wack jobs

a while ago, po over at south african sea monkey did a few posts about wack jobs, and it made me think about one of the first – and worst – jobs i ever had, an astonishing 20 or so years ago now. 

i was at university on loans and bursaries and i was barely getting by. there were months when i’d have 20c to my name with month-end nowhere in sight.  i remember one month i was so broke, i subsisted off guavas from a tree in the front yard of the black sash offices down the street from the commune i lived in in grove road, mowbray. (the result, the worst constipation i’ve ever experienced! be warned, guava eaters!)

someone in my commune was working for a security company called alert alarms, and seeing that i was desperate for money, i asked if she could get me a job there too. 

the job entailed reporting for duty at 5p.m., at a door leading up a set of stairs to a control room with a bank of monitors and a row of chairs infront of it. the shift lasted until 8a.m.. the job was to keep an eye on the bank of electric monitors. if you received a signal that someone’s alarm had gone off, you had to call up the number on record. if someone answered and could give you a pass-code for a false alarm, then that was that. you logged the call in the log book. if you couldn’t reach anyone at either the first or second numbers listed, you called the police and then logged the call.

i would finish my shift at 8 and then have 15 minutes to get to my first lecture of the day – a day which often would end at 11 in the evening, seeing that i was studying a BA in the morning on the main UCT campus and my performer’s diploma at drama school in the afternoon. if i was working on a production, rehearsals would start at 6pm after the afternoon’s classes and go till you were done. next morning at 8, the whole process started all over again.

it was the most grueling schedule, and even though you weren’t supposed to, everyone who worked the control room, would pull the chairs together and at least try to take a nap in the middle of the night. you would hope beyond hope that there wouldn’t be too many calls. one of the guys who lived in my 6 person commune, also worked there and once he fell asleep, a herd of pachyderms couldn’t wake him. i.e., not so alert and not so good for anyone raising an alarm in the middle of the night.

of course, none of us lasted too long in the job. it simply wasn’t sustainable!

a few years later, as i was finishing my last year at university, i was unexpectedly served a subpoena. it appeared that i had responded to a particular call when i was working for the alarm company and a wealthy businessman had been killed in a “burglary” on my watch – a story surprisingly similar to the talented, albeit unfortunate, taliep petersen’s murder. it would seem that i had written in the log-book that i had spoken to someone and “…they said they would check.” i was required to testify in  court whether i had spoken to a man or a woman. uhm… it was the middle of the night. i probably responded to hundreds of calls in the time i worked there. it was about 2 or 3 years later. uh, no, i couldn’t remember!

what i do remember is that i drove a motor cycle at the time and i had to show up at the cape town magistrate’s court looking “suitably presentable”. i had my clothes in the box on the back of my bike which was similar to the many delivery/messenger bikes you used to, and still see, zooming around the city. on the back of the box i had placed a  “why be normal?” sticker, modified to read, “why be norman?” (don’t ask – it made sense at the time). i slipped into the nearest rest room to change into my purple, shoulder-padded, pencil-skirted suit and low-heeled pumps. you’d never have guessed. after my testimony, back i changed into my biking gear and helmet.

the dead man’s wife was eventually convicted of hiring some men to murder her husband. (?!)  it was all totally bizarre. 

the job was horrible. you were always tired. you never had enough sleep. your body was always sore from napping on those horrible chairs. you were responsible for responding instantly to any possible alarm, this when you were constantly exhausted. and the hours were impossible! i’m sure right now there is some impoverished student nodding off in front of a bank of monitors. hopefully not at the company i now pay to respond to my alarms. what do you think? how alert are they?

should i be worried?