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Out of Something, Nothing: My Summer as a Professional Mover – the final installment

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That I complain a lot about my fairly trouble-free life notwithstanding, what did I ultimately learn from my summer as a mover? I’m not sure. Maybe to make sure you tip your movers but know that they probably said things so offensive that you’d weep if you heard them? My thoughts on the default goodness or evil of human nature tilted in favor of the latter after seeing that verbal and physical violence can be so easily provoked, but in reality people are prone to be jerks regardless of job or lot in life. This isn’t a characteristic specific to movers, despite the many times when I swore this must be the case; moving is just another stage on which the often sketchy human drama plays out. Everyone in every industry is probably ethically suspect. The blustery machismo of movers is the same as the mercurial histrionics of kitchen staff and the ruthless ambition driving corporate knuckleheads for who even the smallest amount of power is perversely arousing.

Thanks in part to the frustration inspired by said bluster, I also came to learn that sometimes a job is just a job. A job doesn’t always yield some sort of fascinating insight or exist primarily to foster literary investigation. You get up, you go to work, and you to do what you’re told. There isn’t much room for a job to be much more than the duties that comprise it, especially in a let’s-get-this-done-as-fast-as-possible profession like moving. My assignment as an embedded writer made me want to take up a different hobby.

And it’s precisely because of these sorts of demands that workers are so demoralized and psychotic. It was depressing to see yet again the utterly impersonal nature of business. Employers refuse to nurture individual talents or even recognize that an employee is an individual human being. Most of the employees were considered totally replaceable and treated accordingly. It was appalling to think that this is just how business works. Treating people poorly saves money – that is a legitimate rule of mainstream business. But how much dissatisfaction and struggling to get by on unlivable wages does it take before a person does something outrageous in an attempt to combat the drudgery? How much dignity can be taken away from someone before he bullies his coworkers in an attempt to feel he has power as a human being? How much hard labor, condescension, and complete lack of benefits before people think and act like they have nothing to lose? And what if you are bound to stay in such an environment by necessity? In short, how much moving can one man take?

To me, the essays in Studs Terkel’s books function as a kind of vindication for situations that seem to be devoid of hope. That the regular lives of regular people are being documented makes their struggles feel worthwhile. The books convey with heartbreaking clarity the tenuous hope that you as an individual are leaving a mark on the larger human story, the hope that there is a reason you spend years doing an ostensibly unglamorous job. The books say that your life is not going unacknowledged, that your story deserves to be recorded. You have to try to make work meaningful to contend with the fact that you are forced to do something you might not like for the majority of your life.

I tried keep this rationale in mind while working as a mover and toxic mold remover and factory line-worker. It wasn’t about trying to work my way up a ladder but to make the necessity of full-time employment work for me. I was afraid not of failing to make my way upward but of a work-life characterized by boredom and resignation. The unpleasant misadventures of moving were the price I figured I had to pay to stave off becoming a part of the regular nine-to-five society. At least the jobs would be something to talk about, something to make it feel like I wasn’t compromising my mobility, my spontaneity, my sense of adventure just to abide by the lifestyle dictated by the Man.

But I’d also worry that by constantly reassuring myself I was doing a good thing, I was trying to hide the fact that my work exploits weren’t playing out like I’d imagined. You can find glory and contentment in anything, but sometimes it’s hard to. Yes, I was trying new things, but after a day of moving I would often be grumpy and unhappy and have to completely zone out to decompress, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted that bitterness to be a consistent part of my life.

About a year after I quit moving I found myself working in a run-of-the-mill office. Every day I went to my cubicle where I did the same tasks and dealt with the same client problems. Truthfully, it was a step up from moving. At least at the office I was trusted to work by myself, and my unit’s boss even bought us a French press when I complained about the quality of the breakroom’s coffee at every meeting. (The “coffee” was the discharge of a machine that pumped boiling water through a can of coffee-flavored syrup.) I could take breaks whenever I wanted, I had a set schedule, I had three weeks of paid vacation and inexpensive health insurance. My coworkers weren’t violent muscleheads; a disagreement we had about global warming ended peacefully when a coworker suggested in earnest that instead of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, money would be better spent on developing nuclear-powered cars.

The office was an entertaining and weird and eye-opening environment for a while, but it too quickly grew stale. One day we were called to a meeting where my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss – no joke about the ladder of bosses – flat out told my department that our position at the company would never change. We would never be given more challenging work and we would certainly never earn more money. Ever. I appreciated their honesty but I was shocked that they were so sure of our immobility that they had nothing to lose by telling us we would be staying put.

Point made. I’d always wanted to do maintenance, and fortunately a job came available in that field right at the height of my desperation to leave the office. (My desperation was such that I even called the moving company to see if they were hiring.) I was introduced to the atmosphere of my new workplace when a coworker expounded in detail about the superficial merits of the cleaning staff. His tasteless non-sequiturs encapsulated the obnoxious yet strangely compelling madness that would be the next eight months of my life. Onwards and upwards!

Have I doomed myself to a life without professional fulfillment by not focusing on something I really like, or am I livin’ free by seeing the world, employment-wise? Did the complex emotional turmoil of my summer as professional a mover help answer this question? I still haven’t come to a definitive answer, but I’m sure insight will come with the next job or the one after that.

(Naturally my job at the News is immensely fulfilling and does not fill me with the same dread or anxiety that my previous jobs did 🙂 )

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