Out of Something, Nothing: My Summer as a Professional Mover
July 13, 2013 1 Comment
One summer, I worked as a professional mover. It was a terrible experience. It was the worst job I’ve ever had. I worked unpredictable hours for little pay, doing nothing but carrying heavy stuff in and out of house during the middle of an intolerable Ohio summer. My coworkers were some of the most unapologetically racist and sexist people I’ve ever encountered. I constantly heard and saw things that made my opinion of the human race plummet to an all-time low. My principles were challenged to the point where I couldn’t rely on any sociological rationale to temper my extreme dislike of the people I was forced to work with. I was also bothered by the fact that I seemed to want the approval of the very people whose sleazy machismo and superannuated racial paranoia made me both depressed and homicidal.
But that being said, it was true that I took that job because it met very loose my criteria for employment. I am a huge fan of the book Gig and its legendary forbear Working by Studs Terkel. I love the books’ behind-the-scenes accounts of hundreds of different jobs. Every single one of the essays is fascinating because the reality they describe is fascinating: every day, millions of working people experience a world unknown to anyone except their coworkers. There are rules, jokes, entire cultures that exist only as part of specific jobs. It is no surprise to me that jobs can afford some sort of, dare I say, ‘enjoyment,’ and these books reinforces my notion that there is too much to see and experience to have only one job for the rest of your life. What’s it like to be a carpenter? An office worker? A third-shift maintenance man in a hotel? If I have to work (at least for now!), why should it be in just one field?
Thus, when I saw the ad that a moving company was hiring, I applied because it was as good a job as any. I knew it would be physical work, which was good because I wanted to stay in shape, but further than that I didn’t give it much thought. I figured I could put up with anything for the sake of learning something new. I figured I wouldn’t mind a job I didn’t like for the sake of living a Terkelian essay. I fancied myself a keen observer, a reporter of real life on assignment in real life. I figured that, at the very least, a random job will at least inspire an entertaining piece of nonfiction. My sincere interest in every facet of the world would be indulged, this time in the world of professional movers.
Indulged it was. Everything about the job was foreign to me, from my average coworker’s consistently mean-spirited behavior to the benign mechanics of how a moving service operates. I’d never done work that physically challenged me to such a degree and I’d never been physically threatened by someone at work before this job. I got tipped $100 on a single move, I saw dangerously unclean homes, and a coworker tried to claim a memorable scene from the movie Goodfellas as one from his own life. I worked in a job where fights were tolerated on company ground and where it wasn’t uncommon for you to go home with a discarded china cabinet or sleeper sofa or other big-ticket item. I learned that there really are people who eat the breakfast taquitos spinning under heat lamps in gas stations and that people will have you move their loose collection of guns as readily as a box of clothes. I learned some job-specific slang and saw a guy be mean to an old lady because we had to go to the next job and he didn’t want to waste time with an unscheduled piece of furniture. I laughed (once or twice), I almost cried, and I was constantly enraged. In the same way that someone indirectly insults you by saying they like your hair/shirt/you because it’s “um, unique…,” so too was this summer very, very “unique.”
I came across the job in a weekly employment guide. I’d already applied to a handful of jobs that summer but nothing had come of it. (Aside from the Terkelian sociological imperative of trying a variety of jobs, I actually needed to work for the sake of making money.) The erotic phone service supervisor told me, incredulous, Sir, we’re looking for women to answer phones. Then I saw the quarter-page ad for a moving company, hiring immediately. I noted that the company was a local company and not some huge corporation, a bonus that put my delicate scruples at ease and further convinced me to apply. OK, I thought, I’ll check it out. I filled out an application, waited the obligatory few days before checking in, and was soon thereafter offered a position.
My friends celebrated my new job. “You’re a mover? Ha! Moving sucks! Why would you want to do that every day?” In the time it took to laugh at me, I realized they were right. “Movers needed for business and residential moves,” read the ad. It was in plain language – I would be moving houses and businesses, up to fifty-five hours a week (according to the guy that hired me). I’d moved a number of times myself, and it wasn’t fun at all. Why didn’t I realize this?
But it honestly wasn’t the hard work itself that would ultimately wear me out. What I also should have realized was that any job where strength and stamina are required produces a very specific type of relationship between coworkers. This was clear to me as soon as I set foot in the warehouse for my initial interview, where the hiring manager constantly interrupted me in an attempt to gain the psychological upper hand. He was already twice my size, frowning, and interviewing me for a job – how hard did he really think he had to try to intimidate me?
He was condescending and smarmy, and he was never without a sneer that bespoke utter disdain for “pussies.” He made a point to explain that coffee was a ‘diuretic,’ using the word to demonstrate his expertise in all matters concerning physical labor and as a way to show he was smarter than me by using a science word. Perhaps it was his military training (he made sure I knew he was a Marine right away) that programmed his psyche into thinking that some sort of dominance has to be established in every interaction because he didn’t just act this way during the interview. He was always making odd, insulting jokes towards other employees, laughing haughtily or acting totally disinterested when someone tried to talk to him, or pretending that any question addressed to him was a huge burden to answer even though he was supposed to be an approachable boss. The only mental control I felt that he had over me was that he made me want to start yelling at him for sustaining that kind of personality out of the millions of choices available to him. “Get over yourself!” I would think, “Just enjoy your life! You’ll feel better by being pleasant!”
Yes, it does seem contradictory to implore someone to just enjoy his life considering the litany of complaints that follows, but it just seemed that choosing to be at odds with everybody you meet defies the basic human impulse for happiness. The illogic of it was maddening. But things can get really ugly when confrontation-seeking macho bluster is not used as a weapon but as a way to bond. Auras of masculinity seem to feed off of each other and grow, prodding a game of crass one-upmanship that would be comical if it weren’t so demeaning to basically everyone on Earth. For example, this is how my first day went, recounted with no exaggeration or embellishment whatsoever:
I showed up, parked in the wrong lot, got stared down uncomfortably as a result, and was given an over-sized work shirt before being whisked as part of a three-man crew to the house of this lady who kept all of the appliances she owned in the last ten years. She had a collection of at least five washing machines, four ovens, and three fridges (and more!) in addition to the appliances currently in use. That first move was a good way to plunge into the reality of the job, which was essentially to chip away at mountains of heavy stuff that show no sign of decreasing no matter how hard and fast you work. It was also my first introduction to the bafflingly reflexive sexism and racism of my average coworker. The client had the misfortune of being a woman and black in these situation, which led to an explosion of backwoods insanity that began as soon as it possibly could. One guy, the son of the owner, in fact, used obsolete and eternally inappropriate words when talking about the latter characteristic, and while the other guy didn’t use any of the usual racist language, he did think her race lent itself to certain sexual proclivities, which both workers loudly expounded upon in startling detail. Their concupiscent howling echoed in the back of the moving truck and left me mortified that I would be associated with such idiocy. I was offended and completely stunned that there were actually people who still thought like that. Fortunately, she didn’t seem to hear them as she was very friendly to us the whole time we were there, going as far as to buy us lunch and tip us. I thought it possible that she was just biding her time, putting on a happy face until she snuck up and shot us, an action for which I wouldn’t have blamed her.
(Let me quickly clarify two things. First, I understand the privileged position I’m when it comes to talking about going from job to job. I don’t have a family or serious debt or anything like that and I recognize that some people are trapped in jobs they don’t like because they have no choice. I don’t mean to demean them, nor do I mean to demean the people of Gig and Working by treating their experiences as mere entertainment. The books are filled with heartbreak and hardships of all sorts and I’m not trying to gloss over that aspect of the books by any means. Secondly, I worked for one moving company for one summer. It’s impossible to thoroughly know everyone I met, so please don’t take this as a definitive rant about the moving industry, the local moving companies, or every single mover in the trade. The racism and sexism and homophobia were absolutely repulsive and inexcusable but fortunately not everyone was like that. I did meet a lot of really terrible people who happened to be movers, but I met a lot of cool people too.)