Collecting artworks. And gross old men.

Monday wasn’t too bad as far as Mondays go – the phones were being gentle on me, I hadn’t had any taxing customer enquiries and there hadn’t been any neighbour disputes to mediate, which left me plenty of freedom to start catching up on the paperwork from the weekend’s exhibition.

There were certificates to mail out, prize winners to chase up and couriers to arrange so I could forward the winning artworks to the next stage of the competition.

I am not, as you might think, the curator for a gallery, a school teacher or an artist. I am, in fact, the Secretary of the Planning and Environment department at my local Council.

For some reason – probably because we take care of the landfill – my department runs the Recycled Art competition; a program designed to encourage people to use rubbish to create art – functional, wearable or purely visual – to challenge the ways we generally see rubbish in our society.

I get to organise, curate and sometimes officiate the competition – which would be wonderful, if I didn’t have to do it whilst still being the secretary for six people in a busy planning department.

This particular Monday had been kind to me through the morning, but just before that glorious lunch hour commenced, disaster struck – a flood of phone calls from irate townsfolk, annoyed that their bins hadn’t been collected or the neighbour’s dog had kept them awake at night. Some were concerned that the tree next door was dropping berries onto their lawn and wanted us to fix it. Others wanted their neighbour’s lawn mowed because it looked horrendous and some wanted to know whether they were allowed to build a shed in their backyard without getting approval because old mate next door has done it and they thought you needed approval for that sort of thing, so why is he allowed to do it?

This flurry of calls became an avalanche after lunch and I had a constant stream of people coming in to pick up their art works which hadn’t made it to the next stage – I would just get upstairs to my office when the front desk would phone again – someone else was here to pick up their works.

Back down the stairs I would trudge and wander out to the Town Hall, where I would repeat the same smalltalk I had undertaken with the six or seven people who had preceded this one, while they collected the egg-carton monsters and pipecleaner people their son/daughter had put together.

At the end of that exchange I would return upstairs to sit at my desk and try and remember where I was up to – and then the phone would ring again – a dog was running around someone’s street, could the Ranger please come and get it?

By 3pm, my patience was wearing thin but my smile was just as plasticly plastered across my face as I greeted each and every person I had to speak to.

Even the drunk old man who refused to leave my side during the exhibition.

He arrived late in the afternoon, on his way from one bar to another, to collect the non-winning cereal box creations he had entered in the competition. These were extremely important to him and he needed to show them off to his friends – and why wasn’t his picture in the paper yet?

My plastic smile might still be plastered on, but my patience wasn’t deep enough to humour his monopoly of my time – I hurried him through the collection and told him I didn’t have time to stay and chat.

He told me another terrible joke and once again said we should have a beer together at the pub.

Again, my non-committal reply: If I see you around, I will say hi.

When I walked back into reception, one of the women standing there asked me how I can stand to even speak to that horrible man. She made a disgusted face and said she refuses to serve him when he comes into her shop. I wished I could do the same.

Especially the next day, at 3pm, when reception phoned me to advise he was standing in the foyer – he had come to pick me up, to take me to the pub.

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The perils of hosting a community art exhibition

He wandered around the makeshift art gallery set up to display the children’s art works.

His gait was uneven, though any injury he had was hidden by his long overalls pooling over the top of his unblemished workboots. The sound of his footsteps bounced off the walls of the unpopulated community hall, a hollow sort of thud-THUD, thud-THUD that made the space seem even more cavernous than it was.

I felt awkward, standing off to the side, torn between walking with him to explain the processes the children had taken, and giving him the time and the space to inspect and appreciate the art in his own way.

Hands clasped behind my back, I rocked back and forth on the worn soles of my mary janes, wishing – not for the first time – that I was one of those people whose throat didn’t close up when they had to make smalltalk with strangers. Or people in general.

I checked the time on my phone. 11.04am. Three more hours of this. We had been open for 55 minutes and he was the first person through the door.

He had threaded his way around the desks, past the toilet roll sculptures and cereal box structures. He had appreciated the paper-plate faces with their crepe paper strands of hair and was making his way towards the more sophisticated “flowers” made out of paint-covered soda-bottle-bottoms when something made him stop in his tracks.

He looked up at me, sharply.

I smiled my most welcoming “how can I help you” smile, waiting for his question.

“I’ve been in jail”, he said before immediately resuming his walk.

Moments passed as my feeble mind attempted to process not his words – I heard those – but the purpose for which he uttered them.

He wasn’t looking at me. He wasn’t making any attempt to come near me, or engage me any further.

“I bet you’re glad to be out now”, I replied, what felt like hours later.

“Yeah” he mumbled, his back to me, his head nodding slowly on his thick neck.

He began shuffling past the last exhibition, no longer interested in the items on display. “Well, seeya”, he said in the dull monotone I had become accustomed to, throwing his hand up to give me a wave as he made his way out the door.

“Well. At least that’s the day’s weirdo done and dusted”, I thought to myself.

Oh so incorrectly.

Performance Review

Sad But True
Tell us about the harshest, most difficult to hear — but accurate — criticism you’e ever gotten. Does it still apply?

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/10/22/daily-prompt-harsh/

In October or November of 2006, my long-term partner went to Melbourne with his new band, to record their next album. He was gone for two weeks, and those two weeks were the only time during our five and a half year relationship where I’d ever been alone in the house for more than a single evening.

It was an eye-opening experience. It turns out I was much happier when he wasn’t around – our relationship had well and truly run its course and it was only fear and friendship that was keeping us together.

I had planned on doing it differently, but thirty minutes after he returned home from his trip, greeting me with a smile and a “happy to be here” sigh, my mouth let go of the words that had been trying to find their way out of there since I made my decision a day or so before:

“I’m moving to Melbourne”, I said, unable to hide the excitement in my voice.

We didn’t need to discuss whether I wanted him to come with me or not. We both knew I didn’t, and we also knew that he wouldn’t leave his band, even if I asked.

Four months after this announcement, I flew into a city I’d never visited, with a single suitcase to house my entire life’s possessions. I was met at the airport by a dear and delightful friend, whose offer for me to stay on her couch happened to be my ticket to salvation, and the only way I could have left that relationship.

I had a job interview the next day, and was offered the job immediately.

It was a small mortgage broking firm located on St Kilda Road. There were four people already employed and I was to be their fifth. They were all quite young, the eldest being in his late 30s/early 40s, the youngest (besides me at 24) being 30.

I noted during my interview that they were all wearing extremely casual clothes – the boss, the owner of the company, was in board shorts, thongs and a t-shirt. The Manager was in denim shorts and a button-up short-sleeve, the other female was in purposely-torn jeans and a t-shirt with a sun on it.

“As you can see, we’re quite informal about dress codes around here – all our client work is done over the phone”.

I warned them – my casual wardrobe tended to feature a single shade: black. It had platform boots and a lot of buckles, spikes or skulls. They were fine with that – we don’t spend time with clients, remember?

It all began quite well. My job was to follow up with clients we had requested paperwork from. Our clients were really at the end of their tether – we were their last hope for them to keep their homes. We literally saved lives in that office, when people were able to help themselves.

That’s where I came in. My job was to be pushy with them – to tell them everything they needed to get to us, and to make sure they did it.

I never once felt confident. I didn’t understand mortgages. I failed maths. I felt useless. I didn’t know what the paperwork was that I was asking them to return because I’d never even seen our forms. When they would ask me how to fill it out, I would go into a panic, worried that I would say the wrong thing. I asked for help, but it didn’t matter how it was explained to me, I would fall to pieces the minute I had to call someone.

They constantly told me I was too quiet on the phone. I needed to be louder, stronger.

Then there was my drinking problem. I knew they were aware of it because I didn’t show up on my fourth day in the job because I was waking up in a random house in Fitzroy, texting my dear friend in a panic because three days living in Melbourne hadn’t been enough time for me to orient myself with the city or its transport, and I’d forgotten the address I was living at. Also the name of that suburb.

… you’d think these are the things they would have brought up in my probationary review, right?

Instead, they asked me why I wanted to look unattractive, like a 15 year old boy, with all those piercings and skulls and listening to that metal? They asked if I wanted to join them on the weekends when they did Self Improvement workshops, or played sport together. They asked me why I hate myself and whether I had someone who knew how unhappy I was. They asked me if I’d been molested or raped or beaten.

They offered to fix me. To help me fix myself.

“We fixed Erica*”, they all smiled, Erica included.

Apparently she’d been wayward, like me. She was into kinky sex until they fixed her. Now she didn’t hate herself and didn’t need that any more.

It floored me. I felt sick. Claustrophobic. I knew I wasn’t great at hiding my drinking, but what the fuck? Wanting to look like a 15 year old boy? Wanting to look ugly? Raped? If they think this is bad, they should have seen me in my Sydney days!

At the time this occurred, I thought I was doing quite well for a girl who was suddenly living alone after being in one long-term relationship or another for the vast majority of her life. I thought I was coping with it okay. Even my drinking was okay because it was only me putting up with it.

The moment they reached out to me, I ran in the opposite direction.

I ended up quitting my job by pulling yet another all-nighter and when they called me at 10am to find out whether I was coming in, I got my friend to answer my phone for me.

“Is she drunk again?”, my boss asked.

“Yes”, my friend answered uncomfortably. Probably because I’d forced her into answering my phone for me. We both knew what the end result of that decision was going to be.

Later that afternoon, seated in the 7/11 on Chapel Street to use their internet, I saw the ad for my job on seek.com.

“I should apply”, I laughed, like a hungover arsehole.

I hated them for pointing out the things I was trying to hide. For pointing out things that I couldn’t see about myself. For making me stop what I was doing and start to look at my life when I legitimately felt that I was doing fine, because all my anxiety had gone.

I had been in a very strange place. I was emotionally numb. There was very little that could affect me. I thought that was The New Me, being stronger than ever before.

It wasn’t until I met Sid, and he spent the weekend at my apartment, shivering in the cold, and he asked me why I didn’t buy a heater, that I realised there was something very wrong with my mental state and my current inability to recognise danger.

I guess I did recognise it to some extent, but I really, really didn’t care about it.

When Sid asked me why I didn’t just buy a heater, it terrified me. I realised it had never crossed my mind that I could warm myself up by doing so.

Instead, I spent every moment in that apartment wrapped in a dressing gown, wearing a beanie, laying in my bed, drinking Jack Daniels, smoking cigarettes, and talking to strangers on the internet until 4am.

I would open the oven door to heat my apartment, or sit on the toilet underneath the Tastic for 10 minutes.

It wasn’t until later that I realised I just never felt as though I deserved to be warm. It wasn’t something I’d consciously decided, and that’s what scared me most – Sid’s appearance in my life changed a lot of things.

It was a few years later when I sat down and sent an email to my old boss.

I apologised for letting my personal circumstances affect my work. I apologised for letting them down. I explained that their desire to help, their desire to make me part of their family had terrified me, and I wasn’t ready for it, nor had I been ready to get better.

I thanked them for putting my feelings aside, and telling me exactly what they saw. I know it was easier for them than people who loved me, but it still wouldn’t have been easy to sit across from someone and tell them bad things about themselves. To see me cry and continue to tell me what they thought, regardless.

It wasn’t done maliciously, it was done out of a genuine desire to help, and over time, I was able to get past the humiliation, and start to look at the criticisms they had made.

They had been right on many of their points. Wrong on some, but right on most, and without them sitting me down to tell me about it, I may never have addressed those issues, or looked at them close enough to see what had caused them.

I thanked them for giving me the opportunity to do that and received a reply from my former boss, saying he was speechless, but very pleased to hear that I was doing well. He filled me in on the changes that had taken place there, but I don’t think either of us were keen to keep in touch.

It had been horrible to hear the things they said to me, but it’s also something I consider myself very lucky to have experienced – I was in quite a dangerous state at that time, but oblivious to it. They had every right to straight up fire me based on my work performance. Instead, they reached out to me.

There are plenty of people in my position who haven’t had that kind of care or charity. They have been ignored, left to suffer alone, or just watched from a distance as their life fell apart.

I would never wish for another person to sit in a small glass room, with all your coworkers staring at you, each telling you the ways in which you negatively affect their life, but should that scenario ever arise, well, take comfort in the fact that in some way, you mean something to them.

I think that’s exactly what I ran from.

Get in mah belleh

Sometimes there’s a real disconnect that goes on between the brain and the body, when just one too many things pile on top of each other.

That’s roughly where I’m at this week, after returning to work and the avalanche of shit that comes from an understaffed department that has multiple simultaneous deadlines, as well as support you’d relied on just… not showing up.

Stress is most definitely the order of the day in my world right now, and I’m having great difficulty doing all the things I should be doing to at least minimise the harm it is having on my body – I can’t change the situation, but I could at least help it, if I were able to eat, or sleep.

This is, I feel, one of those times where it’s perfectly okay for me to be taking one of those over-the-counter sleeping pills, even though I will be muddy in the head the next morning. It won’t be any worse than the way I start my day now – airy in the head, all light and slow and stupid and ready to break at the first sign of pressure.

5kg down in a week, and no appetite to speak of. Here’s hoping that finishing work on time today, cooking a healthy meal and finally drowning in sleep for a night will reset some of the changes that have happened to my body.

This was an accidental anorexia week – my usual way of losing weight. It’s been a diet of cigarettes and stomach acid. Tasty as fuck, but most definitely not required right now.

It wasn’t exactly the plan for this week and I’d really rather not have to go and buy new clothes again. The Target Kids’ Section doesn’t have anything I like there right now.

… now to decide what to actually cook.

… that I will actually eat.

Autumn in Sydney

When the wind changes and brings a new season, it also brings me my memories.

When it goes from hot to cold like this, it reminds me of nights out clubbing at 19, short skirts, stompy boots and knee-length dread falls that I used as a scarf. Daytime cold reminds me of early mornings, walking from Wynyard Station to Chifley Tower in that same year, my too-small work shoes digging into my feet, feeling very awkward and naked in normal people work clothes, rather than my goth uniform.

I would order a coffee from the cafe outside Chifley Tower, and savour its warmth in my hands. Leaning back into the chair and my woollen coat, buttoned up to the neck, I would read Harry Potter and chain smoke until I had to walk in the doors, to the bank of elevators on the left, and acknowledge but not disturb the rest of the passengers making their way into their 9-5 hells.

My footsteps would echo on the marble floor as I made my way behind the reception desk, to the employee room where all our bags, coats and souls were kept.

My first job every morning was to go to the bathroom and fix any windswept hair or travel-ruined makeup before taking a comb and brushing the tassels of the waiting room rug.

I would restock the communal fridge, by removing all the cold items first, to put the hot ones at the back. Then I would deliver the mail to all the offices on our floor. The IOC offices, boutique law firms, Marketing companies, Stock brokers. The type of people who used our company were either:

  • rich and worked for themselves/with a small team; or
  • rich and needed a Chifley Tower presence

They were all very nice, very important people.

Some days I would be charged out to provide catering for their meetings in the long boardroom, featuring floor to ceiling windows that looked onto the Botanical Gardens. Some days, it was my job to clean those windows, and this was actually my favourite job of all. I could look at that view all day.

When I wasn’t setting up teleconferencing, combing rug tassels, stocking fridges or delivering mail, I was setting up offices for new clients. This included their internet, and every item that came standard with the type of office space they were paying for.

I always found it strange that the lowliest office employee was provided with a key that opened every single office on the floor. This was so I could deliver the clients’ mail when they were out of the office. Surely a mail slot could have been put in each door, negating the requirement for anyone besides the client, Manager and cleaning staff to have access to what would most likely be very valuable, confidential information?

It’s not that I was untrustworthy, I just felt very uncomfortable about entering their offices when they weren’t there.

Occasionally, clients would need secretarial support, and we would be charged out in ten minute increments. We would be asked to do their photocopying, again, charged out at ten minute increments, and the client’s printer ID entered into the copier for every bundle of pages you copied.

We’d do their typing or format presentations, spreadsheets, whatever they required, we could provide. This was definitely preferable to refilling the fridge.

Each afternoon, around 3pm, I would do the banking, dropping in cheques for clients, with more zeroes on the end than I’ve ever seen in my life. When I got back, it would be time to start sorting and franking the outgoing mail, before trudging across the road to the post office with giant, tied bundles of mail. Who knew paper could be so damn heavy?

As 5pm arrived, I would slip back into my heavy coat, throw my bag over my shoulder and walk back down the hill to Wynyard Station. I would stand around with the rest of Sydney, waiting for a train, then I would stand on the train until it began to thin out at Strathfield, and I could finally take the weight off my squeezed up feet.

It was a relief to get my next job, where most of my day was spent behind a computer. As it has been for the ten years that have followed since.

I admit it. I really enjoy sitting down.