For anyone accusing me of “never doing a hard day’s work in your life”, I can confidently say that that’s not true. I have done exactly two.
Before comedy became my main gig, my first job was working as a plasterer. I got the position because my uncle, who owns a plastering business, thought I’d appreciate the work experience. I know a lot of people get upset about nepotism these days, but no one seemed to care that I wasn’t hired as a tradie on merit. I was, however, certainly fired on merit.
The first thing I learned about working in the construction industry is just how many profane things are written on timber by tradies. Before I hung the plaster sheets on the wall, I got to peruse the assortment of sexist, racist, and homophobic jokes that were scribbled on the wooden frame of the walls. While other teenagers were still at school writing such things in the margins of their textbooks, teen apprentices were etching their profanities into something more lasting (keep in mind this was 20 years ago. I’m sure modern tradies write progressive slurs now).
The 5.30 am wake-up, the long drive to the work site, the unrelenting physical intensity, the too-short breaks, the precarious scaffolding, the peak hour drive home and the full-body aches were a shock to my system. Perhaps I would have gotten used to it, but the thought of making a career out of this kind of work was enough to boost my enthusiasm for academia.
The more senior tradies on site all had injuries from decades spent in the industry. We’re talking torn ligaments in their knees, dislocated shoulders, severed fingers, chronic back pain, electrical burns, broken bones that healed a bit wonky and gave them a limp. One carpenter showed me an epic scar down his hand and explained how he nipped off some of his finger with a circular saw, took a photo, taped it back on, finished cutting the timber so that he didn’t fall behind on the job, then ducked into hospital on the way home to get it patched up. If I so much as stub my toe, I need a month to emotionally recover.
Thankfully, the other apprentices taught me a few tricks on how to avoid work. On my second day, I could barely curl my fingers around a plasterboard for longer than a few seconds. One of the other junior plasterers told me that if I needed a break to recover but didn’t want to look like a slacker, I should hold a hammer and walk around the site like I had something important to take care of. If you pause for a second, someone will ask you for a hand with something else, so the trick was to keep moving and maybe bang a random wall or two with the hammer to maintain the ruse.
Before I gave up towards the end of my second day, I overheard one of the carpenters saying he wasn’t paid for his last job in the highfalutin suburb of Toorak. The owner who hired him to remodel a doorway wasn’t happy that he finished a day late, so she refused to pay the two grand she owed him. Being the idealistic private school teen that I was, I couldn’t help but leap to my aching feet and exclaim that he should “take her to court!” The older tradies within earshot all laugh at such naivete. This was the real world. Chasing the invoice would take time, hiring a lawyer would cost money, going to even a small claims court would mean taking days off work and losing out on perhaps the same amount of money he was owed in the first place. It wasn’t worth the effort.
So maybe two days with tradies was enough to scare me off pursuing such a career. But it was also enough to appreciate the people who do.
Whenever I drive past a work site now – which is every 20 metres in Melbourne – and see a tradie “standing around”, I’m glad they’re getting a bit of reprieve from the often relentless schedule of manual labour. Hell, I did two days of that stuff and I chose to stand around for the rest of my life! At least they’re getting back to it after a few minutes.
Simon Taylor is a Melbourne-born comedian who became the first-ever Australian to perform stand-up on The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon.
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Source: Thanks smh.com