This article originally appeared on VICE CA.
One summer I worked for a carpenter building decks. I wasn’t very good at the job and I undoubtedly built some of the worst decks in and around the Peterborough, Ontario area. I did learn a lot though: hammering, sawing, drilling, and a deeper appreciation of classic rock than I thought possible.
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned happened on a hot afternoon in Oshawa. One of my university friends was working as part of the crew, and we reached a dull moment. There was a pause in the work because we were waiting for something blue-collar (paint drying, concrete setting; something like that) to happen and until it did there was nothing, truly nothing, to do. In this time, because I am at heart a good boy who feared getting yelled at by the boss, I found a task both inane and pointless: attempting to organize our permanently disorganized van.
My friend, however, was a child of privilege and possessed a child of privilege’s work ethic. He thought this lull in work was a perfect opportunity for a nap in the van. It was precisely in this moment that the person who was paying for the job came to check out the site and saw my drowsy colleague taking a snooze. My friend was let go the next day.
It was then I learned the most important lesson of work. Never be bored, or more accurately, never look bored. You will be bored. You will be completely and utterly bereft of tasks, trapped in an amber of mundanity, feeling each and every second that falls off your lifespan like dandruff as you stare in the abyss. But you must appear to keep working. It’s like the old expression: if you stare into the abyss long enough you are going to have to polish it.
I was fortunate with that job. For the most part, it was satisfying. I learned skills, I got to see the product of my labour (bad decks!), and I had some real nice forearms, all muscly and veiny. The rest of my employment history until this year was spent in the service industry where boredom can feel less like a pause and more like a long dip into a bath made of the futility of one’s own life. This is meant as no disrespect, as we now exist in an economy where the only growth employment outside of crypto-facist tech firms seems to be working the till at cold-pressed juice joints and ice cream sandwich shops and hoping you can get a job at the Uniqlo that’s opening in the mall. I always found that the particular fiendishness of boredom in a service job is how much time you get to really contemplate how much the job is beneath you as a human, how severe the contrast is between the dignity you deserve and the meaningless monotony of whatever time-killing task—sweeping, organizing and reorganizing shelves, needlessly wiping down a wall—you find yourself doing.
So, in much belated honor of May Day, I walked around my neighbourhood to see how people in the service industry were handling their battle against the second most nefarious enemy of workers outside of the pernicious ownership class: inescapable, soul-crushing boredom.
The first place I went into was a Shoppers Drug Mart where I learned If you work for a large chain you cannot acknowledge that you are bored. I met a woman who had taken a PhD in labour studies but was now dusting a keyboard. I asked her what she did when she was bored at work. She responded that she couldn’t really talk about it but when I pressed a little harder, she smiled grimly, held up her duster and said, “You’re looking at it.”
I went into a completely empty Wine Rack. After regretfully turning down some wine samples in tiny paper cups (I am nothing if not a professional) I asked her what she did when she was bored at work and was given a curt, “I’ll have to talk to my manager,” in response. In the Dufferin Mall David’s Tea, the two employees who were unpacking a seemingly endless number of boxes of tea told me they aren’t allowed to be bored.
As I continued through the mall, a guy at the Freedom Mobile kiosk told me they had just been told to stay off their phones but at least they were allowed to walk around.
“Oh, like around the mall?” I asked.
“No, like around the kiosk,” he responded. The kiosk was roughly eight feet from one end to the other.
Then there were the boredom deniers; the gung-ho workers who always find something to do, the fervent true believers in work ethic, beautiful souls that are able to find something special in even the most rote work. God bless them and their fastidiousness. A very sweet young woman in an indie donut shop told me she always finds something to do, that it’s a question of work ethic and whether you are there to work or if it’s just a job to you. She, obviously, was a supervisor. An older cashier at another pharmacy looked annoyed by my question, almost defiant to the idea of the possibility of being bored. She told me there’s a lot to do and when I asked if she always finds something to do, she responded tersely, “I do,” a note of pride in her voice.
There was nobody I met that I would describe as slacking. There was woman in a one of those hip yarn stores who was online shopping for benches for her apartment but in her defense a) the store was pristine (also, I have no idea how these yarn stores stay open, I assume they are all fronts for people selling illegal wheatgrass out the back) and b) those online benches are not going to buy themselves.
More representative of the people I encountered was a barista named Lisa who told me she was about to study which is usually what she does when she finishes her List. Oh yes, The List. I remember clearly my list from my own coffee shop days. I assume most jobs have them. That list of quotidian tasks you keep in your head: polish, scrub, try to clean the tracks of the clear doors of whatever shelving unit you keep your baked goods on but realize the torturous, Sisyphean nature of the task when your efforts just end in a big clump of cookie crumbs in one corner of the tracks. It’s not really a list of things you must get done. It’s more a bargaining between you and the boss that exists in your head; that internalized representative of the Agnostic Work Ethic who will decide when you are released from the obligations of your paymaster and can return to the things that matter to you. It’s the list that, if accomplished, you feel would protect you from your boss’ wrath should they walk in and see you on your phone.
I was surprised how few people told me they went on their phone. I assume most people do but the only one who copped to it was a barista who told me when it was slow, he goes to the bathroom to go on his phone. Ah, the bathroom. That putrid oasis. How many of us have fled to its sanctuary regardless of whether a bowel movement was near or not? To anyone not to the wise, perhaps a naïve plutocrat of some sort, it would seem that the workforce is filled with weak bladders and unreliable colons, unashamed about taking mind-bogglingly long dumps at work. My favorite part about going to the bathroom at work is when you get back on the floor and the manager asks where you were and you respond, “The bathroom,” a note of defiance in your voice, as if to say, “Go ahead, ask if I was really, actually taking a shit in there. You don’t have the guts.”
I was most impressed by the ways people would scrape a little bit of pleasure out of their workday like getting resin from a completely cashed pipe. A woman who worked in a toy store, (who was unloading things from boxes; this sojourn reminded me that 90 percent of working in the service industry is opening or folding boxes), told me that when it was really, really, completely dead, she and her colleagues would figure out how to play one of the board games. My favorite response was from a guy working in one of those protein shops for fitness-types who told me that in between “getting existential” with his manager, when it was completely dead, he would get on the ground and do some push-ups, maybe a couple of crunches. He then explained to me what DPA is—daily physical activity—and asked if I was getting enough of it and maybe he is just really good at his job because now I want to get ripped so bad and am thinking about getting some of that protein stuff that make your arms grow.
There were two interactions that linger. I talked to a man in a completely empty, hip clothing store. He talked about how he would just stare out onto the street, either from in the store or on the bench just outside, how he wouldn’t describe himself as thinking, it was more like an out of body experience. I know well this sensation. Your sense of self is obliterated by the sheer emptiness of the moment. You depart from body as it becomes a mere flesh-composed vessel for time to flow through. The only remainder of you is a primordial urge to be outside, to be reunited with your ability to engage with the world on your own terms instead of being trapped, just watching yourself die in a room that you don’t want to be in.
Then there was the man alone in a Dominos. Annoyed by the question, he gestured around the flour-covered pizza shop before perfectly summing up an economy that has left so many in meaningless employment, that leaves 50-year-old people spending their days sweeping popcorn off the floor of a goddamn Kernels, that promises opportunity and freedom but delivers precariousness and mundanity. He looked at me and said, “We don’t have time to be free.”
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