Saturday, March 29, 2008

Don't fire!

One of the companies that I freelance for announced some layoffs earlier this week: quite a few, apparently. So far, so normal. I've worked in publishing long enough to know that there are few businesses in the industry that don't spend large amounts of time and effort think up new reasons to get rid of their loyal employees.

What surprised me was the arrival of a new member of staff, who turned up at the same time the "workforce realignment" was announced. I only noticed him because of the odd way he stared at me just a little too intently when I arrived in the building the next morning. And the morning after that. He stares at everyone, quite a lot.

Loitering just behind the guy who normally mans the front desk, he looks like he's in his fifties, with lightly tinted glasses, neatly trimmed greying hair and a goatee beard. He fills his casual sports jacket with a casually held amount of muscle, and he has a small but noticeable bulge under his coat on his left hip. He looks a little like his last job may have been a freelance gig for a South African diamond mine.

I'm now desperate to find out if it is normal practice here in the United States for companies to hire an armed guard every time they make their staff walk Spanish. I'm also intrigued to know how long this new guy is going to be needed for. I mean, I'm guessing that the kind of person who reacts to unemployment violently can hold a grudge for quite a while - at least for the duration of California's 10-day waiting period.

For the time being, I'm making sure I have my hall pass on clear display at all times.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Small world

I love technology, and the fact that it never seems to lose its ability to astonish me. Webcams, GPS, the internet: they're all great. However, this isn't all about shiny digital newness, as the combination of a whole bunch of two-tonne metal boxes and a 100-year-old canal have just demonstrated.

To explain: when I visited the UK in January this year, I arranged to have what remained of my worldly belongings transported to me here in California. This turned out to be a painful process, partly due to how complicated and expensive it was, but mainly because of how important those things are to me. It felt plain wrong to hand them over to someone else, and then entrust a whole chain of random strangers to ship them thousands of miles across land and ocean to my new home. But let I go I did. Sort of.

The first stage of their journey took several weeks. First I dropped off the boxes with Meadows International Removals in Edinburgh, whose premises (a back street lock-up) didn't exactly inspire confidence - nor did the owner's insistence that the things they sent turned up at their intended destination "most of the time". From there, I was told that my belongings would be taken by road first to London, and then to Southampton on England's south coast. Once there, my 17 little cardboard boxes would be packed into a small corner of a much larger metal shipping container, which would then be loaded onto a sea-going vessel headed for Los Angeles.

So, a few weeks later, I was duly sent a "bill of lading" from Southampton, presumably to reassure me that all was going well so far. Unfortunately it didn't inspire much confidence, particularly as both my surname and street address in San Francisco were mis-spelled, and the point of origin was listed as Edinburgh, Fife. However, it did tell me the name of the floaty boat that would be entrusted with not getting my things wet on their way to America: the dashing-sounding Antwerpen Express.

Now, being the person I am, I immediately Googled the ship's name to find out a little bit more about her (size, weight, age, propensity for losing containers, that sort of thing). This led me to discover, a website that tracks the locations of ships all over the world, including the Antwerpen Express (updates are only made every 6-12 hours, and all times are GMT.)

So, for the past few weeks I've been following the steady progress of my brave boat as it crossed the Atlantic, made its way down the east coast of the US, and then traversed the Caribbean. Then, the day before yesterday, I noticed that it was nearing the Panama Canal, and I began to wonder if there was a website that offered more details on ships as they passed through. Which is how I discovered this page of webcams covering the main locks on the canal, and started to watch them obsessively in the hope of catching sight of my now-beloved ship.

You see, I really am very attached to the stuff I have on that boat (or, at least, the stuff I hope is on that boat). Before I left the UK almost a year ago, I had to get rid of the vast majority of my possessions (some of it via these very pages), so the things that are left are like a distillation of who I am. To someone else, they may just be a 92kg pile of crappy old records, CDs and books, but they mean much, much more to me. And it's those things which are hopefully still on the high seas, not in them.

So, image the thrill I felt just after 3.30 this afternoon, when a Hapag Lloyd vessel hove into view on the Milaflores Lock camera. Now, I can't be entirely sure it was the Antwerpen Express, as the combination of low image resolution, a slightly dirty camera lens and the curve of the ship's bow all prevented me from getting a good look at the name. But, the only other Hapag Lloyd ship in the area is already on the other, Pacific side of the canal, so I'm pretty sure it was my baby.

And, suddenly, the world seems a little smaller, technology seems a little cooler, and the idea that my precious cargo might actually get to me safely seems a little less remote.