. Later in the day was mildly better as I learnt some tricks of the bricks trade. You take a cluster of perfectly good bricks and get a temp to lob them onto a large conveyer which then bounces then all around in a large rubber tube chipping bits of the bricks and generally making them a bit shitty. Then put same temp at the other end to recluster then all and sell them on for 3 times the price as “renovation” bricks. Who says innovation is a new thing? Lessons – people will sign anything for a price and making money anyway you can is what it’s all about.

Probably still the most memorable role however was a stint as a rubbish picker. And no, to those who may be familiar with the warehouse industry, I am not talking about being a poor quality order assembler (although this was another job I did do, and in fact I was). No, I’m talking about being given my very own rubbish picker upper contraption and being sent out into the fields. The job was borne of disaster. The area I had just moved suffered a freak hurricane. One locale that was particularly badly hit was the rubbish tip. Most of the rubbish escaped, when given half a chance, and for the previous few weeks had been strewn around the formerly green and pleasant patchwork quilt fields owned by the increasingly irate local farming community. A solution was sought, and I, together with my stick and bag, was it. It was a job that had loose boundaries and even looser supervision. Day after day I dawdled around the local countryside, resting in the shade of old trees, getting my quota of sun and the occasional (hourly) snooze, and every now and again finding a couple of bits of rubbish to pop into my bag. Days became weeks. It was a lovely late spring that turned into a belter of a summer. Every day I returned to the tip at the end of the day to deposit my goods and was met with a cheery smile and a knowing wink from the site supervisor. I don’t think he had bought into the performance related pay model.

One day, as even I was beginning to think I had possibly stretched this gig as far as it would go, I decided to explore further. A beautiful summers day, stick and a bag in hand, and a meandering unpenetrated footpath in front of me, and I was off. I walked for miles, taking in deep breathes of the glorious summer air together with the sounds and smells of the countryside, and with no humans around at all. I was smiling broadly to myself, feeling smug at getting one up on the system for such a long period, and feeling completely at one with my local universe when I turned a corner and looked up. And there in front of my eyes, the other side of the hedge was a giraffe. This was neither the expansive South African savannah nor the Somalian rainforest. Giraffes were not meant to be here. My karma shattered, I turned and fled. Deeply disturbed I handed my stick, my bag and my notice in on that very day. Later, sat in my new flat worrying about my sanity, I remembered that as well as a rubbish tip, my new region also housed a countryside zoo (these days of course it a “country park”) and I must have inadvertently walked all they way there. I can still genuinely remember the hours of shock before my logical realisation, where my only conclusion was that being a lazy sod alone in a field for months had come at the cost of my sanity. Lesson learnt? Taking the piss at work can work at times but there’s usually a downside, and don’t believe all you see.

Of course however good or varied your own jobs were, you always had friends who had better ones. A particularly morbid friend of mine actually landed his dream job, in the local graveyard. Not only that but he managed to get the graveyard shift. He was born it, and had hours of fun as twilight fell, by sitting close to the fence near the local footpath, making scary noises when unsuspecting pedestrians dared walk by. Happy times.

Overall life lessons learnt in all this nonsense? The key lesson is that people are not stupid – ok, some Americans are – but mainly people know what’s what, and are comfortable with themselves in whatever job and at whatever level they are. Talk to them and treat people as the equals they are, and you will find stuff out that will be useful if you are ambitious. Also, not to steal an old adage, but a bit of hard graft really does not do you any harm in the long run. Not only was I the fittest I’ve ever been after my brick works stint, but it also instilled in me a lifelong desire to try to use my brain to get me forward in life rather than any brawn I could create, as frankly, brawn bloody hurts.

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