‘Luck is what happens when opportunity meets preparation.’
My mother was fond of this quote. She was also fond of that one about success being ninety-nine per cent perspiration and one per cent inspiration, and the one about doors and windows and imaginary men.
Unfortunately, the only quotes I’ve ever managed to commit to memory come from uncomfortably un-PC British comedies. This probably explains why my life has consisted of rather less perspiration, preparation and ensuing success, and rather more slothful couch-sitting, adolescent giggling and sexual fantasies involving Rowan Atkinson.
Had I paid more attention to my mother’s borrowed words of wisdom, I may have avoided the situation I now find myself in, again: essentially unemployed, largely unappreciated, and wholly dependent on government coin to keep me in house and home.
After brief stints on welfare in both the early and middle parts of the noughties, I have returned once more to the ranks of the great unwashed. At the age of twenty-nine, with the notches of various careers marking the bed post, I find myself lining up at everyone’s favourite hellhole for my fortnightly dose of demoralisation. The dole can be a bitter pill to swallow.
It wasn’t always like this. When taking your first foray into the welfare queue, half-hearted intentions in one hand and Arts degree in the other, you cannot help but feel a slight frisson of pleasure. Despite the humiliating course of hoops Centrelink makes its little circus monkeys jump through, society’s simian rejects are placated by one thing and one thing only: the prospect of free money.
For an Arts student, the thought of receiving anything free is enough to guarantee a good day. But should that free product be something that can be exchanged for goods and services in a mostly legal fashion? Well, for an Arts student, that’s like waking up to find that your only weekly lecture has been cancelled, it’s suddenly summer, and your television has begun dispensing both beer and back-to-back repeats of Wife Swap.
For most students, the completion of tertiary study leads to an almost overwhelming sense that they are in need of a holiday. In the case of new lawyers, doctors and graduates similarly qualified for both a profession and adulthood, this tends to be true. And there’s a certain sense of entitlement that seems particular to those students for whom phrases like ‘hegemonic power’ and ‘paradigm shift’ have become an ‘ontological reality’. It’s as if we believe that, having spent the better part of four or five years – or seven, if you’re me – learning how to converse at dinner parties, we have somehow drained our mental and emotional resources to the point where we need six months of solid daytime television watching to recuperate. It escapes our notice that this is precisely what characterised our student days, the bare minimum of an Arts degree requiring around three hours a week of input, plus an occasional all-night essay frenzy in which we reward ourselves with a cigarette every time a new paragraph is begun.
The irony, of course, is that those aforementioned serious scholars will likely bypass the welfare queue and enter the workforce directly, shuttled along as they are by parental expectations and a general enthusiasm for dress shoes. Then again, if our country actually had any respect for humanities students, they might bother to create jobs for them, too. . . But I digress.
The reality is that most people do want to work. And I thought (and hoped) that I would never need to visit the dole queue again after the last time. You see, after penning a blog for a few years, I was invited to write a column for Adelaide’s Sunday Mail. This led to some radio work, freelance-writing gigs and the general sense of well-being that comes from having your ego stroked on a regular basis. As far as I was concerned, the dole and I were through. Never again would I have to stand in a line with someone who still considered Adidas snap pants a form of haute couture – and had in fact been wearing the same pair without interruption since they first stole them back in 1996.
Of course, being the kind of person who thrives on a stroked ego and characterises welfare recipients as unfashionable thieves, it was only a matter of time before my house of cards collapsed all around me, thus ending my long journey to the middle. The loss of my column in favour of a supposedly more of-the-moment ladies’ auxilliary meeting called Fe-Mail was devastating, mostly from a financial perspective. And having effectively spent the previous two years working only two or three hours a week, I was hardly what you would call employable.
It seemed the dole and I were Back On.
Being the monumental cocktards that they are, Centrelink had me prove my identity to them all over again through complicated DNA tests, iris scans and psychic consultations. I can only assume this is what took place, given that it took them three weeks to confirm that I am the same Clementine Ford who’s been patronising their establishment since 2004 and who hasn’t, to my knowledge, undergone significant facial reconstruction surgery or gender reassignment.
I was told Centrelink’s new computer system would enable clients to lodge their forms online, meaning they need never leave the comfort of their own beds. But, being Centrelink, the system crashed before it even had the opportunity to frustrate potential users. It was back to the dole queue for me.
Unfortunately, my new neighbourhood office lacks the colour of my old Centrelink haunt. It used to be that long waits were punctuated by free dramatic movements: soap operas within novellas within scathing indictments on the Australian education system. I miss following the tumultuous goings on of Tequi’na-ia and Deryk’s relationship, last seen debating the linguistic merits of ‘fat cunt’ as both a noun and adjective. What is the Centrelink office for if not to appreciate the rich tapestry that comprises Australia’s births registry, and the unique minds that see superfluous apostrophes and literal phonetics less as literary tools than lifestyle choices.
All this new suburban enclave offers me are old Greek gentlemen in urgent need of ear trumpets, and the occasional Westside hipster. To be fair, these are two demographics not without humorous merit, but they are sure to irritate me more in the long run. One never need guess at how a hipster’s name is spelled, for example – they are called James and Matilda and never Donna, unless ironically. Where’s the fun in that? I can’t help but look around in disdain, certain that this experience could provide more in the way of cynical shits and giggles.
Then I remember that I’m a twenty-nine-year-old failed journalist who has been fired from nearly every job she’s ever had. It took me seven years to finish a three-year degree, a year of which was spent teaching English in Japan for a company which also fired me. I am apparently only capable of working in jobs that resemble the time commitment of my Arts degree, because normal people expect you to wake up before 11am. I am a twenty-nine year old obstinately living the life of a nineteen-year-old student, and it is no longer jovial or cheeky. It is, in fact, what it is – my fourth time on the dole. Who exactly do I think I am to fancy myself better than the other people in my situation?
And at this, I quietly sign my form and place it on the counter, just another cog in the great machine. No less, and certainly no more, but $538 richer than I was ten minutes ago.