Whangarei writer Michael Botur describes how the shit jobs he’s had have provided valuable material for his new collection of short stories, Lowlife.
It was hard moving to Northland in 2015 and finding income and inspiration in its very small economy. I laboured on the catamaran of a rich lawyer with obvious plastic surgery. He paid me fifteen bucks an hour to polish his boat’s stainless steel barbecue til it shone. I mowed lawns, renovated a bach, did telephone surveys asking East Cape farmers which brand of dog food they prefer. From December 2015 to January 2016 I even worked nightfill stocktake at The Warehouse. There were about 80 people there, an army scanning one million barcodes in the City With a Single Ceiling for nine hours a night for $15.25 an hour. I’m pretty highly educated, yet I fucked up the counting of the car air fresheners once, twice, a third time – and then I was sent home in disgrace. I didn’t take home a lot of money, but I did take home “The Rich Bitch”, a great story about the surreal world of nightfill.
My stories are about wanting to explain what people accused of dodgy things must have been thinking when they did them. It’s this motivation that drives Steve Braunias to profile characters like Guy Hallwright and Clint Rickards in The Scene of the Crime, or motivates Alan Duff to explain why Jake The Muss justifies king-hitting a white dude at the pub urinal because the dude had bigger muscles than Jake. Alex in A Clockwork Orange shares his rationale/worldview with us, as do Begbie in Trainspotting and Patrick Bateman in American Psycho and John Self in Money. The late New Zealand author Bill Payne in Poor Behaviour spoke for characters shooting smack before a concert, going to jail, or simply standing in line waiting for the dole. Pip Adam wrote a story about workers at a $2 Shop. Alice Tawhai writes about wild Māori misadventures out in the wops where there’s no money going around. All of Charlotte Grimshaw’s amazing stories feature people dealing with irresponsibility and victimhood.
I have a story “Wonder Woman”, about a witness to shoplifting who feels liberal guilt for not helping the shoplifter escape arrest and imprisonment. It was inspired by witnessing such a thing in real life a couple years ago and remarking on it to the cops when I was working a data collection job at the Whangarei police station. The police officers were unimpressed that I hadn’t played my part in getting a person locked up. A story grew from that; plenty of stories came from working at the cop shop, actually. Police stations are where free people intersect with trapped people. Even when I was collecting urine samples from crooks at 6am in winter, that police station survey job was enlightening and made me appreciate my freedom. My job was to sit arrestees down for a lengthy survey about how much they drink, smoke, steal and deal. The surveys got a little interesting if the arrestee was high on crack (meth) and couldn’t sit still. I had warm, polite, respectful conversations with boys who had robbed a dairy with a rifle, with an alcoholic member of a fairly exclusive church who had beaten up his dad, with a thug with a reputation for putting people in freezers, with people charged with banging minors – and with a charming girl who was part of a meth dealing crew.
Northland has the lowest median income in New Zealand, so a lack of money motivates plenty of my characters in stories I’ve written since moving here. Many are so hopeless that they do self-destructive things to empower themselves. In “Granny Frankenstein” an elderly woman with arthritis gets involved in drug dealing because she doesn’t have any other way to access medicinal cannabis. Drugs need thugs, and Granny’s thugs end up hurting people pretty close to her. Sure she becomes a low-life, but if you know the relief drugs provide when life feels unfair, you’ll support Granny’s mission.
The struggle for many people to earn the living wage of $20.20 per hour is a big problem in Northland and all around. It’s good inspiration, though, if you’re fortunate enough to have family and education to help you get out of the struggle.
I have had short-lived jobs in cemetery admin, done drug surveys outside Shosha shops on High Street, pruned rich people’s flax bushes, waterblasted a roof for an eccentric wealthy pilot, hacked out bamboo roots for the hipster organiser of a major Auckland food festival and weeded the shrubbery of a Chinese clinic in Remuera. You leave these jobs with callouses, cuts and munted hamstrings, but you learn how the other, wealthier half lives and realise how consumerism and class conflict are important material for stories.
I’ve always spent each sweaty labour day thinking deeply about the characters around me, my emotional reactions to them, the conflict and politics within each job situation and how I can turn it all into a story. Art is far more rewarding than the minimum wage.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.