I have been unemployed at numerous times in my life, but only twice, unpleasantly so. Once was when I was young, the other after I had moved cities.
It wasn’t like I hadn’t planned for the move, I’d been considering it for a long time and had made contact with the Melbourne branch of the place I worked with in Sydney. They assured me that there would be work when I headed South. However, on arriving, I found the company branch in Victoria was a small, two person operation, and the promise of work had been exaggerated for reasons unknown.
I couldn’t return to Sydney. I was running from a situation I had created for myself, and had no desire to return. Not that I could anyway. I’d spent the last of my money on my car engine so it could handle the drive along the Hume and even so, had to stop at a small town called Yass along the way to buy two new tires.
On finding that my employment had fallen through, I set about for applying for whatever I could. My lifetime of avoiding any meaningful skill or qualification factored against me though. I had no special licenses, tickets or certificates that I could draw on. There was nothing that I could do, that couldn’t be done just as easily by someone who wasn’t me. Added to this, I didn’t know anyone in Melbourne, which though that was part of the reason I had chosen to move there, it did make it harder for me, not having some kind of support network.
I managed to get interviews with some labour agencies. This turned out to be a bitter pill. They would offer me work, and I would take it, but it would never last longer than a couple of days. Factories would be behind in their quotas, and would hire an extra person for a day until the numbers were back on target. I would unload shipping containers in warehouses, pack bags of onions, ready dental supplies, but once the work was done, that was it. This was different to what I was used to in Sydney where I would go to a place for a day, and wind up being there for six months.
The worst place was a factory that made pillows and quilted mattresses. I went out there numerous times, but never for more two days in a row. The place had three shifts, and stayed open twenty four hours. Apart from one occasion though, I was only ever called out to work the night shift. This started at 11:30pm and ran through the night until 6:30am. This would have been fine, but I would only get the call to go in for the shift around 9pm when a machine broke down, or they were behind their quotas. Sometimes I hadn’t worked in a week, and would jump at the chance of something. Other times I’d have spent that day working for someone else, but felt I couldn’t refuse because of all the loadings that were added to the wage.
Loadings, the government required an employer compensate someone for coming in at such hours. That was because of the havoc it wrecked on someone’s family’s life. I always wondered how many union workers had to get their skulls busted to get that law through. It was at times like that I was thankful to all unions had done, and felt the most guilty that I had never joined one.
I was never prepared for the night work, always getting the call out of the blue. I would work in a haze. The machines were noisy, and I had to wear ear plugs. The workers came from a mix of nationalities, many didn’t have English as their first language. Conversation was impossible over the din anyway, and the machine operators would communicate to us through a series of whistles and hand gestures, such as a thumbs up.
The work was brutal only in that it was repetitive. Sometimes, we would have to sticker bags the entire time. You would put on sticker after sticker, your mind would go numb, but checking your watch, you’d find only five minutes had passed. You’d have to control your mind like a Buddhist. Count the minutes to the next break. You got ten minutes at 1:45am. Half an hour at 4am.
It was then I could read my copy of ‘Where I’m calling From’ by Raymond Carver. I’d sit in the lunch room reading as a game of football played on the tv on the wall. Outside the air would be still. While I read, I drank instant coffee so I’d be alert enough not to crash my car into a pole driving home at 6:30.
I had read Carver before, but there was something about reading him at 4am in a factory, that let the work loom larger than it ever had before. ‘Where I’m calling from’ covered the span of his life’s work. It takes in the famously, tightly edited works from collections such as ‘Will you please be quiet, please,’ through to a series of stories that featured in the New Yorker and were not included in any other collection.
Each one of those stories was perfect, at least viewed through the sleep depraved, tired brain of someone working through the night.
There is considerable debate in writing circles, whether Carver’s early editor, Gordon Lish was correct in his heavy editing of the stories he was given. For an example of the depth of the cuts, one need only look at the New Yorker before and after version of ‘what we talk about when we talk about love.’ I don’t know myself how to feel on the debate. What exists is what exists. I love the heavily edited stories, but I also love the stories that came later, when Carver was such a force that no one could dictate to him what to leave in and out.
It’s hard to pick favourites in the collection. I used to have favourites. ‘Collectors’, where a man who is unemployed is visited by a vacuum cleaner salesman who has come to speak to a Mrs. Slater. Though it is clear that the man is unrelated at all to the former occupant, and is unable to buy a vacuum cleaner, even if he wanted to, the salesman proceeds to go through the complete demonstration. Another which I have read so many times, that I have worn the shine off it, is ‘Nobody said Anything’ where a young boy skips off school to go fishing in a creek.
These two stories were both from his first collection, ‘will you please be quiet, please,’ and one would think that I was biased towards his early work, but a night shift in a pillow factory is a great leveller. I fed off each and every story there, particular the later ones, some of which I’d never read before.
They say Carver’s work descends from Chekov, I don’t know exactly what this means, I think it means how Carver presents short scenes from lives without trying to pass judgement on them. His characters have lived tough lives, and often find themselves in tough situations, but they are normal people. In a ‘small, good thing,’ a baker who works sixteen hours a day, harasses a couple with crank phone calls after they fail to show up to collect a birthday cake, only to find that their son was killed in a hit and run, and they had been at the hospital by his side until he finally lapsed. In the titular story, two alcoholics talk on the veranda of a drying out clinic.
I don’t know what it was, but I held onto that book like a raft during those shifts at the factory. No matter how tired I was, how much my shoulders started to hurt, I would have the comfort of those stories to reach for.
Just as no good time lasts forever though, no bad time lasts either. I was eventually able to find a better situation. My love of Carver however, never dimmed. He only lived to 50. I wonder if he ever knew how great a story teller he was. There is no great honour in being post humous recognition. I can only hope that somehow he tweaked to the fact that he would join the ranks of the great 20th century short story writers.