October 16 , 2018
Before leaving for work I made a big fuss for my mum. It was her birthday, my dad had already left, and my brother had just moved to New York so the emotional burden fell to me. I made her a cup of tea, hugged her, my border collie got excited, and we agreed to do presents in the evening. I had to clean my teeth and do my hair in like, two minutes.
I’m a year away from graduation, and it’s like I’m under the yoke of some kind of societal duty to begin a fascination with the trappings of adult life. Apartments are pointed out to me (“A lot of young people live in Chippendale, Tom!”), potential romantic partners are introduced to me and I’m expected to furnish them with “real dates” (“Going to putt-putt golf isn’t a real date, Tom.”), waiters are directed to take our family’s order from me (“Getting the octopus was a joke, Thomas.”)
One of the things I’ve loved most about the dawdling irresponsibility of university life is the thrill of cycling through stupid and futile jobs. I spent one forgettable summer working at Sunglass Hut. At first it was awesome — I got two pairs of free sunnies (rounded Ray-Bans with a blue tint and grey Persols) and another pair for 50% off (I lost them). After a few weeks, I realised my feet hurt from standing for five hours and I hated the people I worked for and with. I started to go to the pub for two gin and tonics before work and took over-the-counter medicine to make the 12-5 shift go faster. It didn’t, so I quit over the phone and felt great.
Currently I’m working as a paralegal at a mid-tier law firm in Sydney. A former employee wrote a memoir about his time at this firm called Hell Has Harbour Views. We have since moved offices, so we don’t have the harbour views anymore. I work there two days a week when I’m not in class.
I got to work at 8:30 a.m. on the dot because I’m very punctual. I share an office with a 24-year-old misanthrope, his personality a casualty of the boredom endemic to the legal profession. I think I’m the only person in the office he likes. I relaxed into my chair, dizzy from the fumes of a hangover.
One of my favourite co-workers just got back from maternity leave so we talked for about twenty minutes. That’s a lot for a lawyer -– when you measure your life in six-minute increments, any extended diversion takes on a real significance. She told me it was pretty silly that I wanted to do human rights law. “You can go to work every day in a suit and get paid $50,000, or you can get paid $500,000 dollars,” she said. “And when you’re thirty and poor and everyone you know is buying a house, you’ll regret it.”
I have a good job. Most law students would kill for the experience, let alone the cash. I get $30/hr, which sounds like a lot to someone from another country, and it probably is, but remember that Australia actually has a feasible minimum wage (~$18/hr), and you also have to factor in inflation, exchange rates, and the fact that I only work there two days a week. At Sunglass Hut, I used to scoff at the mark-up. The glasses would cost like $40 to make and then they’d sell them for around $240. Then I saw the bill at my law firm, how a lawyer would cost the client about $220 an hour and I’d be paid about $30.
I try to see how long I can wait in the morning before I can get a coffee. I normally wait until about 10:45, because by then the sandwich place next my coffee place is putting out samples for lunch so I get a free morning snack. I lucked out with Cajun chicken, probably my favourite sample. Boring days tend to move in checkpoints. Coffee at eleven. Caffeine means I can wait out the midday rush and get lunch at half-past one. Tea at three. I can technically leave at five if I wanted to so it’s not that big of a hassle to stretch that out until about half-past five and make the ferry at quarter-to.
During the day, I was occupied by the dreaded process of doc review. My job involves reviewing thousands upon thousands of emails and engineering sketches to find evidence that may be relevant to our client, a construction company suing the state government for allegedly not telling them that building a rail system was going to take as long as it is taking. Allegedly is a sacred word in the legal profession. Legal work is like this—taking a series of misunderstandings and bending them until you’re right. I didn’t find many relevant documents that morning. After a few hours of staring at a screen, the letters of inane emails started to jumble together, and I began to melt into my chair, and I felt like the rest of my life was woven into the wiring underneath the desktop casing. Soon after, I went to my favourite lunch spot, walking through the rain. They make wraps and intergalactically good chips. My favourite wrap is called the “American Dream”—I don’t know what makes it particularly American, but it has cheese, chicken schnitzel, pickles, and more and it tastes fantastic.
After lunch I noticed I was ahead of time in my allotted batch of emails. I read some articles, texted some friends, and stared around the office. I realised that the corners at the edge of the cubicles didn’t meet at a sharp corner; they were blunted, as if someone had cut a triangle off the corner. Why did they design offices like this? The conventional answer is simply that office safety requirements dictate that all sharp corners are blunted to mitigate against a lawyer tripping and losing one of her eyes. A more pessimistic person, the kind of person who had just spent five hours reviewing emails, might think that they had blunted the corners so that same depressed motherfucker couldn’t find her way out of work by smashing her skull against whatever sharp corner she could find. Then again, maybe they’re just scared of being sued. I started to notice how the entire office was proofed against random acts of self-harm; smooth coat-racks, unopenable windows, etc.
During the afternoon, my phone buzzed with the news that 30 Australian senators had voted for the motion that the Senate would acknowledge “the deplorable rise of anti-white racism” and “that it is okay to be white.” “If I had said it’s OK to be black,” said the odious racist Pauline Hanson, “every single senator in the chamber would have voted for it.” The stark reminder that you live in a horrifically racist country can really fuck up your whole day. It’s the kind of news that makes you want to bash your head against a desk, or alternatively get into human rights law.
I stopped by the shops on the way home. I bought candles, flowers, a cake, and sparklers. I was home before mum, thankfully, so I made two gin and tonics and put them on the kitchen table next to the flowers and my present because I love her. She had been a little sad since my brother left, but he called her in the morning and she seemed to be in a good mood. When I heard her car pull in the back street, I tried to light the sparklers but my lighter wouldn’t work. She laughed, we got matches, hugged, and drank our gin and tonics. We went to dinner in the city, a nice place, where we had too many dumplings and talked about the other people around us.
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Tom St. John