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Oddness and Evenness (Part 1) On the Perpetuity of Odd-jobbing

Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung

"I spent what light Saturday sent sweating And learned to cuss cutting grass for women Kind enough to say they couldn’t tell the damned Difference between their mowed lawns And their vacuumed carpets just before Handing over a five-dollar bill rolled tighter Than a joint and asking me in to change A few light bulbs. I called those women old Because they wouldn’t move out of a chair Without my help or walk without a hand At the base of their backs. I called them Old, and they must have been; they’re all dead Now, dead and in the earth I once tended. The loneliest people have the earth to love And not one friend their own age — only Mothers to baby them and big sisters to boss Them around, women they want to please And pray for the chance to say please to. I don’t do that kind of work anymore. My job Is to look at the childhood I hated and say I once had something to do with my hands. – Jericho Brown, Odd Jobs"

It must have been late November or early December. Certainly it was a winter morning in 1997. Like every morning in the past weeks,
I had gotten up at 5.30 am to prepare myself for work as a “Bauarbei- ter”, the first of my many odd jobs in Germany. On that blessed morning, I put on my worker’s suit, helmet, and headed to the build- ing construction site at the Potsdamer Platz that was being recon- structed. In the 1990s, the Potsdamer Platz was considered one of the most prestigious architectural projects in Europe, but also a political statement of sorts, something like a materialisation in space of Germany’s reunification, a healing of the wounds of the cold war, and a physical link of the East and West, as the Potsdamer Platz is situated at the intersection of both halves of the city.

The “Vorarbeiter” had sent me to the ninetheenth floor of a building I was supposed to work in. It must have -10°C that day, and nineteen floors above ground level felt like -25°C. It was my first winter, and I was experiencing the first snow fall. In one of his seminal lectures, the Barbadian poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite said that when he moved from Barbados to England to study he was traumatised by the soundlessness of snow fall. Unlike rain fall on the tropical islands or the equatorial areas that come with lightning and thunder, that use the zinc roofs of houses and the earth as a percussive surfaces, snowfall doesn’t bother to make itself heard. My trauma wasn’t with the soundlessness of snowfall, but actually more obvious and banal: its temperature. Growing up on the edge of the equator, nothing ever really prepares you for the cold of winter, except if you had spent time in a fridge. All the films in which snow appeared and the brochures about studying abroad carried the romantic feel of snow on well-lit trees, of kids playing with such lightness, of couples cuddling next to the fire- side. From afar it seemed all good until I stood on the nineteenth floor of a building on the Potsdamer Platz with a spade in my hand, and wondering where my hands were. As light and soundless as the snow fell, as heavy and daunting it felt to me. The heap of sand I was asked to spade into a bucket and carry across a few rooms seemed like a mountain. The more I carried, the more it became. And it snowed on. Around midday, I received a call from my mother back in Cameroon, who had called to find out how I was. Overwhelmed by the question and the task ahead of me, I wept.

I had left Bamenda just over three months ago via Douala and Hamburg to the north German town of Kiel. The day I got to Kiel, I had to “unclasp” the 12.000 DM that my parents had been asked to deposit in an account, which was the precondition for anyone to get a visa to travel to Germany as a student. The idea being that each student in Germany needs 1.000 DM a month to survive. But in order for my parents to raise 12.000 DM to cover just one year of my being in Germany, they had to make their house collat- eral for the bank. If I had afforded myself the luxury of spending that money they, together with my siblings, would have been home- less. So, what was left were 300 DM and a valise, which I carried with me. Kiel was a short adventure. One week after arrival, I boarded a very slow, i.e., cheapest possible train available, on a 5 persons ticket, together with some Moroccans I had met, head- ing to Berlin in search of an odd job. By the time I got to Berlin, the 300DM had dissipated into thin air, but I was fortunate to share a 15m2 room with 4 friends who lived in a student hostel just oppo- site the Potsdamer Platz. To make ends meet, to pay for a German language course, pay for university, or just live, I embarked on what I now call the perpetuity of odd-jobbing.

Odd jobs are said to be isolated pieces of work with little career prospects. They are not the most loved jobs and do not offer the most security in the long term, as the working arrangement is often limited to a restricted time period. Odd jobs offer little certainty and are marked by their irregularity, but in moments of extreme precariousness, they might be the best one can get.

In the middle of my engineering degree studies, I called my mother to announce that I had decided to quit studying to be a food biotechnologist, and would instead study art or art history. There wasn’t only a long silence on her end that felt like an eter- nity — indeed I feared she might have had a heart attack — but the statement that was uttered when she finally found words: “If you do art you will end ups doing odd jobs all your life. You need to study something practical with which you can support yourself and your family. You could always do art in your free time.”

Being 4.870km away from each other, and having earned my freedom to become a man and living on my own in a foreign country, it would have been easy to tell her off and do what I thought was right for me, but I conceded prematurely, mainly for two reasons: one, hardly anyone wins a fight against my mother, and two, I wasn’t ready to be the cause of an eventual heart attack, which could also be just another way of her winning. As they say: choose your battles wisely. So I did as she had prescribed. But ever since, I have been cogitating on this notion of the odd job. Especially because it was quite clear to society that an odd job was in oppo- sition to an even job, if even is the opposite of odd. So my life was geared towards doing that which is even to avoid the odds.

That job as a “Bauhelfer” in Berlin wasn’t my first odd job. Indeed, as a teenager, my mother would organise odd jobs for me at the post office where she worked. I would spend several hours sorting posts into post boxes or bags for them to be transported to other cities. Next to holiday classes, those odd jobs were the highlights of my summer holidays. The extra cash was never to a disadvantage. But there was that unwritten contract of the odd job being just what it was, odd, and never had to translate into even.

As a student in Berlin, like many others, we would wake up at 5 am to get to a very peculiar institution called TUSMA (Telefo- nieren Und Studenten Machen Alles / Telephone and Students Will Do Everything). The TUSMA was affiliated with the University of Technology and in many ways was reminiscent of a cattle market. And a racialised space it was too, as predominantly migrants, black and brown people were in that position of the odd job receiv- ers. It was first come first served. The early bird ate the worm. You picked a number as soon as you got there, then waited all day for the appropriate odd job to come flying your way. Cleaning jobs, construction jobs, digging jobs, distribution of flyers, dish washing, sweeping streets, office helper. There is hardly an odd job you couldn’t find at the TUSMA in its heyday. On one of the many occasions at the TUSMA, I was fortunate to get a job to place perfectly cut black stones to craft a pavement. In the three or more days of working on that pavement from 6am till 6pm, I remember wondering how come we in Cameroon, with so much stone in such abundance couldn’t do this simple act of stone cutting to place on our streets, and would rather live with the crater-like potholes, streets made impassable as cars swam through mud in the rainy season, with dust replacing the clouds in the dry season. In those three or more days, I assiduously shoved sand on the street and meticulously placed the stones next to each other. Then, the major- ity of that work involved using a motorised plate compactor to level, densify and compact the stones in the sand to create a more tightly packed surface. After working for 5 – 8 hours with a plate compactor, the body adopts the rhythm of a vibrator. The days and nights ahead, your muscles gain their independence from your intentions.

Rhythm is a thing with odd jobs. Some lasted a day, and in the cases in which I was most lucky, they went on for three years on every weekend. I travelled to Wolfsburg, the seat of the car company Volkswagen, to do seasonal work every summer holiday. The assem- bly lines for the newest Golfs ran for 24 hours, around the clock, and having students come over in the summer break to work in the night, especially, or any other time of the day for much less money, with no insurance, no long-term commitment, no labour unions, no rights was a brilliant craft piece in the puzzle of capitalism. Well, using odd jobbers allows for such firms to replace employees on summer break, the company doesn’t need to go through the hastle of employing specialised workers, and if a company has the capac- ity to employ more temporary odd jobbers, the more its permanent workers are at risk of being pushed to do more work for even less pay. Well, a win-win for all parties even if VW was the obvious winner of winners. After a few weeks of doing night shifts that were slightly better paid, I returned to Berlin like the Zombie I had become. Night was day, and day too was day. Insomnia had taken the better part of me. I have been interested in the notion of odd and even jobs as kind of opposites to each other and how they are metaphors of the mathematical model of parity as the property of integers. In mathematics, an integer’s parity is even if when divided by two, there is no remainder left, and an integer’s parity is odd if when divided by two the remainder is 1. Maybe one could relate this also to the financial-economic concept of the “break-even”, i.e., that point of balance in which neither loss nor profit are made. Any- thing above the break-even point constitutes a profit and anything below the break-even point is tantamount to a loss. If one were to translate this, it seems as if with the benefits of even jobs, when divided at the end of the month, just fit accordingly and one finds oneself above the break-even point, while the remunerations from odd jobs tend to thrust one below the break-even point and leave out something uncovered. The remainder. The remainder, that which cannot be taken care of, school fees, enough money for recreation, insurance, etc., define that oddness.

Many artists, like many students, are no strangers to all kinds of contingent work with limited security, contractually non- permanent and too often exploitative work ecologies. Too often, when an employer sees the titles freelancer, independent curator, independent contractor or some other form of independent professional, the impulse could be one of extortion. It must have been the late ’90s or early ’00s. A compatriot and friend of mine who was a student in another city had travelled to Berlin to do some odd jobs in order to support himself and his studies. Berlin was bustling with all kinds of odd jobs back then. We had gotten rather lucrative jobs as cleaners in a chocolate factory. The clean- ing was to begin every morning at 5 am till about 7 am before the factory workers started work properly. Since we used public transport, which was irregular at such wee hours of the morning, the strains endured to get to work were as tough as the job itself. In this chocolate production plant situated in former East Berlin, machines were running almost all night. The huge pipes—through which processed cocoa beans, oils, and melted chocolate were pumped into vats and silos — had plenty of leaks. Someone often had to clean the chocolate off the floor. The huge pipes were 60cm to 80cm above the floor, which meant that whoever was clean- ing had to stoop or kneel while cleaning for several hours.

After a few days we discovered muscles in our bodies we had never known of, but the pains made us hyper aware of their presence. It was one of those very cold Berlin winters, and as they say, it is not only darkest, but also coldest before the break of dawn. But it wasn’t the cold that was the problem, rather the contrast. Machines running almost all night produce such heat, that it becomes even more unbearable because of the yawning temperature gap with the outside. It went like this for over a month, and every day’s pain could be borne with the prospective satisfaction of a hot check at the end of the month. And when the month came to an end, the subcontractor who mediated for us so that we could get the job in the chocolate factory disappeared into the thin winter air of Berlin. Our calls were no longer picked up, and once we reached him and threatened we would take him to court, his haughty laugh- ter at the other end just before he dropped was as draining and disheartening as it was devastating. When we reached out to the chocolate factory, we were informed that they had nothing to do with us, they claimed they barely knew us and if we had any queries we needed to speak to our subcontractor. Imagine you are a young person in a foreign country in which you barely speak the language, in which your existence is always questioned, in which you are always at the frontier of legality, and in which the police are hardly ever your friend and helper. My comrade who had paid to come to Berlin for work was worse off after a month’s work than he was before. But our arms were tied. Capitalism and its tentacles have always been so experienced, so drilled, so instinctively used to exploit and abuse people like us.

Subcontractors and other temporary staffers have been accused of perpetrating tribal, racial, ethnic discriminations not only with regards to who gets what kind of work, and how much workers are paid, but also how they are treated, thereby creating discriminatory hierarchies within workspaces. The precarious conditions of workers in odd job contexts have provided fertile conditions for sexual abuse of all kinds, especially when the contractors and employers know that there might be little or no repercussions for such harassments.

At the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic when countries around the world were shutting down their borders and asking citizens to stay at home, the asparagus industry in Germany had different plans. Many Germans wouldn’t give up their asparagus for anything in the world. But as much as they like eating Asparagus, the hard work of digging out the subterranean veggie delicacies is not what they like doing best. Every year, contract workers are flown in from Eastern Europe to do the very hard work of digging Asparagus under the sun. These workers are housed in dormitories under sometimes very deplorable conditions for sometimes inhumane remunerations far below the minimum wage scale. It wasn’t any different in 2020, but for the fact that a pan- demic was reigning and had forced the world to its knees. In the middle of this global health crisis, underpaid odd jobbers from Bulgaria, Romania, and other Eastern countries were packed into dormitories like sardines in tins. How can one possibly do social distancing in a sardine can? It is no wonder that in the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic, these odd jobbers working on the Asparagus farms and those working in the meat factories were some of the worst hit by the virus. Capitalism has the machinery put in place to supply cheap meat and cheap asparagus, but at the cost of the health and lives of others.

But there are a plethora of abuses that workers — temporal or fixed, odd or even — face with their employers on varying levels. And this abuse can be packaged in a variety of ways. It is commonplace that when one is enrolled in a PhD programme in Germany, and maybe in other countries, one is given a part-time 50% working contract. My days at the Heinrich Heine University of Düsseldorf Clinic and Research centres were >120% working days in the laboratory for a 50% salary. The assumption being that if one is working towards getting a doctorate degree, then one could as well sacrifice 50% of one’s remuneration, even though one is working full time. This is the price of initiation. The initiation into the world of specialists that one is supposed to be having secured a PhD, having to sweat before all the doors open up to this professional world.

For many, the path to the professional world doesn’t go through a PhD, and even if it does, for certain professions, holding a PhD is not the key to the jackpot. If one is a painter, a poet, a musician, a curator, or otherwise engaged in some artistic endeavour, putting food on the table or paying rent or sustaining a family is only possible if one stretches oneself between several odd jobs — assuming that being an artist is your even job. did a series on poets’ odd jobs, in which we learn that to make ends meet and be able to practise as writer, Maya Angelou jobbed as a calypso singer and dancer, a paint-stripper, an actress, a journalist, a.o., and Charles Bukowski jobbed as a postal clerk for the United States Postal Service from 1960 to 1970, a warehouse worker, a gas station attendant, a dishwasher, a truck driver, a parking lot attendant, and elevator operator. When next you read Maya Angelou and Charles Bukowski, please bear in mind that without their odd jobs, they might never have become the great writers they became. Poet Lucille Clifton, jobbed as a claims clerk at the New York State Division of Employment in Buffalo, as an assistant in the Office of Education in Washington, D. C. for ten years, and as a mother of six children — a full time job by all counts—while Allen Ginsberg is known to have jobbed as a spot welder, a night porter, a dishwasher, and a yeoman storekeeper on the military sea transport ship USNS Sgt. Jack J. Pendleton, sailing to the Arctic Circle. Langston Hughes jobbed as a cook, a busboy, a launderer, and a seaman. As the story goes,

"While Hughes was working at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C., he saw poet Vachel Lindsay dining in the restaurant. Hughes slipped three poems under Lindsay’s plate, including his now-famous “The Weary Blues.” Impressed, Lindsay called for the busboy and asked who wrote the poems, and Hughes responded that he did. Lindsay read Hughes’s poems at a public performance that night and introduced him to publishers. The next day, a local newspaper ran an article about the “Negro busboy poet,” and reporters and diners flocked to meet him. The next year, Hughes published his first book of poetry, The Weary Blues."

In conclusion to part one of this essay, it is worth clarifying that this isn’t an effort to critique odd jobs, but to undo the demar- cations and stigma placed on certain labour forms. Maybe it is an effort to overstand the notions of odd and even that might prefix certain jobs and how the sociopolitical and socio-economic con- ditions in which we find ourselves inform the kinds of jobs we engage with or do. But essentially, this essay and its upcoming sequence are subtle trials to show how despite the odds, odd and even jobs inform each other. In the next edition, we reflect on odd job as deuxième bureau on odd jobs and language, and the context in which every job is odd.

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