Thursday, February 16, 2012

The commute

I've never fancied myself as a commuter. I don't even like the sound of the word let alone what it actually means. Like an automaton heading out in the early morning through the sea of peak hour traffic and jostling crowds, onward to the production line of city humanity. Spending an hour and a half travelling purposefully to get to the land of generic workstations and artificial light. Somehow thousands of people doing exactly the same type of thing simultaneously lubricates the wheels of industry that our city lives are built on. Even though I only have a few weeks or months of this to contemplate, after a year of remote working from outback Australia, it feels daunting and more than a little depressing. I'm trying to remind myself it's only a couple of short term consultancy gigs in the Melbourne CBD. And I do need the loot. At least I think I do. I'm almost finished up now with the American company I've been involved with for the better part of a decade. Contracts have been terminated and the notice period is now almost within its last fortnight. Most of the journey with them has been filled with good times, exotic travel, friends and laughter. But changing circumstances have soured things. And even with an uncertain future of unknown income, I'm looking forward to it all being over and moving on to the next chapter of my working life. Whatever that may be. There seem to be a number of possibilities, but at times I feel a little like the guy who has just split up with his girlfriend and finds that the several alternate girls who seemed available at the time have somehow disappeared, or not been quite what they seemed. One thing I know for sure is that I won't be looking for a permanent open ended position within a large enterprise housed high in a city tower block.

In 1995, prior to having any kids to think about, Tori and I spent ten months travelling around Europe and through the Middle East in a VW Transporter pop top campervan. I'd finished up a contract at British Telecom and Tori quit her London city job that she commuted to everyday, two hours from our apartment in Brighton. Unlike this recent Australian trip where (despite people's continued disbelief) I actually worked, on that trip there was no work at all for ten months. Gloriously none at all. The closest I came to any sort of work on the voyage was when we were on our way across Europe back towards England and I decided I should try and find an IT contract somewhere. The possibilities seemed at that stage to be working in either Stockholm or London. The times were good, the economies strong and corporations were throwing buckets full of money at IT people who could help them with the computer industry's own version of the Emperor's New Clothes; the dreaded Y2k bug. Halcyon days! Going to Sweden excited us both greatly and I hoped that that opportunity would come through. That we could drive straight ahead through Germany rather than having to turn left. But the project got canned and so London it was. Tori really didn't want to go back to England. While she wasn't quite dragged along kicking and screaming, she could quite happily have left and not set foot back there again for a long long time. And so it came to be that from a camping ground on the outskirts of Rome, fuelled by a couple of bottles of lunchtime chianti, I got to brazenly negotiate my rate for a job that I didn't really want to do in a place that I didn't particularly want to go to. Financially the result was excellent. On a day to day basis it involved commuting from our very nice rented home in Camden Town to the financial district in London, taking my place in the IT department of a large bureaucratic European bank. That's where we, the system support people, had to do daily battles with our apparently sworn arch enemy, the application support people. I couldn't quite get it as it seemed quite apparent to me that really we were all on the same side. On my first day there after my extended layoff of lunchtime wines and afternoon siestas, I watched people standing around and arguing about a report that should have been automatically delivered but wasn't. It reminded me immediately of how in such working environments the suspension of disbelief needs to be greater than for the most farfetched of fantasy films. The ability to believe that the most ridiculously trivial tasks and events are actually in someway important. The job never really got any better than that and essentially served the purpose  of reminding me what it was like to have a job that I hated going to every day. It wasn't a difficult job in any way. Or oppressive. Or too physical. Or any kind of hardship that I know exists significantly more in most other types of jobs. So I'm not seeking any sympathy. But what it was was mind-numbingly boring. Watching the clock edge agonisingly slowly towards 5.30 at which time I could escape with relief out the door. It felt like torture. Trying to find something during the day to work on that was in any way interesting seemed totally elusive to me. In London terms I lived relatively close to where I worked, but it still took me 45 minutes to get there if I travelled by public transport. It only took me 20 minutes however to ride my bike. I bought myself a London cycle map that had all the bike paths marked in. The ones considered scenic were highlighted in green. I thought this was a great chance to explore some nice parts of London that I didn't know and decided one day to take the route marked as scenic that headed along the canal out of Camden and through the back of Islington. As I rode further along the waterway the surrounds became increasingly bleak. I'd left the bustle of Camden Lock and only several hundred metres away I was in a place that seemed devoid of any movement. And considering that essentially I was in the middle of one of the world's most densely populated cities, it seemed isolated and somehow remote. The feeling came over me that bodies had probably been fished out of the water in this "scenic" part of London over the years and that maybe the bike map cartographer had a particularly twisted sense of humour. I sensed rather than saw a couple of people sitting on the bench seat a little off the track. And just as I passed them I felt a thump as a rock crashed into my helmet adorned head. Stunned, I turned to see a fist waving woman with a can of Tenants Special Brew in the other hand shrieking "you were fucken' lucky to be wearing a helmet". I was so shocked I couldn't react in any way other than to ride on. It seems that the fact that I was wearing city office clothes was enough to offend some people. My bike commute reverted to the more conventional weaving in and out of stationery London traffic after that. Or indeed the longer journey of public transport. Jammed against fellow commuters on the Northern Line. In fact the tube service is very good in London. Especially compared with transport services in Melbourne. The trains are in fact so frequent that when arriving on the platform to see that the next train is as far away as eight minutes, it seems like a personal affront. What am I possibly going to do to occupy myself for a whole eight minutes? I'm not sure what my hurry was when the place I was going to was considerably more boring than waiting for a train and had many more hours to fill with some inane activity or another. One day while I was surfing the net, I decided to fill in some time by checking out life insurance options on an online insurance company's instant quote website. Tori was pregnant with our first child and it seemed that life insurance was something you were supposed to have. I filled in the online form with all my details and got my quote. I wondered what the quote would be if I took the policy out for 35 years instead of 25, trying to work out how long I might actually live for if I had to do this job for the rest of my life. And then what would be the cost if I said I was a smoker. After all, does a casual partaker of spliffs count as a smoker? Probably only if there's some way that smoking can be linked to the death I guess. "He was run over on the way back from the shop where he bought a pack of rizlas"? Anyway, the damn online form kept on resetting itself completely when you went back to fill it in for a subsequent quote. All the details had to be reentered every time. Name. Address. Phone. Date of birth. Partner details. Do you smoke. List all medical history etc. etc. I couldn't be bothered with all that and just wanted the numbers, so I pasted the word "bollocks" into every field of the form. It could have been any word at all, but strangely that was the one that came to mind when I was confronted once again with a completely reset form. The quotes were all delivered fine so it all seemed the same to me. But that is not quite how the machinations of industry in the world of fabricated importance actually work. It seems that somebody received an email from the form and it appeared that I was saying "bollocks" to them. They were quite offended by this and so with a little forensic investigation, discovered that the IP address from which I had entered their website, belonged to the large bank I was stationed at. And more precisely, could be accurately traced down to the very desk that I sat at within that organisation. I was summonsed to my contract agency's office and told that this trail of indignation had led all the way up to the desk of the IT Director who, on discovering the troublemaker was a contractor, passed the information on to the agency. It was agreed that it was best if I finished up then and there some two weeks prior to the full term of my six month contract. I couldn't believe the petty circumstances with which this had occurred but also couldn't believe my luck. Hooray! It was over. I pretty much danced and sang my way down from Finsbury Square to Leadenhall Street to collect my things and to let my colleagues know that I was finishing right now and leaving them behind. I already was scheduled to start a new contract back down in Brighton as soon as this one finished, so now had a two week holiday before my new job commenced. I immediately went home, got on to the net and found two cheap flights leaving the next day to the beautiful tropical island paradise of Tobago, down in the Caribbean. I think my postcard back to the folk in the office started with "I'm lying here in the February sun sipping on an ice cold beer and contemplating whether to have the lobster or the crab for dinner".

Having not done the commute or city job for so long, it is always a shock to step back into that fabricated world. A friend in New York once told me that there were people there who commuted two and a half hours each way every day to get to Manhattan. I find that incredible. How do you have any sort of life outside of work? I just don't have the energy for it. Leaving home around 7.30 and getting home after 7 in the evening sucks. I'm so knackered when I get back that all I can do is eat dinner and fall on the couch. I have a few more months of this to fill up the coffers and then that's it. I might have to get the veggies growing out the back and cut down eating meat to only once a month, but at least I'll be able to spend more time around the house and with my family. Even if they are all a bit hungry.

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