Originally published 14 March 2012
At times, my life is like an absurd socio-economic comedy. What happens to a young man of obscure social standing, neither comfortably middle-class but not really that poor, when he’s a wannabe writer fresh out of college with a journalism diploma? The career he chose is highly underpaid and, even to make it into that meager salary bracket, he has to navigate through a maze of close-knit networking, unpaid work and internships. To add to his plight, his baby is ready to burst forth into the world from his girlfriend’s inflated womb at any second. It becomes excruciatingly clear that he’s teetering on an unstable ladder in-between the middle class and working class realms. Eventually it’s going to come toppling down on one side with no safety net to catch him.
Just over two years ago I enrolled in a college diploma course in journalism, vowing to turn my lowly existence around after spending half a decade doing depressing, subservient retail jobs like packing CDs on shelves in alphabetical order, hanging up clothes and swiping credit cards at a surf shop. Eating shit from customers because of faulty phones and network issues at a Vodacare service counter.
A good couple of months after handing in my final exam sheets, though, the money I was making from this very veritable chronicler of Mzansi culture, doing the odd bartending job and working as a doorman every second weekend at Cold Turkey just was cutting it. I was pretty much still matching the wages I pocketed as a waiter at Spur when I was in high school. With the overpowering burden of having to pay off a monstrous student loan on top of the cost of rent, cots and diapers; I had to can the ambitions of soaking up pop culture while interning at prestigious magazines, freelancing (a euphemism translating to dignified unemployment) or straight up writing yarns for charity, to take whatever job came my way. There was no choice. I needed to make money right away, by any means necessary.
In January I joined the rest of the 99% in the sweat-filled trenches when I was offered a contract to put up wallpaper on the sixth floor of Engen head office. Appointed as a lackey to the skilled artisans, my 7-day work weeks were spent stripping off the old paper, removing glue and paint spatter off carpets with rags and 5L bottle of thinners and breaking my back, awkwardly moving office fittings and deceptively heavy filing cabinets which were reinforced with titanium. Since I knew less about working with tools than the bar charts and ledgers, which made the accountants on that floor sit completely transfixed on their computer screens, I sliced my fingers twice with a box cutter within ten minutes of the first day. In the days that followed, the overtime we were clocking and because of the fact that we had no days off, I was nodding off like a narcoleptic during my lunch breaks and on the train to and from work. It was almost enough to make me quit, but the pay raked in three times the amount of dough than the aforementioned writing gigs. I could only laugh at the fact that I was of more value to society in the wallpaper game. Despite paying through my ass for an education, I was, in fact, worse off than before I had one. College helped my previously ignorant self to understand the meaning of irony, plus with my newly developed faculties of reason, I could rationalise the situation. Makes sense I guess; in the fast food world of online journalism a story holds relevance for a day or two. Wallpaper sticks for years to come.
These days I’m selling my labour more than my words. Last week while suckers on this site were scribbling up art reviews about the Design Indaba, I was resting up after making proper loot as a yes-man with a walkie-talkie. Just one of the hundreds of workers playing my small part tending to minor electrical glitches in the stalls at the Indaba conference, setting up display stands, lugging boxes of informational pamphlets and helping to turn the hall of the CTICC from a construction site into an exhibition. So what’s more honest – written art-faggotry or physical labour? The cash points to the latter.