Yes! Officer Krupke, he shouldn’t be here
This boy don’t need a couch, he needs a useful career
Society’s played him a terrible trick
And sociologically he’s sick!
— Gee, Officer Krupke (Westside Story, Stephen Sondheim)
Have you ever had to explain to somebody that the Holocaust did in fact happen? Maybe a co-worker, or someone on Facebook, or a particularly curious if off-putting child? How about someone who holds your future in their hands? Someone who you’ve watched bully a man with one arm into a job stacking shelves at Coles? Someone who just last week referred to a severely intellectually disabled man as a ‘born slacker’? Have you ever had to turn to that person and explain to them, slowly and delicately, that Hitler was a very real man who did some very bad things and that the Holocaust was not a collective false memory cleverly beamed into our brains by the race of lizard men who secretly run the world?
Oh, you haven’t?
Well, just imagine you have for a moment. And that at the end of your brief yet exacerbated explanation they turn back to their computer, sniff, and say ‘well, that’s not what I’ve heard’ then tell you there’s a minimum wage job going in a town in the wheat-belt that’s best known for its record breaking suicide statistics—and that you have to take it, or starve.
Job Officer Kristen was the crony assigned to me by the private disability employment service Centrelink had fobbed me off to in 2017. Each of our sessions would begin with me bemoaning my lack of funds and her showing off the $300 nail art she would have applied every other week. They were admittedly works of art, in the sense that they left me feeling confuse as to why they were so expensive. They’d be themed—Christmas, her birthday, her pug’s birthday—and they’d clack back and forth in a dexterous Mexican wave as Officer Kristen berated me for failing to find work in the sandy dustbowl of Perth’s post-boom bust.
I’d ended up on disability through a rare misapplication of honesty on MyGov. My body was wracked with pain and I moved like an unhinged door after two possibly unnecessary hip surgeries. My mind was rotted through with what the complete strangers that make up my online community refer to as ‘brain worms’: a rattlebag of DSM criteria, including a then recent autism diagnosis which I immediately regretted disclosing at my local Centrelink office. They had me fill out a questionnaire which deemed me, in one staffer’s words, ‘6/10ths a retard’, just enough to put me in the hands of the hired goons at a disability employment service.
I wasn’t unemployed, strictly speaking, just working in the arts (mistake) while living in Perth (terrible mistake). I had ten-ish years experience under my belt, and was being published regularly by large international media conglomerates, mainly writing, perhaps ironically, about my mental health and cartoons (see: underemployed.)
The only media jobs available in Perth at anyone time are Kerry Stokes’ fluffer (to lawyer’s: this is a joke) or copywriter for Fortescue Metals, both of which I am automatically disqualified from for not going to Scotch College. So, officer Kristen would have me applying for jobs where my years giving backhanded compliments to Australian rock bands on now defunct music blogs might come in handy: apprentice trash sorter, apprentice pig gutter, apprentice hole filler, or apprentice snake wrangler (note: a job I did hold, briefly).
I’d invariably have to explain to Officer Kristen that my disabilities, y’know, the ones that landed me in her care, prohibited me from being a decent apprentice pig gutter and such, plus, I was too pretty.
This would lead to her asking the question that bracketed 90% of our sessions: was I better yet?
are you cured?
have your disabilities cleared up yet?
To which I’d have to tell her, regretfully: nope!
The constant interrogation of your disability/health was an essential service of the disability employment service. The staff’s health training didn’t go beyond a video HR showed them on the dangers of putting metal cutlery in the microwave, so the conversations were always somewhat limited, running along the lines of:
Autistic…like that…rain man bloke? You got rain man powers?
You should use your OCD to be a detective, like Monk. Remember Monk?
And so on.
I had it better than most. I’m high functioning, stable, and supported by my family. I was probably the luckiest so-and-so in that brick bunker office. Throughout my weekly shamings and quixotic job hunts I’d witness the soul flattening humiliation of this system bare down on those far worse off than me, folks who often quite literally did not have a leg to stand on.
The manager was a Joburg expat who moved to Perth after Mandela took the Springbok out of his step, a classic rowing coach bully three divorces deep who I’ll refer to as ‘Oscar Pissed-onerous.’ Oscar hated his clients, who he called customers. He made a point of picking on the especially helpless—the less likely it was that they were able to cause trouble for him down the line, by complaining to some force or body that none of us (to my knowledge) were ever made aware of, the more likely it was that he’d chew them out for his and Kristen’s dead eyed amusement.
In my entire time there, I never saw a carer or helper of any kind. It was just Oscar and his victims. I slowly found myself becoming a surrogate nurse and translator for people whose ability to communicate, even with kind souls, was incredibly limited.
I remember comforting one such man who Oscar had berated into a rocking shut-down after the man had twisted off at him for his inability to hold a night job at the meat packing plant. This same man had to travel forty minutes by bus to receive these weekly lashings, and would have his home address written on a folded sheet of paper he kept in his back pocket.
One time Oscar and Kristen both scolded me for laughing at Tom, the comically hapless officer who I thankfully never had to deal with, as he tried to convince a man missing all his fingers to take a job picking pears in Donnybrook.
While this was happening my writing career was taking off, somewhat. I’d gone viral. My writing was being read by millions of content huffing scrollers all over the wold, translated into several languages, shared, misquoted, RT’d! My dms were full of death threats and Portuguese men thanking me for describing bipolar in a way that they could pass on to their girlfriends! All this and more, and paid about the same rate as a 19th century newsie, with no need to adjust for inflation. The arts, baby!
Kristen would tell me that my problem was that I was unskilled, which eventually led to me asking if I was unskilled enough to do her job. She told me no, I had to do the ten week course if I was ever going to get anywhere near her level of unskilled.
Ten weeks seemed like an awfully long time, so I deferred to her expertise.
I would tell myself that this was a passing thing, that my luck would get better, that despite everything, I deserved more.
But I was wrong.
I was at the midpoint of a decade long cycle of underemployment, caught on the lower deck of an industry that was at that point getting the deckchairs on the Titanic to pivot to video. Perth’s boom left a mud-heap of half finished housing developments in its wake, the only way it had tangibly brushed up against my life was by making beer more expensive and turning old friends into meth addicts.
Plus, I was a verified doofus, a Dorothy by way of Forrest Gump, caught in the whirlwind, peeking behind the curtain of the MyGov app to see John Howard in a dunce cap, laughing at me.
Covid has sucked me back into that cycle. I find myself again dodging job officers, ducking robodebt, and weaving between the structural collapse of a system built to fail you. But I’m older now, wiser, a bit more beat down, and more aware of the power that comes with being fed up.
I realised what it is that links me and mine to our job officers: our mutual desperation. Theirs is the desperation that comes with bottom lines, quarterly assessments, and government contracts. They’re there to move a product and that product is you. You’re cuffed at the ankles, like a couple of escaped cons: you, the wily Artful Dodger, and them, a bowing and scraping Hess. Once you come to terms that their fate is tied to your own you realise that you have a smidgen of power. You feel somewhere between Melville’s Bartleby, wheeling out the odd ‘I’d prefer not to,’ and a suicide bomber, willing to take out their whole damn office if they don’t step the heck off.
I had this epiphany back in 2017, right before I left Oscar and Kristen to work with refugees for a non-profit, a job that a relative had hooked me up with (not my job officers, though they did try to claim credit.) One session Oscar off-handedly slid a questionnaire between Kristen and I and told me to fill it out by circling all the fives. The fives, I learned at a glance, were to indicate that their service had been ‘very good.’ I balked, then took Kristen’s pen, and circled all the zeroes I could. Oscar turned redder than when I had had to explain that the Holocaust was real to him, and that the Australian media was not run by ‘Jewry’, but rather Rupert Murdoch (who I then had explain to Kristen, who’d never heard of him). He scrunched up the survey, and handed me another, again insisting on the fives. I said if he didn’t take my zeroes then I’d ‘write an expose’ on how they conducted their business, and his furious red curdled to a seething white.
I never wrote that expose of course, I’m far too slack. Plus, who would take it? No one cares enough about the stories of the unemployed, or, no one cares enough to let us tell them ourselves. And plus, the pay is lousy.
Officer Kristen is just one ostentatiously manicured cog in the mighty Moloch this government has devouring our poor, desperate, and vulnerable. As long as there’s joblessness she has a job, and as long as there’s jobless people chewing their nails to the quick from stress and despair hers can remain resplendent.