“A Working Stiff’s Manifesto”, by Iain Levison (Chapter 4, Part 3)


Levison is pretty well established at the fish processing job last we saw. He’s de facto the head of the crew because some of his roommates from earlier left and also probably due to the amount of time he’s been there. We can only hope that this doesn’t go to his head too much. Even the best of us can get consumed by power.

In the meantime though Levison gets a small Mexican guy named Jorge who works hard but doesn’t talk much and retained Chris from the earlier day while Brian is working on the slime line as Levison recommended.

As it turns out Chris actually has a bit of a head on his shoulders compared to most people Levison has worked with and knows that he’s getting shit pay ($5 an hour plus overtime equals about $530 a week and with government meddling around $400) . Levison again denotes that the only real positive is that due to a lack of utility expenses most of that $400 (if not all ) go straight into his bank.

Chris’s option for making more are limited. With a big monetary goal in mind he could either be a fisher, which would be dangerous and require a good deal of skill or he could be doing processing of the fish at a percentage rate. The percentage rate is less monetarily involved of course but it’s also much less dangerous and requires much less skill. So Chris makes (in my opinion) the smarter decision and decides to stick with the processing job.

As it turns out, Chris is pretty serious about getting another job. He keeps looking when there’s not much else to do on deck and Levison will let him go and search.

Meanwhile Brian is leaving and tells Levison that his knee went out…though it seems more related to all of the calls he keeps making to his family each day that has cost them thousands of dollars.

Chris eventually finds another job and asks Levison if he’d like to come on a three-trip contract. The ship, the Royal Garden, is pretty good looking by comparison. There’s even some background checking to do for employees, which as Levison points out, is equivalent to a three-month background check associated with government jobs in Alaska.

Forgetting you get seasick isn’t a good idea by the way.

Not that Levison did that all, oh no

But in case he did, I’d imagine he’d be spending two days out of the first three vomiting and trying to work at the same time. Man wouldn’t that suck.

While totally not vomiting and being seasick Levison points out something that I find useful as well:

The other thing I realize is that if you are being paid a percentage of the catch, hours mean nothing. You don’t punch in and out, and the company isn’t saving money by having you not work. So everyone has to be busy all the time. (pp. 108-9)

I know that a lot of us who are anti-work or even just sympathetic or understanding towards the position will know all too-well the tyranny of the clock and time-discipline and those things are certainly big factors in why modern work is so deplorable in many ways. But the tyranny of the clock is good for the same reasons its bad (sometimes). At least then you know when you’re gone or you’re not going to be gone. Things have been rigorously and meticulously measured, lined up and put in place for the benefit of everyone…

…Nah, I’m just kidding.

But still, even though bosses take all of the leniency with the tyranny of the clock that they want (one of my first days at a retail job had me sticking around for an extra fifteen minutes with the promise of overtime if I recall correctly) it does have some constants. And sometimes that can be reassuring.

Levison doesn’t have such “luck”.

Chris, as he did before, becomes popular while Levison becomes reviled by the supervisor for not giving enough gusto…while he’s periodically vomiting.

The main focus of this chapter is Levison eventually being put from the slime line in to a big room by himself with a huge roof…and then the fish come in.

Levison gets the “pleasure” of having to push loads of fish upon fish onto a belt. And there’s a panic button, but he shouldn’t use it if he doesn’t have to.

As it turns out, the fish sometimes raise to such a level that it pretty much makes the panic button nigh useless. Especially when the fish is raised up to his neck…which kind of defeats the point of a panic button.

He almost gets crushed on the first load, not realizing at first what was going on. He’s now covered in fish up to his chest and after twenty minutes has pushed them back to levels up to his waist. Once he finishes that the next dump of fish reaches his neck and he can hardly move.

By the last one Levison has a creepily steely resolve about it all:

The fucker who took me off the slime line wanted to kill me. That’s what the looks meant. They tried to bury me in a fish pile, and if I lived, I’d have the most miserable job on the fucking ship. Fuckers. I love this shit. More mackerel through the hole. More, more, more. I am nearly prostrate when the last of the mackerel have gone through and I hear the bolt on my door sliding open, I turn around and stand up straight, like I have just returned from a walk in the park. Kill me, will you. (p. 113)

If that isn’t a positive(ly delusion) attitude I’m not sure what is.

But hey, the managers tells him to take a break and that he “did good” and that’s what matters, right?

Evidently not.

Levison goes to his break and thinks it’s just the ship moving back and forth that’s spilling his coffee but it’s actually the fact that his entire body is convulsing and in pain.

Another supervisor sees this and in some miracle takes compassion on him. Tells him to take the rest of the shift and take a hot shower. It’s thirty minutes of privacy, lovely heat and time to reflect and relax. Levison needs it and he tries to soak it in (no pun intended, probably) as much as possible.

Levison’s sleep isn’t too restful as he wakes up after only an hour and is having leg cramps. He has a co-worked help him onto the floor and he decides to sleep there instead.

He’s awoken by a supervisor who asks if he wants to go back to pushing fish due to his job.

Levison decides he’ll go for double or nothing.

I’ll hand it to Levison (what am I handing?) he makes the best out of a shitty situation:

Now I know what to expect, I can pace myself a little better. After each load of fish, I stretch, try to relax. There is a bar in the ceiling by one of the corners and I can do a pull-up on it when the fish are coming down so that I don’t feel buried alive.  … I keep an extra pair of gloves handy so I can double-glove when the perch come down and not get pricked to death . Once I learn a few tricks like this, the fish room becomes my home. (p. 115)

In addition to that, because it’s considered one of the shittiest jobs on the boat, when Levison is brought to do other stuff he usually gets the easier jobs.

Oh and he’s also getting ripped after about a week of this.

So does this mean it’s true that with the right mindset and tools, hard work can actually be really rewarding?

Yes and no.

It’s obvious that with the right mindset you can justify just about anything or keep doing anything. That doesn’t make it right or a generally good idea. It may also yield you some good results and advantages but again, that doesn’t necessarily mean much more than it contains not all bad.

Crew exchanges are of particular interest to Levison who says when he sees some new people who are college kids that he’ll “love watching ’em squirm”…which is…slightly concerning.

Still, Levison is doing well for himself.

…So how long will that last?

Chris is also doing well for himself and has been offered the job of freezer foreman (one of the most ridiculous job titles I’ve ever heard, honestly). Chris asks Levison to join him as a crew member and that means no more fish room.

But on the plus side (what a warped value system…) this job is fairly easy and doesn’t have a lot of noise to it involved.

Except the talking Chris and Levison are doing which involves Chris telling Levison he’s going to start up his own business. When Levison asks for more details Chris isn’t able to give more and it devolves from there.

Thankfully it’s more of a simmering “fuck you” then a fight.

Now, I know we all do stupid things and I am surely one to not brag about all of the brilliant things I’ve done in my life…but…

Levison and Chris invent a “game” where they put their faces over the slide in front of the conveyor belt and hold them until the box is coming down and try to pull away at the last second.

…This ends just about as well as you’d imagine….

Chris ends up being almost knocked unconscious and Levison is gifted a bloody nose.

Working double time now, Levison finishes the shift for Chris but Chris is pretty much done.

And now Levison (who helped a stupid and irresponsible thing be done to someone he allegedly cares about) is pissed because the people on the boat are going to treat Chris as an outsider now that he’s dead weight.

Look, I totally get breaking up the monotony but like…talk? Make up safer games? On what planet was this a good idea? I’m not saying they should suffer monotony and I understand wanting to not deal with that…but why did they think this was a good idea?

I just can’t have too much sympathy here, sorry.

And then, Levison gets a “whiny” kid named William (we only know he’s whiny via the supervisors and Levison’s POV but I’d bet there’s plenty to be whiny about all the same) and this lets Levison’s power-hungry mood loose:

I take it as a challenge. I’m gonna turn this kid around. By the time I’m through with him, he’s going to love these boxes, he’s going to protest when they tell him to take a break. This is my freeze and down here we work or we freeze. (p. 120)

Uh…where did this come from?

I know it’s partially the power and authority he has but Levison has done a total 180 from the slacker we met a few chapters ago.

Where did this all come from? And why exactly should Levison be taking this as a challenge? I can only speculate because he doesn’t really explain his motivations or the psychology behind it. But, again, I’m going to suggest that part of it is the power and authority he has over William. Combine that with his frustration at the job, the management and possibly things like his life and…well shit, I’m not gonna psycho-analyze him.

I just think he’s being a dick here, really.

Which is different from saying Levison is a dick, I may add.

William is apathetic. It seems like he has some problems at the home with his father throwing him out time after time and I honestly can’t blame him for not giving a shit. I’m not sure why Levison can either.

It slowly escalates from there.

At first Levison just tries to use a gruff voice that he should try harder and eventually after fifteen minutes of William not doing much else different, Levison loses his cool…and this time for real:

I stack my box and another of his falls. “Dickhead, pick up your boxes! This isn’t break time!” I’ve never worked with anyone before who has achieved his level of apathy. I’m not giving up. He’s my personal experiment, and I’m going to turn him into a finely tuned, box-stacking machine. “Get your box!”

He sits and stares. I walk over to him and put my face in his face. “Get your box! Get your box! Get your box! GET YOUR GODDAMNED MOTHERFUCKING PIECE OF SHIT BOX!

He gets up and wordlessly gets back to his work. (pp. 120-1)

So I’ll admit it, in flipping through the chapter to see what places were good to stop I saw this passage and it stuck out to me. Originally I thought Levison was the one being yelled at.

…That’s obviously not the case.

Levison has pretty much let his role as psudeo-supervisor take over his ability to reason out that he has worked with someone as apathetic as William…himself.

Like, has he seen himself in the past few months? He’s someone who’s super-hero line is “I’ll see you later” and his catchphrase is a silent walking away of responsibilities and shirking of duties to other people. Usually within the context of work.

He’s stolen, he’s lied and he’s been plenty apathetic under certain circumstances.

So shit, some slacker solidarity here would be nice.

But I get it. On the other hand, Levison is under the thumbs of the supervisors. Now why is he still there after three days isn’t explicitly said and so I’m not sure why he is still there to begin with. But leaving that aside it still isn’t that surprising that once you’ve internalized your role and othered people into a position of “experiments” and set of goals for themselves. The other person has no real say or decision in the matter. It’s only Levison’s position in the rat-race that matters, not William.

Levison persists though.

He tries to reason with him and he just get stares back.

And then Levison does it.

He not only tells William to work harder but enthusiastically pleads with him about it:

“Five grand, man. You don’t have to take any of [your father’s] shit anymore. Give grand, you could get your own place. Give thousand dollars. You could have women eating out of our hand. Give grand. Think of it.” I’m getting myself pumped up, imagining all the fun I’m going to have when I get out of this shithole freezer. William isn’t talking, so I tell him about my plans, which come to me as I talk. I’m going to put down a security deposit on a beautiful inner city apartment and buy furniture and get cable hooked up legally and sit on my ass all day on my new leather couch and watch bad television. I’m going to take a beautiful women out on dates and walk along the pier with them. I’m going to find a job, a nice job that I can stand where I work with people I like, doing something satisfying, something that makes me feel good about myself, while I’m making enough money topay my bills and maybe save a little extra every month. If you’ve got five thousands dollars, you have the time to actually look for something decent. I tell William all this and realize that I’m becoming carried away with my own enthusiasm.

“I quit,” says William. (p. 122)

Man, and who could blame William?

So that’s the end of this section. The next part should be the last one and then we’re on to the two next chapters which should just be a part or two each.

We’ll have to wait to see if Levison can use this realization of his over-enthusiasm to propel himself back into being a slacker and less of a working stiff.

After those next two chapters we’ll be done with the book and I’ll give a fairly long and somewhat in depth book review sharing my thoughts on this chapter by chapter experiment, the book itself and so on.

I may or may not finish the chapter tomorrow but either way I’ll have an announcement about how you can support my writing on Monday so stay tuned for that!

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