Invisible in high-vis: the hidden world of an event gimp
On council greens and in garbage depots, by highways and under the flightpath, interesting people from distant cultures come to work the shit jobs no one else wants. Some do it for adventure, others out of desperation. I belonged to both categories. At the start of 2014 I was 29 and teetering on the edge of full-blown depression. I had a media job with great pay and dreadful hours. I was sleeping once every two days, friends and events were a distant memory and I had no time or energy for writing.
Driving home from a 3am start I nodded off waiting at a set of traffic lights, and woke up as my car began drifting into the intersection. So I walked away from good money and shit hours for a job with shit money and worse hours. I became the temp gimp - the stupidest person in any room. Example: you get hired for a day in Blacktown, haul ass across the city and stand around with your thumb in your ass until a day manager starts shouting at you.
"I'm not paying you to do nothing!" he ejaculates, chins trembling.
"I'm waiting for Stacey to find my hardhat," you reply.
He'll walk away without apologising. The fate of the stray is to be kicked.
The fireworks scheduled for seven were postponed for rain, cancelled, postponed, then began at nine. I was standing under the roof of a demountable, mud puddling in my off-brand Blundstones. The park was deserted, crowds driven off by the downpour. My co-worker, a nervy Canadian who spoke with his hands, was taking photos on his mobile phone.
The two of us were working an Australia Day event for an inner-Sydney council. We'd been there since noon, seen the whole grimy mess from behind high-vis vests. Face painting, a magician, some T20 stars, Brazilian street food and a handful of piebald lambs.
“How many people stuck around?” I asked.
“About 30,” he said. “A lot left when the rain started.”
With nothing else to do, we stood around eating Fantales we'd swiped from the site office. On the Canadian's phone the fireworks ran together, purple to red to blue, metalwork flowers painted in light.
“I usually don't like fireworks.” I said.
“Oh yeah?” He looked away from the display. “Why's that?”
“I dunno. Big, dumb displays of wealth. And the military feel of them?” I pointed to the illuminated sky. “I like this though.”
“Yeah,” he said, “it's like our own private show.”
The call came down the walkie talkie that the show was finishing up. We had to get in the buggy and start collecting the advertising boards we'd hung a few hours earlier. I drove at full speed through deserted fields of half-eaten pluto pups. Cops waved us past, security glared at us over styrofoam coffees. The vest made you invisible, like a VIP ticket to the worst backstage you could imagine.
“What do you suppose they paid for all this?”
“The advertising?” The Canadian asked.
“Everything, I mean – we're here on $60 an hour, pulling down security tape for a fireworks display seen by, like, 40 people.” I swerved to hit a coke can and we high-fived. “I've probably spent more time reading in the demountable than actually doing anything.”
“Not bad work.”
“Not work at all.” I pointed to a sign on the far side of the field. “Are we supposed to get that?”
Here's how it works: the employer needs a couple of guys for a couple of days. He contacts the agency and the agency contacts you. December 2014, I'm packing up an installation of corporate art for a small company that specialised selling direct to furniture retailers like Harvey Norman. In an aircraft hanger at the Olympic Park, the guy took me aside, his large, gnarled fists turned forward like an ape's.
"Look mate, give us your number and I can give you guys a call next time I need you. I'll give you $25 an hour, cash in hand, no questions."
"There'll be no problems with the agency?" Asked my American flatmate.
"Nah, listen - I pay them $45 an hour for you, it totally guts me. You work for me, it's all cash in hand, no worries."
"45?" I said.
"Yeah. Fucks my overheads, that's for sure."
We were getting $19 an hour. We gladly accepted.
The minimum call-out time for the event agency was four hours, so if a job was moving ten picnic umbrellas from one side of a plaza to another, you took four hours. All on the public dime. If the guy with the key was late to the warehouse, you sat in the cab of the truck and read for 30 minutes, all on the clock, until some coke-addled business grad drove daddy's Jag over to the lock-up.
In January 2015, I finally had a few days work lined up, driving and slaving for a dance party on Goat Island. I had parked the truck and was reading Perdido Street Station in the cab. When the guy showed up, 25 minutes late, he shook my hand in a desultory way and led me to the storage unit. As he slid the door open, the most unbelievable stank blasted out.
“Oh,” he said. “I think something's gone off.”
A tin storage cube three metres wide, four metres high, sweltering in direct sunlight and this guy had left 60 cases of Rekordelig in the unit for two months. Brown effluent glued the tall cans to their pulped, cardboard cases. For 40 minutes, an Italian law student and I hauled dripping trolleys to a nearby skip bin and pored through them, washing the good ones in a bucket of water and chucking the rest.
“Can I leave you guys to it? I need to get some lunch.” The guy had been on the phone with a friend for a half hour.
“No problem. Must be a tough day.” He looked confused. “With the cans and all.”
“Not my problem. All this is already paid for. Do you think you can lock up when you're done?”
“Yeah, I think I can manage that.”
I was sitting on the same soon-to-be-overpriced cans as we were ferried out to the island. As the barge passed below the Anzac Bridge I felt immeasurably distant from the grey nightmare of the office. I had been crowing to friends about the outrageous pay I would receive from this Goat Island party, but the money was already spent. I had a 14-hour day behind me, a 16-hour one in front. Jostled by the waves, I calculated how much I would make after tax, subtracting bills, the money owed to friends, the bottle of Jamiesons needed to put me to sleep. I couldn't tell if it was worth it, this hassle, the pay, being treated like an idiot, the lack of responsibility. White foam blew up from the stern, obliterated by the sun and the air.
Someone somewhere had thought a ’90s themed party on an island in Sydney Harbour was a good idea. It put me in mind of a dog eating its own vomit - affluent 20-somethings wallowing in cultural affectation made trendy by ironic detachment and MDMA. There was a Red Bull halfpipe with X-sports professionals; stoned Canadians juggling their bikes and boards over the vista of the Harbour Bridge. The crowd were pinging out of their minds, half naked, waving over-priced drinks in the air to DMX remixes. White guys in Yankee caps, Bulls jerseys and Flavour-Flav clocks dangling from their sun-blasted necks. Early in the day, I had to hold up the canvas awning that covered the DJs because a reveller had crashed through it. As I did, the skeezy manager, a discount Kevin Dillon type, came over and yelled in my ear.
“Try and keep them from dancing on the stage.” He gestured to the crowd. “If the chick is like a 9 or 10, sure, but otherwise don't let 'em on. I want a nice, clean look.” Just as he said this, a big girl with sleeve tattoos and green hair extensions tried to wander onstage. He jabbed his thumb at her.
“Handle this shit, would you?”
One of the carrots they had dangled in front of us was a promise we would be able to swim while the concert was going on. Then some bright spark in management realised that if the gimps jumped in the water, they'd have every other punter trying it as well. So the message came down on the walkie-talkies – no swimming. The way it had worked out, the Benetton rainbow of displaced Europeans and I spent the hottest part of the day dragging crowd barriers and ferrying ice to the bars. Now the show was over and the scum were drifting off, leaving their afro wigs behind. We couldn't start the clean up until the barges arrived. So I went for a swim.
It was behind the ranger's shed, a jetty eight or nine feet out of the water. I checked for rocks, stripped down to my underwear and took a running jump into the bay. Party-goers in a water taxi waved and wolf-whistled as I climbed back up the ladder. I was hoping/not hoping they would pull over and offer to take me away from the six hours of grunt work ahead. I would have liked to crash whatever North Shore orgy they were en route to, but if I did I couldn't make rent. I dove back into the sea. Coming up for air, I saw the Italian law student and the French ex-banker running over.
“This is okay?” The Italian asked.
“Why not?” I said. “You should jump in.”
“I think maybe the water is no good,” said the Frenchman.
“Fine,” I said, scaling the ladder. A storm was beginning to roll in from the east, grey against the steel of the bridge. In about four hours, those same clouds would be drenching us as we stuffed garbage bags of broken glass into skip bins while our supervisors looked on. For the moment, Goat Island glittered prettily.
“Come on,” I said, getting ready to jump again. “The water's great.”
“Really?” said the Italian.
We laughed, the three of us, as he stripped down to his Calvin Kleins and dove off the pier. I looked over at the Europeans, wondering where they'd be in a few months. None of us had plans beyond the weekend, all waiting on the next phone call, the next gig, the next pay cheque. But for the moment, the water was cold and salty. Across the water, trains rattled on their brittle runners as the night shift began.