Work Experience

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In ‘Stop-Time’, an autobiography by Frank Conroy that I am enjoying, the young Frank spends a few weeks on the streets of New York working a fruit-stall with his mother’s unreliable partner, sometime in the early 50s. He describes his absorption in the most basic tasks:
“…I approached even the smallest transaction with the élan of a headwaiter making crepes suzette. Without looking, I’d slip out the appropriate paper bag from a concealed shelf under the scales, lift it high in the air over my head, and snap it down like a whip to open it, at the same time selecting the fruit with my other hand. ‘One pound of fresh seedless grapes,’ I’d say with a certain amount of pride, gently lowering a fat bunch onto the hanging scales. My eye was good and when I missed the correct weight it wasn’t by much. In a single sweeping movement I’d lift the removable tray, insert the narrow end into the open mouth of the paper bag and transfer the fruit with exaggerated care. ‘Some cherries, ma’am? They’re very sweet today, very succulent.’ If they were deaf to my words and blind to my ballet they nevertheless came to the moment when they put money in my hand. At that moment I won the game, or so it seemed to me.”


The assembly line on which workers repeat half a dozen moves all day long is premised on the rejection of fluidity in favour of disconnection. Ergonomic analysts who design such arrangements will identify fluid sequences then dismember them so that no single worker is burdened with overly complicated manipulations and, consequently, acquires no valuable skill and can be readily replaced by a quickly trained substitute. A flow of movement is replaced by a punctuated repetitive cycle. Such cycles would resemble obsessive compulsive disorders if it were not for the fact that the compulsion is externally and explicitly imposed.


Frank is not on an assembly line but he brings to a potentially predictable job an inventiveness that he channels into choreography. We’ve all done it – just trying to toss a ball of paper across a room into a waste paper basket requires both concentration and fluidity – qualities often seen as mutually exclusive but regarded by, for example, dancers and athletes, as a natural package. Frank probably senses that unless he makes fruit wrapping an aesthetic event it will outstrip him with its meaninglessness.


The best job I ever had – I don’t include writing and making plays because they aren’t alienating – was driving a rescue van for Bike Events on the London to Brighton Bike Ride in the early 80s. I did it for a day. They gave me a portable phone the size of a house brick and told me to drive up and down the route picking up people whose bikes had broken down or who had succumbed to exhaustion or just fallen off. When, to my great pleasure, I came across a small human tragedy, I would phone the base camp in Brighton and they would tell me either to take the cyclists to a First Aid station or their bikes to one of the repair stations on the route. It was a lovely day and most of the route was confined, thanks to the skilled route-devising of the organisers, to leafy lanes. I drove carefully alongside columns of hundreds of sweating pedallers, keeping an eye open for mishaps and asking those who appeared to be bonking (a cycling term unrelated to penetrative sexual intercourse wherein the cyclist suddenly runs out of energy and becomes dangerously weak and woozy – a banana will often debonk the sufferer) if they were alright.


As the day wore on I became happier and happier. I experienced the following things:
nobility – I was the selfless rescuer
usefulness – the necessity for my presence was inarguable
responsibility – I had to do the right thing never the wrong thing
amusement – the short wave banter between myself and base camp got better and better. I particularly enjoyed composing florid reports in a clipped WWII pilot’s voice then saying, as required by law, “Over”.
fluidity – the cooordination of hands, phone and steering wheel grew ever more polished
health benefits – my right forearm acquired a pleasing tan

20.07.2007