Out of Something, Nothing: My Summer as a Professional Mover

I.

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, and did little more than carry heavy stuff in and out of houses 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, and I couldn’t rely on any sociological rationale to temper my 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 superannuated machismo and racial paranoia made me alternately depressed and homicidal.

That being said, I took that job because it met my very loose criteria for employment. I am a huge fan of the book Working by Studs Terkel. I love the book’s behind-the-scenes accounts of hundreds of different jobs. Every day, millions of working people live in a world entirely unknown to anyone except their coworkers. There are rules, jokes, entire subcultures that exist around any. To me, Terkel’s books reinforced the notion that there is too much to see and experience to have only one job for the rest of your life. If I had to work, why should it be in just one field? I made it my lot to try as many different jobs as I could. What’s it like to be a carpenter? An office worker? A third-shift maintenance man in a hotel? (I would later find out – these are all jobs I’ve had throughout the years.)

Thus, when I saw 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 great because I wanted to stay in shape, but further than that I didn’t give the job much thought. I figured I could put up with anything for the sake of learning something new. I fancied myself a keen observer, a reporter of real life on assignment in real life. As long as I had to work, I might as well indulge my curiosity.

Indulged it was. Everything about the job was foreign to me, from my coworkers’ 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 threatened with violence on the job. I got tipped $100 on a single move, I saw dangerously unclean homes, and a coworker claimed a scene from Goodfellas as one from his own life. I worked for a business that tolerated fights on company ground and where it wasn’t uncommon for you to go home with a discarded sleeper sofa or other big-ticket item. I learned that there really are people who eat the breakfast taquitos spinning under gas station heat lamps and that people will have you move their loose collection of guns as readily as a box of clothes. I learned a lot of job-specific slang and saw a coworker yell at an old lady because he didn’t want to waste time with an unscheduled piece of furniture. I laughed (once or twice), I almost cried, and I was always baffled. 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 with no success. (Aside from the Terkelian sociological imperative of trying a variety of jobs, I needed to earn money too.) The erotic phone service supervisor told me, annoyed, Sir, we’re looking for women to answer phones. Then I saw the quarter-page ad for a moving company. They were local and hiring immediately. OK, I thought, I’ll check it out. I filled out an application and was soon 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?” I realized they were right. “Movers needed for business and residential moves,” said the ad. 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 that would ultimately wear me out. What I also should have realized was that any job where strength is a virtue 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 promptly began interrupting or ignoring 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 wimps. He made a point to explain that coffee was a ‘diuretic,’ using the word to demonstrate his expertise in all aspects of physical labor, and as a way to show he was smarter than me by using a science word. He was always making odd, insulting jokes towards other employees, acted totally disinterested when someone tried to talk to him, or pretended every question he was asked was a huge burden to answer. The only mental control I felt that he had over me was that he made me want to start yelling at him for adopting that personality out of the millions available to him. “Get over yourself!” I would think. “Just enjoy your life! You’ll feel better by being pleasant!”

But things can get really ugly when macho bluster is not used as a challenge but as a way to bond. 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 whisked as part of a three-man crew to the house of a 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 in addition to the appliances currently in use. That first move introduced me to the reality of the job, which was essentially chipping 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 this situation, which led to an explosion of backwoods insanity that began as soon as it possibly could. Their howling echoed in the back of the moving truck and left me mortified that I would be associated with such idiocy (to say nothing of being worried about the state of the world). I was completely stunned that there were actually people who still thought like that. Fortunately, she didn’t seem to hear them. She was very friendly the whole time we were there, going as far as to buy us lunch and tip us. I thought maybe 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. I left that day wondering what I’d gotten myself into.

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One Response to Out of Something, Nothing: My Summer as a Professional Mover

  1. Ali says:

    Can’t wait to read part 2!

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