Each spring in preparation for our busy season we hire a new group of employees and train them to be household movers. And each spring those trainees remind me of the fact that the work we do as household movers changes us, turns us into slightly different people than we would have been had we never carried washing machines and old mattresses and priceless antiques up narrow stairways for one or three or ten hot summers.
The physical changes are easiest to track. First your hands and forearms get sore, really sore. Sometimes when you’re just starting out, after 3 or 4 long days you might wake up at night to find your fingers curled up and half-frozen in position so that you have to work hard to straighten them. (Thankfully, that phase usually doesn’t last long.) Your core strengthens, callouses build up at the base of each finger, your calves and glutes get stronger from all the squatting. (Remember: shoulders back, butt leads, and keep your weight back on your heels.) If you didn’t have it already, the long days of hard physical work slowly earn you the athlete’s prize, the gift of being comfortable with long periods of physical discomfort.
Other changes are harder to see but perhaps more interesting. How you see material objects starts to change. You begin to see decorations on a wall at a restuarant, say, a mask with lots of delicate feathers sticking out of it, and wonder how you’d safely pack it. You pick up a mica lamp shade, and instead of noticing its beauty, the way light shines through it like the sun through thick fog, you think about how expensive it is, how fragile, how vulnerable to damage when it’s set in motion.
And it’s your job to safely set it in motion and then bring it to rest again. In fact, that more than anything else is what changes you as a mover. Over and over again, you do your best to set whole households in motion and then safely bring them back to earth. And that job, the noticeable everyday pressure of it, changes your relationship to consumer goods, to all the stuff we surround ourselves with in our ordinary lives.
Some things are incredibly delicate, like isinglass or ostrich eggs. Other things are remarkably heavy, like printing presses and antique safes. And a blessedly small subset of things are a daunting combination of heavy and fragile, like a Steinway Baby Grand. As a mover, you instinctively begin to see things not for what they are — a sofa bed as a piece of swiss army furniture, two okay tools in one — and instead see them for the problems they pose when you’re moving them. Sofa beds are twice as heavy as regular couches. The metal fold-out mechanism can cut or pinch if you’re not careful, and the bed needs to be tied off before you pick it up so that it doesn’t come tumbling out when you tip the sofa forward to get it out the door. If you’ve ever spent a restless night on a sofa bed you might be able to appreciate where I’m coming from; how, in a very short space of time, you can grow to subtly resent an inanimate object in a way that feels personal.
If I had to summarize, I would say it’s a slight but persistent distrust of household objects that slowly grows in the heart of the household mover. On the job at first, and then gradually at other times as well, the mover relates to furniture and lamps and paintings with an attitude of watchful wariness, of professional and purposeful anxiety, an attitude not so unlike that of a trainer of wild cats. The fear of damage always looms, and that fear, along with a fair amount of skill, keeps both trainer and antiques safe.
A standard mover’s contract state’s that the company shall be exempt from liability for damages due to the “inherent vice” of an object. Inherent vice is just another way of saying original sin. What the mover means is that some items weren’t ever meant to be moved, like very cheap particle board bookcases with paper backs. To a customer, I imagine, the term “inherent vice” might seem like a cop out. If your house burned down, and the person who sold you homeowner’s insurance refused to pay your claim due to the “inherent vice” of your home — after all, it’s comprised mainly of highly flammable forest products — you’d feel cheated. And yet every object (and every person, too) has some “inherent vice” built in: hand-rubbed shellac finishes on fine antiques can easily be scratched, the wooden wheels on antique tables can crack and splinter, veneer can catch on the corner of a pad and pull loose.
There’s another sense in which objects exhibit inherent vice. They seem bent on causing us pain. On mashing our fingers, scraping the backs of our hands, bruising our thighs when we rest for a regrip. Even a cardboard box, when grasped carelessly, can cause a giant paper cut. There are days as a household mover when furniture is not your friend.
With our pads and our shrink wrap, our tape and rubber bands and door jamb protectors, we do our best to keep things safe, to protect things from vice, inherent or otherwise. And we’re almost always successful. But that constant vigilance changes us. It complicates our relationship to objects, keep us wary, at a little distance from the very human tendency to fall head over heels in love with things.
It’s that sense of disillusionment with stuff that so many new movers try to articulate, usually just a couple of months into the job. They might say they want to get rid of everything they own. Or the more blunt among them might simply say, “I hate stuff.”
But they don’t hate stuff, at least not permanently. What I think now, after having been where they are, is that they’re chafing against the new yoke of the job, the unfamiliar burden of having to take full responsibility for things, for desks, and lamps, and photo albums, and dressers, at a time when those things are most at risk. How much easier it is to be a house sitter, say, than it is to be a mover. And, maybe, they’re bumping up against a dim realizaton that makes most of us uncomfortable: that potential damage lurks at every corner, that the whole world can sometimes seem tilted towards loss, and that keeping cherished things safe requires real sweat, painful struggle, and constant vigilance.
It is, after all, a broken world. We grow into the ability to love things even as we shoulder the burden of keeping them safe. When we stack someone’s belongings 10 feet high and 50 feet deep on the semi trailer and it comes off the truck 1,000 miles away exactly the same as it went on, it’s as if we’ve performed a little bit of magic. It might just be the best, the only real magic of adulthood, the way we learn to keep what we love, or what other people love, safe.