Friday, January 19, 2018

A Farewell to Bikes by Frank Beyer

A delivery of Paxter electric carts changes up the bicycle-riding routine of a group of New Zealand posties, and they wonder what else the future holds; by Frank Beyer.

1

The exercise on the bike was something to appreciate. Twenty-odd hours of fat-burning a week - hard to replace. My direct manager was measured and fair, not a bully like at my old branch. She was going to go on maternity leave soon though, and so this purple patch wouldn't last. Things are always changing as people love to say, one has to stay flexible... 'Within five years it'd be drones delivering Chinese Rolexes to agoraphobes, everyone on a universal income, slurping low fat milkshakes... In the meantime the current technological issue was a sorting machine in Auckland that refused to count mail. We had fun messing with each other while counting thousands of letters.

32, 33, 34, 35...

Hey listen to this... 35, 36, 34, 35, 32, 96, 96.

You bastard... I've lost my place!

A cyclone had been battering Vanuatu for most of the week, and Friday morning the remnants arrived to dump rain on the North Island. I counted my mail and found I had a lot of crap to deliver. As bad a day as any for the area manager to call a meeting for the whole team of seventy posties. The manager was six foot three with a gut and cauliflower ears. What had he been eating since his rugby days? His announced that the machines would be coming to our city. The delivery machines. The clumsy Paxter. No more push bikes... again. Alternate day delivery was on the way too.

The design team is crunching the numbers on how we are going to put it all in place. Not one of the plans that have come across my desk I can go with yet though.

Now that sounded sensible - holding off until they actually made a decent plan. Maybe they should stop playing with numbers and come down and look around the depot to see what would work. The rumour that the bikes were going to be replaced had been around for ages. Management had finally fessed. Fine. Could we get back to sorting that shitload of mail? No, tubby wanted to put the boot in some.

I'll wrap this up in a minute, but I need to talk about your scanning of parcels. It's really important - it's going to be the same for delivery agents and couriers. The customer is driving this not us. They want accountability. So scan to protect yourself. If we have no proof of delivery we might have to have an official meeting with you about where that package is... I'm not talking about anybody here now, but people can't help themselves ripping the company off. We had to fire one guy for stealing a packet of chippies from the vending machine. Theft is a serious issue.

Driven by the customer... I'd heard that one before. The customer would want their parcels teleported next.

I know it's raining and I want to wrap things up so you guys can get on the road... but got to mention something else. People have been spilling coffee in the new tearoom. Quite a bit of money has gone into that facility, investment, did you guys see the TV? You can watch one, two and three in there...

Will there be SKY?

No, too expensive mate... And I wonder, would you guys do this at your own homes? Drip coffee all over the place I mean. Yea at Mum's place you wouldn't. So if you're having a hot drink, you must have a lidded cup. It's a rule, OK, and that doesn't mean putting your hand over the cup. I think of this place as my home and so should yous.

You should treat it as your home. This was classic admonishing, the stuff we'd had in primary school.

I'll wrap it up here but just one more thing. The chairs, the smokers are taking chairs outside and never bringing them in...

And so it went on... And finally we got to questions time. As usual people wanted to know if we were getting more staff:

The workload is too much already. People are going to leave because of these changes... you prepared for that?

Bigbelly shifted on his feet uncomfortably. His eyes creaked in their sockets sweeping the room to gauge the mood. No surprise he went on the attack. We can't control who leaves. If somebody wants to walk out that door, they can. What I would say to you is to stop pushing back onto management. Work as a team. If you know somebody is thinking of leaving talk them out of it. We need to be a team... we've had shouts... told you what a good job you're doing, I don't know what more yous want.

Talk a person out of leaving? A strange request... I had a question: Why is the recruiting process so slow?

Well Ed, a process must be followed. We don't want to hire criminals. And then half the people turning up for interviews don't want the job, but to record they went for one so they can get their dole. I'm not going to hire the wrong people and put the business at risk. We've had about a thousand people apply... but it's a process, does that answer your question?

If a thousand people had applied, but they still couldn't place people in the job then something was wrong. Colleagues later told me I should have told Bigbelly this. What was the point of trying to argue with this guy?

Everyone was incensed by this meeting. The insinuation that if you missed a scan you might have stolen the parcel. The long meeting on a rainy day. The flat screen TV in the new tea room that nobody would have time to watch. This all got people to slow down on their sort and talk to each other more than usual. There is nothing like having something to complain about to start conversation. The team was concerned about one old postie who'd been in the service for forty three years. How would he cope with the change? How would any of us cope? Well I would, I'd been on the machines already.

There are other jobs out there, somebody said.

Oh yea where?

You old girls have got to look around more...

To our horror, twenty minutes later, another meeting was called. This time for our team only, the red team, as we were imaginatively called. This meeting was mercifully brief, one of our number was congratulated for twenty years of service. She got a certificate and a cheque for five hundred bucks. She smiled and looked happy at getting the attention. When we went back to sorting the team had got their concentration back. No bitching. Nobody turned the radio back on. The only sound was the clack of letters getting slotted. I said to the guy on the case next to mine, the youngest in our team: Don't worry, such a fate doesn't await you, twenty years here I mean. They'll be no delivery agents let alone posties in ten years' time. Drones mate.

The kid's face lit up... Yea and we'll all be getting around of flying couches, he said, you'll be able to get them from The Warehouse.

Another fool who still believed technology was here to make our life better.

I got the lowdown on the guy who got fired from a tattooed postie as I was loading my car. The carpark was the place to share info, as hardly anybody stopped for morning tea. Apparently a packet of chippies had fallen down in the vending machine and the offender had merely picked them up. He's in maximum security now mate. Tattoos was a funny guy.

As for wanting one hundred percent scanning, no mistakes - Where is the incentive for us? I could hear my former colleague, Ross the rebel, say in my head... Asking for more and offering nothing. That's how the company acts. I'm sure they are charging more than they used to for their world class courier service. Did you see Mr. Fatbelly's top hat?

I drove out to drop my overflow bags... the rain was hurtling down. The mail would turn into papier-mâché in minutes. On talkback radio the host complained about 'useless' couriers, who 'rang and ran' before he had time to get to the front door to sign for his parcel. He should stop doing his hair in the upstairs bathroom then. It was slow going in the rain, I could barely see anything through my glasses. I loaded up my bike for the second time around one-thirty. My bag drop was a side door at a physiotherapy clinic. An old dude pulled up in an SUV. He got out gingerly, a dodgy back no doubt. He spotted me.

How's it going? Bit wet eh! Quite the job. Keeping ya busy and off the streets though.

No, it's keeping me on the streets.

Keeping you out of trouble, that's what I mean.

Any trouble I can get into around here? I'd be keen.

I was hopeful, maybe he knew of something fun to do... But I'd scrambled his circuits... he went into the reception saying: keeping outta trouble, good, that's the ticket, good on ya. At least he didn't mention the weather.

When I got back to the depot nobody was around. I gave the vending machine a kick... thinking about what I'd heard about training to be a marine. If the going got too tough you could ring a bell and go home... If a packet of chippies fell down and I was caught picking them up on camera, it'd be like ringing that bell... All that happened was that I hurt my big toe a bit. I walked across the floor past the sorting cases and parcel cages, utility without trace of fantasy. The cleaning lady almost jumped through the roof as I entered the tearoom.

Geez you move quietly, she said.

Missed my calling as a hunter or tracker maybe... I should have a bell on me to warn people I'm coming.

Haha... Look at this, we've got ten bottles of milk in the fridge, I better cancel the order for tomorrow.

I'll take some home.

I wish you could, but they tell me that I have to pour it down the sink.

She was alright, the cleaning lady. Outside it was getting dark, the stray cats in the car park snuggled together for warmth. The container port over the fence was still. I was looking forward to seeing it active in the morning when drinking my pre-sort coffee.



2

Seventy people needed to be trained to drive Paxters. Health and Safety insisted on it, although all you needed legally was a car driver's licence. The training was a one day course. Six posties were released at a time to attend, the rest cut up their rounds. Post sent one trainer along to our branch. The same guy who had done the measuring at my old branch - Mr. Nice. He still had his clipboard, knobbly knees and prominent calf muscles. Norm, the army guy, didn't put in an appearance. He'd got a gig at the Ministry of Justice - bigger and better things. Who else could they find to train people on the Paxters then?

Ed, you've used them before! Yes, I was roped into doing it.

The venue for the training was a room at the local racetrack. The Hippodrome if you will. During breaks we could sit at tables in the indoor bar with a panoramic view of the track. The bar was closed and no horses were racing, nevertheless it was a pretty setting. I thought about coming along to the next race meet. Luckily it was a couple of months away, enough time for me to go off the idea.

Mr Nice and I gave our trainees a user manual, then talked about the features of the Paxter. We were careful to point out, among other things, that they only went 45km per hour and this could cause issues on the road. After completing a safety check sheet, the trainees took the Paxters into the parking lot for some maneuvers. They were very interested to try out the machines their work life would now be tied to. It was useful to get a feel for the steering lock and brakes. We also got them to zig-zag through cones. Backing this slalom was tricky - I couldn't do it. Mr. Nice could though, and he didn't have a problem modelling as I stood by trying to look knowledgeable. He was a good driver, ol' Nice. Why didn't he want to be hooning round in a Ferrari in his virtual universe? Too over the top mate - he would have said. Mr Nice's virtual universe? Well his virtual mail run at least.

Without the pressure of sorting mail, trainees tended to turn up a little late and during the day we took breaks liberally - hey it was one day in their lives without rushing. So, I got to spend time with Mr. Nice - a person worse at small talk than I was. Initially I dreaded drinking a coffee with him...

Nobody at the depot had ever appeared interested when I talked about drones taking over our jobs. They accepted it would happen - but they didn't want to discuss it and they got sick of me trying to bring it up. Mr. Nice, however, took me up on the topic and then some. A man with inner thoughts, Nice - a can opener was needed to wrench them out though. Mr. Nice couldn't really be bothered with pleasantries about the weather or driving the Paxter - he just sat and smiled. Probably he was dying of boredom inside, for that I admired him. Or then again he could have been waiting for me to give up and ask him about surfing, something he did like to mutter about but I found boring. I tried one more gambit to avoid this...

Drones mate... that's the way it's going... I said between sips of coffee... very much in doubt that it'd get a response... but...

Yes there'll be no work left for us once the drones get delivering. Our basic needs will be taken care of by the government and we'll spend time in a virtual world to stop us getting into trouble. We'll still work I reckon. We aren't made to have all free time. Perhaps I'll be a virtual postie and get to design some features of the set up... A can of worms to figure why we'll work in the virtual world I know, it's a hunch I have though.

Sure, we don't need to go into all that. So your virtual world - or virtual mail round. What are you going to change?

For one - no members of the public will talk to me. Get rid of all those non-event complaints - 'This person doesn't live here anymore!' etc.

Right I'm with you. Surprising how many of us feel that way.

Then I need a good mix of hills and flats to bike on. Keep myself challenged.

Won't you be just a blob on a couch with your virtual reality helmet on though?

Still a perceived challenge is good. Maybe you are endlessly biking a factory floor... missing by inches a bunch of others doing similar stuff... the algorithms will let us use space precisely... And what else? Oh yea - every work week would be thirty-eight hours exactly.

Right. Perfect waves at the beach for after work I suppose?

For sure.

Other surfers out there with you?

I should think yea - make it a bit social.

They may take your wave though... you can get camaraderie mail sorting at the depot instead.

No, no sorting in my virtual job - I'm not a fan.

Fair enough. Just the delivery part then. Hey will there be cars on the road or just empty streets?

Nah, I'll need them - otherwise it'll be too fake.

But you'll know it's unreal anyway I assume.

Yea but we want our video games to be realistic.

I quite like Pac-man...

There will be electric cars about - not to protect the virtual environment, but to limit noise.

Bad for cats and dogs those quiet motors... they cross the road using their ears.

I'm not against some road kill.

You are not an animal lover.

Not really.

And you're bit of a misanthrope mate.

Look around you - it's all set up for avoiding others anyway. Do you go to the self-check out or the peopled check out at the supermarket?

Self...

You're not a fan of people either then mate.

He was pretty smart this Mr. Nice. I changed my tack... I know a run where there is a mailbox painted up as an Owl. Put the mail in and it gives an electronic hoot - cool. Imagine the different mail boxes you could have on your virtual run!

Again, let's not get too imaginative or else everything will become all mixed up and mud colour. I want mailboxes that actually fit mail and they can all be white - certainly not green which makes them hard to spot. Practical... What about you then Ed... will you have your own virtual mail run or what?

The possibilities flashed one after another inside my brain, making the muddy mess Mr. Nice was keen to avoid. I felt nauseous and couldn't finish my coffee.

5 comments:

  1. A timely story that accesses a particular microcosm yet relates to big issues that affect everyone. The main protagonist is credible. Nicely paced with a well sketched support cast. Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. very entertaining foretaste of the future, excellent dialogue and chracterisation. I suppose the message is, grin and bear it.
    Mike McC

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  3. Good use of interior and exterior monologue. A very human look at what could be a less-human future.

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  4. Original, creative and pertinent. Well done.

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  5. Fun to read about what posties fantasize about...I love getting a glimpse into worlds unfamiliar to me.

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