The following is a chapter excerpt from the author's memoir, In Search of the Blue Duck, published this month.
He is in the midst of explaining to the guys in the yard of the seedy private youth hostel in Redfern, Sydney, where he is living in May of 1986, how it came about that he had to leave New Zealand in a hurry. He tells them how he had just come off the Milford Track in Fjordland, then still a rarely visited wilderness, when he happened to look in his passport and noticed that his visa expired in only a couple of days. Accordingly, he and his girlfriend-- yes, he was hitching and sleeping wild around New Zealand with a girl who is pretty wild herself-- crossed the south of the South Island to the small city of Dunedin to get it extended, which he was sure would pose no problem.
He was mistaken. In the dusty, little office of the Department of Labour (With a ‘u’, no less!), the one official trained to deal with migration and visas was still working with an electric typewriter and a collection of rubber stamps and ink pads. She went off to make a phone call about his case and returned with the news that he’d had three months to work in New Zealand and three to travel. This ought to be enough. He is always free to come back some other time. For the present, however, she sees that there is a work-travel visa for Australia in his passport. He can go travel and work there now, same as the thousands of New Zealanders his age who are unable to find well paid, long term work at home and, unlike him, have little choice in the matter of leaving their country. He will be granted an extension of his visa until the end of the month...and fined five hundred dollars on departure if he fails to meet this deadline. She is in little doubt that a backpacker of his type, a uni-grad from New York City, will have enough money on his person in cash, travelers’ checks, or else on a credit card, to be able to cover this...if it comes to that, which she trusts it will not.
The guys hanging around the hostel yard do not find themselves in consensus about the above matter. They mostly come from Anglophone lands: New Zealand, South Africa, England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland (Northern and Southern— he is learning to differentiate), with a smattering of continental Europeans passing through. They are leaning backward riskily against the rotten plank fencing on rickety old chairs plucked from dumpsters, or seated at the stained and wobbly wooden picnic benches that are their dining area and sole common room at the hostel. Some say the New Zealand authorities are sweethearts and wouldn’t really have fined him; others that they’re bastards who would’ve for sure but, unless they reckoned he’d been up to mischief, they’d never have bothered to send word on to immigration at Auckland airport; others that if he’d just kept his head down, he could’ve stayed on for twenty-six years just as easily as twenty-six weeks, or ducked and dived until he found a Kiwi girl who’d marry him so he could go legal, which shouldn’t have been too hard for a fine talking, pretty boy like him.
Duly dressed down by the lone immigration officer of Dunedin, he had speed-hitched one lift after another up the more populous and less mountainous east coast of the South Island, abetted in doing so by the comely, blonde presence of his girlfriend-- no, she’s not imaginary; she really is following him to Sydney in a couple of weeks, just wait and see. Hitchhiking is always so much easier when you are with a girl. Better still if you are one yourself, although on the other hand, not at all. In the North Island the two of them had temporarily-- not permanently, he reassures his audience as much as himself-- parted ways as she still had nearly a month to run on her visa and wanted to walk the three national parks up there.
They have arranged to meet at the private youth hostel up the street from the one where he is currently staying. That one is in the guidebooks, a crowded, well kept place, with adequate hot water and a majority of female guests. The hostel where he is relating all this, on the other hand, is a down at heel copycat, where all the residents are male and in Sydney for the medium haul, doing menial jobs, trying to save up either to get settled somewhere better in the city, or else to travel onward to someplace more interesting beyond it. It boasts the advantage of being half the price per week of the other place.
He spends his first week showing up at the site of any casual retail or restaurant jobs advertised in The Morning Herald that are located in the city center or en route between it and Refern but turns up nothing. He tries the city center temping agencies too because not only is he a proficient typist, he also possesses the then still rather rarefied knowledge of how to use either the WordStar or AppleWriter word processing programs. To no avail though since this is Sydney in 1986 and at every one of these places, he is asked by some heavily made up, smartly dressed chit whether he takes dictation and has shorthand, which he interprets to mean, “Sorry mate, you’ve got nothing to show off in a tight blouse and short skirt when serving coffee or tea.”
His lack of luck on the employment front is a cause for some concern because, while he and his girlfriend-- c’mon guys, once and for all, she does exist and she is on her way to meet him-- have enough money to travel around Australia, they need to grow their stash sufficiently while there to get around South-East Asia on the proverbial shoestring. He relates his worries to the Rhodie, a sandy haired, sun bleached, surfer looking dude around five years his elder who occupies the attic of the hostel on his own, does rudimentary maintenance and cleaning and collects everyone’s rent in return for paying none himself. Here he pauses to clarify that while the other characters who pass through his narrative have designations in lieu of names because either he cannot recall these, or he does not wish to divulge them, the Rhodie genuinely did go by that sobriquet, not only because he was an ex-citizen of the former colonial nation of Rhodesia, but also in honor, so he claimed, of the rhododendron, because it is beautiful but deadly, as well as so hardy as to be invasive in any habitat suited to it, and once established effectively impossible to eradicate.
Rhodie does seem to have sound justification for seeing himself, and the diaspora of white African hard cases of which he is an example, in this light. His father was murdered trying
to defend their farm, which was later confiscated anyway. His older brother was killed in combat in the post-colonial civil war, in which he too served as a paramilitary from the age of sixteen. He has not seen his mother and elder sister for years. They live together in England, bound by the horror of having been raped on the family farm by members of the same "noble minded band of freedom fighters" who had previously finished off his dad. Rhodie puts a comradely arm around his shoulders and tells him not to give another thought to his employment, or rather unemployment, predicament. On Monday morning, they’ll get up at six a.m. and go together to the City Labour Exchange, where he’ll find his problem, which really isn’t a problem, solved. “Small beer,” he tells him, and by the measure of a life like Rhodie’s, it is and he feels ashamed for having been so concerned about it.
The Labor Exchange is an airport boarding area sized waiting room containing rows of scruffy, linked airport style seating, at one end of which is a counter behind which work a half dozen city employees, all of them middle-aged men, three of whom answer phones to employers calling in day work, most of which is semi or unskilled, and three of whom assign the jobs received to the clients seated in the waiting room, ninety-odd percent of whom are also men.
The doors open at seven a.m. and there is usually a line outside them. There are a handful of
street people who sleep nearby and are generally first in line. Jobs are assigned first come, first served, on the whole. The exceptions to this are the skilled and semi-skilled jobs, usually in construction, for which the men at the counter will call out for a carpenter, brickie, welder and so on. Aussie clients have to show a credential that they can do these jobs. Foreigners are told that if they are sent to a job that requires specialist know how and it turns out they have lied, they will be blacklisted at the exchange and will never be served there again.
Rhodie assures him that, as far as he has seen, this system seems to work pretty well. Another exception, so he tells him, is that they don’t assign deros, meaning homeless drunks or junkies, anywhere that demands hard work or careful attention, or where they may steal anything of value. Sometimes also, jobs come up for ‘good mates’ who wish to work as a pair. When one such opportunity arises, Rhodie stands up and calls out ‘Here!’ to the man at the counter. The counter man tells them that the job is in a soap and cleaning products factory.
They’ll have to wear safety goggles, rubber boots, heavy duty rubber gloves and thick protective aprons. These will be provided by the employer. There is no air conditioning but adequate ventilation is said to be in place. Pay is national minimum wage in cash. If they receive less, or any unjustified deductions are made, they are to report it to this office. Do they accept? They do but he cuts in to add, “I’m a graduate of one of the top universities in the U.S. in English. I can easily write and edit documents of all kinds, or extract information from them quickly and accurately. If you get anything of that kind, please keep me in mind.”
The counter man sweeps the waiting room with his hand and snorts, “Well, bully for you then, ay!” and adds that, understandably, they don’t tend to get much work of that sort. He then gives Rhodie the address and shows them, with the aid of a now ancient artefact, an A to Z city atlas, how to get there by public transit.
On the bus on the way to the factory, his new friend kids him, “Hey, do you reckon I ought to let them know down at the Exchange that I’m competent in the use of all major marques of assault rifle, proficient with bayonets, machetes or hunting knives, and able to kill a man in a dozen different ways with my bare hands? D’ya suppose they get the occasional request for that sort of work of a Monday morning?”
He decides to take this irony about his own request in the Labour Exchange seriously and replies, “You should try to join the Aussie army. I saw in The Herald the other day that they’re having a recruiting drive. It could be a fast track to citizenship for you. You’re wasted at the hostel.”
“I’m only wasted of an evening, mate,” Rhodie deflects, “I stay sober all day.”
“C’mon man, you seem like a good guy and smart too. You don’t want to be riding a city bus to a soap factory at eight a.m. when you’re in your thirties,” he persists, “You could become a cop instead. They could do with more guys like you.”
“If, by ‘guys like me’, you mean not a pussy and an arsehole rolled into one, there’s your answer as to why I’d never, not for one moment, consider becoming a copper here, or most other places,” Rhodie objects, “As for the Aussie army, if I’d wanted to become a professional soldier, I’d have stayed in Africa, been better paid for it and continued to see combat, which I’d kind of come to enjoy, to be honest. Here I’d spend my time square bashing, while being bawled at by some dickhead sergeant major giving me training I didn’t need. Or worse, I might wind up being the dickhead sergeant major bawling at the recruits myself. No thanks.”
The soap factory turns out to be a place that will leave him wary of using liquid soap, shampoo, or any other such stuff for the rest of his life. Indeed, he confesses to me that he has barely shampooed his hair for the past thirty-plus years, other than under duress, for example in the wake of being shat upon by a Storm Petrel, or after playing Krapp, the wearish old author in Samuel Beckett’s monologue play, Krapp’s Last Tape, for which he’d had his hair combed straight up, full of petroleum jelly and talcum powder. The sobering truth about the soap factory is that the same suite of chemicals, albeit in different proportions and mixtures, are combined in all the various stainless steel mixing vats and are going into all the bottles, from the five or ten litre jobs for commercial scale use or purchase by wholesalers to be re-bottled and labelled on market stalls, to the hundred c.c. minis for hotel chains on the automatic bottling line. The owners are Lebanese and the company’s niche is its exotic oriental scents: oud, rose, myrrh, jasmine, frangipani, all or most which are being substituted with lab made smell alikes.
The claim that the factory is adequately ventilated is misleading at best and, with it being a warm autumn in Sydney, he and the other workers all sweat profusely in their rubber boots and gloves, and heavy plasticated aprons and caps. The only time they are allowed to take a break to drink is at lunch, which lasts exactly half an hour. Between the heady scents and heavy sweating, he finds himself quite nauseated by the time they knock off for the day. Even Rhodie, accustomed as he is to harsher varieties of hardship, admits to feeling a little peaky. Nevertheless, when they are handed their wages at the end of the day, and are asked whether they’d be willing to stay the rest of the week, they agree.
A week at the strongly scented soap works is enough and the following Monday he is back at the Exchange with Rhodie. He makes sure to remind the rumpled civil servants at the desk of his document reading, writing and editing skills, at which they snicker before sending the pair of them off to a corrugated cardboard box manufacturer. Corrugated cardboard is a thing to which, like most everyone else, he does not give a second thought. Yet working in the production line brings him to a sudden and vivid awareness of its ubiquity and essentialness. Anyone who has, like him, acquired most of the food they have eaten throughout their life from supermarkets or smaller grocery stores, has been consuming comestibles transported— whether by road, rail, sea or air— packed inside of corrugated cartons. It is as true of bananas as breakfast cereals, the first food ever to have come pre-packaged in cardboard, albeit not of the corrugated sort.
When he brings this up at lunch, Rhodie, points out that for him it was obviously a different story. The bulk of the food he ate growing up came either from his family’s own farm and gardens, or was brought loose off of small growers and traders at local markets, as were many everyday objects at home, from living room lampshades to kitchen utensils. It now strikes him that, by contrast, nearly every object in a ‘first world’ household, whether something large and costly like a refrigerator, or small and cheap like a coffee mug, has come out of a corrugated cardboard carton. Reflecting on this, he even begins to think of corrugated cardboard production as one of the sine qua nons, or lynchpin technologies, that make modern life possible.
Contemporary cardboard carton factories, he enlightens me, are now so automated that hardly any employees are needed to work in them. All that is left for human beings to do is quality assurance, alongside occasional machine maintenance and digitized setting. But the factory where he finds himself working on the outskirts of Sydney is nothing like that. The machines all look as if they date from the Sixties or earlier, being strictly non-electronic. Changes to the dimensions of the board produced, or the sizes of the sheets into which it is sliced, or to the proportions and patterns of the flatpack boxes being cut and creased from those, have to be set by semi-skilled machine operators, while unskilled workers like him and Rhodie mainly move rolls or stacks of board between lines of machines.
At the close of his first week he gets talking to the owner of the factory, a mechanical engineer from Greece, and discovers that corrugated carton fabrication presents one of the rare cases in manufacturing where, as in the natural world, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, in that the succession of stages in making any one box proceeds in an order that pretty precisely parallels the historical timeline of the mechanization of the successive stages of the process itself. As such, the initial machine on the assembly line is the corrugator-single facer, which does two jobs. First, it corrugates the medium, the soft, short fibre paper that is the filling in the sandwich that comprises a sheet of corrugated board, by exposing it to steam and running it between a fluted metal roller and a smooth rubber one.
This process was first developed in 1856 in London, when and where heavyweight corrugated paper was mainly used in making stiff yet rollable liners for then de rigeur stovepipe hats. The next job the corrugator does is gluing the fluted medium to a backing sheet of stiff, long fibred liner paper using a plant starch paste, which is the reason that corrugated board is, to this day, both fully biodegradable and readily recyclable. The mechanization of this second step was first accomplished in 1874 in New York and the finished product was meant for use as a packing material to be wrapped around bottles, phials or other delicate wares.
The second machine on the factory line is the double-backer, which applies a second liner board to convert the flaccid, spooling festoons of single-face into rigid sheets. The technology for this was invented later that same year, while a machine for making tough double wall sheets, consisting of two layers of fluted medium with a liner in between and either side of them, and capable of bearing fairly heavy loads, promptly followed in 1875. Finished sheets of corrugated board, sliced down to the required rough size, are next taken to a third set of machines which make the cuts and creases that turn them into flat packed nets ready to be folded and glued or taped into boxes. Semi-automation of this step, which combined putting in the required cuts and creases using a single adjustable die was invented in 1890, but was not fully mechanized until 1895, when it made a millionaire of the ScottishAmerican immigrant who came up with the invention and duly went on to build the first end to end factory for the whole cardboard box making shebang.
During his fortnight in the corrugated carton industry he sets aside ten dollars or so in change to call his father to wish him a happy fifty-first birthday. Here he takes pause to remark that at the time he is telling me this story, he is, himself, several years older now than his father, who seemed to himthen already to be on the brink of old age. As he narrates what he has been up to, his dad asks him whether, driving with him through the Brooklyn industrial neighborhood of DUMBO, for Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass, he ever noticed that the cluster of grand, semi-abandoned, turn of the century warehouse and factory buildings which constitute the core of that neighborhood all bear the name, Robert Gair, above their massy porticos?
When he, predictably, asks who Gair was, and what the buildings were built for, his father, predictably, knows, “Oh, he invented the assembly line nearly a dozen years before Henry Ford. Made paper bags and cardboard boxes in every conceivable shape and size. Printed onto them too, in multiple colors no less. There must be hardly anyone left in the City who recalls that, even though it began only a century ago and ended half a century later. I do only because I took an economic history class at Columbia and our professor told us Gair's story.
At the time, I had recently prevailed upon your grandfather to buy me a brand new TR3, which inspired me to drive over to DUMBO for the first time with your mother to explore.
It must’ve been either the end of spring or start of fall semester '55 as I remember it was a gorgeous, warm day. The TR3 had an open top and your mother was in a short sleeved dress and wearing white gloves to her elbows, as well bred girls did in the Fifties. I seem to recollect too that she was wearing pointy tortoiseshell sunglasses and her bobbed chestnut hair was tied up in a silk scarf. We were twenty and in love. Unmarried as yet, given our still happy state. '55 was the TR3’s debut year. British Leyland ended production in '61, the same year our marriage went bad. By the time you were born in ’63, it had been replaced by the TR4, a far superior model under the hood. Not that it mattered much to me, I was already driving a Porsche 356 by then...What a car!"
James Bloom grew up on the upper east side of Manhattan, which he left at the age of twenty-two in order to escape the inexorable fate of pursuing a career befitting his station. Following this, he worked his way around the world as a beekeeper, an extra in a karate film, a microfiche assistant, a water baliff and, repeatedly, a waiter. Eventually he settled into a career teaching literature, history and philosophy, along with being a college admissions advisor. His memoir In Search of the Blue Duck, which he was planning on writing for a third of a century, is published this month by Dogberry Books.