Me & the machine
Rick Morton on his history of workplace angst
It never occurred to us at the time but 15 is probably too young to suffer the existential angst of whether your current career, or more likely your job, would soon disappear.
We were the paper-folders, a scrappy gang of mostly teenage boys employed by the family-owned newspaper to fold its weekly edition and two other tiny regionals they ran.
The best among us could glide down the cascading rig and pull the pages together in one swift motion, tapping them against the wooden edge to straighten them before experiencing the thrill of the crease. The worst among us would stack the pages wrong and fold 200 copies with doubles before even realising it, living out the peculiar shame of being the one to upset an entire production line.
The owners had purchased a machine many years before which we called the Dinosaur, which was meant to replace our jobs. It looked more like a mechanical caterpillar and snaked around the back of the printing room. The little suction caps interspersed at intervals were supposed to pick up the pages and shuffle them along. But they didn’t. So we did.
Every now and then a rumour would spread in whispers: “They’ve got the machine working.” We’d sit around like grizzled 60-year-old coalminers and talk about the end of an era. What would we do next? We were 15, almost at the end of high school. Too late to start fresh. Packing shelves at the IGA paid more than the $6.50 an hour we got but it had none of the camaraderie, and none of the cultural cachet of being the first in the region to bring home a copy of the newspaper, an institution in our town.
But the Dinosaur never worked. If the machines were coming for our jobs they were taking their sweet time. We reimagined
Terminator as a film about a spotty teen sent back in time to save his paper-folding position. There was no love interest, just one boy with a complete lack of vision trying to enshrine the value of human capital in a massively changing system.
So we continued to fold three nights a week, sometimes until midnight. When we worked these later nights the owner/ editor would sling us $50, which we would spend on a feast at the local Chinese restaurant, the culinary equivalent of getting your photo taken in front of the Big Pineapple or Prawn.
These positions were never advertised but occasionally new kids were introduced to the fold by one of us and we cracked familiar jokes to the inductees about back pain (terrible) and tales about the means by which black ink can attach itself to the human body (varied). Some, of course, never lasted more than a week but we counted on the attrition.
Our boss knew the role she had in the community partly included the gainful employment of teenagers, so she would give us odd jobs to do, too. When her office needed painting we put all the supplies on the newspaper account at the hardware store and then spent a weekend thoroughly ruining the trimming on the ceiling by lining it with masking tape, which has, among its many qualities, the ability to completely rip paint from its base. Our boss paid us anyway.
During the Christmas shutdown she gave me far too much money to feed the family animals while she went away to Stradbroke Island. The dogs were easy enough but the axolotl was blind and had to be fed by holding the pellet in front of his face. The guinea pigs escaped and became wild. They dodged the eagles and hawks for years, growing shaggier coats and occasionally darting within eyesight of my boss, across the paddock, the lawn. They lived as an escaped and dystopian fur tribe, as if Mad Max had been refilmed with hamsters. But, most of all, they were deranged little reminders of my failure.
These ups and downs were nonetheless character-building. When I landed my dream job straight out of high school, starting on January 3, I knew I would miss the curiosities of this dying art but I was thankful for the stability of my new gig.
I started as a cadet newspaper journalist in 2005. What could possibly go wrong?