The Shape of Work

“Let me tell you a story,” she says, “about work. About the shape of work.” She is tall, glasses too big for her thin face, although he doesn't think this is a Fashion Thing. “What shape is work?” he asks. “Well, it’s not consistent. It changes depending on its mood. Whether it is hungry. Whether it has been fed.” A nod to a neon sign, and to stairs disappearing down into darkness.

The sign hums, a sound straight from a kickstarted noir film. “That was work once. Six months. When I was a kid I used to go there every Tuesday after school, they had a special if you had your state ID. But then we moved away.” A pause. “And then I moved back.” They walk in silence for a moment, forced into single file by bollards and slush. A trio of bicycles roll past, the gender of riders indistinguishable under winter layers and tightly wound scarves.

“I moved back and everything had changed. The shape of things was the same, but the contents were different,” her eyes fixed on the middle distance of an imagined horizon. “What do you mean, about the contents?” he asks. She stares pointedly at a patrol car waiting at the lights. “A city is a city, right? You fiddle with the surface textures but it’s the same inside. You know which way to turn, which way to look. You know who to ignore. You know the rules, you’re taught them, or they come to you in time.”

There is a skip bin wedged between two parking signs, taped over with blue tape, and a permit that bestows exactly twelve hours of parking privileges on the tub of steel. It is filled with cracked plasterboard and old fixtures, barely recognisable as things extracted from a house. A man, moving quickly in the cold, unloads a wheelbarrow into the bin. A cloud of white dust mingles with steam from the kerbside grate.

“So, I moved back, and got my first tattoo. Shaved my head. Quit my church. Got disowned for a while. Learned about the shape of work,” she thumbs back at the neon. The slush here is black, thawed and refrozen a hundred times. “I served the same kids from the same school I used to go, except none of them looked like me any more. And I’d changed, sure, but they’d changed too.”

“My family couldn't afford to live here now. I share a fucking shoebox with two others. I mean, look at this shit,” she points at a nearby wall. The wall is covered in a mural for Girls, that show on one of the larger pay networks, maybe HBO, and the paint is still fresh. In fact, fresh enough that the posters that have been torn down so it can be painted are still sitting in the bin below it. No ambitious poster monkey, chasing quota, has yet seen fit to paste over the carefully blocked serifs of the title.

It’s been hand painted and the artist is good. The girls in question cluster around a table, ashtray in the centre, green velour couch behind. Their body language is individual and distinctive. Hunched shoulders, flick of hair. Collarbones and camisole. However, when you paint on brick, it is very hard to pull off realistic eyes, and the characters grimace down, wide-eyed and manic, glaring daggers at the shell of a Thai restaurant and a rusty fire escape opposite.

This is expensive advertising. Old school, really, to apply so much of one person’s time to something so ephemeral. Like carving something in wood, painting something on glass. Maybe there is a guild involved. He rolls this thought over for a while, imagines the uniforms of the sign-painters guild, then realises it’s more likely to be cells C1:13 of LES-adspendjuly.xls. Someone in an office uptown, probably unconcerned with the shape of work, has looked at their numbers, assessed risk and reward, and decided it was worth it, so here we are.

He we are. The snow crunches underfoot and the sky above is murderous. They got the salt down this time, before the second front swept in and buried everything in three feet of snow. You can see this in the pattern of melting. Who was diligent in their application and who was lazy.

Perhaps there is hope that competitors for such attractive vertical acreage will stay away for an extra week, maybe two, before someone draws a moustache on Lena. "Broken windows, right?" he says. "The fuck?" she returns. "Sorry, I mean, even though this here is gentrifying, has gentrified, that's got to have at least a little while before it gets done, right? Before she gets a beard. Before the first window is broken."

She turns back to consider the prospect. "You know, I can't say for sure. Might not happen at all. Might happen tonight. Depends how studious our resident vandals are feeling." Judging by the careful tagging on every level of the fire escape opposite, fairly studious. Diligent, even.

"C'mon," she says, "work is hungry."