Me & the ma­chine

Rick Mor­ton on his his­tory of work­place angst

The Australian - The Deal - - Front Page - Rick Mor­ton Rick Mor­ton is The Aus­tralian’s so­cial af­fairs writer

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?

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.