Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Cleanpro incident Part III Life imitates Art

So, I'm trying to finish this story and I'm going to be ruthless. I know that what I'm writing here is more than anyone but unemployed Eddie could ever take the time to read so it's almost pointless to write this much. I could just say that we went to the apartments. It sucked. Raining. Flooded. Dogs. Kids. Anger. Fights. Lifting carpet. I fell down some stairs. An old guy had a heart attack. I didn't get paid shit. Etc. But that's not how I tell stories. I only get one shot at these things because it isn't like I'll revisit this in ten years but one day I might publish this entire blog. So, here it goes.

We arrive at the apartments that were foolishly built where the water table is on top of a huge slab of granite. When the rain lasts a few days then that's the end of the carpet. It's not that the walls are leaking from above, it's that the water has risen in the ground above the floor. So the building is sinking. A horrible horrible mistake that the slumlords never tell the tenants until it is too late. This must happen once a year at this place although the rain this past month has been apocalyptic.

So, I want to say we divided into teams and attacked the problem with good direction from an attentive foreman, were given breaks and adequate equipment and merrily did our work. But that is just pure fantasy. I'll bet half the guys were stoned before we arrived and the other half were texting nude pictures back and forth. And the one foreman was a deeply unhappy guy who clearly hated us all for being such idiots. His one bit of advice was almost a moan, "You're getting paid by the hour."
Yeah, Seven fucking dollars! I don't care what Cleanpro is paying (probably $25 an hour) since I'm getting absolutely the lowest legal wage. So, forgive me if I take a minute to wipe the blood from my nose!

The first flooded apartment I walked into contained a freaked out dog and hulking man casually rescuing his Harry Potter paraphernalia from the water. The dog eyed me and I eyed the dog. Then I saw that we would have to move all the furniture to get to the carpet but these shitty apartments have absolutely no space. So how are we going to do it? Is Harry fucking Potter going to wave his magic wand and levitate all the furniture so we can remove the carpet? No, the foreman's method of training was to tell us what we were doing wrong five minutes after it was too late. We ended up basically moving all this guy's wet furniture to one side of the room, stacking it in towers of dripping debris while we pulled the carpet back to get at the saturated carpet padding. Then we would lay the carpet back down and move everything from one side to the other to get the other layer of carpet padding. This sucked but what I hated was that when the job description says "Water damage clean up" and I ended up being a fucking "crisis furniture mover"
So, the wet carpet padding gets tossed in a trash bag and dragged outside. I did this a few times before I learned you can hardly put any soaking wet carpet padding in a bag before it gets too heavy to lift. Only a monstrous bodybuilder was able to do it regularly. I staggered under the weight and lunged through the door and ended up dragging the bag until I saw the bag had torn and gallons of water were pouring out onto otherwise dry areas of the hallway. So, I was doing more damage!
Then, to make matters worse, the damn door kept swinging closed and no one could figure out how to prop it open. I was so frustrated and it was freezing and I didn't want to fight the door anymore so I took a huge knife and cut a chunk out of the folded over carpet to use as a wedge under the door. I was so proud and I looked around and the faces were horrified.
"How they gonna kick that carpet back in?" said the kickboxer.
"They're saving that carpet. Look what you did."
I had forgotten in the chaos that these cheap ass company men were going to save this saturated carpet because they'll probably charge the insurance to replace it and keep the money. I looked at the carpet and imagined the families who would be living with black mold and death beneath them.
"Naw. It's fucked. The fucking carpet is fucked." I said lamely to defend myself.
"I'm just saying," said the kickboxer.
He pointed to the carpet and I realized I had cut on a folded edge and thus when the carpet was folded back down there would be a jagged circle missing from THE MIDDLE OF THE CARPET.
I was at a loss for words.
"I don't know. Fuck. Just glue the piece back down. Fuck, man. It's soaked."
"I'm just saying," said the kickboxer. This is what temp laborers say to eachother when one of them fucks up but the other one is not in a supervisor position. No one wants to be a hero or a boss for $7 but no one wants to look bad either because that chunk missing from the carpet could easily be blamed on all of us. I shook my head and reached for another bag of carpet padding.

In retrospect, I don't care about that piece of carpet. They probably did use the piece again and just glue it down, those cheap motherfuckers. Or, hopefully, they replaced the carpet. But I doubt it. I've met those slumlords and they would make you drink reclaimed toilet water if it could save them a buck. But the fact that cleanpro had so rolled over bummed me out. What were we doing then, but making things worse?
A tale someone told me in confidence involved a similar clean up situation. The walls were soaked and instead of cutting the whole thing out they just sliced off the bottom of the drywall and pieced it in. And the guy was slapping mud on the seam and saw a dent in the wall and went to slap some mud on it so it would be patched.
"No," said the boss. "That's a preexisting hole."
"But I'm right here. Let me patch it."
"No. That's not covered by the policy. It's preexisting."
And if that doesn't make you quiver then you are a disgusting person. What is the opposite of integrity? What is the opposite of professional? That's what we're dealing with. And while I have no one to blame for my cutting a chunk of carpet out that rendered the carpet disfigured, who is to blame for the absurdity of saving a completely saturated carpet in a family apartment complex in a basement room that sees sun only on the summer equinox?

So we moved on. One room to the next, each worse than the last, no break, no water, no food.
The worst part was when I grabbed some carpet padding and didn't see a bag and I just wanted it outside so I walked out and there were these guys blabbing about prison and I couldn't get to the bags so I just took the shit outside.
"Hey, that goes in a bag."
"I know. I'll put it in a bag outside."
"What do you mean, "No."? Get back here."
"It goes in a bag."

An old lady opens her door a crack and looks at us. A dog runs free down the hallway chased by a girl in a bathrobe.

The way the one dude looked at me I think he thought I had stuffed some DVDs or computers in the padding and was looting the place, which is why I wanted to explain the backstory.
I went outside and put it in a bag. The shiftless tent dweller was smoking a cigarette and here was my chance to rehearse some lines from my Sons of Job play:

"I used to hunt deer in that field.," said the homeless man through a cloud.
"This is complete bullshit," I moaned.
"Bagged five or ten a season."
"They put their boot on your neck. Break a man down. Look at me. Soaking wet. Bleeding. Hungry."
"Bow and rifle."
"They want ten an hour work out of seven an hour men."
"Venison stew. Jerky. Smoke house."
"Look at me like I'm a criminal? What? They're the fucking criminals."
"Drinking on Saturday. Pussy all weekend long."
"I come to do a job and they...they got their fingers in my ass."
"Fat 'ol belly. Sleepin in, fuckin', drinkin'. Them were the days."
"Ah, this is a cunt of a job. What a bitch. Why the fuck I take this ticket?"
"You want a smoke?"

One reason I like these guys is because they are whatever the opposite of codependent is. Indifferent? But unlike an indifferent woman who will look through you at the man behind you, an indifferent man doesn't even recognize you as an entity. Where there was a mailbox, this guy was seeing a ten point buck. My voice was like the breeze in the wind. I like that. It's like being alone. A woman might try to pretend to care I was talking; a man makes no attempt to show he's listening.

And back into the apartments I plunged. The worst was a household of a mother and two kids under 3 years old...two inches of water and every damn toy imaginable. I mean, if there was ever proof that toys do not do shit for a kid's behavior or development it would be that apartment. These kids were bouncing off the walls as five smelly men moved all their toys and furniture and clothes around. The mother was hysterical. There was a picture of man on the wall so don't jump to the conclusion she was single. But definitely jump to the conclusion that raising two preschool kids all day alone is basically impossible. Televisions were blaring everywhere. Puzzle pieces everywhere. We had to move a gigantic entertainment center that still had all the electronics on it. Try doing that in three inches of water with one other guy helping you whose pants keep falling down around his ass. We were vacuuming the water up with a big shopvac and as I reached down to grab some long lost trinket or earring it got sucked into the hose. I said nothing.
It's a real shock Cleanpro doesn't have permanent helpers. It was in this apartment that an older temp worker started to have trouble breathing. He was sweating and lost focus in his eyes.
"I just gotta catch my breath," he huffed exactly like a guy in a play I wrote.
It was sad to watch a grown man trying to earn his $7 an hour lugging bags of water up stairs. But he got old before my eyes and he shuffled out the door and said, "I'm. Gonna. See. When. We. Get. A. Break."
I never saw him again.

That was the apartment where we had to clean out an already incredibly packed room with a crib full of Hannah Montana toys. There were five of us but no one wanted to take charge so finally a younger kid stepped up and tried to lead us but the other guys had a mini-mutiny because it is an unwritten law that no one takes orders from a work-a-day temp when you are yourself a work-a-day temp. That's why the kickboxer said, "I'm just saying." He wasn't giving orders. He was intentionally removing any authority from his statement that I had just destroyed the carpet. He was just saying...that I was a fuck up. Which was true.

But this kid was ordering,
"Get on the corners. Grab the frame. No. The other frame. Steady the clothes. No. OK. lift!"
That's when two of the guys just walked away.
"Get back here.," yelled Mr. Hero.
The others just kept walking. What was going to happen to them? Nothing. A temp worker can not order you to do shit. They were there to take orders from the man with the checkbook and no one else. My pants were falling down.
"Come back here!"
Nope. That left three guys on the bed and when we lifted it the frame collapsed and all the clothes that were piled on the bed fell into the water. And when I went to grab them quickly I whipped them around and all the water sprayed across the back of a television set.

Let me just slow down here and explain that this whole situation is as bad as it gets. This is a crisis company I was working for. If you go to Haiti then you'll find much worse shit going down. I've had plenty of jobs with work-a-day that involved moving a trash can from point A to point B. Easy money. For some reason the company can't do without you and so they hire you and probably regret it. But with cleanpro the only time they need help is when someone's worst nightmare has happened. Either someone took a loaded shotgun and put it in their mouth and splattered their brain all over a wall of family photos...or else someone took an axe and murdered a couple in their bedroom...or someone hung themselves from a chin up bar and shit all down the hallway...or a storm arrives that raises the water table to the point that your living room is a swimming pool. Face it, life is unpredictable and dirty. I didn't expect this to be a walk down pretty panty lane. My point is how this particular situation was bound to failure because of the underlying methods and character and everything. It's a crisis situation and they basically got a crew of people ALSO IN CRISIS SITUATIONS. See? I'm sick, starving, jobless and I ended up being the guy the others looked up to because they were completely homeless, broke, on parole, craving methadone. And we're the team that's going to save the day? What? When the earthquake happened in Haiti, did they recruit rescue teams from Ethiopia?? I mean, there is a point where you actually need well paid, motivated people to do a job and Cleanpro refuses to accept that.

The last few apartments were a blur. They kept promising us a break and never gave it to us. Finally, we had hundreds of bags full of water and carpet padding that we loaded into the truck. I thought that was the end but they forced us to go back to Dover and unload the truck. Bullshit!
So we drove through the rain and everyone was wet. The acne dude described his role in the university library affair and then fell asleep while the kickboxer and the tent dweller talked about the afflictions that make morphine part of their diet. Both had chronic injuries and, as a man with his fair share of scar tissue, I said, "You wake up in the morning and can't put your shoes on, but if you take some pills you can, then there isn't much choice."
We're all survivalists but some are just better at it than others.

Half the team showed up ten minutes after we'd finished unloading the truck. They told a bullshit story about a flat tire but the chances are very good they were smoking pot in the Burger King parking lot. I'll tell you that the trash we threw away filled a gigantic dumpster and made me feel pretty foolish for using cloth grocery bags. I know disasters create trash but really disasters destroy things. Men cause waste.

Then we got signed out and I drove acne boy and tent man back to Portsmouth. That's two round trips to Dover and a side trip to Hampton, plus the cost of the car. You literally couldn't pay me $40 to DO JUST THAT. Forget about the labor at the job. Just the driving was worth more than $40. So, work-a-day can pretty much kiss my ass. And cleanpro can also kiss my ass. Am I above this kind of job and pay? I'll address that in a minute.

We got back to Portsmouth too late to cash our checks so the acne kid and tent man had to starve for the rest of the day. I dropped them off on route one near the homeless shelter and they vanished into the night.

"Call me," said the tent man. "I'll get my truck out of impound and I'll get some work for us."
"OK." I said and drove to buy some salad at the store.

I hope I've been fair to my fellow workers. I'm sorry if I haven't been. I'm trying to tell it how it was. Obviously I hated it because I'm a playwright who has no agent and no idea how to get a play produced so I'm trapped with no money. That old guy who had a heart attack looked like an actor I've seen perform downtown. He's probably dead now. Death by carpet. Is there a moral to the story? That I'm an asshole? A fun-loving asshole according to some. I already wrote about one temp gig at Poco Diablos and I don't usually dwell on the temp gigs since I'm trying to write marketable stuff and not anecdotal exposes. Better writers like George Orwell and Kerouac and Steinbeck have addressed this topic. I'm merely a footnote.

The men and women who work temp gigs are a rare breed. They know they're being fucked over but they've already resigned themselves to a hand to mouth life. Every generation has them and I've done as much research on this generation's disenfranchised as anyone I know. There are a few books where journalists experiment with low wage work. Nickle and Dimed is one book. There was another more recently about a guy who worked in the lettuce fields. Working in the shadows. Now, writing a book like that is how to make some money. But the check was already in the bank before he did it so that helps. It's too new to be at the library but I'll check it out one of these days. There are lots of ways to make these essays into money. For some reason people like to read about a guy going undercover in a lettuce field to pick vegetables or a college educated biologist washing dishes and cleaning toilets. If I had to trade lives with that woman taking care of two kids alone in a flooded apartment I'd really think about it. I got $40 at the end of the day. What did she get?

I don't want to complain about the whole situation. America doesn't owe me anything except some economy and honesty. If you start cutting corners like saving soaked carpet to save a penny and you ask me to be your hatchet man then fuck you. I might rent that apartment one day and that's not how I do business. I'm not too good to move furniture but I object to moving it with guys you pulled from a shelter. They called it conscription back in the day.

Furthermore, reflections like this change almost nothing. Actions are what matter and having a person expose Wal-mart's shady hiring practices just seems preachy and futile. Like, it's entertainment, but when you have a basement that's flooded then you have to call cleanpro. Or do it yourself. I think my motivation in reflecting on this isn't to throw dirt on cleanpro, but more to show that our society, the absolute bottom rung workers and the companies that rely on them, have some problems. I know that smart and pretty people who work at advertising companies and drink $6 coffees are doing their job. They passed the test and went to the source. Congratulations. They don't need my help and except for a total lack of ethics they're pretty capable humans. But the guys at the very bottom...I'm really curious what has happened here because they have been ignored for a lot longer than a few years. In fact, like I've said before, this is no accident. Yes, they are responsible for their diet of drugs and booze but what reason do they have to be sober? Is it the job of society to provide that reason? Not really. But, and this is my closing argument, is it the job of society to provide a reason to get fucked up? If you systematically corrupt a kid then, congratulations, you'll have a $7 slave when he's 20. And the drugs and booze will just give everyone an easy excuse to dismiss him. Hell, people are amazed that I don't do drugs. I don't dismiss these guys I work with. I listen to them and hear the story behind the story. I see the whole situation. Am I objective? No. Do I have my own demons? Yes. But that's why it's so rare to read stories about the inner workings of temp agencies, because no one in their right mind would do this work to learn something about humanity. But a person named Amy Goodman said, "Going to the silence. That is the responsibility of the journalist." If you want silence then look no further than work-a-day labor hall. As much as those guys hated their work they would not risk it to muckrake. In fact, I've changed the company names here because I'm a coward who will probably end up working for them again when the shelves are bare.
I do believe there is a lot to learn here and there's only one agonizing way to learn it. Almost everything John Steinbeck wrote was about the underclass and I like to think I'm carrying the torch for him as I carry a bag of soaking carpet pad.
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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.