The worlds of academia and incarceration are closer than you may think.
Professional Poo Diver
If you break life down into a series of activities, objectively, a lot of them don’t make sense. Like diving into a vat of raw sewage. Why would someone do that? To find out, we’re asking people doing weird things why, to get an insight into their world.
This is Brendan Walsh’s world. He runs a Melbourne company called East West Dive and Salvage, which basically involves diving in all sorts of no-air environments. One such environment includes sewage, so I caught up with Brendan to find out what necessitates this foul job, and why he does it.
VICE: Hi Brendan, why are you doing that?
Brendan Walsh: I’m doing it because in Australia, we don’t process our sewerage with chemicals. We get bacteria to break down the solids by aerating it with big stirring machines, twenty-four hours a day. It’s a very aggressive environment and moving parts constantly break.
So what’s broken here?
One of the motors. The motors are all in the ponds and there’s no other way to access them without getting in. And it’s completely black down there, so we have to do everything by feel. Sewage farms take thousands of photos of their site, before they fill up the ponds, so we look carefully at the photos before we get in. The diver then makes the repairs in the dark by talking to the guys above the surface. The dive suits are all connected via radio so we can provide directions in real time.
That all sounds like a design flaw. Shouldn’t there be an easier way?
Ah, you’d think so, but then it gives me a job. Got to earn the ex-wife money somehow.
So what is it like when you’re down there?
It’s completely black and you have to more walk than swim. There’s no smell though. All your air is bottled, so it’s actually worse for the guys who have to decontaminate you when you get out.
Do you ever get claustrophobic?
No, I wouldn’t do it if I did. You need two years of training to become a diver and that weeds out anyone with claustrophobia. Also we can pipe music through the suits radio system. We’ll play the guys whatever they want to hear. It keeps them happy.
A German Guy Wants to Give You a Bunch of Money for Doing Nothing
What would happen if we didn’t have to worry about making a living anymore? Would people just sit on their asses all day or actually do something meaningful with their lives? Michael Bohmeyer, a 29-year-old founder of a tech startup in Berlin, wanted to find out.
After he stopped working earlier this year to live off the $1,300 he makes from his startup each month, Bohmeyer says his life has radically changed. So he started “My Basic Income”, a new initiative looking to raise enough money to pay someone $1,300 a month for a year, no strings attached.
Through crowdfunding, the initiative has already raised more than the $16,000 goal. On September 18, they’re going to announce the lucky winners of that wad of cash at a party in Berlin.
I spoke to Bohmeyer to find out what he hopes will come of this and how his life has changed now that he doesn’t need to work.
VICE: Would you say you’re a lazy person?
Michael Bohmeyer: I’d say that, but I don’t think being lazy is necessarily a bad thing. Other people probably wouldn’t call me lazy. I work a lot—even more so now that I don’t need to work for money. I even discovered a passion for washing the dishes.
You said that having an unconditional basic income has radically altered your life. How so?
After I stopped working earlier this year and started living off the approximately $1,300 I get out of my company, I just wanted to put my feet up and do nothing. Instead, I found a crazy drive to do things. I had a million new business ideas, I take care of my daughter, and I work for a local community radio. I buy less shit, I live healthier, and I’m a better boyfriend and father.
Because you have more time for your girlfriend and daughter?
Because I’m more laid-back. The pressure is gone. My working conditions were great even before, because I was running my own company and could pretty much do what I want. But making money was tied to conditions. Now, I do everything I do because I want to—and all of a sudden it’s twice as much fun.
This Guy Will Organize the Perfect Robbery for You
Fixers are the consultants of the criminal underworld. Paid to organize crimes without actually getting involved in any of the hands-on stuff, they’re capable of earning large sums of money purely for advising the bank robbers and smash-and-grabbers who employ them.
A couple of years ago, while trying to make a name for myself as a writer, I ghost-wrote a number of true crime autobiographies. One of the people I wrote for was a guy named Colin Blaney, a former member of a Manchester, UK gang called the Wide Awake Firm, who introduced to me a highly respected fixer. “Mr. C” was responsible for organizing a wide variety of crimes, and agreed to talk to me on the condition of anonymity.
VICE: What exactly is the role of a fixer?
Mr. C: A fixer is a person who can influence or set up a time and a place for the perfect robbery. He can organize a person or group of people so they get the job done, so it happens as planned, so it goes off to a tee. The term applies in the same way in the drug world; it’s somebody who’s behind the scenes, organizing the movement of drugs. Drug cartels will trust the fixer to plan how they move the drugs, how the money is laundered, when the product’s coming through, how much of it is coming through, which countries each bit’s going to, and so on.
Talk me through the process of fixing a robbery then. What does it entail?
Well, I’ll give you an example. I know of a job that was done where a load of expensive watches were stolen. The guys had a car and a motorbike stolen in advance. On the day of the robbery they went into the shop, took all of the high-priced watches out and bagged them up. They knew that they only had a certain length of time before the helicopters scrambled, so they did it quickly and then jumped into the car, knowing it would be spotted right away and the police would be looking for it. They then drove to a set of bollards. A motorcycle was positioned there. The police can’t go through bollards, so the robbers could escape that way.
The Sad Death of London’s Weirdest Tourist Attraction
For tourists visiting London, the beating heart of the West End isn’t the Eros statue, Chinatown, or the flagship Waterstones book store, or any of the other high-profile TripAdvisor-friendly attractions. It’s the palatial white building that sits between the freak show at Ripley’s and the freak show at the Leicester Square KFC: The London Trocadero.
In his 1968 poem “For the Union Dead,” Robert Lowell describes the derelict South Boston Aquarium as standing “in a Sahara of snow.” The Trocadero stands in a Kalahari of krap. The Baroque restaurant, opened at the turn of the 20th century, is now the home of invasive souvenir hawkers and chain gift shops displaying a level of bad taste that borders on satirical performance art.
Yet, despite the inexorability of this decline, a couple of years ago, the ground floor of the complex was fighting bravely against its inevitable destruction. An apparently salaried attendant was employed to supervise the bungee trampoline. There were public toilets that charged a full £1 ($1.68) and must’ve made a fortune catching the urine of children who’ve had too many sugary tourist-drinks. There was even a time-warp underground connection to Piccadilly Circus subway station, which was populated, at all times, by a silent Japanese break dancing troupe. They head-spun to their terrible J-Pop while the scent of cinnamon wafted down from the fresh bun store (which shared its premises with a shop that, obviously, sold scuba diving equipment).
I Was an Accidental Porn Star
Civilian to porn star; it’s a route most travel via casting couches and cum shots. However, for Luke-Kristopher Davis—a 21-year-old physics student at Swansea University—everything happened the fairytale way. While spending a year in Spain, he was whisked off his feet by director Erika Lust, who cast him in two of her films.
Luke-Kristopher’s now back in the UK, but besides his bio on Erika’s site—which says he “dances and attends university when he is not wowing us with his great smile”—I didn’t know much about him or his accidental foray into porn. So I gave him a call to talk it over.
VICE: Hi Luke-Kristopher. So how did all of this happen for you?
Luke-Kristopher Davis: I was in Barcelona on a night out with some friends, and this woman came over and asked me if I was a model or an actor. I said I was just a student. Then she asked me to do a porn film.
Did she say what she found so alluring about you?
Yeah, yeah. Well, she thought I’d done modeling. She said, “Oh, you’re very good looking. Are you a model or an actor?” I do actually get it absolutely everywhere I go [laughs].
Yeah. Right now I work in a bar, and all my customers ask me. They come up to me and take pictures. It’s quite funny.
What went through your mind when she suggested it?
I wasn’t really shocked, to be honest. I just saw it as an opportunity to have a little—you know, fun [laughs]. I thought about it rationally: ‘Would this be worth it?’ I had to assess the risk and if it was safe. She described her company and it didn’t sound like a back alley thing. It’s very high quality. And it’s a feminist company, so I was impressed by that.
A new American dream has gradually replaced the old one. Instead of leisure, or thrift, consumption has become a patriotic duty. Corporations can justify anything—from environmental destruction to prison construction—for the sake of inventing more work to do. A liberal arts education, originally meant to prepare people to use their free time wisely, has been repackaged as an expensive and inefficient job-training program. We have stopped imagining, as Keynes thought it so reasonable to do, that our grandchildren might have it easier than ourselves. We hope that they’ll have jobs, maybe even jobs that they like.
The new dream of overwork has taken hold with remarkable tenacity. Hardly anyone talks about expecting or even deserving shorter workdays anymore; the best we can hope for is the perfect job, one that also happens to be our passion. In the dogged, lonely pursuit of it, we don’t bother organizing with our co-workers. We’re made to think so badly of ourselves as to assume that if we had more free time, we’d squander it.
Who Stole the Four Hour Workday?
Alex is a busy man. The 36-year-old husband and father of three commutes each day to his full-time job at a large telecom company in Denver, the city he moved to from his native Peru in 2003. At night, he has classes or homework for the bachelor’s in social science he is pursuing at a nearby university. With or without an alarm, he wakes up at 5 AM every day, and it’s only then, after eating breakfast and glancing at the newspaper, that he has a chance to serve in his capacity as the sole US organizer and webmaster of the Global Campaign for the 4 Hour Work-Day.
“I’ve been trying to contact other organizations,” he says, “though, ironically, I don’t have time.”
But Alex has big plans. By the end of the decade he envisions “a really crazy movement” with chapters around the world orchestrating the requisite work stoppage.
A century ago, such an undertaking would have seemed less obviously doomed. For decades the US labor movement had already been filling the streets with hundreds of thousands of workers demanding an eight-hour workday. This was just one more step in the gradual reduction of working hours that was expected to continue forever. Before the Civil War, workers like the factory women of Lowell, Massachusetts, had fought for a reduction to ten hours from 12 or more. Later, when the Great Depression hit, unions called for shorter hours to spread out the reduced workload and prevent layoffs; big companies like Kellogg’s followed suit voluntarily. But in the wake of World War II, the eight-hour grind stuck, and today most workers end up doing more than that.
The United States now leads the pack of the wealthiest countries in annual working hours. US workers put in as many as 300 more hours a year than their counterparts in Western Europe, largely thanks to the lack of paid leave. (The Germans work far less than we do, while the Greeks work considerably more.) Average worker productivity has doubled a couple of times since 1950, but income has stagnated—unless you’re just looking at the rich, who’ve become a great deal richer. The value from that extra productivity, after all, has to go somewhere.
It used to be common sense that advances in technology would bring more leisure time. “If every man and woman would work for four hours each day on something useful,” Benjamin Franklin assumed, “that labor would produce sufficient to procure all the necessaries and comforts of life.” Science fiction has tended to consider a future with shorter hours to be all but an axiom. Edward Bellamy’s 1888 best seller Looking Backward describes a year 2000 in which people do their jobs for about four to eight hours, with less attractive tasks requiring less time. In the universe of Star Trek, work is done for personal development, not material necessity. In Wall-E, robots do everything, and humans have become inert blobs lying on levitating sofas.
While there are no official statistics, there may be as many as 1 million migrant construction workers in the UAE today. Like Tariq, the men I talked to have had their passports confiscated and earn between $150 and $300 a month. They will have to spend years working off debts to recruiters who have gotten them their jobs.
Reports about the conditions of workers in the Gulf have been wide and probing. Articles contrast the glittering skyscrapers they build and the scant wages they receive. In May, the New York Times published a scathing exposé of labor abuses at NYU Abu Dhabi.
But what’s often lost in much of the reporting about foreign labor in the United Arab Emirates—and Abu Dhabi specifically—is the agency of the workers themselves. The men I met in the Gulf are brave and ambitious—heroes to their families back home. They dared to chase better prospects and were met with repression instead. In a country where the faintest whisper of dissent can get you deported, more than a hundred strikes have rocked the construction industry in the past three years. While workers may be lied to and forced to live and work in brutal conditions, they also—improbably—are fighting back.