Into the very opposite direction

Dropping out of high school was surprisingly easy. One day, instead of going to school, I went to the local job center to look for an apprenticeship for tailoring. They sent me to a clothes factory a few villages over to take an aptitude test. I had to follow a few drawn curlicues on a piece of denim with an industrial sewing machine and I was in. I then went back to school, a brutalist factory, to de-register, which raised no eyebrows nor drew any questions. When I announced my decision at home my parents, while they didn’t seem exactly pleased, didn’t do much to persuade me otherwise.

Why did I leave high school several years short of finishing? My grades had been very good for the first few years. But further into puberty I had stumbled. I knew no-one who had gone to college. I had no clear idea of what I was good at or what kind of career I wanted to pursue. School felt like one large learning factory that one attended because that’s what everyone else did. I did not understand its purpose. I felt disconnected. My vaguely articulated reason for leaving was that I needed to get back in touch with “real life”, whatever that was.

I am sent back to the soil to seek some obligation, to wrap gnarled reality in my arms.

Being finally no longer financially dependent on my parents felt good. I had never quite understood my benefit to their existence and felt awkward and a little guilty about the costs they had to incur on my behalf.

Real life turned out to be a long journey every day by foot, train and bus to the factory where work started at the crack of dawn, clocking in, sewing piece work, assembly line style, mostly pants, with the odd batch of sweatshirts or jackets thrown in. This was fashion made in West Germany, dowdy imitations of what had walked the runway many moons ago in other places. There were other apprentices but we weren’t really allowed to talk while working. Feeding the voracious industrial sewing machines that drove like race cars required our full focus.

I found the work satisfying. Working along other workers, lifetime factory workers, did not feel strange. The meritocracy of speed and quality ruled. Nobody cared about what you thought or what your background was.

But the very early start and the long journey meant I had to go to bed early. There wasn’t much waking life left, or energy to do other things, not that I had very much going on in my life anyway. This led to the decision to run away to England, detailed elsewhere.

So when I finally read Thomas Bernhard‘s Der Keller I was hit with a blast of recognition.

In Der Keller Bernhard details his seemingly out-of-the-blue decision to quit the Gymnasium (the finest kind of high school), to go to the  job center to apply for an apprenticeship. Bernhard almost wears out the clerk who is in charge of fixing him up with a position. He continues to insist that he wants something that’s in the “entgegengesetzte Richtung” – the opposite direction; the very opposite direction.

He finally finds the place that he had in mind: a basement store in Salzburg’s Scherzhauserfeldsiedlung, owned by a Mr Karl Podlaha, a grocer. This neighborhood was, according to Bernhard, the part of town where the poorest, the most desperate where pushed to live, riven with crime, poverty, addiction and abuse.

In this store he flourishes, he is happy for the first time, in his element. He develops confidence, the ability to deal with people, empathy and business sense. He feels a sense of relief, of rightness – it is naturgemäß that he is here.

It is also the place where he catches tuberculosis, which through incompetence develops into open TB. It’s the beginning of an odyssey that has him in one wretched sanitarium after another. He is left with the dying to almost die himself, and damages his already delicate health further. His beloved grandfather dies, through incompetence, then his mother. It’s a whole other story.

However, Der Keller stands as an account of deciding to take your life into your own hands, and to follow your instincts to try and cure what’s broken about your life.


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