Wandering Thoughts

December 20, 2009


Filed under: Going Places — terence @ 7:51 pm
Tags: ,

Denise had gone back to college in the states, the arthritis had abated and I was broke. Out of money and without a social safety net, in London, there was one solution: I sought work.

The first few days I worked for building site cleaners. Simple maths put paid to that job, though; my earnings were less than rent, let alone food. Next up I found work through an employment agency, Manpower, or something like that. Just after 5am I’d catch the first train on the District line, change at an empty Earls court and ride the Piccadilly line out to an concrete industrial estate somewhere. Being there early was the only guarantee of work, of making my rent.

They set me to work as a stand in garbage collector, and for a few days I collected the trash of Hammersmith. Trundling down thin streets while the skinhead driver of the garbage truck rolled his joints on the steering wheel. One of the guys a young good looking kid possessed some sort of built in radar – if there was anything valuable in the trash he’d know, just by lifting the bag. Old copper pots, they could be recycled, same with household appliances.

“Heavy bag this one.”

“‘at ‘ill be magazines. Open it up. Porn. Always is. Ang on.” In between the magazines was a set of photos. “Let’s ‘ave a look at these.”

The first few were holiday snaps and then…

“Owwah, look at this, kinky bastard.”

The people of Hammersmith and surrounds, I was to learn over the next few days, take a lot of photos of themselves undressed.

There was a slow patient old guy who we worked with. His accent was softer than the rest, exhausted maybe.

“So are you over ‘ere on ‘oliday are you?” he asked me one morning.

“Yeah, I guess, well I’m travelling round.”

“I started on the garbage trucks as a holiday job. Just for a summer I thought. Twenty seven years later, an’ I’m still here.”

It was time for me to move on.

Next job the people at Manpower found me paid more. A bonus – yuk-money. It involved driving round London servicing sanitary bins in Women’s toilets. Each morning I’d start with a map, a van full of clean bins and the slightly sickly smell of disinfectant. By the end of the say, the clean bins would be gone, replaced by the ones we’d extracted from toilets (“Hello? Is there anyone in there? We’re from Cannon Hygiene. Just servicing the bins”). It was late into a hot, humid summer. By the end of the day the van would stink. The smell, the traffic, the fact that if I wasn’t lost I was always only one wrong turn away from it. I really, really hated the work.

There’s a story that starts in there somewhere. How from the hygiene van I graduated to giving away food samples for a promotion company, to doing data entry work for them, to getting a job in an investment bank.

But that’s not today’s story. Today’s story is about Ben, the tall quiet Kenyan who worked for Cannon. And who would accompany me some days. We didn’t talk much. Mostly we just tried to race from job to job. He’d navigate and I’d do my best not to crash. One afternoon though, we finished early, and I offered him a ride home (one of the perks of the job is that I got to keep the van in the evenings).

“Are you sure? It’s out of your way?”

“Yeah no worries. It’s not that far and traffic’s good.”

“Thanks. Now I can go home and have a sleep before I start my second job.”

“You work two jobs?”

“At night I pack computers into boxes in a warehouse.”

At that point in my life I laboured under some sort of naive third-worldism. I figured that prosperity was a sham of sorts. And that people in developing countries had access to a real ‘spiritual’ wealth.

It was, I’m quite happy to admit, half-baked. And inconsistent with other views I had at the time. But being wealthy, white and living out of a backpack, half-baked thinking was a luxury I had.

Working two jobs, one of them in toilet hygiene, Ben I figured, must have seen this too, I thought. Stuck in London, a city I never loved, a long way from the land.

“So what’s Kenya like, how does it compare to here? Do you prefer it?”

“No, I prefer London. Here, the people, I think, are much more free.”

1 Comment »

  1. Really liked this post Terence — great vignettes, sort of George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris & London.

    Comment by Simon — January 12, 2010 @ 8:57 pm

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