(Image shows hotel room signs reading ‘Please service room thank you’ and ‘DO NOT DISTURB thank you’.)
This is a short story I wrote a long time ago about being a hotel cleaner. Never has the phrase ‘It’s always about the dishes, but it’s never about the dishes’ been more relevant.
At school I had low expectations for myself. Or at least, I would only admit to aspirations that were unquestionably achievable. I would never have guessed I could become a Hotel Cleaner. When I was accepted into Room Attendant training everything changed. I opened the letter and the words ‘Congratulations. Accepted’ floated up from the page and danced. It was a rosy, sparkling, world-as-oyster kind of day.
Six years later and technically, I’m living the dream.
I shove my trolley and let it go. It galumphs forward and comes to rest exactly parallel to the wall, a centimetre away from it. I grab my blue cleaning bucket and rubbish bag. My first room is Room 305, a King Deluxe. I feel good. This room will be perfect.
I knock on the door and say ‘Housekeeping.’ No sounds from inside. I say, ‘Housekeeping’ again. There is still no noise so I grab my key from my pocket and slide it in and out of the slot. I say, ‘Housekeeping’ one more time as I push the door open slowly.
I have learned to be cautious. One day I barged in on a scene. I remember the bouncing breasts, gasps, before I turned and ran back to the corridor where a dreadful sense of incompetence came over me.
From the silence and the darkness Room 305 is empty. Unless there’s a dead person. It happens all the time on the news, and we’ve been trained in what to do, but so far I’ve been lucky.
Certain that I’m not interrupting a living person I push my light card into the slot and the lamps switch on. I prop the door open with the doorstop and look around
the room. It’s messy but there’s no luggage. It’s definitely Vacant Dirty.
I picture Cameron leaning on the doorframe and saying, ‘You really brought the sparkle to this room.’
Inspired, I surge to work. I flush the toilet. I spray the sink with cleaning fluid. I pick up all the towels and pile them near the bathroom doorway. I pick up the detritus of hygiene – the used shampoos, shower cap and soap, abandoned toothbrushes – and throw them in the bathroom bin. I remove the bin liner and put it in my large rubbish bag outside the bathroom door. I spray the shower with cleaner and I tip blue liquid around the rim of the thankfully unstained toilet.
When I’m cleaning a toilet I find it hard to believe that room attending is a respected profession. Although I suppose doctors deal with bodily fluids too, and that used to be a respected profession.
I grab the mop from the linen cart outside and rinse it from the tap in the bath, squeezing out the water. The mop head is dirty and needs changing. I lean it against the wall.
I scoop up the towels from the floor and carry them into the main room and dump them on the bed.
Starting at the door I move in an anti-clockwise circle tidying around the room. I remove all non-hotel-standard materials and place hotel-standard objects in position. I turn on all the lights. I pick up pieces of rubbish.
I go to the bed. I take off the pillowcases and throw the pillows onto the armchair. I strip the doona and throw it onto the luggage rack. Pulling out its corners I use the under sheet as a sack to gather up all the linen and dirty towels. I take them outside and dump them in the bulging linen cart.
Where is the houseman? Bloody Cameron. Not so brilliant after all.
From my trolley I take a king size sheet and doona cover, and four pillowcases. Back at the bed I throw the sheet out across the bed in one movement. It unfolds midair and lands softly, flatly covering the bed. I move around it tucking in the corners, making sure the sheet stays taught and flat.
Cameron and I were taught how to make beds together in Room Attendant training. He was terrible at first, so slow and nobody thought he would make it. But after two months Sandy, our tutor, was calling him a genius.
Guests think Cameron’s good, but they can’t fully appreciate his work. It’s only Room Attendants who can really understand it. When you change one of his beds the corners are so tight that it’s hard to believe that anyone has slept in the bed. It amazes me.
One day Sandy sent me back to Room 411 to re-sheet the bed. I had been warned that I wasn’t tucking the top of the sheet in properly, but I kept pushing the boundaries of acceptability until I became unacceptable. I was upset about it, I confided in Cameron. He offered to help me. He came back to my house and we practised hospital corners in my room.
My housemate thought he liked me.
I explained to her that going into someone’s bedroom doesn’t mean the same thing for Room Attendants. He really had been tutoring me, it wasn’t a euphemism. But she kept asking about him, her curiosity fuelled my hope.
Taking the doona cover from the chair I flick it out so that it unfolds to flatness in the air. I pick the doona up off the chair. This part I am good at. People are stunned by how quickly I can put a doona cover on. It looks like one fluid motion, but it’s really one step after another ending with tying the four sets of strings at the end into bows. I pull the doona up to the top of the bed, moving around the bed to pull up both sides so that it is even. I imagine I have an audience now. They applaud.
Six months ago, I heard a voice as I bent over the doona cover. ‘No-one gets the bed as flat as you do.’ I jumped, surprised, and turned to the door. Cameron was leaning against the doorframe, but only his shirt touched the door, so he wouldn’t leave marks.
‘Shit! Sorry. You scared me.’ Heart beating. A good thing, but it’s more noticeable than usual.
‘Are you coming to lunch?
‘I was going to finish this room.’
‘I’m going now.’
‘Oh. I’ll come now.’
Other people, thrillingly, noticed. Cassie said, ‘You guys always have lunch together. He doesn’t talk to anyone else.’
‘To be honest I assumed you were going out.’
But then only a couple months later Cameron was kneeling, his body tight and compact, tucking in the corners of Room 703. I’d chosen then to say everything. As he knelt and kept working he said a number of things…delightful – friends – thank-you – flattered… though more pauses than anything else. Embarrassment hits me coldly in the stomach, remembering my fruitlessly, stupidly plucked up courage.
Remembering all of this I hiss, ‘I hate myself.’. I give the doona corner a vicious and unhelpful tug adding contours and folds. I pick up the pillows and pillowcases and hurl them onto the bed. I shove the pillows into the bottom of the cases. I place them two by two at the top of the bed. I move around giving two tugs on each side, fixing my mistakes. I stand back to look.
No-one gets the bed as flat as you.
Trying not to think, I pick up a feather duster and a rag from my trolley and clean around the room in an anti-clockwise direction. I dust every surface. I note spaces where hotel-standard objects are missing. When I see a mark on the wall I use the magic eraser from my pocket to scrub at it. I flick the feather duster behind cupboards. In the mini-bar I turn labels to face the front. The Smirnoff is to the left of the Baileys. Make sure there are three (not two, not four) pieces of notepaper.
There are a thousand tiny rules to follow. Millions of unacceptable variations. To place everything within millimetres of its proper place, to remove all marks and all imperfections, to remember everything while hurtling around the room. Most people can’t do it.
I should feel happy to have reached this standard. But I want more. Cameron and I started training together but he’s the houseman now. Superstar.
Last week I was accepted into Room Attending College, the necessary theoretical component to becoming a professional Hotel Cleaner. I worked so hard for it, my parents are so proud. But yesterday, sitting in the lecture theatre all I could think about was the physicality of Cameron in the chair in front of me. He sat with someone else, and told a story I’d heard before about dusting air-conditioning vents. I could barely breathe.
Sandy began the lecture by saying, ‘What makes a truly great Room Attendant is attention to detail. It may seem impossible to master now but remember that great improvement is possible. Some of the best Room Attendants were incompetent as trainees. For example, Karl Studberg once failed to remove a used condom from the bedside drawer and passed the room as Vacant Inspected.’
Cameron nudged the girl next to him. She giggled.
That stupid simpering bitch!
I return to my trolley. I take one piece of notepaper, one robe, one can of coke, one pen, one envelope, two pairs of slippers, and place these carefully in their place. When I first started I always forgot things and wasted precious time going back to the trolley. Then I developed a system to remember. I counted how many items were needed. That way, when I collected them from the trolley I would know if I’d forgotten anything. Other people started doing it that way too, but no one called me a genius.
I go back to the bathroom. I put on my pink rubber gloves. I pour some cream cleanser onto the abrasive side of my yellow sponge and, with the hot tap running, I scrub the bath and tiles. There is a grimy ring around the bath, I doubt it was scrubbed after the last guest left. Tut tut tut. But then I think, As you’re perfect! God, I’m a bitch.
I spray the mirror with window cleaner and use a clean dry rag to wipe it down. I spray on more chemical and then use the rag to dry the bathroom sink and bench. I spray the silver taps with window cleaner, which makes them shine. I remember the first compliment I ever received from Sandy, she said, ‘You really brought the sparkle to these taps.’ For the next few hours I was awash with excruciatingly pleasant feelings.
I pick up the toilet brush, but don’t bother to scrub much as there is no need. I
I dry the shower thoroughly with my towel. Every drop of water is soaked up, starting by shining the taps, then the walls, then the bath itself. I arrange the shower curtain so that it rests inside the bath.
I return to my trolley piling up two towels, a bath mat, a hand towel, two face washers, two soaps, shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, comb, shower cap, sanitary bag, and a roll of toilet paper. This is all loaded in my arms when I hear a ding from the service lift.
Resting my load against the trolley I turn.
Cameron steps out.
We nod. He says, ‘Your linen cart’s pretty full.’
‘I’m aware of that.’
‘How are your rooms today?’
‘Fine. This one’s pretty messy.’
‘Yeah, well, they stayed for nearly two weeks.’
‘Yeah, I know.’ But I hadn’t noticed, hadn’t read the information on my board. That explains the dirty bath. Cameron has remembered the occupancy of a room he’s not even cleaning.
‘Could you bring me a new mop head?’
‘Whatever. Just soon would be good.’
Cameron moves to the linen cart and pushes it to the lift. I stalk back into the room. My hands shake a little as I position the soaps and shampoo. I hear Cameron transferring the dirty linen from the cart into lift. Then he pushes the empty linen cart back outside the door. I expect him to come back, look around, notice that my dusting has been particularly thorough. He used to make a point of complimenting me, in a mentoring kind of way. Perhaps I’ve disappointed him, not lived up to what he thought I could be.
But fuck that! He’s only two years older than me and we started training at the same time. We’re both in training college now. Why should I be under his wing? I won’t be patronized.
I fold towels. I position the bathmat and facecloths. I shine the bathroom door handle. I’m wasting time because I’m expecting him back. Eventually, I put my head out and see an empty corridor. He must have used the stairs. A moment passes then the rage. How dare he ignore me.
I’m shaking a bit as I pick up the bucket and wet rags and take them out of the bathroom, leaving only the mop. I go and get the vacuum cleaner and drag it into the room. You are such a stupid bitch, I think as I plug it in. Why would he want to talk to me? I’m horrible to him. I’m horrible. I adore him.
I vacuum furiously jabbing the vacuum under the bed as far as it will go. There is flaky dead skin and a big toenail near the edge of the bed. I carefully move the slippers near the bed to vacuum under them. There are spots on the carpet. I fetch the carpet cleaner and spray it on. After it turns white I jerkily suck at it with the pipe attachment. I vacuum the bathroom. Slurping up hairs lying in puddles of water. I turn the vacuum off and roll the cord up.
Cameron still hasn’t come back, I use the dirty mop head to mop the bathroom floor. I hang the mop back on the cart.
I step into the room for one last inspection. Room 305 is not a masterpiece. As I look at the carpet I see a spot I missed. The slippers aren’t parallel after I moved them to vacuum. There is a streak in the corner of the bedroom mirror, a mark on one of the walls. I can’t fix it all, I’ve already spent 31 minutes on this room, three minutes over schedule. I yank out my light key, take out the doorstop and leave the room knowing that I don’t deserve applause.
Cameron is standing near my trolley with a new, too late, mop head.
‘Thanks,’ I say, trying to be friendly, feeling guilty from before.
‘No worries. It’s my job.’
He’s so casual, so successful. Every day he receives shiny baubles of praise and recognition that add to his magnificence. He wears his confidence like a halo. My chest tightens with the old feelings, but I don’t know if it’s jealousy or love.
(Image shows a jar of Nescafe, kettle and two mugs)
You might think that a hot beverage with a maximum of four ingredients (coffee, water, milk, sugar) and which only requires three implements to make (kettle, spoon, cup) would be hard to get wrong. But guess what? There are lots of ways to fail at making the perfect cup of instant coffee. Here are the common mistakes that people make, which you won’t after reading this.
Adding the hot water before the milk
For the love of God, when making a white coffee, please mix the milk and coffee together first. Dissolving the granules of coffee into the milk means they won’t feel scared when the hot water is poured from the kettle. Frightened coffee equals yucky coffee and a ruined day, so please protect your coffee’s emotional well-being with a milky blanket.
Using white sugar
Nothing says ‘I have no class’ like pure white crystals. What you want is tan-coloured lumpy raw sugar. As well as oozing sophistication, raw sugar is a healthier option because it hasn’t been cooked, which is the only thing that makes sugar bad for you.
Using the wrong mug
This is subjective. Everybody draws the line in a different place, but it’s important that you stay behind your own. For me, the green mug with pictures of candy canes and santas is a bridge too far. If candy cane santas is the only mug left in the cupboard I will give it to a visitor or wash something else for myself. I know this seems drastic but you will not be able to enjoy your delicious coffee if it is presented in the mug that makes you think ‘Not that mug. I hate that mug’.
Spooning International Roast into a Nescafe jar
You fool no-one and you will probably lose all your friends and die alone. I know people think I live in a gilded cage of privilege and to that I say squawk. But even from my diamond encrusted perch I can understand that not everyone can afford Nescafe Gold. And I believe that some people actually prefer the brands they purchase in bulk from cut price foreign supermarkets. And that is fine. As long as you are up front about it.
And put the milk in first.
(The image shows a badly drawn love heart with ‘I heart PT’ written inside’)
I once thought that it would be Fun to see Casablanca at the Moonlight Cinemas in the Botanical Gardens on Valentines Day, with a group of couples. When I was single.
The evening was actually less fun than it sounds…
To begin with the people I’d chosen to go with were less than ideal. Firstly, there was my sister and her boyfriend Daniel. They got along very well on this occasion although she dumped him a month later because he was a massively bigoted tool. For example, while glaring pointedly at two men sitting in front of us who were holding hands, Daniel explained to me that the Roman Empire fell because of their acceptance of homosexuality. I remarked that it was more likely that one of the bats flying over the Botanical Gardens was actually batman. Daniel then went into a half hour rant about how batman could be made to be more bat-like and less like a person dressed unconvincingly as a bat.
The newest couple in the group, Robin and Miles had only been going out for a week. Their relationship was based entirely on nerves. They were incapable of having a conversation if they were touching each other. Robin could talk to you if Miles was more than two meters away. But as soon as they so much as held hands all conversation would dry up and they would simply smile and stare straight ahead. Twitching occasionally.
Then there was my friend Tanya and her boyfriend Glen who continuously humped each others legs throughout the entire evening. At leas they were able to chat to others at the same time.
Of course, I was not the only single person in the park. There were many groups of single girls. They were in high spirits at the start of the evening. Opening their picnic baskets and champagne, they had a devil-may-care attitude that screamed to the world, ‘We’re single on Valentines Day. And we’re having a great time! Pass me the Camembert!’ Half way through the film however they started to see the injustice of the film. ‘She had two men! Two!’ Faces curdled and you could see the devil-may-care attitude slip into mild depression (some people actually sobbed quietly and not at the sad bits). By the time Bogart was reminiscing about Paris I could hear dozens of singles muttering, ‘Why couldn’t we have gone to Ferris Buelers Day Off?’ and flicking Brie at anyone who looked like they might be in love.
There were many people there who looked like they might be in love. The Moonlight Cinema is a popular romantic choice for couples at any time, let alone on Valentines Day. It was a lawn covered with cuddling and I was struggling.
Generally, I like to see myself as an internally self-sufficient person. I don’t need to evaluate my happiness by externally imposed expectations and material standards. However, I must admit that I began to feel increasingly jealous of some of the people at the Gardens who were obviously in a better position than me.
Of course, I’m not talking about having a boyfriend. I’m referring to the fact that I was starving, uncomfortable, and freezing to death. I mean it sounds nice, doesn’t it? Sitting in the park on a summer evening watching films and enjoying a picnic. In reality, the ground is extremely hard when you sit on it for three hours. It was also cold. When I left the house at 7:00pm it was a balmy 25 degrees. But by the time the film started at 9pm there was an unrefreshingly cool breeze. As it began to get properly dark I started to shiver and noticed more experienced Moonlight cinema goers had brought sleeping bags, doonas and a pillow. Sure, some of the single ones still looked like they wanted die, but at least they were suicidal within a warm, cocoon. In my group, we only had one blanket, which had been claimed by Tanya and Glen. They were using it as an ineffectual veil over their dry rooting.
Even worse, everyone else in the gardens had brought better provisions than we had. Not being very organised we managed to scrape together a tub of hummus, some semi sun-dried tomatoes and a packet of Captains Table watercrackers. Between seven. Meanwhile all around people with more boy scouting ethos had brought champagne, strawberries, cheese platters, chocolate cake and so on. One lucky couple had a lobster.
After awhile I started to feel aggrieved with these people who were touting their comfort, food and boyfriends in front of me. Everyone was showing off what they’d brought with the result that almost everyone ended up wanting something on someone else’s picnic blanket. Some people were crying because they didn’t have a boyfriend. Others cracked it because the dip ran out. I couldn’t wait to go home on my own and be able to compare myself to myself and realise I pretty fabulous after all.
When the film finally ended everyone filed out of the gardens towards St Kilda Road. Tanya chose this moment to confide loudly to us all, ‘Glen and I really need to spend more time together as a couple. You know, just to be together. Just to really love each other.’
A girl walking ahead of us turned around and said loudly but calmly to Tanya, ‘Do you mind? There are single people present.’ Then she turned and strode out of the park.
Several of us could not contain our applause.
(The image shows a painting of Florence Nightingale holding a lamp.)
When I was in year 12 I wrote a ‘quote of the day’ in my school diary. Sometimes the quotes were from famous people like Oscar Wilde (he was terribly witty and sometimes it feels good to copy that stuff down with a pen). Sometimes the quote was something a friend had said.
The majority of my quotes of the day came from my maths teacher, Fletch.
27 January 1999: “It’s us against the rest of the state…up the front.”
On the first day of Year 12 Specialist Maths we sat at the back of the classroom (we were all maths nerds so it was our one chance). When Fletch came in he made us move to the front tables then gave us a motivational speech. He said the only way we country state school students could compete against the fancy private schools was to work together. We rolled our eyes and acted like it was stupid, but as the year went on we developed some top quality academic camaraderie, and just quietly, we did okay.
4 Febuary 1999: “We haven’t multiplied vectors yet. Shut up Rod.”
Fletch was a self-reflective teacher and kept up a running commentary on his performance as he taught. When he felt he’d made a wrong turn he told himself to shut up. Every time, I wrote it down.
10 March 1999: “I just thought I’d better tell you; I’m in Florence Nightingale mode.”
Fletch told us that when tackling a difficult maths problem you should be like Florence Nightingale holding her lantern. You can’t always see the whole path, but you can see where to take the next step. He returned to this analogy often and would sometimes mime holding a lantern while doing a difficult problem at the board.
The Florence Nightingale technique doesn’t just work for maths. I have found his advice useful in writing, life and drinking wine.
10 May 1999: “Aw bum, I mean sugar.”
Cute! He’d probably made a sign error.
16 August: “Go mg sin theta!”
Fletch told us he would shout “Go mg sin theta” as he rode his bike downhill during his school days. The best maths teachers are born, not made.
13 October 1999: “I just want to vomit. Not for you, but for the injustices of the world.”
When he said this to our class, Fletch was talking about inconsistencies in maths symbolism. No, not East Timor. Maths symbols.
I’m not sure if we appreciated Fletch enough at the time. I remember rolling my eyes at his daggy anecdotes. One time no-one in the class would examine the interesting way the light from the window was hitting the chalk on the blackboard, even when Fletch repeatedly peered at it, told us how interesting it was, and invited us to come and look. Sometimes when he asked almost rhetorically, ‘What’s the square root of 16?’ Someone would answer, ‘Four’ just to see him go apoplectic, ‘PLUS OR MINUS FOUR!’
Far and away the best maths teacher I’ve ever had.
At the end of year 12 we gave him a lantern.
(The image is a screen shot from Mary Poppins of Bert the chimney sweep.)
Mary Poppins said ‘In every job that must be done there is an element of fun. You find the job and SNAP! the job’s a game.’ I agree, but it can be hard to find the fun in a job that you’re really bad at.
I feel sorry for people who are bad at their jobs. Waiters who get orders wrong, accountants who can’t count, receptionists who lose bits of paper. I have totally been there.
A lot of the time, I’ve been able to tell myself that it doesn’t really matter, that it’s just a temporary, menial job and not a reflection of my true value. But in the moment, when it takes me 15 minutes to slice prosciutto in a deli, or when I give someone the wrong cat to take home at a cattery, or when I try to charge someone $17.60 for two bananas and a bread roll in a supermarket, or when I simply can’t clean hotel rooms in under 28 minutes per room, I find it hard to keep perspective. In those moments my own incompetence is demoralising and depending on the reaction of other people, hurtful. When someone rolls their eyes at me, makes a horse-snorty noise or starts tapping on a counter my embarrassment is made even worse when I know they’re right. I am bad at my job.
I was bad at being a bacon factory worker. As I’ve already discussed I found many of the factory processes incomprehensible and I was often confused about what I was supposed to be doing. This could be very frustrating for my co-workers.
An example from my diary:
Day 11: Monday 11 December
Not a good one.
Pam: “Oi! You don’t just let meat fall off the belt!”
Me: Apologise as humbly as possible and try to remember her seniority and respect her experience.
Quite hellish actually.
Not everyone at the Pig was like that. For example, Bruce used to be a beekeper until the drought of ’93 killed all his bees, and he came to work at the bacon factory. He said he didn’t mind the work, and said at least the job was stress free. I decided that Bruce was very zen (even though I wasn’t quite sure what that meant). I saw Bruce as a role model for calm acceptance of factory life.
One day I was working with Bruce and Pam on a slicer. I tried to help Pam push a trolley to the chiller. It was a disaster and she screamed at me. The next time we filled up a trolley the same thing happened. Meanwhile, Bruce’s eyes were twinkling above his beard net. I think he was mildly amused. When I returned to the slicer, in the laconic understatement of the early noughties he said, ‘Is Pam a bit angry with you?’ Later, I asked if he would swap jobs with me, so I wouldn’t have to work with Pam, and he agreed. He was a nice man.
Pam often raged at me about bacon related issues. I could not understand why she cared so much. It was only picking up bacon and putting it back down again, after all. I hated being bad at it, but I also couldn’t understand how she could care enough to scream about it.
I’m not condoning workplace bullying but I now have a different perspective on the situation. Pam worked in the bacon room year in year out. She was a good bacon factory worker, she took pride in her work. Every summer students like me came along, and for two months earned more than she did on casual rates. We were crap at the job and she had to pick up the slack. I’m sure we also acted like the work was unimportant and beneath us.
At the time, I thought Bruce was a paragon of virtue and Pam was hysterical, but now I see they had different strategies to deal with the drudgery of the work. Bruce stayed calm and meditated (for all I know he was actually planning a homicidal rampage, but I imagined he was thinking of a flowing river). Pam took pride in her work and became a bit obsessive about it.
Now that I’ve found work to do that I’m not completely terrible at, I’m a lot more like Pam than Bruce. When I returned to work after having my first child someone said to me, ‘Does your job seem a lot less important now?’ The answer was no. When I was on maternity leave I didn’t think much about the office but once I was back, I cared.
I care about the things that I spend my time on, not just the fun bits. My life is not just larks on holidays with my friends and family, or my hobbies or my writing. My life is also the Annual Report Disclosure Index, the washing, and creating a family medical appointments spreadsheet. Sometimes at work I’m given a task that at first seem unspeakably dull but once I start work on it I find I’m fascinated and develop strongly held opinions.
Of course, I try to keep a better sense of proportion than Pam did, and not to shout, but nothing I spend my time on is likely to be completely stress-free, and that’s not a bad thing. For me, the stress is the element of fun. SNAP! The job’s a game.
Next time at the Pig: Socialism and the revolution
(Picture shows the first Barbie wearing a black and white striped swimsuit with white sunglasses on her head.)
This week a child showed me her Barbie doll. Quick as a flash I said, ‘That’s nice. What job does she do?’ Child looked confused but eventually agreed Barbie is an engineer. The child then wandered off presumably to play a game of Suspension Bridge.
I felt triumphant to have used this simple interaction as an opportunity to spread my radical feminist agenda. With that in mind I have prepared this list of questions to ask about Barbie.
What job does Barbie do?
What kind of super fund does Barbie have?
Does Barbie have any good tips on how to successfully ask for a pay rise?
What sport does Barbie play?
Which AFL team does Barbie play for?
What’s Barbie’s favourite science?
What’s Barbie’s favourite physics sub-field? (If Barbie says string theory, gently suggest there are better options, but don’t be strident about this.)
What is Barbie reading at the moment?
What book does Barbie think should win the Stella Prize this year? (If Barbie thinks there shouldn’t be women only prizes for literature, this is a good time to get strident.)
(This next one’s genius. Hold on to all hats.)
Have you ever met anyone who has legs as long as Barbie’s, a waist that small and boobs that go out that far? No? That’s okay Barbie. It’s good to be DIFFERENT.
Diary 30 November 2000
Today while working quite efficiently in my own quiet way on the Tiromat Brian told me that my bacon flipping technique went against company training. “What is the point,” he said to me “Of training you if you only do it your own way?” I actually found my way easier but I can see I am now marked out as a dangerous dissident.
I remember this day very clearly. The big boss Brian came over to me while I was working on the Tiromat and showed me how to load the bacon in the ‘correct way’. This was unusual as the bosses didn’t usually put gloves on and pick up bacon. I tried Brian’s correct way, decided it wasn’t as good as my way. Brian was incandescent and I couldn’t understand why. (In retrospect, Brian was just trying to prevent me getting RSI.)
I didn’t realise the impact of this incident on my reputation in the bacon room until weeks later.
It was through my nearly friend Damian that I gained some insight into what was going on. Damian and I had been to school together and we had lots of mutual friends. He’d been working in the bacon room for two years, so he was very experienced and knowledgeable. He was very nice to me. At lunch times and smoko we gossiped about school people and Damian spoke a lot about which of my friends he’d had a crush on (almost all of them!) He told me details of his breakups and who he found attractive. This kind of chat helped pass the time and I was grateful for it.
One day after I’d been at the factory for about a week, Damian and I found ourselves working on the Multivac together. The Multivac was one of the few genuinely fast-paced packing machines in the bacon room. I wasn’t usually allowed on the Multivac because I was too slow, but on this day Damian and I were covering the lunch shift. We were working at the packing end of the machine, boxing up the packets.
I found the Multivac intense and needed all my concentration but Damian kept up a steady interrogation. He asked me how many boyfriends I’d had, and then how many guys I’d kissed, and then how many people I’d slept with. I told him I didn’t want to say. I tried to change the topic back to which of my friends he thought were hot (I knew it was almost all of them!) But he was having none of it.
I didn’t want to answer Damian’s questions because I hadn’t had any boyfriends and I was ashamed. I thought there was something wrong with me. When people made jokes about sex I laughed but I feared that someone would call me out and say ‘Why are you laughing? You don’t really understand’.
Damian would not stop asking me questions, and it was definitely affecting my work performance on the Multivac so eventually I said, ‘If you don’t shut-up, I’m going to report you for sexual harassment’. At that moment Damian started swearing and rapidly pulling packets out of the Multivac. The machine had backed up because I hadn’t been clearing the packets fast enough.
Damian spent the rest of the lunch shift in a stormy silence, trying to fix the Multivac. After that, he stopped speaking to me. A week later he broke his silence when I asked him what was wrong. In a furious voice he told me he was not happy about being threatened with a report of sexual harassment. He was looking after his reputation by not speaking to me. He told me that he had been so nice to me, sticking up for me when other people in the bacon room were ‘saying things about me’. He wanted to tell me what they were saying but I told him not to. I was terrified of knowing. I assumed it was something like,’Penny’s an ugly, stuck up bitch who is bad at bacon’.
I hadn’t really been planning to report Damian for sexual harassment, I just wanted him to shut-up. If I was going to report someone for harassment at the Pig, there were more worthy candidates.
Women outnumbered men in the bacon room by about three to one. Rather than giving women more control it seemed to elevate the status of the few men who were working there. Some of them were very nice. Some of them were very gropey. Unfortunately, there was an overlap between those two groups.
Kev was a jolly fatherly figure who had worked in the bacon room for twenty years and knew everything. He called me Pen, and I didn’t mind. He never yelled at me. He explained bacon carefully and didn’t get cross when I made mistakes. Unfortunately, most of the time when he was speaking to me he stood behind me with his hands on my waist.
When Kev touched me I had a strong instinct to kick. But I didn’t. I also never said anything to him, or complained to anyone else.
Why? Because I knew I was unpopular and that my co-workers had been ‘saying things’ about me. Kev, on the other hand, was well-liked and respected. I saw him do the same thing to other women in the bacon room and no-one else complained. I didn’t want to be the one to make a fuss and I feared what the reaction would be. I imagined people saying, ‘He was just trying to be nice, nobody wants to touch you’. I imagined them saying worse things.
So I just put up with it and fumed to myself. Kev wasn’t the only one, and some of the men were worse. One example from my diary: ‘Camran touched me inappropriately. If he tries that again I will say something to him.’ I was always planning to say something. Next time, and definitely to someone unpopular like Camran, not to Kev.
In my last week at the Pig Damian started talking to me again. I don’t know why he thawed, but I’d started poking my tongue out at him every time he gave me an icy stare and I think that helped.
We worked together on a slicing machine and had a good chance to talk. After chatting for awhile about one of Damian’s messy breakups he confessed he’d been planning to ask me out that fateful day on the Multivac when it all went terribly wrong. That’s why he was so very offended when I said I’d report him for sexual harassment, it had felt like a particularly harsh a rejection. Apparently he’d nearly broken his hand when he tried to fix the Multivac, because I’d been working too slow, which is why he’d started swearing.
I was immensely flattered and felt terrible for the misunderstanding. I apologised for any offence caused. I apologised for being crap on the Multivac. He forgave me, bless his heart. (Of course, Damian did sexually harass me. Continuing to ask personal questions after someone has asked you to stop is pretty clear cut. Also, I didn’t make him put his hand inside the working machine to pull out the backed up packets. That was his own stupid decision.)
During this open and frank conversation, which was held in between feeding huge slabs of bacon into the slicer, I was finally brave enough to ask Damian what he’d meant when he said ‘people are saying things about you’. It turned out that my co-workers had been shocked and outraged after I told the big boss Brian I didn’t care for his bacon flipping technique. It had nothing to do with me being ugly, only a little bit about me being stuck-up, and they weren’t even saying I was bad at bacon!
Years later I told a manager in a workplace that I’d prefer if he didn’t refer to us as ‘girls’. He never did it again, and it seemed so simple, but it actually isn’t. Even tackling a slightly sexist comment in a very supportive public service work environment was difficult for me. I don’t know what would have happened had I complained at the Pig, but I am virtually certain it would have been very unpleasant for me. We’ll never know what people would have said.
Next time at the Pig: Professionalism and why I was always getting shouted at
Today was induction day at the bacon factory…I still feel I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do. Quite nervous.
I pulled into the bacon factory car park on my first day filled dread and sick with nerves and anticipation, but that was pretty normal for me.
The first thing I heard when I opened my car door was the squealing of pigs. Pigs who knew they were going to die. I didn’t pause to examine the horror of this because I was running late for my first shift in the bacon room and was panicking like I was the one about to be killed and chopped into little pieces.
I changed in the ladies locker truck, washed my hands, put on a hairnet then walked into the bacon room. It was a vast shed housing complicated interconnected silver machines and conveyor belts. The workers looked like identical oompaloompas in white coats and overalls, green boots and blue hairnets. Silver ventilation tubes crossed the high ceiling and the lights were fluorescent. The room felt like a fridge and smelled damp and meaty. In short, it was exactly like a factory on the news except there was no visiting politician in an orange safety vest wandering around patronising people.
I wished I had a job doing filing in an office. But I was wearing gumboots for a reason, and that reason was splatter.
The first task I was assigned to was picking up bacon and putting it back down again on Slicer 2.
I’d always assumed that factory work would be extremely fast paced and busy, that the work would be monotonous but require manual skill and dexterity. I had neither of those attributes so was quite worried. In fact, the pace on Slicer 2 was manageable and I spent a lot of time staring at the conveyor belt, waiting for more bacon to appear.
Unfortunately, the relatively gentle pace did not mean I was competent.
I learn well by reading a textbook and then doing practise questions with answers in the back of the book. For hands-on activities like assembling a tent or making an icing piping bag I need to practise myself and have a manual or YouTube instructional video to refer to. I do not learn well just by observing other people complete the task. I need specific and comprehensive directions. In every practical job I’ve ever had the people training me have found me frustratingly slow on the uptake.
Picking up bacon and putting it back down again may sound easy but there were numerous things I needed to learn, many of which I didn’t.
How and when to clean bacon
I easily mastered the first part. Bacon is easily cleaned. If a piece of bacon is dropped on the floor, all you need do is dunk it in some special soapy water. It will emerge from this baptism cleansed and safe to eat. However, I never really mastered when we should do this. Sometimes we dip-cleaned all the bacon that fell on the floor, sometimes we chucked it in the scraps bin. Why? Dunno.
There are many different baconish things
The name ‘the bacon room’ suggests a monotony of product but in fact, we worked with many types of bacon and baconesque food items. Some of them were recycled bacon born of former bacon rashers that were squashed and remodeled into kind-of bacon shapes. I quickly realised that the quality of the bacon is inversely proportional to how fancy its name is.
What can be wrong with bacon
As we weighed the bacon we had to keep an eye out for substandard bits and discard them. Some bacon had weird line marks. I was told these marks were made when the meat was injected with a salt solution. Another problem to watch for was dark patches in the meat; these were bruises. Horrifyingly, one day when we found lots of meat with dark patches my co-worker remarked, ‘The boys have been mucking around on the kill-line again’. I have no idea if this was true.
Don’t worry though bacon eaters, you shouldn’t see these substandard bacon rashers as they were pulped, remolded into the shape of a dick and balls and marketed as Country Style Ranch Rashers or something.
How to whisper the packing machines
The plastic in the packing machines often got tangled up, or the machines didn’t seal packets properly. Most of my co-workers were able to tinker with the machines and get them working again. I never understood what they were doing. On a few occasions I tried to learn how to replace a roll of packing but I never mastered it, primarily because I was too slow and someone would always take over because I was wasting time.
Never stand around doing nothing
I was told not to let the bosses see me doing nothing. When in doubt, make a box, I was told. So when my assigned machine was on the fritz and I was sensibly staying out of the way while someone else fixed it, I made huge piles of boxes with nothing to put in them so that no-one would feel bad about paying me $11 an hour to be idle.
Safe meat storage
The bacon factory took food safety very seriously. As was pointed out at my induction, a food poisoning scandal could shut down the factory and ruin the town, people’s lives and possibly a galaxy far away. But even so, on the factory floor the rules seemed nebulous to me, although that could be because I am a slow learner. I did write in my diary that the week before the safety inspection we suddenly started ‘practising’ following a set of rules I had never heard of before that involved constantly taking trolleys back to the chiller and wrapping everything in lots of plastic. I longed for a piece of paper with some Standard Operating Procedures. I’m sure they existed.
What to do next
To my last day in the bacon room I spent some portion of the day hovering uncertainly, hoping someone would kindly tell me what to do. Each day I was assigned to a different machine, with a different team of people, working on a different product. This provided much needed novelty value but it also meant that I never really understood what was going on.
In short, the bacon room was not a good environment for me to showcase my skills or implement my preferred learning style. In the two months I worked there I did not reach a level of competence I was satisfied with.
However, not knowing what to do with the bacon (although I worked out pretty quickly that picking it up and putting it back down again was almost always involved) was the least of my problems. What was my real issue? Hint: They’ve got two legs and you go to jail if you eat one.
Next time at the Pig: Sexual harassment
Diary 10 November 2000
Rainy Day. Went to uni to get HPL exam. Crap mark. Apparently my essay suffered because I don’t understand deconstruction.
I started work at the bacon factory at the end of my first year at uni. The year hadn’t gone super well possibly because I had made a ridiculous course choice.
I was pleasantly shocked by my VCE results at the end of Year 12 and, realising I could do any course I wanted, I changed my preferences to a course I had never wanted to do. That’s how I ended up doing a law degree with no intention of ever being a lawyer.
I grew up in the country and moved to Melbourne for university, as did almost all of my friends. First-year law at Melbourne University was dominated by private school students who all seemed to know each other. They were friendly enough, but I felt out of place and insecure. Sometimes, they were patronising. One guy asked me where I went to school. When I told him he said, ‘You’ve done well to get here’. That condescending remark filled me with politely suppressed rage.
In retrospect I felt separate from my classmates primarily because I was a judgmental snob too. I believed that I was accepted into the course on merit, as opposed to the spoon-fed elite private school kids. (In reality I was actually as privileged as they were, it just wasn’t as obvious.) My secret sense of superiority was very fragile and was not enough to provide useful confidence, particularly since it became obvious that some of my fellow law students simply were a lot smarter than me. There was one girl in my first year History and Philosophy of Law class who was dazzlingly intelligent. No-one else in the class could keep up with her arguments, except our lecturer who would take notes.
Even so, I got the work done. I learned how to use the law library, I completed chemistry pracs, handed in essays and passed exams but I was not shining. I went from being a great school student to being a mediocre university one.
And I wasn’t compensated with an exciting social life either.
I took a long time to make good friends in Melbourne. Everyone told me to ‘join a club’ at uni but I had no hobbies and I was too scared to join a club that was openly about drinking. I thought long and longingly back to Year 12 when I’d worked together in a team of students united in our goal to get good marks and go to university. Now I was at university, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever have that feeling again.
Meanwhile, my school friends who had moved to Melbourne were successfully getting a life and making new friends. I felt left out and like I wasn’t coping as well as everyone else. So in some ways I was happy to escape Melbourne after my first-year exams were over, to return home for some soothingly mindless factory work. But would I fit in any better at the Pig? Spoiler: No.
Next time at the Pig: How to clean bacon (it’s easy!) and other things I didn’t learn
In the summer after my first year at university I worked in a bacon factory in my home town. In the section called the Bacon Room. I saw a lot of bacon. Let me give you some advice about eating bacon. Don’t.
It was quite common for uni students from my home town to come back from Melbourne over the summer holidays to work in the bacon factory. It was a good way to earn money but also save money by staying with your parents and eating all their food. Despite these practical advantages I wasn’t very keen. I applied for the job out of guilt and desperation. I’d had no luck getting a job in Melbourne and I had to have a job over the uni summer holidays. Not so much for financial reasons, but for pride. All my friends had summer jobs, it would have been totally weird to spend three months doing nothing.
My application was successful (possibly due to nepotism as I had two uncles who worked there) and sick with anticipation and nerves, I started working in the bacon factory at the end of November 2000. It was a hard job. Getting up at 4.30 every morning. Performing mind-numbingly tedious work for ten hours a day. Dealing with people who seemed to hate me and shouted a lot.
At the end of my factory stint my sister convinced me to enter Raw Comedy with a stand-up routine about the bacon factory. I got through to the National Final. Suddenly, it was all worth it. That was the true value of working in a bacon factory! To mock!
Years later, reading through my bacon factory diary (presumably on a train) it struck me that there was a an actual story arc to my time there. Characters were introduced, tensions built and then resolved. It was almost as if there was a point to it. That hardly ever happens in real life, and has certainly never happened in any other diary I’ve kept. Usually my diaries are like: meet someone, crush, crush, crush, rejected, pine, pine, pine, pine. And then I never mention them again.
Excited by the real life narrative neatness I thought I’d found in my bacon factory diary I tried to milk the experience in a different medium and wrote a manuscript of a novel based on my time in the factory. It didn’t work. It turns out that real life is too messy and apparently I’m an unengaging character who seems a bit immature.
I can’t quite give up on it though, and recently it’s been on my mind again. The themes I was trying to explore in my novel have played out in the recent democratic shenanigans across the world. Work, class, gender, racism, sexism and sexual harassment. The bacon factory had it all!
We’re coming up to the 16 year anniversary of my time as a factory worker, which is very exciting as 16 is a square square number. So, I aim to write once a week, exploring my experiences 16 years ago when I picked up bacon and put it back down again for two months.
Names will be changed. Pigs were definitely harmed. You are very welcome.